I let my father’s call go straight to voicemail. This was our pattern: my phone would ring and the same fear I’d always felt for him would emanate from deep within my bowels. I refused to answer. I let my stomach settle while I found the courage to listen to his latest defamation. And he supplied ample reason for fear—he was so clever at inventing new ways to remind me of my shortcomings. I never seemed good enough, or smart enough, or talented enough to be worthy of his praise. No matter what I did (or how well I did it), I always proved to be his greatest disappointment. Lather, rinse, repeat. Needless to say, I did not call him back very often. Honestly, the opportunity to choose the circumstances under which we spoke was far and above the most rewarding benchmark of my adulthood. I was no longer living under his roof; therefore, I was no longer to be subjected to his foamy-mouthed rants. At least that’s what I thought. Maintaining that fantasy, however, required more imagination than did the creation of the worlds of J.R.R. Tolkien and George R.R. Martin combined.
It was two days after Thanksgiving. I had just returned to NYC from Baltimore where I’d made the obligatory my-mom’s-green-bean-casserole-is-better-than-your-mom’s- green-bean-casserole (even-though-they-both-got-it-off-the-back-of-the-French’s-Onion-Straw-canister) visit. Only this year, I had brought a guest. His name was Robert. He was 22 and he was super-cute. He had wavy blond hair, cherubic cheeks, and he liked me almost as much as he liked his collection of original Broadway cast recordings. As it so happens, the sweet boy was from California and he couldn’t afford a plane ticket home. Well, I wasn’t about to let him spend the quintessential family holiday without a family! And, frankly, we’d been dating for 4 months, so it was pretty sure he was “the one.”
When I called ahead to tell my mother to set an extra place at the table, I could sense her reluctance from several states away. Still, being a Jewish woman, she suffered in relative silence (which is how they retain the right to complain very loudly about the other side of the coin at a later date). While she may have had to bite her cheek until she tasted blood, she told me Robert was welcome. Honestly, she wasn’t the one who cared; in fact, she was so happy that she barely even mentioned that he wasn’t good enough for me. We both knew that it was my father who would be the hurdle. But I was tired of walking on eggshells. I was an adult now and I had made my decision: if my father was going to love me in spite of what he feared in me the most, this would be his chance. I hung up the phone with a certain unease. I knew full well that I had likely caused an earthquake in the ocean and left my dear mother to brace herself for when the waves hit the shore.
But all that plywood we’d used to board the proverbial windows went to waste. Thanksgiving dinner passed without incident. The dining room table remained upright. No food was thrown (with the exception of some scraps that were willingly tossed to the dogs). We ate, we drank, we were merry. Give or take. My father played his usual role of “Morose Onlooker” with great panache. But, to be fair, even if you were building a fence in the rain you wouldn’t have to deal with such a stick in the mud. At these family events, he often looks on us as if we were the commercials that interrupting whatever he’d rather be watching; in mid-conversation, you can see his mind get up and walk to the fridge to fix itself a sandwich. But, despite dad’s typically bad attitude, Robert seemed as welcome as anybody else.
But the dining room was never the true affront to the old man’s senses. That was upstairs, tucked in between the sheets of the bed that Robert and I would share. While my father never opened his mouth to say as much, he made it clear in passing glances that the notion of us together made his skin crawl. I put my acting degree to good use pretending not to care. Besides, in this particular case, he had nothing to fear but fear itself; the situation in general was a major turn-off. Also, it didn’t help that the bed we were sleeping in creaked like a shack in a windstorm.
The remainder of the weekend went peacefully. We did a little sight-seeing in DC, ate some leftovers, did some Black Friday shopping at the mall—you know, enjoyed the things you miss about suburbia when you’ve been gone for more than a year. Before we knew it, our time was up. My mother drove us to catch our bus to NYC. All in all, the trip was a success. We had a good time and my father hadn’t said any noticeably untoward remarks in the three sentences I heard mutter during our stay. Perhaps he was finally willing to admit that I was capable of living my adult life without bringing our ancestors any explicit shame.
It wasn’t until I hit Fifth Avenue that I realized what I’d mistaken for clear weather was merely the eye of the storm. My cell phone buzzed in my pocket. It was a call from home. I figured it must be my mother telling me I’d left a pair of socks behind. Boy, was I mistaken.
It was my dad. I let him get out two sentences before my instinct for self-preservation hung up the phone. “If you think I don’t know what you are, then you’re sick in the head. And what you are is disgusting.” Usually, when my father was angry, he was unbearably loud. But this time he sounded so delicate, so composed, so calculated—like when I was three years old and he helped me to memorize our address and phone number in case I was ever lost. All the while he whispered his affront, I could hear my mother crying in the background.
At first, I was confused. I twisted my face after I hung up the phone like it was a wrong number. Robert asked what happened and I laughed. I mean, I kind of had to. My father had known I was gay for years. I came out to my mother when I was 16. For an acting showcase at my high school, I performed a monologue from Harvey Fierstein’s groundbreaking (and overtly homosexual) play “Torch Song Trilogy”. We discussed that I wasn’t just acting. She relayed the news to my father. Or at least I thought she had. But my father spoke to me was as if he’d been insulted by the news for the very first time. Robert and I kept on with our shopping; I wouldn’t let this ruin my day. That night, I washed my anguish down with a Unisom and some Diet Coke. I lulled myself to sleep by envisioning myself floating on a raft. The farther I went downstream, the farther my sadness was left behind.
The next morning offered the promise of a brand new day. The alarm went off and my feet started their routine shuffle. It wasn’t until I was stood too long in the shower that I realized Lever 2000 can’t wash away regret. I couldn’t stop hearing the tone in my father’s voice. It kept repeating like declensions. “What you are is disgusting.” “You are disgusting.” “Disgusting.” His gentle sound was louder than anything on my commute. I could hear it over the show tunes blaring on my iPod. I heard it was clearer than the screech of the subway train. It was even louder than the morning din of deliveries in Times Square.
At the time, I was working as the receptionist for a Broadway theater owner and operator. The office was on 44th Street right above the St. James Theater. It was magical; the entrance to our building was also the theatre’s stage right crossover. During the last few months of “The Producers”, I would have to pass through a parade of showgirls with sausages on their heads just to get to the elevator. And nothing was more exciting than when “Gypsy” was playing on the stage below. I had a security monitor on my desk that showed me the comings and goings in that vestibule. Between scenes, Patti LuPone herself used to come offstage and plop down in a folding chair. It became an office-wide event to watch her on Wednesday matinees. I even made a border for the monitor made out of construction paper and flyers for the show. We called it “Patti Cam”. It was magnificent. One out of every ten calls I fielded was from someone I’d only read about in books. And, while picking up phones wasn’t ultimately the job I wanted to have, I knew that this company was where I needed to be. Occupying that desk would eventually lead me somewhere bigger and better. Yet, while I was there, my father referred to me as, “The Professional Bagel Fetcher,” which felt really awesome…
That Monday after Thanksgiving, the office was in full swing. Christmas is a very busy (and profitable) season for Broadway, and with everyone having just returned from a four-day weekend, my phone was ringing off the hook. Despite the repetition of my new mantra, “What you are is disgusting,” I pressed through. And then, in the thick of it, my cell phone rang. It was my father. No, thank you. I let him ring to voicemail; whatever the hell it was he had to say, I didn’t need to hear. The phone chirped again after he’d left a message. My heart fluttered and I felt flush. Of course my curiosity got the best of me. I put the reception system on “break” which deferred all incoming calls to other secretaries on the floor. With an eager reluctance, I reached for my phone. My father delivered this news:
“I wanted you to know that you are no longer a member of this family. I will personally see to it that any inheritance you were ever to receive does not come to you. You know, they say a faggot lives a lonely life. Well, start living it.” CLICK.
The smile I had plastered on my face that morning withered and collapsed. All my senses surrendered to my immediate sorrow. The blood rushed from my brain to my toes. I went numb. Still, for some mysterious reason, I saved that voicemail. It was as if I would need to hear it again for it to be true—that should I ever dare to be happy again I would just need to listen to that to remember from whence I came. I got up from my desk and the tears started to fall. I rushed to the bathroom. I needed to disappear, to hide, to no longer exist; I had never felt so ashamed. And there I stood, glaring at my ugliness in the mirror, splashing water in on my face so I couldn’t tell where my tears ended or began. As a son, as a man, and as a human being, I had failed.
It took a few minutes, but I pulled myself together. I didn’t have a choice. I got my breathing under control and painstakingly reapplied my fail-proof smile. What can I say? I was still in my early 20’s and fake-it-till-you-make-it was all I knew. I sincerely believed then that, in such a moment of severe sadness, all you had to do was smile and eventually you’d deceive your emotions into thinking that happiness was true. For weeks afterward, my face was a paradox. I perpetually wore this big, dopey, put-upon smile while tears were still marred the corners of my eyes. But, for the time being, I needed to get back to work. I took the phone off “break” and, within seconds, my switchboard was aglow.
The very first call I answered was what revived my soul. The voice on the other end was unmistakable. I would have recognized that gravelly bellow had I just awoken from a coma. I couldn’t believe it; it was Harvey Fierstein. This was around the time that “A Catered Affair” was coming to Broadway and he needed to speak with my boss. I transferred the call. And then I started laughing. What are the odds? I came out to my mother at 16-years old with the help of that same man. This volcano explodes nearly a decade later, I’m completely head to toe in lava, and the first person I speak with after is Harvey Fierstein. I knew in that instant I was going to be fine. So what if I was a faggot? I was going to live my life like Harvey; I was never going to apologize for that again.
Honestly, this new dictum from my father changed nothing in our relationship. As far back as I could remember I didn’t need him. At seven years old, I was the one who scraped up my knuckles removing the training wheels from my bike. The other kids kept making fun of me because I was too old to still need them. But more than I cared what they thought, I craved freedom. I cannot begin to tell you how many times I busted my ass; it’s a lot harder to find your balance when your dad isn’t there to hold you steady by the seat before letting you go. It was me out there alone, with no helmet, eating a shit ton of dirt.
A few weeks after that voicemail, I received a letter in the mail. It was from my father. I still have it somewhere because I never throw anything away (and I might need to read it again someday to prove that this actually happened). In a roundabout way, he apologized for what he said. He told me that bringing Robert home with me for Thanksgiving had confronted him with my “lifestyle.” He panicked and lashed out inappropriately. I wrote him the letter following in return:
“I like to think that I will never have to directly address the horrible things you said to me in that phone call. Rather, I like to think that, if there is any justice to be granted in the great beyond, your actions will be dealt with in consequences far beyond my means. There’s a special place in hell for people that make their children feel unloved. And for as disappointed as you always seem to be in me, I return that sentiment to you ten-fold.”
Last week, I got married. After quite a lot of sturm and drang, my father decided to attend. It was all very stressful for me, this will-he-won’t-he bullshit he put me through. He just can’t help himself: even when he tries to do the right thing, he has to do it all wrong. Ultimately, it was one of his golf buddies that got him there. He told my father that if he ever wanted to be a part of my life, he needed to go. His golf buddy was right—if my father didn’t attend my wedding, I was fully prepared to return the favor when it came time for my father’s funeral. But, perhaps you’ll be glad to know that, in the past decade, my relationship with my father has recovered enough for us to co-exist in the same space. Mostly that’s for the sake of my mother. Still, we only talk maybe twice a year—and, frankly, that’s plenty.
Yet as often as I pretend this doesn’t hurt me, the world at large can see quite clearly that’s a lie. There are times when it is just as painful at 33 as it was at 22 or even 7. We live perpendicular lives, yet every time our paths cross, I am resigned to feeling like little more than a stranger. That lends itself to a particular sadness that I assume I will always feel. But if you ever dare to ask me about it, you’ll be met with a treacly fake smile.
Last week someone dear to my heart was introduced to my father. Throughout their brief interaction, my father refused to smile. My friend said to me afterward, “How can someone so sour have raised someone as charming as you?” I laughed. “That man didn’t raise me.” As far as I’m concerned, my grandfather raised me. Danny Tanner raised me. JD Salinger, and Atticus Finch, and Stephen Sondheim, and Andy Warhol raised me. Harvey Fierstein raised me. And, despite whatever the hell my father has to say, I think they did a damn good job.