J.B. KuzmanchuK: J.B. Kuzmanchuk Was Here
J.B. KUZMANCHUK WAS HERE.
If I’m going to be dramatic, I’d like to start now with the line: My name is J.B. Kuzmanchuk. The J.B. stands for Jay Bird. The Kuzmanchuk is Ukrainian for Nobody gives a shit. I was in high school the first time I tried to read HAMLET. My favorite teacher, Cheryl, walked us through it with special care. First, she taught us how to say every single name in the cast. Wrapping our mouths around the obligation each character required. And then step by step we mapped the dramatic action of the plot. She was careful to warn us away from the Mel Gibson movie, “Reading Hamlet and/or seeing Hamlet performed live is the way to go.” I believed her. Cheryl covered her classroom walls with Georgia O’Keeffe flowers—hundreds of museum prints of opening vulvas—this delicate garden was a truth in the desert. My older brother and his Desert Storm Marine friends said Cheryl had wooden boobs and was a scissor-sister lesbian with the librarian. They hated her and whenever they said Cheryl’s name they would make horse hoof clomping sounds like wood knocking against wood.
But I loved her. She taught me words like Sacagawea and Liliuokalani. Words I carried around with me for the song of their language and the soul of their stories—I let them roll like winged hymns, repeated chants, echoing proverbs scribbled in buffalo blood on the walls of my hushed cave just like John when he wrote REVELATIONS chained to a rock on that island in Greece. My Psalms were sung face first into bean bags, gym socks and the wet underwear Scott Lieser left at my 13 year old swimming pool / scavenger hunt themed Birthday party. I handwrote all my riddles. I liked a good hunt. I wanted to be everyone’s prey. Language was something I sought first to know and then to use. So I snapped Cheryl’s words against my tongue like a marble collection. She knew I loved art and she said things like this out loud in class “historically, many, many great renown artists were also homosexual.” All the 1990 Ohio boys blushed accordingly.
My guardian angel is the oldest Kristner boy. The one who went away in the ’80s. Forever. The one whose name was never spoken again. His father demanded it. And all of his seven younger sisters obeyed. He was the one they refused to claim. The one they never buried. I dream of him. My guardian angel. He has a boom box and a fresh head of tightly curled sun sandy blonde hair. He’s wearing a sporty half shirt with bare midriff, tube socks hiked up so high like an arrow leading upward thru his tanned blonde wisped thigh
hairs and straight into a pair of cut off jean shorts where all his Daisies meet his Duke. That’s David. My angel. David. Just like the one who danced naked before the Lord. Like the one who played the harp. The one who wrote poetry while lounging around with all that sheep shit sharing his cave with a guy named Jonathan. Everybody has a song.
Kristner Angel David visits me in my dreams. Celestial. He teaches the cage in my rusted chest how to phonetically spell simple words like courage and outrage. He presses play on his boom box and performs his dying last words. It requires a box fan. And sheer white drapes. Sheer white bleached hospital gowns. Sheer white starched bed sheets. Sheer white walls. Sheer white agony. David knows all the lyrics to Christina Aguilera’s “You Are Beautiful” in sign language. When he’s done performing for me, he asks me for notes.
Me: Contemporary song choices are always a little dated. Angel David: I’m dead. My best friend in college was also named David. David wore white boxers when he woke me at three in the morning. We crawled half naked through my parents’ guest room toward the window with the night sky. There were no buttons on the flies of our boxers, just flaps that would crease, gaping wide holes and on some angles you could see the world.
HAMLET: My Lord if I were a prince and you were my most trusted friend, would you keep my secrets? HORATIO: I would. On that particular night, David wanted to show me the heat lightning in the summer sky. The storm was violently silent. As if it knew we were all trying to sleep. He told me “keep the lights off.” And the streaking lightning, weaved electric in and out of the clouds across the fields. Like veins exposed. The room flickered. We shared the silence. Together. I loved him for this.
He was my friend. My closest friend. And that rusted cage placed inside my chest still scrapes my insides and aches for that kind of intimacy. It sometimes feels like madness.
HAMLET: My Lord If I were a prince and you were a soldier, would you cross the oceans beside me in battle, until we both arrived safely home. HORATIO: I would. We sat in the darkness at 3am. So close that our bare knees touched. I remember liking the way the hair on our legs brushed against and intertwined. It was masculine.
I want to tell some guy: “I know how to be your friend. You can wake me up at 3am. I like reading maps, I’ll try to help you fix your bike. I like packing luggage in the car trunk so that it all fits just right. It makes me feel good. I don’t want you to be my girlfriend. And I’m not going to be your mother. But I built a place in this madness for us. Where we swear on swords and wash the chalk drawings of our father’s dead bodies off the kitchen floor. If you get lost, there’s a detailed map pinned inside the fly of my boxers, explaining exactly where and why we both exist. And on any night when you can’t sleep, I’ll hold you in my arms at 3am. We’ll crawl toward the window framing the night sky and watch the irony of silent lightning.”
DAVID: My Lord, if I were a prince and You were a soldier, would you cradle my neck while the rest of me bleeds? (BEAT) Would you? J.B.: I’d try. Cheryl had to make this announcement to the class, “Everyone needs to get their parents’ signatures on this release form stating that they give their permission for you to attend the performance of A CHORUS LINE in Akron. There are some adult themes and sensitive material. Specifically, some people might be offended by the homosexual content. I’ve seen it. It’s moving and I think you all will enjoy it.”
Somewhere in Akron, seated in the balcony way up in the dark, there is a seventeen-year-old kid leaning forward, captivated by the lyrics to the song “At the ballet.” Later I wrote in my class assignment review, “When I heard that song it was as if someone found the hope chest I kept hidden under the carpet and loose floorboard of my circus wagon. And they opened it.” I meant every word. Cheryl understood. STAGE DIRECTION: I faked my parents’ signature. At my birthday party, before he left his wet underwear in my bathroom, Scott Lieser and I had a definite connection. A Midsummer Night’s Dream kind of connection. One where we were both playing Puck. It happened right after Marcie Copeland took my entire 7th grade class secretly one by one into my basement bathroom to look at Scott’s turd in the toilet. She told everyone he forgot to flush. She wanted them to see it. Once Marcie knew she had gotten to everyone, she came outside to the pool and shouted, “Last chance for the Scott Lieser Turd Tour!” Scott ran out of the pool. I ran after him. His sad eyes looked even sadder than ever. That’s when I took him upstairs to the off-limits bathroom and gave him a pair of my own underwear and shorts in an attempt to console him. He was too embarrassed to go get his own bag. He
was shivering against the side of my bathtub. My hands were full of clues for my scavenger hunt. Decorated note cards that read, “Clue One: Meet me where the two ends meet—follow what runs around a pasture but never moves.” I asked Scott to hold my cards. I turned the hot water on.
There was a bird in a cage clearly making every effort to get out. I was attracted to Scott’s body. I saw him dance once at a sock hop. He only knew two moves but they were smooth. And it was rare that any guys danced at those things. Dana Ward told me a story once in the back of the band room. She locked the door to the rehearsal room and lowered her voice. We were all holding our clarinets. According to Dana— when her cousin Linda was visiting from Kentucky—Scott just happened to be over playing with Dana’s adopted brother Jermaine. That night Linda woke Dana in a panic. And this is when Dana’s eyes widened and her voice got very direct and serious. “My cousin was freaking out. Because Scott’s cum was dripping from her pussy lips.” Dana kept repeating the phrase “pussy lips” over and over in the story. Specifically shocked and shaking her head like a natural disaster had just hit the town. Suspenseful and Unfortunate. Dana didn’t know how to help Linda. “She’s probably going to have an abortion now that Scott’s cum was dripping from her pussy lips.” I visualized an oil painting of Scott’s cum dripping like a second set of silent tears from Linda’s pussy lips.
Occasionally, Scott liked to hump other guys’ legs acting like a rabid horny dog. He was a good at it. Back then, we were allowed to wear sweatpants to school and they hadn’t specified the rule yet that you also needed to wear underwear under the sweatpants. There was a lot of Pudge. A lot of Jostle. Scott constantly man handled his crotch adjusting his junk all day long. Some guys were onto me. I believe Scott was one of them. He might not have known my difference exactly enough to name but he was drawn to it. TJ was another one with the same instinct. It was like a sexual radar. Not that he was into it, but he was aware of the “otherness” and drawn in to observe or examine. He used to do this thing when he was talking to you—he’d look deep into your eyes, connect and then reach his hand to the tip of his dick tented in his red track sweats. And then he’d watch you to see if you took any notice. To collect the data of the movement of your eyes. It was aggressive and mocking. He stole my breath. His grin mischievous.
After he changed into my underwear. And hung his own wet underwear on my shower curtain. He didn’t leave
my side at the party. We connected. Intensely. All the other kids had divided into couples. The sun was down. The school year had just ended. And it was the first of a warm summer night. Darkness. The couples all strewn on top of each other. Stacked like boards. They were planked bodies. Awkwardly making out. Playing love. Experimenting. Scott and I started to speak a made-up language of elves and ewok. Performed it. A poetry of faerie shadows offending and mending. We started to navigate the field. Playing like soldiers sent to cross the land undetected between all those slumbering straights. We were sent to save one another in the rice in the wheat in the farm county mist rising. We ran. Our mouths bleeding like tongue lost puritans. Dove. Grabbed arms. Casting spells. Connected. Inhibition abandoned. We wept over each other. We wept from our weakness. We urgently revived ourselves. We rallied. We survived. Our skins connected.
J.B.: I wanted you, Scott. I wanted to hold you and make you tell me everything you hated about your dad until you cried. We’d kiss each other’s noses by mistake at the Sock Hop. It’d be you and me. A soldiers’ slow dance. Our names would be announced over the loud speaker and everyone would be required to know how to pronounce them. We’d shirk down the red waistbands on our sweatpants in a janitor’s closet and let our warm tears drip like the misspent seed agape and falling from the mouth of Linda’s pussy lips.
ANGEL DAVID: That’s not a bad job, Kuzmanchuk. Your courage. More outrage.
It wasn’t until much later in life that I thought of Angel David. When I was grieving the loss of my own belonging and taking all the high roads to find my way home. I had this memory of one of David’s sisters going on the church bus trip to Cedar Point Amusement Park. I was a thirteen-year-old kid. And she was drawn to me. She was much older, an adult in her twenties. Her older brother was dead. And she loved the way I screamed on The Gemini. We clicked effortlessly. I liked the attention. I remember I was surprised that she was praising something in me that most people side-eyed. Instead of snarling at any of my femininity, she encouraged it. Played off it. Stoked it. And celebrated it. She saw Angel David in me. “Let’s go on it again. But I’m only riding with J.B. and we’re going to scream like our lives are ending.”
I thought of those roller coasters while I was watching a documentary about AIDS and activism. I thought of my Angel David when they were throwing the corpses of dead gay men over the fence onto the front lawn of the White House. Into
Nancy Reagan’s flower garden. The Lord saw fit to take Nancy’s breast away. Cancer. And I think at some point during her recovery she peered through her drapes—saying goodbye to her pound or two of flesh—and she caught a glimpse of David. Moving through her like fabric billowing gently up in a box fan. A breath. A wing. A moment. The unread message of human ash, a heretic’s soil and Nancy’s June daisies. And then, like a well-trained midway carnie rat, Nancy sized up the angel corpse and guessed its weight against a plush prize. “Mostly bone now,” she said. We faggots like to travel with both tits out.
OPHELIA: And there is pansies. That’s for thoughts. When I was a kid, all the boys played war after church. In our Sunday clothes throwing the rotten apples like grenades. Our mothers scolded our ruined knees. We were two streets and one hill away from where David Angel’s father lived in the silence of his dead son’s name. It was nineteen eighty something and Jeffery took a shovel and broke the neck of a chipmunk in the tall grass behind the Sunday school room. And we’d dare each other to run through the neighbor’s yard where the man who tied dead birds on his clothesline by their tiny dangling feet lived. Dozens of them. Bird corpses. Rotting mid air. This was war. I used to always want to be the casualty. The first soldier down, the one the others would have to come back for.
HAMLET: Hold on. Not without J.B., I won’t leave him behind!
There I was. Dying in the churchyard. They’d fling me over their shoulders and carry me to safety. I always wanted a leg injury. So they’d have to cut off my pants. Rip them to shreds. To get to my wounds. And nurse them.
HAMLET: (barking manly orders) We don’t have a choice. Get his pants off. It’s his leg. I’m sure of it.
And like a good friend. The best friend. There is my HAMLET pulling my woundedness with his bare hands across a million dead bird bodies, pounding his chest in agony when he realizes that I might not make it. I’ll be half conscious but I will hear his grieving. Every word.
HAMLET: Don’t you leave me! Don’t you give up on me! And to this HAMLET, I would send a love letter. A thank you. To console him in the despair of my absence. “Press your lips against my forehead. Platoon me, Pietá me, cradle me in your Sunday school arms. Beat your chest to the heavens. Heaving Hamlet. My heart. My confidant.” But his response will be silence.
The plot doesn’t turn there. It doesn’t end. It wilts. Uprooted. Petals cast aside or drown. A wink. A tear. The potion stabs and the faeries bend. Cheryl corrects me, “Hamlet dies first. Not Horatio.”
Cheryl: J.B. will you read aloud for us Act V scene II lines 388 thru exeunt.
J.B.: (aside) Before the curtain falls, into the light steps your baseball coach from little league, the drunk Vietnam Vet. He is tossing glitter now and is not wearing any pants. He apologizes for all the times he hit you in the face with his balls. I am on third base waiting for the signal to run. I piss my pants slowly, take a breath and whisper, “It’s me. Sybil. Chain me to your radiator.”
J.B. reading aloud. J.B.: After the poison settles and they’ve cleaned the concrete. HORATIO hides in a maidservant’s quarters. He stands in front of a mirror for two days straight, smelling HAMLET’S tights and mouthing the words “I’m still here. Why did you leave? I tried to quiet your ghosts. If I could whisper you back to life. Sweet Prince. But I remain.
HORATIO: Woo’t weep. Woo’t fight. Woo’t fast. Woo’t tear thyself. Sweet sweet. Now cracks a noble heart. (to HAMLET) My Lord, You once did love me. J.B.: So I do still. Angel David: When Horatio finally dies. No one is left to watch him.
Scott’s Underwear: Only the dangling, flightless dead birds sing him to his rest.
Cheryl got cancer in her hip. I sent her flowers. Red Oriental Poppies. White Daylilies. I sent her signed copies of essays I had published. I sent her tickets to the play I wrote. Copies of reviews in the New York Times. The last time I saw her, I stood on the stage after the audience applauded and I asked them to indulge me.
J.B.: My favorite High School teacher is here tonight. She taught me HAMLET. And drove me and my classmates hours back and forth to Cleveland and Akron to expose us to all sorts of art and theater. She inspired me. I am a product of her life’s work.
And then I told her, “Thank You.” My older brother still whinnied like a horse.
My name is J.B. Kuzmanchuk. Give a shit.