I had a summer affair the year I was 18. He was a very exciting 24-year-old man named Nino. As Italian as the name, he fit perfectly the stereotypes of fiery temperament and passionate lover. He was a first-rate operatic tenor and was actually the kept boy of an older woman who was an excellent pianist. They lived only about two blocks from my house and I had already known her through Peoria musical circles. I never really knew if Nino was also her lover, though I assumed that was the arrangement.
It was with Nino that I first listened to an opera recording, lying on Adelaide's living room floor, Toscanini audibly bellowing to Jan Peerce and Licia Albanese, "Buona!" during the love duet from Madama Butterfly.
We were crazy in love. I also thought I was very wise and sophisticated, to be having a fling with this older man. But I knew that within a few weeks I would be leaving Peoria for Urbana to go to college and that things would not go much beyond that point.
As it happened, my aunt Thelma turned 50 that August, and my mom and Ben threw a huge birthday party for her, much good food and much drinking. During these festivities, my mother and Ben had some kind of an argument, and as the evening wore on and people imbibed endless flagons of champagne, the level of hostility between them started to rise. Nino and I were upstairs most of the time, listening to music.
Whatever the casus belli between Mom and Ben was, it finally led to violence. Ben stormed out of the kitchen and en route punched the wall with his fist so hard the plaster came off, making a hole in the wall. That of itself didn't impress me much -- I'd seen much worse -- but Nino was electrified. "C'mon," he said, grabbing me by the hand and marching us into the kitchen, where my mother was still standing.
"Mrs. Anderson," he announced, "Jess is a gifted and sensitive musician, and I cannot allow him to remain in such a violent and brutish atmosphere as this! I'm taking him away from this madhouse!" He had a flair for drama: opera came to him naturally.
"What exactly do you mean?" she asked him in a level tone. "I mean," he said with equal calm, "that I love him and he loves me, and we're leaving!" She looked at me and asked, "Is that true?" and I responded, "Yes it is." With that we spun on our heels and walked out of the house.
I spent the night at Nino's (Adelaide was not too pleased by that), but decided in the morning it would be better to go home and see how things stood. For one thing, Nino was an adult and I was a minor (you had to be 21 in Illinois back then), and I didn't want him to get in trouble with the law.
When I got home, the place was a shambles. Several windows on the first floor of the house were broken, there was glass everywhere, furniture was turned over, lamps had been smashed, and the place was empty except for my 12-year-old brother, who was looking very forlorn indeed. "Jesus H. Christ!" I said, "what the hell happened here?" "Mom beat the shit out of Ben, I guess," he said. "Was anybody cut up by all this glass, and where are they now?" "I don't think so, and I don't know."
Though order was restored and things got fixed up, nothing further was said about the incident for years. I went away to college a few days later.
My mother and I did not have a complete meeting of the minds on the subject of my being gay until 22 more years had passed, even though in the interim she met (and very much liked) several of my boyfriends.