If there is anything harder than growing up gay, it’s growing up gay in the Midwest.
There are few places on the planet that are nicer than Foster, Texas, to be raised in, but there are a few conditions on that kind of perfection. There is a reason that Children of the Corn was based on places like this. They are pleasant, accepting, and loving people who respect each other under God, as long as you are exactly like them in every way that counts.
Sexuality counts quite a bit.
I remember growing up thinking I was the only person in the world like me. Like one of those mutants you read about in comic books, a normal-looking person on the outside, but with a hideous secret just under the skin that forever set me apart from everyone else. It was so typical a response that I am loath, in this day and age, to repeat it out loud to other gay people.
I remember being on the edge of seventeen, that dangerous time between childhood and young adult when the cement is still wet in your mind. That part of your life where things get stuck and form who you are for forever, liked or not. Offhand comments, distant laughter, anything a boy’s fragile ego could mistake for a slight on the kind of man he will one day become. There is never a time in your life when love is so sweet or pain cuts so deep, or when memory is so undeniably carved in stone.
Though I am closer to thirty than twenty, I can still remember moments in time from when I was a teenager that are so vivid they could have taken place yesterday. Ask me the name of the guy who talked to me at the gym last week, or Sophia’s boyfriend’s name, and I draw a blank. But ask me about the time I saw the boy down the street mow the lawn shirtless for the first time, and I can still smell the cut grass and feel the way the sun beat down on me mercilessly. It could have been this afternoon instead of a decade ago.
And that is not always a good thing.
“So…,” Sophia said, swirling the straw around in her glass in the same manner a cat plays with a mouse before eating it, “…home for the holidays, huh?”
I groaned as I put my head down on the table. “Why won’t you let this go?” I begged.
“Because, my dear friend,” she teased, “sometimes I feel like I’m best friends with James Bond and not some fag hag to an uptight hick.”
“I hate that word,” I mumbled into the tabletop.
“Which one?” she asked. “Hick or fag?”
“Both,” I answered.
“I know, it’s why I use them,” she said, taking a sip of her drink. “So, spill. What’s a real Texas Christmas like?”
Images sprang to mind of my four brothers and their families crowded into my parents’ living room, all of them in some demented race to have as many offspring as they could, while I sat in the corner trying desperately to remember their kids’ names. The stifling heat, because my mother thinks the moment I moved out of state, I lost the ability to handle a “proper North Texas winter.” The painful smile I keep on my face as my sisters-in-law ask again what it’s like living in such an exciting place as San Francisco, and I must be having the best time! The entire time I try to convince myself what they are saying isn’t code for, “So what’s it like having a ton of gay sex in the big city?”
“Long,” I said miserably, as I looked up and saw the cute barista walk by and flash me a pity smile.
“And that’s what she said,” Sophia added, laughing at her own joke. “So when do you leave?”
“Day after tomorrow,” I said, trying to find a way to turn around and look at the barista without seeming like I was turning around and looking at him.
Sophia looked at me and rolled her eyes. “Just ask him out already,” she said in exasperation. “Or better yet, go corner him in the bathroom!”
I tried not to blush and failed miserably. Sophia learned everything she knows about gay culture from watching Queer as Folk and is constantly miserable that I am nothing like the characters on the show. “He just reminds me of someone,” I said as I snuck a peek over my shoulder.
Of course, that was exactly when he was walking back with a few empty cups. He smiled and stopped. “Did you need another?”
“Another what?” I blurted out, turning away and seeing the empty coffee mug in front of me. “Another coffee obviously, because I’m in a coffee shop, and what else would you be asking me about?” And then I realized I said all that out loud. My head hit the table again. “No, thank you.”
I could hear Sophia cackle as the blood rushed to my head. I hate Christmas.
“He’s cute,” she commented, and I prayed he was out of earshot.
I looked up in exasperation. “Of course he’s cute. He works at a gay coffee house for tips.” I pushed my mug away dejectedly. “The only other professional that depends more on looks is a male stripper.” I looked over at him as he smiled and took another order behind the counter. “’Sides, he’s not that cute.”
“Who’s not that cute?” Whatshisname asked, wiping his hands on his jeans as he headed back from the bathroom.
“The guy behind the counter,” Sophia explained to her boyfriend, whose name I still could not remember.
He looked over, then back with a lewd smile. “Oh, yeah, he’s hot.”
I looked over at Sophia and rolled my eyes. “You seriously know you’re dating a gay guy, right?”
“Hey, I’m not gay!” Whatshisname said as he took a sip of his coffee. “I am an enlightened man of the times.”
“You dress better than I do and are constantly pointing out cute guys,” I said, tiring of this argument again. “You’re gayer than I am.”
“That’s not saying much,” Sophia said under her breath as I pretended not to hear her.
She’s right. I am, hands down, the worst gay guy in the world.
The other horrible part about growing up in Foster is I had no gay role models to speak of. There was that gay uncle on Bewitched, the weird guy on Too Close for Comfort, and Mr. Roper batting his eyelashes on Three’s Company, but I wasn’t that type of gay. I had played football since I knew how to walk—not very well, but I did play. My brothers and I were all jocks in high school, and even though I was the least jockish of the bunch, I still passed as more than straight to the general populace. When I moved away to the West Coast, I thought I’d finally be free. Able to explore my sexuality and all the joy that came with it.
I realized I had moved from being a misfit in a culture I wasn’t a part of, to being a freak in a culture I was supposed to be in. I didn’t believe in casual sex, I didn’t like to get drunk, and I had never done drugs. Bars were too loud, smoky, and sad for my taste, and frankly, I had never met a man who could measure up to the ideal in my head.
“He means he’s not cute compared to the boy with the red door,” Sophia said with a wicked smile.
“I hate you,” I said, meaning every word.
“The guy with the red what?” Whatshisname asked.
“There was this boy that lived down the street that Matt here was in LLLOOOVEEE with when he was in high school.” Her laughter was like nails on a chalkboard. “But of course, being Matt, he never once talked to him, only stalked him from afar and now judges every man he meets against that guy.”
Whatshisname looked over at the counter and back at me. “This guy with the red thing must have been hot.”
“Okay, honey,” Sophia said, quietly patting his arm. “Little too much sharing.”
She was right, which is why I hated her so much.
Growing up, there was a boy who lived two doors down, and he was the reason I knew I was gay. Foster was an odd town; we were small in terms of an actual town, but in population there seemed to be more people than were ever seen. We were the closest thing to a real town within seventy-five miles, so we ended up being the hub for a couple dozen smaller towns that depended on us to survive. I remember as a teenager being baffled anyone would come to Foster to have fun. We had enough people that we supported two different high schools, and there was no real way of telling who should go to which one.
My brothers and I went to Foster High, the school that was an odd mix of yuppie kids and those from the wrong side of the tracks. It was the older of the two schools and also considered the worst, which made us fight that much harder in whatever sport we played. Granada was the newer school, and the boy went there, which meant he was a Capulet to our Montagues.
He was also a jock, playing a variety of sports much like we did. Everyone knew him, walking down Main Street in his letterman jacket, easy smile, tattered white T-shirt that looked so soft you just had to touch it. He was always with friends, always surrounded as if the entire town wanted to touch him, be near him, draw what warmth they could from his presence. If he was uncomfortable with the attention, he never showed it; he was always smiling nervously and running a hand through that golden hair, making the T-shirt ride up. Like a comet, that brief glimpse of skin between his shirt and jeans was worth waiting weeks to see.
Sophia snapped her fingers in front of my face, breaking me out of my stupor as I remembered him. “Okay, back to Earth. So how long you staying?”
“As little as humanly possible,” I said, looking at the time and realizing I was close to being late. “Shit, I need to go.”
“So does his family still live in town?” she asked.
“I’m not seeing him,” I said, grabbing my messenger bag. “I’ll call you later,” I threw over my shoulder as I turned to dart out of the café.
“Bye!” the cute guy behind the counter called out. I turned to see him waving at me.
I went to wave back and slammed into the front door, and almost fell back onto my ass. He covered his mouth in horror as I shook my head, realizing the entire place was staring at me.
“Fucking Christmas,” I cursed as I fled the scene.
I secretly blamed the boy for making me different. His fault that something in my mind switched from girls to boys when I saw him, really, for the first time. I might have had thoughts before, might have wondered, but it wasn’t until the day I saw him that I knew, knew for sure. I wanted someone that looked just like him. And if not, as close as I could get would do.
It was a Saturday afternoon, one of the few when he wasn’t roaming free across our small town with his pack-mates like they owned the place. Instead, he had been resigned to mowing his lawn, and it was that day, as I walked by on my way to the library, that I knew… I was never going to be the same again.
He wore a pair of blue jeans that had been old last year. They were frayed and faded to the point of distraction, with the band of his white boxers just hanging out, daring someone to comment. He pushed the lawnmower around like it owed him money, he was so angry; two white headphone wires trailed down his back as he ignored the world around him and took it out on his chores. His hair was matted from the heat as drops of sweat trailed down his face. The world stopped spinning as I watched the sun reflect down on the tanned perfection that was his shirtless form. I paused in the street, completely floored by the Adonis in front of me. And there, in the middle of the explosion in my mind, he looked up at me. Our eyes met, and if he knew what I was looking at, or why, he gave no indication. His eyes blazed under the green John Deere hat as he kept moving with the lawn-mower, looking away slowly.
My brothers hated him on spec, of course. It was as if there was an instant rivalry between him and his friends and the rest of us. As the youngest, I had been sworn to hate him also. But seeing him alone for the first time, things changed. I knew I was different; my brothers and their friends seemed to live for spitting and farting. Talking endlessly about girls and their various comparisons left me cold, though I went along with it because the alternative was sitting alone in my room. I never had a name for what was inside of me; to be honest, I never wanted to name it. I craved to be like them so bad that I just ignored it and hoped one day it would pass.
But seeing him there, shirtless, sweat pouring down every muscle he had, it suddenly received a name.
Visions of him haunted me all day at work.
If I had more than thirty seconds to myself, my attention would drift back to that day when I knew I was sexually attracted to him, and not in a small way. After that, I thought I was so obvious that everyone in town was just being nice to me while laughing behind my back the whole time. Everything I did and said fell under self-scrutiny, looking for any hint I was less of a man than the rest of them. I began talking about girls, loudly and quite awkwardly. I tried drinking beer in the back of my friends’ pickups on our way to the lake; I asked Marsha Benning to the Winter Formal.
None of it made me any straighter.
My phone rang in my office, once again bringing me back to the here and now.
“Matt Wallace,” I answered, trying to dispel the ghosts of adolescence past from my brain.
“Matty?” my mother’s voice asked through the phone. “Matty, is that you?”
“Hi, Mom,” I answered, silently groaning, knowing what call this was.
“Are you busy? I know it’s the afternoon.”
My mother came from the generation where the afternoon was for work and work only. It meant you were out in the field somewhere, sun beating down, dirt in your hands. She didn’t understand what I did in an office every day, wearing a suit and dealing with computers. It was a foreign world that she was afraid I was going to get lost in someday.
“I’m fine, Mom,” I assured her, knowing without it she would never get to the reason she called. “What’s up?”
“Where are you?” she asked.
“I’m at work, Mom, you called me,” I said, trying to keep the shortness out of my voice.
“Well, I don’t know how this thing works!” she complained, meaning she was on the cell phone I had bought her last year. “I’m afraid I’m going to break it sometimes.”
“I’m at work and it’s fine, Mom,” I said, trying to focus her before she went off on how technology today was purposely overcomplicated.
“Well, I just got off the phone with Teresa.” That was my oldest brother’s wife. “She was checking in for Christmas and I realized I hadn’t heard from you yet. You are coming, right?” She asked in the same way a mob boss might ask if I understood that we were family, and family had certain obligations.
“Yes, Mother,” I said, trying not to sigh. “I e-mailed you my itinerary.”
“Well, this thing doesn’t work the way it’s supposed to!” she explained, which was her way of saying she had received the message but was unable to decipher it.
I bit my lip to keep from explaining it was a brand new computer running Honeycomb 7, which I knew because I had bought it for them on my father’s birthday; I knew the words would fall on deaf ears. She no more understood the computer was top-of-the-line than she understood what I did was work as a tech editor for a blog. There were simply too many words in that sentence that just made no sense to her. It was easier for her to blame the machine and use it as an excuse to call and ask what she was really after instead.
“I fly in Thursday,” I said, checking my own e-mail to make sure I had the times right. “I arrive around four, your time.”
“Do you need us to pick you up from the airport?”
“I’m renting a car at the airport, Mom.” I was getting snippy; she was drawing this out longer than usual.
“Okay, don’t snap my head off.” We were quiet for several seconds as she waited for me to give her an opening to ask the question I knew was coming, and I waited for her to realize I wasn’t going to. Finally: “So, are you coming alone?”
And there it was.
I could never figure out if she asked because she was concerned I was alone, or because she was worried I would bring a guy with me one year. Either way, the question annoyed me, and I was unable to keep it out of my tone. “You know I am, Mom.”
“Well, fine,” she said, obviously exasperated. “I was just asking.”
She was prying and she knew it.
“And I answered,” I said back, trying to end this before it became an actual thing.
“You know, my friend Frances has a son who is…” and she paused, still unable to say it out loud, “…too. Maybe you know him?”
And I was done. “Yes, Mom, I do know him. I saw him at the last gay men with pushy mothers meeting. He’s a nice guy, we’re getting married next month.”
Now I could really hear the disappointment in her voice. “Well, excuse me for trying to understand your life. I’ll go now and stop bugging you.”
“Mom, you’re not—” I began to recant.
“See you Thursday,” she said, pretending she didn’t hear me, and hung up.
I slammed the phone down and tried not to scream, “Fucking Christmas!”
From the way people stared at me, I’m pretty sure I failed.
“Going postal at your job?” Sophia said later that night over the phone. “They’ll all say you seemed like such a nice boy.”
I was lying on my comically undersized couch with my calves resting on the edge. I had bought it in a fit of “trying to be metropolitan” and paid the price for it. It cost too much money, was out of style the second I got it home, and barely fit a man half my size. I was what Sophia called corn-fed, which sounded dangerously close to fat, but she assured me it was hot.
I didn’t feel hot.
“And you’d show up at my funeral, looking like what’s-her-name from Fight Club, black makeup, shades, chain-smoking up a storm. And they’d wonder where I ever met such an ugly drag queen.”
“Fuck off!” she shrieked in my ear. “And it’s Helena Bonham Carter, you retard. She’s in, like, every other movie we watch.”
“Every movie you pick, you mean.”
She paused, mock outrage in her voice. “I’m not the one who wants to see every single sci-fi or cartoon piece of shit that comes out! It’s like being friends with a twelve-year-old. At least I try to interject some culture into your hick ass.”
It was true: I had no culture.
I was largely unchanged since I’d moved from Foster; the only difference was I now knew where gay men congregated, but was still single. The gay scene seemed too loud for me, boisterous and rowdy; it was as if every weekend was another reason for some kind of party, which made no sense to me. What was a White Party and how was it different from a Red Party? I was pretty sure the difference had to do with sex, and there was no way I was going to ask about that.
“So you were mean to your mom,” she prompted me out of my thoughts.
“I wasn’t mean, it was the yearly ‘Do I have to worry about my son dying single?’ phone call, and it gets old.”
I sighed deeply. “She cares inasmuch as she can’t properly scold me for making Jesus cry, because I am having congress with the beast.”
“You having congress with anyone, much less a beast, would be a freaking miracle.”
“Shut up,” I said miserably.
“I mean it—wine to water seems pale in comparison to the Great White Matt getting his groove on.”
She was baiting me, and I wasn’t going to rise to it. “What are you and Whatshisname doing tonight?” I asked, trying to change the subject.
“You know his name is [something I forgot the second she said it]. I don’t know why you refuse to remember it.” Hearing annoyance in her voice was petty revenge, but it was all the justice I was going to get tonight.
“Because in another four months you’ll find him in bed getting fucked by some guy from the gym, and you’ll say you had no clue he was secretly gay, and I’ll have to hear it.”
She was quiet for so long I thought she might have hung up. Finally, in a soft voice, she said, “That is a horrible thing to say, Matt.”
I instantly felt like shit.
“Why do you automatically assume he’s a bottom? That is just cruel.”
Her laughter was like a witch’s curse.
“Goodnight,” I said, knowing I had been outplayed.
“Have fun in the corn!” she said before I hung up.
I had no idea how I was going to live through this Christmas.