by John Daniel
Lunch With My Mother in the Old Folks’ Home
“Is your brother still outside, having a smoke?”
“Yes, Mom. Why?”
“Because I want to ask you a personal question, and I hope you don’t mind.”
“Sure, why would I mind?” I replied. I just hoped that no one else in the cafeteria would care.
My mother leaned forward and put her hand on mine. “Are you gay?”
“Mom, we dealt with this 20 years ago!” I reflexively looked over my shoulder, just in case anyone around us might have overheard. “You were OK with it, don’t you remember?”
She pushed her tray aside and patted the crumbs off her chest as if she were freshening up an old pillow.
“Well, I just wanted you to know, I’m your mother and you’re my son and I’ll love you ’till the day I’m gone, but please—let’s not tell your father. I just want to enjoy a quiet meal for once, without a lot of yelling and gnashing of teeth around the dinner table.”
My father had passed away years earlier.
“Don’t worry, Mom,” I reassured her, “I won’t, but why don’t you tell me a few good stories about Dad, instead?”
While my mother reminisced about my father, a dormant, vaguely unsettling memory of my own rudely elbowed its way to the forefront of my mind.
“Faggot!” the old man hissed. “You look like a faggot!”
Back when I was a teenager in the late ’70’s, my father had dragged me out of bed one morning so that I could help him with the yard work. I’d reported for duty freshly showered and shaved, and my hair perfectly parted down the middle and feathered. I was sporting a salmon-colored velour shirt, skin-tight Britannia Jeans and simply stunning virgin white Converse high-tops.
“Take off that crap and get into some work clothes!” my father exclaimed as he waved me away in mock disgust. “Good God!”
My mother startled me out of my dark reverie. “John? Are you OK?”
“Yes Mom, I’m fine.”
“Anyway, I want to ask you a personal question and I hope you don’t mind.”
She clutched my hand again: “Are you gay?”
“Mom, really?” I pulled away, as if her senility was contagious. “You just asked me that five minutes ago, don’t you remember?”
“Oh, I did?” she replied with heartbreaking apathy, “Well, I just wanted you to know that I’m your mother and you’re my son and I’ll love you ’till the day I’m gone. But please–let’s not tell your brother. I just want to enjoy a quiet meal for once, without a lot of yelling and gnashing of teeth around the dinner table.”
My brother Ray had known that I was gay since he was seven. His neighborhood friends had told him so while they were playing a game of wiffle ball down the street.
I was fourteen years old at the time and like most adolescents, I was in the middle of my “mad scientist” phase. I’d camp out in my bedroom experimenting for days on end. I had received a Radio Shack do-it-yourself Crystal Radio kit for Christmas and after weeks of trial and error, I’d just gotten it to work—the radio had actually begun to emit static from its little speaker!
As I searched for a station, Ray burst through the front door in tears.
“What the hell is wrong?” the old man asked. My brother heaved and stuttered: “Philip and Brian s-s-said John’s a f-f-fag.”
Panic-stricken, I quietly closed my bedroom door, and pressed my ear up against it.
“Oh, Ray!” I could hear my mother consoling him, “They’re lying. John’s not like that. He’s a good boy, a decent boy. Why would they say something so horrible? So untrue?”
Anonymous footsteps approached my bedroom door, paused for a moment, and then gingerly retreated. In the end, nothing ever came of the incident, though I was met with a cold silence for the rest of the afternoon.
“John?” my mother fidgeted with her pillbox. “I want to ask you a personal question but I need you to look me directly in the eye and tell me the God’s honest truth: are you gay?”
“Oh my god, Mom, again?? You can’t be serious!” I was exasperated at this point.
“Well, I just want you to know that I’m your mother and….”
“Yeah, I get it, I’m gay but you love me anyway.”
A nearby custodial care worker shot me a dirty look, but the young woman was quick to follow up with a warm, knowing smile.
“Mom, I’m sorry,” I whispered, “but you’ve jogged some painful memories which I’d just assume forget.”
Before I could go on, Ray approached the table, but he didn’t sit down. His work break was coming to an end and he signaled that it was time to go.
We kissed Mom goodbye and made our way out to the parking lot. Off-white magnolia petals from an overhanging tree blanketed the car. As I drove my brother back to work, I turned the windshield wipers on to clear away the last of the spent blossoms.
“Talk to me Ray,” I implored, “it’s too quiet in here.”
“Hey, thanks for goin’ it alone in there with Mom. Sometimes I can’t handle.”
“No worries. I covered for you; I told her you needed a smoke.”
“Thanks man. I love you, I really do.”
“I love you too Ray, I love you too.”
My First Gay Mom and Dad
In the 80’s, I visited my first gay bar. A gargantuan drag queen named Tammy “Whynot” was the only person audacious enough to talk to me, not that I deserved the attention. Like many newbies, I thought I was God’s gift: I didn’t move or smile, and I was loath to make eye contact with anyone. Along comes Tammy: she stops, turns, pins me against the wall and says, “Honey, a smile is a frown upside—” and before I could get away, she’d inserted two fingers into my mouth and had forced my lips into a smile! As I stood there in shock, Tammy waved her friend over—locally known as Miss Demeanor—and I spent the rest of the evening reluctantly sharing drinks with the two drag queens. I was a broken man.
Slowly but surely, Tammy became my gay mom. She’d prepare wonderful dinners, but I wasn’t allowed to dig in unless I could recite a bit of poetry from memory. (Tammy was an English teacher by day.) Every week I’d regale her with my latest tales of conquest and heartbreak and every week she’d counter with a line from a poem, aptly chosen to accentuate my conquests or—more typically—to heal my broken heart.
I remember her favorite line of all time: “Es tan corto el amor, y es tan largo el olvido.” I can’t believe I still remember that line—in Spanish no less—but I do: “Love is so short, and forgetting so long.” Tammy had given me my first taste of Pablo Neruda. He seemed like a pretty cool guy and all, but I wasn’t really into poetry. To me, a poem was nothing more than a bunch of humiliated words decked-out in wigs and Taffeta.
One night Tammy announced that she had found the perfect man for me: a gentleman by the name of “Daddy Eagle.” She went so far as to set us up on a blind date. Daddy Eagle was so not my type. He was weather-beaten and tatted, and his physique was absurdly over-developed, for my tastes, anyway. After our first night out on the town, (which was admittedly kind of fun), I followed the man home to take a dip in his hot tub and hopefully down some more beer. As we stripped off our clothes and descended into to the steamy waters, I couldn’t help but notice that Daddy was hirsute: lusty brigades of curly black hair had managed to conquer every territory south of his Adam’s apple.
“Ride of the Valkyries” was playing on his boombox, though I didn’t know the music’s actual title at the time. “Who wrote this?” I asked in a desperate attempt to head-off the inevitable. “Well, Richard Wagner of course,” Daddy replied. “Surely you remember the ‘Kill the Wabbit’ Cartoon?” In the end, nothing happened. We toweled off and spent the rest of the evening listening to Wagner. Fierce women on winged horses seemed to hover in the air above us that night. I loved the music, but the singing was in a language I didn’t yet understand. Daddy got misty-eyed as he explained that the heroine had chosen to strike out on a path of her own and in a tragic turn of events, she was put to sleep for a very long time.
Indeed, Tammy Whynot and Daddy Eagle sleep now as well: they succumbed to the HIV virus years ago. I miss my unlikely friends, and I owe them so much: they helped liberate poignant and often sobering truths, long-imprisoned between the vapid lines of my cocky, seemingly invincible younger self. Cheers to you tonight, Tammy and Daddy; cheers to my first gay mom and dad.
Never Mind the Frogs, Where Did All the Gl*ry Holes Go?
By my late teens, I was keen enough to sense when and where such activity was taking place, and there was quite a party atmosphere in a certain highway rest stop that my family and I used to frequent on the way to Grandma’s house, back in the early 80’s. But between Dad honking the car horn and feigning departure without me if I didn’t hurry up; and my younger brother knocking on my stall door and asking me what in the world was taking so long, I really didn’t have a chance to hook up with anyone.
When I got old enough to travel back to the rest stop alone, it was too late: the recently-created Glory Hole Suppression Task Force had gotten there first. I wept for the mountain of decrepit, old wooden stalls—admittedly more hole than wood at this point—unceremoniously piled in a junk bin out in the parking lot. A hastily-assembled bouquet of discarded latex gloves and face masks graced its summit. I wanted to step closer and read all the graffiti since years of precious history was about to go up in smoke, but the bio-hazard sign gave me the heebie-geebies.
As I made my way into the renovated restroom, imposing new steel walls greeted me at every turn. The improved lighting was oppressively bright and unflattering: I might as well have just stepped into a hospital’s examination room.
But wait! What’s this?
While reaching for some toilet paper to dab my tears, I noticed a tiny, vacated screw hole in one of the stalls. Could I make it into a glory hole? Could I get the party going again? I inserted a screwdriver shaft into the small opening and yanked it back and forth with all my weight. With a loud, startling “POP” the screwdriver broke and the shaft went clanking across the tile floor, echoing loudly throughout the restroom. As I sat in paralyzed silence and waited for everyone’s pee-streams to resume, I noticed a faint written message, scratched into the wall: “Glory hole action, food court restroom, Valley Mall.”
OMG. Would a hot college athlete be sitting in a stall there, looking for some fun? I had to drive the 70 miles and find out. I hastily combed and re-feathered my luxurious brown hair, gave it a maintenance dollop of Ms. Breck and tore-off down the highway towards the mall.
I passed dozens of hot guys as I made my way to the food court restroom. I assumed that they were all waiting for just the right moment to ditch their girlfriends and steal-off to the men’s room to unleash some steam. I plopped down on a vacant toilet with tremulous anticipation. The heroin-like feelings of euphoria astonished me. I contemplated the god who would soon arrive.
The restroom door opened. I heard shuffling and a man sat down next to me. His velcro-flapped tennis shoes, varicose-veined calves and wrinkled, cadaverous “come hither” finger didn’t bode well; the scene was suddenly veering off-script. (I felt like Harry Connick Jr in Copycat when Sigourney Weaver kicked-off her shoe.) All the planning, all the driving, all the anticipation—where the hell was my Athlete? Surely the man would be a gentleman and yield his stall? After all, I had just driven 70 miles.
Our standoff lasted for at least two hours.
At one point, I thought my arch-nemesis was leaving. He stood up, but only to fish a pen out of his pocket. He scratched “GO AWAY” on a piece of toilet paper and thrust it through the hole. Undaunted, I pulled out my Sony Walkman and positioned the headphones over my ears with a theatrical sigh. I wasn’t going anywhere. He in turn pulled out a Rubic’s Cube and began to leisurely test each of its 43,252,003,274,489,856,000 possible combinations. I’d never felt such burning indignation.
Needless to say, it wasn’t long before a security guard stepped into the restroom and knocked on our stall doors, sarcastically enquiring if we were OK. My entire brain immediately shut down, except for the medulla; that primeval little reptilian bulge at the top of my spinal cord. It flashed one simple message, over and over again: “must exit now, must exit now.”
I quietly washed my hands and walked as steadily as I could past the smirking guard and out the door. I can’t recall if my arch-nemesis ever came out. I didn’t want to be like him, in the grips of an obsession: too numb to assess the situation at hand; too numb to fear the consequences of being caught. As I walked back to my car, I could see the police turning into the mall parking lot. Were they going after my stall-mate?
I found a pay-phone down the street and made an anonymous call to the local Chamber of Commerce. Speaking into a coffee cup to disguise my voice, I asked for the location of the nearest gay bar. They laughed at me and hung up.
John Daniel lives in Sacramento, CA. He came of age in a small rural valley town outside of San Francisco at the dawning of the HIV/AIDS crisis. The 80’s were a very difficult time to be a young gay man, but Mr. Daniel wants today’s young people to know that stepping out of the closet was worth it: trepidation aside, his life was filled with love, warmth, serendipity, adventure, a little drama, (of course), and more than a little gallows humor.