(I'm trying to push through to the end, so this entry is a continuation of the Earl soap opera about my relationship with an older man in my teens. And after this, we're almost there, with only a wrap-up to go! It's a direct sequel to The Confrontation: Part 1, from last week.)
Here’s the simple truth about being locked in a closet: it’s stupid. I mean, really, really stupid.
Even at the time, when I realized that Jim, Earl’s live-in boyfriend and general waste of humanity, had actually shoved the door against my backside and locked me within, all I could wonder was what he’d thought he could accomplish with such a reckless and outright stupid act of bravado. The closet smelled of old socks and dried leather boots and that faint scent of dry rot I usually associate with old primary schools. I couldn’t really stand all the way up, with the weight of Jim’s clothing hanging from the bar above, and the floor was littered with his shit. There was no way I was going to be staying in there for long.
“Hah-hah, very funny,” I called through the door. I could just picture Jim there, snickering like the villain’s sidekick in some Saturday morning cartoon. “Let me out.”
“Let yourself out. Think you’re so fucking smart,” he snarled on the other side of the wood.
I tried the knob. It turned, but the door didn’t give. In my parents’ house, the door locks were push-buttons in the knobs. All it took to open them when they were locked was a nail file, or something flat and stiff inserted in the keyhole, then turned. Earl’s house was considerably older and more solid, and the locks were little deadbolts fastened with ornamental knobs. The house was old enough that as it had settled, most of the locks had popped out of alignment with their door frames. The lock in Earl’s bathroom certainly never worked.
This one, however, had the misfortune of working perfectly.
On the other side of the door, Jim had started to unloose a stream of profanity and insult. I couldn’t hear most of it, because it was muffled as he stomped around his room. There was stuff about what a devious little fucker I was, and how I planned to replace him, and how he’d figured out my plan from the start. None of it made any real sense save to a paranoid person. In the tight and confined space that was growing increasingly stuffy with every breath I took, I tried to calm down my shocked wits and figure out what to do.
He couldn’t keep me there forever. I mean, come on. Eventually I was going to have to come out. I knew I wasn’t going to die in there. In those first few minutes, I regarded the whole thing as one of those irritating pranks that had been played on me time and time against during middle and high school. The kick me sign on the back. The stupid doodle, allegedly of me, passed around on a triangle of folded-up paper during geometry. Jim was being puerile, and asinine. He was trying to get my goat. I had absolutely no fucking intention of letting him know how annoyed I was.
“You’re behaving like a child,” I told him at one point during his paranoid rant.
“Like a child, huh!” he laughed. Then he slammed or kicked the door so that it bounced in its frame. “Okay, let’s start behaving like kids.” I heard him shift around in the room. Through the door I heard the discord of his telephone extension being slammed down on the floor. “Want to make a prank call? I’ve got a phone book here. Let’s make some fucking prank calls. Like kids do. Hmmm. Who should we call? I know. How about we call your mommy and daddy?”
Honestly, I didn’t know what the fuck Jim was doing on the other side of the door. But the notion that he would call my parents and do something, something asinine and assholey and utterly Jim, made my blood run cold. This was in the days long before Caller ID was available. We had touchtone lines in those days, but they were a hefty enough extra monthly fee that most people, Earl included, didn’t pay for it. I heard the slow gyrations of a rotary dial, and then Jim speaking in a fake-nice tone, like tea over-sweetened with saccharine. “Oh hi,” he said. “Is this Mrs. . . ?” I heard him say something that sounded like my last name. “Are you the mommy of. . . ?” He said my name. “Oh all right. I guess it’s not you I should tell about what a cocksucking whore he is then. Bye-bye!” Then, back in his regular nasty voice, to me he called out, once again using my last name, “I’ll go through all the _______s in this fucking book if I have to!”
I had a couple of things going for me, though. One was that Jim apparently didn’t know my surname. I’d realized it right off, when the person at the other end of the line hadn’t been my mother. My surname is unusual enough that there are only a handful of us in the country, and only one in the local phone book. The surname he kept saying wasn’t mine. It was kind of close, but it wasn’t mine. It was as if, if my last name really had been Steed, he kept saying ‘Steve’ instead. I didn’t get a driver’s license until I was in my twenties, as I mentioned before; my library card only had a number on it, not a name. He wouldn’t have gotten any information on me from my wallet.
I’m not sure what was worse—that he was totally prepared to out me to my parents in one of the most cowardly and anonymous ways possible, or that I’d known the guy for three years and change and he hadn’t even fucking bothered to get my last name right. But I made a little nest on the floor and sat there cross-legged in it, my jaw set, my eyes rolling, and my annoyance severe. And I listened to him start working his way through the phone book, while I sat there and kept thinking what a fucking idiot this guy was.
He gave up after about three calls. I heard him shifting around on the other side of the door, and figured it was my time to try to talk him into being more reasonable. I suggested he let me out so we could talk; I said he should stop being childish. I promised I wouldn’t tell Earl if he let me out. And then I realized: he wasn’t there any more, and I was left alone.
So for a while I did stuff. I banged at the door with my hands. I used his shoes. Then I lay down on the mess and kicked at the door with my feet.
I’m generally a pretty patient guy, to a point. Certain things trigger me, though. I’d been in the closet for an hour—I was guessing, since I wasn’t wearing a watch at the time—when I realized that if I stayed there too much longer, I was going to get home late.
The prospect of lateness has been a lifetime anxiety of mine. One of the worst days of my school life came in first grade, when my father was walking me to school and the usual gate by which we entered the yard was locked, so that we had to circle around the entire schoolyard. I was a full ten minutes late to class, and had to enter when everyone was quiet and doing their exercises at their desks, and explain to the teacher why I was tardy. Thinking of that day still fills me with shame. Throughout my life I’ve been punctual. Even predictable. Breaking that pattern fills me with an anxiety that shortens my breath, quickens my pulse, and feels as if it’s lopping years off my life.
So there, in that closet, I considered the prospect that I would be missing dinner, making my parents wonder where I was, and that their grilling of me when I finally did get home would cause my life of sex and lies to come tumbling around me. And it fucking freaked me out. I felt as if I couldn’t breathe. I started to flop-sweat. And maybe I inherited some of my father’s claustrophobia, because that stuffy closet felt exactly like a coffin, and if I didn’t get out, I was sure I was going to die in there.
I’ve had panic attacks since, in my life time, and plenty of them. That was my very first. I had no idea what it was, this overwhelming anxiety, this fear I couldn't rationalize away. For what seemed a very long time, I felt like a mere animal. A beast. I wanted to race around in circles, clutching my head. I wanted to do something, anything, to make the fear and the sweat go away. I honestly thought something in me was going to explode, and that maybe I would die in that closet.
The attack went on for what felt like an eternity, and then subsided. I had a few minutes of quiet, and of thankfulness. Then I thought about being late home once more, and had another spell.
I lost all track of time during those awful minutes. Maybe that was panic’s back-handed gift to me; as fearful as I was of the time I was late home, at least my panic attack kept me from being aware of it passing. And out of that panic grew a great anger. Anger at Jim, for locking me in the closet. Anger at Earl, for not doing something to control him. Jim was like an untrained dog—unruly. Snappish. Unsocialized. He’d fucked up Topher’s life. He was fucking up mine. He was a cancer, a disease. He was a menace. He needed to be eradicated. And Earl wasn’t doing a thing to stop it.
I couldn’t sustain all these strong emotions indefinitely. I lay back on the floor, and tried to breath. I tried to soothe the feral beast I’d had to confront during those panic attacks. Eventually, overcome by darkness and the heat, I fell asleep. And I didn’t wake until the door opened, and over the rush of cool air and the bright light from the ceiling lamp—because I could tell it was dark outside—I saw Earl’s silhouette.
I’m not an easy waker. It took me a few seconds of eye-blinking and struggling to unbend my limbs from their cramped positions before I realized where I was. Then all that anger and rage at Jim came flooding back into me. I lunged up and out of the closet and at Earl like the savage dog I’d imagined Jim to be, snapping and snarling and trying to wrestle out of his arms so I could sniff down his boyfriend and rip my fucking teeth into him.
Earl held me at arm’s length, and shook me to bring me back to my senses. He’d gotten home late, he told me. He hadn’t expected to be so late. He’d seen my bike outside, and gotten Jim to admit where I was. He was sorry. “You need to go home,” he said, simply. Then he added, “And I don’t think you should come back here.”
At the time, I primarily heard the first half of the sentence. I had to go home. I jerked myself out of his hands and stomped downstairs. I didn’t see Jim anywhere. Then I collected my bike and went on my way. By the time I got home, it was going on nine. I had a completely bullshitty story about where I’d been—something about oh yeah, hadn’t I told them I was having dinner at a friends while we worked on studying for exams? I hadn’t? Gosh, I was so sorry. We’d been working so hard—gee, I never did anything like that!
It came spilling out of my mouth the minute I was in the door.
The irony of the situation was that my parents didn’t even care I was late. I was a senior in high school. Nine-thirty on a Friday night wasn’t late by any stretch of the imagination. I’d stayed out later, with some notice. They figured there’d been some mix-up. I was a good kid, and in those days parents didn’t over-obsess with what we were doing. They barely looked up from their television program. They certainly didn’t notice how disheveled I was. How messed up.
All that panic for nothing.
It wasn’t until later that night, after I’d showered and crawled into my bed, that I remembered the last half of Earl’s suggestion, and its meaning sunk in. I don’t think you should come back here. He didn’t mean tonight, or for a while. He meant forever.
The funny thing was that I didn’t think I should go back there, either. He was right.
My time with Earl ended with the mildest of suggestions. So quickly. And I didn’t even notice it happening. There was no long, lingering hug. No meaningful look. No arguments, no ultimatums. I don’t even think I glanced at his face when he said it. Just a few words. Then it was over.
During the years between then and now, I always assumed that Earl ended our relationship so abruptly because he was frightened of what Jim might attempt to do to me. I assumed he thought that Jim would, left to his own devices, come up with fresh new tortures for me, or ways to exercise his sadism.
But you know, writing this, it occurs to me for the very first time in my life that Earl was more likely afraid of me. He’d seen me submissive, and sexually compliant, and he’d seen me agreeable and even loving. He’d never, ever seen me angry before. He’d never seen that rage unleashed. I think he was frightened more of me, than of his boyfriend. He was afraid of the things I could say to the authorities, in my anger. Of the things I could say to my parents. Of what I might do to Jim, rather than what Jim could do to me.
I think all of us have a wild beast inside of us—that feral, uncivilized self that fights when it needs, and flees when it can, even against our better judgments. I can’t say that Earl was the cause of mine. But it was in his house that mine was born, and directly or not, he was the midwife.
I wonder now if he realized that he’d witnessed not one, but two beasts being born—my wild fury, the result of too much submissiveness, too much compliance. I’d given over my will to Earl, my right to say no, and only thought to reclaim it when it was too late. And then there had been Topher’s betrayal, ransacking Earl’s home and running far, far away. Fight and flight. He’d seen them both with us. Perhaps on a certain level, the knowledge of what he'd birthed in his two boys was too much for him.