My Cousin George, son of my father's older brother, was just my age, tall and blond, with a hard chest, a thin belly, and a Southern drawl. He lived in Walterboro, South Carolina, a thousand miles from Rock Island, so I only saw him twice during my childhood:
1. We drove out to visit in the summer of 1967, when I was six years old.
2. Grandma Davis took me down on the train in the summer of 1971, when I was ten.
And once as a teenager, when he drove up for my Grandma Davis's funeral in October 1975.
What I remember most about my visits was the sizzling heat, the humidity,
and the beefcake. No one in South Carolina owned a shirt. I had never seen so many sleek muscular bodies.
We went swimming in the warm salty Atlantic Ocean.
At night Cousin George and I took our baths together together in scalding-hot water, and then slept naked together under thin sheets -- "only fools wear pajamas," he insisted.
It was not erotic, like seeing my older Cousin Joe naked. It was warm and soft and sensual, like falling asleep in the arms of my boyfriend Bill, back home in Rock Island.
We were kids; we never wrote or called each other. Occasionally my father would tell me something about his three older sisters, but he never mentioned Cousin George. Apparently my uncle never mentioned him. Was he dead, or disinherited, or a disappointment?
Savannah, Georgia, March 2005
When I was living in Florida, I got a job interview at a college in South Carolina, and afterwards I thought I'd look up my relatives. I visited my uncle and aunt, and Cousin Suzie, and then I asked about Cousin George.
They all exchanged glances. "Oh...um...we don't talk to him much," Cousin Suzie said. "He lives way down in Savannah."
"That's only an hour away," I pointed out. "And it's on my way home."
"Oh...um...he's busy with his own affairs, is all."
What would cause such obvious discomfort? I wondered. Only three things:
1. My South Carolina relatives were all strict Nazarenes. Maybe George was a backslider.
2. They were somewhat racist. Maybe George was in an interracial relationship.
3. Maybe he was gay.
Turns out: all three!
They gave me the address in Savannah -- they didn't have a phone number -- and I drove down. A massive African-American bodybuilder-type opened the door. Rod, the boyfriend! Cousin George came home from work about an hour later, a massive blond bodybuilder-type.
We went out to dinner at the Boar's Head, a gay-friendly restaurant in downtown Savannah, and talked about bodybuilding and our jobs and romances, and the difficulty of dealing with fundamentalist relatives.
"You should have known about me back when we were kids," Cousin George said. "Why do you think I wanted to take baths together?"
"And sleep naked," Rod added. "'Only fools wear pajamas.'" They exchanged a glance and laughed.
Apparently he had heard a lot about my two visits.
By the way, both Rod and George still slept without pajamas.