Behind The Silver Screen
By Jerry Miller
The next morning I felt like a
huge Mac truck had run me over. Ben was still
with me in the morning. I was glad he was there. I'm sure I would have been a
complete disaster if he hadn't been, but I guess I was anyway.
I was pleased that no one in my family was been intrusive on my privacy. Ben and Jay had slept over before so it was no big deal that he was there. In the morning Ben was insistent on getting me up and out of the house.
Neither of us had to work that day and Ben had plans for us. After Ben and I got our showers and dressed, he took me to Miller's Grove, which had a public swimming pool next to their drive-in theatre. Apparently Ben had grabbed the swimming trunks out of my dresser while I was in the shower. I had always loved the slide. It had to be twenty feet tall.
I knew what Ben was doing. He was helping keep my mind off Mike. It didn't entirely succeed, but it helped. While Ben and I were sitting on the edge of the pool I bumped his foot with mine.
"What?" he said.
"Thank you for staying with me. I don't know how I would have coped if I had to be alone."
"Mike, you're my best friend. I think if I were in the same situation, you would have been there for me. Besides, Mike and I had a long talk before he left."
"Really," I said. "When was this and what was it about?"
"About two weeks ago. Mike didn't want you to be alone. He was really glad I found out about you two so you wouldn't be. He asked me to watch out for you for him because he knew you were going to take it really hard. I told him he didn't need to ask because I would have been there anyway. That I would watch
over you for both of us."
"Look, I saw how it hurt you with Jay. This was different and I knew this one would hurt."
Ben said he was hungry and took me to Burger Chef for a really cheap lunch. Then we headed to the Kon-Tiki Theater on Salem Avenue and saw "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid" which had been playing there for nearly a year. With its Polynesian décor the theater was actually beautiful. The restroom's replicated a garden with faucets that looked like shells. The theater walls and curtains were yellow, orange and brown strips, reminiscent of a tiger's skin.
The movie was good and it did take my mind off Mike and his leaving earlier today. Ben and I had dinner. He had been paying for everything today and I quizzed him about it. He said that today was all Mike's idea and that he had paid for everything. I felt Mike's love, even through Ben.
I went back to work downtown the next day. I felt lonely without him there. It was strange that I could still feel him near me the whole time that day. The locker room seemed oddly cold. I changed quietly with Danny, a new usher who had replaced Mike. When he left, I found Mike's tux, which was still hanging in the locker. I took it out and put it on. It wasn't the same as if he was wearing it, but I could imagine him holding me. His smell was in it.
Sex was the last thing on my mind as the weeks went on without him. I never felt the need to masturbate. I worked at both theaters and hung out with Ben.
I got my first letter from Mike. Boot camp was at Parris Island, South Carolina, and said it was hard. We had worked out a code before he left and in his letter he told me he loved me. I read and re-read it. I wrote him back telling him that Ben was keeping his promise and that I appreciated what he had done.
Sinclair Community College was put on hold since I told Mike I would wait for him to come back. I worked as many hours as I could to put money away for school.
I started to get used to Mike's being gone. It wasn't a feeling I liked, but it was there. Ben never wavered in his responsibilities towards me.
Another letter came and Mike said he was finished with boot camp after nearly twelve weeks and was being shipped out. He said he got my letter and wanted more of them. I wrote back and promised I would write more often. In the next three weeks I sent him about a dozen letters, even cards I found that he might
find amusing. I had showed Ben the cards and he agreed that they were fun.
I wondered about Ben's not having a girlfriend. But I figured if he were gay he would've told me before now. All he did was work and hang with me. I felt guilty for the poor guy, but I was glad he was always there for me.
The months following Mike's departure I worked as many hours as I could get at both theaters. I dreaded the idea that the months and the years would go ever so slowly waiting on Mike. Ben and I even talked about getting an apartment together. I wanted a car but I needed to have Ben help me with that one.
As usual each letter from Mike cheered me up. He said he was finally there heading into the jungles. Though his words never expressed his fear, I felt it anyway. He complained about the food and not getting to take many showers. He said that the smell there was nauseating. When he felt overwhelmed with all the
tensions and worry, he would think of me and calm down. He wrote that he wanted to study business when he got back he wrote and hoped that I had figured out what I wanted to do.
I had had a life-long desire to teach American History at the high school level. I wasn't all that sure anymore.
It was the tenth day of October, it was usually hot and I had to work downtown. Ben came by and picked me up to take me to work. During the summer, he had started taking hours there too, which I was happy about. On the way, I mailed a letter to Mike since I had gotten one the day before. I felt good today. The heat of the sun went through me like a comforting blanket.
Ben dropped me off so he could park the car. Something was odd, though as everyone glanced at me and then looked away. I went on down to the locker room and changed. Since I was to work box office, I knocked on the door to the check out office and Eleanor let me in. On the desk was the metal folder with the reports in it and the cash box. I picked them up. Eleanor had sat down at the
desk. Her mood seemed somber.
"I have something to tell you and it isn't going to be easy."
"What? Am I fired or something?"
"No, nothing like that."
Eleanor looked away from me, at the wall actually.
"Mike's mother called me this morning."
Hmm. That seemed odd.
"She called to tell me that Mike was killed in action last week."
I stood there letting her words enter my mind. I kept playing the words over and over again. When they finally sank in and I realized what they meant, I vaguely remember letting go of the cash box. It crashed against the floor throwing quarters everywhere, but I was oblivious to that as I ran frantically out the
office, down the aisle nearly knocking Ben down in the process.
In my mind, my surroundings had changed. As I ran I saw myself in a tunnel, round cobblestone running its distance. I saw a white light at the end. I ran for it. I could make out a figure, dark against the light. He raised his right arm in salute. The light suddenly consumed the image of the figure. The end of the tunnel was getting closer, fearing something unknown I reached out to stop myself, but my hands couldn't reach the sides of the walls. I ran out of the tunnel into space, falling, screaming into a dark abyss.
When I opened my eyes, I was behind the screen, hanging on to a rope pulley, near the same spot Mike and I liked to be.
The sound of explosions from the war movie surrounded me. I could hear screams. I thought they were mine as I rejected the knowledge that Mike was dead. Mike was dead. "No." I screamed over and over again. I suddenly felt someone pass next to me and stand in front of me. I could see the projection light shower the
person with flickers of light and colors. I thought it was Mike. I balled my fists and started pounding on his chest and shoulders.
"You promised, damn it, you promised."
I kept hitting and screaming at him. I felt his arms trying to go encircle me. I hit him and hit him. I felt my arms crushed against his chest. He was holding me tight and I felt myself go limp against him. Lowering himself to his knees, he let me slump against him.
"MIKE. MIKE. MIKE. MIKE." I wailed. It was all I could think about.
I heard a voice, a soft, familiar voice that kept repeating the same thing. My name.
"Michael. Michael. It's Ben."
Ben was with me. As I loosened my fists he let me put my arms around him. I cried, no actually bawled harder than at any time in my life.
"Ben, he's dead. Mike's dead," I said.
"I know, Michael. I know."
Ben held me for as long as it took I guess. I had no concept of time. I felt hands on my shoulders. It was Eleanor.
"Take him home, Ben," she said.
"NO! I don't want to go home," I said.
"Okay," Ben said, "Let's go to the locker room."
I wasn't sure about that either as Ben lifted me up and moved me towards the stairway.
"NO! I can't go down there." I said turning away.
Ben led me to the auditorium exit and out the exit door. In the alley I sat down on the steps. Ben was right there with me. We sat for what seemed forever. It had gotten dark and the streetlights had illuminated the alley. I was deaf to the sounds of the traffic just a few feet away.
"Michael. Lets go buddy."
I let Ben lead me to his car and he put me in it. With me still in my tux, it must have looked weird. I didn't care. Ben got in the car and just sat behind the wheel. I heard him crying, I turned to him and took him in my arms.
"I'm sorry, Michael. I wanted to be strong for you," he said. "It hurts me too."
"Oh Ben. I knew it. I knew he wasn't coming back."
The gearshift was poking me in the belly, but I ignored it.
"I lost him. Oh God, I've lost him," I said.
Time was no importance as we sat there together, grieving for a lost friend and lover.
Sitting here in the locker room nearly five years later, I tried to reconcile myself to that day and the days that followed. This was the first time I had entered the theater. I never returned to work at the Loew's Downtown Theater since the day I learned he had died. I just couldn't bring myself to be there. Looking around the room, a room that had not changed since those days here with Mike, I finally felt strong. I had grieved for Mike. I grieved for a long time.
As I stood before the mirror, I truly entertained thoughts of taking it with me. I looked around for the last time and walked out.
I climbed the stairs and walked across the stage to the empty screen frame and placed my hand on it. I stood where I had stood so many times with Mike. It still amazes me to this day that it was this spot and not the locker room that I went to when I was told about Mike. I moved away and descended the steps in
front of the stage. I turned and sat down in a front row seat and gazed at the empty stage.
I heard her approach. Taking the seat next to mine, she took my hand in hers and kissed my cheek.
Ben again stayed with me, never leaving my side. The funeral would take place as soon as the body returned home. I was a complete basket case the whole time. I told my parents that Mike was my best friend and described what had happened to him. They were gracious about it, or at least my mother was. Ben told his parents that he would be staying with me awhile and since he was eighteen too, it was no big deal.
I went back to work at the Northtown. Mr. Denton was nice about letting me stay there.
The day of the viewing having arrived, Ben took me to the funeral home. It was at 6:00, but we arrived around seven to avoid a crowd.
"You go on, Mike. I'll be in shortly," Ben said.
I walked through the door. There was a changeable letter sign that spelled out Mike's name. I entered the room containing the coffin. It was flag covered, but I wanted to see him. I needed to see him. I moved slowly towards the coffin. I sat down in one of the chairs immediately in front of it. From their quiet voices and soft whispers, I could hear that people were still around.
I knew I was in the same room as Mike, but it felt so different. I knew that inside that box was the guy I fell in love with, the guy I needed right here with me now. Even though I had Ben with me, I was still facing this alone in my own way.
I felt someone sit next to me. The voices had gone so I assumed it was Ben. A hand touched my knee and I knew it wasn't Ben. I looked up to see a very nice looking woman wearing a black dress.
"Hello," she said.
"Hello," I said.
"Did you know my Michael?" she asked.
It was Mike's mother I assumed.
"Yes. I did."
"My Michael didn't have very many friends. You're the only ones that showed up tonight."
"I'm sorry. Our friend Ben is here too."
"I know. He's sitting in the back."
I turned around and saw Ben was there.
"It's okay. I understand. Were you and Michael close?" she asked.
"I think so," I said, trying not to reveal too much.
"I know, Mike."
With concern and caution I asked, "You do?"
"Yes, that last night Michael was home with me we had a long talk."
"Relax. It's okay."
"Yes. He loved you so much. He told me. You gave him love. That's what's important to me."
Mike's mother reached up and wiped the tears off my face with a hanky.
"Then you must know what he meant to me," I said.
"I know what you meant to him. I can appreciate what he meant to you."
I lowered my head. I just couldn't stop crying. It hurt so much. Her arm went around me and I fell against her. She held me in my grief.
"Ben. That's his name, isn't it?"
"He seems like a nice boy. We talked for a little bit before I came to you. He was Mike's friend too. He's worried about you."
"Friends like that are hard to come by," she said.
"We have a lot to talk about young man, it seems we have some notes to compare about Mike."
"Yes," I said.
Sitting there quietly for a few moments with her, I realized that I didn't hear voices any longer. I glanced up at the casket.
"I want to see him."
"I do too."
"Is he in such bad shape that it had to be a closed casket?" I asked.
"I don't know. His father arranged all of this. Like some medal of honor he needed for himself. The trophy son who died for his country, that gave him something more for his ego. He's gone celebrating with an old Marine buddy." She said with disgust.
She took my hand and together we went over to the coffin. We looked around. I waived Ben to come over to us. Together we rolled the flag back and slowly raised the lid. There he was in his military uniform. There no physical markings to suggest that he had been killed. He looked like he was asleep. I reached out to his hands. They were cold and stiff. His mother placed her hand over ours.
"Never forget his love for you, Michael," she said to me.
How could I ever forget his love for me, not now, not ever.
Before we closed the lid, I took a rose stem from a vase and placed it inside his fingers. After I placed my class ring on his left ring finger, we closed the lid and re-draped the flag. It seemed to be too much for me as I started crying again. Ben put his arm around and we followed Mike's mother out of the chapel.
The end of Chapter Seven.