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Scattered Pictures #1: 58-Year-Old Chris Wells at "24? 25?"
"I was so afraid of being myself. I was still in the closet, at least to my family. I think I felt the only way to be free was to go somewhere far away."
This is a new series called “Scattered Pictures” in which contributors share an old photo and its backstory. - Sari Botton
Chris Wells is a writer/performer/teacher and the founding Artistic Director of The Secret City, a secular church of art founded in NYC in 2007. He’s married to the painter Robert Lucy. Chris has just finished his first novel, Je Suis Fatty Gay.
Here’s what I see when I look at this picture: me, in my mid-20s, 24? 25? Wearing black rubber bracelets made popular by Madonna. The cigarette. (God, I loved smoking.) The ashtray—maybe from Greece—which lived in our house growing up and my mom gave me when I got my first apartment. This however was not my apartment, the couch isn’t mine. So, where was it?
I’m glad I’m not standing so you can’t see how high waisted the jeans were. Black turtleneck, which I wore back then when I wasn’t too overweight. Is my hair dyed? I dyed it a lot in my 20s—bleach blond, black, silver, green.
There’s an ease in my pose that I don’t associate with myself, certainly not at that time. My 20s were chaotic. I struggled with stability: keeping jobs, holding onto apartments, paying bills on time, remembering to check the oil in my car. The 20s are typically a time of striving, but what I recall was trying to move forward and bashing into things constantly. Interesting, then, that here I look so at ease. But I still couldn’t place the couch. I messaged my friend Cheryl who sent me the picture awhile back, asking if she knew where it was taken. She responded:
“Oh darling, you were house sitting. It was either 89 or 90 and we had just walked to the grocery store. We were walking down the sidewalk and we were giddy and laughing and carrying on and the bird of paradise bush was growing next to the sidewalk and the two of us wrestled out that flower. We went home and made salad and drank port. We were listening to the Gypsy Kings and singing. It was perfect.”
Thank god for friends, right? Especially those who remember the details of our lives better than we do. That first apartment I mentioned, I lived in for about a year-and-a-half. It was actually a bungalow built in the 1920s, to house people who worked in the orchards of North Hollywood. I was an actor, working at Samuel French Bookstore in Hollywood. Shortly after moving in I realized there was a gay bar a couple hundred feet from my front door, just up the alley that ran perpendicular to my street. That bungalow was the first place where I brought guys home.
But I was incapable of staying still. I liquidated the IRA my folks had started for me, put my stuff in storage and went to Europe, with the aim of moving to India. I was so afraid of being myself. I was still in the closet, at least to my family. I think I felt the only way to be free was to go somewhere far away. But after spending a lonely summer in Europe I moved back to LA, a friend hooked me up with this house-sitting gig and I set about rebuilding my life. Not long after I got back, my dear friend Cheryl visited from Canada, driving a red VW bus.
I love how, in her note, Cheryl said it was “perfect.” That time, that day. The photo is a gift, not just of the past, but of a new perspective. Maybe I was the bird. Maybe this was paradise.
-Chris Wells, 58.
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