April 1981, Duluth, MN
Charlie, my father’s boyfriend, is dancing.
I am eight. I sit on the tan shag-carpet floor of my father’s duplex, playing The Empire Strikes Back game on the new Atari 2600 my father has bought for my entertainment (and to keep me occupied) during our summer visit. He is in the kitchen slaving over a batch of his famous taco burgers–giant bun-disintegrating slabs of ground beef, flavored with a jealously guarded secret spice recipe. The aroma of my father’s kitchen alchemy wafts pleasantly through the living room.
But the crackle of the skillet and the beeps of my intergalactic video combat are drowned out by the disco stomp of Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive” from my father’s huge console stereo behind the couch, where Charlie is dancing euphorically. Charlie is twenty-one, young, blonde and golden-tan like a California surf-boy. He is wearing red leather pants and an equally tight red leather jacket, unzipped halfway, revealing a tan hairless chest shiny with sweat. Charlie stomps and spins, red cowboy boots on the carpet creating an extra bass thump.
With each replay of “I Will Survive”—I am too engrossed in my game to keep track, but I blow up legions of Snow Walkers—Charlie twirls to greater heights of ecstasy, a red-leather–whirling dervish. My father calls us to dinner from the kitchen and Charlie and I protest, each lost in the middle of our current dance.
Ironically, but perhaps not surprisingly, I can’t remember what my father looks like during this visit.
My Father is Not a Bundle of Sticks
At age twelve I discovered this alternate definition of the word “faggot” in the Encyclopedia Britannica. My Father is not a bundle of sticks became my standard reply, a faux-humor verbal judo move, my attempt to deflect the initial assertion of my father’s homosexuality. Or the insinuation, in the brutal asphalt jungle of junior high circa 1984, that I might be a “faggot” too. This was an era when I worried a lot about the possibility of inherited homosexuality.
Slactivist, my friend Abigail calls me. It’s her term of endearment for the online marchers, the email petition-signers, the one-click agents of change. Abigail, my friend from high school with the two dads. I let her reference me in her book Families Like Mine; I joined PFLAG (Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays); I sat on a panel of Children of Gay Parents at the annual Rainbow Families conference; I carried the PFLAG banner at the Pride Parade.
But I was frequently the skunk in the rose-garden. I wasn’t there to celebrate; I was there as the cautionary note. I was the hired gun brought in for my willingness to speak sometimes-painful truths. Hey, I’m all-in for gay-marriage and adoption and 21st century families, but for your children’s sake, there’s some things you should know…
I wasn’t comfortable in the warrior’s shoes. I am not a brawler, although I have imagined beating homophobic rednecks, a kind of reverse Brokeback wherein the foul-mouthed bigot is left crumpled in the street like a Confederate-flag draped Matthew Shepherd retribution sacrifice.
But I can’t march anymore.
May 24, 1985
It’s my second day as a newly-minted teenager, and my father is taking me out for my birthday dinner. He’s brought Dave, his new partner of two months, a man who, at age twenty-one, is only eight years older than I am. The day itself is unremarkable except for three things.
One, my father and Dave hold hands as we walk across a busy Minneapolis street on our way to an Indian restaurant.
Two, a strange new-age religious ceremony breaks out during dinner in the open back room at the edge of the dining area.
Three, as part of some “becoming a man” ceremony, my father bequeaths me a box of Trojan condoms and a bottle of Carrington cologne—neither of which I have any idea what to do with.
My father had every right to hold Dave’s hand as he walked across the street—as much right as any other couple in the thralls of new love. It was a brave gesture, circa 1985, even in a liberal, gay-friendly city like Minneapolis. My father was out, and proud, and in love, and that should have been something to celebrate, something only a selfish kid or homophobe would begrudge. But I could not celebrate. I lagged a few steps behind, trying to cultivate an air of nonchalance, but I was full of fear, scanning the street for trouble.
We ate Indian food. I don’t remember if it was any good. I do remember that shortly after we were seated, a bizarre ceremony erupted in the back room just behind us, out of view but loud enough through the open doorway to intrude on our meal. There was some atonal warbling and chanting—we thought it was probably a cult of some sort. We laughed, the three of us—my father, Dave, and myself. I welcomed this harmonically-challenged distraction, a cover to take the focus off our trio, to make us no longer the most interesting table in the room.
As a thirteen-year-old I was acutely aware of my father’s sexuality. Part of this was simply being an adolescent, wracked by the onset of puberty. But a significant part of my discomfort came from living in a culture of oppressive hostility towards gay men. Even after we were seated inside the restaurant, ostensibly just any other group of people eating Indian food on a Saturday, I felt that trace heat of shame and worry. In my mind, I was still crossing the street, lagging purposely behind two men holding hands, and even though none of these people in the restaurant had probably even noticed, I felt the cloud of their assumed judgment lingering over me.
It is easy for me three decades later to imagine telling my younger self that everything was cool, that nobody cared, to just be proud of my father for his bravery. Because it was brave, that open declaration of love and defiant homosexuality. It still is brave in many parts of this country for two men or two women to hold hands in public. But it was much more so in 1985, in the midst of an AIDS crisis that had spawned a surging wave of anti-gay vitriol. Holding hands was an emphatic screw-you to a homophobic country, a defiance my father had earned, having lived in opposition to himself for so much of his life. My father deserved to live openly and exuberantly, even if I feared for him when he did so.
An Undeserved Reward
I cut my father out of my life for two years. Other than birthdays and Christmas which came with attendant dinners and loot, I declined all of his invitations. He took these rejections gracefully, without demand. He could have said, Goddammit, it’s my right to see my son, and made my mother march me out at broom-point to await his arrival.
But he didn’t. Instead, he got me a job when I was fifteen. My father lied to his employer, the owner of a wholesale floral supply company in the suburbs of Minneapolis, telling him that I was sixteen, and landed me a summer job working thirty-two hours a week at four dollars an hour, tax-free, under the table. In 1987, one hundred and twenty-eight dollars was a lot of money for a kid with no responsibilities.
My father and Dave were in charge of shipping and receiving. I rounded out the crew—a kind of gay-family mafia running the warehouse. My father picked me up every morning in their ’73 Buick Estate wagon. The rumble of the 455 engine through custom twin-pack glass exhaust pipes sounded like the Hells Angels coming for me.
In the fall of that year, I started tenth grade. On Wednesdays my father gave up his lunch-break to come get me after school so I could work three-to-nine and pad my bank account.
I’d like to think that I thanked my father profusely for rewarding his inconsiderate, petulant son with such a plum gig.
Summer 1977, Minneapolis, MN
My father has a terrible perm.
I am five. My father comes to pick me up, sporting an awful red-afro perm. Luckily for him, I am too young for fashion judgments. I stand on the top step, looking at this strange being I don’t quite recognize. Finally, by way of acknowledgement, I tentatively pat my father’s head, as if testing out the authenticity of his new springy red tufts.
I had a Polaroid from this late-seventies perm era, a picture of my father, taken during his trip to Hawaii. The snapshot catches him at the heavy end of the pendulum of his lifelong battle against weight. In his horrid floral shirt and stretchy blue pants, he looks like a polyester-clad, clean-shaven, redheaded tropical Santa. I use this picture as good-natured blackmail material until 1993, when my father comes across the dying yellowed Polaroid and makes me destroy the last evidence of that strange time.
Summer 1978, Minneapolis, MN
I am six. My father is coming down from Duluth to pick me up.
I love my father’s apartment—falling asleep with the cool breeze off Lake Superior fluttering the sheer white curtains (which glow in perpetual full-moons), the thick soft carpet underfoot, the blue gurgle and hum of my father’s half-dozen aquariums a soothing lullaby. I love going to Duluth.
At three fifty-five, I am perched in front of the living room window of my house, awaiting the 4p.m. arrival of my father’s big 70s car. (I don’t remember the exact model, but I know it was spacious and plush – my father preferred smooth riding Mercury and Cadillac sedans.)
At the hour, I move to the front steps, leaving my two kid-sized green suitcases at the top and taking root on the bottom step.
This works for another ten minutes, before my anxious energy propels me down to the sidewalk. Our house is in the middle of the block, so from the sidewalk I can get a view down to each corner. I know my father always comes from the north, to my left, but I give equal time scanning the corner to my right, in case maybe he’s coming from that side today.
By five o’clock, panic sets in and I begin a vigilant scouting loop, running down to the end of the block to scan left and right from the corner, increasing the scope of my watch from a half block to four blocks east and west. No cars come.
At sunset my mother tells me it is time for dinner. She has quietly put out a plate where there was supposed to be an empty placemat. I don’t want to eat. I am angry at her suggestion, as if it is her lack of faith that keeps my father away. She leaves me to my vigil a bit longer; she can see that pulling me inside by force will probably lead to a tantrum.
Finally, as dusk settles into the first shades of inky-blue summer night, my mother comes for me. I give in with the last gasps of light in the western sky, accepting the finality that she has been aware of for some time. (Strange that I don’t remember my stepdad in this scene, since he must have been home by the time I gave up. Nor do I remember my little sister, who had recently passed her first birthday. In truth I don’t remember anything past the moment of defeated acceptance. The details of what followed – bringing the suitcases back inside, the dinner, Friday night TV presumably, my parents’ efforts to salve my psychic wounds – none of these details mattered enough to survive.)
Twenty years later, I will revisit this day with searing clarity, watching my girlfriend’s five-year-old son scan the street below our apartment window for signs of his father. I see the same cycle play out on his face – hope, anxiety, fear, anger, sadness. Like watching a home-movie of my youth. With impotent rage, I observe and fight my urge to go find the boy’s father and beat him.
Fifteen years after this day, my father tells me there are reasons he didn’t show up. Pills. An overdose of tranquilizers or anti-depressants. The hospital wanted to declare it an attempted suicide, but my father is adamant it was not. It was anxiety, too many pills, a panic-attack, more pills. The details are murky. They come floating in a glut of back-story, personal history shared with me during my early twenties, when my father is wintering in Southern California in his motor home. He further unburdens himself each time I come to visit from Minnesota, the barrage of new information starting as soon as I throw my suitcase in the back of his beat-up white Toyota pickup with the mismatched brown doors.
My father talks nonstop during these annual fifty-minute drives from the airport to El Cajon. I sit in defenseless jetlag as he pours out his litany, mutely soaking up the details, resurfacing only when my father asks directly for my forgiveness. I tell him it’s okay, all of it, while secretly wishing he’d convert to Catholicism so he’d have somebody else to unburden himself to.
Can I Get Fries With That (October 1986)
I am a freshman in high school, a few months shy of my fifteenth birthday. Friday night, at a Wendy’s restaurant in Northeast Minneapolis near the apartment my father shares with Dave. Who knows what I am thinking as we unwrap the paper from our burgers and dip our French fries into little paper cups of ketchup. I slurp Dr. Pepper greedily through a straw. I am probably thinking about the ordinary dramas of my fourteen-year-old world—that girl in my French class, the promising start of the Vikings season, my favorite new Rick Springfield cassette.
But lurking under this mundane stream is the undercurrent of self-consciousness and fear that I feel every time I venture out in public with my father and Dave. Tonight at least, the cacophony of people packed into the restaurant provides a kind of buffer zone, a white noise buzz of clattering plastic, chewy conversation, and fast-food commerce. My father and Dave are not unusual. Our table is not worthy of scrutiny—we are just three guys eating burgers.
But my father drops a bomb into this moment: he and Dave have tested positive for HIV. ARC, or Aids-Related Complex, to be technical, but I don’t pay attention to the explanation of that distinction (good, I assume), struggling to digest this news as I numbly chew my burger. The plastic-chair proximity of Wendy’s on a Friday night is not conducive to a full exploration of the topic. I eat quietly, eyes down, fighting a surge of claustrophobia, willing my father to stop talking.
Autumn of 1986. The crescendo of AIDS panic, the disease a merciless death-sentence, my father’s friends dying, Rock Hudson dead, Reagan still denying. I have no more concept of the future than any other fourteen-year-old. I am still immortal, and thirty-seven—my father’s age when he tells me his life is over—is ancient, purely theoretical.
But AIDS is not theoretical—I understand AIDS as grim-reaper reality. I have seen the AIDS quilt on TV, and Ryan White, the teenage poster boy for the tragedy of this disease for “undeserving, innocent” victims, has died from his infected blood transfusion, and for the first time in my life I can see this finality in my father’s sad eyes. Sitting on that plastic chair I am confronted with a pre-ordained ending. Not if, but when. My father, speaking words I am no longer processing, has maybe a couple years left. Maybe only months. This new grim certainty is palpable in the air around me, invisible ashes settling on my skin, excruciatingly inappropriate for a raucous fast-food scene.
My father says, I just want to be there to see you graduate high school.
These words cut through; these words I understand. But I don’t believe these words. My high-school graduation is still four years away, an unbridgeable eternity. This is how my father begins to visualize his newly-truncated life. He will set the future in grim calendars, plotting his determination to survive just long enough to reach the next major milestone in the life of his son.
I just want to be there to see your college graduation.
I just want to be there to see your wedding day.
I just want to be there to hold my grandkids.
July 1981, Minneapolis, MN
Your father is gay.
I am nine. I sit in the big living room chair, across from my mom and stepdad, perched in nervous unity on the couch. They are trying to tell me something that I don’t understand.
Gay. Your father is gay.
Something about my father’s roommate Paul, the kindly schoolteacher who reminds me of Mr. Rogers. I like Paul.
You don’t have to go visit your father if you don’t want to.
I don’t understand this protective impulse, because I don’t comprehend “gay.” I’m too young to have been scarred by the negative connotations – weird, queer, wrong, perverted.
I am angry because I think they are trying to keep me away from my father. I don’t yet know that it is my father who has arranged this situation, that he is absent by choice.
October 1989, Minneapolis, MN
I am seventeen when my mother and I run into Paul at Target. I have not seen him in almost seven years. It is my mother who spots Paul in the book section and suggests we go talk to him. He is older, grayer than I remember, but clearly still your friendly neighborhood Mr. Rogers.
After an awkward start, the conversation flows easy like chatter between old friends. Paul asks me about school, what I’m studying, if I’ve thought about college yet. He tells a funny story about me as a young boy, which makes me redden slightly in flattered remembrance. He wishes me well and says it was good to see me. We don’t acknowledge my father.
Paul was my father’s first partner after coming out. He was caring and sweet and helped my father through a difficult transition. He was the conduit for my father’s first open foray into the gay community. He was a father figure almost, and my father knows that he owes him an un-payable debt.
But he screwed Paul over. My father was busting out, breaking free. He was shedding half a lifetime of self-repression and, “like a kid in the candy store” – his words – he could not help himself. He was a teenager again.
When we talk about Paul, years after my Target reunion with him, my father is wistful. He knows that Paul was a potential life-partner, even as he accepts that it was unavoidable timing that conspired against this outcome. But my father knows when he has let a good one go, and is haunted by this occasional melancholy. I have found this to be an inherited trait.
My father has known that he was gay, at some level, since his early teens. But if you were a gay teen in 1960s rural Minnesota, you fought it. My father spent fourteen years combating himself—over-compensating, drinking heavily and accepting every challenge to his manhood, no matter how ridiculous or liquor-soaked. He attempts to drink himself straight, chasing a perceived escape in the oblivion at the end of an empty bottle.
It is not until age twenty-eight, after two marriages and a lifetime’s worth of liver damage, that my father comes to terms with his sexuality.
At the end of his first session with a psychologist, the shrink tells him, “Ed, you’re gay. Go forth and be happy.”
My father doesn’t seek a second opinion. He goes forth. And he is, if not yet fully happy, at least exuberantly shed of a significant weight of unhappiness.
In some ways, I am envious of the “coming-out” party. The catharsis, the sudden understanding, the moment of acceptance, the newfound self-love, the forgiveness.
June 1990, Minneapolis, MN
I am eighteen, recently graduated from high school, waiting to move into the dorms at the University of Minnesota in September. I’ve had a blowout with my stepdad. The conflict itself is not unusual; by this point, I’ve been re-hashing the same battles, fighting the same self-sabotaging guerilla war of underachievement since junior high.
But, the intensity of this battle is a breakthrough, a turning point. When the smoke clears, I tell my mother that I’m going to go move in with my father across town, my jaw set in the defiance of eighteen, resistant to her tearful request that I just stick it out, since I’m only going to be living at home for a few more weeks anyway.
My father tells me that I’d be welcome at his place, even if it means sleeping on his couch. He will not tell me no outright, but he asks me to think of my little sister. She has just turned thirteen; she is sensitive, awkward. My father proceeds with the logical argument against my moving out, entrusting me to think of her. I can’t help but visualize the fracture in my sister’s face as I carry my suitcases out.
This is a brilliant tactical maneuver. My father won’t tell me no. He merely leads me to a place where my heart overtakes my ego—not an easy location to find in the psyche of a stubborn, angry eighteen-year-old boy.
New Millennium Diagnosis
The months and years roll on. By some miracle my father does not become another statistic, another square in the AIDS quilt. Almost imperceptibly, the disease recedes into manageable annoyance. No more discussion of T-cell counts. No more setting benchmarks. No more news of friends passed on (although most of his friends from the 1970s and 80s have succumbed). No more assumption of finality.
In 2000 my father is diagnosed as diabetic. I find this news strangely celebratory; the sheer normality of the disease and my father’s daily precautions—needles, pills, pricked fingers —is proof of life. People with an impending demise are not concerned with their blood sugar.
I have acquired an advance promo-copy of Brokeback Mountain for my father. This is a big deal because much to my father’s disgust, not a single movie theatre in the entire state of Alaska, his home of seven years by this point, is showing the movie. This has prompted a spate of polite but forceful phone-calls and letters from my father, who has become much more politically active in his fifties. These bursts of activism, like the stories of his confrontations with Alaskans of a homophobic stripe, always make me wince. On one hand, I’m proud of his freaking cajones since a confrontational spirit is not the usual outcome of the Midwestern protestant upbringing. On the other hand, he lives in Alaska, still not exactly a hotbed of liberal acceptance circa 2005.
My father’s current partner—we’ll call him Bill—is a first-grade teacher who is “out” only in limited engagement (close friends and family). In the schools of suburban Fairbanks, you could still get fired (or much worse) for being a gay teacher. My father and Bill have had a P.O. box address for the nine years they’ve lived together. You can’t look up their physical residence in any public directory; no mail need be delivered to their non-existent driveway mailbox.
When I tell my father that I have procured an advance copy of Brokeback, thus sparing him the extra eight-month wait until the film will be available on DVD, he is noticeably appreciative.
My father receives the DVD in the mail and watches it twice, back-to-back, shedding more tears during the second viewing. He calls me the next day to thank me, and then tells me that he has “his own Brokeback story.” Before he can offer details, I tell him I’ve been writing a screenplay about a teenager growing up in 1960s rural Minnesota, the crux of which is an affair with a Native American boy that breaks the local taboos of sexuality and race.
My father tells me you are writing my story, and I feel a chill across the 2500 miles of our digitally-bridged divide.
I have probably known this all along, that I was re-casting the western cowboys of Brokeback as Minnesota farmers. Even after I became self-conscious of the obvious copycatting and changed the story to a heterosexual (albeit still extra-marital and inter-racial) affair in the Minnesota woods, I knew this story in a way I didn’t understand.
There was something deeply rooted in me that wanted to tell this story, even if I didn’t understand why it poured out in black ink before me. Can a story be inherited? Is my subconscious knowledge genetic?
Is it as simple as the fifty percent of me that is my father?
My father first asked me to write his story a year after Brokeback, a request I have repeatedly deferred. Upon the third mention of it, I told him that he should find a good gay-friendly writer to work with, because we’re too close. In order to write the story, he would have to tell me things that he might not want to share, and I might have to hear things I don’t want to know. The danger to this story—as with any story—is that we might hold back at crucial junctures.
But the truth of the matter is that I don’t know if I’m capable of undertaking this weight. I have found a comfort zone in my thirties—my father in Alaska, me in the lower forty-eight, occasional visits, at least one long-distance chat per month. The thought of purposely digging into the past—of unleashing a personal avalanche, of upsetting this delicately balanced emotional comfort—causes me to stall.
My father has started taking copious notes, even as he’s agreed not to push me on being his biographer. He’s a great storyteller in the shooting the shit at the dinner table sense, but he knows that his pen bears forth a stunted prose, the scars of a poor farmer’s education.
I will offer, if there is an end-of-life bedside scene in our future, to write his story posthumously. But for now, I let him go on making notes.
A Parade and a Near-Fracas
The 2000 Minneapolis Gay Pride Parade is the only parade in which I’ve ever marched. I’m one of fifteen COGPs (Children of Gay Parents), our simple PFLAG banner very plain in comparison to the crazy costumed Carnivale of our fellow marchers. We all wear baby blue t-shirts that read “Some of My Best Parents Are Gay.”
I feel a little uncomfortable. This is partly first-parade jitters, but also our contingent seems painfully boring and straight amidst the sea of colorful flamboyance.
To my surprise, we are the stars of the parade. There is a lot of celebratory cheer for the Queen of Pride, the Gay Men’s Chorus, the floats of the leather-clad and sequin-wigged. But, for our color-coordinated t-shirt band, there is adulation. Men and women come into the street to thank us, and the love in the cheers from the throngs along the parade route reminds me of political rallies, of the Metrodome crowds at the World Series in ’91. It is difficult to hold back the tears in the face of such an outpouring. Halfway through the parade, I volunteer to carry one end of the wooden pole flying our banner because it gives me an excuse to focus solely on the asphalt right in front of my feet.
Rainbow Families Conference, Minneapolis, MN
At Abigail’s request, I am sitting at the Children of Gay Parents table with three other panelists in the cavernous main chapel of the Hennepin Ave United Methodist Church on a cold February Saturday in 2001. For the first fifty minutes of our one-hour session, there is a vague feeling of celebratory worship, almost a gay-liberal version of a revivalist meeting. A lot of love.
With mere minutes left on the clock, a man in the audience takes the microphone being passed around the crowd. He begins a long-winded backstory about volunteering at his seven-year-old son’s school. A few months earlier his son had asked him after one of his classroom visits if he might tone it down a little, so to speak. At this point he launches into what I’m sure he believes to be an empowering rant, about how many years he spent in the closet and how he’s not going back in and how hurt he was by his son’s request.
As anger boils up from my belly, I stop listening. I hold my hand out to my left, blindly awaiting the microphone shared with my panel-members, eyes still locked on the speaker. Although I’m not sure if he even ends in a question, I’m already formulating my response.
“Fair enough,” I breathe into the microphone. Like a good Midwestern boy, I offer some calming platitudes, trying to dampen the tinder a bit before striking the match.
“But, this isn’t your boss asking you to be less flamboyant. This is your seven-year-old son, who has no control over his life. So, if he asks, you can sacrifice a half hour of pride for his well-being.” I see the facial muscles of my adversary tensing to spring back into action, but I wave him off, raising a finger to make my point. “Your son isn’t judging you, and yes to kumbaya, and in a perfect world we should all grow up with tolerance and love, but your son still lives in second grade. Second grade. You have to put his needs first. Period.”
To my surprise, during the pleasant afterglow of the post-panel “meet and greet,” this little willow of a man (5’5”, maybe 110lbs) charges me like he’s a stuck bull and I (6’2”, 175) am the red-waving matador. I can see the anger steaming from him and I reflexively set my feet against impending contact, thinking for a moment that he’s actually going to crash into me.
He stops just short and unleashes a verbal flurry, a long-winded extrapolation of how dare you? I play rope-a-dope like Muhammad Ali, biding my time before counter-punching.
“Your son is not a pawn in your crusade.”
This is the last line that’s clearly audible to both parties. It sparks another angry tirade from him and, since the gloves are now off, I don’t feel inclined to listen. We shout over each other and, during this exchange, he jabs a finger into my chest. I get lost in the absurdity of this moment, torn between respecting his fervency and questioning his foolhardy bravery. As my anger rises, I imagine tossing him into the third row of pews, and the tarnished headline of next month’s Rainbow Families bulletin – The Gay-Straight Rumble In The Nave Of Hennepin Ave Methodist! He jabs me again, angered by my smirk. Though squashing my undersized opponent in a church seems doubly wrong, there is something about his burning need—for my repentance, my apology, my submission—that makes it severely tempting.
Fortunately, one of my fellow panelists steps in to prevent a full-blown fracas.
My friend Abigail and I are from an older generation of Children of Gay Parents. Most of us are the byproducts of “accidental gay families,” a heterosexual union where at least one parent was living in some stage of denial. We frequently experience a gulf of separation from the kids half our age that grew up in “planned” gay households. Although we unplanned-COGPs suffered through divorce and sometimes-awkwardly reconstituted families, we had it easy in many respects; there wasn’t any pressure on us, beyond the usual parental desire for their children to be successful, happy and healthy. We weren’t forced to grow up in the spotlight like the kids of this new family vanguard are.
Homosexuality is biological, but being gay in America is still political. One of the boys in the “COGP support group” came out to us, and the world around him, for his seventeenth birthday. While this was met with love and support in the cozy confines of our group, I felt bad for the kid, because there is an occasional backlash in the community against second-generation homosexuality.
These kids of “planned” gay families can’t just be normal kids; they have to be great kids. Perfection. Because they are the end result of the social experiment, they are the necessary proof, for or against, gay parenting. “See, gay parents raise gay kids! Nurture, not nature! See?” At some point these kids become aware that any failures will be used as unscientific ammunition in the arsenal of the forces arrayed against gay marriage, adoption, foster families.
So, when my young compadre came out, he didn’t notice my wince, didn’t realize that he’d unwittingly become a potential adversary of his own mothers’ rights.
I haven’t read Abigail’s book in the decade since it was published. Neither the signed hardcopy version, nor the paperback version with an epilogue featuring my own father. I looked myself up in the bibliography and read my blurbs – (Wisland, Kirk, pp…) and then read my father’s paragraph in the paperback. Nothing more. Abigail always wanted to break on through. I just wanted to get by.
Coming of Age with Dave
When I met Dave, he had just turned twenty-one. I was thirteen. He and my father were partners for thirteen years, until just before my twenty-sixth birthday. In a sense, Dave and I grew up together.
My father and Dave were an odd pair, visually. My father is tall like me, but beefy. Good looking, in a robust John Goodman farm-boy way. Dave is short. I towered over him by age fifteen. And he’s almost excessively male. He has a thick black gunfighter mustache that obscures his upper lip, and a ridiculously deep voice, a sub-bass rumble that emanates up from his belly and seems impossible in such a small guy, as if a biological overcompensation for his limited stature.
Dave was a wild child, an epic drinker. My father was the caretaker—sober, pragmatic—reprising this role for a second time after red-leather Charlie. In my father’s first relationship, he was the wild child. Paul was the older caretaker and father figure. After that relationship, my father flipped roles and proceeded to try and save Charlie, and then Dave.
My father is a natural in this role. He is a master planner, a disciplined maintainer of household budgets. At his best, he’s an organizational powerhouse. At worst, he’s a control freak.
But Dave was still essentially a kid when they met and, by the time he turned thirty, I found myself sympathizing with him a little. He was stuck living in a small Airstream trailer with my father, spent summers in Alaska working for my uncle’s construction company (no real gay community), and then spent winters in El Cajon, surrounded by gray-haired, mostly straight retirees. My father takes to this RV lifestyle like a nesting bird; content to prematurely age while he gossips with the old ladies of the RV park.
Dave, I could see plainly, chafed under the yoke of this minimalist regime, limited to generic cigarettes and the single six-pack of beer per week that my father’s stringent budget allowed.
By 1995, the decade-point of their relationship, Dave seemed even more excited than my father for my visits. I realized, as we would smoke cigarettes and drink beer under the cold California mountain stars, that he was desperate to feel young, to drink and smoke and share stories about classic-rock-sound-tracked youthful exploits.
So, I clearly saw the end years before it happened. I could see the bonds of love, the initial handholding of my thirteenth birthday dinner, reduced to a co-dependent budget. I saw that Dave wanted to break free, but that he knew he couldn’t really afford to do so. I know he hurt my father, during their final years together. They lived in a cycle of Dave’s booze-fueled indiscretions, repentances, and my father’s forgiveness. They were desperately clinging to one another—my father, driven by fear of being alone, and Dave, by his inability to make it alone.
This coincided with the self-annointed “lovable-loser” phase in my life, during which I treated women like disposable objects. I realized, with some chagrin, that I was not my father. I was Dave.
This embarrassing truth hit home when my father told me that my on-again-off-again caretaker girlfriend called him one night, wounded by my callous indifference to her discovery of one of my affairs. While I was pissed beyond words at this breach of etiquette—as she’d only met my father once—I understood why she called him, why she felt a connection. They were soul mates in a sense, both clinging to the cracks, unified in trying to understand their suffering. “How can somebody I love so much still want to leave?”
Goodbye Brother David
After my father and Dave finally split for good in 1997, my father talks of it like a divorce which, minus the paperwork, it is. He tells me that it’s up to me to define whatever kind of relationship I want to maintain with Dave.
I put it out of my mind until Dave moves back to Minneapolis the next spring and shows up at my door one night, swaying drunk. The smell of booze radiates from him like waves of Vodka.
I tell him I’m busy (a lie), but that it is good to see him (lie number two), and then finally I promise to go have a beer with him at some unspecified later date (not a lie), a pledge elicited under the duress of trying to get him to leave.
I put Dave off for a few more weeks, until my phone rings at 11p.m. on a Saturday night. I can practically smell the alcohol over the phone; the guy Dave’s living with keeps a well-stocked bar. I try to empathize. Dave doesn’t know anybody, he’s bored and lonely.
So when he suggests that I come over and drink at his place, I offer a string of polite but firm refusals, again offering the carrot of that “beer at The Uptown” in the hope of ending the conversation.
“We do n’t have to have sex,” he slurs on the other end of the line. In the nauseous moment of silence that follows, the burn of those words in my ear obliterates every good memory we’ve shared.
“I can’t even believe you just said that,” is all I can manage before hanging up.
He doesn’t call again. I don’t tell my father. He would kill him.
Summer 1981, The North Shore of Lake Superior, Canada
I am nine. My father and I are circumnavigating Lake Superior in his big, smooth-riding Mercury sedan. My father has an 8-track of early Elvis hits, which I make him play continuously. I love Elvis, and sing along, Don’t be cruel… ooooh wooo oooh… to a heart that’s true. My father replays this 8-track for the entire week we spend tracing the shore of the great lake. He is an Elvis fan as well, but still I can’t imagine – being childless – that kind of selfless love. Two thousand miles is way too many sing-alongs of the same fourteen songs.
There was a batch of pictures taken on that trip, snapshots of me wearing my yellow two-piece pajamas with the soccer players on them. I’ve just had my bath, and my father, at my request, has slicked back my wet hair into a Presley-esque pompadour. He fires off several pictures of me doing my best Elvis impersonation.
Did my father ever second-guess introducing me to the King? Did he consider, maybe by the time we reached Sault Ste Marie, pitching that Elvis Gold Records 8-track into the lake when I wasn’t looking?
My father has always loved me unconditionally, forgivingly, without any concern for my success beyond my personal happiness.
Did he feel guilty about the divorce? About living four hours away for all those years during my childhood? Did he try to overcompensate for his perceived failings?
Did I take advantage of this? Did I push my luck, test my limits, because of some childhood understanding of the guilt dynamic? Was I a bad kid?
Am I a good son?
November 1967, Hinckley, MN
My father is eighteen, standing in the cold dim sun at the cemetery outside of town. Knifed by the wind, he is one man among a crowd of people gathered to bury a local Native American man killed in Vietnam. The deceased is two years older than my father, drafted right after graduating from high school.
My father’s heart is breaking, but nobody can know. The man in the casket being lowered into the ground is my father’s first true love. My father wants to sob, but fights the tears. The secret of their union will be buried this day.
His heart is breaking but he cannot tell anyone. He is surrounded by family, friends, his future wife. Nobody can know. He holds tightly to his surging, private grief, struggling to look like just another one of the young man’s grieving classmates.
They are burying his true love.
Nobody can know.
KIRK WISLAND is a PhD Candidate in Creative Writing at Ohio University. His essay collection The Melancholy of Falling Men was selected by Roxane Gay for the 2015 Iron Horse Single Author Chapbook Prize and his essays are dispersed across print and internet, having appeared most recently at Terrain.org. Kirk lives in Tucson, where he is working on an expanded book-length version of this essay. He is happy to report that his father, twenty-nine years after his diagnosis, is one of the longest surviving HIV-positive men in the United States. (@KirkWisland)