It should go without saying that most days I don’t read books about 17th-Century Dutch painters. Most days I don’t read the collected works of any Polish poets, and most days I don’t have the slightest clue what Arthur Rimbaud is talking about—in English… let alone in French. Most days nothing tousles through my pines and there are no silver summits or goddesses to be recognized and the only veils I lift are tired and feel more like packing blankets. Dawn always passes long before I’ve groggily made my first cup of coffee and realized I don’t have enough to cobble together a real lunch for my daughter to take to camp.
Yesterday a friend sent me a picture of her husband in his new reading glasses—he’d spent a goodly while deliberating over the right frames and she was sending me a picture to see what he’d finally settled on. In her email she said he looked less mincing in them in real life than the photo might suggest.
Earlier that morning a different friend had emailed to say she’d looked at Mervin Peake’s Captain Slaughterboard Drops Anchor, an incredible picture book from 1939, which I’d told her about the week before and which I’d only discovered a couple weeks before myself.
My friend said she could see how Peake’s work resonated with mine, and then she asked what I thought about the androgynous yellow creature Captain Slaughterboard befriends and settles down with at the end of the book. If I’m totally honest I should confess that until she asked the question I hadn’t really thought about it. I just liked the book and loved the pictures. So I decided to reread it… with my reading glasses on. Back in winter I had to get glasses when I realized I could no longer read medicine bottles and wasn’t totally able to see what I was drawing any more.
On the second to last spread of Captain Slaughterboard Drops Anchor the androgynous yellow creature sports a miniskirt and is somewhat suggestively whittling a thick piece of wood over a cooking pot while the captain adoringly smokes his pipe in the background. On the facing page the two are cuddled on the ground while the androgynous yellow creature eats a peeled banana. I won’t ruin the ending and I won’t summarize what comes before this island snugglefest, but suffice it to say the book appears to be, among whatever else it is, a gay love story. And when my friend nicely suggested that Peake’s illustrations resonated with my own (I wish), I realized she was obliquely asking if I was secretly gay (ie. my metaphorical reading glasses made me look mincing).
She is not the first person to ask me this. Anyone who draws pictures like me might well be asked the same. Although my reading glasses are way too practical to make me look any more or less mincing than I might already seem, I run a notoriously tidy ship at home, am unapologetically interested in vintage needlepoint pillows, and I shamelessly ogle other people’s perennials. Sounds much more Rimbaud than Rambo to me too.
My wife has a longstanding fantasy about watching Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock take love of each other. Or just wrestle passionately in some dark corner of the Enterprise—but not so dark that she can’t see. It is one of the many troubling things I love about my wife, but it is sadly… not a fantasy I share. I’d like to think I’d let myself playfully tousle with Kirk or Spock on the bridge if that was where my heart was boldly going. Or that I would cloudlessly cuddle with a banana-eating androgynous yellow creature on a remote pink island if those were the shores around which I had dropped my emotional anchor. But those aren’t my shores.
I may not be entirely correct when I say what I’m about to say, but I think it’s true that literally every friend in my entire adult life who has ever met my dad has asked me if he’s gay. And I always answer pretty much the same. I don’t know. I see why you ask. Everyone does. There’s a preponderance of circumstantial evidence that would seem to suggest as much. But my dad says he’s not. And strange as it may sound… I believe him. Not because I care. I really don’t. Or that’s not true. I care to the extent that I love my parents and I want them to be happy individually and collectively and there would obviously be complications if my dad were actionably gay. Few if any are better at preemptively lancing life’s complications than my parents.
I also care to the extent that it’s hard not to think about an interpretation which one person forever denies, but which seemingly everyone else reads in unanimous contradistinction. How could you not wonder? But the truth of it is, for reasons too convoluted (and undoubtedly too flawed) to summarize herewith, I don’t think my dad would ever allow himself to cuddle with a bark-whittling androgynous yellow creature on an exotic pink island. He has worked too hard to wrap in packing blankets those keepsakes which are best stored in the darkest corners of his personal storage locker. Even if he knows about Kirk or Spock, which I suspect he does not, I know my dad would shrink from the layout and decor of the Enterprise and be even more turned off by the quality and cut of the uniforms.
It turns out the friend who noted the resonance between Peake’s work and my own was not metahprically suggesting that my reading glasses made me look mincing. She was flagging a different resonance and I read something in her words she wasn’t saying. But while we were on the subject of gayness she wanted to know whether I thought Mervin Peake was out or closeted or not gay at all.
Is it possible to draw an androgynous yellow creature snuggling with a formerly fearsome pirate on a pink island while eating a banana and not have that banana be a metaphor for something? No matter how my reading glasses make me look, they will never work well enough for me to see the answer.
Au réveil, il était midi.