My family is trying. We have such a rocky and discordant history together that it’s hard to imagine a reality in which we actually get along. I see them making an effort and don’t quite know how to respond. I don’t really want to get along with them — they’re the villains from my teenage years that implanted me with my deepest shames and darkest fears. After all that, what claim to a relationship can one make?
I almost never go home, but when I do, my father hugs me now — he was never a hugger — as I’m gathering my things and tells me, “You should come home more often.” I want to spit, “I don’t really want to, and maybe you should have thought of this before you told me I would die of AIDS.”
I consented to spend Christmas with them this year. I arrived just after dinner. The leftovers were still on the table. When I walked in, no one stood up. “Look who made it home!” dad said, oddly cheerfully.
“Yep. Made it.”
“Your sister made a great dinner tonight.”
Rebecca looked at me: “I left you a steak in case you wanted it.”
Steak. They never eat steak. And then I understood: This was an occasion, one made for me, one that I missed. No one communicated that I should be home by a certain time, so I imagine it was intended as a bit of a surprise. I looked around the room. The house had been cleaned up. The floor was swept. The Christmas lights were hung in the kitchen. I imagined them doing all this last-minute today, preparing for my arrival. I pictured them sitting here in silence before finally deciding to eat.
Would it ever work, really? It seems we are bent on being something less than a family, more like an obligatory money-lending system. I, poor and in school, get financial help and in return, I don’t tell them the daily trials, struggles, and heartbreaks that happen in my queer life. I don’t think they want to know who I’m boning or who’s boning me, or which guy is currently on my mind.
They don’t want to know about my artsy-fartsy design classes. My father, a doctor, has already scoffed at the concept of color theory, so I can’t imagine what he’d think about design foundations four — a class that focuses on time as an artistic element and requires us to make temporary art installations all over town. If art is understandably viewed as useless and ephemeral, building something that inevitably gets in everyone’s way and turns to trash in a week or two must be the peak of absurdity. Unless I can present some hint that something I’ve written may lead to a job, I keep my mouth shut.
What, then, can we possibly talk about? Two things consume my time — sex and school — and both are off-limits. The faintest mention of religion or politics threatens a fight. Sometimes he tries to strike up a conversation about sports, and sometimes I try to listen, but it’s tough. He once gave me the argument that I need to know about some big game coming up between two bitter rivals because everyone at school will be talking about it. “It’s art school, dad,” I said. “Our mascot is the bees. I’ve been there for three years and I only learned that last month.”
Dinner was a failure — on who’s part, I can’t say — so I turned and lugged my things up to my bedroom. It’s bizarre coming home and stepping into the shower from your childhood. I was never sexually active when I lived in this house, so I had never cleaned my ass before sex in this shower. Douching before sex was, at this point, a tired ritual for me, something I could do without any thought. It’s remarkable how many gay men don’t want to talk about this because we all do it. It’s part of our sex lives. When we hunt apartments, we inspect the shower drain and see if it’s possible to install a shower hose — a good gay household has one in every shower.
How many anonymous hotel rooms had I cleaned in since I lived here? My parents likely don’t know the first thing about my sex life. Did they know I cleaned my ass before fucking? Or did they assume, as countless other straight people do, that gay sex is a shitty, messy, smelly affair?
I am still so angry at them. The hugs, the steak, everything they do seems like a poor attempt to make me forget the past. I can’t. Standing in my bedroom under this very roof, my father said, “It’s poop. That’s all gay sex is. Poop.” He breathed a moment and continued: “You’re going to live in an apartment that smells like stool, and you won’t even notice it, because you’ll just live in it.”
The amount of shame and self-loathing that instilled in me — the grotesque picture it created at a time when I didn’t know at all what my future would look like and was terrified of what it might be — has never left me.
I was scared and awkward and painfully alone in high school. I hated my body. I didn’t look like the other guys. I was skinny and covered in acne. I had so much going against me that homosexuality was the last thing I needed. And when I really could have used a parent, a caretaker, someone to cry on, my parents told me I was going to Hell, that my desires were the work of evil spirits, and that they’ve failed — that their work as parents, all our time together, all our trips, had led to overwhelming disappointment, because their son was a fag. A fag who’d grow up to live in a shit-smelling apartment with all the other fags.
I grew up to find a better life waiting. I became attractive. I won scholarships. I went to art school. By now, I have little to complain about. I’m still afraid of the future — what student isn’t? — but now I have so much hope. The world is no longer that threatening to me because now I have a community. Every time I come back to this horrible house, I remember how hopeless I felt. Every time I tell myself I’ll never be here again.
There is an unknown trick to my shower. I got on my hands and knees and put my ear to the floor. My parents’ office was directly below, and I could barely hear them. I knew what was below me — their closet, my dad’s belt rack, their printer, and their computers. I did this all the time in high school. It was impossible to hear distinctly what they said, but some words came through — my name, “tomorrow,” “engine.” This was where they talked about their next-day plans, their money, and us, my sister and I. If I listened closely, I could make out what problem was being discussed. Often it was me.
I love the smell of my mother’s skin cream and how she looks in her bathrobe after her makeup is off. I can’t say there’s a visual version of my father that I like most, but I prefer him in glasses. He wears them now when he reads in the living room. He looks softer, an aged man with silvering hair and lines in his face. They’re getting older, the house is empty, and they’ve lost me. Or at least they will — they know they will — if they don’t try.
How sad it must feel as a parent to know you’re too late, and all you can cling to are memories preserved in home videos. My mother has taken to scrapbooking our lives in large, heavy binders. She hasn’t made it past high school for me, and I can’t imagine how she can possibly go further. She doesn’t know the rest.
At that moment, I was filled with understanding for them. They were given something they did not understand — me. It must have been hard. They never said sorry, and I never forgave them, but at that moment, I came very close. I whispered down an acknowledgment that they were doing a good job and that I was holding out on them. Maybe it reached them through the floor, but I doubt it.