The Role Model

by Anne Eldridge

      My sister and her partner have adopted a baby boy.  It doesn’t surprise me.  Carla’s in her late thirties now, five years older than me, and what I take to be frustrated maternal instincts have racked her soul for years.

      She said she was counting on me to act as role model.  “People keep telling me a boy needs a father figure.  Do you think that’s true? ” she asked.  “Neither Maya nor I are what you’d call fatherly types.”

      I hedged.  “If he’ll be getting mothered from two sides at once he could probably use a man in his life as an escape hatch.”

      She laughed, knowing what our mother had been like.  “It would be a change of pace for you too, Curt.  I mean, twin daughters!  You must feel at a loss sometimes.  But our son won’t be outnumbered.”

      “No,” I said snidely.  “Besides me, he’ll have Dad.”

      My irony went straight over her head.  “I was counting on him as well,” she said, smiling.

      I hadn’t been thinking of Mum when I joked about an escape hatch.  It occurred to me that I had become the man I was without that male role model everyone makes such a fuss about.  The rug was pulled out from under me in those crucial preteen years.  Carla has made her peace with Dad, a real peace, forgive and forget.  Mine is pro forma, more of a truce between us.  The resentment and sense of betrayal still rankle, and Dad and I both know it.

      It wasn’t always like that.  I had once looked on Dad as an ally against Mum’s incessant nagging.  A potential ally I ought to say, because he never intervened.  As I remember it, he had little hand in our upbringing.  She nagged him, too.  He was man of the house in name only.

      I can’t remember my mother not nagging.  It grew worse over time.  She still nags, though not as much now that we’re grown, and she never nags the twins.  She nags me to nag them.  Thank God she doesn’t nag my wife or there’d be a row.  And the underlying bitterness is less pronounced.  Or perhaps I’m so used to it now I hardly notice.

      But for a boy it was unbearable.  Carla seemed to take it all in stride; the words flew past her and left no mark.  Like mother, like daughter they say.  I shall have to keep my eyes open and step in if she unconsciously starts following Mum’s example, be a real role model, unlike Dad.  But Maya may turn out the perfect foil for her if she does.  I’ve never met a woman at once as businesslike, soft-spoken and unflappable as Maya.

      I realised very young that my mum nagged more than other boys’ mums.  My friends saw it too, so it wasn’t just other mums restrained themselves in front of outsiders.  “Your mum nags a lot, doesn’t she?” they used to say.  It affected my behaviour, made me not so much rebellious as surly, which I suppose only encouraged her nagging.  Rebellion might have been more effective, but I had no role model for out and out rebellion.

      Not that my father was surly.  Instead of standing up to her he simply got out of her way.  Easy for a man to do, but not for a boy.  But that, too, encouraged her.  If something around the house wanted repairing, he’d put it off.  “Mum wants you to mend the screen,” I’d say, and he’d look at me as if I was speaking in her voice.

      “You too?  Don’t worry, there’s no chance of my forgetting.  She’ll remind me.”

      But that was exactly the point: to nip her nagging in the bud.  Just knowing she would made me tense.  When she told me to do something I’d do it straight away, though not graciously, and it was never enough.  She called me Curtis when she wanted something done, and from the sound of it you’d have thought she’d asked me a hundred times already.  Or so it seemed to me.

      Nothing was as important to Mum as her role of housekeeper.  I understand now that she invested her entire self-image as a woman in that, and it makes me sad.  Chores got done when they needed doing, and she expected the same of us.

      Barbara isn’t like that; she lets things slide.  It annoys me, but I don’t say anything because I’m afraid of sounding like a nag.  My mother doesn’t say anything either, though I can see it annoys her, but it isn’t her house and she may unconsciously blame the shortcomings of her own marriage on her desire for perfection.  The last thing she wants is for mine to fall apart.

*****

      As I got older I developed certain ideas about independence and what it means to be a man, and when Mum wasn’t around I tried actively to enlist my father as an ally.

      It was a lost cause.  “Sort it out for yourself,” he’d say. “What’s so awful about having to clean your room?”

      “It is clean.  What’s so awful about a drawer being halfway open?”

      I knew how Dad dealt with it.  He went fishing.  “I think I’ll go fishing this weekend,” he’d say, “if the weather holds.”

      “With Jerry?”

      Of course with Jerry; he always went with Jerry.  But Mum had no patience with male bonding and she didn’t approve of Jerry, and so she’d ask.  He spoke with a strong local accent, and she considered him lower class.

      “Why don’t you take me fishing this time?”  I must have been eleven, going on twelve.

      “I thought you didn’t like fishing.  You said it was boring.”

      “I was little then, and we didn’t go anywhere.  All we’d do is sit by the river for a couple of hours, catch nothing, and come right back.  Maybe I’ll like it now.”

      He could see I had recognised that he used fishing as his getaway and that I wanted to get away too.  “Why not,” he laughed, “if the weather holds?  I’ll call Jerry and ask if he’s free this weekend.”

      I felt put out.  What did Jerry have to do with me and my father?  Then I remembered: Jerry had the boat.  It wasn’t much more than an oversized rowboat with an outboard motor, but we didn’t have anything, and Dad knew that when I said fishing I meant going out on the water.

      When he told her he was taking me fishing, Mum snorted, “Since when do you do things with your son?”  That was unfair.  He used to take me ten-pin bowling and to football matches and we’d toss a ball around in the yard, just never fishing.  Then she asked, “With Jerry?” and looked as if she had something on her mind.

      “Of course with Jerry.  Who else?  What’s wrong with Jerry?”

      But she only said, “You’ve let the grass get too long again.”

      “I’ll mow,” I told her.

      I remember every detail of that fishing trip.  I haven’t many memories half so vivid, although it was an uneventful weekend and I was bored most of the time.  Nothing significant happened, not overtly.  It was a chance to get close to Dad that never quite worked out.  We didn’t have much time alone together; Jerry was always nearby.  I felt like an extra wheel on a bicycle, and when it was over I sensed it had something to do with Jerry, though I didn’t understand exactly.  Maybe that’s why I don’t fish, though I have a number of friends who like the sport.

      Dad decided to make a long weekend of it – because I was going with him, I thought – and he and Jerry took Friday off and left work an hour early on Thursday.  Jerry came to pick us up straight from work on Thursday with the boat on a trailer hitched behind his small van and everything we needed piled up in the back.  He’d loaded up that morning.  He owned most of the gear – tent, camping supplies, coolboxes, fishing tackle, even an extra sleeping bag for me.  We just tossed our overstuffed rucksacks, our fishing poles and Dad’s sleeping bag under the tarp.

      “Where to, lake or river?” Jerry asked.

      “Lake, I think, so Curt can swim if he gets bored.  What do you think, Curt?”

      It hadn’t occurred to me they had more than one spot.  “Lake,” I said.  Then I remembered I hadn’t packed my trunks.

      “What for?  There’ll be nobody there but us.”

      “Is it a big lake?”

      “Fairly big.”

      We piled into the cab.  “Let the kid sit by the window so he can look out,” Jerry said.

      There wasn’t much space in the cab and we were pretty cramped, especially me and Dad, who had to sit pressed tightly together, and he has long legs, my father, which made it hard for me to turn to look out.  At first I sat facing forward, but once we’d left the city and were on the main road I began to fidget in my seat and when I twisted my body to see out the side my bum pushed into his hip, so Dad swung his leg over the stick and edged into the centre of the cab.  That gave us more room, but now Jerry had to reach over Dad’s right leg in order to shift.

       It took about three hours to reach the lake, the last forty-five minutes on roads that got steadily narrower until they had become country lanes.  Then we turned onto a dirt path.  “Shut your window,” Dad said, and we bumped along between the trees to a rise overlooking a calm and very empty lake.  Jerry cut the engine and we made two trips to carry our stuff down the hill to a flat, grassy spot under the trees a couple of hundred feet from the shore.

      “How do we get the boat out onto the lake?” I asked.

      “There’s a launch site a few miles away, but no beach and no good place to pitch the tent.  We’ll drive it there tomorrow.”

      “Why so far and why not now?”

      “Because it’s late and we have to set up camp before it gets dark.  And so people won’t see us.  They don’t allow open camping in most places.”

      “But they do here?”

      “I’m not sure,” Jerry said.  “In any case, they’d probably frown on it.”

      I had no experience camping, nor had any of my friends, and I looked forward to bragging to them about my weekend of roughing it.  I saw it as the very height of rugged manly activities.  I asked Dad if we would encounter any wild animals.

      “Fish, if we’re lucky.”

      I had a lot to learn.  It astonished me how quickly they put up the tent, which looked to me like a hopelessly complicated tangle of poles and flaps and stays.  The next order of business was to carry several dozen bottles of ale down to the lake so it would stay cool in the water.  “Are you going to drink all that?” I asked.

      “Your Dad will help a bit,” Jerry quipped.

      I wondered if they would get drunk, if their speech would slur and they’d start saying stupid things and acting like idiots.  On the one hand, it seemed grown up to sit around with a couple of blokes who were guzzling ale; on the other, I didn’t like the idea of my father doing it.

      Dad and I went to look for firewood.  He showed me what would burn and what wouldn’t, how fast or how slowly, and how long it would take for the different pieces to catch fire.  While we were gathering our pile together I heard what sounded like someone revving an engine.  Dad said, “That’s Jerry inflating the air mattress.”

      “Then we won’t be sleeping on the ground?”

      “We won’t, you will.  It’s only big enough for two.  Don’t worry, you’ll have plenty of padding.  It’s going to be a warm night, so we’ll spread out Jerry’s sleeping bag for us to lie on and you can sleep on top of yours and mine.”

      “Will we have pillows?”

      “If Jerry didn’t think to bring one for you you can have mine.”

      Jerry taught me how to make a fire.  No starter fluid; that would be cheating.  He built a little triangle-shaped fence out of twigs, put newspaper inside, and when the twigs caught arranged larger sticks over it in the shape of a cone.  Then he gradually added bigger and bigger sticks until the fire was high enough to throw on a log or two, which he carefully positioned with a long stick.

      “Who’s up for a twilight swim?” Jerry asked.

      “Don’t we have to cook supper first?”

      “Not until the first logs burn down and give us some good embers.  We’ll build it up again after we eat so we can sit around a campfire.”

      I felt embarrassed getting naked in front of a friend of Dad’s I hardly knew, but the two men ripped their clothes off, raced down to the lake and ran in up to their chests, splashing and joking around.  I followed, naked as a worm.

      I stopped at the water’s edge.  I’d never been swimming in the nude before, either.  Dad and Jerry waved me in.  I had to squint to see them, for they had all but disappeared into the blinding path the setting sun cast across the lake.

      “What about the fish?” I asked.

      “Worried they’ll take your bait?” Dad teased.  “If you keep moving it frightens them away.”

      “Is it cold?”

      “Not very.  You’ll get used to it.”

      It felt cold enough to me.  I waded in slowly while Dad and Jerry played around in the water like a couple of schoolboys, one sitting on the other’s shoulders, then getting tossed off over his head, surfacing behind him a few seconds later and ducking him under.  When they turned to look at me I had made it in only halfway up my thighs.

      “Get it over with,” Dad yelled.  “Squat down so the water comes up to your chin.  Then it will feel good.”

      It did, after a couple of seconds.  Good to rinse off the sweat and grime that had been sticking to me.  I swam out to them, and when I got there they turned and swam toward the middle of the lake with strong, steady strokes.  I followed, but soon fell far behind.

      Dad turned, treading water.  “Don’t tire yourself out,” he called.  “Make sure you’ve enough strength to swim back.”

      They were just floating on their backs watching the sky grow dark and the first stars come out, which seemed kind of dull.  Then a fish or something brushed by my leg, and I headed for shore as quickly as I could.

      They didn’t stay long, but I was dressed and hunting for frogs by the time they got back, their penises which had swung so freely when they ran down the hill now shrivelled with cold.  Before he got into his clothes, Jerry checked the embers and declared them ready for cooking.

      Our meal was less exciting than I had imagined it.  No joints of meat on a spit over the open fire, no potatoes roasting on the coals.  We ate much the same fare as Mum cooked at home, only less tasty.  Jerry emptied a couple of tins of stew into a pot, and we sopped it up with packaged white bread; bottled ale for Dad and Jerry, apple juice for me; biscuits for dessert.

      We ate in silence to the sound of our own chewing and a low chorus of muffled night birds and louder frogs and insects.  Away from Mum, I had expected to discover a more voluble and outgoing Dad, but he talked as little as he did at home, and Jerry seemed somewhat ill at ease in my presence.

      When we’d put our cheap plastic plates in the rubbish bag after we finished eating, I asked Dad if he would show me the stars.

      “Let’s go down to the lake where we’ll see them better,” Jerry said.  “Too many trees here.  Do you realise how lucky you are that the sky isn’t overcast?”

      “We’re lucky it isn’t raining,” Dad added.

      “What do you do if it does?”

      “We sit in the boat shivering in our jackets until our wellies fill up and then go back to the tent and wrap ourselves in blankets.”

      Dad shot Jerry an angry glance, so I assumed he was teasing me.  I didn’t see the usefulness of blankets if your clothes were wet.  “That doesn’t sound like fun,” I said.  “I’d just go home.”

      “Sometimes we do, but it’s nice being in a tent at night with the rain falling outside – so long as it clears up in the morning.”

      Jerry stood up.  “We can wash up the pan while we look at the stars.  Let me throw a log or two on the fire first so when we get back there’ll be a real fire going and we can sit around it and tell ghost stories.”

      “Don’t scare the boy.”

      I laughed.  “I’m not afraid of ghosts.  You know that.”

      There seemed to be thousands upon thousands of stars.  The moon would rise late, and we could not see the further shore.  Beyond the thin strip of yellow sand by the edge of the lake the water looked like a still blackness stretching to infinity.  On the hill behind us we could see our fire through the shadowy outline of the tree trunks lit by its flickering.

      Dad pointed out Orion and the North Star and Cassiopeia and another constellation which he got wrong.  Jerry knew them better.  He seemed to know all about astronomy.  Just listening to all the foreign-sounding names made my head spin.

      Jerry’s repertory of good ghost stories wasn’t nearly so impressive as his knowledge of the heavens.  Campers spooked by hunters or walkers who had disappeared years before – stuff like that.  He kept leaving out important things and stumbled in the telling, and Dad would have to help him out.  “So you know these stories too,” I remarked, and Dad told me that they were all from old horror movies.  I said that horror movies were a lot scarier now.

      Somehow or other I’d got the idea that camping meant staying up till all hours, but we turned in before midnight.  Dad and Jerry wanted to be up early to launch the boat.  The night air was warm, and we slept in our underwear without covers.  Much later, close to dawn perhaps, it grew chilly and I got into my sleeping bag.  I was dimly aware of Dad or Jerry reaching down to pull a blanket over them and thought I heard them whispering but could not make out their words.  Then I drifted off to sleep.

      It was bright light out when I next opened my eyes.  Dad and Jerry weren’t in the tent.  I reached into the pocket by my head for my watch.  Seven o’clock.  At home Dad would not have left for work yet.

      I crawled out.  They had left a pot of coffee for me by the fire to keep warm and gone to launch the boat.  I was annoyed they hadn’t woke me up so I could watch them do it.  I poured myself a mug and waited for them.  It tasted bitter.  They must have made it a couple of hours ago.  How long did it take to launch a boat, anyway?

      About half an hour later I heard an outboard motor.  I went down to the lake and saw our boat with only Jerry in it.  When he was close enough to the shore to hear me I yelled, “Where’s Dad?”

      He waited until he’d beached the boat before answering.  “Driving the van back.  He won’t be long.”

      “So the boat goes faster?”

      “The boat can get here in a straight line without going over bumpy dirt roads.  Have you made sandwiches?”

      “Was I supposed to?”

      “Did you see our note?”

      “No.”

      “Then hop to it.”

      “What about breakfast?”

      “There’s cereal.”

      “No eggs?  No bacon?”

      “Tomorrow.  We’re getting a late enough start already.”

      I made sandwiches and we motored out to the middle of the lake, where we sat with our lines dangling in the water for what seemed like hours but wasn’t.  The few solitary boats out avoided each other.  The sun beat down on us and reflected off the lake.  I sweated and squinted; even Dad and Jerry looked uncomfortable, but they didn’t complain.  I wasn’t allowed to talk or I’d scare off the fish.  “What fish?” I thought.

      We caught enough perch for our supper and one roach, but no lake trout as we had hoped.  By mid afternoon the heat had become unbearable.  Jerry said we should go back and clean and dress the fish.  We weren’t going to catch any more, not at this time of day.  We’d have a short swim to cool off and then take a nap.

      “Why a nap?” I asked.  Naps didn’t seem very grown up.

      Dad explained, “So we can take the boat out at night when we’ll have a better chance of catching something.  Do you want to come?”

      “Nah.”  Sitting in a boat for hours in the dark didn’t sound like much fun, stars or no stars.  “Maybe I can go for a ramble to see the boat landing.  Is it hard to find?”

      “It’s easy if you follow the road, but it’s far.  There’s a path, though.  That cuts off a couple of miles.  I can show you where it starts.  Do you think he’ll get lost if he takes the path, Jer?”

      “Don’t see how he could.  It stays close to the lake.”

      So while Dad and Jerry napped I walked to the landing.  There was nothing to see but some half-dozen boat trailers and a few canoes for hire.  I thought that if Dad would let me get one I’d have more fun.  I was sure one of them could show me how to paddle; Jerry, probably.

      They were still in the tent when I got back.  Only a few patches of sunlight filtered through the trees.  “You fellows still asleep?” I called.

      Dad stuck his head and shirtless torso through the tent flap.  “Just getting up,” he said.  Some rustling inside the tent while they put on their clothes and the two emerged with dreamy smiles on their faces.  At first I thought they were only half awake, but they moved briskly enough.

      I told them about the canoes.  Dad thought it was a good idea.  “The boat’s a little cramped with three in it,” he said.

      For supper that night we had pan-fried fish, roasted potatoes and salad, real camping food.  We lingered over our meal, and the sky was dark as pitch when we finished.  Dad asked me to see to clean-up and Jerry showed me how to keep the fire going.  Dad warned me not to wade too far out if I decided to go for a swim in the dark – I wouldn’t be able to see where the shore was and there was a sudden drop-off.  Then they got into the boat and glided out into the blackness.

      I washed the pan, threw away our plates, and tidied up the campsite.  Then I went to bed, tired out from my long walk and a hot day in the boat.

      I woke up in the middle of the night.  Dad and Jerry had not returned.  I went down to the lake and saw far out on the water – it was impossible to say how far in the dark – the glow of a lantern on what I assumed was their boat.  The light would attract the fish.

      I don’t know when they got back; I slept through it.  They were still asleep when I woke up.  I carefully crawled out of the tent so as not to disturb them, got the fire going all by myself (Dad would be proud of me!), and put up the coffee.  I looked in the coolbox where we kept the fish.  A lot more perch, a few bream, but still no trout.  I was hungry for bacon and eggs, and hoped they would get up soon.

      I had to wait over an hour, but our bacon-and-egg breakfast was worth it, though they seemed too wrung out to enjoy it.  God knows how late they had stayed out!

      Jerry took care of cleaning up while Dad drove me to the landing to get a canoe.  It turned out he could teach me to paddle.  I was required to wear a life jacket.  Dad gave me a whole bottle of sunscreen.  “No telling how long you’ll be out,” he said.  “And don’t go doing anything foolish like taking a dip in the middle of the lake.  It’s tricky getting out of a canoe without flipping it over.  Harder getting back in.”  Then he drove off.

      Handling a canoe proved harder than I’d thought, and it took me a long time to get back to the campsite.  I didn’t see our boat out on the lake.  There it was on the shore, beached and with the fishing gear in it.  I guessed that Dad and Jerry had gone back to sleep.  They looked as if they needed it.

      They hadn’t.  I saw them not far from the tent, Dad leaning with his back against a tree and Jerry leaning in front of him, his head resting on Dad’s shoulder.

      Dad noticed me, and they pulled apart.  “Jer’s upset,” he explained.  “Trouble at work.  Even grown men need a shoulder to cry on sometimes.  That’s what friends are for.”

      I said it didn’t look like he’d been crying.

      “Just an expression,” Dad said.  “Bored with canoeing already?”

      “No, I sort of like it.  I wish I were better at it.”

      “Then go out and do it.  We were about to get in the boat ourselves.”

      “Have you made sandwiches yet?  May I have some to take with me?”

      “Go ahead and take a couple.  They’re on top of the coolbox.”

      I put two sandwiches and a large bottle of water in a polythene bag and walked slowly back to the canoe.  Having seen them so close together made me feel uncomfortable.  I couldn’t say why – remember, I was not yet twelve – and when it finally hit me, it wasn’t anything I’d seen, but rather how I reacted to it that brought my vague intuitions into focus.

      I did a lot of paddling that day.  I paddled until my shoulders ached, but I eventually got the hang of it.  I kept their boat in sight and found myself watching them.  I don’t know what I expected to see.  They looked like two men fishing, which is exactly what they were, but I sensed that there was something wrong.  I wanted to paddle closer, to bring the canoe right up beside the boat, but I didn’t dare.  I knew it would only make them angry and they’d tell me I was scaring the fish.  And how would I answer that?

      They left off early, turned on the motor and headed towards me.  My canoe bobbed up and down in their wake.

      “We’re calling it a day,” Dad said.  “They’re not biting.  We’re going in to take a nap so we can go out again tonight.  Supper’ll be early.”

      “Maybe I’ll go with you this time,” I said.  Suddenly, I did not want them alone together.

      “So you’ll be taking a nap too?”

      “I was thinking of it.”

      “Bring back the canoe first.”

      It was a long paddle back to the boat landing and a good forty-five minutes from there to our tent.  All the while I tried to account for what it was that disturbed me.  Did Dad turn to Jerry when he needed a shoulder to cry on?  What did he have to cry about, and why didn’t he turn to us?  There must be some special friendship between them from which we, his family, were excluded.  They confided in each other, swam nude together, slept side by side in their little tent off in the woods.  I concluded that I was jealous of Jerry, which made me feel stupid, ashamed that I hadn’t grown up.

      The path from the launch site was narrow and none-too-well marked, and I reached the campsite almost two hours after I had left them.  I got as far as the tent and suddenly I didn’t want to take a nap.  It was as if something was telling me I shouldn’t go inside, that all I really wanted to do was push myself between them, and I felt guilty for it.  Was I unconsciously afraid of what I’d see if I barged in on them?  But the urge not to leave them alone together was stronger, so I gritted my teeth, lifted the flap, and crept inside.

      I found them sprawled on the air mattress in their underwear, fast asleep.  Jerry lay on his stomach; Dad on his back, his calf lightly draped on top of Jerry’s.  I scarcely noticed.  What caught my eye was that his parted legs had pulled open the fly of his boxers, and his penis had slipped out.  I was overcome with shame to see him so vulnerable, but I didn’t turn my face away.

      In Genesis, Ham chances to see his father’s nakedness and is cursed for it.  We read not one word blaming Noah for having drunk himself into a stupor; the sin, committed unintentionally, is Ham’s alone, and he and his son Canaan must bear the punishment.  The very unfairness of it bespeaks some untapped, primal Oedipal fear.  It was that guilt that weighed on me now, for no logical reason.  It made no difference that we had all gone swimming naked the day before.  I was looking at my father’s genitals, and he didn’t know my eyes were on him.

      Dad’s eyes fluttered open.  I blushed up to my ears that he should catch me staring at him like that, but he only murmured, three-quarters asleep, “Aren’t you going to take a nap?” and closed them again.

      If there had been room, I do believe I would have wedged myself between the two of them. Instead, I lay down on my pile of sleeping bags and tried unsuccessfully to fall asleep.  Dad’s near waking had diverted my attention from his exposed penis.  Instead, the image of his leg touching Jerry’s now filled my mind.

      I didn’t leave Jerry and Dad alone together for the rest of the weekend, though I certainly would have had more fun if I’d gone off on my own.  I stayed close to them, sometimes, I think, getting in the way.  But if having me around annoyed them, they didn’t show it.

      We packed up and went home Sunday after lunch.  I was groggy from having fished with them until almost sunrise and I had become so unsteady that Dad had me sit on the floor of the boat.  They dropped me off on shore where we were camped, then headed for the landing to moor the boat and walked back to the tent, where I lay asleep, dead to the world.

      I sat by the window when we went to pick up the boat.  Once we’d loaded it onto the trailer, however, I insisted on sitting in the middle.  “I got to sit by the window on the way here,” I said.  “Dad needs room to stretch his legs.”

      They accepted my explanation.  Dad didn’t even ask, “Are you sure?”  But it occurred to me that if it had been Dad and Mum and me in the van, they would have made me sit in the middle so Mum could have the window.  Of course, we didn’t own a van.  When we drove somewhere as a family Mum sat next to Dad in front and Carla and I sat in back.

*****

      Mum didn’t ask me about the fishing trip, and I volunteered no information.  What could I have said, really?  Maybe Jerry had been upset about something.  I had no reason to think it happened all the time.  Still, it made me feel more sympathetic toward Mum.  If Dad’s friendship with Jerry made me feel left out, how must it make her feel?  I found myself wanting to side with her.  But she didn’t make it easy for me; she remained as demanding as ever.  On top of that, I felt that it was wrong to take sides and that to do so would have been disloyal to my father.  “We men have to stick together” and all that.

      I saw now that the tension in our household was between Mum and Dad.  I wondered if she suspected how close he and Jerry were.  I wondered if she felt neglected.  I kept my eyes open, but could pick up no clues one way or the other.  It remained my secret, and the uncertainty of what it all meant ate at me.

      My parents divorced the following year.  Carla and I went to do something with Dad every other Saturday.  He never took me fishing again.  I asked once if we could go.  Carla made a face, and that was that.

      One day Carla asked, “Why do we always have to go somewhere?  Can’t we just we go to your place?  I’d like to see where you live.”

      “Nothing to do there but watch TV,” Dad said.

      I asked if he was living with Jerry.  He took a moment to answer.  “Yes,” he said, and swallowed hard.

      “I thought so,” I muttered.

      Dad looked away.  Carla glared at me.

*****

      Dad and Jerry are still together.  Barbara and I see them regularly, and the twins are crazy about their grandfather.  But neither Dad nor I have ever succeeded in breaking through the barrier that separates us.  His homosexuality is like the proverbial elephant in the parlour.

      According to Carla, Dad isn’t really gay; he just loves Jerry.  That makes no sense at all to me.  Not that I have anything against gays.  Barbara says I do, and that I’m in denial, but I’m not.  I’m not ashamed to tell people my father’s gay.  I even support same-sex marriage and have said so to Mum, though I know she doesn’t like hearing it.  I can tell she’s still bitter.  She doesn’t say anything, in part because of Carla, in part so as not to interfere with my relationship with my father.  For all I know, she thinks we have an ideal relationship.

      So it comes down to this: I don’t care if a person is gay or not, except if he’s my father.   I blame him for betraying Mum, and perhaps unconsciously I feel that by keeping it a secret he betrayed me as well.

      It embarrasses the hell out of me, but I sometimes find myself wondering what kind of sex life my parents had.  Was it at all satisfying?  Did they feel frustrated?  I know they must have had one, or I wouldn’t be here to write this, would I?

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