Douglas Messerli




In 1962, as a sophomore, I performed in a high school production in the small town of Marion, Iowa, of the great American comedy You Can’t Take It with You by Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman. Even though this was just my second role, I knew from the way I was cast that I was destined to play small character parts: the year before I had played a child, Henry—the only black face to every appear on our high school stage—in Finian’s Rainbow; later, the same year as the Hart and Kaufman comedy I appeared as Ado Annie’s father in Oklahoma!; the next year I was a policeman in Arsenic and Old Lace.

This time round I actually had a few comic lines: I was Mr. De Penna, who, if I remember correctly, had one day paid a visit to the half-crazed Sycamore family and had never left. With the husband of the house, Paul, I supposedly built firecrackers in the basement and, from time to time—when she wasn’t busy writing novels—modeled for the historical paintings of Paul’s wife, Penny. Her father, who refused to pay taxes, ruled over the household that also included Paul and Penny’s would-be ballet dancer daughter, Essie and her husband Ed, an apprentice printer and xylophone player. Essie’s ballet teacher, who daily showed up just before dinner, rounded out the insanity. Alice, the couple’s other daughter, was evidently the only one not stricken by the family eccentricities; at curtain’s rise, however, she had just fallen in love with her boss’s son, and guess who was coming to dinner—the wealthy and quite pompous Kirbys, of course. Disaster was clearly in the air!

For me, a little disaster struck in a very different manner. During most of the rehearsals my parents were away in Europe, and my own slightly madcap grandmother was caring for us. I don’t believe that the lack of parental authority, however, was responsible for the lecture given me by the director of the play. I had been giggling, quite loudly, backstage, and, after having been warned several times, had simply been unable to contain myself. I was at the age—how to put it nicely—of first sexual awareness, and a couple of other sophomores and I had been, well, “goosing” each other.

But perhaps the most exciting aspect of that evening for me, and, I am certain played a part in my rather bizarre behavior, was the very fact that I was acting as friend and peer in my small role as Mr. De Penna with one of the most beautiful males in the entire high school, Doug Reed, playing Paul. Doug was that year’s football captain and soon-to-be-named King of the Prom! I have written elsewhere that I had gone through those years as an utter innocent, without any knowledge of my homosexuality. Given this recounting, however, I have now come to realize that I was a master of sublimation. For I knew, deep within, that I had an absolute crush on him. I recall staring at his picture over and over in the schoolbook annual at year’s end. I had recently seen him, moreover, in all his glory! After having performed miserably in freshman athletics, I was dubbed by the coach—probably to please my superintendent, ex-coach father—as the track and field “mascot,” which meant that I followed the team on their various tours, helping to clean up the lockers. I’d had to hide my sudden erection upon seeing this splendid being in the raw.

That night, he must obviously have witnessed my sexual gropings. Now, as rehearsal came to an end, he asked if I wanted a ride home. Today, especially to adults, that may seem like a common enough question. But, back then, as a child in 1962, it represented an earth-shattering event. The very thought that a senior could care enough about a sophomore to see him home, or that one of the most popular individuals in the entire school system would express such kindness to one of the least popular of figures was simply unthinkable. I sensed, even then, that there was something sexual in the air. Yes, I said, I would very much like that. My heart was nearly exploding with the excitement.

Now you must also know that, while I had just been accused of bad behavior, I was the most obedient of young men; I was what you would call a very “good kid.” We had just driven a few blocks when Doug took out a cigarette. My eyes grew large with horror, as all of my father’s moral imperatives kicked in. “I have to get out of the car,” I stuttered. “If you’re going to smoke, I have to get out of the car.” And off I ran into the night. Was I in tears? I don’t recall.


Years later I told this story, with wistful regret, to my friend Sam Eisenstein. “Well, it’s a good thing you did what you did; you behaved in the only way you knew to protect yourself,” observed Sam, “because if anything had happened, you wouldn’t have been able to handle it.” I knew he was right. I didn’t have sex, with a male (or for that matter with a female), until I was a sophomore in college! But even as I spoke there as a sense of having somehow made a wrong decision, of having missed out on an important event in my life.

While I was attending college, I saw Doug once or twice on my visits home at the local library. Each time he was solicitous, polite, even interested in what I was doing in college. I wanted to suggest we have a drink, but was overwhelmed by his presence.

Another time, visiting my parents, I asked my brother, who was now the hometown football coach and had become friends with Doug’s cousin Porter, my own age, what had become of Doug. My father, interrupting, muttered something about him being a bum. “Why is that?” I asked. “Oh, he just is,” he responded. “He was dishonorably discharged from the military or something like that.” Nobody seemed to know any details, but my suspicious were further aroused. I never saw him again, but I have always wondered, was he truly gay? How terribly lonely he must have been.


In 1989, more out of curiosity than any real caring or interest, I decided to attend my 25 th class reunion. I had not really liked my classmates, and, in fact, had not even graduated with them, since I had spent by senior year abroad. One finds oneself from time to time, however, stupidly sentimental: I accepted the invitation—besides it was time for another family visit.

I had been thin for much of my youth, had had something close to a ballet dancer’s physique, if not a dancer’s agility (which I came to realize studying for a few months at the Joffrey company in New York ). But time had changed things, and I was now somewhat overweight. I had just dyed by graying hair back to its natural blond. “It’s the best I can do,” I said to the mirror. I heard my parents in the other room, changing clothes as well. “What are you doing?” I called into their bedroom. “Getting ready,” they innocently replied. “Do you mean you’re going too?” “We were invited!” I was flabbergasted. All those years of my childhood, I had attended every school event with my parents in tow—it was, after all, part of my father’s administrative responsibilities. And now, at the age of forty-one, it was happening all over again! “Please stay home,” I begged. Off we all three went!

Everyone has stories about class reunions, save those who are very wise and do not attend. For me, the evening was one of the worst of my life. Despite my added weight, I was the thinnest male in attendance. The first person to come up to me had been the center of the football team during the tortuous freshman year when my father insisted I go out for the game. I played center for the second-string team (there were only two teams), and each time I hiked the ball, this large bison of a being immediately descended upon me. “Remember when I used to jump you every time you hiked the ball?” he asked me right off. Yes, I recalled; but why had he? After all these years? Had it been that special in his life? “Every time you hiked the ball,” he laughed, “you lifted your head.” Oh?

The second person to come over had been the brightest girl in our class, a rather intelligent woman I had always thought. This evening, she served as the hostess to the event, speaking in a manner that can only be described as a kind of bimbo blather; her husband could be found in the men’s room telling stories about her stupidity.

I quickly found the bar and began busily drinking when suddenly dinner was announced. The bar closed! Alcohol, evidently, was not to be imbibed during the activity of eating. Milk and iced tea—neither of which I can tolerate—were served in its stead. Groups quickly captured the various tables. The farm girls sat, where they always had, at the fringes. In the very center of the room the group which had seem themselves as the “smart set”—made up of the 1964 Prom King and Queen, as well as two other women from the same year who, after the Prom King’s divorce from the Queen, had also married him—hunkered together as if not a day had passed. The choral director—that very same drama coach who’d lectured me that special evening long ago—invited me to sing. “No,” I quickly blushed, “I no longer sing.” I sat with the losers. As each member of the room recounted his or her current vocation, it quickly became apparent that the vast majority of my classmates had become insurance adjusters. I was ready to escape.

Then, suddenly, across from me, there was Porter Reed. I’d always liked Porter; he wasn’t as handsome as his elder cousin, but there was a family resemblance, and, like his cousin, there was a sort of gentle kindness in his voice. I swallowed a piece of grisly roast, and went straight to the heart: “Porter, can you tell me what has become of your cousin Doug?”

Porter paled. “Oh, you haven’t heard.”

“Heard what?”

“Well, you know Doug as very athletic; he always kept his body lean. He’d become something of an alcoholic and had begun to gain a little weight. One day he took a rifle to his head and shot it off!”

I stood. Across the way were the only two humans I could recognize in the room—my parents. “We should go,” I said.

Los Angeles, September 2004
Reprinted from The New Review of Literature, II, no. 2 (April 2005).