This is the second part of my my three part story, Time in Tuscany. In case you have not read part 1, I recommend reading it first.
As a child whenever my family and I went to Tuscany for summer, my mind could wander and explore ideas and possibilities that I would not have been able to create at home in Austria. I don’t know what it was exactly. Maybe it was the usual environment I had left, with only the beach and the blue ocean ahead. I remember the first realisation of me being different from most others was here.
One thing I did every day on the beach was building a sandcastle. The brown- beige sand was the perfect texture to not only build sandcastles but also little houses of sand. I decorated them with white and rose shells or light grey driftwood I found by the beach. I could sit for hours in the wet sand, close by the breaking green waves not only building a city of sand but also imagining who would live there. When the sun’s light turned into a honey gold, I would finish my masterwork and leave it there for the elements to turn it back into mere sand by night-time.
But because I could rebuild them, the inhabitants of my sandcastle and its city would return every coming day. I pictured tiny merpeople with blue fins living there, ruled by a handsome prince and a beautiful princess, their parents, the ocean and the moon watching over them. I liked to think that starfish would live in the sand library next to the castle who guarded the ancient knowledge of the city. Besides, I always built a wall in front of the city which would keep the waves at bay for a time. The same way as I would build a wall around myself later at school, to protect myself from the tidal wave of straightness. The wall on the beach was guarded by the driftwood people, little white sticks of driftwood I stuck into the wall of sand. They guarded the city until the tide arrived and it was time for all of them to be washed away, go home to the sea. It was a peaceful siege.
One day, while I was building the sandcastle and its city, a surfer and his girlfriend walked by. He held his surfboard under his arm and his girlfriend’s hand with the other. She was very pretty, an Italian young woman with curly long brown hair, wearing a light, red-coloured bikini. He had short curly hair, strong arms, a broad chest and abs. It was a body, a man, I had only ever seen on television before. They both smiled at me and she said something in Italian to me which I did not understand. I think it was a compliment on my skills as a sandcastle builder. I nodded, smiled, looked at her and then at him. They waved goodbye and continued their walk on the beach.
I immediately forgot what she looked like. It was him I remembered, whose kind brown eyes and abs I would not forget, without knowing, without even thinking about what it could and would all mean. Back then, I saw the two of them simply as an addition to my sandcastle story and I had naturally favoured him. From now onwards I imagined the surfer as the prince of the sandcastle, and she would become the princess. Together they held hands and looked out into the glittering silver- blue ocean, the sun shining white above them. I only remembered her as a princess wearing a light, red-coloured silk dress, her pretty face has faded into a universal one. She was a beautiful daughter of the ocean and the moon. But never mind her. It was the prince I had to smile about.
When most of my friends started dating two feelings continuously rivalled each other in my heart, in my head. The first one was jealousy. I was jealous of Maria, not of her beauty but of the consequences of her beauty. She was desired by most of the boys at school, who, I noticed, became more and more attractive the older we were all getting. I believed it was only normal to recognise attractiveness among teenage girls and boys alike. However, the boys made me feel something the girls could not: desire. It dawned on me what was wrong with me. I believed it was wrong because ‘gay’ was a swearword and everything was about being straight.
The other feeling that developed inside of me was feeling sorry. When I decided not to take part in the dating lives of my friends, I noticed that a lot of girls felt very unhappy about what was unfolding in front of them. Some did not feel ready to date but their friends pressured them into it. Some realised they were not as pretty as Maria, thus not as desired, and were jealous of her. Others, who dated one boy after the other, were branded as bitches. Other girls would talk about a bitch behind her back, maybe feeling ashamed for her that she dared to express her sexuality and desires so openly. ‘Bitch’ was a label that was not as bad as being branded ‘gay’ but it was close.
However, they were all able to express their sadness, jealousy and desires openly because they were moving within a straight world. I felt sorry for them but my compassion for them had its limits. For instance, most of the time when Maria and my other friends would have lunch at school and talked about the boys they would like to date, they asked me what girls the boys were talking about during sports. At my school, boys and girls would do sports separately. Girls would do gymnastics and boys would play football. I usually answered that the other boys only talked about football, leave the girls at lunch and escape into the quietness of the library. The girls could figure out on their own what boys were into them. They did not need my help for that.
Around the same time my friends started dating we had a biology lesson on sexuality.
‘Okay.’, our biology professor said uncomfortably. ‘The girls follow the nurse into the library and the boys stay with me and I will talk to them.’
The school nurse smiled at our professor encouragingly, then at the girls, who followed her. Our teacher told us in a very scientific way what the man had to do to make a baby with a woman. He blushed the whole time. Then he showed us, using a banana, how to put on a condom in case you did not want to get a child or HIV. It was a strange way to mention an illness and pregnancy. As if a virus that could lead to death was just as bad as getting pregnant. But everything he told us we already knew. We all had internet access.
After the lesson I sat next to Maria. She giggled as she said: ‘The funniest thing the nurse said was that before we would have sex with a guy, we should tell him, he shouldn’t fuck us too hard, cause the first couple of times this could really hurt!’
We both burst out laughing, oblivious to the fact, that I should have been given this advice as well. But that were sexuality lessons at school and how professors would teach them. A man with a woman and no other way.
Very often, similar questions why I didn’t have Facebook would rise to the surface. For instance, ‘Who are you into?’ ‘Don’t you fancy her? You are spending so much time together.’
Jenn Ashworth wrote in Notes Made While Falling: English which can express the thoughts of Hamlet and the tragedy of Lear, have no words for the shiver and the headache. It has all grown one way… let a sufferer try to describe a pain in his head to the doctor and language at once runs dry. There is nothing ready made for him!’
Although she was writing about trauma, growing up in a very straight environment did feel traumatising at times. My answers to the questions posed were always the same. ‘I don’t know.’ ‘No, that’s not true, we are just friends.’
They were all honest lies. There weren’t good enough words to describe the growing pain and shame inside of me because society had all grown one way. There was nothing ready for me to describe how and what I felt. So I tried to escape.
In the year when I had finished my final exams at school and had applied to English universities, I convinced my family to return to the beach hotel in San Vincenzo in summer. The first thing I wanted to do was build a sandcastle. When I began, a thought in my mind festered that it might be strange for a nineteen-year-old boy to build a sandcastle. The years had made me self-conscious about everything, always looking over my shoulder, so no one would notice that I was different, and I connected building a sandcastle with that. But I also felt stronger. Over the last year I had started to work out. My skinny arms had now biceps and dug deeper and quicker through the sand. My chest and shoulders were broader and where there had once been a flat stomach there were now abs.
I looked around and noticed that no one minded me. I could see a woman sitting in the shade by the hotel. She wore a blue bathing suit and was lost in a book, but I could not make out the title. She was one of the four English women who stayed at the hotel. My dad and me had met them this morning. I had mentioned, I wanted to study English literature at an English university. I did not say that stories like The Lord of the Rings had offered me wonderful opportunities to escape real life. Once again, I knew what to say and what things I better left unsaid. For the coming years I would not want to do anything else but escape.
‘That’s lovely! So lovely!’, they had said about my university plans.
My dad had to supress a laugh. They were so English. They had told us they had left their husbands at home in Gloucestershire and were on an all-girls trip to see the beautiful art of Tuscany and the beautiful Italian men too. They giggled and exposed horse teeth like Princess Camilla. Their skin was as white as Ed Sheeran’s. Three out of the four of them had ginger hair like Prince Harry.
My attention was drawn back to the waves. I could see three Italian children laughing and splashing in the shallow green water. They jumped around in ways no adult would ever dare to. The children looked about nine and ten years old. In no time, they would reach the age of puberty. Then all this lightness, their joy, their freedom within the movements of their bodies would fade.
This was a time when children become aware of their own bodies, conscious of who they were attracted to. They either understood the world as it moved around them, or they did not, and feared something had gone terribly wrong. I envied them because they had nothing on their minds but the ocean and their imagination, the freedom of being a child.
They did not feel shame yet. They were still in paradise, so to say. Kaye Mitchell addressed similar thoughts in Writing Shame: -and as ‘a pure point of origin in relation to language, sexuality and the state’. Childhood remains ‘a repository of hope yet a site of instrumentalization for the future but with an equal and opposite nostalgia for the past’.
I have imagined the beach and the ocean into a paradise place for myself. During childhood, I had created sand-castle kingdoms, my imagination became my point of origin, my point of hope for the future and something I look back at with nostalgia.
When I was not by the ocean, I imagined and wrote stories about mermaids. I created entire worlds, complete with kingdoms under the sea inhabited by magical creatures. It is not a surprise that my favourite fairy tale and Disney story was The Little Mermaid. Only recently I found out, when I watched a documentary on Hans Christian Andersen, that most historians believe he was gay. And that his original story of the little mermaid was a reflection on his own life. Just like Juliet Jacques said, and just like Anderson must have felt, the little mermaid was trapped in the wrong society wishing for an altogether different life.
Another fantasy story, this one on TV, I absolutely fell in love with was Charmed. It was the story of three sisters in their twenties who found themselves back at their childhood home after their grandmother had died. In one stormy night, they did not only inherit the family home but also magical powers and a book of charms, the book of shadows. With its help they would fight demons of the underworld.
My best friends and I were obsessed with Charmed. We always imagined what powers we would possess. I always favoured the powers of the middle sister Piper, who could make time freeze. I could think of many moments where I would have preferred for time to stand still for a while because they felt too precious or make moments freeze at school and just run away. The older my friends became, however, the less they were interested in Charmed. They grew more curious about Sex and the City or Grey’s Anatomy.
Charmed spoke to me for so much longer because of one plot point in the show. At all times the sisters had to keep their magical abilities a secret from everyone else, their friends, colleagues and their boyfriends too. They moved in a world without magic but were magical. They had to keep their true identity hidden at all costs and they managed to do so episode by episode. I took a lot of hope from that. I hoped that when I came out, I could regard my gayness like a magical power, which, once I was out, I was able to show the world.
To be continued…