Knowing (Blue Notes # 0.5)
By Shira Anthony
© 2010 Shira Anthony
Robbie Jansen knew everything. At least, that’s how it always seemed to me when I was growing up. In retrospect, I realize there are a lot of things Robbie didn’t understand. But the important stuff? Robbie knew that, and then some. It took me a hell of a lot longer to learn it for myself. A lot longer.
I got to know Robbie in middle school, although not until I was in eighth grade. I’m not sure how we never ran into each other before, since we only lived about a mile apart, but you know how it is in the suburbs. I didn’t really venture very far from my house on my bike, not out of our own little Cleveland Heights neighborhood, and he was in the next school district over, across the four lane street that felt as though it divided two completely different universes.
Robbie was the kid everyone liked to make fun of. Looking back, I think most of us were jealous of him, but we’d have never admitted to each other, let alone to ourselves. At thirteen, Robbie wore his dark hair long, with a piercing in his right ear, kohl eyeliner, and black skinny jeans. His t-shirts changed depending upon his mood: Bob Marley and Jimi Hendrix for days when he was feeling particularly non-conformist, Kermit the Frog and Care Bears when I was feeling mellow, and t-shirts with geeky slogans like, “meh,” or “NO,” or “I’m with stupid,” the rest of the time.
Teenagers love to categorize. It helps to sort things into simple, neat boxes that are easy to understand. I categorized Robbie as a “goth,” or “emo,” although I honestly wasn’t sure what those things meant. At least, not really. There were always the rumors that Robbie was “queer,” a category I wasn’t really sure about either, except it was something I was sure as hell I didn’t want to be.
Funny, how we loved to categorize other kids, even when we weren’t sure what the categories meant. I remember thinking once that it was a cool thing to do. Later on I changed my mind, mostly because I decided I wasn’t too happy with the category I always got lumped into: “geek.”
Yeah, I was a geek. I freely admit it now. You know, the kid with straight-A’s who spends his afterschool time at the piano, practicing? That was me. Jason Greene, the nebbishy, Jewish kid whose bar-mitzvah party was held in the synagogue social hall instead of the “cool” places like the skating rink or the bowling alley. And that’s where I first got to know Robbie—in the social hall of Beth Israel Synagogue (well, it was decorated in a “Star Wars” theme that was supposed to look like the inside of the Millennium Falcon—talk about geeky!).
I remember the first time I met Robbie. He was wearing his usual uniform with a t-shirt that read, “Huh?” and had his hair pulled back in a loose ponytail. I was standing in front of him on line in the school cafeteria. I was waiting as the cafeteria lady spoon a heap of mashed potatoes on my plate and my stomach growled loud enough for Robbie to hear. I know he heard it, because he giggled. Normally, I’d have been mortified, but there was just something about Robbie made me laugh as well. Ten minutes later, seated at the same long table, we finally stopped our hysterical laughter (or maybe it was Coach Johnson who made us stop… I’m not sure).
“I’m Jason,” I said, stating the obvious. We were, after all, in the same homeroom and had been for more than a month.
“Yeah,” he replied with a smirk. “I kinda knew that.”
“You’re Robbie, right?”
“Yeah,” I answered. “I kinda knew that, too.”
I wasn’t sure whether to laugh at this or not, so I just attacked the mashed potatoes. They were covered in a thick layer of ketchup, which seemed to impress Robbie, because he added, “I like ketchup, too.”
I remember smiling to hear it. When you’re thirteen, you’re always afraid what you’re doing isn’t cool enough to share with anyone except your closest friends. I was pretty sure covering your food with ketchup wasn’t particularly cool, but Robbie seemed to think it was.
“Did you know that ketchup came from China originally?” he continued, much to my surprise. “It was actually made from pickled fish and spices.” I made a face and he laughed. “It wasn’t made using tomatoes until the 1800’s.”
I don’t remember what we talked about that day other than ketchup, but I know after that, we said hello to each other in the halls and even made faces at each other when the principal droned on during morning announcements. But that was the extent of our friendship, until my bar-mitzvah party.
The party was supposed to go until midnight—I had fought with my parents to get the extra hour, and felt quite proud of myself for it—and most of the “old folks,” as we kids liked to call them, had gone home. The kids were having a great time dancing to the DJ, although I seem to remember being pretty ticked off that, instead of playing the Stones as I had requested, the guy was playing something from “Duran, Duran.” Robbie must have felt the same way, because I found him sitting in the corner of the high-ceiling room, his feet up on a chair, listening to his Walkman.
“What’cha listening to?” I asked, doing my best imitation of a cool kid.
“Little Feat,” he shouted back, then pulled the headphones from his ears and handed it to me. “The original. You know, back before ’72. Legend has it that Little Feat formed after Frank Zappa fired Lowell George from the Mothers of Invention because he was too talented. Told him to form his own band.” I nodded, although I had no clue what he was talking about. Still, for a kid who grew up on Chopin and Brahms played around the house, I loved any kind of music (in high school, the kids started calling me “Jaz” for short). I remember thinking how cool the music was, and how cool Robbie was that he knew about something like it.
We just listened for a while, until he suggested we go outside for a while, where it was quieter, so we could listen some more. I agreed, and we snuck out the side exit. We sat down on the grass with our backs against the building. It was early October and cool enough that you could see your breath on the air. I can still remember the smell of the leaves and of freshly mowed grass. We were seated, shoulder to shoulder (the headphones made anything else difficult). A year later, I might have known to worry about what it “looked like,” you know, two boys sitting there, bodies close together. But at age thirteen, I was pretty much clueless.
The cassette ended (yeah, we still listened to cassettes back then!). “I really liked that,” I told him. “I wonder if I can get the sheet music for ‘Willin’.”
“What do you play?”
“Piano,” I said with some hesitation. I didn’t think piano counted as cool.
“Really? Damn, I wish I could play,” he said, his eyes bright with interest. “What kind of stuff do you play?”
“Classical, mostly,” I said, a bit less tentatively than before. “I also love jazz and rock.”
“That’s what ‘Little Feat’s’ all about,” he told me with an earnest expression. “It’s all about different kinds of music. Different styles.”
“Yeah,” I said, realizing what he said was true and how insightful it was that he had figured it out. It’s probably why he had liked the music so much.
“I’m not a purist,” he announced. To be honest, I wasn’t really sure what that meant—I was smart enough to have an idea, but it wasn’t exactly a word I would have bandied about at thirteen. I remember thinking that he was really smart. I also remember thinking he had about the bluest eyes I had ever seen.
“No, definitely not,” I affirmed. He smiled at this and chewed his lower lip.
“I like you Jason,” he announced as he tilted his head at me and put the Walkman down next to him. “Maybe you can play piano for me sometime.”
“I’d like to,” I heard myself say.
“Did you know that the piano was invented because the clavichord was too quiet an instrument?” I nodded—for once, I had heard the story before. “They figured out that the hammer needed to come off of the string to let it vibrate. With the clavichord, the hammer stayed on the string, so it dampened the sound. Pretty smart, huh?”
“Yeah,” I agreed, thinking he was “pretty smart.”
For a few minutes after that, neither of us spoke. Then Robbie did something that completely floored me. He leaned over and kissed me—right on the lips. For a moment, I just sat there, dumbfounded. Then he surprised me once again by asking, quite bluntly, “Did you like that?”
I was speechless.
“It’s okay if you don’t,” he continued, unfazed by my lack of response. “Different styles, you know.” He winked, picked up the Walkman and, with a quick look back in my direction, walked back into the synagogue.
I’d like to say I talked to Robbie after that. But I didn’t. Mostly, I just filed the whole encounter— “The Kiss”—away in my “weird experiences” drawer. As a teenager, I had lots of those, of course. So I just went on with the business of being an eighth-grader. It was easy, really. I talked to my friends about the girls in our classes, even asked a few out. And I liked girls, I really did. I liked making out with them. I even liked the way they felt.
It wasn’t until late spring that I really thought about Robbie again, and “The Kiss.” Well, it didn’t exactly think about him. I mean, not consciously. But it was obviously on my mind, because I dreamed about him. Maybe I had dreamed about him before, I’m not sure. But I remember this dream clearly. I remember his lips on mine and the way he smelled—a mixture of cinnamon gum and something uniquely his own. Funny, how I still remember it so clearly, even after all these years.
I dreamed about kissing him, smelling him, touching him. In the dream, I wasn’t wearing a t-shirt. The skin of his chest was soft, smooth. I remember wanting to touch it when I kissed him. And then it was there, under my fingertips. And he winked at me, just like he had that night. I remember awakening the next morning and, to my embarrassment, realizing there was a wet spot on the front of my pajama bottoms. My first wet dream ever, and it was about another guy! I never told anyone about it. Well, not until I was a lot older.
Eighth grade ended, and I spent the summer at music camp up in Michigan. That fall was a milestone: I was now a ninth-grader, almost fifteen years-old and I was starting high school. Cleveland Heights High School seemed enormous, and all the upperclassmen seemed so sophisticated. I felt like the geekiest of geeks.
The school was farther away from my parents’ house than middle school, so some days I would hang around the orchestra room and practice after classes. Mr. Forester, the conductor, had tapped me to play the celesta at the winter concert, and he told me I was welcome to use the piano anytime the room was free.
About a month after school started, I was practicing some Brahms at school. It was one of my favorite pieces—a romantic, angsty thing I adored, but that I probably wouldn’t have admitted to anyone my age I liked. I had just finished when I heard clapping from behind me. When I turned around, I saw Robbie sitting near the doorway, a big grin on his face.
“That was really good, Jason,” he told me. “Brahms, Opus 118, No. 2, right?”
I just stared at him, open-mouthed. I’m pretty sure that was the moment I decided Robbie knew everything.
“Did you know that Thomas Edison recorded Brahms playing the first Hungarian Dance?” I shook my head. “It’s just a shortened version, but you can actually hear him playing his own music.”
“That’s really cool,” I said. I sounded like a complete idiot.
“Would you play me some more?” he asked, undeterred by my lack of a coherent response.
“Sure,” I said. “How about some Bach?”
“Oh!” he nearly shouted. “Some of the ‘Well-Tempered Clavier’?”
“Sure.” I knew a few pieces from the work. “How about the ‘Prelude and Fugue No. 8 in E Flat Minor’?”
“I love that one,” he gushed.
I turned back to the piano and set to work, doing my best to remember the piece without the music (that was probably the first time I was really thankful I had “perfect pitch” and could remember the piece almost note for note). After I finished, he applauded again. I blushed—I was always a little shy about praise, even more so because it came from Robbie.
I hadn’t forgotten “The Kiss,” of course. In fact, I realized I was curious. The problem was that, even though I was curious, I was now old enough to understand the implications of kissing another boy. The “gay” thing was one label I didn’t want.
I’d like to say I handled the encounter in the music room well, you know, like the open-minded person I think I’ve become. But I didn’t. I was, after all, not even fifteen at the time. Instead, I said, “I’ve got to go home. Later.”
Robbie only smiled and waved as I walked by him and out of the room. I distinctly remember the way my heart thudded uncontrollably against my ribs. Flight instinct. Pure and simple. Having feelings for Robbie was inconvenient. I had created my own, perfect teenage universe, and I was pretty content to live in it, such as it was.
That night, for the first time, when I masturbated, I imagined it was Robbie’s hand on me instead of my own. I gasped his name into the pillow as my body shook. I probably dreamed about him again. But when I awoke the next morning, I had resolved to forget about it and about him. It was just too complicated. And besides, I was straight, right?
“Hey Jaz!” Aaron Jacobson was one of the kids in my honors trig class. He lived down the street from me.
“Hey,” I answered, looking up from my notebook. I had been working on a project for my “Rebels in Literature” class and was sitting on the big, brick wall in front of the school, waiting for my sister to give me a ride home.
“You racing this weekend?” Aaron’s parents sailed on Lake Erie, and our families often met up on the water after participating in the weekend races. Their boat was bigger than ours, and in a different racing class, so we never competed against the Jacobson’s. That was probably a good thing, since my dad was a pretty competitive captain.
“Yeah,” I told him as I chewed the end of my pencil. “You guys?”
“Nah. My brother’s confirmation is this weekend at temple.” There was a honk from the street and we looked up to see Aaron’s mom, waiting in the car. “Oh! Gotta run. See ya next weekend, maybe?”
“Yeah, maybe,” I said as I trotted off across the courtyard and got into the car.
I think my heart must have jumped into my throat. I turned my head to see Robbie, standing right behind me. “Yeah,” I managed to choke out. “We’ve got a little boat we said weekends. A ‘Mirror Dingy’.”
“Really?” Robbie’s eyes grew wide. “A Mirror? Cool! I’ve always wanted to sail one of those. Did you know that the Mirror Dinghy was named for ‘The Mirror,’ the British newspaper?” I shook my head. “It was designed in the early 60’s.”
“You sail?” I asked him in wide-eyed surprise.
“Well,” he admitted with a grin, “not really. But I’ve always wanted to.”
“You could come with us,” I heard myself offer. I immediately regretted it. It had nothing to do with what my dad would say, either—I was always happy to have one of my friends sail with us—I was just, well, uncomfortable. That whole “gay” thing again. Categories. Labels.
He eyed me carefully, then said, “Nah, but thanks, anyhow.” Then he shot me a beautiful smile, waved, and disappeared back into the school.
I only realized sometime later I really had wanted to go. But Robbie knew that. And I understood I wasn’t ready.
Early June, and school was almost out for the summer. I didn’t want school to end. I realize most kids would have been thrilled. Not me. You see, I had just found out my father was taking a sabbatical in France, and we would be leaving in mid-July for Grenoble. For an entire year. And, damn, but I was pissed.
I remember shouting at my father in a typical fifteen-year-old display of emotion, “You don’t understand. I can’t leave. I won’t! I just started high school. Do you know how hard that is? I won’t do it again!”
He had just looked at me with his usual, patient expression until it hit me—as it always did when I lost it—that I was acting like a kid. My dad was a very smart man. I wanted, more than anything, to be treated like an adult. To be an adult. And by not treating me like a six-year-old and telling me I couldn’t talk to him like that, he got me to realize I was acting like a kid. And once I realized I was acting like a kid, I would stop. It’s a neat trick. And it works like a charm, for the most part.
But just because I wasn’t screaming and yelling anymore didn’t mean I was happy about leaving Cleveland. The thought of leaving my friends, my home for the last fifteen years, to go to a foreign country was the “most horrible thing ever.”
So when Jackson Sharpe asked me to come to an impromptu party at his house (his folks were, conveniently, out of town), I didn’t hesitate. There would be booze, I guessed—Jackson had a bit of a rep as a wild kid—and that was just fine with me. I was angry, I was fifteen, and I was going to drink beer. Somehow, in my hormone-addled, the world-is-mine-for-the-taking brain, that was the appropriate reaction.
I wore my best bad boy outfit to the party. I think it was a black t-shirt I stole from my sister, Rosalie, and a pair of ripped Levis. I had grown a lot in ninth grade. My parents loved to call me their “Frankenstein’s monster” because I grew so fast. I was now nearly six feet tall. My acne had started to give up the ghost, and the girls had started to notice me. I mean really notice me. I still didn’t think I was all that great to look at (come to think of it, I still don’t think so), but something had changed, because I suddenly had my pick of the girls in my class. Which, for a fifteen-year-old boy, was pretty nice. So, with my burgeoning self-confidence and my rebel anger, I headed off to Jackson’s party to do some serious damage (yeah, that’s what I called it!).
The party was just okay. Parties are like that, I guess: more hype than anything else. You think they’re going to be really great, but they’re just okay. The one thing that lived up to its billing was the amount of alcohol Jackson had been able to get his hands on.
I had tried beer before, but never more than just a sip of my dad’s. He figured it was okay to let me taste the stuff. My parents are a bit “new Age.” They were pretty convinced that if they talked about alcohol, sex and drugs, the subjects wouldn’t be taboo. We even had a copy of “The Joy of Sex” in the basement where Rosie and I could see it and read it, if we wanted to. And my folks were right, pretty much. I was pretty “square” and pretty responsible. Except that, that particular night, I was damn well going to get plastered. I had made a pact with myself. I deserved it.
I was probably on beer number four or five (best I can remember), when I wandered down to Jackson’s basement. Some of the other kids had said there was some “cool stuff” down there (stereo equipment and a projection TV), so I managed to wiggle out of some girl’s grasp and head down there by myself. I remember holding onto the railing on the steps—my head was a little fuzzy and I was having trouble walking in a straight line.
I ran my palm lovingly over the top of the TV. At home, we had a tiny, black and white model (my parents were the anti-TV, public broadcasting types who only watched “The News Hour” or “Masterpiece Theatre”), so this really was “cool” beyond words.
“You know that they’re working on new technology for liquid crystal display and plasma,” a voice from behind me said. I started and turned around to see Robbie grinning back at me. “Yeah. The wave of the future. This behemoth here,” —he walked over to the huge TV and patted it—“will be old tech soon.”
I’m sure my mouth was hanging open. “Cool,” I replied. I think that was about the only word that ever came out of my mouth when I was surprised by Robbie.
“Yeah. They’re talking about flat screens, so you can hang your TV on the wall.”
“Yeah. Really,” he answered.
I tried not to focus on his t-shirt—well, what was under the t-shirt, really—but it wasn’t easy. I kept remembering the dream, and wondering what his skin would feel like. Would it be soft, like the girls’ breasts I had felt up, or something different? Hard like mine?
“How yah doin’?” I mumbled, keenly aware that my pants were feeling a little tight in the crotch and thankful my t-shirt was long enough to cover me.
“I’m good,” he said. He flashed that smile at me, and my heart nearly jumped out of my chest. “You?”
“I’m good,” I said.
“Cool,” he said. And when he said “cool,” it really was. “So watcha up to this summer?” He sat down on one of the couches near the TV and leaned his head back against the pillows.
“Nothing much.” The understatement of the century. I was in denial, pure and simple.
“Oh,” he replied.
“You?” I asked.
“I go to camp in a few weeks. Right now, I’m working downtown at the zoo,” he announced. “I’m a docent.”
“A what?” I didn’t even try to guess at what a “docent” was in my inebriated state.
“I take people around, answer questions, tell them about the animals,” he explained.
All I could think about was how the dimples around his mouth looked really cute. I think I told myself that it was a “really gay” thought, but I was past caring at this point.
“That’s interesting,” I said. A brilliant observation.
I sat down next to him and I shifted so his knee touched mine. My pants got tighter, but I didn’t move away.
“I like you Jason,” he said. He didn’t seem at all embarrassed to say it, but I felt my face grow warm.
“Me, too,” I mumbled.
“Can I kiss you?” he asked.
I swallowed hard. “Sure,” I said. I remember wondering if it was really me answering him. It didn’t feel like me.
His lips tasted just the way I remembered: cinnamon again, and a taste I couldn’t place. A taste that was just “Robbie,” best I could tell. And this time, his tongue pressed inside my lips.
I knew what “French kissing” was. I’d done enough of it with the girls I dated. I was pretty good at it, too, thank you very much. But somehow, when his tongue touched mine, it was different. I remember moaning, and then feeling immediately embarrassed that I had made any noise at all (it wasn’t “cool,” after all). But Robbie seemed to like the noise, and his hands, which had been holding my face, now pulled my shoulders closer.
He smelled so good. I can’t even describe it, but I remember how I felt. Horny. And scared to death. The little part of me that wasn’t totally sloshed kept on telling me this was weird—that I wasn’t supposed to feel like this, not with another guy. I pulled away.
“You okay?” Robbie asked.
I could only nod.
He smiled again and any doubts I had were lost in a haze of alcohol and teenage hormones. This time, I was the one who kissed him. I ran my fingers through his long hair and my tongue probed his mouth. I felt him relax into the kiss and our tongues danced.
One of his hands slipped under my shirt, and I felt his fingers on my chest. I’m sure I must have felt my heart pound. I didn’t care. All I knew was that it all felt so good. All thoughts of “gay” and “weird” and whatever else my teenage brain might have obsessed about were replaced by the need to feel him, too.
The fabric of his well-worn t-shirt was soft, but his skin was softer still. And then, finally, the feel of his hard muscle beneath my fingers. I felt him inhale at my touch.
“Pinch my nipple,” he whispered.
I did, and was rewarded with a gasp. I played with the other one and he moaned this time, just like I had a few minutes before. It was the most incredible sound I had ever heard.
“Can I touch you?” he asked, after a few minutes.
I don’t remember what I said, but the next thing I knew, his hand was in my pants. I hadn’t even realized what he had meant, but it felt so damn good that I was hardly going to complain.
I had to struggle to keep focused on him. Part of me just wanted to lean back and let him do whatever he was doing to me and nothing else. But I had been with enough girls that I knew that would be selfish, so I continued to ghost my fingers over his chest and I began to kiss his neck.
“Feels so good,” I heard myself say. He only rubbed harder, until I felt that familiar, tantalizing tingle at the base of my spine and I had to stop myself from crying out.
For a few minutes, I just held on to him, too stunned to move. Then we moved apart and he smiled at me. I smiled back, then said, “I gotta go clean up.” I realize now it was pretty selfish of me. I mean, I should have reciprocated. But I was so stunned and—let’s face it—terrified of what had just happened that I took off up the stairs after I had zipped up my pants.
I guess I wiped myself off in the bathroom. What I remember now is looking at my face in the mirror and seeing the fear in my eyes. What the hell was I? What was wrong with me? What if my friends found out?
It was almost a half-hour later that I stumbled out of the small bathroom. One of the other kids had been waiting outside. “Had to puke,” I lied, trying to look really cool. The kid bought it, too. He looked utterly impressed.
The basement was empty when I got back downstairs. I looked around the house for Robbie, but somebody told me he’d left. I tried to call him about a week later, deciding that I needed to see him so I could “figure things out.” But when I called, his mother told me he’d already left for camp. I asked her to tell him I had called.
I never heard from Robbie after that. We left for Europe before he got back from camp. It was a copout, I know. He didn’t have email (neither did I, for that matter, although I could have used my dad’s work account), so the only way I could have contacted him at camp was by writing a letter. But every time I started the letter, I got stuck. What the hell was I supposed to say? “It felt really good but I’m not gay?” Or, “I want to go out with you?” Or, “I need time to figure things out?” Or, “I really like you?”
I stopped complaining about leaving for France. Somehow, in my teenage brain, I had convinced myself that leaving would make everything all right again. In France, I wouldn’t have those feelings. I’d go back to dating girls because, of course, it was just Robbie who made me feel these things. And so we left. In France, I was just “normal Jason Greene,” the American kid, the novelty.
Funny, how life catches up with you. It did with me, nearly twenty years later, in Paris. I had almost forgotten about Robbie—I filed the experience away in a dusty corner of my brain and tried to forget about it. I had been engaged (to a woman), I was straight, and I had a great career. That was me, Jason Greene. The guy any mother would be happy for her daughter to bring home. Successful lawyer, totally in control. Totally in control, that is, until I met Jules and heard his music.
You know what they say, that you can’t go back home? They were right. It just took me twenty years to realize it. That, and a broken relationship. And a beautiful Frenchman who didn’t buy my straight act for a minute. And Paris in winter.
I go back to the States in a few weeks, and I don’t know what will happen with me and Jules. But I think I know who I am. Or at least, I’m starting to figure it out.
I think about Robbie now and I wonder where he is. I wonder if he’s happy. I wonder if he ever thinks of me. Sometimes I’m tempted to find him on Facebook. But then I wonder what I would say to him. Funny, how a teenage kid really knew me, when I didn’t know myself. But, like I said, Robbie Jansen really did know everything. I’m convinced of it. At least, he knew everything that mattered.
I just wasn’t willing to listen.