Dad’s Gay

A new short story

Joseph Epstein

My kid sister Ellie calls infrequently, and never at my office, so when my secretary told me she was on the line, I became immediately apprehensive. She’s a bit of a hippy, Ellie, with no good habits but a kind and trusting heart. She’s in her late thirties, and never married, though, I gather, with lots of men in her past. She’s stayed in Chicago and keeps an eye–an unsteady and inconstant one, I’ve always assumed–out for our father since our mother died three years ago. Straight out of law school, I moved to New York, where I live today.

“Ellie,” I said. “Everything all right?”

“I’m calling about Dad,” she said.

“What about Dad?”

“You sitting down, Steven?” she asked. “I have something amazing to tell you.”

“What? What is it?”

“Dad’s gay,” she said.

“A joke, right?” I said.

“No joke,” she said. “When I visited him earlier today I discovered that he has a roommate, a guy in his late twenties or early thirties named Randy. I didn’t quite get his last name. But I was there long enough to recognise that Dad and Randy are more than friends.”

I don’t recall the rest of our conversation before I hung up the phone. Ellie’s phrase “Dad’s gay” refused, as they used to say when I was a kid, to compute; the two words, Dad and gay, felt like opposed magnets, each fiercely repelling the other. I won’t say that my father is the last man I should have expected to be secretly homosexual, but he was pretty low on the list. Besides, he’s 67 years old.

He was not without his charm, our father, though he didn’t waste much of it on Ellie and me when we were growing up. Until his retirement four years ago, he was the vice-president for community relations at the University of Chicago, which meant that he often represented the university at public functions, both intra and extramural. He dresses with care, is well-spoken, tactful.

He never said so outright, but I don’t think he cared much for his job. The problem was the University of Chicago. If you weren’t a great scholar or scientist, you were viewed there as little more than a servant. And my father, who is more than a bit of a snob, couldn’t bear thinking of himself as anyone’s servant.

As a younger man, in his mid-thirties, working for the Chicago Sun-Times, my father won a Pulitzer Prize for a series of articles on racial segregation in Chicago real estate. He used to say that journalism was a young man’s game, which was why he got out of it in his early forties to take the University of Chicago job. Whenever anyone ever mentioned his Pulitzer, my father would almost invariably answer, “Pulitzer Prizes go to two kinds of people: those who don’t need them and those who don’t deserve them.” No one, at least in my presence, ever asked him into which category he fell.

My mother idolised him. She was a good soul, my mother, but, as became evident to my sister and me before we reached the age of ten, a bit of a ditz. She wasn’t much of a cook, often burning things or forgetting to include essential ingredients in complex dishes she probably shouldn’t have attempted in the first place. She was wildly disorganised and forgetful, so that often, when we expected her to pick us up after piano lessons or little-league games, she would show up an hour or more late.

She also laboured under the misapprehension that she was an amusing raconteur. She could take a full 15 minutes to tell one of her supposedly riotous stories–about, say, the large toothbrush attached to the key to the ladies’ room that her dentist gave to his patients, or the confusions of a bookseller on Michigan Avenue who gave her a hard time–whose punchline never failed to fizzle. Ellie and I were both embarrassed for her when she set off on one of these stories before company. But our father, usually so tough on bores and boors alike, at least when recounting their behavior to us at our dinner table, showed infinite tolerance for our mother’s lengthy and ill-told stories.

I cannot say that I loved my father. I suppose I never really connected with him. There was something a bit distant about him, something a little cold; it was as if he had something very important on his mind that my sister and I weren’t worthy of being let in on.

Someone once said that the reason master bedrooms in American homes and apartments do not have locks on their doors is so that children can enter their parents’ bedroom, catch them making love, and later in life have something to tell their psychiatrists. I never caught my parents in the act of lovemaking, nor can I easily imagine it now. My father was always kind, even courtly, to my mother. I cannot recall them ever arguing in any serious way, at least in front of Ellie and me. But I don’t have many memories of them kissing or embracing, either. The element of intimacy, or at least physical intimacy, between them didn’t seem to be there. Still, credit where credit is due, my father stood by my mother through the four-year torture of her Parkinson’s disease, nights and weekends performing all the functions of a practical nurse, and doing so in the most affectionately solicitous way, right up until her death.

Not one of those full-court-press dads, my father never attended my little-league games, never took me to sports events or concerts or spent much time alone with me generally. Somehow I didn’t mind. Strange though it may seem to say, I didn’t miss his attention. I worried mainly about his disapproval. I didn’t fear my father, exactly, but I did worry about being the target of his contempt, which I knew, from hearing him talk about faculty at the university, could be withering.

Every family has room for only one non-conformist, and in our family that place was reserved for my sister, who through her adolescence and college years–Ellie dropped out of five different colleges and ended up without a degree–drove our parents, but especially my father, crazy. I was the good kid: excellent at school, no trouble at home, the very model of a bright and obedient Jewish boy. I could do without my father’s approval, I suppose, because I received all I needed in the classroom.

Because school was easy for me and I had expressed an interest in becoming a lawyer — I’m not sure I can tell you why — my father decided that he wanted to see me go to Harvard Law School, which eventually I did. “You must understand, Steven,” he once told me, “the world is stupid, always judging a man not by his true quality, but by his family connections or wealth or where he went to school. Go to Harvard Law School, which is probably no better than any place else — God knows, some of the worst people in the country seem to have graduated from it — and I promise all sorts of doors will open up for you.”

So I gave up playing on the baseball and track teams in high school, and concentrated on my studies with sufficient intensity to get into Harvard. Entry into Harvard Law, after my undergraduate years, when I also devoted myself to my studies, proved no difficulty.

If my father was pleased by my accomplishments, he failed to mention it. He was right, though, about Harvard Law School opening doors. I was on the Review there, graduated in the top tenth of my class, and was offered a job at the firm Sullivan & Cromwell, where I have remained all these years, specialising in estate planning; eight years ago, at the age of 36, I was made a partner.

My main point is that I always viewed my father as a bit–maybe more than a bit-of a cold fish. So the news that he was gay, which suggested that all the years of his marriage he was smouldering with a secret passion underneath his cool exterior, raised a good bit the voltage of my shock at Ellie’s announcement.

I have no strong opinions about homosexuality. Although I knew a fair number of gay guys and a few lesbians at Harvard, I have never had a friend who was gay, nor even a gay acquaintance I saw with any regularity. I’m reasonably sure that no one at Sullivan & Cromwell is homosexual, partners or associates, male or female, at least as far as I can determine. But then, let’s face it, I have no reason to be impressed with the efficiency of my gaydar, when I never had the least clue that my own father is gay.

When I called Ellie that evening from home, hoping she could fill me in on more details about her discovery of our father’s homosexuality, she didn’t have all that much to add. She reminded me that our father, after our mother’s death three years ago, moved out of Hyde Park, the university neighbourhood, and bought a three-bedroom apartment on Sheridan Road off Glenlake overlooking Lake Michigan. He installed his “catamite,” as Ellie called the man living with him, in one of the bedrooms, kept the master bedroom for himself, and used the third bedroom for his study. He was writing a book on the history of the American press, a project he had long talked about but never had much time for when working at the University of Chicago. 

“He seems happy,” Ellie reported. “When I left his apartment, he even hugged me–me, his wretched troublemaking daughter, the wicked witch of the West–if you can visualise that. But why don’t you come see for yourself?”

I decided I would, and booked a flight for the following Friday, planning to return on Sunday. I called my father, telling him that I had some business on in Chicago and would like it if we could meet for lunch or dinner on Saturday. The truth was, I hadn’t seen all that much of him since our mother died, and I didn’t want him to think I was coming in as a result of what he would likely suspect was Ellie’s news about his being gay. He told me to come ahead, suggesting that lunch on Saturday was best. He said that he had someone he wanted me to meet. He didn’t invite me to stay over at his place while I was in Chicago.

I suppose I could have stayed at Ellie’s apartment. So far as I knew, at the moment she was living alone. But the prospect of the chaos of my sister’s life, which figured to be reflected in her living arrangements, put me off, so I booked a room at The Drake.

Ellie picked me up at O’Hare in her 11-year-old Honda. As I threw my bag into her trunk, I noted her several bumper stickers: for the past two Democrat party candidates for president, others that read, If Animals Could Talk, We’d All Be Vegetarians; Yoga Ain’t for Yuppies; If You’re Pro-Choice, Follow Me to The Polls; Save the Earth, We’ll Destroy the Other Planets Later, and a combined white cross, Jewish star and Islamic crescent on a blue background used to spell out the word Co-Exist. I noticed that she also had a peace sign tattooed on the inner wrist of her left hand.

Having had a brief fling as a modern dancer, Ellie was working part-time as a   Pilates instructor, filling in her income with work as an office temp. Five years younger than me, she was approaching 40, and, as far as I could see, utterly unsettled in life, though she did not seem particularly concerned about it. Last year I made a shade under three-quarters of a million dollars. I mention this because a few years ago I asked Ellie if I could possibly help her out with a few grand a month. She thanked me but said she was doing fine as it is in a way that made it clear that the subject of accepting money from her older brother wasn’t really open for discussion.

I loved my sister without being especially close to her, if you can understand that. My two kids, Sarah and Aaron, especially loved their Aunt Ellie. Every Jewish kid needs a crazy aunt, and for them Ellie filled the bill nicely. Ellie and I had our own Aunt Sally, my mother’s younger, also unmarried, sister who danced the hora more wildly than anyone else at Jewish weddings and bar-mitzvah parties, and fed us popcorn and Jell-O for dinner when she stayed with us during those times when our parents went out of town by themselves. Our kids didn’t see all that much of their Aunt Ellie, but they didn’t seem to need to see much of her to love her.

Ellie and I stopped on the way to The Drake for an early dinner at a restaurant on Halsted Street called Vinci. We had pasta dishes, and I ordered a bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon. Awaiting our food, we settled into discussing Topic Number One.

“So Steven,” Ellie said, “what’s your take on our old man’s hot new sex life?”

“Truth is,” I said, “I can’t get my mind around it. If you’d called and said Dad had knocked up a woman 40 years younger than him, or was running for the United States Senate, this I could have taken in. But our father being gay, that’s something else again.”

“Pretty wild,” Ellie said. “On the other hand, why not? I mean who knows what secret desires people carry around. Most people take these buried desires to their graves, where they get buried for good. Not our father. Give him credit for that.”

“I’m not sure that credit is what is at stake,” I said.

“You didn’t expect him to ask our permission to be gay, did you?” she said. “You’re not thinking of disowning him, I hope.”

Leave it to Ellie to think outside of the box. But, then, in her entire life she had never really been inside the box.

“What kind of homosexual is he, by the way?” I asked. “Flamin’? Swish? Leather? Milquetoasty?  I can’t imagine him as any of these basic types. There was never anything the least effeminate about our father. Or did I miss something? Was I asleep at the wheel all the years we grew up with him? Did you ever sense he was gay?”

“I didn’t have a notion. As for the kind of homosexual Dad is, he defies all categories by being absolutely his old self,” Ellie said. “He looks and acts and is the old Dad, except now, in his late sixties, he happens to be sleeping with a man thirty or so years younger than himself.”

“What do you suppose they do?”

“I’ve long ago ceased much to care what people do in bed,” Ellie said, “unless it’s my bed. Still, it’s amusing to think of our dignified papa as amorous, let alone with a man.”

“Why doesn’t it amuse me?”

“Maybe,” Ellie said, “that is a question you need to ask yourself.”

“What I can’t get over is his having lived almost his entire life with so deep a secret at the centre of his existence? That can’t have been easy. Who knows, it may also have made him the refrigerator of a father that he was.”

“I find it hard to imagine him any other way, a father with a built-in ice-cube maker.”

“And yet you find it easy to imagine him gay?”

“I guess I don’t find it a problem,” Ellie said.

“If I ever figure out why I do, I’ll let you know,” I replied.

I was to pick my father up for lunch at his new–to me at least, who hadn’t seen him for nearly a year–apartment at 6101 N. Sheridan Road. When I rang from the desk in the lobby, a voice other than my father’s answered and said that I was expected and to come on up, apartment 38A.

I was met at the door by a slender man in, I estimated, his early thirties, tanned, with coppery-coloured hair and almost periwinkle blue eyes. He was wearing chino trousers, a blue button-down shirt under a red V-neck sweater, white tennis shoes. He looked to me like nothing so much as a recently and happily retired surfer.

“Hi. Your dad’ll be out in a minute,” he said. “I’m Randy Thernstrum,” and he put out his hand for me to shake.

As I was shaking his hand, I thought, perversely, my father couldn’t at least find a Jewish gay man, of which I gathered there was no shortage.

“This apartment has spectacular views,” I said.

“Doesn’t it, though,” Randy said. “It practically sits out over the lake. Your dad told me that he always wanted to live looking out at Lake Michigan, the only point of topographical interest in our fair but extremely flat city.”

The east portion of the apartment was all glass, with its southernmost portion opening on to a small balcony on which my father had installed a gas grill and a small ironwork table and two chairs and from which there was a clear view of the skyscrapers in downtown Chicago. Light flooded in; the rich azure of the lake provided, in effect, the eastern wall of the apartment. My father had bought all new furniture for the place; at least I recognised none of the things from our Hyde Park apartment on Kimbark Avenue. Everything was modern, glass and black leather, elegant but a touch severe, nothing like the slightly overstuffed, chintz-covered comfy furniture our mother favoured in our old apartment.

“Your dad tells me that you’re a very successful New York lawyer,” Randy said. “Pretty awesome.”

“Not as successful as some,” I said. “But tell me, what do you do?”

“I’m an administrator at a charter school on the west side, in the Austin neighbourhood.”

“Done that long?”

“Two years. Before that I taught American history at St Scholastica High School in Rogers Park.”

“Have you known my dad for long?” I asked, wanting to discover if my father had been seeing him when my mother was still alive.

“Less than a year,” he said, “but we hit it off immediately.”

Just then my father walked into the room, looking very much like, well, as Ellie said, like himself. I’m not sure what I expected him to look like. I assumed a loosened collar maybe, a pair of gym shoes, possibly jeans. But, no, he was in his standard get-up: grey trousers, white shirt, black knit tie, brown tweed jacket, tasselled oxblood loafers, closely shaved, as always. He kept himself slender, his black hair, now streaked with grey, was only just beginning to thin out slightly at the front.

He is still an attractive man, I thought, and then, good God, wondered if I was regarding my father homosexually.

“I see you and Randy have introduced yourselves. Allow us a couple of hours for lunch,” he said to Randy.

“Take care, Henry,” Randy said to my father. “I’ll hold down the fort. Good to meet you Steven.” We shook hands once again.

In the elevator, my father said, “Randy’s 11 years younger than you, Steven. You realise that if he were a girl of the same age you would have had no choice but to think me an old fool. It occurs to me, though, that an old fool might be preferable to what you might actually think of me.” So he knew that I knew about his homosexuality, and there would be no need for a nervous announcement. Good.

“Let’s wait for lunch to talk about all that, Dad,” I said.

My father chose a Chinese restaurant on Broadway called Mei Shung. Rather a drab place, with ten or eleven tables, only one other of which was currently occupied, by a bald, heavyset man reading the sports section from the Trib while tucking into a large plate of fried rice.

After we ordered — kung-pao for my father, Mongolian beef for me — we talked about beside-the-point things. I asked what he had done with the furniture from the old Hyde Park house. He asked how I found my sister. I asked if he was making any progress with his book. He told me it was going slowly but going. He asked how the shaky economy was affecting my business. I asked about his health. He asked about his grandchildren, in whom he had never taken all that keen an interest.

Finally, more than halfway through the lunch, my father said, “You know, Steven, there’s an old Arab proverb that runs, ‘When your son becomes a man, make him your brother.’ You have long been a man, but I suspect that you may have some doubts just now about whether you want me for a brother. Were you surprised to learn about my — how to put this? — my latent, now manifest, proclivities?

“Stunned is more like it. How long has this been going on?”

“‘How long has this been going on?’ You’re too young to know it, but that happens to be the title of a June Christie torch song from the 1950s. But to answer your question: it has been going on just about all my conscious life.”           

“You always knew you were gay?”

“Small correction: at my age I always knew I was not gay but queer, and I wasn’t at all pleased about it. I thought it a bad card dealt from a stacked deck, though who did the actual stacking I cannot say even now.”

“What did you do about it?”

“What could I do? Two possibilities: give into it or fight it. I chose the latter. Marrying your mother was of course part of the fight. You have to remember, Steven, that in my day, before victimhood was a happy state, being homosexual was thought a major affliction–a thing that could, and if it got out usually did, crush a man, also a boy, in every way. I chose to avoid being crushed.”

“Did mother know?”

“No. At least I don’t think so. We certainly never discussed it.”           

“Are you bisexual?”

“I don’t happen to believe there are any bisexuals, at any rate not of a pure kind. Maybe some men are able to make love to men and women with equal passion, but I’ve never met one. I think among homosexual men and women there are some who can tolerate, and with imaginative resources sometimes enjoy, making love with people of the opposite sex. I suppose I was one of these.”

“Forgive my interrogating you like this.”

“No need for apology. You have a right.”

“Did you see other men when you were married to mother?”

“I never did. I don’t know whether because I was afraid of getting caught or because I thought I would be doing her a double injustice. The initial injustice, of course, was marrying her in the first place.”

“Why did you stay with her after Ellie and I were out of the house?”

“Because — and I hope you will believe this — I loved your mother. And because I thought she needed a man’s protection, mine specifically, someone who knew all her weaknesses and could stand between her and the world. My sexual predilection doesn’t eliminate my manly instincts, Steven, please believe that.”

“So you waited until mother died to live an openly homosexual life?”

“That’s right. I felt that at this point I owed it to myself, that I deserved it, if one can be said to deserve anything in this life. I also needed to get out of Hyde Park and away from the professoriat and their gossip, to live the way I had long wanted and was, apparently, intended to live.”

“Are you happy now, Dad?”

“Happy? The older I get the more I think happiness is a concept for morons. The best one can aim for is a mild and always fragile contentment.”

“Are you content with Randy?”

“Reasonably so. He’s an earnest and serious young man. He looks up to me. But I won’t be shocked if one day I come home to find a note explaining that he has found someone else and cleared out. It’s in the nature of the life. People are always finding someone more suitable. I’ve decided I can live with that.”

The waitress enquired if we wanted anything else. My father shook his head, and asked for the check. 

“Since this seems to be confession day, Steven,” said my father, “I need to confess that I realise I wasn’t the best of fathers, at least by contemporary standards. I was, as you now know, under a fair amount of pressure, not only from the quiet but persistent tyranny of hiding my true sexual nature but because I didn’t much like my work, even if it meant flacking for a great university. I was under, please understand, a double whammy. “

“Why have children in the first place?” I asked.

“Because your mother wanted them. And because in our day it was expected of married couples under a certain age that they have kids. My own upbringing wasn’t all that easy; my parents didn’t much care for each other. I don’t know if you know this or not, but people who themselves have had unhappy childhoods tend to be nervous about having kids of their own. We don’t look upon bringing kids into the world as an unambiguous blessing, and we certainly don’t look upon childhood as a blessed state. But how could I deny your mother? She was a sweet and shockingly normal, if slightly meshuganah, woman.”

“Having kids also provided pretty good camouflage for your homosexuality,” I couldn’t resist inserting.

“I suppose it did,” he said. “But you’ll have to believe that it wasn’t my main motive.”

“You stuck by mom through her terrible last years with Parkinson’s.”

“Of course I did. I’d have been a real son of a bitch if I had deserted her. I’ll say this much for marriage: nothing transient about it. And in it you don’t die alone, or at least one of the partners in a marriage doesn’t. Alone is the way I expect to die.”

“Did you ever attempt to see a psychotherapist about all this?”

“At different times in my life I saw four of them, but without much luck. Therapy isn’t always easy for troubled people who also happen to be intelligent. You have to find a therapist who is brighter than you are — and that’s not always so simple either. I think it was one of the Algonquin Round Table characters who said that he dropped psychotherapy because his therapist asked too many goddamn personal questions. The therapists I went to also asked lots of personal questions, which I didn’t mind, except they all seemed to me the wrong questions.”

“So where does that leave you, Dad?”

“It leaves me most days staring out at the lake and contemplating my own insignificance. I sit in a chair and contemplate my life, and think that, if there is a God, he surely must love a joke.”

He paused, and removed his wallet from his jacket pocket.

“Let’s get the hell out of here,” he said, and dropped a twenty and a ten on the table and pushed back his chair.

We drove the six or seven blocks back to my father’s apartment in silence. When I pulled into the driveway before his building, he turned to me, his hand on the door handle.

“I’m not sure I had much to do with it,” he said, “but you’ve become an impressive man, Steven.”

And with this, he leaned over and kissed me on the cheek, something I have no recollection of his ever having done when I was a boy. He left the car before I had a chance to reply, though I’m still not sure what I would have said. I watched him walk into his large anonymous-looking building to return to his new life.

I backed out of the driveway. Turning left onto Sheridan Road, heading south to downtown Chicago, I had to remove my handkerchief from my jacket pocket to stop my eyes from filling with tears.

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