Illustration: Ted Cannistraro. Courtesy of the author.

This story is about my childhood friend Ted Cannistraro, who was a genius but was never discovered. The setting is the community theater in my Massachusetts hometown. Patchwork Theater was started by a single mother who earned her living as an Amway distributor. It was a children’s theater—not a theater for children, but one where the actors were children and teens—and parents used it as low-cost day care. In an era of stay-at-home mothers, that meant most Patchwork kids were from broken homes or had a parent who had died or was seriously ill. Being fucked-up was selected for. That was no small part of the magic of the place.

Patchwork would rent a local church hall, and we kids would take it over from 8 a.m. to midnight. Our town was founded in 1600, and in the 1980s it was mostly working-class, which meant the churches were colonial and had good bones, but the renovations were the cheapest available. I myself once painted the floor of one of those churches at the age of fourteen. It was a world of metal folding chairs; you could run around and bash things up, it didn’t matter. When we became teenagers, we all smoked in the church all day. We weren’t supposed to go into the chapel, but we often went to lie down flat in the empty pews, to be alone and have adolescent feelings.

Nights and weekends, when we were thrown out of the church, we’d go to Howard Johnson’s. It was the old-school HoJo’s with the bright orange roof. It always had a fried clams special. Its selling point was that it was open twenty-four hours in a world that closed at 10 p.m. We almost never had enough money for food. We ordered the bottomless cups of coffee—bad brown water—and drank it all night. We talked insatiably, inventing ourselves as we went, inventing and reinventing Patchwork as a principle. We were like a little hunter-gatherer community; a micro-culture in love with ourselves, the kind of group whose name for itself is “the people.” We talked about Patchwork as if it were important, like the Academy of Plato: a society of endless fascination that would be studied for thousands of years.

The center of Patchwork society was jokes. At the theater, at school, at Howard Johnson’s, we worked to crack each other up. It was much like Twitter as a cult of avoidance. We weren’t mature enough to deal with our lives—with our parents’ cancers and suicide attempts and divorces—so we redefined everything as comic material, and prided ourselves on a nihilisitic willingness to sacrifice anything for a good joke. We made crass jokes, cruel jokes, absurd jokes, dumb jokes. We destroyed our own possessions for the physical humor of it. It was nothing to abruptly shout that shoes were for wimps and fling your shoes into a pond. A typical note a friend passed to me in class:

Sandy Newman is a bitch

Looks just like a baby witch

Shudders at the light of day

We wish that she would go away

 This wasn’t intended to hurt my feelings. My feelings were beside the point. The question was, was its juvenile meanness funny, or did it just fall flat? We were savage critics of each other’s jokes, always trying to best each other and working on technique. We even loved unfunny concept jokes, as when once I arrived at school on St. Patrick’s Day and a Patchwork friend said idly, “Let’s drive to Logan Airport and get a green-themed milkshake,” and I instantly left with him to drive to Logan Airport and skipped all my classes that day. It was a joke because it had no meaning; it was comforting because it made life foolish. You could flunk out of high school for a joke.

If it’s seeming like we never went home, we didn’t. Some of us had families that weren’t that terrible, but all of us were taking a beating from life. Outside of Patchwork was the void.

This brings us back to Ted Cannistraro. As far as I know, Ted’s family was fine, except that they were normal middle-class people, so Ted was like a square peg in a round hole, or like any gifted artist born into any family. He was small but seemed smaller, like a dangerously unstable substance concentrated in too little space. He couldn’t, or wouldn’t, express any feelings; he never mentioned being shy or lonely, although it was clear these things defined his life. His persona was dark and particular, at once Grand-Guignol and camp. His rule for his paintings was, “When in doubt, color it red and make it drip.” One day in the school cafeteria, someone said, “If you were a bird, what bird would you be?” and Ted replied instantly, “A bat.” If we’d taken a poll on who was most likely to murder someone, Ted would have gotten 100 percent of the votes.

His art was goofy in a fuck-you way. One painting showed a saint biting into an enormous pink slice of watermelon that obscured the bottom half of his face and completed the circle of his big yellow halo. Another piece was a technically brilliant ceramic version of the hippo scene from Fantasia. But these works were also pervaded by sadness; they reminded you that all things—hippos, saints, watermelons—exist in the shadow of mortality.

Ted could also have a comic savagery, an Andy Kaufman-esque way of turning life into performance art. He would cross lines other people wouldn’t cross; he would say in a tense, guilt-haunted voice that he raped the cat every night. At Patchwork once, he seized a girl abruptly and pulled her into a manic waltz, singing “Shall We Dance?” at the top of his lungs in his aggressively tuneless voice, and gripping her arms so hard it left bruises, and he waltzed her out the front door and down the church steps, out into traffic and across the main road with all the cars hitting their brakes, horns blaring, until at last he toppled with her into the bushes, still belting out: “ON THE CLEAR UNDERSTANDING THAT THIS KIND OF THING CAN HAPPEN, SHALL WE DANCE? SHALL WE DANCE? SHALL WE DANCE?”

In class, he made detailed drawings of teachers being led to bloody ends, and blueprints of traps that administered obscene punishments to their victims. He also drew macabre scenes from old movies, like the scene from Suddenly Last Summer where a sexual predator is torn to pieces by his child victims. There was a lot of homoerotic material, which expressed not desire but a complex loathing, not just for homosexuality but for all sex. Now, when I’m going through old papers and I come across one of Ted’s drawings, they stop me in my tracks. They’re objectively good.

One drawing I have is from a series Ted did of Joseph Merrick, the subject of the movie The Elephant Man. Ted liked to repeat the name of the Elephant Man’s disease, “neurofibromatosis,” at irregular intervals, waiting for us to get annoyed or laugh. Having achieved one effect, he would keep going until he achieved the other. Then he would keep going.

Neurofibromatosis gave Merrick large, disfiguring tumors throughout his body. His limbs were misshapen, his head a huge, distorted monstrosity. In everyday life, Merrick wore a thick veil, but the head was still enormous, lopsided, wrong in a way that couldn’t be concealed. In the most famous scene from The Elephant Man, Merrick is pursued and cornered by a curious, potentially violent mob, until he turns on them and screams, “I am not an animal! I am a human being!”

The drawing I have shows Merrick in his veil, cowering back from an invisible crowd with a speech balloon: “I AM NOT AN ANIMAL!” One hand is raised dramatically, defending his face. It’s a swooning posture. The drawing is played for laughs, and it betrays no trace of compassion. But Ted produced these drawings of Merrick for weeks; we all had at least one drawing of Merrick. He drew them until it was funny, and then he drew them until it bothered people, then he just kept drawing them. Even then, we knew these were all self-portraits.

Of course, Ted was gay, though he never said so, and it was almost hard to conceive of him as such, despite the homoeroticism in his work. He didn’t seem like he would have a sexuality like anyone. He did. And, as happens to us all, Ted fell in love.

The object of his love was a boy with the whimsical name of Tom Fudge. Tom Fudge was also my first love. When I was fourteen, Tom left me for the girl across the street, but I got over it and we became good friends. The year we were sixteen, Ted and Tom and I became a trio, a micro-clique within Patchwork. We’d go to Howard Johnson’s and talk all night, spinning fantasy worlds out of slender jokes, then gossiping, then arguing about ideas, then spinning those ideas back into jokes, then going home at 3 a.m.

Tom Fudge had a cheerful, unassailable egotism. He would tell you bluntly that he was conceited, then say conceited things about his plans and his abilities; he was conceited, and he enjoyed it. He prized immorality, and talked about his own. He called himself sleazy and cold-hearted, which, generally speaking, he was. He cheated on me when I dated him, and talked about it cheerfully. He liked the dirty feeling of dishonesty and shame. On the plus side, he had no mercy on himself, and would divulge private information with no regard for how it made him look: how he’d fallen in love with a middle-aged woman who was his supervisor at K-Mart; all the times his mother had made him cry; the things he fantasized about when he jerked off. He was ordinary-looking but alpha. He had a good time and loved himself.

And one day, Tom called me up to tell me an amazing thing had happened. He and Ted had gotten drunk the night before, and they were sitting on Tom’s bed when suddenly Ted tackled Tom and kissed him. Ted was in “Shall We Dance?” mode, holding Tom down with undue force that made it humorous and scary in equal proportions. Tom freed himself and Ted did it again. This time it was more frightening. Tom’s head was pressing into the headboard painfully, and he couldn’t free himself. Then Ted backed off and drunkenly blurted that he was in love with Tom.

Tom and I both laughed at this point in the story. Any unrequited love was a joke, and gayness was a joke that didn’t even feel real. So we laughed from nerves and from the habit of Patchwork. We laughed as a way of huddling together against both reasoned and unreasoning fear. I was already wondering whom I could tell, and what I could add to make it funnier.

Then Tom said he hadn’t told me the best part: he’d tape-recorded the whole event. As soon as he’d seen Ted was drunk and saying things Ted wouldn’t normally say, Tom had hit “Record” on his tape recorder. The recording wasn’t perfect, but you could clearly hear Ted saying he was in love with Tom. I said I needed to hear it, and Tom said he’d sell it to me for twenty dollars. We were laughing at our own badness now, and I bargained him down to ten.

But there was something about the way we were laughing. We hung up the phone, and it wasn’t okay. I’d intended to go get lunch, but I couldn’t. I sat there, sweating it. I wasn’t okay. And I was newly aware of Ted’s silence, his vigilance, all the things he never said. Tom’s telling me could be a betrayal, but Ted had attacked Tom. Selling me the tape was different. Ted was in love. This was real. It wasn’t okay.

In 1982, in towns like ours, nobody at all was out of the closet. People might know a man was gay, but they expected him to lie about it. In big cities, gay men might come out, but they were still expected to be comic figures, never demanding to have their love taken seriously. There was no gay love, just gay sex, which was an obscene joke. Any talk about a man in love with a man would be negated by the world; it would make straight people smirk, and that smirk would be impregnable. If a gay man wanted to be treated with dignity, he stayed in the closet all his life.

There were moments, even in my bullshit high school, when gay people broke cover. I once saw a kid being reprimanded by a librarian in a way he considered unjust, and he drew himself up operatically, put one hand on his hip, and said in a strident Quentin Crisp voice: “I beg to differ with you, madam!” In that time and place, it was so piercingly gay that it was as shocking as stripping naked. The librarian blanched and just walked away. He had weaponized his gayness and won.

Another time, I saw a gay student with Asperger’s Syndrome being taunted by a crowd at recess, as he had been all his life. But this time he cracked, threw back his head, and started yipping and flapping his limp-wristed hands in a pantomime of the gay weirdo, the reject queer they wanted him to be. The crowd fell silent, then began to applaud. One of the bravest things I’ve ever seen.

But nothing changed. There was no real epiphany. Crossing the school cafeteria at lunchtime, you heard the word “fag” ten times. And there was one day in high school, when Ted Cannistraro showed me the pink, ridged flesh where his fingernails should be, and told me that over summer vacation he’d torn off all his own fingernails. That’s homophobia. It’s something that doesn’t leave you in peace, even when you’re alone in your own bed. It’s a hatred that possesses your mind and turns it against you. It tears off all your fingernails. It can see to it that you live and die without having been held in someone’s arms, without having known romantic love. And sometimes you’re holding someone down and kissing them because that’s all that’s left for you to do, because for once you’re drunk enough to scream in God’s face.

So here’s the happy ending, as far as it goes. Tom called back five minutes later to tell me he couldn’t let me have the tape. I don’t remember what he said, but I remember my relief. I hadn’t had the guts to call it off, to break the Patchwork rules by saying a joke had gone too far. But Tom, who really was cold-hearted and sleazy, whose first impulse had been to sell Ted’s confession, had decided he cared too much about Ted. It didn’t matter to him if I thought he was gay. It didn’t matter to him if I told other people. He didn’t care if I knew he loved Ted too, or if I wanted to treat it as an obscene joke. I could do my worst.

But I wouldn’t—and we both laughed breathlessly, differently, as if we’d been in an accident and crawled out miraculously unharmed.

After college, Tom and Ted moved in together. As far as I know, they were never lovers, but they were more than ordinary friends. Tom once told me, “If I was gay, Ted would have been my husband, no question.” And they were living together when Ted began to get mysterious headaches and was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer at the age of 26.

A few years after Ted’s death, Tom called me, wanting to talk about Ted. We talked about Patchwork days for a while, then I told him about the two times I saw Ted just before he died. I’d been home in Massachusetts, and when I called, Ted told me about his brain tumor, but I wasn’t sure at first that it wasn’t a prank. The story had Tennessee Williams overtones that fit squarely into Ted’s aesthetic of humor. We went to Howard Johnson’s together and talked for hours, and I went home still not sure. If it had been a prank, it would be a really good one. I wanted it to be a prank so badly. But when I saw Ted next, he’d lost mobility in half his face. He didn’t mention this, so I didn’t either. We talked all evening, never mentioning it. In every other way, he seemed the same.

Ted expressed no feelings about his terminal illness. Only once, when he said he’d gone to the mountains for the weekend and I asked, “With your parents?” he said with bitter sarcasm, “No, with my secret lover.” Then he added, “He took me away on his motorcycle.” Already the anger had fallen away; it had become an example of all the things Ted now would never have. We were silent for a moment, and I wanted to ask if he’d ever had a lover. But that was still a thing you couldn’t ask Ted.

On the phone with Tom years later, I didn’t ask Tom either. It seemed wrong to ask behind Ted’s back. We were silent for a moment while I didn’t ask. Then Tom told me that, shortly after Ted’s death, he’d gone to visit Ted’s parents in Massachusetts. Ted’s mother took him to Ted’s old bedroom, kept exactly as it was when Ted was alive. Ted’s artworks were all in a trunk there. Tom was allowed to look through them, and he asked if he could try to mount an exhibition, but Ted’s mother didn’t want anything to leave the room. I asked Tom what the art was like, but all he could remember was one painting called “How To Bury Your Dead Pet Monkey,” a comic strip painting that simply illustrated the steps of burying your dead pet monkey. Tom couldn’t describe it in any detail. When I pressed him, he just said repeatedly, as if this could make up for everything, that it was genius.

Sandra Newman

Sandra Newman is the author of several books, including the novels The Heavens and The Country of Ice Cream Star, and the writing guide How Not to Write a Novel (co-authored with Howard Mittelmark). She tweets at @sannewman.

At Guernica, we’ve spent the last 15 years producing uncompromising journalism.

More than 80% of our finances come from readers like you. And we’re constantly working to produce a magazine that deserves you—a magazine that is a platform for ideas fostering justice, equality, and civic action.

If you value Guernica’s role in this era of obfuscation, please donate.

Help us stay in the fight by giving here.