Let me tell you about Jackson: the only child of a state senator and an avid bridge player who rarely spoke to each other, he grew up in an airy mansion in Wilson, North Carolina, with six antebellum ancestors in gilded frames looking sternly down on him. His carefree summers left permanent tan lines around his waist and knees; he dominated the little league, excelled in tennis.
At fourteen Jackson left for Virginia to attend the finest boarding school south of the Mason-Dixon Line. White lies and exaggerations, told with a wink and a knowing smile, became his specialty; good-natured imitations, his stockpile of charm. With a trained aw-shucks grin he won over his teachers and classmates, was elected to student council three years in a row. He captained the rowing team, escorted half a dozen debutantes, grew tall and muscular, and applied early to the college where a library was named after his grandfather. Somewhere along the way he learned to mask his upper-crust Southern drawl and began calling himself Jack.
But he had always known that he would derail from the track that had been so carefully set down for him. As he read Dickens in AP English, it hit him: he wanted to be a writer—preferably a tortured one—who wrote about the sordid real life outside the ivied gates of his world: cruel con artists, whores with hearts of gold, self-hating crooks, that sort of thing. He was ready.
Here’s Jacques in a nutshell: born in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, he was named Jacques Henri by his Quebecois parents, who struggled to keep up with the rent for their one-bedroom overlooking the murky Blackstone River. When he was four his mom, Marie, shook him awake in the middle of the night and together they tiptoed over crushed cans of Natural Ice and past his father, who was passed out on the floor as usual. With them Marie brought nothing but a six-pack of Dr. Pepper to keep her awake. She sped down I-95 until the Chevy broke down in Springfield, Virginia. There, she traded in the car for the security deposit on a one-story house on a dead-end street.
Without the unpredictable tableside temper of his father, Jacques learned to enjoy food for the first time, began eating prodigiously, and soon grew too big for children’s husky size. He tripped and stumbled under his sudden weight, was taunted by the neighborhood kids for his heft. He never learned to retaliate, though—he wasn’t that kind of a boy. Instead he began calling himself Jack, good ol’ American Jack and never the prissy Jacques Henri, so as not to give the world another reason to tease him.
After long days waiting tables at a disreputable establishment called— must we utter that vulgar name?—Tits-N-Bits, Marie attended night classes and earned a nursing degree. But she couldn’t instill her respect for education in her son. Throughout public schooling his grades remained dismal; he saw no point in writing a five-part essay or figuring out when Train A would catch up with Train B. He never liked the word “junior,” so he felt no remorse dropping out of school after driver’s ed at the end of his sophomore year. From then on Jack worked diligently for years in a series of driving jobs—first delivering pizzas, and now large construction equipment.
This was in the boom years, when everyone was awash in cash, and banks handed out bundles of money to anyone with a name and a Social Security number. As a surprise gift to celebrate his and Marie’s twentieth anniversary in the house, he applied for one of those “No Credit? No Problem!” mortgages advertised on late night television. The landlady, who was moving down to Daytona Beach, tearfully gave him the deed, calling him the most perfect son a mother could ever dream of. We’ll see about that.
Jack first skidded toward six on the Kinsey Scale in his freshman year of boarding school. His roommate, Donald Jr., the belligerent son of a well-known real estate mogul, offered some of the vodka that he’d hidden in various containers among his toiletries. Jack’s hands trembled, not from fear but excitement—about what might happen in their drunken state. He tipped back the Listerine bottle and gulped the Grey Goose like he’d seen teenagers chug beer in films. That night, as the vodka burned his throat, he learned how irresistible his winces could be.
Soon Donnie and Jack were wrestling each other to the floor, laughing, snorting, then reaching for each other. They hardly spoke again after that night.
Father Patrick responded with a kind embrace to twelve-year-old Jack’s confession of sinful thoughts about boys. But then the embrace gave way to frantic caresses—which Jack knew weren’t entirely innocuous. When Father Patrick’s hand crawled between Jack’s soft tummy and the elastics of his sweats, Jack kicked him in the shin and elbowed him in the beaked nose before running out of the church and swearing never to go back. And no, you are grossly mistaken if you thought Jack enjoyed Father Patrick’s spidery touch even for a second. Jack’s wicked thoughts were about what lay inside other boys’ briefs, not Father Patrick’s dark robe.
Roughly a decade later, the telephone became Jack’s next gateway to what some misguided souls call “that lifestyle.” Glued on a payphone at a rest stop in Ohio, a palm-sized ad promised a certain boyish beauty with bright white teeth. Jack’s first call lasted less than three minutes, a fact he would later figure out from the $4.97 charge on his credit card bill: $2.99 for the first minute, 99 cents per minute afterward—algebra hadn’t been so useless after all. The event was nothing spectacular: unsightly droplets stained his khakis before Huck the Farmhand completely “undressed” him.
Frequenting odd rest stops that bustled with life in the dead of the night, he had rushed encounters with wedding-ringed men, climbed into other truckers’ cabs, sat on a filthy toilet to take a chance on whoever would come into the next stall. Once he was eagerly groped by a bald man who, he would later see on the news, was a congressman from one of those large rectangular states in the middle. Another time, he barely escaped arrest when his truck pulled into the parking lot minutes after an undercover raid. Seeing men scatter from the restroom into the dark brought tears to his eyes; took him back to that day when, as a young boy, he helplessly watched a bully stomp on an ants’ nest.
Curiosity gave way to sporadic guilt, which then turned outward into childish disgust (the stench! the grime! yuck!) but never hatred—toward others or himself. It just wasn’t in his nature to dwell on things he couldn’t change. After each encounter he rubbed his hands with the sanitizer he kept in the glove compartment, and drove away, the echoes of the oldies station trailing behind his truck.
The inebriated affair with Donald Jr., it turned out, wasn’t an anomaly. Oh, Jack wasn’t queer or anything. He convinced himself he was just … “curious.” (Later in life he would come to flinch as he recalled using that cliché.)
Curious he was, and he grew more so with every chance affair until he discovered a public library a few blocks away from the boarding school. He’d sneak out for half an hour before dinner and prowl chat rooms. Between each hastily typed line he craned his neck above the carrel to make sure no one else from school was there.
“6’2″, 175lbs, brown eyes and dirty blond hair. 20, bi-curious, discreet, very athletic.” Jack’s online profile was accurate except for his age. And it made him sound like an Adonis. That wasn’t his word, actually. He’d once overheard it from a flaming redhead on the D.C. Metro on a night out with his rowing teammates: “Sure, everyone sounth like an Adonis online when they’re just numberth. That is why you have to ask for their picture!” His naive protégé: “But then don’t I have to give them mine, too? What if it’s my boss I’m chatting with?”
As they sashayed off the train at Dupont Circle, one of Jack’s friends coughed: “Phfags!” Jack joined his teammates in uproarious laughter that swirled inside his gut like shards of glass.
Not that it stopped Jack the curious from rowing to the other side of the Kinsey Scale. In chronological order: Donald Jr. the Freshman Roommate, James on Amtrak over Thanksgiving, GeorgeMasonU from the Internet, Travis(?), James number two, the go-go dancer from PowerBar, Uwe the exchange student, Edwin from the public pool, Dmitri the heartbreaker, Miguel the Nutcracker (ouch), Hector/Hortencia, dearie, who taught Jack how to camp it up like a true queen.
While picking out Christmas lights and a new Santa costume in one of those colossal shopping emporiums, Jack impulsively bought a desktop. The routine of dingy rest stops and the constant fear of arrest had wearied him. He had heard people talk about “going virtual,” and it seemed anything would be better than the real world as he knew it. Soon, however, he dioscovered hje just wasnm’t built for computrers. He typed, hunched obver the keyboasrd, withj his two imdex fingers, which were too large amd often hit m,ore than one key at a timne. Buit he got his points acvross.
Jack took a deep breath and decided not to feign shock when he heard that his parents were separating. Though they hadn’t seemed too unhappy, he had never seen them particularly happy with each other, either.
“Your father’s going down to Charleston to be with his brother,” his mother said on the phone. “And I’ll be here with your grandparents. I suppose you’ll be staying with us?”
“I don’t want to take sides,” Jack said, perhaps too eagerly, thrilled to be excused of his family’s stuffy Presbyterian suppers. He could hear her sipping something—mint julep? No, never after Labor Day. So it must have been bourbon on the rocks, the only other drink that touched her painted lips, and only under dire circumstances.
“That’s very mature of you,” she said, sounding equally relieved. “I’m proud you’re being more adult about this than your father.”
Jack’s father rang immediately after they hung up. “It’s over,” the patriarch slurred into the phone. “I heard.” “I’m going to have a damn good life without her.” His throat clogged
between words, reducing his baritone into quivery wisps of air. “A damn … good … life, you hear?”
Jack’s father had spent his adult life being cordial to strangers and gregarious with acquaintances, and spared his loved ones from his true feelings. Now, for the first time Jack could remember, his father was unfurling what lay inside his heart to him.
Jack had seen his father cry only once before. After his grandfather’s funeral their mansion was filled with throngs of people clad in black, whom Jack’s father received with his trademark bonhomie, as if he were being a good sport after losing a golf match, not his father. But in the wee hours of the morning after, as dazed Jack rose from bed and made his way to the bathroom, he caught his father sunk deep in the living room sofa, weeping openly as the host of an infomercial chattered on obliviously on the television set. Shocked and scared, ten-year-old Jack tip-toed back to his bed.
The same fear eclipsed Jack’s heart as his father gasped for air on the phone. Jack wanted to traverse the great distance between them and shawl his arms around his father’s sturdy shoulders. But there was only so much he knew how to say.
“Oh, Papa” was all Jack managed, though his own eyes had begun welling up.