“ARE you ready for this?” Danny asked as he started the ignition in his truck.
“I guess I am as ready as I will ever be,” I answered while drawing a breath through a smile.
“Stop looking so nervous! You’re only meeting my parents, not going in for surgery.”
“I know, Tiger, but it’s still a big deal. I want to make a good impression.”
Danny laughed. “Well, you may want to control your sarcasm a little.”
“I am not that bad.”
“Just speak with that gorgeous British accent of yours. But remember not to cuss or blaspheme. In fact, blaspheming would probably be worse.”
“When I know I can’t swear, that’s when I blaspheme the most.”
“Okay, probably best that you just cuss!
I looked into Danny’s light blue eyes as he smiled at me. I ran my hand down the back of his hair, which had finally started to grow out of its usual military crew cut. Tucking a blond lock behind his ear, I leaned in to kiss him and then settled back into the passenger seat as the truck pulled out of the driveway.
“I promise I will try, but I am as nervous as hell. To be honest, I could murder for a cigarette right now.”
Danny looked at his watch. “You still have another three hours before you’re allowed another one.”
“You’re not the boss of me!”
“Hey, these are your rules! I think you should quit cold turkey, but if you think it’ll be easier cutting down first then I’ll try to support you.” He looked sympathetically at me. “Your dad would be proud, I’m sure.”
“My dad would be spinning in his grave if he knew I was still smoking after what happened to him.”
Duke, the sandy-colored mutt that Danny rescued along the roadside in his last Navy duty station in the Middle East, nestled in the small cabin behind the seats. Danny turned from the residential street onto the highway, and we set off on the four-hour journey from Austin to Baytown, a small city in southeast Texas.
I had arrived from England for my first visit to Texas the day before and had stayed either at Danny’s side or in his arms in the house that he rented with Tucker, an old friend from college. Tucker had been kind enough to make himself scarce for the night in order to give Danny and me some much needed privacy. I hadn’t met him yet, but Tucker’s understanding of the fact that Danny and I hadn’t seen each other for months had already put him in my good books.
The night had been perfect, even though I was tired from the journey. The excitement of seeing Danny kicked in, and I caught my second wind the moment I laid eyes on him. For the past few months we had done everything to feel close to each other without actually being together. I spoke to him every chance I could by phone, instant messenger, or webcam and had sent and received hundreds of texts, cards, e-mails, and letters. As precious as each and every communication was, nothing compared to feeling his warm body next to me.
Danny pulled into a gas station just outside Houston. The closer we got to Baytown, the more nervous and anxious I became. I watched Danny pump the petrol into the truck while he sang along to a country song playing out of a car next to us on the forecourt. He nodded politely and smiled good southern manners to the driver, who was looking back at him. He had never seemed so Texan to me. I checked myself in the rearview mirror and wondered for a second whether his parents would see “the British look” that Danny maintained I presented.
We set off again, Danny trying to find a radio station that was playing the country music he’d heard at the station. Finding it, he leaned back in his seat and began to sing to me. He wasn’t the best singer in the world and could barely hold a tune to most songs. But when he mimicked country and western songs, his voice was pitch perfect, and he could double for any star on CMT. He twisted his voice into the familiar twang of the singer and added an occasional “yeeee-haw!” for my amusement. I would laugh, but he also knew it turned me on a little too.
“Will your sisters be there?” I asked once the song had ended.
“No, but you’ll get a chance to meet them and their husbands tomorrow at the football game.”
“What are their husbands like?” I asked, not having really considered what meeting them would be like. I was far more concerned about meeting his parents than anything else.
“They’re okay. Slightly redneck, if you ask me. But I get along with them all right.”
This only added to my nerves. I had visions of unshaven men in caps and dungarees, carrying shotguns a little too casually. I absentmindedly covered my left ear with the palm of my hand in protection, as thoughts of the scene in Deliverance played in my head.
“Do they get along with your parents?”
“They all get along really well. Personally, I don’t have a great deal in common with them. But they’re nice enough and they treat my sisters well, so that’s all that really matters. They’re typically Texan men in the respect that they’re very much the heads of their households and don’t answer to anyone. Mom and Dad don’t even attempt to get into their business like a lot of other families might.”
“And they’re okay with the gay thing?”
“What can they say? They stayed in Baytown while I joined the military and fought for my country. They wouldn’t dare let the gay guy shame them.”
I paused for a moment before I asked my next question.
“Danny, exactly how religious is your mum?” I had been trying to avoid the question, as the mention of it seemed to quietly rile Danny on occasion. He had told me that she had become more involved with the church as she had gotten older, but often tensed up at the subject, leading me not to ask questions about it. But I thought I needed to know now, to gauge how to adapt any attempt at humor around her.
Danny sighed and looked out over the freeway in front of him. In every direction I looked on this journey, all I could see was flat land with an occasional tree or farmhouse in the distance. It was a stretch of road that I could imagine would force solitary drivers to examine their lives or solve world problems, as there was little, if anything, to catch their attention. Danny tilted his head as though he was trying to figure out the best way to answer, which unnerved me a little.
“I love my mom. She really is a remarkable woman. But you have to understand, Greg, she’s not quite the same woman she was when I was growing up. Don’t get me wrong; she’s still as loving, kind, and generous now as she’s always been. But back then she was so funny, so full of life, and I have nothing but good memories of all the fun we had as a family. She’s the church secretary now, but then, she was a travel agent and told me all about the different cities around the world, even though she hadn’t visited many of them and had only left Texas a handful of times in her life. Truth be told, that was one of the reasons why I joined the Navy, so I could visit all the places she had described to me. She and Dad have always been my biggest supporters.” He paused, and, for a moment, a look of frustration crept over his face. “Nowadays her life revolves around the church.”
“So she’s a newly ‘born again’ Christian?”
“Well, no, not exactly. She has always identified herself as a Christian, but when I was growing up it was more about leading a decent life and going to church on Sunday. Other than that she was a typical mom who loved life and her family.”
Danny chewed on his lip. “I couldn’t believe the change I saw in her from when I left to join the Navy to when I got back. She just seemed to morph into this stereotypical Southern Baptist woman whose church dominated her life. I know we kids were her world, but we grew up and left home, and I think she suffered empty nest syndrome. I really thought she would be the type of woman who would go out and embrace middle age freedom by joining bowling teams or taking up country line dancing with Dad. I could just see them drinking beer and two-stepping their way into retirement, but it just hasn’t happened that way.”
“How does she marry up the gay thing with the church thing?”
“Well, I came out to her years before she became so religious, so by then it was too late. When I told her I was gay, she and Dad couldn’t have taken it any better. I had the same sort of reaction that you had with your parents.”
“What, they put you in a frock, took you down Brighton seafront, and threw rocks at you?”
Danny laughed. “You know what I mean. They asked if I was happy, and that was it. No drama, no upset, no wailing over grandchildren they would never have. Hell, Mom would ask me in the shopping mall ‘Do you like that boy?’ and point until I had to pin her wrists down to her hips while she screamed with laughter.”
“Hopefully she will point at me.”
Danny winked. “You’ll be fine, baby. I promise. Both Mom and Dad are, like we Southerners like to say, ‘good people’.”
It was ten o’clock and dark by the time we reached Baytown. The rain began pouring just as we passed the city limits. By the time we arrived in his old neighborhood, the rain and wind had turned into an almighty storm that made Duke shake and bark at the thunder and lightning. We pulled onto the street where Danny grew up. There was no chance of getting an idea of the area where he rode his bike as a child or where he learned to drive as a teenager, as the entire neighborhood was pitch black.
“The storm must have knocked out the electricity,” Danny said as he tried to wrestle a now terrified Duke into a collar and leash. “Duke, come on! You’ve been here months and you’re still terrified of the rain.”
“Will they mind that it’s so late?” I asked, thinking the last thing they wanted was an introduction to their son’s new man by torchlight.
“They’ll be fine!”
“And you’re sure they’ll like the hamper?”
“A gift basket from Harrods? What do you think?”
The three of us ran through the rain from the driveway to the front porch of the house, each of us getting instantly drenched in the downpour.
“They’re gonna love ya. I promise.” He winked at me again before knocking on the door.
As I stood there, half-soaked, I couldn’t help wondering how in the world I had gone from my carefree life in England to the front porch of a modest house in Southeast Texas in such a short time.