“Tribes” by Eric Wilson

by Oct 15, 2020Foglifter Features, Volume Five

Eric Wilson’s work has appeared in New England Review, Carve, Literary Hub, Fifth Wednesday Journal, Massachusetts Review, Chelsea Station, Carolina Quarterly, Scoundrel Time and Epoch.  He’s been in the Pushcart Prize and O. Henry Prize Stories anthologies.  On July 24, 2013, he was able to marry his partner Ted Engelbart.

I. Who We Are in L.A.

Most people have never heard of Vanuatu, let alone been there. It’s an island nation in the South Pacific roughly halfway between Australia and Fiji. Up until their independence in 1980, the country was known as the New Hebrides.

Vanuatu consists of 83 islands, with a population of some 300,000 people. Yet there are so many tribes that over 100 different indigenous languages are still actively spoken. Vanuatu has a greater number of languages per capita than anywhere else in the world.

We had thought these islands would be remote and secluded, a good place to escape from everyday life. But as it turned out, we found ourselves in the thick of things. On the main island of Efate, virtually everyone spoke some English. People noticed us and it was clear that they were openly curious about us. And in particular how we were related to each other. They’re a tribal society and they wanted to know. Is that your son? We hadn’t taken this into account when we booked the trip.

Is that my son? I should explain who he is. Who we are. Ted is 60 and I’m 80, but at the time of our blind date he was twenty-one; at age forty-two, I was twice his age. He answered my ad in the pink pages of that biweekly newspaper with personals ads, assuming that “academic” meant a fellow student, not a teacher. And so he came to meet me at my house that evening.

When I opened my front door I saw an auburn-haired young man, quite tall but hunching down a bit as if being tall were a transgression. Ted had dressed up—pleated slacks, necktie under his sweater, Harris tweed jacket. It struck me that to him our blind date was like a job interview. I didn’t know this was his first attempt to meet a guy. He was touchingly tentative, as if there were rules of the game and he didn’t know them. I was amused; I was the one who should have been anxious. Luckily I didn’t look to be in my early 40s, but I was clearly older than he was. I was fearful that he might ask my age. He didn’t.

Ted, an art student, had brought his portfolio with him. Discreetly he had left it in the trunk of his old Chevy Nova, in case it wouldn’t interest me. But I was interested and so he brought it in. A precise pen-and-ink line drawing of his room. (A very tidy room.) A charcoal sketch of an old woman sitting on a bench in Pershing Square. A black-and-white photograph of trees in fog that should have been a cliché but wasn’t. For two hours we sat there on my corduroy couch, knees almost touching, looking at and discussing his work.

Surely he sensed I was no longer a student, but we skirted the topic. Then out of the blue he asked me what was the first popular song I remembered. I had to laugh. For some reason the only song that immediately sprang to mind was “How Much Is That Doggie in the Window.” Ted was incredulous. “The one with the waggly tail,” I added. And the sound-track added barks. Arf arf, arf arf, I barked softly. The first popular song he remembered was “Puff the Magic Dragon.” Again we laughed. We represented different eras, but we were on the same page.

Ted spent the night and moved in after a few weeks. Thirty-eight years later he’s still here. I was proud enough of Ted that I finally came out to my parents, taking him home to meet them. My father hit it off with Ted immediately. But my mother was a different story. At first she seemed more taken aback by his height than his age. But ultimately it was the matter of his gender that upset her. And continued to upset her. She didn’t want people to know. Things were never quite the same between us after that; a sense of shame hung in the air.

But Ted belonged to a younger generation; he had always been open about who he was. At art school he wasn’t the only one. He went on to become Creative Director at a publishing company, where he was not the only employee with a same-sex partner. I could accompany him to picnics and Christmas parties with no questions asked.

The longer Ted and I have been a couple the less we have to conceal. The only thing that might stand out, perhaps, is that we’re always together. In California we don’t worry much about what people assume. People who know us, know. Others don’t much care. By now my gait has grown unsteady, so I hold onto his arm as we walk. Our way of holding hands.

II. Who I Was Before Ted

When I was ten, my family was invited to spend Thanksgiving with my father’s cousin Margaret and her teenage son Dale. When we were safely back home, my mother started laughing that Dale was going to art school in Los Angeles; he would soon be leaving for New York to become a window decorator. For weeks after the holiday she would mock him, flouncing around with a limp wrist and saying, “Isn’t that delightful!” — a word that Dale was partial to.

Even though at age ten I was pre-sexual, I already knew that I was like Dale, even though I didn’t understand exactly what it was that he and I were. And not wanting to appear suspect, I kept my wrists stiff, and for the rest of my life I have never used the word “delightful.” Especially around my mother. I even cringe when I hear other men use the word. “Be careful,” I want to warn them. “You know what they’ll think!”

In 1955, when I was 16, I was selected to be a summer exchange student to Berlin. It was the first time I would be away from home. A few weeks before my departure, my father suggested we take a long walk. Along the way, without looking at me, he casually explained what “pansies” were. But then I might already know, he said, since I might have run across the term in an Agatha Christie novel. He wanted me to know about them. They were out there, and that was something I needed to be watchful of.

All my high school and Stanford years were in the 1950s. Back then no one was gay—openly. I never even heard the term used. It wasn’t something people thought about. Nevertheless, I tried to blend in, to not appear “obvious,” in case this might just occur to someone. At Stanford there were dates and kisses, but I wasn’t having sex with girls at the frat house or in cars parked out in the Cactus Garden. Would this appear suspicious to anyone? This was my constant fear. I wondered who else was blending in. How many young people coming of age remained in hiding? How many young people coming of age married because being themselves seemed impossible?

As I began my professional life, I discovered here, too, it could be impossible to be one’s self. My first teaching assignment, in 1965, was in the German Department at UCLA. The professors were all male. Women held the ranks of lecturers, instructors or adjuncts, and as such didn’t attend our meetings. Thus these meetings turned out to be like a boys’ club. Or a locker room. Banter ran along these lines: “And there was this girl in the front row—in this mini-skirt—and it just kept inching higher and higher up her thighs, and she had these incredible thighs, and I thought—oh God!” “You know that tall redhead? I don’t think she’s ever worn a bra!” And so among my colleagues I kept a low profile.

One day a young professor in the German Department of another university came to UCLA to give a lecture. At our next faculty meeting, shortly after his visit, my colleagues laughed and sniggered, saying he had to be gay, since he was “too pretty.”

After I left teaching in 1973, I became a freelance translator and interpreter. I worked out of my house and had no colleagues. The J. Paul Getty Trust found me as a translator through a recommendation from the Swedish Consulate. They hired me over the phone and proceeded to messenger over to me fistfuls of articles from the foreign press to be translated. I never met any of their staff in person. But then this was true of most of the agencies I worked for, some in far-flung places such as New York, Chicago, Boston, Houston, Hawaii and London. Virtually no one ever saw me.

In addition to translating and writing—both journalism and fiction—in 1978 I also began teaching workshops in the UCLA Extension Writers Program. These were night classes, mainly for adults, and our workshops were held in seminar rooms with the students sitting around a table.

One summer I was to teach my usual intermediate fiction writing workshop. When the 15 students went around the table introducing themselves the first night, against all odds it turned out that three young men—all of them college students taking the summer off—were openly gay. They all said they planned to submit gay-oriented stories for critiquing and hoped no one in the group would be offended.

When the first “gay” story was read, the class loved it. In fact, one of the non-gay men suggested that the sex scene could be expanded a bit. He wanted to know what they did. I admired and envied these young men, who were seemingly so carefree and accepted. I debated whether or not to come out to the class, to let them know that I, too, was a member of the tribe. But ultimately I backed out. I didn’t want to be known as the Gay Instructor.

III. Who We Are on a Small Island

Now, at age 80, although I have balance issues, for the most part I’m in my comfort zone. I go happily unnoticed and attract little attention. But here in Vanuatu, it turns out, I am watched. Ted and I immediately learn that Vanuatu is a close-knit tribal society; everyone knows who everyone else is. And they want to know who you are. Any time you’re with them long enough to allow for small talk, they start to probe. Taxis are lurching vans that we simply hop onto as they pass by. It will be at least a fifteen-minute ride, so before our destination they start trying to ferret out what our relationship is.

But we don’t dare tell them. No men on Vanuatu are a couple; no member of a tribe is like that. This was hinted at in all the anthropology and guidebooks we read.

So who are we? I let the drivers suggest who we are and then follow their lead. Son, nephew, cousin, neighbor, caregiver, it doesn’t really matter. They don’t ask any further—they’re usually too busy negotiating the crater-sized potholes that dot all the roads.

But then came the day we left the main island of Efate and visited one of Vanuatu’s 83 small islands, a half- hour’s motorboat ride away. We were to be met by Chief George and spend a day there with him and his tribe. Flyers in our hotel lobby indicated that some of the islanders were, among other religions, Mormons, Seventh-Day Adventists and Jehovah’s Witnesses. Many tribal people had listened to the missionaries. Back home in California I had a Mormon friend who confessed to me that he went to gay bars “just to see what goes on.” But he didn’t want to risk being shunned by the Mormon community. He remained celibate for as long as I knew him.

At any rate, regardless of the denomination, religion had a strong role to play in Vanuatu. We felt we couldn’t arrive in their midst as heathens, men who were a couple.

Chief George welcomed our group of six with a traditional call of his conch, discreet dark shorts under his grass skirt matching his dark Melanesian skin. Immediately his entourage presented us with the dances that are de rigueur in any tribe. A woman at our hotel let it slip that on the main island, a good number of the grass-skirted “dancers” are students in need of extra spending money. But this was the real thing. This was a genuine small island and a genuine small tribe.

Without much ado, everyone else in the group, including Ted, headed off for a few hours of snorkeling. I hadn’t snorkeled since high school, and now I was being mindful of my newly-implanted pacemaker. So I watched them disappear and found a place to sit in the shade of a thatched hut. I was enjoying the view when Chief George joined me to start making the lunch. The snorkelers would be hungry when they returned.

The chief had put away his grass skirt. He was now wearing a blue polo shirt with the starburst Vanuatu Telecom logo, as well as bright red shorts. But from his conversation he was still every bit The Chief. In detail, he filled me in on his tribe’s history and their customs. His father had been the tribal chief before him and his son would be tribal chief after him. Attesting to what the books had led us to believe, he confirmed that their life was ordered and stable.

Chief George set about slicing up papaya, watermelon, tiny bananas and juicy pomelos, interspersing the slices with red hibiscus flowers. In Vanuatu very few things that occur in public take place without red hibiscus flowers. I had nowhere else to hang out now. The chief was soon joined by his wife—barefoot in her long brightly-colorful dress—as they prepared our lunch. So is that your son? the chief asked. Oh oh, I thought.

On Efate, whenever the question was asked, it was something that could easily be glossed over. But now the chief and I were expected to keep each other company as he went on to prepare lunch. Tribal people are extravagantly hospitable, and I was now in his dutiful care. I couldn’t bring myself to say that Ted was my son. I don’t know why, but that struck me as a betrayal of the chief’s trust. But at the same time, I didn’t feel I could tell him the truth, either. I had nowhere to hide.

Nephew, I told him, blurting it out on the spot. My sister’s son. My nephew. The chief looked at me with interest, awaiting more. It was suddenly like improv—the audience throws you an opening line and you need to respond immediately. Make it all up, on the spot. All eyes are on you.

I had a vague idea of what I might say if pressed, but I hadn’t fleshed it out. Now was show time; the chief was waiting for more. My wife died recently, I suggested. It was heartbreaking, the pain that only grew worse over time. Her efforts to mask her suffering were almost unbearable. I sat there by her bedside, day after day, unable to offer any solace. As I told the story of my “wife,” suddenly it was my 95-year-old father I saw dying in his hospital bed, the morphine drip slowly increasing. I tried to fight back tears. The chief looked somber; his wife looked stricken.

The trip to Vanuatu had been my nephew’s idea, I continued. Ted, too, was now alone. His recent divorce had devastated him. And so it was Ted who came up with the idea of our travel, to somewhere off the beaten track, where we could forget everything that troubled us. In short, Ted had insisted we share a trip instead of our solitude. He had lifted us both up from our sorrows.

At this point I was starting to regret my deception. I hadn’t meant to get so carried away; the storyteller in me had kicked in. But after so many years, my confrontation with the chief ran deeper than just the immediate context. I realized I had still not managed to shake the shame that my sexuality entailed when I was growing up back in the 1950s. My confronting him was like confronting my mother all over again. I could never forget her reaction to my news.

The chief and his wife looked at me with compassion. We all smiled and then he went back to arranging rows of red hibiscus. I felt drained. I had never imagined that relaxing on a remote island in the South Pacific could be so arduous. But at least I had done my duty. I had kept my tribe from colliding with theirs.

Relieved, I thought that was it. But on the motorboat ride back to Efate, my cheeks were burning. It wasn’t so much a matter of whether the chief accepted me. It was a matter of whether I accepted me. And that was–and still is—very hard.

— August 2019


— END —

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