My Fountain Pen

J. D. McClatchy
A stack of old issues of The Yale Review. Courtesy Pentagram
Courtesy Pentagram

I hesitate before starting with this particular detail. I want to begin with what for me was a simple fact but what to others may seem a tiresome metaphor. The psychiatrists didn’t invent this metaphor, but I suppose they helped popularize and therefore trivialize it. Psychiatrists have never done me any good, so I’ll hold my present hesitation against them as well. As I said, for me it was simply a fact: at about the same time I discovered my penis, I started writing with a fountain pen. It was the most sensual thing I had ever held or used. Just to touch it excited me. It was an Esterbrook.

The casing was of a ravenswing purple, with flattop ends and a budded clip. On the side was the silvered lever my fingernail would catch behind and slowly pull to draw the ink upward. I loved dipping it into the little glass mezzanine of ink inside the Skrip bottle, listening to the faint guttural sucking and then gently wiping off the sad excess with a tissue. Why did the whole ritual make the ink seem like blood—blue blood, at least? I would sometimes imagine the squattish ink bottle to be a disgraced but noble Roman senator in his tub. And the nib! Once filled, the capillaries of its ribbed, bee’s-body underbelly ached beneath the pewter fleur-de-lis. The airhole was a moist miniature of the ink bottle itself, the pen’s own private well, in love with the long slit of the nib’s bulbed tip. Down that slit, out from that tip poured the permanent black-and-blue of my early lessons.

I didn’t admire this pen as much as my mother’s Sheaffer, and I used often to take hers from her desk to rub my hand over it. Along with her schoolgirl toothmarks, there was the white mole and tooled clip on its cap, and a gold band around its lacquered barrel, itself an iridescent length of striations all black and eel-grass green, like the shadowy reeds among which a baby in a basket might be found. The nib was two tiers of fogged copper and iridium, the airhole was a tiny heart, and the point was sharper. My Esterbrook was what you would call a starter pen: blunt, cheap, dispensable. It cracked. It spattered. It leaked. It left an archipelago of small blots on my thumb and middle finger: the faraway islands of desire. If there was little to admire about it, there was everything to love.

Long before I was given that fountain pen, of course, I had learned to hide things. Childhood’s true polymorphous perversity, its constant source of both pleasure and power, is lying. But that pen helped me discover something better than the lie. Almost as soon as it was given to me, I learned to hide inside the pen. Or rather, the pen allowed me to learn the difference between hiding something and disguising something—that is to say, making it difficult but not impossible to see. Even when I knew the difference, I couldn’t always keep myself from confusing them.

Once for instance—this would have been about 1956, and I was eleven—I was hopelessly in love with my counselor at summer camp. His name was Red. It was Red I saw first each morning, shaking me awake, and Red’s drawled fireside stories to which I fell asleep each night. But it was naptime I liked best; through the eye I pretended was shut I gazed—like some chubby, crewcut, pimpled Psyche—on Red sleeping: his stubble, his sweatband, the nipple pressing through his T-shirt, the dream-drool on his chin. On a shelf over his bunk he had taped up a snapshot of his girlfriend, who stared down at him with a vacant smile that had none of my cunning, my ardor. When I asked for his address at summer’s end, I gave him a snapshot of myself. I didn’t suppose he’d replace hers with mine, but perhaps I too hoped to keep an eye on him, from inside a footlocker, say, or from between the pages of a psychology textbook.

Of course, language had been my religion all along, and my faith in its powers of salvation was only temporarily shaken.

He was on his way that August to enroll as a freshman at the University of Virginia. I returned to my parents’ house at the Jersey shore for the last few weeks before more grade school. I spent the time with my old friend the fountain pen, writing letters to Red that transfigured the dull gossip about the camp-cook or the impetigo scare at the beach into what I felt were witty, knowing parables of my own superiority and devotion. I never mentioned my family, that I even had a family, or anyone I wouldn’t cast aside for Red’s amusement. I waited for the reply that kept not coming. The thought of his reading my letters stoked my pretensions; his very silence only confirmed my sense of the power of words. It was then too I decided that, when I grew up and started publishing novels, my ugly Scottish name—so common, smelling of peat fires and wet sheep fleece—wouldn’t serve on the spine. I would adopt a pen name. I borrowed “Christopher Renquist” from the mailbox of a dentist down the street: it seemed a name with leather-bound editions in its bookcase and a pipe in its mouth. With my title page now readied, I was about to start on the novel itself when—after how long?—two letters arrived for me on the same day.

One was from the Ukrainian cook at the camp, full of the same warm misspelled gush she’d served up all summer. A fat, plain, backcountry girl whom I loved to spend time with, she was so easy to impress, to confide in, to tease. I had never guessed that my imagined charms would outrun my ability to control their effect. Casually picking up the letter I had deliberately left on the hall table for them to read, my parents smiled at their son’s precocious effect on women. I myself was of two minds, alternately flattered and saddened by my own talent to deceive.

The other letter was from Red. The silken writing paper had three strange blazer-blue symbols embossed at the top—his fraternity letters. It was brief, but it was typed. I postponed reading it as long as possible, no doubt to prolong a thrill as textured as the paper, as enigmatic as the Greek. Finally, I began. “Hi kid! Gee, it was sure great to hear from you, and all those funny stories. Hey, college life is really swell. You’ll see. Well, I’ve got to get back to the grind. So long for now.” I pored over it as years later I might a paragraph of Proust. I wanted to be alert to every nuance, every implication. Nothing would be lost on me. Almost at once, I had the letter by heart. Here were lines to be read between, sentiments suffused with feeling.

Still, my first impulse was to hide it. Hide it from my parents, yes, but also hide it for myself. I ran with the letter to the beach and, carefully calculating an imaginary line from my bedroom window to the gable of the lifeguard shack and beyond to a deserted stretch of sand, I buried it. As if to prove it truly a treasure I had laid up in my heart, I let a day go by before I snuck back to dig it up and read it again. The mental X that marked my spot was suddenly confused by new maps of seaweed and broken shell pointers. Was it three feet this way? Or two steps to the right? Had I forgotten about the night’s high tide? Let’s just leave me there, furiously digging, my eyes blind with tears.

Though I’d memorized what he’d written, I wanted the beloved’s writing. I had put my trust in fetishes, in secrets. I had hidden something—my feelings—that I ought only to have disguised. A little later I had learned the lesson better. The hole I had dug in the sand—the sand itself having run through the hourglass of several years—was not as dark as the confessional’s velvet gloom. If I felt at home there, it was because I was both reluctant believer and artful dodger. That is to say, I didn’t want to “sin,” but only to enjoy myself. A great part of the enjoyment was confessing the forbidden pleasures, because a great part of the pleasure lay in the subsequent fall from grace. This required that I find the dimmest priest. I got to know the sound of his particular mumble—or perhaps there was a slightly longer line in front of his box. But to pull the heavy curtain behind me and wait until his wooden slat slid open … that was the moment I most enjoyed. It was for that moment I had rehearsed my disguise.

The point was to confess my sin without actually naming it; to let the priest know enough to forgive me, but not enough to picture what I had actually been up to. “I have been impure in action twelve times.” That formula seemed sufficient: both bland and correct, evasive yet official. Sometimes it prompted the priest’s prying follow-up: “With yourself or with others?” But more often than not there was the unseen knowing nod, the sorry words of sympathetic disapproval, the routine vows and penances, the smug walk to the altar rail to kneel and ask forgiveness from a statue of some muscled martyr ecstatic with arrows. It was only when I had finally begun to sin in ways I couldn’t think how to disguise that I lost my faith in both religion and language.

Of course, language had been my religion all along, and my faith in its powers of salvation was only temporarily shaken. In the end, it was merely the heavy burden of the church’s authority that I had once and for all to shrug off. That was the easy part. So was Christopher Renquist’s work-in-progress. Language and a literary ambition come with their own deadweight attached: the pressure every buoyant syllable of English puts on the tongue, the gravity with which every past achievement charges the imagination. But there was something more immediate, more intimate, and much heavier.

I cannot remember a moment of my life when I didn’t know I was gay. My homosexuality was never a tendency, a phase, a discovery, a conversion, or a choice. Every instinct, every desire had from the start been directed that way. Like a drop of ink let fall into a glass of water, it was a small part of the whole, but imbued everything, was everywhere apparent. Still, at a certain time in your life, you become conscious of what you know. At about the same time I left the church I started being self-conscious about being gay. Can I make this generalization?—that a gay person is always more aware of his sexuality, and therefore may encounter it as a kind of fate, something apart from himself that also is himself. This in turn may lead him to hate or resent his sexuality, this possessive god within. For me, though, it was simply a fact, not a fate. It was a fact—like being a writer—that both signaled my difference from others and linked me to a secret band of brothers. And being conscious of this fact was less a problem than a challenge: how to act on it without being caught, how to live with it without being Known As Such. It’s no wonder my first short story dealt with a single man who writes stories under another name—not a pseudonym but an allonym, the borrowed name of an actual person. It was my age of disguising.

There comes a time, however, when you have to tell. Admitting things to oneself is often difficult, but that sort of understanding—however tortured with tea and sympathy it was in the old novels—is usually reached privately and undramatically. Telling one’s friends can be awkward, and occasionally frightens off one or two of them for good, but is rarely painful. The hardest disclosure—well, it was for me—is to one’s parents. More than sibling or confidant, friend or teacher, they represent both authority and security. Their hold on one derives its force from history and myth: we have spent more time with them—emotional, physical time—than with anyone else, and in our minds we have made them over into figures larger, more loving and more threatening, than any mere human could be. And if there is a thorny hedge of denial around any topic between parent and child, it is sex. Neither can imagine that the other even has a sex life, and to talk about it—my father had never told me the facts of life, for instance—is an unbridgeable embarrassment.

For years I kept my secret to myself. Even if I could figure out how to put it, I dreaded hurting them and was afraid to defy them. In one scenario it was fire and brimstone; in another, tears and cold shoulders. It took me the longest time to face up to it. In fact, not until I had settled into a happy relationship with another man—I was in my late twenties—did I have the courage to tell them the truth. Half of it was Dutch courage. I was home on a visit. My youngest sister was still living at home, and she and my parents and I had all downed a couple of stiff drinks before dinner. By dessert time there was an odd and entirely uncharacteristic soul-baring atmosphere around the table. Each of us had decided to tell the others something we’d never told before. My sister disclosed I no longer remember what, but at the moment it seemed an intimate, probably racy secret. When she was finished, I took another long slug of red wine and pushed back my chair.

“Okay, my turn now. I think it’s time I told you something I’ve wanted to tell you for a long time, something very important to me.”

I reached for my wineglass again. Over its rim I could see my mother’s eyes narrowing.

“Don’t bother,” she said crisply. “I know what you’re going to say.”

Of course she knew. What else could she have concluded, years ago, from all those afternoons I’d spend listening to Brahms in my room while my father took my sister to the football game, from my wanting to play house with the neighborhood girls when I was young and later insisting on late-night pool parties with the classmates in my all-boys prep school, from acting out Eve Arden roles in our living room, from the too glamorous dates I found for the proms—oh, from hundreds of things done and not done, felt and not felt. My parents could see as well as I the texture of my life, like a cobweb on the lawn that if touched anywhere trembles all over, so tender that it feels everything. But what was more important than even my “orientation” was that it was not to be spoken about. That is what my mother’s interruption meant: Whatever you do, don’t put it into words.

In one sense, we were collaborators. I preferred a manner-of-speaking. One hid the truth, the other disguised it. But wasn’t my sudden insistence on coming out meant to subvert all that? And wasn’t I making something more than a declaration? Wasn’t I saying that from now on I would be in charge of my own life? It seems a basic desire, but how rarely granted to anyone! I meant to take control of a situation whose hypocrisy had been festering too long. Even more, I meant to change the way all of us “knew” what was what.

Keeping a secret is one way of sustaining the illusion of control; spilling that secret is the desire to manipulate what another knows and feels. We were a family, not of secrets exactly, but of a fearful incuriosity. Neither of my parents knew the names of their great-grandparents, or had any interest in finding them out. Here I was, nearly thirty years old, and I had no idea what all my father’s business interests were or his income or his war record, what my mother’s major in college was or if she’d ever been in love with anyone else. It’s not just that we never discussed such things, we never even asked about them.

I was going to change all that with one simple sentence, as easily as unscrewing the cap from a pen. Not only was I going to force them to know about me, I was going to force them to talk about it. Not-speaking-about meant not-dealing-with. But putting it all into words I would move the matter to a higher plane than mere “knowing.” From my sleeve of disguise, now turned inside out, I would pull the words that revealed and redeemed rather than belied and protected.

I swallowed the wine. I paused for dramatic effect. I looked at each in turn, and said in a flat tone that combined soulful resignation and matter-of-fact pride, “I’m gay.” Let’s just leave me there at the table, tears of relief in my eyes, tears of a different sort in my parents’ eyes as I went on confessing my history, forcing them to listen, determined to reshape the facts of my life into a myth that would change them as well.

It wasn’t until a year or so later that I discovered the truth. Or rather, a larger truth than the one I’d told that night. It was during a casual telephone conversation with my father. He asked what I was working on. In fact, I was writing a poem and needed a detail. I asked him if he remembered Dr. Schreiber. He did, and then he told me his secret.

Years before—I was a young graduate student at Yale then—I’d found myself curled up on the floor of the dining room in the little house I rented, wedged into a corner, sobbing, staring at the telephone on the floor beside me, waiting for it to ring, waiting for I didn’t know who to call. A friend had happened by, easily sized up the situation, and suggested I check in with one of the psychiatrists at the University Health Service. Bursting out in tears, I’d picked up the phone and made an appointment.

In those days, a student was allowed ten free sessions with a staff psychiatrist, at the end of which you were either cured or referred elsewhere. I was assigned a young resident, and everything about him both prompted and confused my reason for being there. It was clear even to me that my motive in coming was to find some way of living with the fact that I was gay. Being gay was not itself the problem. Everything else was the problem—the pressures, the opprobrium, the future, the double life. I could manage being gay, but not the added burden of disguising it. And as soon as I walked into the consulting room, I knew there would be a new problem. My doctor was young, blond, handsome. His name was Will. He was, as it turned out, the older and better-looking brother of a movie actor who was starring as the heartthrob of that season’s blockbuster. I fell for him at once.

“What do you think the problem is?” It was the second time he’d asked that question, and it finally stirred me from my daydream. Since I couldn’t tell him that he was suddenly the problem, or stood in for what had always been the problem, I shrugged. I looked up his name in the faculty directory (his wife’s name in parentheses beside his) and the address of his apartment complex in the suburbs. I took to driving out there, parking in the lot, and gazing up at his balcony—or at the baby-bucket in the backseat of his car. I was obsessed. By the tenth session I was in tears again, begging him to keep me. He consulted his supervisors, agreed to continue seeing me, and started smoking a pipe. Week after week, I came clean with him or lied—whatever I thought would deepen our intimacy. The purpose of the sessions was lost in this feverish new business of disguising my feelings. He came home from work later and later. I knew because I was already parked, with the vizor down, in the far corner of his lot. I once saw him arguing with his wife on their balcony. Another time I spent the night: my car had stalled. The sessions, too, seemed stalled. Getting the story out was hard, but at last he opened up. He began to tell me about his domineering father, his jealousy of his brother, all the time a new baby takes. By now I was smoking the pipe. I almost hated myself for what I was doing, but I was fascinated by the curl his story, like pipe smoke, was taking around the currents of my sympathy. I asked if we could talk about it all outside the office. Perhaps dinner? He’d phone next week? The transference was complete.

By which I mean—the call came soon—I was transferred to another doctor. Poor Will, having confessed, was yanked off the case, and it was suggested by his superior that I see someone named Dr. Schreiber. Of course I was crushed. But also intrigued by the fuss I had caused—and by the graybeard sitting like a pasha under a canopy of diplomas, as “distinguished,” indeed as admirable, as my mother’s classy fountain pen. Schreiber: his very name, the German word for “writer,” betokened my ambition. We talked about “arrangements to be made,” his fee and my life, and agreed on a schedule for both. Then, for nearly a year, we plunged back into my past, back to … well, to a happy childhood. That is to say, my memories were largely happy ones.

Oh, but how I hate to disappoint. I would zero in on anything I thought might accuse my young self of betraying its desires. I would renounce anyone—my parents, Red, Will—in order to make a new conquest, this time not someone to love, but someone to emulate. Our weekly hour seemed so fluent and worldly wise, as poised as any poet’s stanza. The doctor’s increasing silence only brightened my chatter. Perhaps he knew what he was doing. The more I carried on and tried to please, the more I grew convinced that my sexuality wasn’t a choice—like pleasing—but a given, a fact, a discovery to be made of a treasure buried there from the start.

But even that wasn’t right exactly. What it lacked was a body. So I began to alternate the shrink with the disco, the therapy of someone’s Rush, the umpteenth round of “Smarty Pants,” the floor full of cavaliers in designer jeans, each partnered by the trance he’d turned himself on to, by the glamour of a type he’d turned himself into: dropout honcho, wasted dopehead, guardsman with advanced degrees. Let’s just leave me there, in the middle of the flickering dance floor, head thrown back to the singer’s wailing promise of “what you’ve been waiting for.”

The waiting seemed interminable. We’d been talking in circles for months. (It would take, by the way, another few years before I met the man whom I decided to spend the rest of my life with—a man now long since gone—and who soon gave me the courage to speak to my parents about being gay.) All that small talk while a fantasy undressed was getting nowhere. I told him so. He didn’t seem offended. “Rejection especially tells us what we want, now doesn’t it?” What did he mean? I was rejecting Schreiber, not the other way around. I walked out of his office for the last time one stifling August afternoon. The night before, the disco’s license had been revoked.

What I didn’t know then, didn’t know until that phone call to my father, is that after my first meeting with Dr. Schreiber he had telephoned my father. The deal had been that Yale would pay half his fee for our sessions and that I would pay the other half. I couldn’t afford it, and had called my father to ask if he’d cover me. I told him I needed to see a therapist. He didn’t ask why, and agreed at once to help. I told Schreiber to send his bill to me and my father would pay. That was that. But behind my back, and to ensure that his fee would be fully taken care of, the doctor called my father to verify the payment plan and told him why I had sought professional help in the first place. He told him about Will. He told him what I had been disguising all those years.

In the years that passed between those two phone calls to my father—first Schreiber’s and, years later, mine—he had never said a word, had borne his own disappointment or confusion in silence, had never confronted or accused or advised me. Only gradually did I realize how much I owed to my father’s loving forbearance. But what first struck me, when I found out about that doctor’s weasely call, was what a farce his betrayal now made of my own brave, over-rehearsed coming-out scene.

Whose secret, after all, had been revealed that night? What is the effect of telling someone a “secret” he already knows? And who precisely had been keeping the real secret all along? It seems to me now, so many years later (years even after my dear father’s death), that I had been both right and wrong that night. Right, I guess, to bring things to the surface, though all it really occasioned was months of the kind of tense confrontations that Family Discussions so often become. Emboldened by my own bravado, I overdid everything. I insisted that they not only know but accept, even applaud. They refused—silently; and the silence after a spoken revelation is even more maddening. I climbed onto one political hobbyhorse after another and charged the vanes of their resistance. And that too is how I went wrong: by my insistence on being right.

I look back on it ruefully. One’s life comes to seem less and less individual, and the crises and battles of the past, the anguish and assertiveness, tend to blur. I’m no longer young, and not yet old. I’m not attractive, not ill, not hip, not angry, not hopeful. I don’t dance. I don’t march. And I don’t have any secrets left. They are what I miss most. By making things impossible to overlook, coming out is the opposite of hiding. What I wanted, for the longest time after I forced the issue, was the opposite of disguising—which is, of course, nothing but another sort of disguise, something more subtle, more hesitant, more wistful, something with more soul and less willfulness.

It is while in such a mood that one takes up again an old school text. Late at night, in bed, with a book or my pen, I could trace other men’s secrets. I’d look there for echoes of my own secrets, so long vanished into the thin air of honesty. The great poet Horace, for instance, gave me one cue. At the height of his career he was the most elegant and admired poet in Rome, and the emperor Augustus Caesar commissioned from him a fourth collection of odes. The first poem in that book is addressed to Venus, the goddess of love, imploring her to leave him alone, to pay attention to the devotions of younger men. Horace was fifty—my own age as I write this—and he felt his erotic and romantic life was over. Yet the poem itself finds tears still left in the poet, like a buried secret, a hidden fountain. They were the same tears I suddenly found in my own eyes as I read the Latin—and I set about making a contemporary version of the old poem. I called it “Late Night Ode.”

It’s over, love. Look at me pushing fifty now,

  Hair like grave-grass growing in both ears,

The piles and boggy prostate, the crooked penis,

  The sour taste of each day’s first lie,

And that recurrent dream of years ago pulling

  A swaying bead chain of moonlight,

Of slipping between the cool sheets of dark

      Along a body like my own, but blameless.

What good’s my cut-glass conversation now,

      Now I’m so effortlessly vulgar and sad?

You get from life what you can shake from it?

      For me, it’s g and t’s all day and CNN.

Try the blond boychick lawyer, entry level

      At eighty grand, who pouts about the overtime,

Keeps Evian and a beeper at his locker in the gym,

      And hash in tinfoil under the office fern.

There’s your hound from heaven, with buccaneer

      Curls and perfumed war paint on his nipples.

His answering machine always has room for one more

      Slurred, embarrassed call from you-know-who.

Some nights I’ve laughed so hard the tears

      Won’t stop. Look at me now. Why now?

I long ago gave up pretending to believe

      Anyone’s memory will give as good as it gets.

So why these stubborn tears? And why do I dream

      Almost every night of holding you again,

Or at least of diving after you, my long-gone,

      Through the bruised unbalanced waves?

I think back now to all my long-gones. I think back to Red. And to poor Will. I think back on the men I’ve had secret crushes on and couldn’t say anything to. And I remember those I could tell, or sort of tell. And I dream about the three men whom I have loved most, love still, the men whom at the start I kept secret from others because they had so changed my life. Each of these men I have disguised in—or really, transformed into—poems in order to keep hold of them. Like some minor god in an old myth, I’ve changed them back into secrets. A poem needs disguises. It needs secrets. It thrives on the tension between what is said and not said; it prefers the oblique, the implied, the ironic, the suggestive; when it speaks, it wants you to lean forward a little to overhear; it wants you to understand things only years later.

There’s a stain I’ve just noticed here on the underside of the spread (I’m writing this in bed) that must be ink. It looks like a birthmark or puckered galaxy. I shouldn’t be using my fountain pen in bed at all. It’s old-fashioned, and messy to boot. How many times now have I fallen asleep still holding the thing and by morning found it had spilled its secrets all over? Yes, its secrets. That’s what my fountain pen holds. It has drunk up all the slow-dripping sadness, engorged itself with rapture and the grief that comes to. My pen is filled with a heady elixir compounded of salt water and sweet fire, of heartsblood and aftermath, of furtive arousals and a mirroring solitude, all blended to the tincture of time, a cloudless midnight blue. When I hold the nib to my nose, I can smell it. It’s the smell as well on my fingers and inside the genie bottles of ink on my nightstand. The smell of fresh bandages, wet leaves, quicksilver. It might as well be the smell of memory itself. What may have begun as a hidden guilt eventually surfaces as merely a memory, and we want to keep a few of them secret because in the end, memories seem to be our true, our only innocence.

J. D. McClatchy (1945–2018) was an acclaimed American poet and the editor of The Yale Review from 1991 until 2017.
Originally published:
April 1, 2018


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