Author’s note: In August 2012, I went to Long Beach, CA, to attend the memorial service of an old friend. Ted F. was the father of a boy who, at one time, was my best friend. My friendship with the father outlived the one with his son. I admired him greatly, and miss him still. Anyway, this was my first time visiting the area in which he had grown up, during the 1950s and 1960s, and where he had returned upon his retirement in the early 2000s. In Southern California for five days with nothing to do but commemorate a good man, I wandered around his neighborhood, taking pictures and shooting videos with my iPod, grinning at the sun, and grieving over a lost friend. As I shot stuff, this story developed in my mind, especially once I saw “I LOVE YOU KORY” written on a sidewalk. “Gaytonia” came together pretty quickly—I had a first draft done in a week, though I would revise all through 2013. Real streets, houses, and locales made their way into the story. Yes, the Gaytonia is quite real and, no, I never found out exactly what it is. If it feels incomplete, that’s because I think young love is incomplete, just as young lovers are unfinished and unstable. Also, I had always imagined this story as a sort of teleplay, with a female narrator telling the story over the edited footage I had shot, so photography was intended to fill in some of the gaps. Like most dreams and, hey, like most love, the story remains undeveloped. Still, I like this thing, for its mysteries and ellipses most of all.
“Gaytonia” by Walter Biggins
Protected under a Creative Commons License 4.0
For Ted Fruechting.
We didn’t meet in school. I went to St. Luke’s Episcopal; Kory went to a public school. But we had lived three blocks from each other all our lives. I don’t remember ever not kinda knowing Kory. He skated down to the beach, to Recreation Park, slicing up and down Broadway, any time he could. By the time we started hanging out, we were seventeen and had afterschool jobs. Kory had a license and car but he preferred doing his Chinese food deliveries on his skateboard. His steady hands, even during ollies and grinds, kept the egg drop soups and noodle dishes from sloshing around. At least, I never heard any complaints. My family got takeout from Chen’s every week. So did everyone in the neighborhood. We all got used to Kory’s knock on the door, that wary smile when he made change.
Me, I waitressed weekends at the Firebird Diner on 3rd and Bennett. He would come in for Saturday brunches with his skater punks. Always the cranberry scones and coffee for him—cheapest things on the menu. It took him six times to notice that I slipped him some applewood bacon every time he came in. That sixth time, he sidestepped his way to the restroom and gently pinched my elbow on the way, while I refilled water pitchers. “Hey, thanks so much,” he said, looking guilty and shy. “I really appreciate it but I’m a vegetarian.” He paused. “But I really appreciate it.” He had the greenest eyes, like Irish hillsides, and smooth brown skin. Chocolate brown, I thought. I remember blushing, that shame and shiver on my forearms and prickling through my neck hair, but all I said was: “What about apple slices? They’re Fujis, and always crisp.”
“You don’t have to do that,” he said but he smiled. He smelled like mild sweat and cinnamon. I liked his teeth. I liked his slight stutter.
I watched tables over his shoulder, saw refills I should have been making.
“When do you get off work tonight?” he said.
“Around six,” with all the coyness I could muster.
“Meet me at the corner of Shaw and Roycroft. We can skate down to the beach.”
I almost asked him how he knew I skated but I realized I wasn’t the only one who watched people around the neighborhood. That always surprises me, even now.
That night, we rode south to the beach. We didn’t say much until we were knee-deep in the saltwater and the evening light. Then we couldn’t shut up, didn’t want to. Comics, sci-fi books, getting out of Long Beach, staying in it, our shitty jobs, our shitty parents, my dyslexia (which he somehow knew about), his stutter (which I tried not to interrupt), sea birds, skating, the wonders of the twilight world, SST records, mixtapes. It was like we had always been talking, like we had picked up a conversation we started that morning, and I guess in a way we had, but we’d never said more than three sentences in a row to each other before then.
I don’t remember whose face moved first toward the other’s, whose lips parted first. I remember the half-moon in the sky and the freighters dragging themselves in the waves and the offshore oil rigs glistening in the last sunlight and my fingers getting tangled in his and the way I kept trying to catch his slippery tongue with mine, and the wet slop between my legs when I caught him at last, and breathing in his cinnamon smell on my upper lip when I stopped to lick his neck, and the way he flicked a cowlick of hair away from my forehead and tucked it behind my ear.
After that, he started dropped by my house after work, always with veggie stir-fry and wontons and hot-and-sour soup and pots of jasmine tea. My parents made us talk out on the porch, with the windows open, and sometimes my younger brother there to chaperone. We ran over each other’s homework, luxuriating in twilight and the aroma of cherry tea leaves. When Joseph wasn’t there, we made out until Mom knocked on the windowsill, until Dad asked why he didn’t hear math homework getting done.
Making out with Kory was more fun than any fucking I had done, which I suppose is why I wanted to fuck him so bad. It was also why I started calling it “making love” instead of “fucking.” Kory was shy, retreated a bit whenever I grazed my palm over his lap. One night, lying down in the back garden of Tracy Lett’s house during a party, I reached into his jeans and traced the outline of his circumcised cock—well, now I knew—with my thumb and forefinger. He flinched. But he was rock hard. And long, and curved. A cold night, I draped a towel over our laps. I nibbled his ear, stroking him slowly and with a fluttery precision that I didn’t know I had learned from anyone. We watched the police helicopters and the moon. He caught my wrist. He chuckled. He breathed for me to stop.
“Is this your first time?” I said into his ear.
“No. But I don’t want anyone to see,” he said. “I want it to be just for us.”
The next night, we skated to a fish taco joint where a friend of mine worked, where we could get food at half-price. We ran our feet alongside each other’s thighs, and talked and talked. He asked me about the Gaytonia, a four-story building in the neighborhood that looked like an old German castle, but I didn’t know anything about it, either.
“Is it an apartment complex for queers?” I said.
“Don’t say ‘queers,’” he said. “Say ‘gays and lesbians.’”
“Yeah, yeah,” I said. “What’s the politically correct word now? LGBTs?”
“LGBTs isn’t a word,” he said. “It’s an acronym, and yeah, I think that’s the most respectful term.”
“Christ,” I said, “I just heard the term ‘politically correct’ a year ago, and I’m already sick of it. Can’t I just call them all faggots, like I used to?”
“Maggie, my aunt Linda is a lesbian, and she’s the only relative I have that’s not a complete fuck-up, the only one I like.”
We ate the rest of our tacos and mole in silence. We skated back toward the block, in twilight, in silence. The gothic lettering of the Gaytonia, white and glittering, hovered above the rooftops.
“I wonder if we could sneak in.” I didn’t realize I had said that out loud until I saw Kory’s grin, the first one in an hour.
“You want to try?” he said.
“You know I do.”
The Gaytonia complex was ringed with thirty-foot-tall palm trees, and a stucco wall a third as high. It had black, wrought-iron gates, with bars as thick and shiny as the handles of police batons. Ivy and honeysuckle grew on the stucco. The building loomed over us like a crouching giant; most of its windows were dark, even though it was only seven-thirty in the evening.
“How the hell are we gonna get in?” I said.
“Huh,” Kory said. “Hey, you want to see my car?”
I had almost forgotten Kory owned a car.
“What’s that got to do with the Gaytonia?”
“A ladder,” he said. “There’s one in my car.”
Kory’s car was parked across from the Hansel-and-Gretel house on Bennett, just north of Broadway. That’s what everyone called it, anyway. Its walls were soft white stucco, as thick and inviting as a sugar cookie sheet. The brown roof undulated in layered bumps, like anthills and rolling dales, made up of chocolate-colored shingles. The shingles looks like a textured quilt had been laid over sleeping children; the awnings looks like rolled-up Persian carpets, and ended in bulbs. I always expected to see a witch through the dark windows, stirring a boiling cauldron and dashing the brew with the occasional monkey’s paw.
For the past year, a dull gray Chevy Fleetmaster had rested across from the fairy-tale house. I always wondered who it belonged to.
“My parents won’t let me park it on our block,” Kory said. “They say it’s an eyesore.”
“It is an eyesore,” I said. “It’s so fucking cool.”
“I want to paint it a rust color, like that Volkswagen station wagon at the corner of 4th and Ximenes.”
I nodded. I knew that car.
“It’d be shiny, of course. On the sides, I want Mary Flores to paint this, I don’t know, Dia de Los Muertos landscape on it, with skeletons and sombreros and shit. I don’t know. Maybe it’ll look stupid.”
“No, it won’t.” We paused. We listened to birds and crickets. “Look, I’m sorry I called your aunt a faggot.”
“You didn’t call her that,” he said. “You didn’t call her anything, I guess. I just overreacted. I’m sorry.”
“I’m sorry, too. I remember you talking about her. She doesn’t seem like a queer.”
“Maybe there’s nothing wrong with being queer.”
It would take me another decade, maybe more, to realize that he was right but I went ahead and nodded at the time.
“So,” I said, “you feel like making up?”
“What about the Gaytonia?” Kory said.
“No ladder,” I said, “no Gaytonia.” I pointed through the back window. There was no back seat, and no ladder of any sort.
“What the…?” Then Kory frowned. And then he grinned. “Fucking Mary Flores,” he said.
“That’s the second time I’ve heard that name tonight. Should I be jealous?”
“No. But I bet she borrowed it. She does that, usually without asking me first.”
“Technically, we bought the car together, last year. So she’s got keys.”
“Don’t be like that.”
“Like what?” I said.
“Look, she just stores shit in the car. We both do. Mary doesn’t even have her license yet, so she keeps spray cans and stencils and nozzles in here, so her parents won’t find out.”
“Wait. She does graffiti?”
“Yeah,” he said. “That’s how I met her in the first place. She tags as MADCOW.”
“So she does the cow’s heads out by Recreation Park, and on the trains.”
“Oh,” I said. “Those are cool.” They were cool, these tiny stylized cow’s heads and horns done with bold lines—well, it was one line, really, thick and black, really squiggly but clearly bovine, too.
“So, um, what about making up?” he said.
“What about it?” I said.
He had sheets and a Persian rug in the back of the Fleetmaster. Naked, under the sheets, Kory felt smooth. We smelled like cinnamon and motor oil. The sheets above us, and the rug underneath, smelled like rosemary, like I had just rolled a pinch of it between my fingertips. At first, Kory’s hands were as tentative as his voice. But then he circled my nipple with his tongue tip, and then he sucked on it, and then he put a finger into my mouth, which I sucked eagerly, and then his tongue went in my mouth, which I sucked even more eagerly, and then that finger circled my clit, slowly at first but not for long, and my hips and my mouth and my pussy and my everything rolled with his fingers. And then I learned what an orgasm was. I promised myself that I would be quiet. But I had not known my body could feel like that, with Kory licking and sucking every part of me that he could reach, and I, um, I think I woke up the block. He kissed my mouth, and then dragged his tongue down, down, down my body to—okay, so then I woke up the whole fucking neighborhood.
“Okay, buddy,” I said, “it’s your turn.”
“But we- we can’t. I didn’t bring condoms.”
I flicked his nose. “Condoms, as in plural? You been saving it up for a rainy day?” He blushed but he laughed, too. “Look,” I said, “next time, make sure you’ve got protection. Till then, there’s plenty of other stuff we can do.” And then we did them. And I tried not to be bothered by the little cow’s head tattoo on his inner thigh.
But, over the next few weeks, when we started making love in full and I would come in waves like the ocean tides, I kept seeing Mary Flores’s cow’s heads everywhere. I’d see them—sometimes blue, red, and green, sometimes tiny as a thumbprint and other times as large as a person’s head. She had tagged all over Long Beach, on light fixtures, buses, street signs, walls. I set them aside as often as I could. Kory and I were happy. At least, I thought we were. I sensed him becoming more comfortable with my body, and I with his. We visited old record shops together. We skated and talked until midnight, though we were sometimes content to just ride quietly in the moonlight and vegetative air.
Increasingly, though, the silence crackled with electricity. I couldn’t figure out why. Well, not entirely. The Rodney King verdict had come down at the end of April of that year, and the riots exploded. They didn’t creep up to Long Beach but talk about them did. Kory and I started getting looks when we were out and holding hands. A black guy yelled from across the street to Kory: “Take your chink ass back to Korea.” “He’s Filipino, you dumb fuck,” I yelled right back. “Let it go,” said Kory.
“But you had nothing to do with that shit in South Central. It’s not even your fight.”
“It’s not yours, either.”
We didn’t talk the rest of the way home.
When we started dating, Kory’s breakfast crew at the Firebird was mostly white, and I was always invited to parties, to house shows with their bands. After the riots, though, his crowd got darker and less interested in me. When I slipped my hand onto his shoulder, as I set down the coffees and juices, I felt a slight flinch, maybe not noticeable to anyone but me. He never flinched at my touch when we were alone; that much didn’t change. And we were still teaching each other things in the back of his Fleetmaster that I wouldn’t trade with anyone. Occasionally, though, I felt him looking over my shoulder as we made love.
Every now and then, when our parents weren’t home, we would fuck in our own damn beds. One time, after sex that left us slick and panting, he asked me to lay on his back. He had never asked me to do that before. So I did. My breasts pressed against his shoulder blades. I inhaled the back of his neck, and it smelled like rosemary.
The next Saturday, a heart-stopping girl came into the Firebird by herself. Her hair, black and curly and glistening, came down to her hips, which were rounder than mine, just like her breasts were rounder than mine, just like her lips were fuller than mine. She was the first Mexican girl I’d seen in a Fugazi silkscreen shirt, and her Chuck Taylor All-Stars were yellow as canaries. People stared at her. They couldn’t help themselves.
I hated her.
“Anything to drink?” I said.
“Cappuccino.” She didn’t look up from her sketchbook.
I brought her cappuccino to her. She held the mug up to her nose. Her nostrils flared as she smelled the espresso and cinnamon. My eyes watered when I smelled the rosemary in her hair.
Behind the coffee urns, unobserved, I spat into her blueberry pancakes, drizzled whipped cream over the mucus.
“Hey, are you Mary Flores, by chance?” I said.
“Yep.” She kept drawing as she stuffed her fat face with pancakes and raspberries. “Do we know each other?”
“No, I, well, I’m Kory Madero’s girlfriend.”
She looked up, slowly, scanned over my features with her narrow eyes, and then set them back on her sketchbook. “Yeah,” she said, “you would be.”
Mary Flores left a ten-dollar tip on an eight-dollar meal. The worst insults are the ones that look like acts of kindness. I spent the rest of my shift making little mistakes and shivering. Kory and his pals didn’t come in.
A week, ten days, went by before I saw Kory again. He brought me a stack of Uncle Scrooge comics and a clutch of fresh strawberries.
“I’m sorry I didn’t call,” he said. “I’ve been working on a project out in Redondo Beach.”
“That’s okay,” I said. “I didn’t call you, either.”
“Why are you mad?”
“I’m not mad,” I said. “But I’m not Mary Flores, either. I met her, by the way.”
“I know. She said.”
“So you talk?”
“Of course we talk,” he said. “We’ve been friends since second grade. We own a car together.”
“And you fuck together.”
“No, we don’t.”
“Don’t lie to me,” I said. “Just respect me enough not to lie to me.”
“I’m not lying, Maggie. Look, I’m trying to tell you something. Yes, Mary and I used to go out. We used to be together. I should have told you that. But that’s been over for over a year, more like almost two.”
“But you still like her,” I said.
“I still like what she does,” he said, “but I don’t think I like her much at all anymore.”
“But do you still love her?”
“I love you,” he said.
“But, fuck it, you can love more than one person at a time.” As soon as I said that, I knew that it was true, and how horrible that truth is.
“Maggie,” he said, “there’s only space for you in my heart.”
I didn’t believe him. I tried to but then I stopped. Kory could see my trying and failing to believe him, and then he stopped believing in my struggle, stopped believing in me. The loss of belief slid out slowly, monolithically, like one of the oil freighters sludging up the coastline. Kory came by my front porch every other day, then once a week, then every other week, and then not at all.
In school, at the Firebird, on the porch, in bed, I couldn’t get the cinnamon and Chinese food smells off my skin. I shut my bedroom door at night and sobbed into the frog calls and shimmering stars.
One night, right after Thanksgiving, I had some girls over for a slumber party. We played mixtapes and watched The Breakfast Club and got hungry for Chinese. The phone had already picked up for Chen’s before I realized which number I had dialed.
“Hello, this is Chen’s, how may I help you?” It wasn’t Kory. A pause. I heard kitchen clatter and shopworn radio in the background. “Hello, this is Chen’s, how may I help you?”
I placed my order. I can’t remember what we got.
Thirty minutes later, the doorbell. I opened it halfway, then half-closed it, then opened it all the way. It wasn’t Kory.
“Nineteen seventy-four,” the guy said, handing me the food.
“Funny,” I said. “That’s the year I was born.”
Kory might have at least chuckled.
“Hey,” I said, “does Kory Madero still work at Chen’s?”
“Nah, man,” the guy said. “That dude quit months ago. Didn’t give notice or nothing. Last I heard, he was starting up some Latino roots band with some girl out in Redondo. They write songs about politics and protest and stupid shit like that. All about Mexican rights. Whatever.”
“But he’s Filipino,” I said. “He’s not Mexican.”
“Whatever. They’re all wetbacks to me, know what I mean?”
A different white girl might have chuckled along with him, might have left him a tip.
I asked around about Kory but nobody knew. The Firebird crew had busted up, or started getting arrested. His Fleetmaster was gone from Bennett. Once I got my piece-of-shit Toyota Tercel, I stopped skating around so much, so I didn’t see his crew out on the streets. One Sunday morning in the fall, I went by his house, and there was a for-sale sign. The house was empty. City contractors were repaving the sidewalk in front of the house but I guess they were on smoke break, because no one was around. The cement truck was there, mixing concrete. I stood there, churning inside as well.
Finally, I kneeled down to the fresh concrete, almost as if to pray, and maybe I was. I licked my forefinger and dug it into the wetness. “I LOVE YOU KORY,” I wrote over and over in the same spot, until the writing was thick and deep. “KORY ’92,” I wrote. Then I raised myself up, tears throbbing behind my eyelids, and I left. I haven’t been back since.