Secrets, by Stephen Elliott

contributed by Stephen Elliott

I don’t know how old I was, maybe eleven, standing in front of the bathroom mirror, wearing my mother’s tights. My father banging on the door ferociously; issuing threats. Me stripping as quickly as I could, stuffing the tights into the basket, darting past as he entered.

In the 7th grade class there was a cinema in the back of my mind and a movie playing over and over again on a loop. In the movie Mrs. Scott told me to stay after class. She had me standing, arms tied above my head. Then, Mrs. Humphrey came into the room. She was the other black teacher. They kept me there, laughing. The movie had no ending, though several different openings.

That same year I was in the corner arcade. There was an influx of Korean families into our neighborhood. The girls, a year or two older, did their hair and wore makeup. It was a particular time and a particular place. The time was mid-80s. The place was Rogers Park, possibly the most ethnically diverse neighborhood in the country. Or so I’ve read. I imagined the Korean girl saying something mean. Her eyes were ringed with thick black liner drawn to an exaggerated point, her lips painted the color of cherries. And I remember the fantasy, that she pulled my hand from the console, pushed it down the front of her jeans. I can remember exactly what she looked like. Her body was like a young boy; but her face was a grown woman from somewhere far away.

I couldn’t put any of it together into a cohesive narrative. By the following fall I was homeless. It seems like all of my fantasies were put on hold for the next five years. I slept on rooftops and hallways all of eighth grade. And then the state took custody and I slept in mental hospitals and youth shelters and group homes. And then I went to college.

Where is the secret? It was all a secret for a time. I was thirty when I started writing about my obsessions, beginning the long process of trying to understand. If you don’t know yourself it’s easy to tell the truth. Honesty is bordered by self-knowledge. What did I want? A nice girl, from a good home, someone who loved her family and was loved in return. Someone who could replace the things I didn’t have.

What did I really want? All of that. And to be kept in a cage. Someone who enjoyed my body, and wanted to make me bleed. Someone beautiful, and exceedingly cruel, who loved me enough to pay attention to me even when she was ignoring me.

The thing about secrets is they often arrive too late. Like a guest at a party after everyone else has left.

In the weeks before my father passed away, when I was already 43 years old, I kept thinking about a video I had made with Colette where she walks me in a dog hood, flogs me, sticks me full of needles. It was a long scene, 4 hours, and the video served as an excuse, the same way money might have. This is all I want to do, I thought.

And then my father was dead. His third and final heart attack while walking out the door of his favorite deli, having just enjoyed a pastrami sandwich.

What did it mean? I wasn’t really sure. Why, when I masturbate, am I so often sad in my fantasies at the moment of orgasm. Do I want the things I fantasize about? Does the careful reader want to live in Narnia? In life, you come out of a closet, only to find another closet. Like the transvestite who only thinks about wearing a dress, and then going outside in a dress, and then going dancing in a dress. At which point he or she is ready to confront their parents.

What I mean is we’re always keeping something from ourselves. Coming out of the closet is a gift. Like a hostage rescued during a raid, the soldier telling them, keep moving no matter what. I believe in that.

I’ve been “out” for a long time, more than ten years anyway, but only now am I allowing my name on fetish photos. In erotic videos. I’ve yet to run out of secrets, as if the honest I was chasing was just a carrot on a stick, just in front of me even as I raced toward it.

The thing about my father. He would make fun of my desires after reading my books. He had his say in the comments section on Amazon. Now that he’s dead I imagine those comments will always be there. I certainly hope so. They’re as much a part of the books as the books themselves, maybe. I don’t know yet.

So now I had a new secret. I told a few people, tentatively, that my father had passed away. They said they were sorry or offered condolences. I didn’t want that. And when I gave this to Colette to publish, at first I changed my mind. I wasn’t concerned about all the naked and compromising pictures of me, but I wasn’t ready for the world to know my father had passed away.

Just say it, Colette said. No condolences.

My father and I didn’t have a “too late” moment. We tried to make up and failed. The last time I talked to him was five years ago and I knew then it would be the last. Now, perhaps, I can whittle away at the secrets in peace. But you can’t blame anyone else for keeping you in a box. There are any number of components to a secret, but only one hand that can turn the knob on the closet door.




photo: Stephen Elliott taken by Colette