Ramblings, thoughts and comments on life, love and society from a Bostonian.

"No amount of fire or freshness can challenge what a man will store up in his ghostly heart. -- F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby

Friday, March 1, 2013

Stone Chapel

"Stone Chapel" 2002 

I once broke into the chapel after lights out with Colin.  We won our crew race that afternoon against Westmoreland and St. Georges’s and Colin felt the need to celebrate.   The stone chapel’s old lock sparked rust as bright as flint in the dim light from the iron lampposts circling The Common. When I pushed a ballpoint pen into the skeleton key hole, the knob gave a snap and finally opened on its own.  We ducked through the foyer, trying to keep our backs under the windowsills.  My hands fumbled through the air feeling for chairs and statues.  My heart beat in my ears drowning out sounds that I feared we made.  We were intruders in the palace.  I found the door to the balcony staircase with the green and blue light that scarcely filtered through the oblong stain glass. The oak planks creaked and then stiffened under my feet.  A great effort for a little celebration of a crew race did not seem too foolish at the time. 

We were rebellious in search of an adrenaline rush.  Colin always searched for ways to break Chamberlain Academy’s rigid rules without getting caught.  I don’t think he wanted to break rules because they were unjust; he did it for the mere fun of misbehaving.  We broke into the school’s chapel to smoke cigarettes and split a six-pack of beer, which Colin purchased with his brother’s expired license. We, found our own fun while confined for four years on a boarding school campus.

Colin woke me up in the darkness of our dorm room a few hours after lights out, which even on a Saturday night was only eleven-thirty, with some new idea:

“Let’s throw a keg party in the woods,” he said shaking me awake.
“What?  Are you crazy? It’s like two a.m..”

“No, it’ll be great.  We’ll get a keg and stash it in the woods on the other side of the lake, or somewhere in the boathouse the night before.  Then we’ll tell only a few people about it.  I’ll ask some of the girls in Mayfair Hall to come.”

“How are you going to get senior girls to come?  Anyway, we’ll get caught throwing a party, even if it is in the woods.”  Many of Colin’s ideas never made it past the walls of our dorm room.  The thrill in Colin’s whisper seemed to make his plans more exciting than actually taking place.  

While Colin preferred to plan social events where breaking the Honor Code would always take place, I tended to agree to his ideas that only included the two of us.  Perhaps I felt that including several Chamberlain students would ensure a meeting with the Dean of Students Monday morning.  More likely I wanted Colin to myself.  He was my best friend.  I felt some sort of attachment that I could not explain at the time.  Knots and nerves would nestle into my stomach each time we’d say good-bye for summer or winter break.  The feel of our hug before he left for the airport would remain on my arms throughout the break.  I used to tell myself that I liked having him around all the time because I never had a brother. 

We were like brothers, I told myself. We were Bradford and Holbrook to each other, before we became Todd Bradford and Colin Holbrook to the world after we graduated.  We were assigned to be roommates freshman year and the next morning Colin convinced me to join crew.  I helped him write his English papers, and he’d call me Gene from A Separate Peace, who chose to manage the crew team because he was not athletic.  He tried to name himself Phinny, even though my strength and endurance could always out row him.  A friendship or comradery formed in those first months on the water and in Stanton Hall.  We’d lie awake each night and stare at the cracks in the ceilings, which deepened with the shadows cast from the lampposts outside in The Common.  Colin would ramble off stories about girls, or plans to attend Harvard or Yale even though his GPA would disagree.   I would agree with his GPA and without warning Colin would leap to my side of the room and claim he would ‘kick my ass.’  I felt his hot breath seep into my neck as he tried to pin my arms against the pillows and mattress.  His heat rubbed against my chest and sweat drops on his face brushed against mine stinging warmth as it penetrated my skin.  I never lost any of our wrestling matches and soon I found myself on top of him.  He laughed in defeat.  To my fear and embarrassment, I got hard between my legs and I pushed off him, hoping he did not discover my excitement against his leg.  After he joked that he let me win, we would fall asleep in my bed.  He would fall asleep.  I would lie awake staring into the blurred light of our room.  His head lay close to my face.  I could smell him.  A sweet inoxicating smell of shampoo and earth.  The piercing strands of his brown hair in my face intoxicated my senses.  It was Colin. This was our friendship or brotherhood, or whatever we chose to call it.

After the Westmoreland/ St. George’s race while carrying the oblong green racing shells back into the boathouse, Colin turned his sun burnt head over his shoulder and squinted in the May sun, and then cracked a half smile.  I knew that smirk and knew it could only mean one thing.

“Let’s get beer tonight.”


“After dinner we’ll walk to the General Store. I’ve got Trip’s ID.”  The general store was the only store in Chamberlain, Massachusetts and fortunately seemed to sell everything.  The creaking wood structure furnished Chamberlain students with soda, candy, sandwiches, and, for the few with fake ID’s, beer for generations.

“What if a teacher walks in to buy something?  Let’s get a senior to drive us to Stop-n-Shop in Harcourt.”

Gene, stop being a pussy.  We’ll go while everyone’s in the dining hall.”  I walked down the wood planks toward the boathouse away from the lake, blinking in the fading sun.  The water, ripe with waterlogged leaves from the previous fall, stretched its black skin under the sun’s soft fiery reflection. 

“Come on.  Just you and me.  If we get a senior to drive us, he’ll want our beer or threaten to rat us out.”  Just you and me.  He always knew what to say. 

“Alright,” I agreed.

“Let’s break into the chapel.  We’ve never done that yet.”  The ashen stone chapel rose at our right side as we walked up the path to The Common.  With the excitement of a child, he jumped around me throwing his gym bag in the air and catching it while tossing up ideas concerning picking locks with pens and paper clips.   

 At the balcony, we continued up the narrow spiral staircase to the bell tower.  I ran my fingers along the curving wood, feeling each groove between the rotted panels to guide me to each next step.  Colin kept one hand on my lower back pushing me along.  His heat seeped through my T-shirt, penetrating into me while slowing steaming my skin.  I tried not to think about his warmth, and continued to find the next step. 

The dust in the air was thicker than the blackness before my face, it reminded me of the smell of old library books I read for summer reading; the stench of decaying paper.  My lungs drowned with each step and I hoped the trap door was near.  Just don’t cough, I told myself.  My mind drifted back to Colin’s warm hand.  Just don’t cough; we cannot get caught.  I heard about two seniors, a few years before, who were caught having sex in the chapel.  The gothic ceiling acoustics reverberated against a neighboring academic building where a teacher, correcting history term papers late into the evening, decided to investigate a noise.  She was expelled and thought of as the ‘slut who gave great head before God.’  He was expelled, but was applauded as a stud as his parents drove him home to Connecticut. 

When I stopped at the hatch to the bell tower, Colin fell into me.  His prickly face dug into my back, pushing up my T-shirt, rubbing warm sandpaper against my skin.  The beer bottles in his back pack clinked together echoing through out the staircase.

“Quiet.” I whispered.

“I didn’t say anything.”  Colin said, speaking much louder than a whisper.

“We’re going to get fucking caught.” 

“Jesus, Bradford, just push open the hatch.  No one’s going to catch us.  It’s one in the morning.”  

Colin said, twisting around me to push out the hatch.  The rotted wood plank opened quietly considering its hinges were probably as ancient as the chapel.   Winthrop Memorial Chapel was probably the only building that had not been renovated in the school’s two centuries, aside from the advent of electricity and oil heating.  Chamberlain became non-denominational in the seventies, leaving the chapel with the sole use of School Meeting.  The cross hanging before the altar was removed years ago and replaced with the school’s seal, encircled with Chamberlain’s veritas, vita, agnitio motto.  The crosses carved into the pews’ siding gave way to brass plates remembering dead alumni who bequeathed a small fortune to the Academy.  Even the stained glass images of Christ were removed to portray Chamberlain students with vacant expressions sitting in classrooms or playing sports with the academic buildings and dormitories ideally placed behind them.  The headmaster’s speeches in school meetings never captivated my attention.  I would scan the students seated in pews with their advisors, who all shared the glazed looks of their stained glass counterparts.

The May air streamed through my hair, washing out the stagnant dust that seeped into our clothes on the way up.  The breeze drenched me with splashes of cool air.  Crouching, I looked out at the brick dormitories along the edge of The Common.  I thought I would feel tall looking down on campus, but the shadowed buildings reached boldly upward around The Common and remained superior.  If I could have stood in the four-foot tall bell tower, it might have made a difference in my challenge against the buildings.  I strained see to Stanton Hall, which stood directly across The Common.  All of Stanton’s lights were out and the grey light from the nearest lamppost barely reached the dorm’s front steps.  Colin and I would live in Morrow Hall next year, the much-desired senior boys dorm that was attached to the dining hall.  Morrow arched five floors up and stretched window after window across with an ominous ghost head of Atlas looking downward at his students, almost disapprovingly, as if he would drop on us if we cheated on a test, or so the legend goes.  The great hall stood on the left bank of The Common towering over all the other dorms and the surrounding academic buildings.

“Bradford.”  Colin whispered.  “Do you want a beer or what?”  He stretched his hand toward me dangling a beer from side to side.  I remained crouching as I turned to him, keeping clear of the three brass bells that hung above us.  The bell tower was barely large enough for one person.

“Holbrook, give me a cigarette,” I asked.  I do not think I really knew how to smoke a cigarette, but I asked for one anyway.  I did not inhale until I was a senior, and I would bite down on the filter when I lit a cigarette until Colin told me to rest it between my lips.  

As if in prayer or some matrimonial ceremony, we knelt facing each other listening to the hum of the old exposed wires that ran up to trigger the bells for each hour’s toll.  I heard the crackle from his cigarette each time he inhaled, and watched the smoke filter from the silhouette of his face.  We did not speak in fear that our voices would echo off the crimson buildings and then reach the white painted clapboard faculty houses that encircled campus.  Colin ran his hand along the floor searching for a second beer and shifted until his knees touched mine.  The hair on his knees entangled with mine and once again I could feel his warmth.  Suddenly, I had to concentrate on breathing.  I didn’t want to move.  My heart flapped against my T-shirt quicker than the flags strapped to the nearby Wharton Hall’s many spires.  Shit, could he hear it beating?  Colin tilted his head allowing the distant light to catch his eyes.  I could see his face now.  His eyes, green as our school color, stared through me as if they were mine.  I could not move.  I watched him.  The shadows fell onto his hard cheekbones exposing a childhood chicken pox scar that filled with a shadow.  The brown sprouts of hair on his chin curved slightly into his cleft.  His white T-shirt enlarged each time he filled his chest with air.

 “Todd.” He said my first name in an exhalation, or more like a breeze pushing out of his torso.  I could not remember the last time he said it or the next time he would say it.  I could not say anything.  I just looked at him.  My eyes fixed on his until I felt his hand slide onto my knee.  I looked down at his hand, damp with sweat, against my leg and I tilted my head to see his face.  He looked down at his hand, which began to slide closer toward my hip, pausing briefly for a response.  I did not pull away.  The air chilled my arms and I quivered in fear that I could break whatever might happen if I moved.  My knees burned and ached as I realized that we had not moved for quite some time.  My feet, as if paralyzed or numb, lay flat against the floor under me.  I would not be able to get up and I did not want to.

I wanted Colin.  I wanted to kiss him.  I wanted him to kiss me.  His hand, still rested on my thigh, moved even closer to me and he watched me for a reaction.  I did not move.  The heat from his hand seeped warmth through my shorts while something burned from my stomach.  An ache, unlike the pins and needles in my legs, wrapped itself around my stomach and spread down between my legs.  Why was I having these feelings for him?  It was not the brotherly friendship that I told myself countless times before.  I wanted Colin.  I wanted to kiss him.  I wanted him to kiss me.

With that silent command, Colin obeyed and lunged forward to kiss me.  His rough lips pulled at mine while his stubble scratched my face.  His tongue found the inside of my mouth with force and whipped its way around mine, unlike a soft kiss of a girl.  I was not kissing a girl.  I was kissing Colin.  I told myself it was wrong and would suffer the consequences later, but I could not think about that. I inhaled Colin’s inebriating clean smell of earth and with a gasp of air, I knelt upward to hold him.  At any moment, he would pull away in disgust and accuse me of advancing him, but Colin squeezed my shoulder and pressed against my mouth even harder.   He pulled me into him tighter and I ran my fingers against the muscle grooves of his back.  His T-shirt clung to his chest with sweat while the hair on his bare goose-bumped arms stood on end.  I couldn’t believe what was happening.  I knew it was wrong, but it felt so right.  It made sense.  Everything made sense for one moment.  One brief moment. I did not want this to end.

The brick buildings must have glared upward toward the bell tower in quiet contemplation.  The black leaves quivered on their tree limbs as the Massachusetts May night passed toward an unsettling silent dawn.  The lampposts cast their light as high as they could, but could not reach us up high and safe in the belfry.  I knew love between boys on campus occurred, but it was only discussed as crude jokes in locker rooms and on the playing field.  Unlike the lovers in the chapel, no guys were ever caught together while I was at Chamberlain.  Rumors and accusations led to shower room beatings and ostracism.  God forbid a guy got a sudden hard on in the shower room, even if he wasn’t thinking about his teammate.  The forbidden idea of the two of us shouted fears into my head of what tomorrow might bring, but simultaneously I became aroused even more at our unholy act and kissed Colin harder.  Our embrace united us as one and I tried not to think anymore.

An electric tick struck in my ears breaking the silence in the air while thoughts still yelled in my mind.  Without a moment passing, the bells above clanged their hollowed chime twice.  We scuffled in the belfry grabbing beer bottles, empty and full, and shoved them into Colin’s backpack.  The bells alarmed the heathen intruders in the holy palace.  Colin kept his eyes downward as he zipped up the bag and pulled open the wooden trap door. 

I watched his back carefully as we hurried out of the chapel, waiting for a word, a smile, or any signal of reassurance.  I knew we could not talk, but I needed him to look at me and acknowledge what happened up there. I needed to know it was real.  I needed to know if it was wrong, then we were wrong together.  I couldn’t believe I kissed my best friend.  I kissed a boy.  I kissed Colin.  Suddenly, nothing seemed to make sense again.  In a daze, I followed the crunch of Colin’s shoes through the pungent cut grass in The Common towards Stanton Hall overwhelming my senses.  I couldn’t see straight and I knew it was not the half beer I drank in the belfry.  Colin seemed farther away as he began to walk quicker.  His stone movement toward the dorm solidified the coldness around me and I shivered in the solitude under the night sky.  In the shadows, I watched him walk unaware of the lampposts that choked out the night.

I could not understand him.  I should have stopped him.  I did not know this was the beginning of long confusing years at Chamberlain.  That night I only wanted to pull over my blanket and hold in the warmth that would not stay.  I never slept that night.  I could only watch him sleep.   

The Romantic Egotist - An Introduction

I received my undergraduate degree in American Literature over a decade ago.  Falling in love with the writings of Fitzgerald, Hawthorne and other American greats, I made my own attempts at writing fiction and poetry. With the romantic idealism ingrained in me from my small liberal arts enclave in the middle-of-nowhere-southeastern-Massachusetts, Wheaton College, I thought I'd become the next Great American Author of my generation.  However after the epic grandeur of it all faded, reality set in and the need to pay rent forced writing to take a backseat in life.

Fitzgerald's writings still haunt and excite me to this day; perhaps because I re-read The Great Gatsby at least every two years since I first read it my junior year at Wilbraham & Monson Academy and re-visit This Side of Paradise nearly as often.  Passages float through my mind like the "floating rounds of cocktails [that] permeate the garden" at Gatsby's parties.

The romantic ideals and egotism of Amory Blaine, Fitzgerald's semi-autobiographical "Romantic Egotist" continues to roll through my mind giving me pause, thought and inspiration.  The romantic egotist believes in the romantic idea of the self-creating individual - of a self-authorizing, artistic egotism.  With the rise of social media, I believe we are all romantic egotists.  Blogging, tweeting, and publishing our life story through Facebook's timeline, we are self-fashioning our own brand identity.  I think Fitzgerald would be proud.