FEATURED ARTIST – Brian Ness
STORY by Hugh Ryan
At this distance, it’s hard to know whether the comment on my mid-year report card – “Hugh is the best-loved child in the second grade” – was wishful thinking on my teacher’s part, or an attempt to willfully deceive my parents. Rarely are effeminate nerdlings the best loved individuals in any social circle, but in the world of public education, it can be safely said that we were at the bottom of the heap, along with the poor kids who had patched, off-brand clothing, and the fat ones who smelled funny. Woe betide the child who was all three.
I was skinny and unathletic, with a bowl cut given to me monthly in my kitchen by my Aunt Eileen. This was the mid-80s, when Ocean Pacific had become – inexplicably – a big brand in the Northeast. I wore shirts that changed color when touched, and said things like “Surf Legend: Gateway to the Sun.” I don’t think I’d ever willingly gone to the ocean. Certainly, I wouldn’t have gotten in it. It was cold and filled with squishy things that might have touched me. All I wanted in life were a crew-cut with a rat tail, a Nintendo, and my own collection of My Little Ponies.
In our small suburban school there were fifteen students to a class, four classes to a year. By the second grade, everyone was a known entity. Like the contestants on a reality TV show, we were all branded early: spaz, hottie, the kid who eats his own boogers, nerd. I met my eventual prom date – Tanya Zheng – in kindergarten. She lived four blocks from my house. Kyle Pogue, one of my (few) second-grade frenemies, lived far away – about a five minute walk. His mother was the town librarian; his father the 8th grade social studies teacher. I was too young to name it claustrophobic, but the world felt constrained to an incredibly limited number of possibilities, which was both lulling and deadening. I dreamt of far-away places like boarding school and New York City and Narnia. Each seemed as impossible as the next, though New York was but a short train ride away.
Thus I was the natural market for that dorkiest of games: Dungeons & Dragons. Or as my Grandmother called it, the work of the Devil. For a child with few friends and an active imagination, it provided something to do with the long hours between school and sleep. It created a simulacrum of friends and adventure, without any of the messy reality. An asocial life. I didn’t play the game – that would have required other people – but I read the books and daydreamed. Sometimes I used tracing paper to copy the cover art, so I could color it in with those markers that smelled nothing at all like the fruits they were named after. Blue mango was my favorite, though I wouldn’t know what a mango was until college.
In the third grade something changed. I’d like to say it was me, but aside from suddenly comprehending my multiplication tables (thanks Dad), I was largely the same. Usually, fads came and went like distant airplanes: visible from where I stood, but with no direct effect on my life. Occasionally, I would come to one late and get caught in the turbulence of its wake (for example: the time an unfortunate confluence in the popularity of roller skating to music and my favorite Beach Boy’s song Kokomo led to an embarrassing moment of accidental karaoke, when the sound system cut out and my caterwauling soprano was heard throughout the school gym). For a brief period in the third grade, however, I was not just on the plane, I was the pilot. One day I woke up, marbles were out, and Dungeons & Dragons was in. By extension, so was I.
At first, it didn’t really penetrate. Yes; suddenly other boys were reading the Dungeon Master’s Guide and – occasionally – talking to me on the playground. But I lived so far off in my dreams that they were like cobwebs through which I drifted, mostly unaware. Until, that is, the day Rory Smith invited me over to his house.
Rory’s house had an indoor pool and a room with wallpaper that looked like a forest. There was a rumor going around the jungle gym that his family owned a private island. He was elementary school royalty. He had sandy brown hair, but we called it blond, because this was the 80s, and blondes were in.
I still remember the sting of chlorine in my nose as we sat on the tiled poolroom floor and tried to figure out the rules by which a level 13 thief and a level 10 warrior would fight a Shambling Mound. The piles of paper and mounting frustration were indicators that this fad would be short-lived. We quickly gave up on playing the game, but I was gloriously happy nonetheless. I would remain so for approximately eighteen hours.
In the way of small children and people with autism, it never occurred to me that others might embrace something I loved with a different motivation. My heart was pure; I loved all things magical. It seemed only natural that others would realize the coolness of elves and wizards. But the popular boys came to D&D with an ulterior motive, which I would only discover upon being allowed to eat lunch with them at the back of the classroom, the day after Rory Smith deigned me a person worth inviting over.
Our class was shaped like an inverted lower-case letter d. Our desks and cubbies were all within the bulbous circle. The long skinny part jutted out to the back of the room. It held a few tables, and a counter where a profusion of small, doomed animals spent their short, tortured existences. The floors were gray linoleum and the walls were covered with ugly things in primary colors, designed to explain the letters of the alphabet and the capitals of states.
There were four of us at the table: Rory, Jimmy, Kyle and me. Three princes of the playground with their thoroughly modern names, and one simple peasant boy, whose name evoked moth-balled old English men, and who was mere seconds away from being ejected from the kingdom forever.
Even as I sat down, I could tell something was going on. Their heads were down and their shoulders were tense. They were trying so hard to act normal that they’d forgotten to talk. Rory had something on his lap, which he eventually passed to Jimmy, which he in turn passed to Kyle, who – after a moment’s hesitation, a spasmodic glance around the room, and a slight chuckle – handed it to me.
It was a paperback D&D book. Spine cracked with much usage, the pages opened naturally to an illustration of an athletic young man, bare-chested, with a knife in one hand, facing off against an equally topless half-woman, half-snake creature. I didn’t get why they were being so secretive. I stared at it, trying to understand, and the boys cracked up laughing.
“What?” I asked. Had I missed something? Was there a message written in number two pencil somewhere in the picture? Some bit of marginalia I should respond to? “Do you want to come over tonight, Check Yes or No?”
“Shhh!” They responded as one. Kyle spasmed another look around, and after deciding it was safe, leaned in and pointed.
“Boobs!” The word shot from his mouth as though he had Tourette’s Syndrome. When I seemed unfazed by this revelation, he elaborated.
“She has boobs!” he said. “She’s hot.”
I can’t remember what I responded, due to the crushing feeling of panic that overwhelmed me seconds after the words exited my mouth. Suffice it to say, it was something like “So’s he.”
This idea, or some variation upon it, had lived in my brain for as long as I could remember. Like an ember, it needed only to be exposed to air to burst in to flame. Or should I say, shame. In the split second when it crossed the threshold between thought and word, I realized this was the sort of terrible revelation that I should take to my (preferably early) grave.
Prior to this, it had merely been an unexpressed idea, something I might at any moment mention. The sky is blue. I love G. I. Joe. That boy is hot. Now it was a secret, something I would spend the next eight years trying – unsuccessfully – to hide. It was a slip of the tongue that would no doubt be forgotten the next time someone accidentally shit themselves during recess, but the stain on my reputation would linger forever. Despite my no doubt brilliant attempt at a cover-up (“I mean, she’s hot. Look over there!”), I was now officially queer.
More importantly, they – all of them, Kyle and Rory and Jimmy; the other students and my teachers and parents – were officially not queer. Amongst the many apparent ways in which I was different, my green eyes and my skinny arms; my skill at flipping Garbage Pail Kids and my inability to do much else on the playground; I now understood that this was something I did not share with my peers. The thought had never occurred to me. Though I must have known on some instinctive level, my conscious mind had never processed that liking boys meant being different. If I thought of it at all, it was like having a favorite color: I might like pink and you might like green, but that didn’t make us separate species. Except in elementary school, it did.
Dungeons and Dragons remained popular for another month or two, probably until someone managed to steal actual pornography from their father or older brother. I remained popular for the length of time it took Rory, Jimmy and Kyle to spread the story around school, or approximately an afternoon.
ABOUT THE ARTIST
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.
Here are two more samples of Brian’s work:
Interested in being a Featured Artist? Just let me know!