The momentous occasion was prefaced by conversations brazenly inane. So usually did we talk about work and friends and family that when the moment finally came, any bystander would be forgiven for missing its significance. It did start promisingly, but was sullied by my pathological need to avoid.
“Is that boy still living with you? What’s his… I’ve forgotten his name.”
“James? Yeah he’s still there.”
Dad’s clasped hands writhed and my heart skipped a beat. I looked toward the kitchen, the ceiling, and my dinner plate on the table in front of me, smeared with olive oil and spattered with crumbs – the remnants of our dinner for two. I looked everywhere but at him.
“So how long have you two been together now? Six years?”
The word resonated in my head. Together. This was not another example of Dad’s muddling Sicilian-English. It was deliberate. It was knowing. I cleared my throat, shifted, then jumped out of my seat and ran the five steps to the kitchen to pour myself a glass of water. Dad looked confused and I too became aware of my freakish actions. I slammed down the water, but my nervousness was inextinguishable. I replied, finally, with vague precision; a skill perfected after decades of practicing the Art of Avoidance.
“No, five. More like five.”
“What does he do, James?”
“He’s a lawyer.”
“Oh. What kind of law does he…”
“Insurance. Litigation. Insurance litigation.”
“Oh. You used to be in insurance.”
I could see Dad’s mind entering into fifth gear, approaching maximum velocity. But with a neat lawyer’s trick (and a compulsive act of self-sabotage), I redirected Dad’s inquisition and for the next thirty minutes we discussed the enthralling topic of the subtleties of insurance litigation.
* * *
I recently went to an Alt-J concert with one of my best friends, Joel. A few days earlier, my younger brother told me that he and his girlfriend were also going to the gig, so I told him to meet me in the stadium. Matheo and Lauren found Joel and I in the stalls feeling a thousand years old in a crowd full of embryos, cursing our earlier selves for not buying tickets in the seated area while waiting for the gig to start. Matheo and Joel exude equal levels joyful enthusiasm for life, so I knew that they would get along like a house on fire. And yet, when I introduced them I felt momentarily uneasy.
When I was six I used to lay awake at night, terrified that the sun would expand and we would all be doomed, frying to death before the Earth was subsumed. A delightful child to be around, I’m sure. That same child-like dread washes over me when my world’s collide. That unshakable fear of the unexpected, of results completely out of my control. It is entirely irrational and on this occasion fleeting.
However, a few minutes later Joel took me aside and as I watched Joel’s happy-go-lucky face contort into a furrowed brow, the unexpected occurred. Quizzical, Joel made an observation astute beyond his comprehension: “Hey, why the hell haven’t I met your brother before?”
* * *
Dad entertained me with a story of his friend’s Ken’s unexpected windfall through his own legal issues and I was thankful I had a had a momentary distraction. At the story’s end, we extended our laughter of Ken’s foibles beyond belief, uncomfortably forcing them in anticipation of the imminent. Laughter turned to silence as levity languished and knots tightened in my stomach. Dad tapped his fingers on the table and despite having no appetite, I compulsively ate leftover potatoes. Dad grunted softly, words failing to leave his mouth. I ate more potato and then Dad broke the silence with more nervous laughter.
“Soooo, ha ha ha, what’s going on, Andrew?”
I played stupid, with him and myself. “What do you mean?”
“Well, ha ha ha, you’re thirty-two now. Isn’t it time you found someone for yourself.”
The knots turned to butterflies, the force of their fluttering propelling me from my chair and back into the kitchen. Confused, Dad turned in his seat to watch me. I poured myself some water from the tap and slammed it down my throat.
Dad persisted, “Well don’t you think?”
I tried everything to ignore the question. My hands shook as I poured another drink. I kept drinking water in an irrational attempt to avoid this forever. Pour, gulp, gasp. Pour, gulp, gasp. As Dad watched on his confusion was palpable.
“What’s wrong with you?”
I gasped, breathless, between drinks.
“(Gulp). Thirsty. (Gulp).”
With each passing drink, my mania became more apparent and eventually I knew that the jig was up. I poured one more glass of water and took it back to the table. I sat down and looked at the water. In a few moments it would be empty and I would be on my own. Defeated and emboldened, I looked up at my father, raising my eyebrows and offering an upside down smile. Dad took the cue.
“Andrew. I want to know. Why don’t you have a girlfriend?”
* * *
When someone asks me how old I was when I “came out of the closet”, I can’t help but wince. I’m not bothered by the intimacy of the question. I just don’t think it’s a particularly insightful question. The answer I give is twenty-four. It’s the age I first had real feelings for a boy and acknowledged my sexuality to myself without hesitation.
But let’s not kid ourselves. It’s not like I didn’t know before this. In High School I had crushes on all the girls and at university I dated them. After all, girls are great. Most guys don’t give girls credit for how funny and cool and interesting they are. But while I slipped an anonymous homemade Valentine’s Day card in Nancy’s locker, who I thought I would marry but could never actually tell her, I was also thinking about my Year 9 Outdoor Education teacher, Mr Morgan, with his barreled, hairy chest, muscular arms and baritone voice. And in Year 11, when I thought that my best friend Jennie should have been dating me and not that loser Shannon, I couldn’t help but appreciate her taste in tall, dark, athletic men.
Throughout all of High School the boys’ locker room was a visual treat. I would steal glimpses of the older and more developed boys, muscular and hirsute, taking quick photographs with my mind’s eye so I could review them in the safety of my bed later that night. But despite my bed play suggesting otherwise, this didn’t seem sexual at the time. I didn’t feel the desire for love or even touch, but rather idealisation. In my mind I had rationalised that I wanted to be these men, but in all likelihood I would have been content if I could have just had them.
I would probably have come out in university, had it not been that enough friends had asked if I was gay, my stupidity and pride refusing to give them the satisfaction. Instead I fumbled with girls boobs at parties, saving my male encounters for prehistoric chat rooms, swapping lewd, headless photographs and calling myself Giorgio. And occasionally, just occasionally, I would chance a late night meeting in the backseat of a car, secure in the darkness of Council parking lots. But if I couldn’t call myself Andrew, then I definitely couldn’t call myself gay. Seriously, no one in Perth is called Giorgio.
The words “coming out of the closet” connotes and all-or-nothingness. Like a flick of the switch, you’re hidden and then you’re not. But we all know it doesn’t work like that. Once you “know”, you have to decide who you are going to tell and how you are going to tell them. I always knew that I would tell my Dad last.
Growing up, Dad wasn’t around much as he worked seven days a week on his motel business and when he was home, I spent my time avoiding him. He was strict and opinionated and, if you upset him enough, he was occasionally physical. Over the years, his Sicilian sensibilities softened, demonstrating a road less reactionary as he tended to my younger siblings in their teenage years. And as I entered adulthood, I became more comfortable with actively disagreeing with him. It started with a Sunday lunch. Dad cooked a roast, with a side of steamed beans and the time to stand up for my beliefs had arrived.
“Do I have to have beans?” I asked cautiously.
“Why, don’t you like them?”
“I hate beans” I answered, defiantly.
“What am I going to do? Don’t eat them then.”
Proud in my victory I was now an adult, aged twenty-two.
Soon, it was Christmas and I was telling Dad that there was no God and that all Catholics are delusional hypocrites and liars. Politics, war, economics, religion; our intellectual debates were fought long and hard, quickly becoming folklore within the family.
Dad had made his views known about homosexuality throughout those times. His solution was to “lock them up in the desert and starve them”. And if that didn’t work, “then cut their balls off”. It wasn’t religion speaking, but unadulterated, uncompromising and innate hatred. The stakes seemed so much higher. Beans are a choice. Religion is a choice. But a rejection of my sexuality would be a rejection of me.
As I found it easier to talk to Dad about everything else, my relationship with him in my early twenties grew stronger. When I finally accepted I was gay, it seemed like an impenetrable barrier to our relationship and so naturally, I hid it.
At the end of my twenty-fifth year I informed my on-again-off-again lover that I would give my Dad “one more family Christmas” before I would tell him. He rolled his eyes at the melodrama in my statement. Unsurprisingly, I didn’t follow through. With each broken promise, I would make a new mental milestone. First serious boyfriend. Second serious boyfriend. Before I turn 27. Before I move to London. When I am living in London. Before I turn thirty. When I move back to Australia. After my brother’s wedding. Before I turn thirty-one. On a few of the occasions I came really close, but with each passing date I chickened out.
The longer I held it, the harder it was to break it. The secret trapped me in a double life, shrouded in shame and embarrassment. I was too scared to tell me Dad that I had a boyfriend and I was too ashamed to tell my friends that I hadn’t come out to my Dad. Each aspect of my life kept strictly separate. And when things became serious, I asked my partner to accept the unenviable position of having to come along for the lie. For five years, I would go to family dinners, birthdays, Christmases and weddings while my secret stayed at home, being a man more forgiving than I really deserved.
* * *
My instinct was to create a distraction. Throw the empty water-glass and run. “Don’t make me say it!” I yelled at him in my head. But I knew I had to say something. And not that I was enjoying single life, or that I had a few on the run. I had to say something resembling the truth. Blushing, I sighed, finally disobeying my instincts to avoid.
“I think you know the answer to that, Dad.”
Heart beating resolutely, a seven-year weight melted off my shoulders. It didn’t matter what he said now. This was happening. It was done.
Unexpectedly, yet unsurprisingly, Dad’s reaction was the sweetest. He recognised that I had been distant, acknowledged his mistakes, asked if I was happy and confirmed that all that mattered was that I was his son. So calm was is response that it didn’t seem real. I was immediately saddened by years wasted. What had I been doing all these years? Dad might not have reacted the same way if I had come out seven years ago, but he would have come around. He did come around. Instead years of heat-ache and lies, unhappiness and distrust. It all seemed so pointless.
And then I thought of the future and smiled.
“Now please, Andrew, don’t worry about it. And come and visit me more often.”