I invariably fail Christmas. Perhaps this is a hidden feature of homosexuality that you don’t learn until you’ve been in it for some years. The best Christmases are spent drunk with friends and drag queens performing Mariah Carey’s “All I Want For Christmas Is You” in terrifying holiday drag. You’re wearing a naughty reindeer getup which is only a jockstrap and some felt antlers. Your friend is wearing a Santa hat and a latex catsuit. You’ve lost track of how many shots you’ve had and who cares, it’s Christmas.
Then you go home and are faced with the task of explaining yourself to the other America, the one gathered around trees giving presents to each other — the one where you must present a version of yourself that’s closer to something they can contextualize, a young man going somewhere with a course of life mapped out. You were getting fucked at a Christmas sex party the night before. Now you’re drinking apple cider and bowing your head for the breakfast blessing.
Dad has become a hugger. I haven’t quite grown comfortable with it, but I hug him back, delicately, like hugging a bull. When I was young, people said I looked like him. I never saw the resemblance — in his youth, he had flaming red hair and I’ve always been a brunette. But all traces of resemblance have gone now. His red hair has faded to gray. Our skin is different; mine tans easily, he is freckled and damaged from years out in the sun. I have a beard and earrings. I am muscular now because of weightlifting.
I am big, but he is strong, strong as an ox. He’s pushing sixty and still goes out to chop wood, build fences, dig trenches, and build footbridges over the river. He wants to die this way and he will. I envy his death. With HIV, I will die old and weak, a tired queen with cancer in some big-city hospital bed, my sassy friends gathered around me saying, “Girl, we’ll be here every step of the way.” He will die at twilight, sweat under his shirt, in an open field, with tiny purple flowers at his feet, collapsed after a long day’s work.
He’s a surgeon, but his strength is the strength of mid-Georgia farmers, men who worked at the quarry and the sock mill. My strength — like so many of my features — is superficial, a product of protein supplements and barbells. Mine was built for sex. His was built by life and its rigors. I am still so in awe of him.
He tells me I should come home more, and he means this. He misses me. But I’m not sure which memory he misses, which version of me he’d like me to present. My presence is, for the most part, a tense shadow. I am his great failure — his godless son, his faggot son. We are, in many ways, each other’s equal and opposite. I inherited his rage, his intelligence, his stubbornness. We embody ideological differences and are locked, unshakably, to our beliefs. I am proud of that in me and he is proud of that in him. His is my adversary, and I am proud that he is proud of what he thinks, and I would never want him to relent, not for a moment. If he did, who would I define myself against? Our horns are locked and we cannot move forward or backward. We are stuck here, half-ready for a fight, at any moment. As I walk in the door, as we give gifts, as I pour the cider — every second I am bared, ready.
Last year, I came home for Christmas a few days early, but I missed dinner. My family was seated at the table when I walked in. “Look who made it home!” Dad said.
“Yes, I made it.”
“Your sister made a great dinner tonight.” A note of dissapointment in his voice.
Rebecca looked at me: “I left you a steak in case you want it.”
Steak. They never eat steak. Steak is a special occasion. Then I realized this was a gift for me and I missed it. Christmas lights were hung in the kitchen. I imagined them doing all this last-minute, then waiting in silence until finally deciding to eat. No one had told me a time to arrive by. As I ate the waiting steak, they cleared the table and Dad started the interrogation. “How was the drive?” “How is school?” “Tell me about your classes.”
I have little to tell. Classes are hard. My work is hard. I want to tell them about the drag queens and the glow-in-the-dark paint parties. I want to tell them about my HIV. I want to tell them about the man who ties me up in his bedroom every Tuesday. But all this is the living art, the work that, in their eyes, doesn’t count for the future. I know I’m being unreasonable — every parent wants to know their child is prepared to face a hard world of work — but after a life lived here on a quiet farm in Georgia, the drag shows and paint parties are lessons I can’t encapsulate, an education I sorely need.
None of this would make sense to them. The work I’m doing at art school is fine, but most of it can’t be shown to them, not while they’re footing the bill.
As a family, we express love through money. They support my career at art school and I don’t speak a word about my sexuality. During my first year at college, I made the mistake of explaining a class, Color Theory. They laughed. “This is what I’m paying for,” Dad said. The class was about paint mixing, understanding how light affects hue and how light can be manipulated. It’s chemistry, I said. But no, it’s not practical. It’s not tissue and bone, incisions or symptoms.
My parents are doctors. The work they do is essential. We have always spoken different languages, but I can communicate things that are tactile — burnishing, etching, spreading ink — because this is closer to scalpels and skin. But my true language is forbidden. Foucault. Anti-truth. Marxist. These words are best left unspoken.
I wonder what they would like to hear. My new class, Design Four, is out of the question — it teaches time as an artistic element, as with installation sculpture and outdoor work. Active and negative space. Compositional decay.
We fall back on a neutral topic: what they’ve been working on, what projects they’re doing around the house. They’re building a bridge or repairing a barn or building a treehouse. I ask questions. So-and-so’s mother has cancer. Who? They are surprised when I don’t remember, as if it’s normal to remember mothers of people I knew in high school. Sometimes my dad attempts a discussion on sports.
“Alex, you need to know about this game,” he’ll say. “Your friends at school will be talking about it and you need to know about it.”
The last conversation I had with friends was about the word “patriarchy,” which they decided was too resonant of elitist liberalism to be seriously discussed. “Perhaps we should find a new word?” my friend Astoria asked, setting down her glass of wine. “Of course patriarchy is real and should be talked about, but the word is terrible.”
I offer my Dad this: “My school has a mascot. For the soccer team.”
“What is it?”
“We’re the bees. I just found out.”
“Alex, you’ve been there for four years.”
After dinner, I carried my bag upstairs to my old bedroom. The room was unchanged, untouched since I lived there, but I saw the most controversial books on the shelf had been put in the closet, which I felt was comically ironic. Ah, but they missed a few: Naked Lunch by Burroughs and The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins remained on the shelf.
I stepped into the bathroom where I first studied my body and knew I was gay. When was that? Five, seven years ago? Since then, my body had changed. More muscles, more tattoos. If my younger self could see me now, he would giggle with excitement. But I did not feel proud or handsome. Would I always be so unsatisfied?
I turned on the shower and stripped. I was never sexually active when I lived here, so I never douched before sex in this shower. Douching was now a tired sexual ritual. I wondered if my parents knew I did this. Do they think gay men just fuck shit? Probably. I wonder if they’ve questioned whether I’m a top or a bottom, or if they even know what these words mean. Do they wonder, “Is my son the ‘woman’ or the ‘man’ during sex?”
They may assume, as many straight people do, that we’re all maniacally versatile, fucking and getting fucked equally in large, orgiastic pits. Maybe they see us like worker ants — hive-minded, ravenous fuckers and fuckees in stinking bedrooms smeared with feces. The last time my father spoke to me about gay sex, he said, “It’s poop. That’s all it is. Poop.” I have never felt so ashamed in my life. I assume he knows nothing about douching.
My fights with him are my core ingredient — the element most responsible for who I am now. His face, aged and gray, transforms in my memory. His jaw opens and his eyes become glossy and red with points of deep black. His skin turns the color of blood. He clenches his teeth and stands over me — strong, impossibly strong, with the fury in his eyes I remember since childhood.
When I was little, whenever I misbehaved, he grabbed me and held me down on the floor, gripping my face in his hands. He held his body on top of me, his face inches from mine, his hand squeezing my cheeks and jaw, sometimes with my tongue sticking out. I once bit my tongue and tasted blood, but he didn’t stop. He held my head in place so I had to look up into his eyes. His spit splashed on my face. “Apologize to your mother,” he’d say between grit teeth. I couldn’t speak. I have never been so terrified of a person as I was of him.
I still see him that way, this heavy, red thing on top of me, suffocating me. In my memory, I am always small, always scared. Now I’m older and stronger and have dreams about returning the gesture, of gripping his neck in my hands, holding him down on the kitchen floor, and forcing him to stare up into my face.
Before my sexuality was the focus of so much discord, he and I were very close. We rode bikes together through the woods, through town, for miles and miles. But then my homosexuality was revealed. It appeared in folded notes passed to a friend in class, wrinkled in my pants pocket. It was found as strange underwear hidden beneath my bed. My parents are medical missionaries in Zambia, and I went on one of these trips during my junior year of high school. I fell in love with a guy on the team and cried in front of everyone when we dropped him off at the airport in Lusaka. The night we got home, Dad walked into my room with his Bible and asked if I was “still dealing with this gay problem.” Yes, I said, I was — and I didn’t want to fight it anymore.
After that, there were no more bike rides. When I return to this bedroom, I remember the nightly devotions. At night before bed, he would come into my room with his Bible. We read passages together, aloud. The verses were chosen to address my sin. After reading them, I had to pray for the part of my body that needed protection from evil spirits and touch my hand there as I did so. I touched my crotch and prayed for it. I touched my head, asking God to guard my thoughts. I touched my hands, one after the other, asking God to keep me from impurity. I did this as he watched, making sure it was done.
Before I left home, I would dream of stepping down to the kitchen at night, bag in tow, the keys to my pickup heavy in my pocket. My truck was so loud, they’d hear it the second I turned the key. How much time would that give me to get away? Could I? In the dream, the air outside was cold, the truck was silent, the trees icy and black, and I slipped away without a sound just as the dawn began to break. In the morning, when I woke up, I knew could do nothing but wait. Someday I would go to college. And I did.
My father is older now. He sits by the lamp in the living room wearing glasses, reading a book until he falls asleep. He asks if he can carry my suitcase upstairs, but I tell him no and grab it before he can do it. He asks me to join him on one of the projects around the house — staining wood, drilling floorboards, digging trenches. I tell him no, sorry, I’m leaving tomorrow.
In the shower, I got on my hands and knees and put my ear to the floor. I used to do this all the time in high school. Directly below me is the pathway between my parents’ bedroom and bathroom. I could hear their footsteps, they were talking as married people do at the end of a day. I never can hear them clearly, but some words come through.
My mother was probably in her white bathrobe, seated and beautiful, like an orchid. I love the smell of her lotion and the way she looks without makeup. Her place in my heart has shifted over the years. I decided I would never need her again when she supported the nightly devotions, when she said it was a good idea for me to talk to our pastor. They drove me to the church once a week to sit with him in his cold office. He told me everything the Bible said about homosexuality, and I told him I wanted nothing to do with the Bible. At some point, the meetings stopped. I don’t know when she softened, but I think she realized after I went to college that she would inevitably lose me forever.
How sad it must be as a parent to realize you’re too late. She has started scrapbooking our lives, mine and my sister’s, collecting report cards, drawings, and photographs in large leather binders. She hasn’t made it past high school for me, and I can’t imagine how she can go any further. She doesn’t know the rest, and never will.
At that moment, two words came through the floor: “tomorrow,” “engine.” Maybe he had to check on the tractor engine tomorrow. Then I became incredibly sad. I was filled with something like sympathy for them. They were given a child they did not understand. And I was cruel, too. I rebelled with fury at every turn. I lied and lashed out. I am my father’s son.
They know I will grow up to be an unanswered phone call. I see them, years from now, their hair white as sheets, quietly setting down the phone, having missed me again. I will live far away and return when obligated — for holidays and deaths — but I will not want to. And it was love and only love that made them keep trying to hold on to me.
I whispered down an admission that they were doing a good job, that I was holding out on them. Maybe it reached them through the floor, but I doubt it.