“Shy” by Felice Picano

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He didn’t meet his Hollywood idol until after the accident – the one that made the actor nearly unrecognizable. Regardless, something brought them together that night before they would part ways forever.

About the Author
Felice Picano is the author of thirty-five books of poetry, fiction, memoirs, nonfiction, and plays. His work is translated into many languages. Several titles were national and international bestsellers, and four plays have been produced. In the U.S., he is considered a founder of modern gay literature along with the other members of the path breaking Violet Quill Club of the 1970’s and 1980’s. Internationally, he is considered an eminent Post-Modernist. Picano was involved in early GLBT media , writing and editing at The Advocate, Out, Christopher Street, and The New York Native. Scores of his essays, stories and reviews have also appeared in major media around the U.S. In 1977, Picano founded the first all gay publishing house, The SeaHorse Press, and then joined two friends in 1981 to form The Gay Presses of New York. Its first title was Harvey Fierstein’s Torch Song Trilogy and it subsequently dominated the independent gay book scene for over fifteen years publishing almost 75 titles by men and women across the country and from France and the United Kingdom. Picano’s first novel was a finalist for the PEN/Hemingway Award in 1975. Since then he’s been nominated for and/or won dozens of literary awards in the U.S. Britain, France and Germany, including a Lambda Literary Foundation Pioneer Award in 2009. He was also one of OUT Magazine’s 100 Important Gay People of that year. At the 2004 Tennessee Williams Festival, Felice received the Violet Quill Life Achievement Award, and in 2011 he was named a West Hollywood Rainbow Lifetime Award recipient, and a California State Legislature honoree. The New York Times listed Picano’s history/memoir of early GLBT Culture, Art & Sex in Greenwich Village as one of its Notable Books of 2007. A half dozen of his books have remained continually in print since their publication four decades ago. Including such gay classics as The Lure, Late in the Season, Ambidextrous and Like People in History. Picano’s most recent work includes True Stories Too: People and Places From My Past, 20th Century Unlimited:Two Novellas and the memoir, Nights at Rizzoli. His notebooks, papers, and archives up to 1990 can be found at The Beinecke Library at Yale University and in the Fales Collection in the Bobst Library at New York University. Picano was openly gay and “out” before the Stonewall Riots and was associated with the early gay political movement. Felice has appeared in Jeffrey Schwarz’s film Activist: the Life and Times of Vito Russo; Mark Mullian’s film, Stonewall: The Movement and Jim Tushinki’s film. I Always Said Yes; The Many Lives of Wakefield Poole. Faced with the threat of what would become the AIDS Epidemic, in 1980, Picano joined ten other men in forming GMHC, The Gay Men’s Health Crisis, the first and still largest organization to combat the disease and succour the stricken. Those experiences led him to co-author The New Joy of Gay Sex (1992) and The Joy of Gay Sex, 3rd Edition (2003), with the eminent psychiatrist, Dr. Charles Silverstein, addressing all aspects of gay men’s mental and physical health issues. They traveled around the U.S. and then around the world during the 1990’s bringing much needed attention to nascent AIDS organizations, especially in Australia, Japan, Israel, and Iceland. That book is now in its 21st edition, translated into seventeen languages including Hebrew, Slovenian and Taiwanese. Picano was the first openly gay novelist to do a book tour in the United States in 1979, and has also toured the British Isles, Australia, France and Germany as a gay author. Picano was a co-founder of the Vito Russo/Audre Lorde Library at the Gay and Lesbian Center of New York City, a founding member of the Publishing Triangle in Manhattan and is still on the board of the Ferro-Grumley Awards and the Rainbow Book Awards to further LBGT Literature. He has been an adjunct professor of literature at Antioch University, Los Angeles, and an advisory board member of that school’s Colors Youth counseling program, as well as of various LGBT libraries and centers around the country including The Quatrefoil Library in Minneapolis, and SAGE USA in New York. Picano now teaches a Writer’s Workshop at the West Hollywood Library and in 2017 that will expand with a separate Screen and Playwriting Writer’s Workshop. He has appeared as a reader, speaker, or panelist at the West Hollywood Book Fair, The Rainbow Book Fair in New York, The Los Angeles Times Book Festival, The Tennessee Williams Festival, Saint & Sinners Festival, and The South Carolina Book Festival as well as various Out-Rites and university writers readers conferences. In Canada he was the first and only non-native to join two Wilde About Sappho fund raising book tours. Picano blogs on topics pertaining to the LGBT community on the HuffingtonPost.com—Gay Voices and has reviewed at OutinPrint.com. Recent stories, essays, and reviews are up free to be read at www.felicepicano.net. More information can be found in Contemporary Authors, The Cambridge History of 20th Century American Literature and on Wikipedia.com.

Everyone in New York City over thirty years old has a story about the time he went to bed with someone famous. It’s almost obligatory listening. Dinner parties are suddenly hushed of dishing and chatter and laughter as the anecdote is launched. Afterwards, a few polite or even curious questions are asked, shoulders shrugged, the fact that “everyone is gay” sure to be brought up, dropped, and the conversation turns back to more fruitful topics: upcoming parties, past ones, private scandals, how and so-and-so is fooling himself over what’s-his-name’s caring.

Of course everyone isn’t gay, despite appearances, nor are the famous more prone to such escapades than say, cost-systems analysts. As a result, we’ve heard the same tired old names, the boring anecdotes over and over again. Nevertheless we do listen, not only politely, but attentively too. For the life of someone well- known to touch our humdrum, ordinary lives is unusual enough; to have it touch as closely as sex—no matter how briefly—rubs a little glitter on us. There are other reasons for listening. I’m sure you could roll off a list of them like taffy. All of the rationalizations.

Here’s another one: a new one. The story of a blowjob I got from Robertson Webb.

Of course that isn’t his real name. Though he is now passed on, I still disguise the name. He was one of my gods while he lived, and the best gods’ names are never spoken by real devotees.

Like a deity, he swept down on me unawares. Like a god, he kept his real identity hidden from me until he couldn’t anymore, and his real self hidden from me altogether.

I’d just come out of an Ingmar Bergman double feature in an Upper East Side cinema. To most people that would suggest that I was suicidally depressed when I first met him. Such was not the case.

I’d had the day off from work. The Manhattan air was swept of the ozone yellow that had gathered all humid day. I was twenty-three years old, naïve as a raccoon, and been profoundly moved by the two symbolical films I’d watched, smoking Gitanes in the mezzanine: elated to understand their tortuous messages, to shake my head like an aged Sophocles and say yes. God is a spider that must be crushed, indeed. Death is always playing a game with us. Etcetera.

Furthermore, I was only out a year. All those unruly sex hormones that had lain dormant since puberty as I had dutifully necked and carried on with various socially acceptable young women were now unleashed in a flood of pheromones surrounding me in a thick though invisible ooze that sent local animals into fits of leg-humping and older queens into swoons of leering. This, despite the fact that while possibly cute, big-eyed and curly-haired, I was pudgy, a lousy dresser, perennially sloppy and rather snotty. I was horny. That’s all that mattered.

Webb picked up the scent and, beagle-like, followed it to its source—myself, in the cinema lobby, waiting for the still dribbling rain to let up enough so I could walk the four blocks to the Lexington Avenue subway. There, I would descend to the bowels of Manhattan—Avenue B and Tenth Street to my three-room railroad flat in a sixth-floor walkup with sagging parquet living room, chipped, over-painted French doors to the bedroom furniture I’d picked up on throwaway Thursdays: all for thirty-eight fifty a month. Ah, youth!

Besides the sex smell, Webb was also attracted to a happy young face. I don’t doubt it, knowing how screwed up his own life was since his lover’s death, that disfiguring car wreck, the pills, the operations, the fits… I needn’t go on: you know the story. Yet I’m sure what he (and probably I too, for that matter) took for content, was no more than intellectual self-satisfaction, slightly tinged with Bergmanian metaphysics, I was always influenced by a film I’d just seen. I still am.

Blissed out, I walked past my idol without seeing him, past the darkened marquee, past the flower shop, the liquor store, the card emporium, I skipped a puddle, crossed the avenue and was off

Webb caught up with me at the next corner. He later mentioned he’d said hello and gotten no answer.

Of course not. I wasn’t there. I was mentally traversing the summery fens of Hejosfoord, suffering in expert backlighting with a spectacularly filmed reed forest around me that tittered nervously on the sound track: symbolical of something or other I just can’t now recall. Webb almost gave up that moment. Happily, he also caught a glimpse of my dungaree inseam, which after all was his main concern, and it so whetted his appetite for confirmation, he followed for another two blocks. Now alongside me, now behind me, like a tugboat guiding a huge, daffily steered ocean liner out to sea. Oblivious, I floated on

But not for long. I was walking under some largish trees (largish for Manhattan that is) when a vagrant breeze struck from behind, shaking a tiny shower of iced water off the leaves, down the back of my neck. Rudely awakened from my cinematographed Swedish dreams, I dashed out of the treacherous cover—right into Webb.

That’s when I noticed the dark umbrella, and the handsome vaguely familiar face.

Confused by his nearness, his surprise, and his assumption that we were to have conversation if not further contact, I stopped. I apologized for my swerve and crash. I also felt a strange hesitation in my headlong rush to the subway.

He didn’t say anything immediately. I got the impression he wanted to.

He certainly looked at me as though he wanted to, but didn’t know what to say. That was also my first intimation that he was shy.

Baffled, I continued walking toward the subway again, but I adjusted my pace to his, allowing him to join me.

Conversation was limited and difficult. Any opening line he might have been squirreling up to hit me with had been utterly destroyed by how we had met. Meanwhile, I wondered what he meant by walking along with me. I tried sizing him up. He wore no hat although he looked as though he ought to be wearing one. I didn’t know many men like that. He was handsome, but not with the fresh ethnic handsomeness of most young men I was attracted to. His looks were a designed handsomeness: designed to be seen, to be taken for something else, for anything but street-corner pick-ups. Then too, he was familiar. Not that familiar. But familiar enough that I wasn’t certain if he had once taught in a high school I had visited on a track meet, or whether he was a regular habitué of one of the sawdust-strewn bars I infrequently patronized, or if he simply resembled someone I used to know and hadn’t seen in years

He wore a beautifully cut dark topcoat, well pressed slacks and stubby-toed brown shoes. All elegant, although slightly worn too. And he was in his forties—meaning old to me then—and so less easy to get along with. Then too, he was a stranger, a distinctly strange stranger. Bear in mind those symbol-drenched spiders and chessmen—sex had been the last thing on my mind that evening.

We walked another block. The subway hove into sight. His shyness became almost painful as he tried to engage me in talk. I was full of Bergman, but all he seemed to want to know was where I lived.

When I said downtown, he stopped, folded the umbrella (needlessly open since we met) and asked if I would go home with him.

If I was unsure of his intentions before, I was really unsettled now. I’ve given and gotten this line enough times to know it can be said in a variety of ways: seductively, secretly, openly, boyishly (no matter the age), slimily. Webb asked it in a new way—the way a loyal but fatally wounded co-star in a Grade-B Western begs the hero to go on, please, to save himself, but to leave that revolver behind—and one bullet. He said it with that famous, inexpressibly well-documented, 35-millimeter shyness,

I missed the allusion and dithered. I always dither when I can’t make up my mind. Nowadays of course, after meeting a thousand men on a hundred thousand street corners, I either say “no” or “let’s go.” Then I had the usual fears of the inexperienced; I would be drugged and forced to do repulsive things; I’d be tied up and ravaged by a dozen of his friends and several large dogs; I’d be strangled and left to molder in a cellar.

Today my worries at such times are realistic: whether the man has a penchant for, say, eating tuna salad out of armpits, or bites when he’s not supposed to or will bore me so much I’ll fall asleep. Real, live, justified fears.

Shyly, Webb rephrased his offer. He asked if I would like a drink. I said I was still trying to make up my mind.

“Just one,” he said and, made instantly distraught by his boldness, he modified that to, “Only if you want to.”

Let me add here that the situation was further complicated by my awareness that I suddenly had a trouser-bulging hard-on from the merest whisper of a suggestion of sex, one that I was certain was treacherously apparent to him.

But he was wavering, which I didn’t like. Really, very shy. So I said why not.

He collected himself, reopened the umbrella (still not needed), swung it behind his shoulder, and started off in the direction we’d just come from, walking so fast I had to ask him to slow down. I had the vague feeling he was trying to lose me.

In the middle of the next block, he turned suddenly into a lower level, cast-iron-grilled doorway and motioned me in.

The small, dark townhouse hallway smelled of silence. I know now from his official posthumous biography that at last one other person lived there: his male nurse, companion, shoulder to cry on, disciplinarian. But he must have been out or sleeping because we were very hush-hush in the corridor. Someone might have been dying one floor above.

Webb hung up his coat and my jacket and the umbrella (now closed) on an old wooden contraption. Slowly, because he wouldn’t flick on more than a tiny night-light bulb, he stumblingly led me to a doorway. A bedroom.

I wouldn’t go in. He offered me a drink. I would have a drink.

He mumbled a barely comprehensible apology, led me back through the dark hallway to an equally small room, lighted only by two fluted red-shaded lamps like those in forties nightclub movies where beautiful women are wittily outfoxing each other over men you seldom see and who seldom look worth the effort once you do see them. He pointed to a tufted leather sofa and disappeared upstairs

I sat on the creamily smooth sofa as if it would be electrified any second. I glanced about, saw heavily dark furnishings, tiny thick-framed rotogravure cartoons and autographs too aged and distant to be read from where I sat.

I should note that in my youth I shared the fallacy with many others equally misinformed that decoration would tell something about the man. Lies. I’ve been subjected to scat fetishists in spotlessly clean, crystal-filled, metal and glass gleaming duplexes, gotten cautious hand jobs from slavering, leather-covered pornographers in semi-rundown sublets, had eight-hour passion sessions with collectors of pickaninniana. There’s no link, believe me.

He was gone long enough for my discomfort level to rise. Several times I thought I heard footsteps, conspiratorial voices, chains rattling.

I almost jumped when he finally returned. He held two glasses and a fifth of bourbon. No water. No lemon. No ice. I insisted on something. He got water from the sink in the next-door powder room, Webb drank the bourbon neat, keeping the bottle on the floor next to the Barcalounger he sat in, his knees so close to mine they threatened to touch any moment.

Again I tried to make conversation, failed utterly, nursing the drink I’d forced him to bring me, and which I could neither drink nor admit I loathed. I also had the feeling he had somehow or other dishonestly gotten the liquor, making me complicit in his guilt.

There’s a scene in one of his earlier films when Robertson Webb confesses to a particularly gruesome and unmotivated murder. The camera zooms in front and hovers slightly above his head. He sits in a captain’s chair, looking at his feet, then up again, nervously, compulsively, his face alternately swathed in shadows and lighted by the constant flickering of a neon sign outside the window His voce is the only sound we hear: it’s like millions of tiny pebbles amassing in a steady, advancing, rolling avalanche, as though he didn’t say a word, that’s how it now struck me. As though he were about to explode into sudden total mania.

That, and the neurasthenic shyness.

Where do I know him from, I wondered once more. His large bright eyes, sunken in his face as if they were were recollections. The wild planes of his cheekbones and temples were memories from my childhood, the shape of his head, his gestures were utterly, fully remembered. From where?

It began to rain again. Minutes passed: I stared at him, then away from him, at a wall. My fears were slowly dissipating but so were any ideas of having sex. I was searching for a polite lie to get out of the room.

Webb drank more bourbon neat, looked at the door, didn’t say a word. I might not have been there.

I don’t know how long that went on before I decided to leave, now!

When I stood up, he sighed, almost as if that were exactly what he had suspected would happen when we first met me. He even seemed relieved. He set down his glass and led me into the little hall. I was glad to get out without any further embarrassment. Yet for all the relief on all sides we were disappointed.

We reached for my worn tweed jacket at the same time . Our hands must have brushed. I pulled back. So did he. The jacket dropped. He bent down to get it, almost fell getting up, had to hold onto my legs for support. I thought: This man is drunk and ought to be put to bed.

Though I said I would do it myself, he insisted on putting my jacket on me, mumbling all the while. Finally I consented. As I turned around, lifted both arms and felt the sleeves slipped on, he sort of tumbled on me, catching himself, and turning the stumble into kissing the nape of my neck: one of my turn-on points then, as now.

Surprised, I turned around to a bourbon-scented, sloppily executed kiss on the lips, interspersed with enough garble for me to figure out I was being asked not to leave yet.

Without a further hint, he fell to his knees. I offered to help him up, and was slurringly told to “relax, just relax.” He pushed me slightly so I fell against the wall a few inches. Then he unzipped my fly.

I t was awkward, unavoidable.

Then it wasn’t awkward. I was horny. He was accomplished. We could have been anywhere. A dune in autumn, windbreakers flapping, gulls mewling overhead, the surf. On a penthouse sofa, skyscraper lighting through clerestories high above, soft taped music. Under the rusted hanging spar of an abandoned river warehouse, shirtless on a July night. Or—in the dark, lower corridor of an East Side townhouse.

We could have been anyone. He the next-door neighbor’s guest, I the teenager home from school. We could have been lovers for the past twenty years, suddenly home from the house party in the Hamptons, determined to do something lovely for each other. Or—we could have been a young man and a movie star.

You know how it can be: timeless, archetypical. We got into it.

When we had regained our footing again, Webb smiled for the first time, a little crookedly, I thought. I asked him to point me to the john.

As I was taking a leak, I noticed another autographed photo exactly at eye level. This room had better lighting than anywhere else in the house so far. I clearly saw this was a still from a movie named Cord, a popular Western with a message from late in the fifties. The photo showed the three leads from the film, waist up, all leaning on a verandah railing looking off screen to what might have been a wedding party or an approaching storm. You could read their love triangle from their positions, from how they looked.

In the lower left-hand corner, white hand printing told the film’s title, the studio, and the stars. The odd man out was the man who’d just had me in the corridor: Robertson Webb.

That’s where I know him from, I thought at once, so hard it might be heard all over the house.

Then the shock hit me. I had to close the toilet and sit down..

It was unprecedented. Robertson Webb, a legend since the forties, friend of Hepburn, Gable, Taylor, one of the brightest of that bright constellation of bright stars, the man who’d been my idol for decades, who’d torn my heart out in film after film as the sensitive, defiant, troubled underdog—had gone down on me as though I were the best Third Avenue hustler.

How could I show him I wasn’t? How could I explain to him what he’d meant to me, how he had been part of my thinking, fantasizing life since before Id had erections.

I knew chance hadn’t brought us together. All my life had conspired to bring me to this moment. Hadn’t I seen every one of his films—even the occasional turkey—at least twice? Hadn’t I offered up secret prayers to his image, or at least to the image of the person I believed he was? Hadn’t I always thought in my moments of deepest depression, If only he, Webb, were here, everything would be better. He’d help me. Protect me. It couldn’t be a chance meeting.

Then I thought of his life, of how he looked in the corridor when he’d smiled. Only half of his face had seemed mobile. The left side had no resilience, no life. I recalled the near fatal car crash, the rumors of plastic surgery, of bone rebuilding, of steel plates put inside his skin. I shivered.

This gloomy house, his furtiveness, his unhappiness—all these tugged at me. I had to convince him that I would annihilate his worries, seep despair out of his life, obliterate pain, extinguish the depredations of his past. I would bring light and youth into his life. I’d come to love his half-destroyed beauty as we’d come to love a shattered and imperfectly restored antique vase of great value. I’d give him new faith in himself. Revitalize his confidence, help to make him an even bigger star than before. I’d be his confidant, his friend, his brother, his son, his lover. I’d bring grams and grams of semen to his hungry mouth. Who knew, I’d probably even let him fuck me.

I didn’t move from my perch on the toilet seat.

The first wave of euphoria was followed closely by one equally powerful but more disturbing. It was ridiculous to think Webb could change so quickly, so thoroughly, at his age and with his experience. I understood why it had taken him so long to get the bourbon: it had been locked away, hidden from him by someone else. He’d been an alcoholic. Probably still was. Then the pills, the other, harder drugs he’d taken that I’d heard about, counted as lies for years, knew all the while I was blinding myself to the truth because it didn’t matter then. I was young, impressionable. He would love me, yes, I knew he would. But he would drag me down along with him into alcoholism, needles, mindless orgies. Not to mention his frequent bouts of depression, his stays in expensive out-of-state clinics. It would be hell.

Suddenly I felt as though I’d been in the bathroom for hours. I had no idea what to do, what to say. Inside me, angels and devils, hope and reason, illusion and reality warred, and all I could think of was what to say to him when he finally got worried enough to knock on the door and ask if I’d fallen in. I had to forestall that. I flushed the toilet and looked into the hallway.

He was gone. I checked the two small rooms. Empty , I even thought of going upstairs, no matter what harrowing scene I night walk into between Webb and whoever had hidden the bourbon from him.

Then the door we’d come in through began to open and I almost fell down in a faint.

It was Webb, coatless though he’d been outside. He was carrying a small plastic garbage container in one hand, saw me, put the container hastily aside,

“Almost forgot to do that,” he said in a small voice. He was as uncertain of what to say as I was. So shy.

Then an odd thing happened: I saw myself as Webb would see me; my pants half-zipped, my jacket still askew on me, my face reflecting that blankness that young people get when some strong emotion is passing through them. Simultaneously, I was afraid of myself. What if this kid wanted money now, and would do anything to get it? What if he decided to blackmail me knowing now who I am? He might have been playing along all the while. My trust in his large, soft brown eyes after all that time might have been displaced. How do I get him out? Worse, what if he’s one of my fans and wants to stay and talk to me for hours about a life I’d rather forget, people I wish I’d never met, films I hated to make. When all I want to do is take a hot shower and go to sleep.

Then it was over, I saw once more as myself.

That was all I needed. I buttoned my jacket, zipped up my fly, feeling a tiny, post-fellatial stickiness on my upper left thigh—the only physical proof that something had happened—and went toward Webb.

He began to say something, then stopped himself. I held out my hand. “Thanks,” I said. “See you later.”

“Do you want to…” he began to say, then once more stopped. “No,” he added in a different tone. “You’re taking the subway home. You don’t need a cab.”

We shook hands again, then I was out on the street.

I don’t know what got into me then but I waited there for another minute or so. Perhaps I expected him to look out, see me, open the door and make an offer to see me again. I don’t know for certain.

The three upper floors were dark as before. The lower windows were tiny, unalterably dim. Downstairs seemed dark too. I realized the door wasn’t going to open. It was beginning to drizzle again. I’d better get to the subway before it began t pour.


I never saw Webb again. Oh, I could have, I suppose, if I were in that neighborhood more often, or it I were more persistent or he less shy.

I had pretty much forgotten about the incident until recently when you introduced me to that young man who vaguely reminded me of him

There now! Who’s the famous person you made it with? Who?… Darling, never heard of him.

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