Tom McCarter stood, solemn, staring at the young man lying in the hospital bed. Even there, Derrick was beautiful: skin the color of warm chocolate, long eyelashes resting on his cheeks, his well-developed, well-defined chest rising as a respirator pumped air into his lungs. But his beautiful body was violated by wires and tubes attaching him to life support machines and monitors. Tom knew his time to tell Derrick goodbye was limited. It had taken an act of court--literally--to get Tom permission to see Derrick one last time and the judge had given him only fifteen minutes. Tom stood, choking back tears and when he could stand it no longer, leaned over and kissed Derrick on the forehead, turned and walked away, not looking back.
Tom's parents had offered to accompany him to the hospital, but he had declined. He had told them he would tell Derrick goodbye, then go to the river for awhile.
After he left the hospital, he headed for a place on the river where he and Derrick often spent time--talking, planning, dreaming, making love. He drove down a forest trail toward the river until it ended, got out of his car and reached in the back to get a blanket and his parka. The day wasn't the worst he had seen in late February, but it wasn't the best either. It was clear, but windy which made an otherwise chilly temperature, cold.
Tom walked the half mile to the river, then walked along the bank for another mile or so. He had long since left any area frequented by fishermen and walkers. He had reached a spot where bamboo had grown up around a sand spit, making a hidden beach. He walked through the bamboo and finally appeared on the other side, hidden from anyone who might have decided to explore areas of the river not frequented. He spread the blanket on the sand and sat down, his mind a blank. As he watched the river flow by, his thoughts drifted backward to all the events leading up to this moment.
"What was the beginning of the journey which led to happiness I never dreamed was possible and heartache which is proving damn near fatal?" I thought. "How far back is the beginning?" The answer was not clear, but I do know all that came before and all that came after centered on a moment almost exactly a year ago.
I was sitting in homeroom, trying to ignore all the noise and commotion around me as I completed the last of the day's trig homework. It was very unlike me to arrive at school with my homework assignments incomplete, but last night had been a very special one. My parents surprised me when they got home from work by telling me to get dressed--"and be sharp, Sunday-go-to-meeting sharp" Dad had said.
It was all very mysterious, but my parents often surprised me with something special. Something special for no reason at all didn't surprise me; but going out on a school night did. I was even more puzzled when we arrived at PhippsPlaza, Atlanta's most upscale mall. We went upstairs to the Peasant Uptown, my favorite restaurant, but one expensive enough to make eating there a very rare event.
During dinner, I kept asking questions, trying to figure out what was going on, but my parents just kept evading my questions by saying nothing and giving me a mysterious smiles from time to time.
Dinner over, I walked through mall with my parents, window shopping. We were strolling through the Museum Shop, looking at reproductions of all sorts of things when Dad looked at his watch and said, "We need to get moving." Mom looked at her watch and nodded. I was still clueless.
We started driving downtown and as we approached Colony Square, I noticed the announcement of a concert by the Atlanta Symphony, but still had no idea of what was going on. Sure enough, Dad parked and we walked across the street to Symphony Hall. It was not like the family never went to the symphony; we had season tickets, but this was a school night. Since Mom and Dad were both in the Fulton county school system--Dad a high school assistant principal and Mom an elementary principal-I, as well as Mom and Dad, was expected to be examples and going out on a school night was definitely not done.
The concert was excellent. Every minute of it took me higher and higher. My relationship with my parents was such that I was never afraid to tell them anything--well, most anything. Last year when I had tried weed, I told my parents that weed could never compare with music. All they said about that was "I'm glad you learned that."
So as the concert concluded and we headed back to College Park, I was--to use a cliche--on a natural high. I had completely forgotten that the whole evening was something that just didn't happen, not in the McCarter family at least.
When we arrived at home, Dad said, "Tom, I left my pickup on the street. Would you put it in the garage?" I didn't, of course, have my licenses yet, but I had taken a drivers' ed course and had my learners permit since my fifteenth birthday. It allowed me to drive when there was a twenty-one year old or older driver with me. Dad and Mom both allowed me to drive most of the time I was in the car with one or both of them. Of course, putting Dad's truck in the garage involved very little driving, just around the corner.
I caught the keys Dad tossed to me, looked at them since they didn't seem like his keys, shrugged my shoulders and walked out front. Dad's truck was not parked at the curb. Instead there was a four year old Chrysler LeBaron convertible. When I reached the car, I saw a large bow tied to the steering wheel and an oversized card which said, "Happy Sixteenth, Number One Son." I laughed so hard I cried. All the events of the evening were in celebration of my sixteenth birthday and I had been completely oblivious to it!
I looked at the car and it had obviously seen better days, but when I started it, it didn't sound like a finely-tuned machine, but it didn't sound bad either. It was the car I had wanted. The car, by the way, was a perfect example of how my parents "indulged" me. Dad knew my lifelong best friend Keith and I were in auto vocational classes-I in body repair and Keith in auto mechanics--and had found a wonderful car, or one which would be if I did the needed work, or rather if Keith and I did the needed work.
An only child, I had been born after my parents had accepted the fact that they would never have children. Both were over forty when Mom started having a strange illness-vomiting, especially in the morning, retaining fluid, getting fat. Her doctor assured her it was the beginning of menopause, but she finally decided something was definitely wrong and made an appointment with an ob-gyn. Turned out the ob-gyn, who was obviously pregnant, had barely started her examination when she said, "Looks like we'll both be taking maternity leave sometime next year."
Mom's pregnancy required some real rethinking on the part of both my parents. Her projected delivery date was in February, shortly after second semester would have started so they decided Mom would take a leave of absence second semester. A well-respected second grade teacher, she had started working on her administrator's certificate the summer before and thought she could handle a full load at Georgia State while taking care of a new baby, especially if she could find good child care for the times she had to be at the college.
Fortunately Dad, who was chair of the English department in his school, mentioned their plans at a departmental meeting and one of his teachers said, "Thomas, I think I may be able to help. Friends of mine, LaLisa and Alexander Anderson, are expecting about the same time as Rebekah She told me last week she wanted to take a leave for the next two semesters to complete her master's, but hadn't found child care she trusted. Maybe the two of you can trade off child care."
Keith, LaLisa's son, was born a week after I was and we grew up thinking of ourselves as brothers. In fact, we became very upset--we were three--when Keith's grandmother told us were not. Keith had stomped his foot and said, "We are, too, brothers! We just have different parents," to which I answered, "Right. Besides, your parents are adopted anyway!"
As we grew up, we spent every minute we could together and always introduced ourselves as brothers. Since we looked nothing at all alike--Keith had skin a warm coffee and cream color, rich brown, wide eyes and curly lashes. He had what his mom called "good hair" which meant it was fairly relaxed and curly rather than being kinky. He was shorter than I was. By middle school, he was well-built with wide shoulders and narrow hips. He moved with surprising grace given his size.
I, on the other hand, was tall, with a dancer or swimmer's build. My body was well-developed, well-defined, but lacked the muscle mass Keith carried. My skin was very fair and I had freckles. My eyes were almost almond shaped and green, so green I was sometimes asked if I was wearing colored contacts. To top it all off, so to speak, I had a mop of carrot red hair. I would have had "good hair" too, but I guess whites just have hair, and in my case, curly hair. You can understand why people thought we were a bit off when, even in middle school, we claimed they were full "blood brothers," not adopted and not step-brothers.
Both sets of parents kept waiting for the two of us to have a falling out, a fight, but it never happened, at least until we were in high school, our freshman year. A few days before Christmas vacation, I came home, went to my room and only came down when it was time for supper. My parents had never pried and while both were no doubt concerned that I was acting strange, didn't pry and I said nothing, keeping my hurt to myself.
Christmas came that year and for the first Christmas in my life, neither my parents nor I saw Keith. I wasn't surprised and knew why. Couple days after Christmas Dad asked if I'd like to go to our place in North Carolina and I jumped at the chance.
The North Carolina place is an old farm in the mountains of Haynes county, not far from Clarksville. Dad's great-great grandfather and his brother had settled a large block of mountain land, not far from Coldsprings. "It's on Pea Ridge," Dad said when asked where it was, knowing that meant nothing to an Atlanta resident. The land eventually was divided between two brothers and each had been farmed--a small tobacco allotment, corn, pasture land and hay meadows--until my grandfather's death when I was five. I never knew my grandfather well and really wasn't sure which farm was which, but had always assumed the one we owned had belonged to Dad's father.
After Dad got the farm, the family spent part of our vacation time there every summer. Dad and Mom had gradually made improvements to the farm house, which was a large log cabin, so large it seemed strange to call it a cabin. The cabin itself was in excellent shape and with the additions made over the years, it now had a very large living dining room, with a huge fireplace, a modern kitchen and two large bedrooms with a connecting bath downstairs. My place was upstairs; what was still called "the loft." I had a very large bedroom and living area.
When my parents asked what I wanted for my middle school graduation present, I said my own bathroom in North Carolina. Dad and I drove into Clarksville as soon as we got to North Carolina the following summer, went to Lowe's and picked out a shower, commode and basin. Lowe's delivered it and Dad and I installed it.
While the place had been improved over the years, there was no concern about winterizing it since the family seldom got up there during the winter. I once commented on how cold the place must have been and Dad laughed and said, "It's amazing any of us living on the two farms ever managed to grow up with balls. Every winter I thought this is it, I'm going to freeze my balls off! But my dad wasn't about to add something like a furnace. I was away at college before he agreed to have running water and the indoor toilet to his place."
Anyway, Dad had asked if I'd like to go to North Carolina and as I said, I jumped at the chance. On the way out of town, Dad said we'd pick up a couple of propane space heaters and two tanks of gas. "We won't be at home toasty cozy," he said, "but we'll not freeze to death."
The trip took just over three and a half hours of straight driving. We had left College Park after a late breakfast with Mom, stopped at Lowe's in Clarksville to buy the heaters and gas tanks and went to the Busy Bee in Clarksville for their great greasy hamburgers. With the stops, we didn't reach the farm until after three. Given the time of year and the cabin's location, it would be getting dark shortly after we arrived so we set to work at once.
I went to the spring house and opened the valve, sending water to the tank atop the house. It would take awhile for the tank to fill, but we would have water as soon as it reached the tank's outlet. The system had been drained and antifreeze put in the toilets before leaving the last time we had been at the farm, the last weekend in October. As soon as water was available, I flushed the toilets to get the antifreeze out and opened the faucets to drain the air out of the water system. When I finished that task, I started bringing in large loads of firewood and stacking it by the fireplace.
While I was getting water and fire wood, Dad set up the propane heaters and started a fire in the fireplace. We had eaten about two so we were ready for supper when we finished getting the house functioning again. While Dad cooked bacon and eggs, I put bread in the oven for toast and set the table for the two of us.
After we had supper and cleaned up, I fixed two cups of tea--I got kidded a lot about my tea drinking since I always had tea rather a soft drink or coffee. I had been very ill my second year in middle school and tea was one thing I could keep down. When I was well, I still drank tea. Mom and Dad became tea drinkers as well and we kept a collection of different kinds in the kitchen cabinet at home.
Dad and I were sitting in front of a roaring fire, drinking tea, saying nothing when I finally said, "Dad, thanks for suggesting we come up here. I really needed time away from College Park, time to think about some things."
"Anything you want or need to talk about?" Dad asked.
I knew Dad would not pry, but I was sure we were in North Carolina because Dad knew I was really struggling with something and thought time away from the usual might help.
"I'm not sure," I responded, then fell silent. Some minutes passed before I added, "Maybe later."
"You know I'm here," Dad said and we both sat, watching the fire saying nothing.
It was, I'm sure, half an hour before either of us spoke. Finally I asked, "Dad, how does someone know if he is gay? I've been told all boys go though a stage when they are gay, so how do you know if it's a phase or for real."
No doubt Dad felt like he had been kicked by a mule. Of all the things he had been concerned about since Keith and I were not seeing each other, this was not one of them, I was sure.
I knew my Dad well enough to where I could imagine the conversation going on in his head. "Get control of yourself, Thomas. This is a biggie--and I really don't know what the real question is."
After a few minutes he said, "I'm not sure that's true, about all boys going through a gay stage," he finally said slowly. "I suspect all boys go though a time of experimentation when they might do things with other boys, but I don't think that means they are gay or in a kind of gay phase. I suspect you, as I did when I was your age or younger, jerked off with other guys--actually another guy in my case since there was only one guy my age anywhere close. But we both talked about girls when we did. I guess, then, that's not the real question.
"I guess the real question is how would you know if you are gay or straight? To be honest, I'm not sure. I never had to think about it. Of course, I grew up so far back in the woods, I never really heard about men who were gay." Dad chuckled and said, "Now that I think about it, that seems almost impossible, but it was true. "I guess you know you are gay when you think about boys rather than girls. Sexually, I mean."
Dad fell silent and I said nothing for a long time.
Finally, still looking at the fire and not Dad, I asked slowly, cautiously, carefully, "Dad, would you be mad if I'm gay."
"Would I be mad? Of course not. Why would you even think that?"
"I don't know. Well, I do too. Andreas' step-father found out he was gay and beat him up. He said no African-American was gay unless a honkie had made him gay. Andreas is living somewhere else now and his step-dad says he can't come back home."
"I may not know the answer to many of your questions, Son, but I can assure you that there are gay African-Americans the same as there are gay everything else. Somebody made them gay? Bull! You are born gay or straight. Of that I am very sure. And if that is true, being gay is just the way a person is. It's neither good nor bad, right or wrong. It just is."
Silence descended upon the two of us again and it was several minutes before I spoke again. "Dad, if a person is gay and that's not good or bad, what makes being gay bad?"
"Nothing makes it bad--being gay, that is. What can be bad is how you behave as a gay person. Just as being straight's not good, it's how you act as a straight person which makes it good or bad."
"What do you mean?"
"Well, I'm sure East River has it's fair share of players--guys who are out to get in a girl's pants regardless. They go from one girl to another as if girls were disposable. They refuse to practice safe sex so they are often spreading disease and children all over the place. That's bad, even though it involves straight sex. On the other hand, I'm sure there are gay students at your school--probably not known because of the harassment they'd face, even danger simply because they are gay-who practice safe sex, are faithful to their promises to their partners and even though they are having gay sex, I don't think it's wrong. I guess the only thing I'd say about that is sex, gay or straight, is something every young man or woman should approach carefully, making sure they are emotionally ready to engage in sex, gay or straight. And that they are responsible and honest with themselves and each other. Sorry for the long speech."
"That's ok," I said and fell silent again. After a few minutes I said, "Thanks, Dad. Thanks."
Dad just grunted an acknowledgment.
"You know, I really love this place," I said. "I'm glad we have it."
"I love it too. Best trade I ever made.""
"Trade?" I asked.
"Yeah. This is actually my Uncle Jake's place. It was about half the size of the farm where I grew up. When my dad died, I inherited his place, but I hated it. Uncle Jake's son, Elbert, who had inherited this place, asked me about selling him the other farm. 'Dad's place is too small to do much with,' he had said. "How about a swap, even Stephen?' I had asked and he said, 'Let's get the papers signed before you wake up!'"
"'Elbert, I will never be a farmer. I'll never depend on a farm for my living. I would like a place in the mountains and I hate the old farm so much I could never be happy there.'"
"'I can understand,' Elbert said and continued, 'So long as you let people know it was your idea and not some mean trick I played on you,' he laughed, 'It's a deal.' The log cabin is larger and in better shape than the one on our farm so the trade was a good deal for both of us."
"Elbert understood when you said you hated the other place so much you could never be happy there?"
"Sure, he knew. See, Tom, growing up wasn't easy. I don't mean just not having running water and decent heat for the winter, you know, modern conveniences. Elbert's family didn't have those either. Neither do I mean the hard work trying to help wrestle a living from the soil. That was hard, but it was true of just about everyone I knew. What was really hard was getting over the bitterness I felt toward my father."
It was now Dad's time to fall silent and sit staring into the fire.
I had always wondered why Dad seldom mentioned growing up and practically never mentioned his father. As I too, stared into the fire, I thought to myself, "Dad doesn't pry, I won't pry."
Several minutes later Dad said softly, "I guess I was about your age when I had a teacher ask me one day what I planned on doing after high school. I told her I doubted I'd finish high school and when she asked why I told her. My dad believed that an eight grade education was enough and I was already beyond that. We talked about that a bit and she urged me to think beyond high school. 'You are definitely college material,' she said. I laughed and asked her where she thought I could get the money for college when I didn't have money for decent clothes in high school. 'There are ways,' she said, 'Just you work on keeping your grades up and let me worry about the money.'"
"When I told my dad about that, he exploded. He started shouting and cussing, claiming teachers were interfering in his parental rights. The real explosion came after he had shouted, 'I didn't even get as far in high school as you are now and I've done ok!'
"'You've done ok? Maybe you think so and maybe you're doing ok, but look at Mama. She's just forty and looks old enough to be her own mother. In the winter we freeze our asses off trying to stay warm. We carry water from a spring two hundred yards away. We spend hours cutting and hauling wood to cook and heat with. I have very few clothes and they are about worn out and much too small. I am ashamed of how I have to dress. Mama hasn't had a new dress ever that I can remember.' Well, Tom, you get the idea. Dad had used a belt on me frequently as I was growing up, knocked me around a bit with other things, but this time he picked up a chair and started toward me with it. Before he had gone far, Mama shouted, "Adam, put that chair down or I'll kill you!' When she called, I looked toward the kitchen and saw her standing in the kitchen door with a shotgun."
"Dad stormed out of the house and when he had gone, Mama said, "Thomas, there's not a lot I can do about my life. I'm pretty much stuck here, but you have a whole life in front of you. Get your things together. We're going into Clarksville.' I knew Mama couldn't drive--Dad would never allowed it--and I was surprised when we went to the barn where she hitched our mule to the wagon and we drove to Clarksville with my few things."
"We went to the house of a cousin of Mama's and Mama told her what had happened and asked her if she and her husband would agree to take me in. I got a job after school and weekends to help pay my way. Aunt Lida and Uncle Simon were very good to me, seeing that I had what I needed."
"I saw Mama when she could hitch a ride into Clarksville. The last time I saw her she was still not fifty and looked at least eighty. She died during my first year in college. I didn't have money to come back for the funeral, but I knew she'd not want me borrowing money to come. 'Nothing you can do to help the dead,' she would have said."
"I never saw dad after that night until you were four or five. He wrote and asked that I come to see him. His letter was pitiful and your mom urged me to come. I did and dad asked my forgiveness. I think telling him I forgave him was one of the hardest things I ever did, and one of the best. Somehow or other that helped me turn loose the bitterness and hatred I held for him, but I could never have loved the place where I was born and certainly not as I love this place."
I had known there was something between Dad and his father, but I had never known what. I did know that the teacher who first suggested he look forward to college had helped him get in BereaCollege in Kentucky. Berea charged no tuition-and still doesn't--and everyone worked to earn money for other things such as room and board. Dad had worked in the kitchen his first year then was able to land a job as lighting technician for the dramatics laboratory the last three years he was there.
He had worked summers and holidays at a resort in North Carolina, supporting himself his entire college career. He graduated with honors, and landed a job teaching in FultoncountyGeorgia which explains our living in College Park, next door to Atlanta. He met Mom at the first system-wide meeting for new teachers. He says he could never explain why he had been so "forward" in asking her for a date before the meeting broke up and was thunderstruck when she accepted. They were married a year later.
Anyway, I had known some of that, but had never known the whole story of why he had very little to do with his dad. He'd take us to North Carolina for a short visit a few times and I do remember he seemed to be on a friendly basis with his dad the year before he died, the year I turned five. Of course, being only five when my grandfather died, I remembered very little about any visits with him.
We were silent again and after a few minutes I said, "Dad, I need to do something so Keith and I can be brothers again." I guess I thought Dad could figure out what had gone wrong and what to do about it because I said nothing more. Dad did not speak. I looked up to make sure he was awake!
He was looking at me with the kindest look in his eyes. Then for the first time since Keith and I had been separated, I really started bawling. Dad opened his arms toward me and I ran into them burying my face in his shoulder. He stroked my hair, but said nothing. Dad continued stroking my hair and I finally stopped bawling.
I looked up at Dad and said, "Dad, I'm gay. I don't want to be and I've tried not to be, but I'm gay." I waited for Dad's reaction. I know it's one thing to talk about something so long as it's all about a theoretical person, but it's very different when it's about a person, a person you know and love.
Dad said nothing for several minutes and then said, softly, "Tom, I suspected as much when you were asking questions earlier. I thought you might have been asking about Keith, but probably not."
"Dad, that's what's wrong between me and Keith. You know how close we have always been and I guess, I know, I fell in love with Keith. I kept wanting to tell him, but didn't because I was afraid. Then a few days before Christmas we were at his house, talking about what we would do over the holidays and he looked at me with those eyes of his and I couldn't help it. I reached over and took his face in my hands and kissed him, really kissed him. He shoved me away and told me get to my faggot ass out of this house and I better keep my distance from him. Dad, I love him sooo much and it hurts sooo bad."
Dad was still holding me, but I was gradually sliding off his lap. After all, I was more than a lap full. I stood up and walked back to my chair and sat down. "What am I going to do, Dad? What am I going to do?"
"I honestly don't know. You have a real problem. If you had done something to lose Keith's trust or harm him, the two of you could probably overcome it, but there is no changing the fact that you asked Keith for a relationship he cannot give. Can you ever be friends again? I don't know. Do you think you can be with Keith as a friend without trying to make him your lover? I don't know. You'll just have to try and win Keith's friendship back."
The next morning Dad's cell phone rang and after the two of us chased around the house, we finally found it. It was Mom who asked about coming up. Dad asked if was ok by me and I assured him it was.
Mom arrived about three and when she got out of the car, I saw she had Keith with her. I ran toward him, then stopped, hanging back, afraid of how he might respond even though we had been huggers as long as I could remember.
Keith looked at me, almost smiled, then held out his arms. After a bear hug, he said, "Tom, you may be a faggot, but you're my faggot friend."
I gave him a bop on the arm and said, "You may be straight, but you're my straight friend."
We spend a lot of time talking. We would walk and talk awhile, then found a place to sit and talk. We finally had to go back to the house as we were freezing. After we had supper, we went upstairs and sat and talked until sunup.
With all the talk it all boiled down to Keith telling me he wished he could love me the way I loved him or that I could love him as he did me--that kind of thing. He made it very clear that he could never feel the kind of love for me I felt for him, but that our friendship was too precious to lose. "We'll just have to see if we can stand the pain of our being together without you thinking of me as your boyfriend or me thinking you are trying to make me your boyfriend. I know, I think, that it will be hard, painful for you, but it will also be painful for me. The question is, 'Is our friendship worth the pain?'"
"Keith, I honestly don't know. I really don't, but I am willing to give it a try if you are."
I know we both worked very hard at keeping our friendship and it worked. In fact, I think that being around Keith most of the time and knowing there would never be more between us than the strongest possible friendship made my acceptance of that fact easier. I forced myself to stop thinking about Keith when I took care of business--man, that was NOT easy.
Keith and I both played baseball. He was a first baseman and I was a catcher. In addition to being together at practice and games, we also spent time in the park, working on our own. One spring afternoon we were in the park, lazily tossing the ball back and forth, when I realized I was looking at Keith and seeing him as a friend, a very special friend for sure, but I didn't feel, you know, LOVE love for him. We were standing about a fifty feet apart and without thinking I called out, "You'll be interested in knowing I'm not in love with you."
Keith put a sad look on his face, clutched his heart, fell on the grass and started boo-hooing. I completely cracked up.