I awoke this morning to the birds singing and the bright misty light in the bedroom and immediately realized that my alarm didn’t go off. It was 5:30 am – the time I usually leave for work. My phone lost its charge and died somewhere in the early morning hours between dreams. I chose not to rush and even stopped at the market near work to pick up a cheese Danish, something I’ve enjoyed since high school. It’s one of the few things of pleasure that I recall from that long-ago era.
There is something perplexing about the taste of a warm cheese Danish topped with melting butter that immediately takes me back to the summer of 1980. I was in summer school taking preparatory classes before starting freshman year. On the long bus trip across the San Fernando Valley, I had met two guys that were also accepted into this small Catholic boy school in Encino. Scott and Joe were from my corner of town and, for the first time in my youth, I felt accepted by a group.
We would hit the McDonald’s around the corner from school and get cheese Danishes before class. Joe said that the butter made it blast in your mouth. And it did. Maybe it was the newness of being in high school or hanging with new cool kids, but those pastries were amazing. Every weekday, all summer long, we hit that place. Summer school wasn’t so bad, and I wasn’t heading into ninth grade alone.
Scott was tall with dark, handsome looks while Joe was heavy into punk rock with all the trimmings that would fit within the dress code. Both guys seemed to accept me and my Go-Go music without exception. That is, until I came out of the closet later that year.
I made it onto the varsity swim team as a freshman. A childhood of swimming competitively made that an easy feat and that status helped give me a jockish veneer, but didn’t stop the subtle ridicule from the other students throughout my high school career. It wasn’t as if I jumped on the lunch tables and shouted, “Hey, I’m gay,” but I couldn’t help but wear my gayness on my sleeve, and I never denied it or apologized for it.
Unlike others in public school, I was never physically accosted for being gay. But the chatter went on behind my back. Between classes, someone would yell, “Fire!” on the staircase and get a laugh from the mass of students. I used to imagine myself as the character Diana Prince to get through the day; I was a superhero in disguise and nothing could harm me. I tried to minimize the attention I was drawing to myself. I dieted down in size until I looked unhealthy but was very thin. I kept quiet, kept to myself and didn’t say a word more than I had to.
Scott and Joe avoided me once they realized I was gay—to the point of denying we had ever been friends. I began to think that life would be a series of disappointments. I started to doubt that I could do anything I wanted to in life. I questioned my intellect and started to lose my drive to succeed. There were few role models for a gay, Mexican-American teenager in a school filled with brilliant, pretty white boys.
One of my saving graces was our freshman counselor, Father Terry. This understated, loving man took me on as his charge. I could speak with him daily and he gave me all the time I needed. He assuaged my fears and normalized what could have been a traumatic experience.
Terry taught religion with his zest for life and passion for living. He spent an entire week showing us the entire movie “Auntie Mame” with Rosalind Russell. That one movie, he explained, would help us make it through life. Damn, I loved that man and his unconventional approach to teaching young men the ways of life.
Terry helped me to believe in myself in spite of the adversities that life can throw at us. He said the ridiculous and hurtful actions of others could not kill us. This high school experience, he continued, would prepare me to handle life and the occasional cruelty that might come my way.
The late Fr. Terry’s lessons have stayed with me for the past thirty-five years. They’ve guided me through life’s journey from the Carmelite seminary to working with homeless teenagers in Hollywood. A lifetime of helping others has helped me find my own voice in writing and advocating for a more equitable society.
So here I sit at my desk with my warm cheese Danish dripping with melted butter—an hour later than usual. This oddly bewitching flavor transports me back to that summer and the endless curiosity of youth. I wish I could share this moment with Terry over a cup of tea and see, once again, the sheer joy of life in his tender, loving eyes as we talk of the past and the little things that help us appreciate the art of being alive.