I learn that my brother is gay when—tasked with cleaning out the room he has left behind—I find two gay porn DVDs, a book entitled Overcoming Homosexuality: A Young Man’s Guide, and a journal in which he describes a wet dream he had about his best friend. I put the evidence—plus my mom’s cigarettes—in a small cardboard box, which I duct tape shut and slide under his bed next to his 8th grade basketball shoes. I label the box “VHS tapes.”
After graduating with a degree in psychology, $30,000 of student debt, and absolutely no career prospects, I have decided to move back in with my mother. She promises not to charge me rent if I attend church with her and help around the house. When I enter the front door after an eight-hour bus ride across two state lines, she tosses me a pack of cigarettes.
“Here, hide these,” she says. “I’m quitting tomorrow.”
She snaps, “Yes Daniel, again. And I better not get any lip about it from you.” She eyes the Marlboros. “Now gimme one of those; you got me all worked up.”
I give her a cigarette. “Last one?”
She lights it and takes her first drag before agreeing, “Last one.”
* * *
My mother’s house squats behind a tiny stretch of dirt she calls the lawn. Brightly painted pots of flowers sit haphazardly to one side of the doorway. The pansies inside seem to be melting in the heat. The house hasn’t been painted in ten years. “A single mother has more important things to do than keep up her house,” my mother explains.
She leads me down the hallway lined with her collection of crucifixes (“My friend Judy just got me this one from her trip to Jerusalem. It’s real olive wood, see? Isn’t it beautiful?”) and into Carter’s old bedroom. “You’ll be here. I washed the sheets, but it’s still full of Carter’s old crap. I tried getting rid of the stuff, but I couldn’t make myself do it. Anyway, you’ll know what he wants to keep better than I do.”
“Why can’t I stay in my room?” I ask.
She takes another drag from her cigarette. “I got rid of the bed, sweetie. It’s a study now. Or, I’m turning it into a study. I still have to put the desk together. You can help me with that when you’re done in here. There’s some cardboard boxes in the closet you can put stuff in. I’m gonna go make dinner.” I am still holding her half-empty box of cigarettes when she leaves me. I clean until she calls me for dinner, and that is when I find Carter’s journal in his desk, and Overcoming Homosexuality on his bookshelf, and the DVDs in the chest of drawers hidden beneath his old underwear.
* * *
I grew up worshipping Carter. It wasn’t hard to tell who was Mom’s favorite—he got straight A’s, and I got cavities. He was funny too. During dinner, he would wait until our mother took a drink, and then say something ridiculous to get her to laugh and choke and spit it back into her cup. Next to him I felt invisible, but I got good at being invisible.
When my brother turned ten, my mom bought a fancy new flat screen and let Carter keep our old TV in his bedroom. Night after night, I would sit with my ear pressed up against the wall that separated our rooms and listen. If there was a moon, the light from my window would paint the walls a quiet blue. I pretended to be lost on some alien planet, as disembodied voices floated to me from millions of miles away bearing important messages like “The truth behind the Michael Jackson accusations: here’s what we know,” and “Does a duck’s quack have an echo? Stay tuned to find out!”
I conjured up Carter in my mind. He sat cross-legged in the white light of the TV screen, much closer than our mother would have liked. I envisioned images dancing across his eyes, on their way to being locked in his memory forever.
He began recording his favorite shows on blank VHS tapes, which he labelled with a date and stacked in piles on the threadbare carpet, hours of his life lying one on top of the other like black bricks. When he got the hand-me-down TV, I finally understood that there were things about Carter he could never share; things that had nothing to do with me, and for the first time in my life, I resented my brother.
* * *
He invited me to watch TV with him exactly twice. The first time, he ran into my room gasping, “Daniel, I have to show you something!”
I followed him into his bedroom, where the walls were populated with posters of his favorite musicians hanging next to images of Our Lord on the cross. Carter’s TV sat on his dresser. He picked up the remote and hit play. “Watch,” he said, and then danced along to the entire finale of “The Cheetah Girls.” I was unmoved.
“That’s a girl movie,” I chided.
Carter spoke with resilience: “You’re just jealous because I’m going to be a famous dancer.”
“Not if you dance like a girl!”
I could see the hurt gathering in his eyes. He stood up straighter. “I’m going to dance how I want. If you don’t like it, you can leave.”
And I did.
* * *
“What ever happened with that Kelsie girl?” When my mother asks me this, she looks at me insistently, as if she could read the answer in my face by staring long enough.
I take another stab at the tuna melt she has made us for dinner. “We were just friends, Mom.”
“But you like her.” She finishes her lemonade. Her gaze clamps on to me; I can feel it tighten as I look away.
She is finished eating, but stays put, elbows pinned to the table. “Well, I know a real cute redhead I think you’ll like, a friend of Judy’s. She’s—”
“Danny, somebody’s got to give me grandchildren. Lord knows I’ve tried to help your brother, but he’s so incredibly hard-headed.” She shakes her head and dishes me up another scoop of tuna melt. “Here have some more of this. You know I don’t like leftovers.”
“What if I don’t want a relationship? Like ever?”
She studies my face. “That’s ridiculous; everybody wants love.”
“What about you?”
She smiles, and grabs my hand from across the table. “I’ve got my Danny boy. That’s enough love for me.”
The sun is almost down outside the kitchen window. Light comes in through the blinds, leaving black stripes on the table. I want to ask my mother about Carter, about the things I found in his bedroom.
“Oh!” she jumps up, suddenly electric. “I almost forgot about dessert!” She brings me a pint-sized ice cream from the freezer, chatting. “You know I can’t have it—Mama’s on a diet—but I thought you deserved something to celebrate your homecoming. I hope you know how happy I am to have you here, how much I love you.”
I eat, and she stands behind me, running her fingers through my hair.
* * *
The next morning, my mother wakes me up early, and the light that drifts into the bedroom is soft and white. “What are we going to do today?” she asks.
“I was planning to hang out with Aaron. He has the day off.”
Her brow crumples. “Oh, well, I was really hoping you could put that desk together for me. You did agree to help out, remember?”
“I’ll see what I can do.”
Aaron was the first openly gay person I ever met. We’ve been friends ever since we ditched 5th period junior year and both wound up at McDonald’s ordering chocolate shakes. His friendship convinced me that, contrary to my mother’s insistence, gay was okay. He lives alone in a small apartment downtown, near the café he manages.
Carter always insisted that Aaron had a crush on me, but I never put much stock in it. I wonder now if it wasn’t the other way around, that Carter had a crush on Aaron, but had no way of communicating it. Yesterday’s revelation casts all my memories of Carter in a strange, new light.
My mother gestures to the room around us, “This could use some work too. You aren’t done in here are you?”
* * *
Sometimes I feel as though Carter’s room is buried deep underground, like a remnant from some lost civilization, and the thought makes me feel secure and isolated as I sit in his room and sort through his old things. Carter hasn’t been home in over a year (he spent last Christmas in Mexico with some friends) and the teen magazines and loose socks I find seem to have no bearing on his current existence.
After about an hour, I give up on Carter’s room and begin on the desk. My old room has been almost entirely cleared out—evidently my mother had no qualms about throwing out my old things. The only furniture that remains is a small, dark bookcase half-filled with old textbooks, and the desk in its cardboard box.
I unbox the pieces and try to decipher the instructions. Somehow, with care and attention, these boards and pegs and screws will become something cohesive and practical. It is slow going, but the work is easy, and I find myself thinking of Carter. I imagine my brother surveying the pieces of his life, arranging and rearranging them in an elaborate attempt at meaning.
Through some means I cannot understand, Carter has completely transcended his origins. I cannot shake the thought that the stacks of black VHS tapes in Carter’s closet contain the secret of his transformation, that they are the bridge connecting the boy I knew to the man who exists now, completely independent of me. I feel as though I too am about to burst into some strange new form of life, nourished by the leftovers of Carter’s childhood in the way seeds are fertilized by animal waste.
* * *
I make it to Aaron’s by lunch, and when he comes out to greet me his embrace is long and warm and he says, “I really missed you, you know that? Come inside, I got us Chinese take-out and a Redbox.” The apartment has only two rooms, with an oven and sink crammed into the hallway, but at least there aren’t any bugs. Or parents.
We unbox the sweet and sour pork. “Did you know that Carter is gay?” I ask.
Aaron smirks. “Yeah, I made out with him once.”
“It was a really long time ago. I felt bad for not telling you at the time, but…” He shrugs. “When did you find out?”
“Just yesterday. I found some…evidence in his room.”
“You didn’t know before?”
“Not really. But looking back on it, I should have known. I guess I was just too close to see it clearly.”
Aaron shrugs. “People talked about him, in high school I mean. Because he didn’t really date. Some people suspected.”
I shake my head. I have not heard any of this before. “I didn’t really date in high school either.”
“I know,” Aaron says. He tiptoes through the words. “People talked about you too.”
This, at least, is not news to me. Being friends with the only gay kid in our backwards hometown came with its drawbacks.
“But that’s ancient history,” he says, suddenly animated. “You’ve been away so long I feel like I hardly know you. How’s your love life now?”
A sudden urge rises in me to tell Aaron about Kelsie, the girl my mother questioned me about. The girl who, one winter night, came stumbling into my college apartment, sobbing and drunk.
“It’s Lars,” she explained, hands sunk deep into her coat pockets. “He broke up with me.”
I wrapped her in a blanket, and sat with her as we drank coffee and watched black-and-white comedies on Turner Classic Movies. Sometime during “The Thin Man Goes Home,” Kelsie eased her head onto my shoulder, and my arm instinctively wrapped around her. Her hair smelled like lavender. She whispered into my arm: “I can’t believe he was cheating on me that whole time. I can’t believe he would do that to me.” In that moment, I felt I knew her so well I could have been her boyfriend. I knew what she needed, and it wasn’t Lars, it was someone who understood her, who wanted her to be happy the way I did.
When sunlight pried our eyes open the next morning, we found ourselves still huddled together on the couch. I made us fresh coffee, and as we sipped I asked, “Would you ever consider dating me?”
Kelsie peered at me through her hangover, and I was confused at my relief when she told me she didn’t think of me in “that way.”
I don’t tell Aaron about Kelsie. Instead I say, “My love life’s not nearly as exciting as yours, I’m sure.”
He laughs, a flash of teeth. “I promise it’s not as interesting as you think. The queer scene here isn’t great, but I do have my sights set on someone.” Red rushes into his cheeks. He tries not to smile. “We’ll see how that goes.” Aaron scoops some rice into his mouth and says around it, “You aren’t interested in any girls?”
“Or any boys?” His eyes twinkle with mischief.
“No boys either.” I twirl lo mein around my chopsticks. “I’m not really interested in dating.”
“You mean for now? Or like at all?”
I shake my head. “I don’t know. I think I might be asexual.”
His eyebrows leap. “You think, or you know?”
I look down at my food. I have never told this to anyone. “I’m pretty sure.”
Aaron practically jumps across the card table to hug me. “Oh my gosh! I’m so insanely happy for you! Accepting yourself is the hardest part, really.” He recoils suddenly. “Wait, are you okay with physical touch?”
I smile. “It’s okay.” He throws his arms around me again, and squeezes tight.
When we finally start the movie, Aaron’s hand falls onto my shoulder. “Lean forward,” he says, “I’ll scratch your back.”
His fingers skate cursive secrets across my shoulders. I can sense his alternate longing and trepidation, as my shirt translates the message from his skin to mine. At his touch, I understand that there is an entire world of physical communication which I know nothing about. I want to enter that world, and I want Aaron to be the one to take me there.
Tonight my search history looks something like: “I think I’m in love with my best friend… Can you be gay and asexual?… What is homoromantic?… Am I homoromantic?”
As I type, I feel the echo of his touch move like ripples across my body, appearing in the strangest places: my cheekbone, my ankle, the small of my back.
* * *
The next day it rains off and on. After every hour of good, solid showers the sun emerges from behind a sheet of clouds, and the water droplets that cling to blades of grass become diamonds.
The storm picks up after dark, and I lie on Carter’s bed with the lights off. Lightning explodes across the sky again and again, giving me sudden glimpses of Jesus on the cross above me. I decide to call Carter.
He answers on the first ring: “Hey, Dan. I was just about to call you.”
“Oh?” This is a surprise. We haven’t spoken in months.
“Yeah. I have some news. I just told Mom.” He pauses a moment. I do not speak. “I don’t know if you know this or not Dan, but I’m gay.”
“Okay.” A flash; Jesus writhes.
“And I’m coming out tomorrow. I just wrote a blog post about it, and I’m going to share it to Facebook. I just thought you should know before everybody else.”
“Okay,” I say. “Thanks for telling me.”
“Are you okay? I mean this is a lot to take in.” The wind picks up, throwing rain against the window.
I am suddenly aware of the box just under my bed: the journal and that pornos and Overcoming Homosexuality. I want to ask about the black hours of guilt and shame he had collected in this house, and stored away inside himself. I want to ask him what he feels when another man scratches his back. What I say is, “No, yeah. It’s all good.”
“Good. I’m gonna come visit you guys in a few weeks, after rehab.”
“Wait, what? Rehab?”
“Yeah, Mom didn’t tell you?” I can hear voices in the background. “She signed me up. It’s a two-week program up in Washington state, in the woods somewhere. I leave on Wednesday.”
“This isn’t one of those pray-the-gay-away camps, is it?”
His laugh makes me sad. “No, nothing like that.” The voices are louder now, and there is music. “I have sort of a drug problem.”
“Oh,” I say. The closet door is slightly open, and I sense the black tapes crouching in the darkness. I know nothing about my brother, nothing.
He interrupts my thoughts, “Hey, sorry I’ve got to cut this short. I’m with some friends. Call me some other time, okay?”
“Okay, see you in a few weeks.” He hangs up even before I have finished my sentence.
“Danny!” Mom calls me from the hall. When I go out to meet her she shines a flashlight on my face. “Hope you weren’t asleep,” she says. “Power’s out.”
“I hadn’t noticed.” A red ember hangs between her lips. “I thought you’d quit.”
She shrugs and puffs out smoke. “I kept some spare, just in case. Carter called you?”
“Let’s go sit on the back porch and watch the show,” she says.
We sit on the porch swing and watch. Lightning leaps in high arches above us, and the following thunder shatters the air. The falling rain makes curtains of sound around the porch. Mom starts on her second cigarette.
She says: “You know, the worst experience I ever had as a mother was to find your brother looking at that filth, and to know what it meant for him.” She shakes her head. “That’s devastating for a mother. I didn’t want you to have to feel that. That’s why I never told you.”
“About the drugs too?” She turns to me, and we play chicken with our eyes. The lightning reveals her pale lips, her eyes ringed with fear.
“The drugs too,” she agrees. She looks out at the rain. Another drag. The storm is loud and present, and for a time it commands our attention. The air thickens around us, smelling of wetness. We do not move, and we do not look at each other.
Mother blows smoke into the night. She sets her hand on my knee. She says, “I’m just glad I still have you. I know you’d never do anything like this to me, would you?”
I feel her eyes on me. Her hand squeezes my knee. I cannot look at her. “No, Mom,” I say.
The power comes back on, and light leaps through the windows behind us. My mother tosses her cigarette butt out into the storm and walks inside.
* * *
The second time Carter invited me to watch TV with him was a Saturday afternoon while our mother was out doing errands. Heavy amber light rushed in through the windows of my bedroom, where I sat reading.
“Hey Dan?” Carter’s voice was small, and he shrank behind my half-closed bedroom door.
“I want to show you something.”
His room was dark and cool, and we sat under the spinning fan. He pressed play. On the screen, two men in tuxedos argued with each other. One called the other handsome.
“What show is this?” I asked.
The men leaned in to each other. They kissed. They kissed for what seemed like a long time.
“That’s disgusting,” I said. “Turn it off.”
He did. “Don’t tell Mom.”
He looked at me, eyes wide. It was the only time I ever had any power over him. “Only if you do my dishes tonight.”
“Deal,” he said. And then: “You know it’s natural for some people.”
“Yeah well,” and I said the same thing I had heard my mother say about the drunken bums we passed on street corners, “those people just need Jesus.”
* * *
The night Carter comes home, we sit in the diminishing light of the living room: Aaron, my mother, and I. The setting sun throws long shadows through the sheer curtains, but nobody bothers to turn on the light. My mother tries making small talk by asking Aaron if he has a girlfriend. He says he doesn’t.
We hear him before we see him: the sudden silence of a car engine shutting off, the sound of its doors opening and closing. Carter’s voice exudes a familiar warmth. We can hear him laughing and talking as he approaches the door.
The door swings open, and Carter walks in with a broad-shouldered man. The two are linked at the hands, their fingers intertwined. “This is Jake,” he says. “We met at camp.” They smile at the rest of us, and we all stare back. I notice inanely that Carter has left the front door wide open.
Mom speaks first, “Do you have any idea how much that rehab cost me?”
Carter’s face folds into a wince. “It worked, Mom. I’m gonna live clean now.”
Mom answers, “Carter, you can’t replace a bad habit with something that’s just as harmful!”
Aaron leans over to me and whispers, “Let’s go out back.”
The sunset is a smear of magenta against the horizon. Aaron and I sit on the porch swing, not talking. We can hear the muffled voices grow louder. I try to find the exact spot in the sky where blue becomes pink.
“What a mess,” Aaron says.
“Do you regret coming over?”
“No.” He leans his head onto my shoulder. “I’m tired though.”
“The swing reclines into a bed.”
We lean back until we are lying down, looking up at the white porch ceiling. We watch it get darker by increments. The shouting inside continues, indistinct. Aaron brings his head onto my chest. My thumb finds its way into his palm, and he grips it like a baby.
“I can’t be gay,” I tell him. “My mother can’t have two gay sons.”
“You’re not, Dan. You know you’re not.” I cannot see his eyes, but I know they are closed.
“I know,” I stammer. I cannot think of anything but the fact of his body on mine. “It’s just… I mean…”
My chest feels too small for both my heart and lungs. I breathe deep and slow and still come up short. My heart bumps against my ribs like a balloon resisting its tether. I try to slow its beating.
“Hearing your heart is my favorite thing,” Aaron says. His ear presses into my chest. “It’s not a regular pattern. It’s inconsistent.”
He is wrong; there is a pattern to my heart’s violence, and if he listens long enough, he will be able to decipher its meaning. With my free arm, I pin Aaron’s head to my chest, and tell myself that I will not let go until he understands what I cannot express in words. My fingers are lost in the forest of his hair. I sense the warmth of the blood flowing just beneath his skin.
I hold him tightly, as though I could pull him into my body, and some mysterious energy courses through us. We create a circuit at the points where our bodies touch—my fingers in his hair, my thumb in his grip—and something courses through us, hot and brilliant as lightning, leaving us senseless. I feel about to burst.
* * *
When my mother steps out onto the back porch it is well past dark. Aaron and I lie on the porch swing, curled into each other. We are invisible, suspended in silence. The night is moonless, and the stars sway above us like flecks of glitter caught in the air. Carter and his partner have long since gone. She does not turn on the porch light, but I recognize her by the red glare of her cigarette. I watch as it moves from her lips to her shaking hand and back again. The little light reminds me of a boat adrift in a vast, tumultuous ocean.
I can remember what it was like to be afraid of the dark, to burrow into my mother as she rocked my noisy tears away, whispering that there was nothing under the bed, nothing in the closet. If my mother is crying now, she does so without sound. Her cigarette bobs up and down in the liquid darkness, and I feel suddenly sad for her; it is such a feeble defense against the endless, pressing night.
Holden Wright has written in his journal daily for the past 9 years, listens to an audio-book a week (most recently A Visit From the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan), and eats more grilled cheese sandwiches from In-N-Out Burger than any reasonable person should. When he isn’t working on an editing/content writing assignment, Holden enjoys watching classic and foreign films.