THE ORIGIN OF A LIE
Back in the late ’60s, on Long Island, a man named George discovered that the neighborhood hardware store he had managed for the last three years was actually owned by the Mob and they were using it to launder money. After making this discovery, George, a former naval officer, grew increasingly uncomfortable with his unintentional involvement in a criminal enterprise. When his employers started asking him to run errands, to take envelopes from here to there, he gave his two weeks’ notice. In response, his employers threatened him and his family. George packed the station wagon and fled to Los Angeles to start a new life with his wife, his two older daughters, and his new baby girl, Kim.
From the moment she was born, Kim knew only chaos. Her mother, George’s wife, was a cruel drunk whose shrill voice set the loud and violent tone for the household. Kim and her sisters hung out at the beach long after the sun went down, to avoid going home. Eventually their father, too, grew weary of his wife’s abuse. Kim never blamed him for leaving.
Rebelling against her mother, Kim became kind and reserved. She was a gangly girl with long hair bleached blond by the sun. By age sixteen, Kim towered above her peers at nearly six feet tall. Despite her imposing stature, she felt invisible. That’s what drew her to my father. Years later she told me, “He was the first boy who ever paid attention to me.”
They met in a small mountain town in California. Dad was a good-looking kid with dark hair and olive skin. He spotted Kim in the lobby of a ski lodge and struck up a conversation. They chatted for a bit, exchanged numbers, and a few weeks later they went on their first and only date.
Nine months later I was born.
My father was a rich kid from Beverly Hills. His parents didn’t approve of my mother. As far as they were concerned, she was a girl from the wrong side of the tracks, and they were not about to let one mistake destroy their son’s promising future.
I imagine my father, a college student, sitting on his bed. He’s staring at the phone and the weight of the world is on his shoulders. Downstairs his mother, normally a model of grace, is smoking a cigarette and frantically pacing. His father, a mattress mogul, who made millions selling overpriced beds to hospitals, is sitting in his favorite leather chair nursing a glass of scotch. They have just told my father to call my sixteen-year-old mother and tell her exactly what they discussed. My father rehearses his lines:
I have my whole life ahead of me. And while you are entitled to have the baby, I cannot allow your choice to ruin the rest of my life. So I’m calling to tell you I will have no part in the child’s life. This is the last time we will speak. Please do not contact me again.
I don’t know how long he sat there by the phone, but I’m certain making that call and saying those words to my sweet, young, confused, vulnerable mother was the most difficult thing my father ever had to do.
Or at least it would have been, had he called. But he didn’t. And while I’d like to think my father wanted to call, the truth is he couldn’t even find enough courage to be a coward. Instead, my mother heard through the grapevine that his parents had shipped him off to another state, far from her and her mistake.
My pregnant mother was living in a cramped apartment with her alcoholic mother, who survived solely on welfare and child support. My grandmother suggested her daughter, my mother, have an abortion. Considering the circumstances, that was arguably the most thoughtful advice my grandma had ever given her daughter.
By this time my mother’s father, George, had started a new family with his secretary-turned-wife. When Mom told George she was going to have a baby, he mustered up all the compassion he could to say, “You’ve ruined your life.” To this day, my mother has never heard him utter the words “I love you.”
After I was born, Mom’s priority was getting us out from under Grandma’s roof. A wise decision on her part. The few memories I have of my grandmother include the time she came home on the back of a motorcycle, holding a half-empty bottle of wine; the time her new “boyfriend” showed me his Hitler Youth knife; and her casual use of the N-word.
Mom dropped out of high school and got a job stocking shelves at a health-food store. Her two older sisters had their own apartments and we couch-surfed between them until Mom could afford a place of our own. She found an old laundry room that had been converted into living space. It was a single room with brick walls and a concrete floor. It had a toilet and a sink, but no kitchen.
We used a camping stove to cook our meals. Mom would clear an area on the floor and screw the gas can into the burner. I had the important job of making sure a gust of wind from outside didn’t sneak by and blow the flame out before it reached the stove. I took great pride in my work.
One day my mother hesitated before striking the match. She asked me, “Do you want to know how this works?” After I nodded, she explained that the match was made out of various chemicals, and how striking the match on the box created friction, which ignited the chemicals using the oxygen in the air as fuel. Somehow, my mother had gotten her GED and was going to school to become a firefighter.
We didn’t have much, but it felt like enough. I
felt like enough. Then I watched another boy fly.
I was five, my mother was teaching me how to swim at a public pool. I wore floaties around my biceps and my mother held me on the surface of the water yelling, “Kick! Kick!”
In the center of the pool I saw a little boy standing on his father’s shoulders, while the mother cheered them on. The father and son counted to three. On three, the dad propelled the boy into the air. The boy rocketed into the sky, defying gravity, flying so high that he touched the clouds. Eventually the boy returned from the heavens, crashing into the water, and emerged with a smile as his mother and father laughed in delight.
We got out of the pool and, as Mom dried me off, I asked her, “Where’s my dad?”
“I don’t know, kiddo.”
Not long after, Mom started dating Ken, a man with broad shoulders and a caterpillar mustache. He took us camping. It was my first time outside of the city. I eagerly helped Ken set up the tent and collect firewood. He showed me how to bait a hook, and I sat next to him as he fished. Most kindergartners wouldn’t have sat so patiently for so long.
The next day, I became violently ill and our serene excursion came to an abrupt end. We packed up the car and drove back to the city, where my mother nursed me back to health in our tiny apartment. There wasn’t enough room for Ken, so he left. We never saw him again.
Later that year, when I was six years old, my mother moved us to a slightly larger apartment in the same building, on the second floor. It had a kitchen, so we didn’t have to cook our meals like campers. It also had a separate bedroom, which allowed for more privacy. I’d fall asleep on the bed. When my mother was ready to go to sleep, she’d make room for herself, picking me up and moving me to the cot next to the bed.
One night I was tossing and turning, trying to fall asleep, while my mother was in the living room. I was afraid of being alone in the dark, so she always left our bedroom door cracked, allowing in enough light to keep the boogeyman away. It was past my bedtime and I should’ve been sound asleep. But I was thirsty. So I got out of bed and crept toward the kitchen to get a cup of water.
I had expected to see my mother seated on the couch watching TV. What I did not expect was the stranger seated next to her. I just stood there in my Ninja Turtles pajamas, watching, trying to understand why my mother was passionately kissing another woman.
After a few seconds, my mother noticed me and bolted off the couch as if I were the parent interrupting her teenage make-out session. Flustered, she moved toward me, saying, “Hey, kiddo, is the TV too loud? What’s up?”
My eyes were transfixed on the boyish lady on the couch. She was a few years older than my mom, with a face full of freckles and a mullet. I remember staring at the image on her white T-shirt: two women standing in profile, one embracing the other from behind, both shirtless, their breasts concealed by their embrace. The women were looking over their shoulders, staring directly at me.
Earlier that year, my mother had already taught me the meaning of the word “gay.” I didn’t know it at the time, but she was arming me with the vocabulary I’d need for a difficult discussion.
I asked her, “Are you gay?”
She said, “Yes,” and I began to cry.
When she asked me why I was crying, I replied, “I don’t want you to be gay.”
She began to weep. I reached out to hug her and she pulled me onto her lap, where we cried together. After the tears subsided, my mother loosened her embrace and got me a glass of water. I took a long sip and stared down the lady near me on the couch.
The butch woman broke her silence, saying, “Hi! I’m Jill. Those are cool pajamas! Are those turtles?”
I explained, “The blue is Leonardo. Donatello is purple. Michelangelo is orange. Raphael is red and he’s my favorite.”
The three of us continued to make small talk. My mom cracked a few jokes, we had a few gentle laughs. Then my mother asked me if I was ready to go to bed. When I told her I was, she took me by the hand and I waved good night to the lady on the couch.
As Mom tucked me in, I asked, “When did you turn gay?”
She replied, “I’ve always been gay, I just didn’t know it.”
When my mother was four years old, all she wanted for her birthday was the Roy Rogers Cowboy Adventure Set. The box contained a six-shooter and holster, a silver deputy badge, a
cowboy hat, and spurs. Instead, her mother bought her the Dale Evans (Roy’s wife) cowgirl set. It had a pink vest, a sparkly hat, and a dainty lasso. Mom put on that costume and grew up feeling like she never took it off.
She spent the first two decades of her life believing she was straight. She didn’t choose
to believe that fiction. It was inevitable. Every depiction of life—every book, every TV show, the ads between the shows—her friends, even her family, told her that same exact story. How could she not believe the only thing she ever knew?
Then, when she was twenty-two, while training to become an EMT, she met a loving couple: Sheri and Sandra. Meeting these two women—seeing them living their authentic lives—unlocked a truth that had been buried deep within my mother. She recognized that she had mistaken role-playing for real life. No more pink vests or sparkly hats. She was done playing the part she was handed.
The moment she realized she had been living in the proverbial closet, she kicked the door down with a pair of steel-toed Doc Martens. She told her parents who she really was, choosing her freedom over their love. Then she hopped into a Jeep and drove off into the sunset, waving a pride flag, singing along with Melissa Etheridge.
She refused to live silently, shamefully, or fearfully in the shadow of a secret. With one small exception. She didn’t know how to tell her son, whom she loved more than life itself. When I stumbled in on her make-out session with Jill, I had unknowingly—and uncomprehendingly—relieved her of her last shred of secrecy.
Mom tucked me into bed that night and assured me, “Nothing has changed, sweetie. I still love you more than anything in the world.” Then, hoping I’d reassure her, she asked, “You know that, right?”
I knew she loved me, so I said, “Yes.” But everything had changed. When I said, “I love you, too,” her eyes welled with tears. Then she kissed me on my forehead and left the room. When she closed the door, I didn’t bother reminding her to leave it cracked. The moment the room went dark, I buried my face into my pillow and began to weep.
I wasn’t crying because she was gay. I was mourning the loss of the father I’d never have. I fell asleep knowing I’d never fly.
Copyright © 2021 by Derek DelGaudio. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.