I was heading back to college for my second semester freshman year in 1980 when my mother asked me if I was gay. The night before I had stayed in the city all night, missing the 1:44 a.m to Stamford, the last train home.
My mother must have wondered about me for at least a couple of years. I didn’t stand out in any way, I wasn’t different or effete, but like many kids I had unwittingly left all sorts of clues to my secrets. Things children think are invisible. Things mothers always seem to know.
On its face my collection of pictures from Sports Illustrated wasn’t unusual. I was a big sports fan, but this collection of photos torn from that magazine had nothing to do with my favorite teams. These were varied, a hodgepodge roster of athletes in sports I didn’t care about – swimming, wrestling, gymnastics and track. But these men had one thing in common. They all showed plenty of skin, sweat and muscle. Swimmer Mark Spitz and runner Steve Prefontaine were my favourites in this private hall of fame.
When I got a little older I stuffed magazines into a small, gray metal lockbox I bought at Caldor’s. I carelessly hid it in my closet, believing the combination – 313, after my 8th grade homeroom class at John J. Cloonan Middle School – would keep my treasured fitness magazines and gay porn private, for my eyes only. A few years later I picked the box up by its wire handle, it popped open, spewing magazines all over the floor. How long it was broken I never knew.
I bought the “fitness” magazines in town at the News & Variety on Main Street or Cedar Corners on High Ridge Road. Both sold porn but instead I’d drive fifteen miles north on the Merritt Parkway to Norwalk far away from home where I’d purchase my favorite magazines – Playguy, Honcho and Blueboy – at a place on Route 7.
And when I’d take the train into New York to watch the hapless New York Mets or attend a Saturday gay youth group meeting at the National Gay & Lesbian Task Force offices on 23rd Street near Madison I’d always stop in Times Square and buy more porn. “All Male Bonus Three Packs,” shrink-wrapped in plastic were my favourites. They promised the most bang for the buck, despite the fact the magazine hidden in the middle was always disappointing, like a slightly homoerotic version of Woman’s Day.
Only once did Mom ask me about anything she actually discovered in my room. It was the only book I could find in the library about my growing identity. When she asked why I was reading The Homosexual Militants I told her it was for my psychology class, with Coach Limone, hoping the name of my social studies teacher and the football coach would add veracity to my tale. This lie was as automatic as it was preposterous but she never said a word.
Lonely New York City nights
I missed the last train home because a bartender named Terry was showing me around New York’s gay bars, telling me about the scene, a once vital ritual in an earlier age.
He worked at Julius’, a place I been going for several years, since I was seventeen. I was too frightened to go to Uncle Charlie’s or other bars with kids my age because there no one ever talked to me and I was too afraid to talk to anyone myself. But at Julius’ where the men were twice my age or older they would always say hello. Usually smart, often lewd, they would sometimes take me home and I was too timid to tell them no when they wanted to fuck me.
I never liked it, never got off. It was too fast, too aggressive and despite being horny I was looking for friends more than sex - or maybe friends first and then sex. Tricking wasn’t on my radar. But time and time again I’d leave the bar with someone. A couple of hours later I’d exit from his apartment and ride the train home, feeling lonelier than ever, even before discovering the next day that the phone number I had in my pocket was made up. The number you have reached is not in order, please try again.
Terry was kind. He was interested. He asked first. Whether he was kind to me because that was his job or because he could tell I was scared, a fish out of water, what was called chicken back then, a young kid in a man’s game, it didn’t matter.
Don’t tell your father
The morning after my night with Terry, when my Mom asked and I said yes I was gay, her reaction was a huge relief. She told me right away that this was fine, that she loved me, that we’d talk more soon before adding with emphasis, “Don’t tell you father,” she said. “He’s got enough to deal with already.” My father was an alcoholic. My mother was trying to save their marriage.
A few months later, home on break, I noticed two non-fiction books amidst my mother’s ever present stack of fiction. She loved to read. Every Sunday she’d scour The New York Times Book Review scribbling down titles of books to reserve from the library. These were different. Creative Divorce and Now That You Know: What Every Parent Should Know About Homosexuality.
A few months later, with the help of a family therapist and the benefit of AlAnon meetings, she told Dad I was gay. They divorced a few years after that.
Scotch on the rocks, marriage on the rocks too
My father loved his family but often times it seemed he loved his Dewar’s Scotch far more. Two cases of half-gallons were delivered to the house two, three times a month, maybe more. Yet this wasn’t Long Days Journey into Night. He wasn’t brutal, never physically violent, the drama more suppressed.
Sober he was affable and charming, loved by many. Drunk he was, angry, nasty - and he was drunk every single night. For years I hated him, wished he would smash into a tree on his way home and just leave us alone. Hated him because of what he didn’t do with me but especially for the way he treated Mom.
Soon after his divorce he married a woman he met playing tennis and to everyone’s surprise he stopped his love affair with scotch.
As noted here I waited six years before starting HIV treatment. While ignoring my doctor’s advice I also took plenty of vitamins, got acupuncture nearly every week and was in therapy more often than I care to admit, singing various melodies in the key of “my father never loved me and that’s got me really fucked up.”
Amidst this therapeutic sturm and drang, an East coast visit that included dinner at my father and stepmother’s with their two best friends changed my attitude. The best friends, a gay couple, one older, one younger, while quiet and old-fashioned about their partnership, were clearly lovers to anyone with eyes enough to see.
As usual, Pam was in the kitchen preparing dinner while Dad entertained us in the den. Chatting over cheese and crackers, he suddenly said something extraordinary.
“You guys stay here. I’m going in the kitchen to see if Pam needs any help.”
My father wasn’t lazy. He did his share of chores. But never once in my 34 years did he ever help in the kitchen while food was being made. He weeded the garden, moved the lawn, raked leaves, even did the dishes but never helped make dinner.
It was a set up. Their friends told me Dad was concerned about my health and neither he nor Pam knew how to talk about it so they asked their best gay friends to do it in their place. It was a moving moment, a private Project Inform meeting in the den of a Cape Cod colonial in New Canaan, Connecticut.
When he died I gave the eulogy. People were concerned I might be bitter, deliver a rebuke to a man who’s heart was full of love but whose veins were too often filled with whiskey. Instead I told them what I first began to learn the night he had his friends ask me why I wasn’t taking drugs for my infection. That the gifts my father gave me were far greater than the ones he never did.
Sometimes I wonder what he did in the kitchen that night his surrogates were talking to his youngest child about safe sex, HIV, AZT, and the best way to stay alive. Was he worried I’d be angry? Relieved he’d expressed his concern? Nervously talking about his golf or tennis game? Or just putzing around getting in Pam’s way? I’ll never really know the details but the message he delivered loud and clear: Love, Dad.