Learning to ride, falling down, getting back on
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I parked at the bottom of my widowed father’s driveway and just sat there and listened to the robins. The driveway ran past the side of the little stucco house where I’d grown up and into the backyard, where the garage was open. Inside was a classic car with its hood up. The neighbors weren’t even awake yet, and my father was already working.
He’d run Slim’s Service and Gas for thirty years, and now he was retired and worked out of his home. Everyone in town knew him and knew that he fixed only American cars and accepted only cash, “so the criminals in Washington can’t steal a dime.”
I got out, stretched, and took my time walking to the garage. Halfway there I caught a glimpse of my father as he left his workbench and disappeared again behind the hood. Why, I wondered, am I still intimidated by this cranky old scarecrow?
I stepped into the garage, and the scents of cool cement, oiled metal, and gasoline brought me back to my childhood. Wrenches hung in order of size on a pegboard, a transmission sat on a bench against the wall, and metal tool chests with thin red drawers stood five feet tall on the spotless floor.
“Hey, Dad,” I said.
“David?” My father looked me over with suspicion. “What are you doing here?”
“I just felt like dropping in.”
“You look like you’ve been rode hard and put away wet.”
“I haven’t slept.”
I walked around the car. “Wow,” I said. “She’s a beauty. A ’57?”
“A ’56. It’s Dr. Taylor’s. I rebuilt her carb.”
The Chevy Bel Air hardtop was black with white accents on the tail fins. It had big, rounded contours and a grille that reminded me of bared teeth. Even with its hood up, it looked as if it were ready to spring forward.
“You want some help?” I asked.
“Nah, it’s a one-man job.”
I felt a little wobbly, so I sat down on a bar stool in front of the workbench. The stool’s blue vinyl was cracked, and the duct tape that had been used to repair it was separating into sticky strands.
“Are you still freelancing?” my father asked without looking up.
“Yeah, Dad, I’m still freelancing.”
I’m a set designer in the Twin Cities theater scene. I’ll never be rich, but I can pick the projects I want to work on. My father considers what I do “freelancing” because it’s not a traditional nine-to-five job with benefits and all the rest. And maybe I am freelancing. If anyone else said it, I wouldn’t be that offended.
My father glanced up from the Chevy’s massive engine. “You got the jitters or something?” he asked. I must have looked as uptight as I felt.
“I’m just tired.”
“How about you get around to telling me why you’re here.”
“I can’t just drop in to see you?”
My father frowned and was about to say something when the black wall phone rang. He grabbed the receiver, listened, and then said: “I’ll have her done tomorrow afternoon. That’s the best I can do.” My father then went on to give one-syllable answers to a long string of questions. Dr. Taylor was evidently a talker.
I reached down and gripped the sides of the bar stool. Crows cawed out in the sunshine. I’d worried over my decision all night, and now I needed to go through with it.
After my father had hung up, I said, “OK,” my voice sounding hollow. “Here’s the deal.”
My father straightened up and waited.
I wanted to ask how many Pall Malls he was smoking a day. Had he finally switched to filters? Instead I took a shaky breath and said, “I’m gay. I’ve always been gay. My boyfriend’s name is Steven, and we’ve been together for five years. I know you think being gay is a choice, but it isn’t. It isn’t a choice at all.”
My father didn’t even flinch. He just looked as though he had a bad taste in his mouth and then went back to reattaching the carburetor. Coffee turned over inside my empty stomach. I suddenly regretted having let Steven take me to see Milk, the story of the nation’s first openly gay politician. I’d left the theater inspired, but now I didn’t feel like giving any more speeches.
My father came over and began replacing wrenches on the pegboard. In a low voice he said, “I don’t know what sin I’ve committed to warrant having to stand here and listen to this garbage.” Then he went back to the Chevy.
I wasn’t sure if I’d heard him right. Had he implied that I was garbage? I looked up the driveway at my car. Twenty miles stood between me and the condo Steven and I shared in south Minneapolis. I told myself that I didn’t need to make a big production. All I had to do was get into my car and go home. I’d made a mistake, but it wasn’t the end of the world. It was time for me finally to stop chasing after my father’s approval and learn to be thankful for Steven and his parents, who treated me like a second son. I got off the bar stool and walked into the sunshine.
As I swung open my car door, my father called for me to wait. I shut the door with more force than I intended and then felt a little silly. He came down the driveway and stood next to my front tire, a red grease rag hanging from his big, workingman’s hand. I couldn’t look at his face, so I just stared at that red rag.
“You must really think I’m a bumpkin,” my father said. “You think I don’t know my own son?”
“Then how come you’re so mad?”
“I’m not mad.”
“Yeah, you are.”
My father squatted down to the driveway and began pulling clover from the cracks in the asphalt. He pulled slowly in order to extract the thin white roots along with each weed. I looked down at his silver crew cut, the same haircut he’d had for as long as I could remember, and despite the awkward situation I felt vainly relieved to see he still had that full head of hair.
“Well,” my father said, squinting up, “you tell me. What am I supposed to do? Give you a big hug and tell you I’m proud of you?”
“I didn’t expect anything. It just felt dishonest not to tell you.”
“The thing I don’t understand,” he said, “is why everyone has to broadcast every goddamn detail about their sex lives. It was better in my day, when you did your rutting and kept your goddamn mouth shut.”
“I’m not broadcasting any details.”
“Good,” he said.
He pulled more weeds, and I leaned against my car. There didn’t seem to be anything more to say. In a strange way I understood where he was coming from.
I looked around at the neighborhood, which hadn’t changed much: blue morning glories, red hummingbird feeders, well-kept yards, tidy houses. “Do the Cantwells still live across the street?” I asked.
“Yeah,” my father said. “Thirty-five years, and Jerry Cantwell still doesn’t wave when we’re both going for our mail.”
“Do you wave at him?” I asked.
“I did for the first ten.”
“Mrs. Cantwell used to spy on me.”
“Yeah, I used to catch her peeping through her drapes as I mowed the lawn in my cutoffs. Once, when I was walking away from her, I spun around, and the drapes came flying together.”
My father smiled. “Maybe that’s why Cantwell doesn’t wave,” he said.
My father dropped his handful of weeds on the edge of the driveway and leaned back against my car next to me. Both of us were facing the patches of sunlight and shadow on the lawn beneath the maple. The tree was twice the size it had been when I’d lived there. The loamy soil smelled good.
“When I was thirteen,” my father said, “and my brother Michael was eleven, my dad shipped us out to work on farms for the summer. He said it was time for us to ‘contribute to the family,’ though he didn’t contribute too much himself. Anyway, Michael went to my uncle’s place, and I went to live with the Schnitzlers, German immigrants who didn’t have any kids.” My father pointed south. “They lived out in the sticks past Marystown. The wife was nice but didn’t speak English, and the husband never forgave me for showing up there without knowing how to farm. They ate runny sauerkraut, and their outhouse was always full of spiders. I learned pretty fast that I never wanted to be a farmer.” He chuckled. “In June I got a letter from my mom saying my uncle was going to throw a pig roast for the Fourth of July. It became all I thought about. I couldn’t wait to see my cousins and my mom and my brother and to show my dad I was, unlike him, a real workingman. I got up every morning and worked my tail off.
“When the day of the party finally came, it was a scorcher — hot as blazes. I tried to get Schnitzler to lend me his pickup, but he refused because I’d scraped it once while backing it out of his corncrib.” My father laughed again. “So I had to bike the twenty-five miles between the farms. It was all on gravel roads through rolling cornfields, and I was a little late getting there.”
A breeze shivered through the maple, making the light beneath it shift, so that the lawn looked underwater. When my father began again he spoke slower.
“When I finally spotted my uncle’s farm, I could see my cousins chasing each other under the trees. Before I could join them, my cousin Tessie ran out and told me my parents had already left. My dad had asked my uncle something about my brother’s wages, and they’d had words. According to Tessie, my dad had bawled Michael out in front of everybody and then dragged my mom out of the house by her elbow and made her get in the car.” My father smiled. “And you think I’m bad.”
I shook my head.
“If I could do that day over,” he continued, “I’d say the hell with the old man and get something to eat. But I was just a dumb kid. I was so disappointed, I turned my bike around and started pedaling back to the Schnitzlers’.”
“You didn’t even stop to visit Michael?”
My father looked me in the eye. “The point,” he said, “is that, no matter what, I’ll never abandon you like my chicken-shit father abandoned me. That’s all you’ll ever need to know. End of story.”
I hadn’t seen this coming, and I was moved. We stood in the driveway a long minute while I pressed my T-shirt into my eyes, and my shoulders shook. I tried not to be too obvious. Despite my father’s old-fashioned, Scandinavian stoicism, he cared what the neighbors thought.
When I could get the words out, I said, “I was worried that if I told you the truth, you’d stop loving me.”
“Shit,” my father said. “Now you do sound gay.”
I couldn’t help laughing. Then he turned and looked at my car with a scowl. “How long has it been since you changed the oil in this foreign piece of plastic?” he asked.
“I suppose it’s been a while.”
My father climbed in the front seat and checked the mileage against the sticker in the corner of my windshield, then frowned. He pulled my car up the driveway — it did kind of look like a toy behind the ’56 Chevy — popped the hood, and went into his garage to get his tools.
Since reading the story “Telling Him,” by Craig Planting [October 2010], I cannot stop thinking about how hard it is for people to come out of the closet. Teenagers especially feel discriminated against. I am sixteen, and in my high school there have been five attempted suicides by gay students this semester. Homosexual teens feel not only out of place but loathed by those they once called their friends.
I have always strongly believed in gay rights, but I am beginning to realize that those rights will not come without acceptance. Only when homosexuals feel they don’t have to live their lives in secret — or kill themselves — to escape from ignorance and judgments will they have the rights they deserve.