Edgewise by Julie Marie Wade
Their conversation begins before I enter the room. Sunday morning, so my father is cooking—bread dipped in batter, bacon shriveling in the pan. My mother glues seashells to a wreath for the wall, tests the soil of her African violets.
“I just can’t believe it,” he says. “Ivo must be fit to be tied.”
“Dunja said she couldn’t stop crying.”
“What is it? What’s wrong?” I ask.
“Thaw some orange juice, would you, Smidge?” My father smiles at me and ruffles my hair.
“How would you handle a thing like that? Can she still call the other girl’s mother?”
I turn the water on, turn it hot. My ears are burning. The cold cylinder bobs inside the plastic pitcher.
“Oh, Dunja called her, but Heidi’s mother says it’s nothing to worry about.”
“Says it’s just something girls sometimes do. And besides, Heidi has a boyfriend.”
“Is this the Heidi who used to babysit me?”
My father’s voice is suddenly stern. “It was only once,” he insists. “Just that one time. I’m sure you can’t even remember it.”
Now the white ribbon unravels. The top of the concentrate pops off in my hand. My mother stands beside me with a wooden spoon. “Stir it thoroughly,” she instructs. “No one wants lumps in their juice.”
“How old is Deanna? I haven’t seen her for such a long time.”
“I bet he regrets buying her that car.”
“It wasn’t in the car where she found them.”
“Still,” my father says, “as long as she’s living under their roof…” I follow his ellipsis like dandelion seeds, wondering where the next words will land. “Even if she were living somewhere else.”
“Does Deanna go to college?”
“Beauty school,” my mother replies. “At least she did for a while. I think she works at The Limited, and I know she taught aerobics at the Y.”
My father stacks the bread high, a Jenga tower of French toast, and tells my mother we’re ready for the syrup.
“That isn’t the real kind,” I tell him—to have my say, to slip a word in edgewise. “It doesn’t even come from trees at all.”
“When did you get so uppity all of a sudden?”
“It’s isn’t uppity, just true.”
“Well, some truths you should keep to yourself.”
Now my mother pours the store brand from the big jug into a small bottle shaped like a lady.
“Were there any warning signs?” my father wants to know.
“None to speak of, but Dunja always thought Deanna was a bit too easily led.”
“That and—too much time on their hands, I suppose, and everything they see on television.”
“Get the coasters!” my mother commands. My father waits for me, holding three glasses of ice.
As I settle between my parents, I think how Deanna must have also sat this way—another only child on a lonely street, gazing through the half-drawn curtains.
“It was the basement. They let her have it all to herself.”
“No religion,” my father sighs. “No religion plus a basement is a big mistake.”
Deanna’s car was silver. I had seen her speeding over the hills, taking the corners too fast, disappearing in a cloud of smoke. With her long, thick hair streaming out the window, she looked like a superhero.
“Shall we say grace?”
I try to fold my hands, but my father takes one in his; my mother clasps the other firmly. “Dear Lord, be with our family today and every day. Keep us safe from harm and from temptation and help us remember that the only truth that matters is the truth of your son, Jesus Christ.” He squeezes my hand a little, for emphasis. “And be with our daughter, Lord, as she starts high school tomorrow.”
The man at the gym tells me how “it’s only natural.” He rubs his cheek. He chews his lip a little—not because he isn’t sure of what he says, but because he isn’t sure he should be saying it to me. “I think it’s only natural for a parent to struggle with something like this.” I stare at him the way an older child stares at Santa Claus in the mall, trying to decide if he’s for real. This man is. Maybe the problem is that I’m not real enough for him, not really, despite all the pleasantries we’ve exchanged, day after day, week after week. It’s been years now. My life with my wife doesn’t count the same as his life with his. Just ask (I look around) her, him, anybody. The fact is, I am Like This, every struggling parent’s favorite euphemism for what they’d rather not say. I should change my name to Like F. This. Like Fucking This. He has a son like me. I have a father like him. Does that make us family somehow? He seems to think it does, seems to believe it grants him permission to confide.
“You’re not like them,” this woman says, as if to separate wheat from chaff, sheep from goat, the me from the they I am always already part of. It’s plain to see she believes she is paying me a compliment. Instead, she is making me a fraction of a fraction—even less than before—with her ancient, angry, Biblical binary code.
“It’s only natural to wish things were different.” He considers the word. Easier? No, different is what he means. He knows this process takes time—getting over the shock of it, coming to terms. I want to say, Do you have any idea what it feels like to be someone’s Process, someone’s scrunched-face, glasses-off, it-hurts-to-look-at-you Getting-Through? Do you think there’s any warm family feeling in the Gotten-Over One, any gratitude in being the Term someone who claims to love you had to travel North Pole far to get to? Instead, I say, quietly, “Maybe it shouldn’t.” I meet his eyes until they drift away. I don’t know what it’s like. Don’t I? If I were a parent, I’d understand. Would I? Because “it’s only natural,” you see? Just ask (he looks around) her, him, anybody. But he doesn’t ask because then he’d have to name it—what we’re really talking about. He’d have to say, “I have a gay son,” and hear the words coming out of his own mouth, face a fraction of the judgment his own gay son faces every day. He’d have to be recognized as “party to that kind of thing.” People might look at him differently. They might whisper in the locker room or say something clipped in the showers. He’d have to take on a certain “guilt by association.” He doesn’t want to be guilty, of course, but it’s “only natural.” A good father always wonders what he did wrong.
III. The Exception
And all this time I thought I was making it harder for people to say, “Oh, but you know how they are”— making it harder to reduce us all to a common, dangerous denominator—dismiss us all as one lump sum of something worthless. Because these people would know me. They would know that I am one of the they, and that the one that I am is nothing to fear, and so by extension, why should anyone feel threatened by any of us? I never said I was good at math. No, it was all about propping the door open, I thought, or holding the door wide and looking back with a smile, my hand and their hand almost touching. This smallest, human gesture. Then everyone who had ever said, “Oh, but you know how they are,” was going to walk through that door into a bright, broad-minded lobby, a new way of seeing people like me, the they that we are. I never said I was good at spatial reasoning. It hadn’t occurred to me that all this time I was being recast by some as different from the others I have long been othered with, exiled from the exiles. “You’re not like them,” this woman says, as if to separate wheat from chaff, sheep from goat, the me from the they I am always already part of. It’s plain to see she believes she is paying me a compliment. Instead, she is making me a fraction of a fraction—even less than before—with her ancient, angry, Biblical binary code. She thinks I’m “smart” and “sweet” and “even quite feminine,” which clearly surprises her. I’ll wager she knows some “nice young men.” I’ll wager she’d even save me a seat in her pew on Sunday. I never said I was good at gambling, but I’ll bet if I listen long enough, she’s going to christen me with that slap in the face of a name, that shallow grave in the rain of a name, and everything I thought I had done to honor the they that I am is going to be washed away. “You’re an exception,” she’ll say, beaming. “Such an exception to the rule.”