James J. Siegel

“Gay Cancer”


Gay Cancer


When men died of gay cancer
I was only five — preoccupied
combing the manes of
purple ponies,
bending Barbie’s legs to fit
snug in her pink convertible.

The nightly news was a montage
of pale skin and pitted cheeks —
thin, thin bodies and fevered eyes.
Then back to regular programming —
Sequined Solid Gold dancers
twirling to the week’s top ten.

I twirled in my driveway like
Linda Carter in her star-spangled shorts
while the white hot sun bleached
the neighborhood streets
and the GRID sparked to life.

That was the summer a sick boy
took a dip in the city pool.
So they drained the water,
scrubbed the tiles clean
and waited for the all clear.
No one could be too safe.

So we made due with the Slip ‘n Slide,
grape Kool-Aid and Rocket Pops,
our mothers with their menthols,
lawn chairs and lemonade,
deconstructing the perfect Hollywood male —
Tom Selleck versus Burt Reynolds.

And sometimes they whispered
Theories on transmission — saliva, blood,
soft men — loose-hipped and high-heeled
wasting away in San Francisco, New York,
one or two in Toledo, Ohio,
if the gossip was true.

I left adult talk to adults
and helped by best friend wrap
her hair in Princess Leia buns,
ignored the debates on disease, disappointment,
a boy’s unnatural desire to slip
his bare foot in a sheer stocking.

The years that followed brought us
the great nail polish panic,
licorice red fingers and toes,
Ryan White in Kokomo,
bullets shot through his living room window.
We could never be too safe.

So my mother locked up her makeup case
and my father pulled me under
the remains of a rusted Chevy Blazer,
pointing out car parts like constellations,
slowly, patiently teaching me
the importance of fixing damaged pieces.




If you are boy

born in Massillon, Ohio,
you will be visited
by the booster club.
They will come baring gifts —
a little rubber football
placed in your basinet —
Go Tigers!
emblazoned on the side.

It’s a simple gesture,
a gentle push that says
God damn it,
you will learn to throw.

You will be baptized
in driveways and backyards
during that winter-waiting period
before the pre-season,
when boys learn the fine art
of the wrist snap,
when their frozen breath
is thicker than the smoke
spilling from the mills.

There will be penance
for the things your father did,
for the things he couldn’t do —
the incomplete pass,
the sideline sack.
You will need to do it better
than generations before.
Charge the defensive line
with 100 years of history
stacked on your padded shoulders.

You will eat of this,
drink of this and pray for this
in the locker room,
in the huddle,
in the months before the big rivalry.

Our Father, who aren’t in heaven
let us beat the bulldogs,
let us kill McKinley.
And you will taste this

when those scoreboard seconds
tick off another victory,
another head bowed,
another knee touching the field. 

And if all goes as planned
you will fall in love with this,
commit yourself to the autumn clatter —
young bodies colliding,
the formations on the field,
the coaches whistle.

You will fall in love with Friday nights
when the stadium lights burn
brighter than Venus and Jupiter.
You may settle down
with a scholarship at State
or settle in for your life
bending steel at the plant

But if the opposite is true,
if you go long for that Hail Mary pass
and it fumbles from your fingers,
letting down an entire town —
Remember, you can cut back
past bleachers,
past parking lots
with their crepe paper floats,
past Republic Steel,
the Family Farm and Feed.
Rush to the Lincoln Highway,
that famous road
that charges through Massillon
to other territories,
to other states
on its way to another coast.
Keep going and thank the Lord
you learned how to run
as soon as you learned to walk.


James J. Siegel