Curious and Queer

April 17, 2012
By Mary Arbor SILVER, San Diego, California
Mary Arbor SILVER, San Diego, California
5 articles 0 photos 0 comments

I was a curious kid. One who liked to explore the trenches of neighborhood construction sites while the workers were on their lunch break, concoct witch’s brews out of Play-Doh and rosemary, traipse though the canyon behind my house, and attempt to guess which of my stuffed animals would fall off the ceiling fan last. My mom embraced this side of me, and encouraged me to continue my adventures as long as I was home when the streetlights came on and never crossed the street without first asking permission. These rules were simply designed to keep flesh on my bones, so I followed them. For the most part. I never got into serious trouble, only tested the limits I knew I could get away with, and my occasional misdemeanors usually went unnoticed, or punished only with a laugh or a soft scolding. My mom understood. As an explorer, a detective, as a tree house enthusiast, I’d come home at sunset with scratched up knees, dirt on my face, a stubbed toe caked with blood, and a huge smile, eager to tell my stories without ever thinking twice about slowing down, being cautious, or sitting still.

My father knew me as quiet and reserved. Time spent at Mom’s house was baking homemade cherry pie and licking the goo off my fingers; time at Dad’s was playing cribbage with my sister. Time with Mom was dancing to Diana Krall around the kitchen as she held me against her apron to “Fly Me to the Moon;” time with Dad was driving with no radio. Time at Mom’s was pulling apart juice boxes to make frozen-lemonade-orange-juice-and-blueberry shushes; time at Dad’s was unsalted almonds. At Dad’s I ate the same thing for dinner during each visit- Fish Sticks, every Thursday night for three years until one evening I peeled back the bread coating, found a scale, and refused to touch one ever again. We ate dinner at the same time, watched the same TV -- Survivor, Oprah, or Polly, if we asked nicely -- and read two books before bedtime each night. I knew that as soon as my dad read the final verses of Goodnight Moon, “Goodnight stars, goodnight air, goodnight noises everywhere,” the lights switched off. My sister learned to fall asleep before he turned the last page. I would sit up in bed after my dad kissed my forehead in awe of her peaceful slumber, rolling onto her side as soon as he closed the door behind him. I could never fall asleep at my dad’s house. Instead, I spent nights sitting against my dresser making lists of rhyming words, filling out Mad-Libs, crocheting miles of purple yarn, and squinting to read in the blue-green glow of my fish tank. I struggled through Harry Potter before I could pronounce Voldermort, memorized Where the Sidewalk Ends, The Little Boy and the Old Man and hundreds of other Shel Silverstein poems. I learned to never read The Little Mermaid last, or Ursula would disturb my sleep, pulling me with her thick purple tentacles into the depths of a watery nightmare.

One morning, my sister sat between my dad and his partner John on the white and blue tiled bathroom counter while they got ready for work, telling them about her week - my sister loved to talk, especially when her audience was unable to interrupt her. She turned to John to say, “I told all my friends at preschool that my dad sleeps with an old bald man. They want to know if you wear dresses.” Both of my fathers promptly spit toothpaste all over the bathroom mirror, John, laughing, my father horrified. My dad, who feared the effects of his sexuality on our upbringing, struggled to understand that my sister and I never found a reason to be embarrassed. John, on the other hand, understood that miscommunications often arise, especially when we were too young to understand the politics of homosexuality, and instead of finding these misinterpretations a source of shame, he could laugh at the awkward encounter. The most prominent effect of my father’s sexuality as I grew up was not humiliation. It was not resentment. It was not shame, but was instead a sense of pride.

People ask the stupidest questions. “Your dad is gay? That’s so cool!” “Do you live in Hillcrest?” “Were you actually adopted by two men?” “Do they paint your nails and take you shopping every weekend?” “Does that mean you’re gay too?” “Do they listen do Lady Gaga? What about Celine Dion? Cher?” “Every gay guy loves Madonna, right?” “Do they hit on your boyfriends?”

Our society has a fascination with the unusual. The atypical entrances us in confusion and wonder. Growing up, I never struggled to separate my dad from his sexuality. Sure, we get pedicures once a month, I knew the entire soundtrack to The Sound of Music by age five (he even dressed up my sister and me and dragged us to a sing-along to prove it) and to this day my father claims that Gilmore Girls is “the best damn show on television” -- but that’s not all my dad is to me. My dad is not feminine, not in-tune with high fashion, and not a stereotypical gay-best-friend who will watch Serendipity or Sweet Home Alabama with me as we give each other facials. Instead, he drinks a beer when he gets off work, never misses a Patriots’ kickoff, and farts a lot, often in public, just to embarrass me. It seems absurd that the image of glitz and glamour that today’s youth associates with gay culture could be applied to my dad. He is not fabulous, flamboyant or feminine. For the most part, he’s just boring.

In eighth grade, a boy named Michael told our English class that he didn’t think gay marriage should be legalized because that would make it seem okay for gays to have kids, and the kids would end up “messed up.” I raised my hand.

“Do you think I’m messed up?” I asked.

“No,” he responded. “Why?”

“My dad is gay.” I stated. He bit the inside of his lip, but said nothing.

When I think of my dad and John, I do not think of them as a gay couple. I think of them as my parents, who love me unconditionally. Their imperfections are undeniable, but the unwarranted hate and pain they have endured simply for falling in love in an unorthodox manner astounds me. As soon as I recognized the bigotry and injustice that exists in our society regarding issues of homosexual equality, I always hated myself for resenting my father. I became hypersensitive to gay issues, and never hesitated to speak up when someone said queer bait or faggot or repeatedly taped “Yes on Prop 8” posters to my locker. But regardless of how much I loved my dad and admired his ability to stay true to himself despite his conservative, Roman Catholic, New England upbringing, I couldn’t help but resent my relationship with him. His overbearing organization and perfectionist expectations of military-folded bed sheets, unchipped nail polish, and a spotless car interior left me suffocated. One night at dinner he asked me, “Are you embarrassed of us? Is that why you don’t bring friends over?” How could he not see that it was his ability to stay true to himself that I admired most? I must admit that I did avoid him, even if it was unconscious. My dad reached out to me a lot; I just didn’t know how to reach back.

In my sixteenth year, I sat in a hospital room and listened to my mother tell me that she needed to know I could survive if she didn’t. Her cancer for once undermined her unwavering faith, though in reflection now she swears it was just the pain medication speaking. “You don’t need me as much as I need you,” she told me. “But I can’t leave you and your sister until I know you know that for yourselves.”

Sitting in my car afterwards, I breathe deeply, trying to rationalize where to go next. I can’t go home. Not to my aunt who is starved for conversation, wanting to create small talk throughout the evening to fill the emptiness that echoes in our house since my mother’s hospitalization. Not to my sister, who is at UCLA and kept out of the loop for the most part so she can retain her sanity. Not to my friends, who can’t help but look at me with sympathetic stares. I turn on the car and drive up the hill, leaving the hospital behind me. I pull up to my father’s driveway, walk into the house I have never called home, and shut myself in the room with a bed for me, the room that has never been a source of comfort, the room with walls that change colors as John changes moods -- what was Burnt Auburn in the fall, Robin’s Egg Blue in the spring, and Italian Straw Yellow in the summer is now an Icy Blue for the winter season. I feel relaxed by the conformity, where I know that nothing unexpected will be pulled out of a pile of laundry, where there will be 6 oz cans of diet coke in the fridge, and dinner served at 7 o’clock sharp, if I’m at the table or not. My father’s life is static, unchanging; his routine encoded into my brain since the day he started timing my morning showers. Before this day, I hated everything about the strict organization of this house. But today, I slip in, seamlessly, allowing myself to fall into his pattern. My day, usually filled with fast food and restlessness, is replaced by this other life, so different from my own, where I watch Home and Garden television until dinner is served -- grilled chicken and green beans. I slide in to this normalcy, fall into the patterns of my fathers’ evening, and for a single moment, I feel as if the world around me isn’t falling apart. The fish tank still hummed behind me, but tonight, I sleep.

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