We All Pay for Our Sins by Joshua Rudnik
"Do you know what makes you a man?”
I am five or six. Mom kneels in front of me and examines my naked body as I dress for school.
“A man has testicles.” She looks down as if to verify that I did, indeed, have testicles. This is the first time I remember being of my anatomy.
“Those are your balls,” she points.
She tells me that Dad wanted her to account for my manhood. I’m not sure if I should be embarrassed or vindicated because of my “balls.”
I never ask about this memory with either of my parents, but I wonder why they felt the need to investigate my body for signs of masculinity. Did they suspect, or even know, of my impending transgressions and sought physical evidence to either confirm or soothe their fears?
When I am seven, a cousin leads me to the bathroom and asks me to pull my pants down. We share the same name and the same birthday, only he’s a year older. He wants to compare what he calls our “wieners.” I’m also curious to compare our anatomy, but I’m glad he asks first. We never actually see each other as we stand in the bathroom with the curtains drawn. All I see is an outline of his heavyset frame.
Mom acts as a soothing and comforting force, a moderator and buffer between me and Dad’s influence. I opt to play the clarinet instead of playing football. I play with Barbie and not with G.I. Joe, and I prefer to swim rather than play baseball. Mom defends my decisions, encourages exploration.
Dad punishes us for lying or anything he deems sinful, such as refusing to take my right field position during a tee-ball game. Mom can’t stop the blows of Dad’s belt, always in sets of ten, but she negotiates five, and bargains with him to deliver the lashes over my jeans rather than bruise my bare ass.
My parents divorce soon after I turn ten, a fact that I deny into my high school years. Mom leaves home, and they never offer a choice of who I would prefer to live with. There was no longer a buffer between Dad’s intuitive nature for all things “sinful,” a remnant of his Sunday school lessons and God-fearing parents. He terrifies me, and I hide my preference for boys.
I live in sin.
To live in sin is to live a life without honesty. Honesty, I interpret, is to be truthful.
Through Bible school lessons and recitations, I learn we are all sinners but earn the grace of God through prayer, confessing our sins. I pray each night for God to forgive the times I smacked my sisters, gave the lip to Dad, for not eating the peas on my dinner plate. These are easily cleansed, but there is one lie that I cannot bring myself to confess, even under my breath.
Dad interprets sin as the path of the wicked, a catchall for failure to follow his truth, defying his rules. Conforming to his rules, his truth, is to deny my own.
I am twelve and I start my English homework as I get on the after-school bus. Inside, my puberty-induced sweat causes my skin to stick to the putrid green leather.
“Who do you have for English?”
I look up and a boy observes me from the seat behind. I recognize him from our daily bus rides but assume that he isn’t in my grade because I never see him on the third floor of the school, the 7th grade floor. I tell him I have Mrs. Wolfe and continue to diagram sentences, being careful to link determiners and nouns with verb phrases.
The bus lurches forward. My penmanship becomes unsteady and I mark outside the margins.
“She doesn’t like it when you cross the red lines.”
I later learn that the boy’s name is Thomas and that he’s a grade ahead of me. We start a friendship and the following summer we see each other nearly every day.
I never mention his name to Dad, describing our rendezvous as a bike ride. During the week, meeting with Thomas isn’t a problem since Dad works twelve-hour days. Like with my cousin, I’m interested in his anatomy but shy from making bold claims when we are alone in his basement bedroom.
Thomas makes a habit of riding his bike in circles in front of our house every evening, waiting for me to finish dinner.
Dad is wary. He opens the screen door and yells that he knows what he’s up to. “I don’t want to see you around here anymore.”
Years later, I learn that Thomas is gay, and I recall our friendship and wonder what could have been. Maybe Dad knew that Thomas was gay before I did. Neighbors chatter. Maybe that is why he shooed Thomas away.
I am fifteen. After everyone is asleep, I sit in front of our family computer and connect to the internet, my gateway to discovery and bond with others like me as I learn to decipher an alien terminology. I put blankets and pillows over the tower to stave the pixilated pitch of the modem. It’s almost midnight when I shut the computer down for the night and go to bed.
Dad wakes me at 1:30 in the morning. He tells me to take a few minutes to wake up before coming upstairs.
I don’t bother putting pants on and walk upstairs in my briefs, my bleary eyes hide my embarrassment.
He confronts me with internet histories, fingerprints that tell him someone searched the word “gay,” followed by “top” and “bottom.”
I don’t answer right way. It feels as if every organ inside of me has shriveled.
He remains silent as I muster the courage to defend my curiosity, not the truth, which is my hunger. I am only curious, I reassure him, as if that’ll explain everything away.
“It’s disgusting, isn’t it?”
My nod is a lie.
Soon after the divorce, Dad remarries, and he makes the decision to move to California. I’m given a choice to stay in South Dakota with Mom, but I choose California because I equate it to a haven: luxury, celebrities, men like me. I am sixteen and want to use this move as an opportunity to re-create myself, to erase my transgressions. I color my hair deep copper and dress to emulate *NSYNC. The closest I get is white Fruit of the Loom t-shirts and a pair of Vans.
Maybe Dad will change too, I hope.
Soon after we arrive in California, I meet Sam.
I ride my bike in a mostly empty parking lot when he calls me over. At first, I am hesitant to respond. I don’t know anyone here. He must be calling someone else.
He calls again, this time indicating “you on the bike.” He’s indiscrete and tells me I’m cute, a sentiment I reciprocate but too afraid to say out loud. I don’t recall the rest of our initial conversation, but I imagine my shyness absolved to convey a sense of confidence.
I learn that he is seventeen and lives in the next town over. He is thin, dark-skinned, hair buzzed. He wears dark jeans with a white shirt that he tucks into the front of his jeans to parade his gold-colored belt buckle.
Our romance is a blur but in the span of a couple weeks, I find ways to sneak out of the house on the weekends to meet with him and even risk inviting him into the garage one night, where my bedroom is located. We spend hours exploring each other’s bodies until just before dawn. I know Dad might catch us naked in bed, but excitement clouds my judgement.
We talk on the phone almost every night, in whispers and shadows, and I’m so enamored with his attention that I don’t even consider the long-distance charges that will be our undoing.
Three months after our move, Dad asks if I want to join him for a drive. I accept in hopes that we will finally shape a father/son bond. The joy of speeding down the highway ends when he confronts me with the phone bill. Nearly $300 in charges. I should have listened to Sam when he offered to call me, but I didn’t want the phone to ring and ruin what we started.
I attempt to lie and tell him I made the calls to a friend from home who also moved to California. He keeps driving, keeping his thoughts to himself as I consider escaping this moment, opening the car door and subjecting my body to mutilation across the cement highway rather than feel his disappointment. I’m trapped in his car with no options but to tell him about Sam because he smells my sin.
The same afternoon Dad finds out about Sam, I’m at the police station giving a statement. At first, I’m as vague as possible. I don’t want the policeman sitting in front of me to feel ashamed.
He presses me.
I tell him about the flirtatious moments when we first met. I told him how I placed my palm on Sam’s chest the first time. How his body felt smooth and dominant in the dark.
The police officer misconstrues this into manipulation. Sam made me caress his chest. Sam made me look at his body.
We are both underage and consent does not exist. We are both charged with a misdemeanor: unlawful sexual contact. I never see Sam again nor will I discover how he fared with the police.
Dad won’t allow a queer under his roof but his shame commands him to disclose to aunts, uncles, grandparents, and Mom “Joshua is gay.” I say everyone, but I don’t know who all he told, but from here on out I can never look anyone in my immediate family directly in the eyes.
I arrive at school at 7:30 every morning. Every day I walk from the bus drop-off area, across the former football field, now commons, and to the benches outside the modular where my first class is held. The school’s exterior hallways leave me exposed to wind, rain, and slurs.
“Hello, fag,” a deep voice proclaims, diverting my study of how my Vans appear when they hit the cement, predicting areas of wear. I look up and turn my head. He doesn’t turn his. I assume he made a lucky guess in haphazardly placing labels.
The high school is large, but I’m a creature of habit. Once dispatched, I follow the same path that always leads to the same reception and this scene repeats each school day, though it becomes more aggressive. First, he begins to slap my back as I walk past before moving to swinging his shoulder into mine.
He changes his script every so often:
“Look. It’s the fag.”
“Good morning, AIDS boy.”
I don’t defend myself, but I want to tell my assailant that he lacks creativity. In middle school, boys threw around labels such as “ass bandit,” “fudge packer,” “pillow biter,” and “limp-wristed.” At this point, my “gay slang” is hazy and I’m oblivious to what these labels describe. The latter set of labels wouldn’t hurt any less, but why not put glamour into his attacks?
But he threw his one syllable words hard enough to stick.
That same year, I donate blood for the first time. I disclose this news with Dad, something positive to share.
“I didn’t think fags could donate blood.”
This is the first time I hear the “F” word slip through his lips. No, not the first, but the first time the word is a punch to my stomach. I don’t know how to respond.
“What if grandma needed that blood?” He references his ailing mother who is already repentant about her gay grandson.
He takes the United Way pamphlet from my hand and grabs the phone with the other. He dials the number at the bottom.
When someone answers, he tells them that his son donated blood earlier in the afternoon and they should dispose of his donation.
“He may have HIV.”
I knew the risks of HIV from elementary school. I thought back to everything Sam and I did. I know I’m negative, but Dad’s reaction instills doubt. Perhaps I did have HIV.
After school, I walk to the city library and skim the phonebook for STD testing locations. I write down an address and don’t bother calling. It’s only a few blocks away.
I’ll miss the bus home, but I don’t care.
The address leads me to a two-room office. I’m the only one there and the receptionist leads me back into the second room right away.
A heavyset man no older than my father greets me and begins to ask about my sexual history before the door shuts behind me. I sit in the only chair in the room, feel like I’ve committed a crime, being interrogated, confessing details that prompts him to say “You’ll be fine” in a register that scoffs at my naivety.
I am not alone. I want to ask more questions; he’s the first person that I might consider a comrade, someone who I can confide in and seek guidance. When did he come out? What was it like for him? How did he cope with a perceived sin? Am I allowed to ask these questions?
He continues to recount his sexual exploits with men, his way of informing me he understands my anxiety. I am not alone. I want to ask more questions; he’s the first person that I might consider a comrade, someone who I can confide in and seek guidance. When did he come out? What was it like for him? How did he cope with a perceived sin? Am I allowed to ask these questions?
He hands me what looks like a miniature golf club and instructs me to rub the paddle on my gums for a minute before I could gauge the kindness in his eyes.
The tool inflames my gums, but no blood appears. He explains that it might not look like there’s blood, but the paddle will capture microscopic amounts.
I wait a week before my inflamed gums heal, and then another before I walk back to the center.
No results, but they try to ease my anxiety with a gift card that I never use.
My best friend Cody from back home doesn’t know the events that transpire after I move, but he still offers his support without knowing the entirety of my situation. I haven’t told him I’m gay. Up to this point, the word “gay” has never escaped my mouth.
Our weekly Yahoo chat sessions are soothing.
Me: Some guy at school has been harassing me.
Cody Nelson: About what?
Me: Nothing in particular. He seems to throw every insult my way.
Cody Nelson: He’s a douche. Don’t let him get to you. I have your back.
Dad needs to know everything that occurs under his roof, including instant message conversations.
“If you weren’t so flamboyant, perhaps you wouldn’t be harassed.”
His use of flamboyant reminds of Robin Williams and Nathan Lane in The Birdcage, a film I watch with the volume low and the captions deafening once everyone is in bed. My drab t-shirts and hand-me-down blue jeans pale next to the character’s wardrobes of pastel blouses and unbuttoned, revealing shirts. My mannerisms are not swish-and-sashay “obvious,” and I’ve never once thought of myself as an “estrogen rockette.”
Clearly what you and I call flamboyant differs.
On several occasions Dad tells me that he’d always stand by my side. Even if I commit murder, he would defend me. He’d amend this with saying that he would never bail me out of jail nor pay for a lawyer.
His offer doesn’t include crimes against me.
I feel alone. No matter who I reach out to, Dad seems to intervene and prevents communication. I’m barred from chatting with Cody, whom I’ve known since elementary school, about anything that happens, or how I feel about the situation I am in.
He strips my phone privileges when, once, the phone rings in the middle of the night. Dad answers but no voice comes through the other end.
He blames me for the late-night call. I’ve done it before, so it must be me now.
Between my sophomore and junior years, both Mom and Dad think it best if I move back to South Dakota. Since I moved to California, she’s had a quick romance and remarried; I gain another father figure and a stepbrother.
Hot Springs, South Dakota wasn’t the haven I first assumed that California would be, but no one knows who I am nor the events of the year prior. I amputate the previous year from my life and make the decision to not speak to Dad.
I cycle through a routine: I attend class, work shifts at the local Pamida store, complete my homework, and go to bed. I show no interest in starting friendships but keep in contact with Cody and even travel to Rapid City, a forty-five-minute drive, once a week, to hang out with him.
My anonymity doesn’t last long.
My step-brother begins to date, and his girlfriend, he tells me, wants to introduce me to one of her friends. I decline, but soon after more girls express interest. I don’t know what causes the uptick in interest from the opposite sex—the allure of the “new guy,” the fact that the California air and ocean saltwater seemingly cured my acne, the fifty-pound weight loss, or coincidence—but I deny them all. I don’t consider the backlash. In a small, conservative town, a man cannot be single without a reason, and the student body creates a reason for me: “He’s the queer.”
Another lucky guess.
It’s the Christmas of 2001 and I again fall into the trap of internet histories. Mom finds evidence of someone entering Yahoo chatrooms titled “Gay 3” or “Gay 7.”
“I won’t have it under my roof.” She feigns shock. My hope, that she would handle Dad’s revelation about my sexuality with support, is dashed.
I want to hide but want to come out. It seems I’m not allowed to do either. This time, though, I refrain from the “I’m curious” excuse.
“It’s not a secret,” is all I say.
She doesn’t look at me as she stands by her appraisal of the situation.
It’s 1:30 a.m., and I write my mother a note: “The ‘it’ is no longer under your roof.”
I pack a bag and leave. At first, I don’t have a plan, but end up in front of Sherry’s house, a Pamida co-worker. She’s in her forties and has several kids, one that is a grade ahead of me.
Mom calls and fights with the police about my “disappearance” for weeks, but they can’t, or won’t, do anything because I’m still attending school. I never consider if I put Sherry at risk for harboring a runaway, but it seemed I was finally free.
Yet, Mom leaves notes for me at work with only questions: What about Matthew Shepard? What about AIDS? I’m free, but still anchored by threats of the outside world.
Dad’s a sleuth and uncovers Sherry’s phone number and begins to call daily. Sherry tries to convince me to speak with him, tells me that she doesn’t think it’ll be so bad. I reject his calls initially, but the daily ring and Sherry’s advice grinds me down.
I give in. The police cannot do anything, but Dad can.
He gives me three choices: Enlist in the Army, move back to California to finish school, or emancipation. Convert, control, or cut ties. I choose California.
Despite what’s transpired, I’m still optimistic for change.
The only way Dad will let me move out of his house is if I graduate high school or turn eighteen, an age that seems distant even if I measured time in months. After returning to California, to hasten my escape, I take five classes my last semester even though the regular load is three.
He encourages me along. “The house will feel much safer and cleaner when you’re gone.”
I am seventeen and I graduate a year early. The last day of the semester he drives me to the bus station with one suitcase. He doesn’t ask where I’m going, but if he’s read my instant message history, he knows I’m going back to South Dakota.
I don’t speak to Dad for five years before he reaches out. In our first conversation he only admits to “being stubborn” and “not easy to talk to.” I take this to mean that he doesn’t want to speak about the past. Though, because of this, I’ll never know if he regrets his actions, or if he stands by everything he’s said and done.
I am now thirty-four and I’ve been with my partner, Angel, for eight years. Dad has met Angel on several occasions, even bonding with him over their love of cigarettes. We never discuss Angel’s and my relationship, like we never discuss the past, but I’m sure he’s aware of Angel’s status because he’s always with me when I visit.
I heard or read once that queers choose their family. If that’s the case, why do I choose to keep Dad in my life? Obligation? Fear of being alone? Regret? Manipulation? Maybe it’s even because I’m selfish. Maybe it’s because I want him to see that I’ve overcome the obstacles that he laid in front of me and, despite his hate and “tough love,” I’ve obtained happiness, love, and acceptance with those I choose to include in my family alongside him.
Or, maybe, I’m just optimistically naïve and still think he will change.
Dad once told me that his parents, Grandma and Grandpa, were not the same people as they were when he was younger. They’ve changed. Softened. More forgiving of sin.
I wonder if he has softened, changed.
Back at the bus stop, the day I graduated high school, he didn’t ask where I would be going, but he shook my hand and said, “We all pay for our sins.”