My mother has a good arm. The lime green Nerf football sails across the front yard, into my waiting arms. I don’t drop it. I squeeze it between my hands, run my fingers over the gouged tip and settle them over the raised bumps of the pretend-laces. I cock my skinny arm, bring the football back to my right ear, and fire it towards her. It wobbles a bit in mid-flight as it clears the sidewalk to our front door, the one that cuts our lawn in two. She laughs a little as it bumps against her chest and she traps it in her arms. I am twelve, and years later I will laugh over the fact that my lesbian mother was the one who threw the football around the yard with me, instead of my gay father, who by that time was settled into a basement-level studio apartment near the Saint Paul campus of the University of Minnesota. But at twelve there is no irony in the moment. At twelve I focus on catching and throwing the ball with an enthusiasm built from artifice and a desire to please. And a stronger desire not to look like a girl, on the neighborhood stage of our front lawn. I’d rather be inside, with a book. My mother and I both know this, as we both know that throwing the football is a only a gesture towards normalcy, something my family will never resemble. Maybe we both know it’s a lost cause.
One year later, as the two of us are driving in her silver Toyota Corolla south through the Midwest, to her father’s house in Kansas, she decides I am good and trapped. She lowers the volume on the radio and turns to me with a smile. Oh shit, I think.
“Michael, do you have any questions about sex?”
I look away from her, stare down at the small black mouth of my grape soda can. “Um…no, I don’t think so,” I tell her.
“I just want you to know that if you ever have any questions about sex, or sexuality, that you can ask me. Are you sure you don’t have any questions?”
She knows. I stare through the windshield, focusing the entirety of my being on a Stuckey’s billboard in the distance as we crest a gentle, rolling hill. Hmm, how interesting, they have fried chicken family dinner specials. That sounds quite good right now. I want to be anywhere but in that car. I want to change the station to something a little more easy-listening. I want to just burn up and die right there; my ashes flying out the window and scattering over the waving golden stalks of wheat rushing past us on the side of the road.
“No,” I finally say, “no, I think I’m fine.” As though she were a waitress taking my order. No, I’m fine; thanks for the ketchup, now please leave me alone.
I wait until I’m eighteen to tell her. We’re sitting together in a trendy Italian restaurant in Uptown with white tablecloths and a pink neon sign on the mirrored wall over our table that spells out “Figlio” in cursive script. There’s a rosy light cast over us. A candle flickers among our plates and glasses. I’m old enough to appreciate mood lighting. A waiter passes us with a swan sculpted from tin foil perched upon his tray.
I wait until our waitress had taken our order and has retreated to a safe distance before I lean towards my mother and say, in a very low voice, “I think I may not be entirely straight.”
There’s a moment where nothing happens. The other diners clustered at tables around us must be talking about normal things, because their conversations haven’t stopped. Then she swallows, smiles at me, reaches for her iced tea. Years later she will tell me that her stomach dropped at those words, that she thought to herself, “Here we go.”
But that night at that table she just smiles. She clears her throat and says something, I can’t remember what. I can see her searching for the right words, the words a lesbian mom will say to her not-quite-straight son, the words that she probably thinks are crucial at that moment.
But all I can recall is the enormity of the words that had just passed my lips, and the awkward combination of relief and apprehension that flowed through me. That a mighty weight had been lifted from me, at the same time that padded bars had settled over my shoulders and locked me into the roller coaster that lay ahead. I had said it aloud. I was never going to be straight.
It wasn’t our first serious conversation at Figlio’s. I’m not sure what it was about that restaurant that encouraged confessions. Perhaps it was the only time the two of us were alone, away from my brother, away from the woman my mother had fallen in love with, the one who loved her own two children with a dedication that I will always envy. Perhaps it was just the dim lighting and the noise of dinner conversations all around us.
I am 14 and the two of us are sitting together. I am trying to enjoy one of the rare, unpredictable moments of mother-son camaraderie I will find with her that year. It is 1985 and the restaurant has just opened. Soon it will acquire a reputation as a yuppie hang-out, and people will tease you about going there. We split an order of their onion loaf, a fried, greasy mess that will only encourage the acne on my forehead. Luckily my haircut is firmly entrenched in 1985 as well. My long, dyed blonde bangs fall over my forehead and hang over one eye. My mother doesn’t like the bangs.
She asks me about school, and I reach across the table to tear off another hunk of onion loaf. I glance at her and see something in her face and I stop.
A moment passes. Then she says, “What happened to your hand?”
Damnit. Who was I fooling? It was just a matter of time till she noticed. No amount of long sleeves and adolescent subterfuge could hide the thirty lines I had carved into my skin with a razor, a week before.
I fall silent, stare down at the greasy pool of onion skins and the bright red ketchup stains across my white plate. I shrug.
“Michael,” she says.
“It’s nothing, really. Don’t worry about it.”
“Don’t worry about it? Did you do that to your hand?”
I sigh and look up at her. “Yeah.” I look away again, out the window at the night street. It’s winter in Minneapolis. All the sidewalk tables are stored away. Snowdrifts glow blue in the gutters.
“Why? What…when? When did you do that? Recently?”
What could I tell her? That sometime in the last month I had started to carry a small, yellow box cutter with me, in the pocket of my musty black trench coat, the one she hated. That I couldn’t explain why, anymore than I could explain why I was in love with depressing bands and depressing songs and the color black. That I had cut myself following that fucked-up therapy session last week. The one where I dared to stick up for myself for the first time. Where I thought the presence of Darrel – our well-meaning, soft-spoken therapist who wore burgundy sweaters and brown corduroys – where I thought he could protect me.
“Tell your mother the truth,” he says, his gentle tone like nails on a chalkboard. I glance up at him. I don’t want to turn out like Darrell. I don’t want to grow up to wear sweaters and sit on molded plastic chairs in a florescent-lit room at night and encourage people to express their feelings.
I stare at the floor. Darrell rents out an elementary school classroom at night. Every week he has to search all over the building for adult-sized chairs for us. I stare at the brown and white tiles and follow the diamond patterns across the room, till they bring me to Darrel’s feet, to his brown loafers that are stained with white lines from the salt that everyone throws on their sidewalks to melt the ice.
“Sometimes you are abusive,” I say, looking up at her. Her arms are crossed tight over her chest, her mouth set in a hard white line. The small burning ball of courage jumps in my gut. I look at Darrel, who’s looking at her.
She nods, looks at Darrel, then at me. “I promise to work on that,” she says, her voice wavering a bit.
She waits till we’re alone in the car.
“I think you’re abusive!” she whines, mimicking me. She spins the wheel hard, and we tear around an icy corner. She repeats the line, screams it. I bite the inside of my mouth, my hands in my pockets clench in upon themselves. Fuck you, Darrel, I think, where the fuck are you now? She roars and rages some more…all the words slide together and fill the tiny car. I could open the door, I could throw myself out onto the slick street like a stunt man. Maybe I’d survive. Tears stream hot and unwelcome down my cheeks. I press my head against the cold of the side window, as if I could press myself into the shape of the car. I knock my head slowly against the glass, thunk thunk thunk.
She pulls, hysterical, into the lot of Lund’s grocery store. The car jolts roughly into an open spot. She slams the door on her way out. I stay put, though all I want is to disappear. But it’s very cold and there’s nowhere else to go. The minutes tick in the rapidly cooling car. She’s taken the fucking keys with her. A sleek, dark Jeep Cherokee pulls into the space beside me, and two teenage girls climb out. The driver glances at me. Her blonde bob curls perfectly along her chin. She looks away, laughs at something her friend is saying. Cars circle the lot, exhaust rising in the bitter cold. It is 6 pm, everyone is picking up dinner on their way home.
My hands are jammed into the pockets of my jacket. I squeeze the fingers of my right hand around the handle of the box cutter. I pull it from my pocket and press my thumb against the blade, just deep enough so that it leaves an indentation. I hold my left fist before me and with my right hand I slowly carve a shallow, inch-long mark onto the back of my hand. The blood wells up slowly and beads there. I make mark after mark, layering them, crossing them, there in that car in that parking lot, as people pass me, groceries in hand, chattering together. Years later ABC will show an after-school special on the epidemic of girls cutting themselves. It will be just one more humiliation.
From the dark, cold car I watch as a woman balances a bag on her hip and takes the hand of a small girl in a pink jacket. The little girl looks up at her, asks her a question. I’m too far away to hear the words, but I hear the woman’s patient tone, as if she’s repeating something, maybe the meal she will make tonight. The woman glances both ways as they step into the lot. The little girl holds the woman’s hand tight and jumps on the packed snow, a steam cloud billowing from her tiny mouth.