It’s Sunday morning and we wait for pancakes in the only 24 hour business that is in our cornfield town. It is a greasy spoon and if you show up drunk at 2am a grey faced, gravel voiced woman named Roxy will serve you. It will be two more years before I discover this. Now I am 15 and still riding the rebellious high from the week before. I came out to the object of my unrequited affection. Her name is Anna. At the time we both hope she is bisexual, but a never ending string of boyfriends will prove otherwise. My hopes will be dashed. But we spent the night talking while the other girls at the sleepover pretended to sleep and for now I feel triumphant that I have told my secret to someone.
Our waitress takes a drag from a cigarette at the counter, and then serves
us our breakfast. In five years the smoking ban will irrevocably change
the morale of Ziggie’s waitresses. I chat with my father, but communication
has never been our strong point. He brings up the school play The Laramie
Project that should have happened this weekend. I was supposed to be on
the stage crew; it was supposed to be my first high school play. In my
mind, the importance of this event was twofold: my induction into high
school theater as well as my own personal acknowledgment of my homosexuality.
The school board cancelled it due to community pressure, and I spent the
night of my confirmation into the Catholic faith crying over the phone
to a friend and wishing I hadn’t shook the Bishops hand so heartily.
Four days later I told Anna.
I am thoughtful as I chew my pancakes and listen to my dad. I had managed
to get through the whole month since auditions without ever having a conversation
about the play with my parents. In sixth months they will tell us kids
about the impending divorce. Afterwards, in our shared room, Laura and
I will agree “finally” and “it was about time”.
The elephant in the room remains unacknowledged, but that is for another
My dad tells me everything a closeted lesbian could want to hear from
her father. He tells me that the school board shouldn’t have backed
down to the church groups. He tells me that he is a democrat and supports
gay rights. He understands why gay people move away from towns like Mendota,
but is sad that they feel they have to.
I am ecstatic. Jingly nerves are rushing through my body. The tips of my fingers and toes are buzzing and sharp like vibrating pins and needles. This is the physicality of being on the verge of telling a secret. I agree with my dad, but avert my eyes. My mind is running through the list of reasons to not tell my father: he works at my school, he shouldn’t know about my sexuality, he will never look at me the same, he won’t agree, he’ll kick me out, he’s an alcoholic, he is white, he is a man, he is old, he is Catholic, he is my father. I am building a new father in my mind; a father that is not the man who has raised me. He is the composite of a homophobic man and I am scared of his superiority. I create this new father because I am scared that my real father will not love me.
My dad is going through his mid-life crisis. Within months of the divorce my father grows a goatee, buys a new tractor lawn mower, and takes up salsa dancing. I am not even kidding. “Your Dad” jokes have become popular amongst my friends. He starts dating a blond woman named Gwen. He brings her as his date to my cousin’s wedding. At the wedding my Grandma coos over another cousin’s new baby. She worries that if gays are allowed to get married there will be no more babies. My uncle Don is gruff, “Grandma, there will always be babies!” I stand silently and adjust my shirt, hoping no one can see the stain on the back. I should have let Laura pick out my clothes. Later my whole family gets trashed and I have my first real drink of alcohol: my brother’s vodka and Redbull. I like it, but will refuse to drink it in the future. I have a heart condition
Alcohol bonds my sister and Gwen. After the wedding my dad and brother sleep in one hotel room. Laura, Gwen and I share the other. I am drowning in femininity, and grateful to change into pajamas. When I retell this story to my friend Sarah (the one who heard me confessing my sexuality to Anna the year before) her impersonation of Gwen includes an emphysema cough and a bit about getting cigarette ash into the casserole. I am thankful when months later; my dad doesn’t call Gwen back.
It is the summer after my freshman year of college. Since high school
graduation, I have slowly and quietly moved out of my mom’s house.
My old bedroom is now her craft room. In two years it will be her “art
studio”. At dad’s I take apart the bunk bed I used to share
with my sister. I don’t have a bed to replace it with, so now I
sleep on a mattress in our enclosed back porch. I love falling asleep
to the dark trees rustling against the window panes. Friends that stay
over think all the windows are creepy. I just hope the neighbors at the
church next door can’t see me when I change my clothing.
My dad had hip replacement surgery two weeks ago. After over 20 years
of coaching high school football and wrestling, his hips are in desperate
shape. He’s been limping for a year, but that didn’t stop
him from challenging my brother’s Marine friend to wrestle him on
Christmas Eve. The night before his surgery my dad put on his Salsa music
and danced throughout the house. Perhaps he was scared he wouldn’t
be able to do that again for a while.
When I realized I would be spending the summer taking care of my dad I had a panic attack. That’s not true. My panic attack was slow building and for many reasons. I was anxious, mostly, of suffocating. And of losing people.
My dad always had the habit of calling me during a Pride meeting. I would go into the hallway and say I was at theater practice. I would speak mechanically and tell him how busy I am. The whole time hoping I wouldn’t burst into tears after hanging up like I did that one time. The night before my grandpa’s funeral I made my dad wait until nine o’clock to come pick me up. I had a Pride meeting and then a group project on gay rights. Everything I do is gay. He’d just lost his father; I couldn’t tell him the truth.
My dad is recovering quickly but is not allowed to drive. I am surprised to find that I enjoy our days together. I am looking up a recipe for Jambalaya, and later will go grocery shopping. My dad has the Cajun cookbook he bought in New Orleans; I am looking through One-Dish Meals. He tells me about Cajun spices. I listen, but wish he’d just hand me the money so I can start cooking. His explanations are long winded and convoluted. I always wonder how he has been able to teach special education for all these years; I can never follow his train of thought. When I get home he will already have a pot of ingredients simmering, most of my cooking will be watching.
When Laura talks about her boyfriend, I remain silent. I spend the summer wondering what my dad makes of my nightly trips to Brian’s house. I stay till four a.m. most nights. We have to get caught up on Weeds and Lost. My dad never asks, but if he did, I would tell him that Brian is gay. I would not tell him anything else. I am constantly aware that I have to spend the whole summer in the house with him. I stir the jambalaya and add shrimp.
“Mel’s home for break … yeah, I made her some vegetable soup, she said she liked it. She’s reading a book right now … Yeah I went out and worked on Laura’s sink … I think I might turn that extra room into a bedroom, since they haven’t trashed the place yet”
I am shocked by how close my Dad and his new girlfriend Cathy have become. My dad is on the phone with her every day when he comes home from work. Every night before bed they call and tell each other about their days. My house is quiet and my dad is loud. It takes me a few days to learn to tune him out. They have the most boring phone calls I’ve ever heard. But he talks to her. He talks to her more than I ever talk to him. I smile at their conversation and go back to reading.
It has been seven years since I came out to Anna. The rest of my friends slowly followed. Within a year my sister and my mom both knew. I hadn’t planned on telling my mom, but when she asked me point blank at lunch one day “Melissa, have you come out to anyone yet?” what else was I going to say? I still haven’t told my brother, or anyone else in my family. My brother is getting married in October, and I will be a bridesmaid. It feels wrong to be a part of their wedding without them knowing. But I can’t tell them without telling my dad first.
I don’t know what to say. I used to have reasons. I used to think I had reasons. Now I know those reasons are wrong. The father I built for myself no longer exists. The excuses no longer apply. I am certain my dad already knows. He has stopped using gendered pronouns. Telling me I can bring a “friend” to dinner and that I should go to graduate school right away before I’m committed to “someone”. I am also certain that he will completely accept me and love me. Nevertheless, I don’t know what to say.
It’s no longer coming out. It’s no longer about my sexuality. It’s about finally being able to talk. It’s about apologizing for not wanting to trust him. It’s about letting everyone else in, even my mom, but not letting him in. It’s explaining seven years of not talking, but always caring.
My dad hangs up with Cathy and hobbles into the living room. His lingering limp makes him look more feeble and older than he really is. He takes a breath, “What’s the weather like tomorrow?”
“I don’t know.” I flip to the weather channel.
“What are you reading?”
“Something for school.”
“It’s really good, actually”
We sit in silence while the weather report comes on. Our silences are never comfortable. I think about how this moment is no different from any others. This moment isn’t bad timing, nothing is stopping me from speaking. All I have to do is take a breath and say the words, any words. My breath catches in my throat and I keep reading. No words are enough to convey what I need to tell my dad.
Dad, I’m gay… Dad, I’m a lesbian… Dad, sometimes
I don’t really know what I am… Dad, you probably already know…
Dad, I should have told you this sooner… Dad, I’m sorry mom
already knows… Dad, I’m sorry everyone already knows…
Dad, I don’t know how to tell you this… Dad, I don’t
know how to talk to you.