Coming Out Stories: The Long Ride Home
“So Vince, what did you want to talk about?” Anthony was in the front seat while mom pulled onto the highway home.
I froze. In the darkness of the back of the car, I wanted to disappear. I envied the crumbs of Os, ground into the fibers of little sister’s booster seat, their finality, their doneness. “Can we wait a little bit please?” Yeah. Great idea, delay the inevitable. Let’s do this like pulling a bandage. Slowly. Off a hairy arm.
We talk more about school, about new developments at home. Mom gives me the usual briefing while her eyes watch the road; we’d been through this before. Celia, my little sister, is still having problems, pain, appetite, insomnia. The school nurse doesn’t believe her. Doctor’s notes explaining her condition, explaining the she has NF2, that the cells that bundle and protect the nerves are growing out of control are insufficient to the lady that diagnoses pink eye.
It’s not cancer; it’s just a failure to communicate. Her body lacks something or many somethings to tell the Schwanns cells ‘stop growing’, ‘stop putting pressure on the nerves’, ‘stop growing into the brain’. She looks like a seven-year-old clone of my mother, uses words like “cumbersome” and once declared war on God himself to get our pug back from beyond the grave. Mom probably wishes in retrospect that she hadn’t told her that God had come to take him. Now she was determined to get him back.
More bandage pulling; now the scar is exposed.
“Vin, What did you want to tell us?”
How do I tell them? What do I tell them?
A week ago my nostrils froze. I was marked with hairline fractures. Biochemistry hung like the Sword of Damocles. My brain struggled through an obstacle course of concepts. Was it glucose-1-phosphate or glucose-1-6-biphosphate? Crap it’s both.
A friend, Emily, with long curly brown hair, excited blue eyes had told me she like the way I looked in jeans. We had known each other for a year. Met inauspiciously (I am nothing if not a master of first impressions). We had overcome some sort of energy barrier reacted and formed a bond, high energy and silly. Goofiness flowed like wine and we got so drunk off it. “Do you like me? It’s OK if you do,” “I don’t know,” I replied. How could I not know? How could I not notice if I liked somebody? I do like her… but where’s the attraction? My roommate were absent for the weekend. I spent the night alone, pacing, talking to myself, retracing my conspicuous blind spot and not liking what I saw. I called home. I asked for Anthony. I exposed my hairline fractures. I lied when I was asked directly.
My mother called and said,
“What do you want to tell us? Do you need to join a group?”
Back in the car my panicked brain jumps back in time three years. High school and I’m alone. Everybody or nearly everybody is developing, feeling out the opposite sex, navigating the straits of relationships. Imagine a puffin colony where hundreds of thousands are arriving to nest. Imagine the squawking chaos, the jostling and fighting for space, the puffing and flapping and calling for mates. You’ve got part of high school, chaos, loudness, groping for a connection. Then you have some weird birds subdued, flocking at the margins, trying to remain aloof but inexorably joining the fray. There I was.
Jump. At home Celia is going through surgery for a painful mass of tissue on her hands. She’s driven into Boston for checkups with squadrons of doctors, oncologists, ophthalmologists, a plastic surgeon specializing in cranial reconstruction. When she was a baby her skull fused early, preventing the skull from expanding as her brain grew. Pressure built up because it continued to grow as if nothing was wrong. Her face grew lopsided. In comes the Doctor Squad. She has a history with surgery.
Jump. Anthony is in middle school which is a problem alone. My brother and I are called by each other’s names, we share in sarcasm, we compete, we distrust authority. My former problems in middle school are his problems, caught in a limbo between teenage and childhood, expected to maintain both at the same time. “Be yourself,” But who are your really? “Respect authority,” Whose authority? He fights the teachers, the principal, my step-dad, bucking his late, middle-child status.
Jump. I’m coasting through high school, trying not to be a problem, not to make problems. Sanctuary can be found in theatre, painting, science. Bird calls, I’m still asked if I’m interested in anybody and honestly why shouldn’t I be? I’m not though and I begin to worry, what if something is wrong with me. There was a girl named Christina. She’s a smart, spit cracker of a girl with an unnatural interest in Shakespeare. Already with somebody, sorta perfect. I could hide behind unrequited love and keep waiting without suspicion. Maybe I could convince myself that I did.
“Vin? What did you want to tell us?”
“I think… I’m reasonably sure that I’m gay,”
I can’t see their faces from the dark back seat of the car. Around us the lights of other cars fly past through the near silence. Only the engine speaks, growling with pleasure as it pulls us along. I begin to sweat, I can feel my heart beat like a drum struck by a maniacal percussionist. My body strains against the car, a flight response denied by the seatbelt and insane speeds.
“We thought that’s what it might be,” mom was a weather forecaster dismayed by her accuracy.
“When you called we narrowed it down to two things, science, or this,”
“I haven’t changed my mind about science.”
Science starts with fruit-snacks. I’m about four years old and like most four year olds my eyes are like scanners, zooming over the world, absorbing information, asking questions. My mother has taken my brother and me with her to the local Big-Y (your local world class market) across from the Eastfeild Mall. In a sprawling, gray shopping center that used to contain a store called Bradley’s cars crawl over the asphalt, lumbering to rest nestled among their cousins. We’re walking down the junk food aisle, mom carrying a basket that she filled with whatever was on sale, stopping when we couldn’t carry any more. We ate lots of Ramen, curried rice and hotdogs then.
No one will be watchin’ us! Why don’t we do it in the RoooOOOaaaad? Heads turned some smirking, some disapproving. Anthony and I were loud children. Something interrupted our Beatles tribute, memorized from endless hours in the car with mom’s cassettes. The box. I had never seen anything like this box; strange animals were printed onto the front with big teeth and scales, horns and crests, leathery bat-like wings. I asked her what they were. I had to know.
“Dinosaurs,” she answered.
The box of overpriced corn syrup came back with us. Dramas that had once played out beyond the K/t boundary, replayed on our tiled, kitchen table. As the predators consumed the herbivores I popped the snack into my mouth and let the artificial fruit flavor melt inside me. I savored the orange ones, regardless of the species. Eventually all the dinosaurs would be ingested in my mass extinction event. The obsession evolved. Dinosaur foods gave way to toys which starred in elaborate narratives in the communal back yard of the apartment where I buried the garden hose to make swampy sink holes. I had shelves of dinosaur books, which my mom read to me, dinosaur documentaries, a dinosaur backpack. I was convinced that reason the Tyrannosaurus rex in Jurassic Park was really only angry with the humans because he was in the wrong time period. T. rex was from the Cretaceous after all. I had become the monster that hunted museum guides.
There’s a picture of me pointing into a picture book, dinosaur encyclopedia in one of Grammy’s many photo albums. My face is taut with excitement sharing my first hobby. Grammy has more hair, darker hair too. I never noticed her aging, but the photo is amber, the past trapped. She looks at the picture and caption like a person not reading Japanese. I later found out that she had translated my single-minded interest in dinosaurs into a hope that I would be ordained a Catholic priest . God spoke in Latin.
Dinosaurs, though we never would meet in some dark alley, became my pushers. If the violent and the grotesque and the heartwarming lives these animals once lived could be pulled from old bones where else could I find them? I plunged into the oceans down into the abyssal plain and watched tube worms grow on hydrothermal vents. I hiked through the jungles with Jane Goodall watching the chimpanzees fish for termites after years of frustrating attempts to get close enough to take notes. I sang the Bill Nye song.
Years passed. I became a biology undergraduate, a student of science instead of a curious kid, though there isn’t too much difference. On a summer research grant I was paid to be knee deep in the Normanskil River, olive hunter’s waders pulled up to my thighs. They were rubbery, cumbersome gloves for legs with treads that struggled to bite through the layers of algae and sediment to find purchase on the rocky riffle bottom. I’ve got a square ecologist’s net that sits perpendicular to the bottom of a stream. You pick up each rock and scrape whatever you find into the net, washing the rocks like dishes, tossing them downstream. The current wraps around my leg and pulls like a child goofing around with a parent. I wobble, and slip, re-acquaint myself with balance, jostle the net into position and then begin my work.
Each rock is a neighborhood. Three-tailed mayfly nymphs, with wide legs and narrow, chitinous bodies scuttle on the stone, scraping the surface clean. Caddis fly larvae sit sheltered in their home-spun cases made of silk, pebbles, twigs and grass. Their soft wormlike bodies are green with planktonic algae. There are others, dragonfly nymphs with their guillotine faces, masks of death, hang suspended in pockets of still water only to rocket away when I slosh near. Tiny black beetles and water pennies claw their way over the rocks through the current as stalwart as mountain climbers in a windstorm. They will all die soon. Unlike a human census, insects do fill out forms. The only way to see who is home is to bulldoze the neighborhood and collect the corpses.
Like a studious tornado I carry the debris back to the lab. While picking through the wreckage, pulling the dead from tangles of algae, hastily spun silken belay lines and knots of stiff, chitinous limbs. They are small, tweezers and magnifying glasses are needed to pull the hundreds of specimens apart, sorted delicately by body shape into jars to await identification. The smell of the alcohol preserving solution spreads through the lab, a miasma of drying, death. The hours spent bent over the tray, tweezing, picking, squinting are long, lonely. As I listened to my podcasts over the portable stereo that I brought and reminded myself of Jane Goodall. If she could endure years in an African jungle before getting close to the chimpanzees I could tolerate a few hours over a sea of alcohol and insects.
On my days off, I would take long walks down to the Hudson River absorbing the heat of the city and the cool of the river breeze. The bus gobbled me up for my trips uptown. One day on the bus a man got on, middle aged, tan, balding with glasses, carrying a black raincoat and umbrella in 90-degree heat and oppressive sun. He looked over at the seat beside me looked at me and I nodded in a way that I hoped projected “Sure you can have this seat, sit down”. He did. There’s space that people give to strangers on public transportation, an unspoken courtesy. This man missed the meeting.
“Could you move over please?” I said feeling like the cheese between the meat and the tomato in a sandwich.
“Oh, sure,” he replied in an accent that I decided was Pakistani without moving over.
I begin to think that the man is some sort of immigrant, unused to our concept of personal space. I decide that to be nice and leave space for linguistic and cultural distance. He’ll learn eventually. That thought lived a brief life, slowly dying as the pressure from the man increased, leaning more and more into my seat
“Excuse me, can you get off me?”
“Oh sure,” he said slightly adjusting, “Do you know what kind of sales they have at the mall? What kind of clothes they have?”
What? “No, I don’t know what kind of sales there are,” I say thinking, hoping, that this is English practice.
The ride continues. He sidles over onto my seat, outright trying to lay his raincoat in my lap, grinding into me. I continue to protest and wish I could get off but I’m stuck next to this weird, space invader. More questions, more non-answers. Where do I shop? What shoes do I buy? Where do I buy them? I get this fear to run back to the dorm but I don’t want to give him any clue to which school I go to, where I live. Just get away from me.
I’m ready when the bus grinds arthritically to a halt. The person in front of me gets up and I hop over the seat and bolt into the mall. Once I’m in my mind seizes like an old computer. Why did I come in here? What do I do? As if to answer both of those questions he comes up behind me and asks.
“Can I have your number so we can meet downtown later?”
“Fuck no,” I say before dashing up the stairs. My brain is screaming to get away, screaming something about sex, predators and riding the bus alone. I dart into the first store I see with decent concealment; Spencer’s with all its glorious tacky tastelessness, pop culture detritus would be my rabbit’s thicket. I stand behind a rack of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles “vintage” tee shirts pretending to be interested in pizza-loving reptiles while I watch the corridor. There he goes running, or rather, power walking in pursuit. He doesn’t see me. I poke my head out and watch him then follow him as he runs bearlike ahead into Best Buy, a veritable maze of poor customer service. I’ve lost him. I’m out on the next 12 bus back to the college. Back to people I trusted, safety. What had he seen when he looked at me? Why did he choose to hunt me? Did he know something that I didn’t; did he have my search history?
More silence. I shake. Mom pulls the car off to a rest stop and parks by sleeping bodies of tractor-trailers. She opens the door and comes around to mine. My limbs become semisolid. I step out of the open door. I’ve never her seen her like this before. Her face, the product of Sicilian and Native American genes dancing a sweet, ethnically ambiguous dance, was old, pained, the crying Indian. She grabbed me in a hug and I felt her sobs bouncing through me. I felt mine bouncing back.
“I don’t care if you are,” she says through her tears, “I love you no matter what you are. But I don’t think you’re gay Vinny. I don’t believe it,”
“I’ve known gay guys and you’re not like them Vin. I’ve seen them and they aren’t happy. I want you to be happy.”
I don’t remember what I said, if I said anything. I remember her holding me for a few more moments, me holding her back. We get back into the car and drive off silent into the night. My brother interrupts, breaking the filibuster of awkward noiselessness. He says something like:
“So is he hot?”
Characteristic Anthony charm, matter-of-fact, deadpan. After tens of minutes of terrible quiet we laugh because anything normal is abnormal, funny.
“I don’t care if you are as long as you’re the one on top,” he remarks much later when we would talk alone. Those were the last words he said to me on the matter. Mom, mom gave me a long talk on the ride back to school in Albany after a bowstring tense weekend.
“I don’t believe it Vin,”
It’s not what I wanted or expected. You expect that when you pull the curtain down and show off the monster you found on some dark continent that the audience will faint in shock, break out the pitchforks or stare agape with fascination and awe at the discovery. You hope they will accept you after what you’ve done; you fear their fear. You don’t expect that it will be treated as if it isn’t happening or didn’t happen. A period, a question mark and an exclamation point are the appropriate punctuation. Instead you end with an ellipsis.