My gay fathers, now retired, split their time between a house in the Carson Valley of Nevada, and a condo in Palm Springs, both of which make for good escapes from San Francisco. Last year the Manly Fireplug took off for Philly, to visit his own family for Christmas, and I drove down the long, dry, stretch of Interstate 5, Finley curled in his little doggie seat beside me, the windows rolled up against the thick cloud of air pollution that had settled in the valley, until I reached Palm Springs, where I crashed in their spare room for a few nights.
There’s not a whole hell of a lot to do in the desert. Too cold in December to lay out by the pool, and none of us golf. So we played a few games of Scrabble, where I got my ass handed to me by my father, who worked as an editor for thirty years, and who uses every “Triple Word Play” square with relentlessness and skill. His humility, upon winning each and every game, does me no good, and merely feeds my resentment and my primal desire to one day Trounce. Him. Good. When not playing Scrabble we took long, slow walks around their neighborhood off Ramon Road, or watched game shows as Finn chased their little Maltese from one end of the condo to the other.
Every time I visit, when we have a moment alone together, my father asks about my health. He means of course the virus in my blood, the virus that neither he nor his partner have, the virus he only found out about a few years back, when a strange dream about my mother woke him, and led him to the computer and, after a few clicks, to my blog, and the words that I had so far kept from him. Words from which I wanted to protect him and the rest of my family. And each time he asks I tell him the truth, that so far I’m one of the lucky ones, with no viral load and no meds, and though there’s nothing to worry about I think he still worries about his son, who should, if there’s any justice in the world, outlive his father.
Always an awkward moment, that talk, every time. I’m careful with my voice, my words, the casual shrug of my shoulders. The truth is that I do have it easy, compared to others, and that there’s nothing much to worry about. Still, that question pulls me from the corner to center-stage where I stand, separate from him. Always an awkward moment, for I shouldn’t have the virus, for I had all the facts, unlike him, long before I ever had sex. In that spotlight I see the consequence of every mistake I’ve made, for this path through life that I’ve willfully taken, a path that diverged from the calm and measured one he himself has traveled, a practical and guarded path, that has kept him safe.
So each time he asks I reassure him of the truth, longing for the awkward moment to pass, for when I can step away from center stage and rejoin him and his partner, and return to my place as just a member of the family.
The days around that Christmas run together in my memory, a sort of pleasant, lazy haze of a weekend. My clearest memory is from my last morning there, when they took me out for brunch at this popular local restaurant, the kind of place that has brassy waitresses and little containers of Smuckers grape jelly in dishes at every table.
My father’s partner gave his name to the hostess, and we sat there in the lobby for a few minutes, gazing around at the small crowd waiting for tables, at the families and the couples who had wandered in after the holiday for brunch, all of our faces lit from the bright harsh light of the pasty cases nearby.
We didn’t wait all that long. The hostess checked her list of names and then called out, in a clear, strong voice that carried across the crowded lobby:
“Dick, party of three?”
If she only knew. She gathered up the menus, and I followed my fathers to our table.