Dumb Blonde

Was I his?
It did take me 50 years
To consider the possibility
I did always say:
“He was my best friend in high school”
“We were best friends…”
I have no idea what he said
Or didn’t

I don’t know why we didn’t meet sooner
Did he move late to the development?
Was he in a different track?
It seems almost as if he were
Something fictional, someone I dreamed, imagined
Like a tell that I never got to write down
If it weren’t for his etching on my wall
And his face there in the yearbook

I don’t recall, either, how we became friends
We just one day were
And I had long term close friends he displaced
There was about him something old and demonic
He seemed to know just what he wanted
Knew how the world worked
While I was slow to mature
Mutt and Jeff spring to mind. Laurel and Hardy…Abbott and Costello
And yet not like them or anyone else at all
Snowflakes, unique in human experience
A historic mismatch

He was funny
Didn’t tell jokes
Made them up
I still use in conversation
“You’re entitled to your opinion but you’re wrong.”
“Fun’s a drag.”
One day we went around our middle-class neighborhood
Door to door
“We’re collecting for retarded children
If you have any just throw them in the bag”

Amoral, steely, an aesthetician
Didn’t mind who he offended
Or how he made his way
Yet charismatic, kind and thoughtful
Especially with friends
Vulnerable too, trusting
Ambiguous, various

I didn’t know what gay was then
Hell, I hadn’t even discovered marijuana
I played sports and collected stamps
Read comics and played board games
He was into shopping and music
Took me places I never would have gone
Played me Barbra Streisand (he, the Italian Catholic)
Introduced me to We Have Always Lived in the Castle
Of course I reciprocated with Dickens and Keats
But all his bents were fresh and modern

Of course I saw he was effeminate
But to me that was just a trait, like his brown eyes
He was also forceful, clever and spontaneous
And, with him, so was I
We tormented poor F.M.
“Daddy, daddy, can you get us candy”
“I want that doggie”
F. just a classmate
Had made the mistake of joining us at the mall

He had lots of other friends
Male and female
I don’t remember ever seeing him at school
But after school we were together often
Got to know each other’s families, fears, and hopes
Quirks and preferences
Longings—at least the ones it was safe for us to share—
Each other’s friends (we did not take to them)
Howard Johnson’s, the beach
But he did not ride bicycles or play miniature golf or baseball
And I didn’t go nightclubbing or dancing

The first nine months of college
Were the worst nine months of my life
And that summer back home
Absorbed in my first full time job
Sustained by family and friends, healing
Is, in memory, a blank succession of easy sunlit days
Broken only by one signal disruption
Which some people at parties still find the single most interesting thing about me

When he proposed the trip upstate
I told him I didn’t like live concerts all that much
But, when he persisted, showed me the poster
And I saw the Jefferson Airplane on the bill
I acquiesced
In the event only the three of us
He, me and his best female friend E. H.
Made the trip to Woodstock
With tent, sleeping bags, food, a Coleman stove
In my family’s car

We did not get to see the Jefferson Airplane
He got claustrophobic and insisted we leave
We did try but the car, as stubborn as any mule
Went only 100 yards and then would not budge
AAA just laughed when we called for help
A local tow truck took us to the nearest town
But we had to wait till Monday for a mechanic
My father had spent only one (in the family, celebrated) year before the War
Outside NYC—in Jeffersonville, that nearest town
“Where no one ever locked their doors”
That was the only time I’ve been

I slept on a cot right out in front of the pumps
And walked around town in the morning without my glasses
Fuzzy morning glories, window boxes, cracked uneven sidewalk
Ghostly early risers out walking, companionable
It took the mechanic less than a minute
To find and fix the kink in the gas line
And later, that Monday evening,
We, together, on the radio, discovered Firesign Theatre
We’d been down our own private rabbit hole
And when we came back up
The waters around us had grown

I do not recall a single moment of sexual tension
Not a glance, not a sigh, not a touch
Perhaps, probably, as it has always seemed to me
We were just kindred spirits
Who loved one another’s company
Rejecting convention, all we saw around us
Anarchic, happy, free
Or was I just oblivious
A big dumb blonde
And he an unrequited lover

Our high school principal was gay I later learned
One of our high school English teachers was too
But, I see now, not his kind of gay
They were coarse, gregarious, importuning
More Nathan Lane than Oscar Wilde
He was, when it came to taste
Severe, chic, inflexible
The etching on my wall is of Scott and Zelda
Black-and-white, linear, impersonal
Dated 1976, the year he suddenly lost weight
And no one knew why

The etching was a wedding present
Well first he tried to talk me out of marrying again
This time promoted his lifestyle
As if one might choose one’s sexual preference
As from a menu a diet
A preventive health measure
A convenience
Knowing better, he then attended the wedding
Met and liked my wife
And went back to his life

By then he had also confided in me
About his days at the bank, his nights at the bathhouses
The fear and excitement
Told me how he stole downtown and sold uptown
Sweaters and scarves and such
To help make ends meet
He shrugged
A salary alone, he said, could not begin
To support a life in Manhattan

That was during his second remission
And by then his disease had a name
Of course, it wasn’t of the name he died
But of the virus, which had his number
Too late to be safe and too soon for treatment
He was part of the target population
Helpless, in the sights of history
Like the generation that died on the beaches in Normandy
Of the 1919 influenza
During the Thirty Years’ War
In the plague of the Thirteenth Century
At Hiroshima, in the camps
The Gulag, the Great Leap Forward
Once upon a time I would ponder what might have been
But now, more like him:
If my grandmother had had wheels
She’d have been a tricycle
And I perhaps a school bus or tea caddy

Revisiting him though has returned to me
Images, fears and joys
Flickers of myself
Opened new ones
Restored the gyroscope
Of my comprehension
Because I had not earlier finalized or fixed
My sense of that early friendship
But left it hanging
I can now see it, place it
So much more deeply, fully, clearly
An emotional and semantic hologram
Hanging like a gibbous moon in my mind
Rather than just one more icon, ad, caricature or coin
Lost in one of the scrapbooks, habits or pockets
Of this aging, late blooming
Exceptionally slow, if not dumb, blonde

Alan Cohen has been composing poems for decades. He was poetry editor of his high school magazine, had a poem in the New England Journal of Medicine in 1977 and one in The Road Not Taken in 2017, and edited The Beast in a Cage of Words, a book of poems about nuclear weapons. He is a retired physician, teacher and primary care manager. He has been married to Anita for 37 years and they live in Eugene, Oregon.