Last Thanksgiving was the first time I took a boyfriend home to meet my family. This plan came together at the eleventh hour. Jose got his dates wrong — his flight to Caracas was scheduled three days after our college kicked everyone out of the dorms for winter break. He had nowhere to go. I told him he should come home with me.
As soon as I said it, I knew it would really happen, and it would be the first time I would do something like this. When I called my father and told him I was planning to bring Jose home, I presented this as a chance to showcase traditional, red-blooded Americana to someone from another country. “Jose’s never experienced an American Thanksgiving,” I said. “He’s excited to see what it’s like.”
Jose had no interest in the holiday, but he did need a place to sleep. We both knew he’d have to meet my parents at some point, and this seemed as good a time as ever. He knew about my rocky history with Dad. For example, he knew that last Thanksgiving, Dad told me my homosexuality was the work of evil spirits and I threw a suitcase at him from the second-floor balcony, followed by a can of bug spray that exploded upon impact somewhere in the kitchen.
Jose’s presence would keep us from doing something like that again. Southern people can be trusted to deliver hospitality even when they hate you. Dad would be on his best behavior. They would make Jose sleep in the guest room, and I told him this. The night before I drove home would be our last night sleeping together for a few weeks.
The truth is, things are getting better between me and Dad. I think he is bracing for my absence, and it’s softening him the way loneliness softens parents. When I graduate, I will become an empty gap — a lacuna. He knows it and I know it.
The problem is, I have seen the face too many times — the look of disappointment bordering on disgust. If he stood still, I could mold whatever expression he’s making into that face. I’d dim the light in his eyes, redden the skin, but could I capture that distinct spark? I’m not sure what it is, but I think it’s something like heartbreak.
I wonder if he still sees the boy I was, the one preserved in photographs hung by the TV, the one with skinny legs wearing an oversized shirt, six or seven years old, with big eyes and slack wet mouth, grimacing at the camera. I never knew how to smile as a child.
My parents’ house is very beautiful in the fall and I was excited for Jose to see it. We built it when I was in high school in a clearing of hardwood forest along the Ogeechee River. As you drive down the half-mile gravel road through the trees, the house slowly appears on a wooded hillside.
I parked. Jose squeezed my hand. “We can do this,” he said.
Dad walked out to greet us. “Dad, this is Jose.”
“Hey, Jose.” My dad shook his hand. Jose has an eyebrow piercing and nose ring. I saw these as if for the first time as deep insurrections.
Dad asked, “How was the drive?”
Jose ignored his question. “This place is beautiful!” he said. “The trees are amazing!” When Jose gets excited, his words barely come together. His English is perfect, but if he speaks too fast, the words tumble over each other and he sometimes has to start again. It is the most perfect thing.
In the house, my mother was warm and lovely and asked if we were hungry. Rebecca, my sister, had been cooking all morning. She stood by the fireplace. “Hey, Jose!” she said, then, “Hey, brother!”
This is how she greets me: “Hey, brother!”
The cast was assembled. Other family members came, my aunt and cousins. At some point, I pulled Jose aside and asked, “Are you OK?”
He said, “I’m OK. They’re really, really nice. How are you?”
After we ate, I took him for a ride on an ATV through the woods. Far from the house, we kissed against a tree. I unbuckled his pants and knelt in the dirt. His dick tasted so good, with the smell of a long day on it. It curves to the right and I have to tilt my head to take it to the back of my throat. We’ve wanted to do something like this for months but there are no semi-private outdoor spaces in our little college town.
Back at the house, Rebecca asked Jose about his tattoos. Jose is an illustrator. He showed my family pictures of his work. I couldn’t tell if they were impressed. He drew the tattoo on his arm — a mason jar filled with flowers. His sister and mother got the same tattoo — their mark of kinship. My sister loved it, but we both knew our family would never do something like that. Our parents hate tattoos, and I also don’t think we have the stuff to make that kind of public declaration of love. After years of discord, we are united by land and money and a name. Was that enough?
The next morning, I drove him four hours away to the airport so he could catch his flight to Venezuela. He checked his bag, we kissed, and then he was gone. The world normalized again. Colors became less vivid. I was alone.
I had done something significant — I had brought a man home for a holiday. It felt like a significant step in a gay man’s life — and it happened without a fight. No thrown luggage. No thrown bug spray. I called it a success. My family was changing, growing. Maybe even maturing. We were coming into something else, but I was scared to call it forgiveness.
I drove home through Augusta and made the mistake of stopping at a shopping mall to eat at the food court. I forgot that it was Black Friday, the biggest shopping day in America, and I was immediately trapped in a line of cars snaking around the building. There were very few places to park. I realized it would take a long time to get out so I just decided to park and go in.
The mall was wrecked. Piles of strewn clothes. Screaming kids. In the food court, I watched the crowd. Most were families with small children, but scattered throughout were teenagers on break from school. A girl nearby pointed: “Mommy, I wanna see Santa.”
“You shut your fucking mouth!” said a woman — her mother, presumably — from inside the store. “Don’t ask me that again!”
Somewhere overhead, Jose was flying through the air on his way to a country I’ve never been to. We know the political unrest in Venezuela is getting worse. His parents said this was likely the last time he could come home. His family is trying to move to Panama where it’s safer.
What is it like to go home for the last time? I have had an easy life. The only violence I know is American cops killing black people and mass shootings — our American violence. It seems distinctly cheaper and more embarrassing than the kind of true-blooded political unrest happening elsewhere. We’re a sham of unrest — it’s like the idea of violence when we do it. Jose’s stories from home are of kidnappings and car bombs, Molotov cocktails, and switchblades. When I hear these stories, I realize I have no idea what it’s like to live in a place of unrest. I’ve been sheltered — by whiteness, by my family’s wealth, by the trappings of conservative, upper-class stability in the United States. Protest. Despot. What do these words mean?
When I was little, I loved Black Friday, and Christmas, and all the stuff that happens at this time of year — caroling, candles, lights. But now I can’t think of anything more garishly American than Christmas — a time of demented consumerism, a commercialist pit, a black hole of waste and ruin. As a child, I always had a flicker of skepticism about Santa Claus, but I loved the rest of it. And I wanted to believe in Santa — I wanted to so badly, in fact, that many nights I prayed for Santa to be real.
My parents pray. When they do, they believe someone hears them, but the recipient is not a jolly man in a red suit. As I grew up — as their beliefs turned on me — I realized there was a chasm between believing in something and wanting to believe in it. I could do one but not the other. In the end, I believed nothing, but I wanted to believe in everything. I wanted to be someone who could speak of faith as something real and supernatural, something that really makes mountains move and blind men see. But all I found was just this, just what we were: a country, a people, divided, trivial, warring.
If I had a magic sleigh, I would follow Jose south and leave this American nightmare, the shopping mall, the horrible mothers and children waiting to sit on a man’s lap. I would drop down on his doorstep in Caracas, meet his father and mother, and be removed from the need to understand my own parents — relieved of my desire to forgive them.