I’m From Clear Lake, TX – Featured Artist

by rafi mittlefehldt

FEATURED ARTIST – Brian Ness

STORY by Rafi Mittlefehldt

I’m 5 years old and surrounded by hundreds of kids my age, all of us soaked with chlorine water and dopamine and sunshine, sunshine, sunshine. It’s summer in Webster, Texas. The pool’s enormous, looks impossibly huge through little-boy eyes. I’m having a blast; everyone’s having a blast.

There’s another boy, a kid with white-blond hair who catches my eye. We’re okay-friends. He’s on the diving board about to go off, something I’m too afraid to do myself. I’m watching him from the comfortable safety of the edge of the pool, and I’m looking at his chest. Pale skin, indented sternum. I look at that sternum for a while. He jumps in and I go back to having fun.

I’m 7 years old, looking through my plastic ViewMaster, a red one with an orange handle and eyes that look like binoculars. The circular slide disk is He-Man, my favorite. I’m clicking through the six or so slides, watching He-Man battle Skeletor in full ’80s 3-D. I get to one slide and stop: He-Man lying on the ground, one arm splayed out, naked chest exposed. He-Man in trouble. I’ve long since forgotten the story that went along with the slides, but I don’t care about the story. It’s the chest. I stare at the chest, at the muscles, not sure why I like this picture so much, never understanding it but dismissing the importance of that with a child’s quiet acceptance. I point the ViewMaster at the light. He-Man slowly brightens, as if the sun moved out from behind a cloud.

I’m 11. It’s summer in Clear Lake and I’m throwing a tennis ball against the wall above the garage. It makes a hollow thoomp sound and bounces back into my hand. I’m consoling myself with statistics. I think: What are the chances? One percent? Thoomp. Two percent? Thoomp. Five?

Thoomp.

Each catch lands rough, scratchy, satisfying in my hand. I feel a bit better, but despite the odds being in my favor I store my secret worries in a place I’m not ready to go to yet.

I’m 13, trying desperately to figure out if my friend is like me, like me in that one way. We’re at the neighborhood pool, shirts off. I hope he is and I hope he’s not.

I don’t even know if I want to be like me.

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I’m 15, and my heart is pounding — pounding. It’s summer in La Grange and I’m in a high school shower. It’s the halfway point for a two-day bike ride from Houston to Austin. The locker room is absurdly crowded. There are thousands of people in this marathon and one local high school offering its facilities. I’m surrounded by naked men of all ages, waiting in line for the group shower, hoping hoping hoping I don’t give anything away. Maybe it’s nerves, but it works.

I wonder what this locker room normally looks like during the week, when it’s filled with rural boys my age changing after football.

I’m barely 16, on a walk in the middle of the night with my two best friends. They know something’s up. It’s cozy-warm at two in the morning, a summer night in Clear Lake. We’re all staring straight ahead, strolling aimlessly up the suburban street near the manicured curb, passing darkened silent houses, and I tell them, and now two people in the whole world know.

One of them giggles. I know we’re okay.

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I’m 22, and it’s summer in Austin. I’m in a cap and gown outside the Frank Erwin Center trying not to sweat. Parents, brother, friends, classmates. He’s there too, my two-year relationship that washed away with the rains in March. My mom’s trying to take a picture so I smile; it hurts, hurts like hell but I gotta smile.

I’m 26. It’s summer in New York and I’m on the sidewalk on Christopher Street watching the parade go by. It’s wet and sticky and gross. My boyfriend’s marching in that parade but I don’t know him yet; I won’t meet him for another month or so.

In nine months he’ll give me a ViewMaster he found on eBay, a red one with an orange handle and eyes that look like binoculars. The image that pops in my mind will be strong and clear and immediate: He-Man lying on the ground; He-Man in trouble.

In four months California will take a step backward. In four months I’ll start going to rallies, joining groups, emailing senators, calling governors. In a whirlwind couple of weeks later, Iowa, Vermont and Maine will make up for it, and New Hampshire and New York maybe will too.

I’ll think about how much has changed through all those summers, how I can barely recognize the kid still living for others. For the first time I’ll fully realize that I’m living right inside history, this coming change; that I get to be a part of the generation that made it happen and it’s worth all the temporary anger in the world.

But right now it’s summer in New York and I’m watching the parade go by with my friends and thousands more, people who will be right there with me when we make it happen, people with clingy sweaty t-shirts and soaked hair, people for whom I have a fierce pride in my heart; and it’s wet and sticky and gross outside but all I see is sunshine, sunshine, sunshine.

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ABOUT THE ARTIST

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Brian Ness’s stories and illustrations are interested in exploring gender, specifically related to the effeminate, the de-masculinized, and the fabulous. His images reside somewhere between the present and the Victorian, where many of our current ideas of men and women were formulated, and whose children’s literature inverts, scares, and romanticizes the world in which it resides. He produces a quarterly zine called Kitten Punch, about the goings-on at a theme park/commune for sissies, called Dandyland. He received the 2007 Schochet Award for Excellence in GLBT Studies for his comic book/coloring book, BJ’s Unfabulous Christmas, and recently finished his first graphic novella, Molly Bottom. He lives and works in Minneapolis. You can follow his work at greetingsfromdandyland.blogspot.com.

Brian has done previous work for I’m From Driftwood, illustrating two images for Kelley Halvorson’s story, I’m From Watford City, ND as well as illustrations for I’m From Troy, OH by Aaron Akins.

Here are two more samples of Brian’s work:

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Interested in being a Featured Artist? Just let me know!

13 Comments:

  1. I’ve read this story so many times–once when I received it, again editing it, again when I received the art from Brian, again when I posted it, and a couple times in between…and not once did I finish it with a dry eye. Maybe because I know you, maybe because I was there with you at the parade, or maybe because it’s so optimistic and hopeful. But regardless, this is a very special story. Thanks, Rafi.

    And once again, Brian, you hit it out of the park. Thanks for going the extra mile with four illustrations!

  2. This is SUCH a good story. Love the illustrations as well.

  3. Great job, Rafi and Brian. Both the story and art create and use small details in really smart, affecting ways. What a nice piece!

  4. Brian, these drawings are just incredible. You are my hero.

    I’m so flattered by this. Thanks to you and Nate.

  5. this is a great story, i loved reading it. all of the writing on here makes me get all weepy. maybe because its about people allowing themselves to finally be who they really are and that is something that so many of us, myself included struggled with at some point.

    ps- i also had a crush on he-man!

  6. Beautiful writing, beautiful illustrations. Congrats to you both.

  7. Rafi… that was my first NYC Pride I’d ever been to. I’ll never forget it. The rain, seeking refuge in the doorway, the paddles, the party searching, the party finding, the getting kicked out of said party, the tiki bar, and I think we ended up at GYM bar that night. It was a blast! That many gay/gay friendly people in the streets of the city; for once i didn’t feel like i was being judged for being who I am. I loved every second of it. Most of all I enjoyed hanging with my “new york boys”.

  8. Great story, I have always loved your writing and it is very moving
    Thank you for it!

  9. Am I the one that giggled? Cause I think that I was a little tipsy….I love the story and the drawings are way cool even if we morphed into other people.

  10. Rafi, I LOVE this. Really well written. And the artwork as well!

  11. Rafi, I loved reading this piece. Not just because I like the content and the writing style, but also because I too am from Clear Lake. I didn’t think of specifying where in the Houston area I am from in my piece. I just put “I’m from Houston”. Now I want to change it!

    Anyway, my imagination was really there while reading your story, because I could feel the heavy hot Texas air so filled with the heavy scent of pollen, and I could visualize all the places you were naming… from Clear Lake to Webster to La Grange to Austin… and finally to Christopher Street, NYC, where I lived for 15 years. How many times have I, a former Texas boy, watched that annual parade on Christopher Street….?

    Anyway, thanks for the memories, even though none of them were actually mine!

  12. Wow…just, wow. Rafi, your writing paints a moving picture, filled with emotion and images and sounds. I was right there with you through your journey of discovery, pain, and acceptance. I, too, cried at moments, chuckled at others, and felt a comraderie with you because you address something common to many of us who have struggled to embrace our emerging identities.

    Thank you so much – please don’t stop writing! Yours is a gift that should be shared.

  13. Thanks for this story Rafi! It’s nice to read one from the homeland.
    There were soooo many pools in that town…

    -From one from Clear Lake to another from Clear Lake.

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