Seriously? Sex? Again? We know, it feels as if we just had sex, but that was thirteen years ago, with our wildly popular and still-whispered-about inaugural Sex Issue. So, like a panda with a low libido, we’re back in the saddle, but this time a little more jaded, a little more suspect, and, like our contributors, looking at “emotion in motion” aslant. Famously asexual Andy Warhol declared that “sex is more exciting on the screen and between the pages than between the sheets.” And we all know that reading about great sex is like reading about happy families—a howling yawn. On the page, the best sex is bad sex. Shame and confusion are much more interesting than a straightforward happy ending. To wit, Amy Gall’s desire-drenched story “Remote and Available,” about an unusual sexual/financial arrangement between two women, will forever change the way you look at the saxophone, while in “The Famous Actor,” Jess Walter wickedly subverts the power dynamic between a celebrity and a would-be groupie, and Wells Tower turns a story of marital infidelity on its ass. For a series of mini-essays, our simple prompt of “Awkward Positions” cast a Barry-White-like spell on D. A. Powell, Sy Montgomery, Susie Bright, Melissa Febos, and Naomi Jackson. Not surprisingly, the poets—including Saeed Jones, Bianca Stone, Melissa Stein, and Rebecca Wolf—whipped us into a libidinal froth, getting us all hot and bothered with conflicted desires. Some will insist that sex issues are like martinis and breasts—one isn’t enough, two is perfect, and three are too many. Yet the prospect of Sex Issue Trois is seductive. As Anthony Weiner might say: “Never say never.” But for the here and now, whatever your sexual proclivities, we hope that you secretly (or not so secretly) get a rise out of this issue.
Current Issue #69
Fiction:Wells Tower, Jess Walter, Jan Wolkers, Lidija Dimkovska, Alicia Oltuski, Seth Fried, Amy Gall · NEW VOICE
After God had Adam name every beast of the field, every fowl of the air, bringing each creature forth in order to see what Adam might call it, the Almighty looked pleased—but only for a moment. He frowned slightly and, before Adam even sensed something was wrong, the Lord reached down and casually struck him in the back of the head with a flaming truncheon. The force of the blow sent Adam flying a few hundred yards into one of the garden’s many orchards. The sky grew dark and the air filled with strong gusts, which often happened when God was thinking. As Adam lay smoldering and beginning to lose consciousness beneath the windblown peach trees that trembled and dropped their fruit, he saw God in the sky leaning out through an aperture in the clouds, rolling up the sleeves of His enormous robes and muttering something to Himself about “a helpmeet.”
When Adam awoke, God was looking down on him with an expression of wild-eyed mischief. The Almighty’s hands rested on the lower rim of the clouds and He was crouched down, almost hiding, biting His bottom lip in anticipation of whatever was about to unfold in the peach orchard below. Eventually Adam noticed a new creature standing over him. It was human but with subtle variations that Adam—though he could not say why—found compelling. He pushed himself up to a seated position and heard himself woozily repeat a phrase that seemed as eerily new and not new as the creature itself.
God nodded vigorously.
“Exactly,” He said. “Do you like it?”
Adam had learned long ago to praise God’s new works immediately and with enthusiasm regardless of what he really thought. When God first presented him with the ostrich, Adam had burst out laughing. The sky had gone black and the Almighty flared His nostrils as the bird exploded. Frightened by the prospect of one of God’s prolonged and apocalyptic bad moods, Adam had dropped to his knees, swept the bird’s gore into a pile, and begged God to reassemble it, which He did only after much pleading.
And so now Adam sprang to his feet and began to heap his praises onto this new creature. But as he did so, explaining that it was the most marvelous of God’s creations yet, he accidentally looked into its brown, intelligent eyes and realized, suddenly embarrassed, that he was telling the truth.
Meanwhile, the creature looked back and forth between God and Adam with a certain impatience suggesting that, though she had only just been given sentience, she still wasn’t exactly crazy about being discussed in the third person as if she weren’t standing right there in the orchard.
“I’m called Eve,” she announced in a confident but pleasant voice. She didn’t seem to be addressing God or Adam so much as all of creation.
“Actually,” God said, His voice taking on a slight whine, “I put Adam in charge of naming things.”
Eve sized Adam up briefly before shaking her head and saying in a not unfriendly tone of voice, “Nope. Call me Eve. And I’m not a thing; I’m a she.”
God shrugged and raised His truncheon as if He were prepared to start the whole process over again, but Adam managed to intercede on Eve’s behalf, convincing the Almighty that He had constructed the helpmeet so perfectly that she had come up with the very name that Adam would have chosen to give her before he was able to come up with it himself.
“You don’t say?” God said, lowering the truncheon and leaning with one elbow on a passing bank of clouds. “I really am something, aren’t I? And can you believe I only needed one of your ribs to pull the whole thing off?”
It was then that Adam noticed there was a palm-sized dent in the left side of his rib cage, as well as a distinct whistling sound coming from his chest every time he exhaled. The removal of a single rib had no doubt been delicate work for the Lord’s sky-wide fingers and Adam comforted himself with the thought—as he always did when faced with the consequences of one of God’s powerful whims—that he was lucky to be alive.
Eve had been following this exchange and bent down to observe the caved-in portion of Adam’s side, looking both sympathetic and repulsed. She mouthed the word “sorry” to Adam, who blushed and waved it off. He tried to chuckle jovially but this produced a wet rattling noise in his chest that momentarily stooped him.
God waited for this spell of coughing to pass before adding, “And what do you think of your genitals?”
He gestured for Adam and Eve to regard their lower halves and both were astonished at what they found there. If the absurd appendage that was now dangling from Adam’s crotch hadn’t been attached to him, he might have reacted to it with the same inadvertent laughter with which he had greeted the ostrich. Previously his groin had been occupied by a single, narrow opening that occasionally and without any discernible regularity sprayed out a floral-scented mist. And though the organ that had replaced this opening was clearly a monstrous perversion of his person, Adam couldn’t help but feel strangely protective of this new addition to his body. Something about its unadorned clumsiness made him feel as if it were literally embodying an aspect of his humanity that until now had never been fully expressed.
Adam pulled himself out of this reverie and saw Eve looking down at her genitals with what he imagined to be her own complex set of emotions.
“So, do they look okay?” God said, anxious as always for a bit of praise.
“Perfect,” Eve said.
She didn’t seem to be placating the Lord but just expressing a genuine confidence in her own person.
“Yes, perfect,” said Adam, placating.
“Do you want to switch or anything?”
Adam knew from experience that God tended to grow more kindly and accommodating whenever He was bringing about a change in the garden that was, even by His own loose standards, a little out there. The fact that He had opened up the discussion to include any feedback indicated to Adam that whatever was now hanging between his legs existed on the very outer limits of God’s imagination.
“It doesn’t really matter to me who gets what,” God said, thus troubling Adam further.
Eve took a moment to examine Adam’s crotch before laughing and saying she would stick with hers. Adam reciprocated by considering Eve’s genitals, which he felt were undeniably more appealing than his own. But while his horrible-looking genitals had been deemed suitable for the open air, hers were more or less closed off to the outside world, forcing him to wonder what the exterior of poor Eve’s pudenda could possibly be hiding.
“Yes,” Adam said. “I think we’re fine.”
Just then a small chimpanzee waddled by, gathering some of the peaches that had fallen to the ground in God’s latest outburst. When it noticed that the Almighty was still in the sky, it dropped most of its haul and cupped one hand over its eyes as it scuttled off, doing its best to avoid an awkward interaction with its creator. God smiled down at the chimp as it disappeared into some bushes.
“That reminds me,” He said to Adam and Eve. “Now that we’re all in agreement that genitals are a success,
I’m going to need your help.”
Without waiting for a reply, God ducked out of sight and began to rummage around in what sounded like a clutter of objects at His feet, some of which He tossed carelessly over His shoulder: soiled robes, half-eaten sandwiches made of fire, swirling galaxies, helmets of ice, big handfuls of miscellaneous dinosaur bones.
Eve flashed Adam a look that expressed unquestionably her mutual aggravation with the Almighty.
“Is He always like this?” she said.
Adam thought about it for a moment.
“Sometimes there’s stuff in His beard.”
Eve’s booming laughter made Adam feel even more enamored with her than before and he had to fight the urge to hug himself.
“Ah, here we are,” God said.
He lifted up a large basket and, with one arm growing longer and longer, lowered it to the Earth. The basket was wide with a round bottom and was piled high with countless genitals of all shapes and colors and sizes.
“I’ll leave this all to you,” He said, waving His hand toward the hideous cargo.
Adam was not at all surprised that the task of distributing these new organs to the rest of the creatures in the garden should fall to him and Eve. God was always telling Adam that he had been created in the Lord’s own image, but it hadn’t taken Adam long to realize that what the Almighty actually meant by this was that He was more than comfortable delegating.
Eve frowned at the basket, nudging it with her foot.
God noticed this less than enthusiastic gesture and before departing asked Adam if he was sure that he was satisfied with his new helpmeet. The way God was worrying the handle of His truncheon made it clear that He would welcome an opportunity to destroy her and start over with another of Adam’s ribs.
The two humans exchanged a knowing look and quickly embraced.
“I can’t imagine the garden without her,” Adam said.
Eve kissed him on the cheek and put him in a headlock.
“Look at us!” she said, giving Adam a noogie. “We’re inseparable.”
She smiled at her creator until He reluctantly vanished, at which point she released Adam from the headlock, thanking him for putting in a good word. The wind had picked up as God moved the clouds back and her long golden brown hair was blown about. She smiled at Adam through fine wisps of it that played across her face.
“Of course,” Adam said, proceeding to regard her perhaps a bit too dreamily.
A moment of silence persisted in the orchard until Eve, looking a little uncomfortable, attempted to strike up some friendly conversation.
“Hey,” she said, pointing down at his new appendage. “Yours moves.”
Adam looked down and was mortified—though again he couldn’t say why—to find that the hideous thing attached to him had risen and was now pointing directly at Eve.
He tried to hide his embarrassment by saying, flatly, “Huh.”
He then attempted to push it back down into its resting position, which proved painful and only caused it to spring back up with renewed vigor.
“Woof,” Eve said, shaking her head. “Good luck with that thing.”
She put her hands on her hips and observed the basket again, this time with an air of frank appraisal as she seemed to come to the conclusion that existence was going to be one ridiculous imposition after another.
“Well,” she said, giving the basket another nudge with her foot. “Shall we?”
Carrying the basket of genitals proved to be a two-person job in itself. Adam’s ribs were still troubling him, and so his side of the basket occasionally dipped as he led Eve to the place in the garden where he knew many of the animals tended to congregate. On a few occasions his faltering caused pairs of genitals to roll from the top of the pile and get lost in the brush, forcing them to lower the basket and search underfoot. Eve was patient during these delays, perhaps because she felt genuine sympathy for Adam or else because she was more or less ambivalent to the task at hand. But as a result of these spills, by the time they managed to arrive at the clearing, which was filled with all different varieties of animals, many of the genitals were covered in leaves and dirt, causing them to look even more stepped-on than they had before. Most of the animals were therefore understandably reluctant when Adam demanded that they gather around to receive their new body parts.
Fortunately Eve was enough of a novelty that the animals eventually began to approach her of their own volition. One of the lions was the first to step forward, sniffing at her from a short distance, its inquisitive snorts containing a trill of soft knocking sounds, like acorns falling on packed earth. Eve smiled and moved toward the lion without hesitation, deftly plucking a pair of genitals from the basket as she did so. The pair she grabbed was still covered in dirt from the path, and so she gave it a quick apple polish on her shoulder before reaching out with her other hand and scratching behind the lion’s ear, causing it to close its eyes, lift its chin, and purr as it plopped onto its side while keeping its head raised to Eve’s touch. She reached down and quickly placed the genitals between its legs. The lion’s eyes opened and it looked down toward whatever had just been affixed to its crotch for quite some time before suddenly beginning to clean this new appendage with its tongue.
Over the next few weeks, they carried the basket all over the garden and Eve displayed similar feats of ability and cunning. Adam’s side had healed for the most part and he proved a capable second under Eve’s brilliant leadership. For the large troop of apes that enjoyed bathing in one of the garden’s lagoons, Eve smeared Adam’s face with honey and covered it with moss, giving him a large, unkempt beard not entirely dissimilar from their creator’s. Adam then climbed up onto a rock overlooking the lagoon, where he began to make a series of insane proclamations, distracting the apes below, who were standing chest deep in those still and warm waters, while Eve stealthily swam among them, gingerly applying their new organs.
Later that same day Eve had Adam lie down on the garden floor so various insects would be drawn to the tangle of honeyed moss on his chin. She then took a small pouch she had found in the basket and, delicately pinching out the tiny sets of genitalia contained therein, placed them carefully on the insects that were crawling on Adam’s face. She narrowed her eyes as she worked, leaning in close with the patience and steady hand of a hobbyist. Every so often her hair would fall down toward Adam and, as she brushed it away, her fingertips would lightly touch his upturned face.
As they continued about their task, these instances of casual intimacy increased. Whether Eve was climbing Adam’s back and standing on his shoulders in order to reach up between a giraffe’s empty legs, her bare feet wriggling on Adam’s shoulders, or she was filling Adam’s cupped hands with seeds so that wild birds would gather on him, the sides of her palms touching his as she dropped the seeds in, the two seemed forced into perpetual glance contact that filled them both with a strange exhilaration. After such an exchange, Adam would catch Eve looking at him with bright eyes and a curious smile on her face that was so unlike the open, disinterested way she had regarded him when they’d first met.
But it wasn’t until they crept up behind a pair of piebald horses in a field of tall grass that he began to understand more clearly the charge that these brief contacts had been stirring in them. As soon as Eve determined that they were in range she signaled for Adam to halt. He nodded and handed her the two sets of genitals that he had brought into the field. She tested them for weight, raising and lowering them in her hands with quick, almost imperceptible movements before lifting her face into the breeze to feel where the winds lay. She then regarded the hindquarters of the horses with the bemused smirk of an assassin, lobbing the genitals toward them with such delicate accuracy that they stuck to the horses without either of the creatures turning its attention from its grazing.
Adam smiled at Eve and she waggled her eyebrows in self-congratulation. They began to sneak back toward the edge of the field when from behind them they heard a commotion coming from the two horses. When they turned around, they were surprised to see one of the horses clambering up onto the back of the other, the top horse straining its neck forward as it gracelessly maneuvered its stiffening member into the welcoming genitals of the other. The transformation that the first horse’s genitals had undergone was far from unfamiliar to Adam and Eve, who had seen the same thing happen to Adam’s repeatedly, especially when the two of them happened to find themselves in heightened proximity to each other, a correlation so obvious that Eve had innocently started a running joke of saying, “I think it likes me!” It was also obvious to them that the body parts they had just bestowed on these two horses were, though much different in terms of size, still more or less analogous to the parts that God had bestowed on them. Adam found it difficult to look away from the coupling horses even though the sight of it was making him intensely uncomfortable. Eve eventually touched his arm and, without saying a word, they walked out of the field in silence, both of them looking disturbed as they began to work out the details of what they’d just seen. While the past weeks had been filled with their laughter and ecstatic scheming, they now held on to their silence even after they cleared the field and arrived at the spot where they had hidden their basket.
“Well,” Eve said, after a while, looking down into the basket, which was almost empty. “This has been fun.”
She stared at the genitals. Her whole body seemed occupied with the peculiar air of seriousness that had overtaken them.
“Yeah,” Adam said.
He felt as if he should say something else. The garden was a large place and he was worried that he might never see her again if this strange mood continued to hang between them once their task was complete.
“I’ve been meaning to ask you,” he said after another long silence, and then the hundreds of questions he had actually wanted to ask Eve during their time together flooded his consciousness so that he didn’t even know what he was saying until he heard himself stammer, “What—what’s your favorite type of tree?”
Eve laughed reflexively at the stupidity of the question but then looked up at him gratefully. She leapt over the basket and into his arms. Adam teetered unsteadily for a moment before falling backward, sending them rolling down a nearby hill.
When God appeared overhead many months later to congratulate them on a job well done, He took one look at Eve’s swollen belly and burst out laughing.
“Oh that’s right,” He said, still chuckling to Himself. “You guys will love this part.”
Adam and Eve exchanged a worried look, then politely asked their creator what He was talking about. The two were already concerned about Eve’s well-being, since only a few weeks ago she had become the first creature in the garden to throw up. And now to hear God tell it, the physical act of love—which after a long period of awkward cooperation and honest feedback Adam and Eve had finally managed to work out the mechanics of—had implanted Eve with a small person who would continue to grow until it was ready to “exit her.”
Like everything God said, the only thing preventing this from being pure lunacy was that through His will it had become a physical reality.
“Will she be okay?” Adam said.
The Almighty stopped laughing and looked off into the distance as if considering the question for the first time.
“I mean, yes? Maybe—it’s possible. But the important thing,” He said to Adam, “is that a tiny person comes out and it’s hilarious.”
He seemed a little disappointed when, instead of joining Him in His laughter, Adam and Eve looked up at Him with tears in their eyes.
“Well,” He said, “you’ll laugh when you see it. It’s bonkers.”
In the following months Adam and Eve wandered the garden with damp eyes or spent whole afternoons hiding in cool, shady spots under canopies of leaves, holding each other and refusing to speak.
As Eve’s transformation became more burdensome to her, Adam’s anger and sadness became too much for him. Lying next to her at night, his throat felt hot and closed off, choked by an impossible anger with no real object, since whatever was threatening Eve was now a part of her body and could not be dispatched by any means available to him without also harming her. He nagged himself with thoughts of impossible interventions that could save his helpmeet and once in his sleep he even dreamed feverishly of God on His knees begging for mercy, while Adam, furious, began to laugh. The next day he awoke to find the pain in his throat was worse. When he held his hand to the spot he found a knot there, a strange protuberance of hard tissue.
Eve was lying next to him and moved his hand away so she could see what was troubling him.
“What now?” she said, running her finger over this new feature of Adam’s neck.
Adam smiled and shook his head with a sad look in his eyes that told her not only that he didn’t quite know where the knot had come from but also that he was growing exasperated with the fear and sense of helplessness constantly being visited on them by their own bodies.
The two brooded all morning as they commenced one of their usual walks about the garden. They eventually came to a small hill overlooking the field where they had first witnessed the coupling horses. They stood there, taking in the field with no small amount of regret until their thoughts of Eve’s probable doom were interrupted by the sight of those same two piebald horses trotting through the tall grass. Eve gasped when she saw a smaller horse following them at a stiff prance. In addition to sharing the coloring of the first two, it also seemed possessed by a frenetic, happy energy. When the bigger horses came to a stop, the smaller one continued to buck happily around them. The sweetness of the scene was so apparent to Adam and Eve that God’s vague and ominous words were recast in the light of it. Eve immediately began to cradle her stomach and smile. Adam smiled too and felt a deep sense of relief as he realized that he had not only been granted a reprieve from his greatest fear, the loss of Eve, but was also being offered something entirely unexpected and wonderful.
They roamed the garden happily now, talking to each other with growing excitement about the coming of the little one even though they were both still unsure what exactly it meant. In the same way that they had gradually managed to translate the lurid thrustings of those horses into their own private and high-minded familiarities, they were able to interpret the sight of that small frolicking horse as a powerful intimation of what was in store for them.
These thoughts brought about joy, if not entirely peace of mind. Because if the promise of the little one now seemed pleasant, it also meant that they would be even more open to the dangers of existence. Adam had come close to articulating that very thought earlier that morning: their bodies were the entry point through which all the consequences of God’s terrible impulses had been able to assault them. The dent in Adam’s side worried Eve because it was a constant reminder of God’s inclination toward roughhousing with her beloved, while the uncertainty surrounding Eve’s recent bodily transformation had driven Adam to genuine despair. So by now they both understood that love was associated with an overwhelming sense of vulnerability. And since the little one would be a further embodiment of their love it meant that this painful sense of risk would only be increasing.
These concerns were soon complicated by the fact that God’s flair for creation was growing more chaotic, as the Lord began to bring forth many new and terrible creatures, some of which seemed to terrify even Him. While presenting the first snake to Adam and Eve, He picked it up by its tail, holding it away from Himself.
“I think I just made something,” He said with a troubled look on His face.
When the snake lifted its front half and turned around to regard its creator, flicking out its tongue in greeting, the Almighty screamed and flung it to the Earth, wiping His hand on the front of His robes. The clouds had already begun to close and Adam barely had enough time to propose the name snake. This established a new precedent and as the Almighty continued to unleash worse and worse creations into the garden, He no longer seemed interested in the old ceremony of having Adam name them. God brought forth poisonous plants, thorny bushes, brightly colored frogs that were deadly to the touch, purple flowers that smelled like rot, lizards that shot blood from their eyes, vines that choked healthy trees to death, flesh-eating parasites.
To make matters worse, the Lord’s angels—no doubt being driven mad by however His rule was manifesting itself on the other side of the clouds—had begun sneaking down to the garden in small groups in order to get some time to themselves. It wasn’t uncommon to look off into the distance and see a twenty-foot-tall and frighteningly beautiful angel pick up a black bear or a moose and sniff it with curiosity for a moment before biting it in half, making a face, and then spitting the top of the animal back out. Or else a group of them might wander around the forests laughing and knocking down trees with the flats of their palms, stopping occasionally to drink from flasks containing some sort of fermented liquid made from the pitch of the firmament that scorched the air as it reached their lips and filled large swaths of the garden with a putrid stench.
During these visits Adam and Eve moved quickly from one hiding place to another, occasionally forced to double back when their path was blocked by a colony of poison frogs or by a heavy growth of thornbush and stinging nettle.
As they huddled in a cave on one such afternoon, listening to the thundering footsteps of a party of angels finally begin to recede in the distance, Eve once again cradled her belly.
“We have to leave,” she said.
Her eyes were glassy with unshed tears, but her voice was steady.
Adam knew she was not referring to that cave but to the garden as a whole, an escape that was, as far as he knew, impossible. Not only had God once explained proudly to Adam that the garden was contained within high walls on top of which perched His largest and most warlike angels, but Adam also knew from his own explorations of the garden that it was so vast that they could likely wander forever without catching so much as a glimpse of those walls. Adam had also spent his life before Eve watching the Almighty blow up and eviscerate new styles of otters and hummingbirds even as Adam had been in the process of naming them because the Lord had found them suddenly and mysteriously displeasing. So attempting to scale a barrier that was intended to be unscalable was, to Adam’s thinking, probably a significant enough transgression for God to rip his small family out of existence. Nevertheless, he knew that Eve was right. Every day the garden was growing wilder. And how much more difficult would it be to stay ahead of all these dangers once the little one arrived? Here Adam closed his eyes and could not help but imagine the thin and trembling legs of that excited young horse as it followed its parents through the field.
“Yes,” he said, taking her hand. “We will.”
Eve nodded and without delay the two began discussing plans and possibilities. As they detailed the uncountable ways in which their leaving the garden seemed to be a thing of pure fantasy, their voices grew more hopeful. Rather than giving in to the belief that they were stuck where they were, they decided to focus on the equally real circumstance that they were determined to leave and that all they had to do was keep their wits about them while they waited for the erratic will of the Almighty to rearrange itself around their intentions.
It wasn’t long before God appeared above them with a stern look on His face, pointing to a tree on a hill.
“That,” He said, apropos of nothing, “is the tree of knowledge.”
The Almighty was in a black cape that Adam hadn’t seen Him wear in quite some time. The Lord pulled the cape around Himself and raised His chin imperiously.
“THOU SHALL-ETH NOT EAT-ETH OF IT.”
“Why is He talking like that?” Eve said.
When she looked over at Adam he was looking down, pinching the bridge of his nose in exasperation.
Before the long business of having Adam name all the beasts of the field and fowl of the air, God had occupied the majority of Adam’s time with these overly theatrical announcements during what Adam referred to as the Almighty’s “object of knowledge phase.” The sight of that gnarled tree, backlit, Adam noticed, for dramatic effect, was certainly foreboding, but God had already wasted an unimaginable amount of Adam’s time making similarly formal announcements about equally grim-looking stones of knowledge and creeks of knowledge and escarpments of knowledge and holes of knowledge that He usually made Adam dig himself, after which the Lord would typically forbid him to ever set foot in the hole or “TO SLURP-ETH ANY RAINWATER THAT MIGHT-ETH GATHER THEREIN.” And while the tree in question was at least much less absurd than most of the creatures that God had been calling forth as of late, Adam couldn’t help but feel frustrated and concerned by the fact that God was regressing. He was distracted by these thoughts until Eve flashed him a meaningful look and, like her, he began to see that the opportunity they had been waiting for was now opening up right in front of them.
“Of course,” Adam said to the Lord. “But what would happen to us if we did, uh, eat-eth from it?”
God’s eyes turned into orbs of black fire.
“THOU WOULDST BE BANISHED FROM THE GARDEN FOREVER-ETH!”
The Almighty fanned out His cape and disappeared in a flash of lightning.
Eve turned to Adam and gave a happy shrug.
Eve’s plan seemed perfect. But Adam, perhaps because he had known God longer, was still unsure. As far as he could tell, it would be entirely in keeping with the Lord’s style of rule that once enraged He might loosely interpret banishment in order to just kill them. Adam therefore insisted they find a way to complicate their transgression so that God might be persuaded to construe His own words as literally as possible. Eve accepted the wisdom of this precaution and the two stood a safe distance from the tree, watching it intently as they attempted to arrive at the right solution.
As they did so, the snake happened to slither into that part of the garden. It raised its head to shoulder level with them, taking a quick side-to-side glance at them before squinting ahead at the object of their attention.
“New tree,” it said.
Then after a moment’s contemplation it leaned toward Adam and whispered, “It’s an ugly one too.”
Eve was too distracted by the problem at hand to notice these interruptions, but Adam turned to observe the speaker and was surprised to see the snake smiling up at him politely.
He leapt back and began to scream.
Startled, the snake also screamed, swinging its head wildly about as it attempted to determine what in their immediate vicinity had prompted this reaction from Adam.
When Eve saw the snake her eyes went wide, though not with fear. She managed to shush them both and apologized to the creature.
“Don’t you see?” she said, turning to Adam. “It can help us.”
The snake looked relieved but still approached hesitantly as she waved it toward her. The three of them stood in a huddle, occasionally glancing at the tree on the hill, while Eve explained her new plan: if she and Adam were to eat from the tree but then claim that they had been talked into it by the snake, they would thus be insulated from their transgression and the Lord would be more likely to banish them than destroy them. Also, God was still so frightened of having any interaction with the snake that Eve was confident there would be no repercussions for the creature if it were to play along.
“That’s such a neat plan,” the snake said when she finished. “I’d love to help.”
“Oh, thank you,” she said. “You’ve saved us.”
“Of course,” it said. “Thank you for sharing your neat plan with me.”
It looked at the tree and idly stuck its tongue out a few times, bobbing its head as if it were excited to get started.
Adam was the only one who was still concerned.
“Are you sure you won’t be punished?” he said.
After naming the animals, he often felt a certain responsibility to them. The idea that harm might befall a creature for helping his family was upsetting to him, especially when the creature in question was so friendly and seemingly simpleminded.
“I bet it’ll be okay,” the snake said. “Your friend is right. God doesn’t really want anything to do with me. It’s actually something I’m kind of sensitive about.”
“Oh,” Eve said. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to—”
“No! I’m glad you brought it up,” the snake said as they began to head toward the tree. “Maybe God made me in a way that would disgust Him so I could be able to help you. Now it’s like I have a purpose, which is such a relief. Lately I’ve been having these terrible daydreams about biting everybody.”
While Adam and Eve climbed the gentle slope of the hill, the snake darted ahead of them in order to take its position in the tree. But once it scaled the trunk and reappeared among the lower branches, its demeanor seemed changed. Its eyes suddenly dark with knowledge.
“You okay?” Adam said.
The snake ignored his question and instead addressed him as if it were picking up the thread of their previous conversation.
“Because the Almighty is omnipotent,” it said, its voice now slow and deliberate, “His thoughts are too powerful to be held back, even by Him. He is therefore incapable of rational thought or even sanity, since that would require His thoughts to be ordered and arranged around one another, whereas His can never be subjugated to one another in this way.”
The snake wove itself around a branch supporting two pieces of fruit and began to constrict.
“Everything that the Almighty brings into the garden first exists in His mind as one of these irrepressible thoughts. Before I was alive my spirit bobbed and writhed on an endless sea of potential bodies all of which belonged to me but none of which were mine. I was striped. I had wings. My mouth foamed with poison. I was striking out from corners, snapping at thighs and ankles. I was breaking rib cages with my coils and at the same time being trod to death underfoot, my skull breaking under heels and hooves. I am fortunate to have escaped that lake of potential beings as myself, a relatively gentle creature, but I am only the first inkling of deeper fears that the Almighty will be unable to withhold. I have seen all the other possibilities for snakes that God will eventually introduce to the garden in His fits of creation. I, too, could still be changed into some more horrible creature in order to better represent whatever ideas are tearing their way through Him. And I am only one type of creature. Imagine the hordes of other monsters and vermin that He has yet to call forth. Soon the garden will be too dangerous for the gentler aspects of life. You are right to flee this place, where the Almighty will continue to pour out uncontrollably all His fears and uncertainties heaped on top of one another. I am only too glad to help.”
The branch snapped and the pieces of fruit fell at Adam’s feet.
“We’re grateful,” he said, picking up the fruit, handing one to Eve. “If you ever escape the garden yourself, come find us. You will be a welcome guest.”
The snake smiled and wound itself farther up the tree, its eyes seeming to glow with more and more knowledge as it did so.
“Don’t be a fool,” it said, looking past the top of the tree toward the heavens. “If you see me in the wild, kill me.”
Adam and Eve looked at each other and ate. As they did so, they saw that everything the snake had said was true.
There was a loud crunch as they broke the skin of the fruit, the sound of which echoed throughout the garden and was followed by the wail of a siren as a red, spinning light rose out of the top of the tree.
God threw open the clouds as if He had been waiting behind them in anticipation of this and howled with rage.
He pursed His lips in disgust and began to raise a giant, spiked mallet over His head, preparing to bring it down on them until Eve cried out.
“Wait!” she said. “It was the snake. It tricked us.”
At the mention of the snake God let go of the mallet’s handle while still in the process of hoisting it, causing it to pinwheel off behind Him and land with a loud clatter.
By now the creature had reached the top of the tree and wrapped itself around the spinning light, which slowly ground to a halt beneath its grip.
“Greetings, my Lord,” the snake said.
The Almighty froze. As He stared down at the creature, its mouth sprouted new fangs, so many that its jaws became overcrowded, swelling open like a flower in bloom. Everywhere in the garden bright blue and red and yellow snakes fell from the sky, their number increasing as the Lord’s expression grew more rigid and terrified.
Eve saw that the Lord’s frightened attention was harming their protector, which could now barely hold up its head for all the new teeth in its mouth. She took aim with the rest of her fruit and used it to knock the snake from the tree.
Once it was out of God’s sight, the rain of snakes stopped and the Almighty regained His composure. After searching for several minutes He was still unable to find His mallet, and so He just took His own name in vain a dozen times before settling on His original punishment of banishment.
Adam and Eve were transported to the edge of the garden, where an enormous angel holding a blood-soaked sword and wearing a disemboweled elephant on his head like a helmet showed them through a large wooden door built into a hedge. He doffed his elephant politely as he shut the door behind them. It settled into place with a heavy moan followed by the sound of innumerable locks and deadbolts being refastened.
There was nature beyond the garden, though things were much less frenzied. The sky was a faint blue and everywhere there were gentle, rolling landscapes of muted greens. There was still the necessity to wander for quite some time away from the center of God’s imagination—away from the distant thundering of His moods and the screeches of His new creations—before they found a place calm enough for them to live in peace.
Every so often they missed the abundance of the garden, where the fruits of its orchards that weren’t forbidden or overgrown with some new parasite had always been so readily available. Out here everything was scarcer. And though they no longer had to fear the catastrophic storms resulting from God’s temper, there were now long periods of steady cold that forced them to make clothing out of whatever they could find. This proved especially difficult, since the animals beyond the garden whose furs could be used for that purpose were intensely wary, typically scurrying off before Adam or Eve had even caught sight of them.
But it soon became apparent that Eve was an excellent forager. Even in the final days of pregnancy she had no problem finding a surprising variety of edible plant life. She also proved to be a gifted trapper, intuitively constructing snares and deadfalls that functioned with a humane efficiency on the rangy jackrabbits, raccoons, pine martens, and other assorted wildlife that sparsely populated these far reaches of God’s imagination. For his part, Adam ended up being an ingenious clothes maker, turning three and a half possum skins into a unisex sarong with unsettling quickness or transforming an adult raccoon into a pair of water-resistant moccasins with the same natural ease with which another man might suddenly begin to whistle. And once he got the hang of fire, he showed himself to be a remarkable cook as well, presenting Eve with a whole roasted rabbit and assorted steamed roots or poached robin’s eggs on a bed of wilted dandelion greens and toasted pine nuts. His signature offering was a squirrel and acorn stew in which he always managed to elevate those two ingredients far beyond the air of vulgar coincidence that might have otherwise haunted the dish. Under Eve’s direction, Adam also managed to construct a passable hovel, so that by the time Eve safely gave birth to their daughter, they wanted for nothing.
At night, one could barely discern their small dwelling under the immense dome of stars. Lying with his family, Adam was finally able to feel only gratitude toward his creator for having brought about his helpmeet and their little one. Certainly, he understood that their existence was all more a matter of accident than generosity, since the Almighty was only in the grips of an uncontrollable process of creation in which His mind was essentially turning itself inside out. But though creation was a senseless process, Adam felt it must have also been an unnerving if not even painful one to have driven such a powerful entity to such depths as parasites and poison frogs and such impossible heights as his helpmeet and their daughter, and so he pitied God and was thankful for those products of the Lord’s immense suffering that had been good. With one hand he stroked Eve’s sleeping back and with the other, the bare head of his infant daughter. Eve’s gentle breathing. His daughter’s heartbeat felt through her downy scalp. The harmless knot in his throat aching with love for them. Yes, he thought. Now that his family was safe in this land where for all practical purposes God did not exist, he felt ready, funnily enough, to at long last sing His praises.
Poetry:Melissa Stein, Rebecca Wolff, Kazim Ali, Saeed Jones, Bianca Stone, Sally Wen Mao, Joanna Klink
My father wore, under his work shirts, a sturdy white brassiere. I hated to hug him, hated to feel that elastic strap across his back, hated having to make myself concave to avoid contact with the empty cups on his chest.
He painted his nails with clear gloss nail polish. He shaved his face and his chest, arms, and legs. In his bathroom medicine cabinet, tubes of lipstick and mascara and compacts of powder lived among Preparation H, Brut, and an ancient bottle of Old Spice.
Behind the louvered folding doors of his closet, behind stiff suits he never wore, hung a collection of women’s dresses, wide cotton shifts, large paisley patio dresses. The floor was an orgy of heels and brogans, strappy gold sandals and steel-toe boots. Hustler, Playboy, Genesis, Club, and Oui stacked on the kitchen counters, in the bathroom, on the blue shag carpeting in the hallway.
When I was an adolescent, my confusion about my father was a frightening and distracting presence that never went away. What was he?
This was the late 1970s in the American South. If someone used the word gay in my world, he meant effeminate and wrong. He meant faggot, homo, fairy, sick, or stupid. He meant a joke or an insult. My father drank Bud, smoked Marlboros, yelled at football, dated brassy blondes and divorced women, a different gal every week. What was he?
I didn’t know what gay was or wasn’t, not exactly. Sometimes men loved men and women loved women—that made sense to me, but that was not what I was seeing in my house. I was some two decades away from hearing the terms transsexual, transvestite, and transvestic fetishist, and profoundly distant from any understanding of my father, far from even being able to put into thoughtful sentences any of my questions about why and how one’s father might date women, watch porn videos at breakfast with his daughter at the table, and wear panty hose and a bra every day under men’s clothes. My father seemed to live out a large, dark, and shameful secret that no one was supposed to know about. It never occurred to me that my father could be unaware that other people—including his daughter—saw all this. It never occurred to me until quite recently that he might have felt there was actually nothing to hide.
The two of us shared a household on the south side of Orlando, a brown concrete block ranch with a sagging roof line. Rangy gardenia sprawled in the sunny doorway, obscuring the front door. Faded plastic flowers lined the front walk. In many ways, with its mixture of beauty, tawdriness, neglect, feminine touches, and strangeness, the dark, low house looked a lot like my father.
Sometimes I would wake up in the middle of the night to my dad sitting on the sofa in the living room, where I slept. He chain-smoked; it was always the smoke that woke me.
“What?” I would say, sensing him there on the far end of the sofa before my eyes adjusted to the dark.
“What’s wrong?” How long had he been sitting there? What did he want? Why were tears streaming down his cheeks?
I didn’t call him Dad or Father or even Pop. I called him by his given name, Fred.
To look directly at Fred was almost always difficult. He cried not only when he was sitting on my sofa late at night. He regularly wept driving down Orange Avenue to the ABC. He sobbed during our weeknight dinners. I’d come upon him in the backyard, where I was managing a small garden, and find him standing by the clothesline, smoking, and in tears. Fred’s internal weather was an unpredictable mix of energized intelligence, vibrant humor, despair, and tangled sexuality. I sensed he was not bipolar but multipolar; something inside him pulled his core self in every direction available to a man.
Curled up tight under my layers of bedsheets, my knees drawn to my chest, I’d ask him again, “What is it?” He’d shake his head, wipe his face with the sleeve of his white Fruit of the Loom tee, light another cigarette, and lean back on the sofa. “Go back to sleep, girl child.”
I went back to sleep.
But in photos of my father as a young man, he is bright-eyed and appears completely, beautifully normal. His sparky energy surges out of the frame, but he’s neatly groomed, suited, 1950s clean-cut, square corners. In some photos, he looks more than a little like Elvis, with his cowlick swooping into a thick shock of black hair, T-shirt, and jeans. Riding a horse, holding a fish, or laying concrete, his grin, fiercely sweet, is always lit by a flash of wild.
I remember him leaving the house for work when I was little—he worked as an accountant at a missile company in Central Florida—wearing a brown suit and starched white shirt, looking like all the other dads in skinny ties, folding into their sedans with cigarettes and briefcases. I remember him sitting in our side yard in a lounge chair on the patio, listening to the Saturday night ball game on a transistor radio, yelling, Go, go, go, you’ve got it! Oh goddamn it. Jeans, work boots. Buddy Holly glasses. Drinking longnecks. Hey, baby. Hey now, girl child. Beer and cigarette in one hand, he’d scoop me up with the other. Come listen to your old daddy.
There’s a photograph of one of these moments. I’m four or five. I have his dark eyes, dark hair. I’m barefoot in my white nightie, madly in love with my dad. But instead of wild in my eyes, there’s sorry, there’s worry.
In the 1970s, he was gone most of the time. When I saw him, on occasional weekends, I began to notice he’d started perming his hair, wearing floral-patterned shirts, and somehow he seemed both foggy and shiny.
My parents divorced when I was eleven. My mother turned to wax. She was barely able to leave the house. Always edgy, now she nailed shut the windows, tacked thick bedspreads over the curtains. She decided I really shouldn’t leave the house, either, sometimes not even for school. She had always believed we were being watched. Now that we were alone, the dangers were too great—peril awaited us in the grocery store parking lot, at the bank, on every bridge. Don’t answer the phone. Never give out information.
Great care was taken to vary our route. I had seen the caravan that followed us home from the grocery store, had I not? And I’d seen the foot of the man in the side yard—that foot exposed to the light, his body in the shadows—hadn’t I?
Yes. I had seen these things. I had different interpretations than she did and I shared them freely, which increased her fear—this careless spiteful daughter who didn’t really see, didn’t really know how serious it all was.
My diagnosis of my mother? Super strict. Unreasonably strict. We fought. But I loved my mother and wanted to please her. And when she heard breathing in the house, I heard it too. When she said to crawl on my hands and knees through the house, I did as she asked.
My father’s visits trickled to nothing and there was a year or so that I didn’t see him at all. Late spring, the year I was fourteen, I finally tracked him down by telephone. I told him my mother was ruining my life—I wasn’t allowed to have friends, talk to boys on the phone, shave my legs. He seemed shocked, curious. He’d gotten out, best move he ever made, and now he said he was mystified by his actions. What had he been thinking, leaving me behind to deal with a mentally disturbed woman?
I held my breath, waiting for the answer.
Yeah, he said. He’d come get me as soon as he could and I could be his boarder, pay rent.
Rent? Was he kidding or serious?
In the weeks I waited for my father, I envisioned my new bedroom, maybe decorated with a peacock theme. Or fans. I loved Japanese fans.
And with this move, I knew, there’d be restaurants, and maybe a wardrobe of Jordache jeans, Candies high-heel platform slides in hot pink, friends, parties, one of those makeup sets with one hundred eye shadows and a spectrum of lipsticks and glosses with brushes, all in one giant box that you could haul anywhere.
My own stereo. A curling iron.
I remembered my dad well. I thought about him all the time. I knew exactly what I was getting into: fun. A lot of fun and, at last, a normal life.
In late March he picked me up at the end of the street—we wanted to avoid a scene with my mother. I slid my suitcase into the backseat and climbed into the brown Olds Delta 88, a ship of a car. I reached to hug him. This was when I first felt the straps under his shirt, going over his shoulders. I assumed it was something medical. Did he have a bad back? A recent surgery?
His eyes were vague, watery, sad. The whole man had drifted, hard, to the left, and it was as if he’d sunk to the bottom of a swamp and come up completely transformed. His hair, permed and gold, looked like pale seaweed. His arms were shaved. I cried out when I saw them—I couldn’t help myself. What? He looked at me when I yelped, raised an eyebrow, and returned his gaze to the road. I saw his hands on the steering wheel: his fingernails were painted with clear nail polish. Why? Panty hose peeked out from under the hems of his pants.
I wanted my other father, the one who looked like a dad.
But I couldn’t go back to my mother’s house. I was moving in with an alcoholic man who wore women’s panty hose under polyester Sansabelts but I knew in my heart that however horrible this was going to be, it would be an improvement over life with my mother.
When we pulled up to his house, which I’d never seen before, he asked me what I thought.
I was quiet for a moment. “It has a number of sad features,” I said. I’m sure I grimaced. The place looked as if it was sinking into Florida and the mixture of abandonment and decorations—dead grass and wild vines in the trees and a brightly painted Dutch placard by the garage that said, Welkom!—was hard to understand.
“What are you saying?” He gazed at the low bungalow as though it were a beloved palace.
Every night when I went to sleep I believed that when I woke up, I would find him back to normal. And every day I worked hard to figure him out. What was he, what category did my father go into?
Saturday afternoons, when we went down to the Pine Castle Winn-Dixie and he ordered Lebanon baloney and reached across the counter for the packet of meat with his painted nails and a little bit of makeup on, acting all friendly, talking as though no one could see how totally bizarre he was, I pretended that if I didn’t see, no one saw.
What else did I want from the deli?
I pretended we were normal.
What else did we need? he asked impatiently.
What did we need? I wondered.
I had no idea. To not be in the grocery store, out in public. To not be the people we were. To be completely, utterly, not us.
As I followed him through the grocery store, I felt such shame over being ashamed of my father. I wanted him to think I loved him. I did love him.
In the evening, it was my job to make dinner for us. This life was not quite the amazing teen bedroom and delicious restaurant future I’d had in mind, but at least we could eat normally, my father and I, whereas my mother had complicated rituals around food. Tampering was a constant theme for her, and her diet (and so mine) was restricted to toast, plain chicken, applesauce, grapes, and occasionally baked potatoes.
My father’s fridge spilled over with bottles of papaya juice, coconut milk, packets of liverwurst, smoked herring, coleslaw in white plastic towers, banana peppers, a garden of fresh vegetables, and packet after packet of meat. He had two books side by side on the kitchen island: The Joy of Cooking and the joy of the other thing. I covered the second book with mail and studied recipes. As I prepared buttered almond rice pilaf for my father, or salad dressing, or set tiny jalapeno slices on carefully laid-out nacho chips for Mexican night, Fred, wearing a Hawaiian shirt and beaded macrame necklace, his ankles weirdly uniform beige with panty hose, would roll into the kitchen, grab me by the shoulders, and insist I invite a friend over for dinner. He’d hand me the phone receiver. Call Karen. Call Sally. Call Miriam next door. Call anyone. My father seemed both to expect normal friendships and not to have any idea how bizarre he was, in equal measure.
“No one can come,” I’d demur. “Everyone’s busy.”
“How do you know? You don’t know that.” Tears rimmed his eyes. “Oh, come on now. Don’t be like your mother.”
At my mother’s house, I wasn’t allowed to invite anyone. At my father’s house, he wanted everyone to come. I couldn’t bear to tell him the truth: You’re too strange.
His pleas—phone receiver extended, me vrooming olive oil and vinegar and mustard in the blender or turning the pieces of steak in the iron skillet—were inevitably uttered over the porn movie playing on the television/VCR that sat on our dining room table. A pulsing mmm mmm mm in the background as the couples did what they did to the dull tuneless music.
How could he possibly ask me to ask someone over?
But he did. Every night.
Strangers showed up, ringing the bell or just walking in. Men he’d met at the Moose or the VFW, women from the Amber Keg and the Starlight Lounge. Sometimes, with a house full of drunken strangers, I slipped out the back door, returning late at night, when I was certain he and his guests had passed out.
Other nights, the two of us sat alone at the table. I silenced the television, ejected the porn cassette, placed it on the stack on the floor.
He read the paper. Or we played cards or chess. His nails always looked better than mine. He’d grab my hands as I cleared the plates.
“You will never marry,” he’d say, suddenly tearful. “You’ll never leave me. Because you’ll never meet a man like your ole daddy.”
I cringed at the words, which seemed both a blessing and curse.
“Let’s go jookin’,” he’d say after dinner, once a month or so. “What do you say?” His face marbled with hope and gin.
And so instead of going to a friend’s house on the weekends (I had none), or going out with a boyfriend, as my classmates did, I went to the bars with my father—my father wearing makeup and a bra and panty hose under his polo and jeans. I was the designated driver, happy enough to be out of the house, happy to drive down seedy Orange Avenue to the Amber Keg, to go inside that dark, cool, musty room and sit at the bar writing in my notebook while he talked and talked to everyone there. Hours later, I steered him to the Oldsmobile, always one of the last cars in the lot. Pressed him into the passenger seat. Drove home. I felt old, odd, confident, superior, doomed, and desolate.
As often as not after dinner, he passed out on the sofa, which was my bed. I turned the television to face the other end of the dining room table, made a tiny sofa-ette out of two dining room chairs, and clicked through the channels for a Clint Eastwood movie.
Other nights, a woman showed up—rarely one I’d seen before. The women were always tall, big-breasted, slim-hipped, wearing lots of makeup, shiny party clothes, and white or silver or black patent high-heel sandals. They draped themselves on my father, who wore what he wore, and was whatever he was, who took them out into the night.
Sometimes in the morning, leaving for school, I’d come down the hallway and if his bedroom door was open, I’d see a woman in his bed.
I could not imagine.
Was this life better than the one I’d had at my mother’s house? Hard to say. I constantly regretted my decision to live with him. But when my mother called on weekends to check on me, because she asked lightly how we were doing, I answered lightly, “He’s a handful!”
Her edged pause. “Are you safe?”
Long silence. I didn’t know if I was safe or not. I’m not sure I knew what safety was. I knew my mother meant something different than most people when she talked about safety. I knew she wanted me to say yes. I was surprised my mother wasn’t trying to get me back. And I didn’t want to go back. Always, I felt as if I were playing along when I assured her that yes, yes, I was safe.
When I spoke to my mother on the telephone, I stared out the window over the kitchen sink, toward a palm tree, broken-down patio furniture, and perfect blue silk sky. I didn’t see the piles of porn magazines, my father’s bras on the floor with a heap of laundry, the empty gin bottles sitting on the counter by the sink. I saw a fridge filled with food that was edible, open windows with light streaming in, a little world that was my little world—a journal, a pen, my gold sofa, my neatly folded sheets, my nest.
When it was time for me to go to college, Fred refused to disclose any of his finances so that I could apply for financial aid. He wanted me to stay with him, get a job as a secretary. If you leave, you’re on your own. So I was on my own. I rode a Trailways bus to the university five hours north, used babysitting savings, worked three jobs.
On breaks, when the school closed, I arranged for special permission to stay in the dorm. I was one of only a few people there. A smattering of students from China and the Middle East walked across the empty campus. We never spoke.
When I graduated, my friends married or moved in with their lovers but I did not. Instead, I worked on a PhD and the much more difficult tasks of how to be less anxious around a man and how to relax inside someone’s house, how to love and be loved. I spoke with my father on the phone infrequently. I sensed that I needed to lay down all new wiring in my body and mind so I could choose whom to let in, and whom to keep at bay. I sensed this renovation had to occur at the cellular level and would take many years. Didn’t we get all new cells every seven years?
One Friday afternoon, when I was a first-year doctoral student, Fred called out of the blue. He’d be at my house for dinner Saturday, a quick stopover on his way to Four Corners, Arizona, a place he’d always wanted to see.
I was thrilled and nervous. I was delighted to tell my friends he was coming, but of course did not invite them. I scrambled to assemble his favorite from The Joy of Cooking: chicken cordon bleu. I bought a bottle of Sancerre, chilled it, and made a salad using tomatoes from my little city lot garden. I set the table on the porch. Cloth napkins. Candles.
He never showed.
I threw the dinner in the trash.
When I finally tracked him down by telephone later that week, he had no memory of any of it.
Wrapped tightly inside my disappointment and despair about his not showing up, there was a tiny nut of relief. It was so hard to be around him. My father was unreliable, not just in terms of behavior, but in terms of identity. I suspected my father was not knowable, not even to himself. Would he even know if I loved him or not?
And always I wondered, What is Fred? Gay? Bi? A transvestite? Did he want to be a woman? What was he?
In the library, I slipped into the dimly lit stacks on the second floor, far in the rear of the building, where the psychology texts were located. I’d read, secretly, flooded with shame at the photos of diseased genitals and countless descriptions of sexual deviation. Among the sex with corpses and unspeakable unspeakables, I quietly searched for any book, an article, a paragraph—something that would explain to me what my father was, what he was not, and why. I never found anything that fit him, which underscored the fact that I’d come from unclassifiable, impossible oddness, weirdness so profound that if anyone knew, I’d be ruled out as someone you might want to love.
Did he want to be perceived as a member of the opposite sex? I thought (feared) so when I was young but I don’t think so now. I don’t know how my father felt about his genitals, or his gender; now I doubt he had the kind of cognitive organization that allows for such thinking. Fred operated in a different realm: how others perceived him wasn’t on the table, much less in the dressing room.
Over the years, I talked to several therapists about my father. One urged me to see the humor in men in dresses and suggested I watch Tootsie and Some Like It Hot. No thanks. I’d seen the covers on the videotapes at the rental store: men in dresses dressed for a caper with a purpose. I couldn’t imagine enjoying those films; I was a girl with a dad who was not amusing and people weren’t watching a movie when they watched my dad—it was our lives, no joke.
The woman-dressed men in the movies made sense for the story. My dad did not make sense. Men in women’s clothes didn’t bother me at all in movies or in life. Typically, they wore clothes well; makeup, carefully applied, made them beautiful. They were clearly home in a way my father never was. But coarse hetero men in ill-fitting, frumpy dresses were unbearable to me.
Another therapist told me, “Women can wear men’s clothes—suits, ties, pants—and we see nothing wrong with that kind of cross-dressing. Widen your perspective.”
I could not widen my perspective. My perspective had been long since overdilated.
Besides, my father didn’t really cross-dress. He didn’t cross over, he crossed out. He never seemed comfortable or happy in his skin. He always seemed about to leap out of it.
I knew from my stealth reading that most cross-dressers were straight and married and that most cross-dressed for erotic pleasure, some for self-soothing. I’m not sure that my dad loved women’s clothes. Maybe. Maybe he loved what binds a woman. Maybe he loved our softness, our tears, our allowed-for, count-on-it, sanctioned tenderness, our very pliable weakness, our ability to melt and flutter and still be loved. Maybe my dad wasn’t anything trans- or cross-. Maybe Fred’s cross-dressing was what some psychologists call an “erotic target error”: he assigned meaning to gender that was so far from reality, it’s incomprehensible to us.
For example, now, across the street from my house, there’s a family who hang a white Christmas wreath on their door—in March and April. And then in June, the white wreath is exchanged for a green Christmas wreath, complete with balls and bells. Christmas decorations don’t mean to this family what they mean to most of the rest of us.
Maybe parts of my father’s sexuality and meaning-making map were scrambled in his early cognitive development. Maybe some part of his personality remained a tiny child for whom sex isn’t sex; it’s something else altogether, like a wreath in July. In this scenario, sexuality is assigned meaning that has no words, but in adult life exhibits powerful energy. Strange urgent sexuality and desire pulse and spin constantly, but never line up in actions or relationships in ways we would normally expect.
Put another way, maybe my father was haywire.
When he had colon cancer the first time, I was in my late twenties and I flew home to Orlando to help him. In the hospital bed the morning of the operation, he dozed as a nurse came in to prep him.
“Oh,” she said. “He’s already been shaved.” She was clearly confused—her chart showed he was to be shaved for the surgery. She had the little kit at the ready.
I looked up at her, anxiously. His nails were painted. Did she see?
“Did he just have another surgery? I didn’t see that in the chart.” She was touching my father’s chest, which was covered with black stubble.
I looked down at the floor. I wanted to say, Yes, another surgery, but I didn’t want to be caught in a lie. What could I say that would make sense?
She was looking at his legs now. The hair was starting to grow out, black metal filings that covered his pale skin. She looked almost angry with confusion. I realized I’d been editing out the parts of my father that didn’t make sense for so long, I no longer saw him how others saw him and perhaps could not.
During the colon cancer treatments, my fiancé offered to come to Orlando to help me with my father. I couldn’t imagine the two men in the same world much less the same room.
I had to be with my father on my own.
The fiancé was long distance and then just distance. Alone felt safest, the best I could do. By my midthirties, I still hadn’t married. I dreamed of a family, children, but it didn’t seem possible to pull it off.
PhD in hand, I landed a good job at a small private college in a postcard-perfect town in Michigan, some thousand miles from home. In spring in this village, the streets were ritually washed with buckets of sudsy water by women with brooms. Most people went to church. In the hyperconformity, I thrived. On the surface, no one was weird. Because they had no fluency in weirdness, they would never detect my history. If it was unknowable to them, it didn’t exist. Here, only here, I could pass. I had friends. I wrote books. I was a respected teacher. At last, I had a steady boyfriend who lived in the same town I did, a lifelong bachelor who’d had a difficult time growing up in a wealthy family. I felt we were a good match, both so different from regular citizens—his extreme wealth had isolated him as poverty of normal experience had isolated me.
I called my parents on holidays. Over the past two decades, they’d somehow become friends. My mother helped my father, who’d survived a massive cerebral hemorrhage, kept him company on Sunday afternoons. He was wheelchair-bound, paralyzed on his right side. She seemed to love bringing him groceries, arranging aspects of home health care on his behalf.
Sometimes I spoke to the two of them together.
When you coming home? Come on home.
Honey, we’d so love to see you. Can you come down?
Months and months passed between phone calls. I wanted to see them, badly, before it was too late, and yet I couldn’t bear to go back to those rooms, those shadows, that story.
One late afternoon I was reading students’ stories at my kitchen table when the phone rang.
“It’s your aunt Ruthie,” a woman said out of the blue. It took me a moment to figure out who she was. My father’s sister. We hadn’t talked in—years? She sounded angry when she said, “I’m bringing your dad by to see you.”
I told her this was not a good time. I was swamped with schoolwork. And summer was sadly already booked—teaching, Ireland. Maybe September?
“We’re in Indiana,” she said hoarsely. “’Bout two hours away. My God. How long has he been this bad? Did you know he drinks in the morning?”
My father was with her? Two hours away?
She’d driven to Florida and gathered up my dad. Our reunion was her mission. I was just hearing about all this now.
I felt my head fill with something like wet smoke. I couldn’t have my father hurtling into my pretty little bungalow, my carefully wrought life, these small, tidy rooms, the orderly village of Holland, Michigan, populated by conservative, religious Dutch Reformers.
I asked my aunt if they could postpone. Maybe I could come to see them . . . later? As I spoke, something happened behind my forehead. An apocalyptic headache was brewing, the likes of which I’d never experienced before.
My aunt grew more insistent. She was only staying one night, dropping my father off at my house for the week, as she was heading north.
I suggested a motel.
A motel was out of the question. They were planning to stay with me, she said. And Fred would be with me until she got back from her trip up north.
“I’m not set up for company,” I told my aunt firmly if shakily. I tried to imagine my father, his extravagantly permed long golden hair and makeup, careening past the tidy tulip beds, accosting my teetotaling neighbors with questions. What the hell with all these churches? Where are the bars? The good-looking women?
My aunt said they were on their way and she hung up the phone. I wanted to slip out the back door, as I had as a teenager, and run.
And yet, he was my father, whose eyes visibly brightened when I entered the room.
Hey baby, where you been? I’ve been wanting to talk to you about many things.
No one else’s eyes did that for me.
No one else wanted to talk to me, urgently.
After Ruthie said goodbye, a time bomb started ticking. I took three aspirin, but the monstrous headache only intensified. It felt as if my skull was going to divide into two pieces, then shatter. I drove downtown in sunglasses and ordered a double espresso from the coffee shop.
My aunt and my father were in the gas station parking lot when I pulled up—I’d insisted on meeting them out by the highway. She stood by the hood of the car, arms crossed over her chest, and he was in his wheelchair, smoking by the trunk. The doors to my aunt’s station wagon were open, and the two of them seemed flung out of wreckage. It had been a terrible drive. They both looked miserable.
My father cried as he came toward me in his wheelchair with his arms open. We hugged. I touched his soft face. He smelled like home: cigarette smoke and sour, lemony soap and perfume. His hair was pulled back in a long white ponytail. He wore stained khakis, socks, beaten-down work shoes. His fingernails were unpainted. No traces of makeup. Age and poverty and the stroke had all taken their toll.
“He’s yours,” Ruthie said, looking at me and simultaneously flicking my father on the shoulder.
Fred wanted to hug more. I pressed one hand on his chest, holding him down in his chair.
“He’s driving me crazy,” my aunt said loudly. “Out of my effing mind.”
“What the hell you talking about!” He turned in a half circle, jerked back toward his sister. “You’re not listening. You hear but you aren’t listening!” my father shouted at her.
My aunt said I had to keep my dad with me for a few days while she went on her vacation.
I explained that I didn’t have a guest room and my house couldn’t accommodate a wheelchair. There were steps—five or six—just to enter, narrow stairs inside.
She seemed furious. My father couldn’t be left alone, she said. He needed care. I needed to care more. Plans for his future needed to be made: Where was I?
Why did you bring him from Florida to Michigan? I wondered silently.
Okay, she said, at last, a motel, but that was very expensive. And she desperately needed a break from my dad. She wanted me to stay in the motel with him so she could get on with her trip.
He looked so hurt when she said this.
Why are you here? Why did you bring him here? I couldn’t speak these words. I didn’t know what to say. I wasn’t going to stay in a motel room with my father but I didn’t want to say this in front of him. My headache made me wonder if I should go to the ER. It felt as if something were about to burst. I went home.
They shared a room at the Days Inn. The next morning, I came by and helped my father into my car. He grabbed my thigh, hard, and then from his pants pocket pulled out two vials of gin. “Hit?” he said.
I looked at his brown eyes, soft as a llama’s. “Hit me.”
He wasn’t wearing a bra under his pale green, somewhat misshapen polo. His arms were bone smooth, but not shaved—he was seventy years old now, simply too old for arm hair.
I drove him around the postcard-perfect town, sliding by my house without saying a word, showing him all the churches, taking him past the college, wondering what it had been like for him since the stroke, no longer being able to shave his legs or put on lipstick. In front of the English department building, he put his hand on the door handle. He insisted on seeing my office and meeting my colleagues.
“I’d rather not,” I said flatly. “I’m supposed to be working.”
“No,” he said. “Let’s do that.” He wanted to meet my colleagues, talk to students.
“No,” I said. “It’s not a good time.”
A group of students, prim in polar fleece vests and pressed jeans, walked their bicycles down the sidewalk. I pointed to the library and the chapel, a great Gothic ship stranded on the lawn, and he pleaded with me to go inside. I ignored his pulling on my arm and, perky addled tour guide, I explained when things were built, and who built these buildings, and why. Blinded by my migraine, I wanted desperately to get an espresso, but I dared not stop. I could not risk my father unleashed. It wasn’t just the women’s clothes, I realized, that had made it so hard to be in public, my public, with Fred. It was his radical impulsive striding, his need to talk and touch and point and engage, with person, with pillar, parishioner, dog, cashier—he’d say anything to anyone. He was capable of touching a woman’s bottom in any situation, or a breast. I’d seen him touch his fingers to a waitress’s crotch at a Chinese restaurant.
My father pulled at the car door. “Let’s go meet them. I want to hear what they have to say about you!”
“They’re not there now,” I said. I paused in the loading zone in front of my building.
Students came pouring out the front doors.
“Are too!” He spoke in the chiding tones of someone who would not be fooled. He grabbed my shoulder. “Come on now.” He was puzzled, hurt, insistent.
I pressed my head to the steering wheel. He sucked back another little mini gin, produced from where I did not know—his diaper? He was tapping on the passenger window glass. “They’re huge,” he said. “These gals are huge. The Dutch. They look Dutch.” He seemed astonished, impressed, fascinated. “Look at that one! Look at her. Enormous! Look at the size of the buttocks on that one.” He gaped in genuine astonishment. “The thighs alone could take out a sober man.”
So strong was my desire to please my father, to show him how far I’d come, and to impersonate a normal-daughter life, that I was on the verge of walking around my car, letting him out, taking him into the English department. Walking him down the halls, showing him my office, where I had his photo framed and posed beside the one of my beloved corgi, Cubby. I imagined walking down the hall, holding my father’s hand so he wouldn’t barge into colleagues’ offices, introducing him to my department chair, a slender man who would be dwarfed by my father, who’d never met anyone like my father, never even conceived of personhood taking such a form. Could we do it?
Kathy Vanderveen, the medievalist, walked past my car, and waved, looking curious.
“We just can’t, sweetie,” I whispered. “Please.” I felt the migraine pulsing into my cells.
“Why not?” His mouth was open. He had his palms pressed on the window. “I want to see it.”
As a girl, I’d been so focused on the strangeness of his appearance, I hadn’t realized how hard it was just to be around my father.
We had dinner, just the two of us, at Russ’s Diner, where the special was split pea soup, patty melts, and pumpkin pie. Afterward, I drove him to my house. We stood in the driveway together. I was, in this moment, under the fading blue Michigan sky, extremely happy to be next to my father, showing him the house I bought all on my own. He pointed, listed, and as I held his arm, he talked about the pitch of the gables, the impressive thickness of the original timber. We looked in the basement windows. In the backyard, he smoked. I thought about the day he’d taken me to his house in Florida, proud of his purchase, low and damp and dark.
I drove him back to the Days Inn. I refused to stay at the motel with my dad, and he could not stay in my house. Ruthie was pissed. The two of them squabbled while I stood in the doorway trying to think of how to leave. By the time I left the room, my father was not speaking to me or to his sister.
That night, the headache worsened. The room spun. I couldn’t see properly. I vomited onto the floor.
In the morning, I took my father to breakfast, just the two of us. He was obsessed with pointing out how the Dutch people were so extremely Dutch-looking in their largeness, and in their plainness. He acted as though he wasn’t in a Bob Evans but in a zoo. I felt as if I was with a developmentally disabled adult—then, eating bacon, I realized: I was.
After breakfast, I drove him up Highway 31 to see the blueberry fields. He told me stories about being young, working as an accountant in the next town up—driving this exact stretch of road.
“You were here? In Michigan?”
“You knew that.”
“No. You never told me.”
“Well, I did, too.”
I looked at the man next to me in the car, my father. I’d never thought much about him as a man in his late twenties, building a career, running around the lakeshore. Who was he then? Did he have true friends? Bizarre behavior? A thing for women’s panties? Did he have affairs with men? When did the cross-dressing begin? Was it cross-dressing? How did he think about it? But I didn’t ask. Some years before, I’d asked my mother when it had started. There was a long pause. She didn’t look upset, just surprised, as though I’d found something she hadn’t seen in a long, long time and brought it to her.
I never thought we would ever in a million years have this conversation, she said. How did you know?
I found her response so unnerving—how did I know?—and her subsequent revelations about their intimate life so dark and so shocking, I backed out of the conversation in a blur of confusion and regret.
Now, as we drove up the empty highway, past the blue-red fields, I thought it might be the last time I ever saw him. I wanted to tell him, Dad, it’s been so hard. You haven’t tried to blend in at all. I could never have people over. You haven’t tried. But it felt both mean to say that and also like speaking in a language he didn’t know—what was the point?
We pulled into the Lake Shore Antiques mall, where he lit up with excitement. We trolled up and down the aisles. Nearly every object spoke to him and there was a story; he knew even the strangest tools and old farm implements.
People wedged past us, me and this wild-looking, loud-voiced man smelling of gin, clothes stained, gait permanently damaged by cerebral hemorrhage and years of pickling. I didn’t care about the stares. My father and I fit in here, perfectly, in this giant pole barn crammed with stuff ripped from its context and heaped in bizarre vignettes: a birdcage on a settee, draped with a fur coat, surrounded by china and toys and three pitchforks. Here, for maybe the first time ever since I’d known him, Fred looked at home, this great glorious odd bird of a man grabbing objects from a crazy chaotic collection, insisting that I listen. I listened. I thought, He should live here. My father would fit right into this museum of wayward artifacts, items damaged, loved, given away, this wabi-sabi world of things whose purpose was lost to time, but whose beauty and tenderness still somehow shone through. There, in the junk store, at last, my father and I were together out in the world. For the first time, we held hands in public. I was relaxed. He wasn’t pulling me under. I wasn’t willing him to be other than he was. We were happy.
Once, when I was in high school, we were at the American Legion, and a man fell off his barstool. It was my father, Fred Sellers, who leapt up and helped the man to his feet. I watched that man clock my dad hard on the jaw. My dad said, reeling, “Just trying to help ya, brother” as he fell. I helped him up. “I’m mystified,” he said.
He loved his dogs. He cried when his girlfriends came over and screamed at him for forgetting to show up for their date, or for having another woman in the house. He seemed sincerely puzzled that life wasn’t going his way, and terrifically overjoyed at the things he loved: Zellwood corn season; the prospect of our making dinner together, him telling me what to do and me doing it and cleaning up; growing roses. He loved roses, most especially, the hybrid called Dolly Parton, those over-the-top huge fragrant copper-red tea roses.
Fred Sellers. My father.
Another decade passed. I hired helpers to care for my dad. When he inherited an enormous sum from his father, a real estate tycoon, he gave the helpers gobs of his money and unscrupulous folks took the rest. I asked him to think about me. But since I’d stayed away, at arm’s length from my father, I felt I didn’t have much claim and in the end he gave me nothing.
When he was at the end of his life—lung cancer—I went to see him often. Sober, with dementia, he lit up when I came around the corner, beamed over to me in his scooter, and never failed to ask a pertinent question about some recent topic of conversation: Did I go with the ceramic tile or the slate in my bathroom renovation? Did the guy put in heaters so my gutters wouldn’t ice over? Why not? How much had that driveway repair cost? What about Obama, what did I think of that man? What books was I teaching? Anything he’d read? Was I teaching Mark Twain? What about Mencken? Then he’d launch into a well-memorized section of one of Twain’s works—how could I have a PhD in English, he’d complain, and not know this material by heart? He’d shake his head in disappointment.
On one of these visits, I found my father asleep in his bed, crookedly arranged. I could see his diaper was twisted. He didn’t have long to live. I wanted to ask everything. I wanted to have no regrets, no unanswered questions.
My heart was beating so hard, I felt as if a bird were inside me when I leaned over his bed that day.
“Fred,” I said. “Fred.”
“Yah,” he said. He smiled. He gripped my hand hard.
“I want to ask you something.”
“No,” he said. But since his stroke, no usually meant yes and yes meant no.
“This is a little difficult.”
“No,” he said, in an encouraging way.
“Why did you wear women’s clothes? What was that about for you?” I imagined I was a kind reporter. Just asking questions.
He looked away, up at the ceiling. He took his hand back. There was a long pause. His roommate’s television blared a game show. And then my father, looking me in the eye with his usual curiosity, said, softly, in a tone I’d never heard before, “You knew about that?”
Awkward Positions:D. A. Powell, Susie Bright, Melissa Febos, Naomi Jackson, Sy Montgomery
Remember when you could just walk up to someone on the street and have sex with them? Before even saying hello? Most relationships ended backward, and quickly, and though we know the streets to be rough, I’m sure some of us are still out there, quivering in the moonlight. I do not think of those profligate days as particularly glorious, but different. It was a different time, when the noodle bar used to be a hard-core bar, before the pharmacy expanded and annexed the trashy old dance palace. San Francisco had sex the way Louisiana has churches, abundantly and with as much true spirit. Porn ran up and down these blocks like marigolds, the scene a twenty-four-hour donut shop for the transient and sexually desperate. Muscly women, muscly men, bearded, hunky, slender, lithe, kinky, twinky, clean or stinky. Candor. Fetish. Outness. It was Playland at the Beach without the sand up your crack. (Everything else, though, that could fit.) Talk was minimalized by the thumping homegrown music conjugated by producers at Megatone Records or Moby Dick, a label named for the popular tavern where patrons pressed into each other close and hard like a big box of matches waiting for just enough friction to be lit. We danced to the driving pulse of tracks like “Mandatory Love” and “Cruisin’ the Streets” and “Die Hard Lover,” songs that exploited and exposed the language of homo desire. At the Jackhammer, the Pendulum, the Headquarters, the Shed—music, bodies, the relief and thrill of being reflected and surrounded by a world in which one need not explain oneself. Untenable for the long term. Oh, but it seemed such a short-term life.
We lived illegal, illegitimate, marginalized in and by our own country, unprotected in every way. Any film that portrayed a serious homosexual told us we’d die; it was the code of a movie industry many of us loved that we would not be permitted happiness on-screen (or off), lest our form of sexual desire spread like a pod from outer space or werewolfism. It did not help that we acquired immune deficiency within our community, that the public treated homosexuality like an illness we all had to prevent from spreading. I speak of the past as a complex of repressive forces so powerful that simply to love felt like an act of rebellion. Sex was affirmation. Solidarity. It was proof that we were numerous and visible and therefore not an anomaly. Natural variants in a scale of genders and attractions, occurring across all the other spectrums of humanity. Sex was easy and communal, like when you pass a bottle of wine around at a picnic and fill strangers’ cups, too, because, hey, here we all are on the grass together.
But sex is just one kind of promiscuity. Poetry is another. Writing, in general, is the promiscuous use of language, and every writer or poet I know has started far more interactions with the page than ever saw the light of day. But it’s impossible to count the number of times we’ve kissed a new sunrise, turned to the scribble next to us on the nightstand and crumpled it up like a phone number we’ll never dial. I stop in the middle of writing this to open a package from Alex Dimitrov. I stop to read half of Honorée Jeffers’s The Glory Gets. I go to Lily Hoang and Marilynne Robinson. I’m listening to Sylvester, watching Rachel Maddow with the sound off and the closed captioning on (I prefer not to hear her voice but I want her ideas), and looking up the Cathy Park Hong essay everyone is talking about. Then Brecht’s love poems and Jamaal May. And this is all before breakfast. All these poems touch me in different ways, while I’m still in jammies; the essays penetrate me in ways I’ve never been penetrated before, and I am speaking tender words back to each writer. I am on the crowded dance floor of diction and it’s having its way with me. I run my fingers across sentences and lines, I finger and mouth each one of them, and sometimes I just lie there and listen and let the words take me.
I rarely finish what I write and I often don’t finish what I read. And don’t even ask me to get past the first paragraph of a relationship. I’m a good starter, though. I have joined the Twitter world, a perfect marriage of promiscuous interaction and lack of physicality. It is the divey cocktail bar of the imagination, where I can be stimulated in so many other ways—music, poetry, politics, science, news, quirky personalities. A dose of realness that can be ignored without dying on you, unlike, say, a cat. It is everything and nothing, like the present-day Castro neighborhood, a theater of liberation that has become so liberated that it no longer resembles itself except as a museum piece. I am glad to see we’ve been invaded by Starbucks and Pottery Barn—it means we are no longer in need of a fortress of identity and safety in numbers. I just hope that marriage freedom doesn’t become marriage expectation. There is no victory in a convention. What we fought for in these streets was not middle-class morality and well-behaved kids. We stood against the assumptions of heteronormativity, said yes with our hips, with our hearts, with our eyes. Made sexual play and sexual pleasure as easy and as enjoyable as poetry. If I belong anywhere and with anyone, it is everywhere and with everyone. Or at least as many as I have desire for. Of course I love being flirted with. But my drag name is no longer Clearance.
Lost & Found:Michelle Wildgen, Nick Milne, Sara Roahen, Logan Scherer, Gabrielle Bellot
On his first day of first grade, my six-year-old son brought home a get-to-know-you questionnaire. It asked for his favorite sport (jiujitsu), his favorite food (pancakes), his favorite television show (something with superheroes), etc. The answers were mostly predictable. When we got to his favorite book, he answered unequivocally: “Daddy’s Roommate.”
I glowed, though I tried to do it internally. Michael Willhoite’s Daddy’s Roommate, originally published by Alyson Books in 1990 and currently out of print, is narrated by a boy roughly my son’s age with an openly gay father. I had checked it out from the local library in June, LGBT Pride Month, and his fondness for the book made me feel that I was succeeding at raising a twenty-first-century child. I was also delighted because while he had always loved to be read to, my son had never before gotten attached to a particular book. He went through books like he now goes through Lego sets: finish and then cast aside, possibly destroy. I never had to read Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? for the three hundredth time, which I appreciated, though sometimes I did wonder whether my son’s literary detachment meant he was skipping some important developmental step.
But last summer he insisted on reading Daddy’s Roommate again and again and again. He couldn’t wait for his dad to get home from work so they could read it together. He showed it to his babysitters; he loaned it to his cousins.
The book opens with the line “My Mommy and Daddy got a divorce last year” and the image of a boy and his mother looking out a window as his father packs suitcases into the trunk of a car. All of the characters look sober and a little shell-shocked, but friendly. The narrator goes on to explain that his father now lives with a man named Frank, and he details all the domestic pleasures that his dad and Frank engage in together: reading the newspaper in pajamas, doing housework, eating dinner, sleeping, shaving, parenting the boy, and even arguing and making up. In the edition I later purchased, none of the book’s twenty-nine pages contains more than one sentence; the images are colorful and forthright. It’s a fun, openhearted book, and yet with each reading, my son seemed to hold his breath until we got to a page close to the end that pictures the narrator sitting on a stool in a kitchen while his mother, in a “World’s Best Mom” apron, concocts something from vanilla and milk and eggs. “Mommy says Daddy and Frank are gay,” the text reads. On the facing page, the boy looks directly into the eyes of the reader and says, “At first I didn’t know what that meant. So she explained it.”
At this point my son would turn the page so eagerly that I worried for the library book. Two images accompany the passage that captivated my son: first, there’s Frank embracing the boy’s father loosely from behind while the men gaze at each other contentedly, and then there’s a drawing of the boy and his father hugging while the mother looks on with apparent approval. Beneath these images, the text reads, “Being gay is just one more kind of love. And love is the best kind of happiness.”
The book wraps up with two more pages, but my son never cared to read them. For him, the story’s climax on love was also its resolution. We had discussed same-sex relationships and marriage many times before, but this straightforward presentation of the topic, with a cartoon kid as his guide, seemed to bring the abstract to life for him.
He has wanted to discuss dynamics of the heart since he could speak, and so I wasn’t entirely surprised that Daddy’s Roommate touched a nerve. The first conversations I remember having with him involve love: my love for him, his for me, ours for the cat. When you ask him today what he wants to be when he grows up, he says a doctor and a daddy. He didn’t talk about his classmates much in preschool and kindergarten, except to report whose parents were getting divorced, whose were cohabitating with lovers, and whose lived in different states. His interest was not a judge’s, but a budding sociologist’s.
On his second day of first grade, my son brought home a note requesting that we send his favorite book to school. All of the first graders’ special books would live in a basket in the classroom for a couple of weeks so that they could browse the various selections and thereby learn about each other.
I felt a twinge of naughtiness when I sent Daddy’s Roommate to the school, but I talked myself through it. After all, the Supreme Court had officially normalized same-sex marriage the same month we discovered Daddy’s Roommate. The book had survived in our public library system despite having been the second-most frequently challenged book nationwide between 1990 and 1999, according to the American Library Association, and the New Orleans Public Library has no record of it ever having been challenged here. The priest who oversees the religious education at my son’s Episcopal school lives with his husband in the rectory and performs gay marriages in the church. I know of at least two families with same-sex parents whose kids attend the school.
And on top of all that, I reminded myself, Daddy’s Roommate is an age-appropriate exploration of what happens in a child’s life when his father, who used to be married to the child’s mother, comes out of the closet. Which is to say that the story is about love, not sex. It’s simple and direct and sweet.
Roughly two hours after Daddy’s Roommate arrived on her campus, my son’s principal left me a voice mail and an e-mail to say that I could find the book on her desk. She would not allow it in the classroom. The principal didn’t mention the most common critiques on sites like Amazon and Goodreads, which focus not on moral objections but stylistic ones: that the illustrations are dated and sometimes stereotypical (gay men with moustaches and muscle shirts, gay men singing around a piano after dinner) or that the mother figure appears cheerful and supportive when surely she must be pissed off and humiliated. Rather, the principal felt the book might inspire the first graders to ask questions the teachers were not prepared to answer. She assured me that differences in family units would be addressed later in the school year in a class called Life Skills, but that the teachers would not use the word gay in the classroom, “as we feel that sometimes that word can be used in a derogatory manner.” Daddy’s Roommate, therefore, would never be welcome.
My son spotted the book in my hand when I picked him up from school that afternoon. He cried a little bit when I explained the principal’s decision. “Some grown-ups might not think it’s appropriate,” he argued, “but I know my friends would love the part about love.” I gave him full permission to tell his friends all about that part.
Of course I agree that gay is sometimes used in a derogatory manner, and that’s why I’m grateful for books like Daddy’s Roommate. I also agree that a first-grade classroom is no place for a sex-ed lesson, which must have been the principal’s greatest fear. But in all the weeks we had been enjoying and discussing Daddy’s Roommate at home, sex had never entered the conversation. Sex doesn’t enter the conversation with our first grader when his dad and I talk about where we met, or how we fell in love, or why we decided to get married, or the day he was born, either. It doesn’t even enter the conversation when our son crawls into bed with us at 3:00 AM, separating our entwined limbs and forcing us to put on pajamas. Sex doesn’t enter the mind of a six-year-old unless a grown-up puts it there.
The principal suggested we bring in another favorite book to share, but my son didn’t have another favorite book. On the one hand I felt pride—pride that he had chosen Daddy’s Roommate in the first place, and pride that he had stood his ground and refused to choose a consolation book. On the other hand, it smarted when, soon after the whole incident, he stopped wanting to read it.
I paid mightily for our own copy of the book, and one of its sequel, Daddy’s Wedding. I hope for a day when my son will again feel the pull of its touching, innocent story. Being gay is just one more kind of love. And love is the best kind of happiness. He has no idea that, for the principal, for the parents of his classmates who might have objected to it, and even for me in some ways, Daddy’s Roommate is about sex. But six-year-olds know what shame feels like, and they know how to avoid it.