My best Christmas was spent drunk with friends and drag queens performing Mariah Carey’s “All I Want For Christmas Is You” in terrifying holiday drag. I was wearing a “naughty reindeer” getup which was only a jockstrap and some felt antlers. My friend was wearing a Santa hat and latex catsuit. Everyone got blisteringly drunk.
This was last Christmas. The next day, still coming down from my funk, I drove home.
Dad had become a hugger. I hadn’t grown comfortable with it — still haven’t — but I hugged 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 was different; mine tanned easily, his was freckled and damaged from years in the sun. I had a beard and earrings. I was muscular from weightlifting.
I was big, but he was strong, strong as an ox. My father was pushing sixty and still went out to chop wood, build fences, dig trenches, and build footbridges over the river. I knew he wanted to die this way — and he would. I envied his death. With HIV, I would 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.” Dad, in contrast, would die at twilight, sweat under his shirt, in an open field with tiny purple flowers at his feet. He’d collapse after a day’s work.
Dad was a surgeon, but his strength was the strength of mid-Georgia farmers, men who worked at the quarry and sock mill. My strength — like so many of my features — was superficial, a product of protein supplements and barbells. Mine was built for sex. His was built by life and its rigors. I was — and remain — so in awe of him.
On my visits home from college, he asked me to come home more, and he meant this. He missed me. But I wasn’t sure which memory of me he missed, which version of me he’d like me to present. My presence was, for the most part, a tense shadow — the promise of a fight, if not an actual one. As a son, I was nothing more or less than his failure — his godless son, his faggot son.
Dad and I have been, in many ways, each other’s equal and opposite. I inherited his rage, his intelligence, and his stubbornness. As adults, we have embodied ideological differences and remain locked, unshakably, to the opposed things we believe. I was proud of that in me and he was proud of that in him. And I would never want him to relent, not for a moment. If he did, who would I define myself against? Our horns were locked and we could not move forward. We were stuck here, half-ready for a fight at any moment.
When I got home, I had 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” he said with a note of disappointment in his voice.
Rebecca looked at me: “I left you a steak in case you want it.”
They never ate steak. Steak was 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 deciding to eat. No one 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 had little to tell. Classes were hard. My work was hard. I wanted to tell them about the drag queens and glow-in-the-dark paint parties. I wanted to tell them about my HIV. I wanted to tell them so much. But all that was the “living art” — the work that, in their eyes, did not count toward my future. I knew I was being unreasonable — every parent wants to know their child is prepared to face the world of work — but after a life lived on a quiet farm in Georgia, the drag shows and paint parties were lessons I could not articulate. They were the education I truly needed.
None of this would have made sense to them. The work I was doing at art school was fine, but most of it could not be shown to them — not while they were footing the bill. In the end, I didn’t say much, just gave the cursory details.
As a family, we expressed love through money. They supported my career at art school and I didn’t speak about my sexuality. During my first year at college, I made the mistake of explaining a class, “Color Theory”, and they laughed. “This is what I’m paying for,” Dad said. The class was about paint mixing, understanding how light affects hue, how light can be manipulated. “It’s chemistry,” I said. But it wasn’t chemistry, not really. It wasn’t tissue or bone, incisions or symptoms — practical things that had objective value in the world. It wasn’t the world my parents were familiar with.
My parents were doctors. The work they did was essential in every way that art was non-essential. We have always spoken differently, understood different concepts, but I could at least communicate things that were tactile — burnishing, etching, spreading ink — because this was closer to their language of scalpels and skin. But this was just a communication tool. My true language was forbidden. Foucault. Anti-truth. Marxist. These words were better left unsaid.
During the interrogation, I wondered what they would like to hear. My new class, “Design Four”, was out of the question — it taught time as an artistic element, such as with installation sculpture and outdoor work. Active and negative space. Compositional decay.
We fell back on a neutral topic: what they’ve been working on, what projects they were doing around the house. They were building a bridge or repairing a barn or building a treehouse. Then my dad attempted a discussion on sports.
“Alex, you need to know about this game,” he said. “Your friends at school will be talking about it and you need to know about it.”
My friends would not be talking 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 offered 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 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 felt was comically apt. 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, 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 fucked shit? Probably. I wondered if they’ve questioned whether I’m a top or a bottom, or if they even know about these words. Did they wonder, “Is my son the ‘woman’ or the ‘man’ during sex?”
They probably assumed, as many straight people do, that gay men were all maniacally versatile, fucking and getting fucked equally in large, orgiastic pits. Maybe they saw 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 assumed from that line — which has haunted my sex life — that Dad knew nothing about douching.
My fights with him were my core ingredient — the element most responsible for who I had become. His face, aged and gray now, could transform in my memory. His jaw could open and his eyes could grow glossy and red with points of deep black. His skin could turn the color of blood. He could clench his teeth and stand over me again — strong, impossibly strong, with the fury in his eyes I remembered from 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.
In my dreams, I still saw him that way — this heavy, red thing on top of me. In my memory, I was always small, always scared. Now I was older and stronger and often had dreams about returning the gesture: 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, my father and I were 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 were medical missionaries in Zambia, and I went on one of these trips during my sophomore 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. Whenever I returned to this bedroom, I remembered 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 Dad 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 truck 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 always so cold, the truck was silent, the trees icy and black, and I slipped away without a sound just as the dawn started to break. In the morning, when I woke up, I knew could do nothing but wait. Someday I would go to college. I would get away — and they’d foot the bill. And that’s exactly what I did.
By now, my father was older. Later that night, I’d see him sitting by the lamp in the living room wearing reading glasses, reading a book. On these visits home, he always offered to carry my suitcase upstairs and I always told him no. He always asks me to join him on one of the projects around the house — staining wood, drilling floorboards, digging trenches. I tell him no. This is what we’ve done. This was the result of those years: a son who feels obligated to return, but not love.
In the shower, I got on my hands and knees and put my ear on the floor. I used to do this all the time in high school. Directly below me was 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 could never hear them clearly, but occasionally some words — or what sounded like words — came through.
My mother was probably in her white bathrobe, seated and beautiful, like an orchid. I loved 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 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 lose me forever.
How sad it must be as a parent to realize you are 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 further. She didn’t know the rest for me. She never would.
At that moment, two words came through the floor: “tomorrow,” “engine.” Maybe Dad had to check 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 was my father’s son.
They knew I would grow up to be an unanswered phone call. I could see them, years from now, their hair white, quietly setting down the phone, having missed me again. And it was love — only love — that made them try to hold on to me.
I whispered down an admission through the floor 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.