(This is the last of the Mr. Goldberg series. It is not necessary, in your comments, to point out the appropriateness or the legality of the man's actions, or lack thereof. I think it's plain to everyone that they were neither. Thank you in advance.)
I’ve kept a journal since 1983—that’s nearly thirty years, if you don’t want to do the math—and I’ve always intended to write about Mr. Goldberg. I didn’t when I was younger, because I feared I didn’t have the language yet to do justice to how I felt for him. I’m still not sure I do.
In more recent years I’d avoided reflecting about him on the page because writing is, for me, an exercise in commitment. Once it’s on the page, my thoughts and fears and yearnings leave that realm of the unspoken and become documents. How could I document something so far past and so confusing?
I feared that if I wrote about Mr. Goldberg, whatever audience I had would totally miss the message I very much wanted to say about him, namely, No matter how inappropriate his attentions, this man was very important to me. He helped me take first steps toward becoming who I am today. When I walk among my memories of him, I tread on hallowed ground.
Writing about something in my journal anchors it into the narrative of my life—it makes the event more real, in a sense. I don’t mean to imply that the things I don’t record in my diary exist in some it’s-all-pretend Neverland, but when something makes it into the pages of my journal, it’s because I want to remember it, or because I feel it’s significant enough to warrant recording. Vanishingly few people in my life have known about Mr. Goldberg. I could probably count on two hands’ fingers the number of people over the last thirty-odd years to whom I’ve confided our dalliance. Inappropriate as it was, and seamy as it might be to some, I think my life, and this record of it, is the better for giving the man his due.
Conversely, sometimes when I have something in my head that eats away at me—a fear or an anger that won’t dissipate—writing about it in my journal feels like opening the windows and doing a spring cleaning of my brain. It blows away the cobwebs and chases away the shadows. That’s what I did with this series of entries, all because of something that happened some months ago.
One of the things that makes me squeamish on Facebook—my real Facebook account, as opposed to my sex blog presence—is receiving a friend invite from one of my old school friends. Part of me is grumpy because, after all, if I really wanted to remain friends with someone from fourth grade, or high school, or college, wouldn’t I have attempted to keep in touch with them all these years? Another part of me gets grumpy at the grumpy part, because he’s such a curmudgeon, and why is there any harm in getting back in contact with people I liked a hundred years ago when I was young?
A while ago I accepted a friend request from Gus Greer, one of my old grade-school acquaintances. I knew Gus from the fifth through the seventh grade; after that, his parents took him out of the public school system and sent him off to boarding school. (So many parents of my friends removed them from the public schools before they hit ninth grade.)
Where I was quiet and bookish during those years, Gus was a boisterous boy. He was loud, mischievous, and if we’d had a prescient-enough poll, easily would have been voted Most Likely To Be On Academic Probation His First Semester Of College For Drinking And Screwing To Excess. I was a little bit surprised that he hunted me down and added me as a friend at all, because I always remembered being a little bit afraid of him, with his flannel shirts, his muscular Pennsylvania Dutch build, and his messy thatch of surfer-blond hair. I may have visited his house a couple of times since he lived in my neighborhood, but we certainly weren’t the bestest of buddies.
Well, he talked as if we were. In his memory, we seemed to have been inseparable during those three years. Through email we talked about our old band days, and mutual friends, and I grinned at some of the really horrible photos from our yearbook he posted. Whether or not our memories of how close our friendship had been were in synch, Gus seemed to have grown into a genuinely nice guy—married and with a little girl he obviously adores—who seemed not only glad to have found me again, but also seemed pleased that I had a career and relationship that made me happy.
Emboldened by the correspondence, I asked Gus about Mr. Goldberg. We’d both been in sixth-grade homeroom together, and I was hoping I could, with a couple of sidelong questions, find out something that had been bothering me for years—I couldn’t remember Mr. Goldberg’s first name. I’m absolutely certain I knew it at some point, though I never used it. In my head, I always thought of him simply as 'Mr. Goldberg.' (And I should have learned my first lesson about relationships from that alone—never get involved with someone you can’t call by his first name, right? From a practical point of view, how can you Google-stalk them decades later if you don’t?)
Oh wow, Mr. Goldberg! Gus wrote back. I always thought he rocked! He seemed old when we were kids, like all adults, but he was really so young! I remember at the beginning of the year he would give me rides home after school and the music he liked to listen to on the radio was the same as the stuff we all liked. Once when he stopped to get gas I snooped in his glove compartment and found an old joint and thought he had to be the coolest teacher ever.
Now, when I’ve heard the old saw about seeing red before, I’ve always accepted it as some kind of figurative metaphor. However, when I read Gus’s note, for a good thirty seconds my blood pressure elevated to such an extent that it felt as if I was peering at the world through a scarlet gel. My temperature rose. I sweated slightly. My throat went dry and my lips worked as I gargled out sounds of incomprehensible outrage.
Mr. Goldberg gave Gus Greer rides home?!
It honestly felt for a few minutes as if the ground beneath me had dropped away, leaving me teetering in some kind of gravity-free void. I was upset. No, I was more than upset. I felt betrayed. I hadn’t been the only boy Mr. Goldberg had lured into that beat-up hatchback, the fucker. “I’ve always liked blonds.” Well, fuckin’ Gus fuckin’ Greer was about as blond as a head could get. What, had Mr. Goldberg letched after every tow-headed little shit in his sixth-grade classroom and met with rebuffs until finally he had no other recourse than to borrow my fuckin’ Timex? Was I just sloppy seconds? Thirds? Fourths? How many other boys was Mr. Goldberg juggling in his fuckin’ pubescent fuckin’ harem?
I was angry, and hurt. For decades I’d assumed that I was special. Now I felt like the mere flavor of the month. That feeling vanished of uniqueness and of being needed that had sustained me during my friendship with Mr. Goldberg. Those memories no longer existed on hallowed ground. At that moment I felt like a huge chunk of my life, melodramatic as it may sound, was a lie, THANK YOU VERY MUCH, GUS GREER.
My rage lasted for oh, about a half hour. Then it burned itself out with a suddenness I didn’t expect. After a moment of consideration, I chuckled at myself for being an idiot.
Gus wasn’t at fault. He was clueless about the impact his words would have on me. All he knew when he was in sixth grade was that Mr. Goldberg was a rockin’ guy with an ancient joint in his glove box. Had Mr. Goldberg recited the one hundred and sixteenth sonnet to Gus? No. The nuances of Shakespeare would’ve gone right over his head. I laughed it off and genuinely thought I was over it.
But I was still a little bothered. So when I decided to write about Mr. Goldberg, I set to write myself out of a corner—to shine light in the dark places, and chase away the shadows. Writing is therapy, sometimes.
And in writing about the man I think I discovered a few things. Forcing myself to sit down and record my relationship with Mr. Goldberg helped me remember him more clearly than I have in years. Some of the details I resurrected—the football pool, the hatchback—were things I hadn’t thought about in decades. Remembering the way that Mr. Goldberg looked at me so that I could record it—the nervous glances, the moistness of his eyes when he’d hold my hands, that bright spark when our eyes would connect across the empty classroom—convinced me that no matter how many rides Mr. Goldberg might have given Gus, I genuinely did mean something to him.
Remembering my teacher’s smell, the warmth of his hands, the way he’d call me ‘sport,’ only endeared him to me once again. I was able to recapture and appreciate that first flush of possibility he awakened in my life. I might have thought that Gus had rendered barren the grass on the fields of those memories, but where I walked there, it flourished once more.
I had several relationships in the second decade of my life that I ended up mourning. There was Mark the friend I lost when I saw something I should've have. And David with whom I couldn't bring myself to connect I used to think that what they all had in common was my yearning for what might have been.
I’m pretty convinced, though, that it’s regret for my own actions—or my lack thereof—that I’ve been afraid to examine. It’s impossible to build a solid foundation on If only I coulds, or If only this had beens. Life’s made of This is what happened, and This is what I have now, and This is what I should celebrate. I can’t help but think I didn’t offer enough in those relationships, or reach out at the right time. I thought I knew what Mr. Goldberg wanted, and was ready to give it to him, but somehow I missed the mark. I regret that.
Poor Mr. Goldberg. How could I not feel a mix of pity and affection for the man? Handsome as he was, he was a gay Jewish man living the South, hardwired to desire blond boys in the throes of puberty. Even when he had what he wanted right in front of him, willing and eager to please him, he couldn’t bring himself to enjoy it.
How can I begrudge him for trying to find his happiness, when all he did was make me feel supremely special? I’ve never harbored any illusion that I’m a handsome man; I never thought I was a beauty of a kid. For a few months, though, at a time of my life when I needed it most, Mr. Goldberg made me feel not just special—he made me feel beautiful.
While writing these journal entries, the one thing I hoped more than anything else was that when we knew each other, I might have returned at least a small portion of the intangible gifts he gave me.
I fear I didn’t. I can only hope I did.