On Sundays I have a very uncompromising routine. I get up at 9:00, walk to the convenience store, buy a pile of Sunday papers -- Sunday Globe, New York Times, maybe one of the tabloids like the New York Post or Daily News, proving that no matter where I am, I'm still a New Yorker at heart -- take them home, and read them while I listen to one of my favorite CD's.
Depending on my mood, I might put on some relaxing jazz, usually Chet Baker, Dave Brubeck, or Billie Holiday. Or I might pick something from my misspent youth, like Aztec Camera, R.E.M., the Pet Shop Boys, or Duran Duran. Aaron always turns up his nose at those selections. He's a purest at heart. He likes the Classics, by which I mean the Beatles, Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones, the Who, and Motown, the music he grew up listening to in the Seventies on FM radio. He has some later stuff mixed into his collection, like the Clash and the Ramones, but he owns those mainly in theory. When Aaron listens to a CD it's like 1968 has come alive again. With me, it's more like 1985 -- and, frankly, 1985 wasn't the greatest year for music. But it was the year I was 14 and that's the time when you sit in your room with the door closed and envelop yourself in music while your parents scream at you to turn that shit down! In that I was like a million other 14-year-olds, but I certainly felt different. Felt different and was different, as I was realizing to my utter dismay.
Once the newspapers are out of the way, I get on the phone. I have two main calls to make -- to my two mothers. Afterwards I might get in touch with a friend I owe a call to, but I can't do that until I've paid my respects to Mom and Ma. And if I don't call, believe me, I'll hear about it!
I always call Mom first. I hate to think of it as getting my own mother out of the way, but that's usually how it feels. More of an obligation than a pleasure. I put on Roddy Frame, settled myself on the sofa, and picked up the phone.
"Shea! I was wondering when you'd call." She always seems surprised to hear from me, even though I'm as regular as a genuine Rolex.
"Did you think I'd forget?"
"I know how busy you are, honey. Are classes still going on?"
"One more week and then exams. So yes, I'm busy, but never too busy to call you."
She laughed. She knew I was full of bullshit, but she loved to hear me say it anyway. "I just got back from Mass. I stayed behind for a meeting of the Altar Society. We're going to make some new altar cloths. The old ones are looking a bit ragged. And who do you think came with me to Mass today?"
"Dad?" I guessed, taking a shot in the dark. I knew it was unlikely, but you never know. Stranger things have happened. After all, my parents actually speak to me now. I go to visit them and we don't kill each other. And they seem to like Aaron. Those are things I'd never have imagined possible as recently as five years ago.
"No. You'd think with all the problems he's been having lately that your father would want to find some comfort in the Church, but he's still as obstinate as ever. It was Anne Marie. And she brought Danny with her. I was so surprised when she called me last night and asked what time I was going to St. Clement's. You could have knocked me over with a feather when she said she'd pick me up and we could go together. I don't think Anne Marie has set foot in church since Danny was baptized, but there they were! And Danny was dressed up so cute! He looks just like you did when you were that age, Shea. Anne Marie has his hair a little long for my taste, but it's beautiful, just like yours was. Danny's eyes are a little more hazel than green, but otherwise I felt like I was holding your little hand again. I was so happy when we all walked in together!"
"I bet you did, Mom."
I don't see all that much of the family and I haven't seen any of them since last Christmas, but I've always felt a connection with my nephew. He's 5 now and, if I'm any judge of things, he and I have a lot more in common than just our looks. When I saw what he got for Christmas I glanced at Aaron and we both shrugged. It was wall-to-wall 'Little Mermaid' -- DVD's, games, toys, pajamas, tee shirts. But his favorite gift was a Little Mermaid doll, complete with green bikini top and fishtail.
I thought my old man was going to blow a gasket when he saw the doll. With the Little Mermaid there's no way you can rationalize a doll given to a boy as an "action figure." No matter how you slice it, the Little Mermaid isn't G.I. Joe. But apparently Mom had prepared Dad in advance, because he only made a disgusted face and looked away. In the old days he'd have hit the roof and thrown the doll -- and Danny with it -- out the nearest window. But he's changed a lot since he's been ill, first with a minor heart attack and then prostate cancer. Or maybe it's just getting older and realizing that there are some things you have no control over and never will and resigning yourself to that fact. My father has had a lot of resigning to do lately.
The major thing the old man had to come to terms with was the fact that I was gay. That was a big one for him and it took a long, long time. Frankly, I thought it would never happen. Not after all the anger he had and all the bitterness that was mine for so long. Maybe it turned out to be good thing that I ran away from home at 16. I never thought I'd ever say that, but maybe it's true. Maybe we avoided that inevitable final, horrible confrontation that would have broken apart the family completely. Or maybe everything would have simply settled into a simmering indifference until I finally left the house to go to college. Who knows? It's no use second guessing the past.
And if I hadn't gone to New York at 16 I never would have met Aaron. So there's that.
"Listen, Mom, we'll probably be coming to Cleveland sometime this summer. Maybe even as early as June."
"Really?" I could hear her voice perk up. She really would be glad to see me. And Aaron, too. "Are you coming for something connected with school?"
"No. Well, sort of. Aaron has a new job. In Indiana. So we'll be moving there. I thought we could break up the drive by staying with you for a night or two. If that's all right?"
"Of course!" she exclaimed. "That would be wonderful!" Then she paused for a moment. I could picture her face. The delicate features that are beginning to droop. Her dark blue eyes slightly faded under her perfectly shaped eyebrows. Her blue-black hair streaked with bolts of gray. When I was a little boy I thought she was more beautiful than any movie star. And I was right. But that was a long time ago. "I miss seeing you, honey. Where in Indiana is this?"
"It's Eastern Indiana University, not far from Indianapolis. So we'll be closer to Cleveland. At least closer than Boston."
"Oh, that's so nice!" she said. "And a new job, too! That Aaron is a real go-getter, isn't he?"
"Yeah, he's a go-getter all right." Yes, that's the perfect description of Aar. Go-getter. "That's one way of putting it."
"So when are you coming to Cleveland? Do you have a place to live in Indiana yet? Will you have any trouble getting out of your old lease?" She began bombarding me with questions that I couldn't answer yet.
"I have no idea," I said when I finally got a word in. "I'll call as soon as I know more."
"That's fine, honey. It's nice to see you so settled and happy. I wish Anne Marie would settle down. I thought when she had Danny, that would do it, but..." She heaved a big, melodramatic sigh. "She's so different from Marianne. Except for the fact that they look exactly alike, you'd never know they were even sisters! Which reminds me -- I better get a move on. Marianne and Mike and the kids are coming for Sunday dinner. I'm making a big roast pork. That's Mike's favorite." My parents love my sister Marianne's husband. He's exactly the kind of big, glad-handing, regular guy's guy I'm sure they wish I had been. "I invited Anne Marie and Danny, too, but she said that she's busy."
"At least she went to Mass with you," I reminded her. "That's something."
"When you come here this summer you could go with us," she said, a hint of hope in her voice. "I mean, if Anne Marie brings Danny, you might come along, too. If you're here on a Sunday."
"Don't go there, Mom," I warned. "Please."
We had this discussion every time I went home. There was no way she was going to get me into Mass. I didn't care that her priest was a nice guy and had baptized Danny even though he wasn't exactly kosher, as Aaron had wryly put it. As far as I was concerned, baptizing kids was his job, no matter what the status of the parents' relationship. But welcoming a couple of queers with open arms was still beyond the pale in the Catholic Church and always would be as far as I could see. "If it's a wedding or something like that, I don't mind going. But otherwise I just can't do it."
"You're as bullheaded as John in a lot of ways," she lamented. Comparing me to my old man was her gentle way of insulting me. But if that's all she could find that was like my father, then I was pretty much home free. "I don't know why I was blessed with such stubborn children!"
"Just lucky, I guess."
"Oh, shush!" she clicked at me. "I'm still worried about Anne Marie, though. I think she's still seeing HIM." Him was Tate Jameson III, a married lawyer who was a partner in the firm where Anne Marie worked as a legal secretary. He was also Danny's putative father.
"If she is, there's nothing you can do about it, Mom. It's her life."
And there was nothing Mon could do, no matter how much she might complain. Anne Marie had been a wild child from the time she was old enough to say, "Screw you!" I'd always admired her for that. The twins were five years older than me and in many ways they set the bar for craziness in the family. But what Mom tended to gloss over was that Marianne, the "good" twin, had been just as wild as her sister, only she was able to hide it better. Anne Marie never hid anything. She was always way, way out there in everything she did, from smoking dope to dressing trashy to running around with every bad boy in town (and I had crushes on a couple of them -- they were very hot!). My sister was the poster child for the Catholic Girl Gone Wrong. Even after she grew up and got a good job, Anne Marie was still a rebel. Having a blazing affair with her WASPy boss and producing my nephew was merely part of her typical pattern.
The good news was that Anne Marie's peccadillos began to make me seem like a not-so-awful son instead of the total write-off I'd been for so many years. In fact, Anne Marie's continuing soap opera was one of the things that turned around my relationship with my parents. Aaron and I began to look like steady citizens rather than the scary outlaw fags they had always imagined. I'd finished college and was working on my Ph.D., while Aaron was a successful filmmaker and professor. When we had our commitment four years ago, no one was more surprised than I was when my parents, Anne Marie, Marianne, and Mike actually travelled to Long Island for the ceremony. That really was the start of the big reconciliation.
"You be a good boy, Shea," Mom said. In her head I'll always be the same age as little Danny. Her beautiful, perfect boy. Her little gentleman dressed up for church. Who the hell can ever live up to that?
"Bye, Mom. I'll talk to you next Sunday."
I hung up, made myself a cup of tea, and then put some new CD's in the changer. For some reason I pulled the Beatles out of Aaron's stack and put them on. 'Rubber Soul' came through the speakers as I punched in Lily's number in Florida.
"Shea! My baby!"
"How's my darling boy?"
Lily Blumenthal saw me as a boy, too. While Aaron was her man, her prized son and oldest child, I would always be her baby boy. But while my own mother saw me as perpetually Danny's age, to Ma I would always be sweet 16. Or not so sweet. Maybe not very sweet at all, except to Lily. And to Aaron.
"I'm fine, Ma."
"How's your mother doing?" Lily knew my routine as well as I did.
"She's good. She just got back from church. My sister and nephew went with her."
"Oh, I'm sure that made her very happy! And your father? Did he go too?"
I snorted. "Hardly! The next time they get him into a church will be feet first."
Lily was horrified. "Shea! Say a prayer right this very minute! That's a bad thing to say, even as a joke!"
"Sorry." Although neither she nor Aaron's father, Sam, were strictly observant Jews, Lily was extremely superstitious, much more so than my devoutly Catholic mother. "I'll light a candle when I get off the phone."
"Don't joke about such things, my darling. You and Aaron are too quick to scoff, but there are things in this world no one can explain. You shouldn't tempt fate, especially when it involves the life of your father! And how is he doing now?"
"Better, as far as I know. His heart is okay. And they're taking a wait-and-see approach with the prostate cancer. I'll find out more when we go there this summer."
"The poor man! I'm always telling Sam that he needs to get his prostate checked regularly. But you know how men are, they never want to go to the doctor. So, you're visiting your folks, huh? That's nice." There was a slight edge to Lily's voice.
She'd never admit it, but I knew Lily felt a certain amount of competition with my mother. Although she would never openly criticize them, Lily believed that Mom and the old man had failed me during my adolescence, leaving her -- with some help from Aaron -- to pick up the broken pieces and put me back together. Later Lily had been the one to extend her hand to my parents, inviting them to the commitment ceremony when I was against it. But I knew that part of her felt they didn't deserve to claim me. While John and Marie Desmond had rejected me and driven me, their only son, out of their house, Lily and Sam Blumenthal had taken me in and made me one of their own. That was Lily's trump card, and she never failed to play it.
"We're stopping there on the way to Indiana. But don't ask me when that is, because I don't know. Nothing is settled yet."
"This new job of Aaron's, is it that much better than the one he already has?"
I hesitated. Was it, really? Or was it desirable only because it was new and shiny? "Aaron will have a better title. And it pays more. The Film Program at E.I.U. has a big endowment, which means more money for his projects. He should be able to finish up the gay adoption film. So, yes, it's a better job."
"And what about you, sweetheart?" Lily asked. Which was something my own mother had never bothered to ask. What about me?
"I'll have a job in the English Department. Aaron fixed it up."
"Oh, that's wonderful! Both of my boys well taken care of. That's the way it should be!" Lily said happily. She then proceeded to give me the lowdown on Debbie and Wendy, their kids and husbands, on Sam's progress at golf, something he'd taken up recently, and on all her friends at the local Jewish Senior Center. "I wish you boys would come down here more than once a year. I miss seeing you." Aaron and I split the holidays fifty-fifty -- Thanksgiving with the Blumenthals and Christmas with the Desmonds -- but Lily felt she'd been getting the short end of the stick since they'd relocated from Parkville, Long Island, to Orange Grove, Florida, two years ago.
"You know what Aaron's schedule is like, Ma. And this summer we're moving. We're lucky to get so much time off at Thanksgiving and Christmas."
"Sam and I aren't getting any younger, you know," she said pointedly.
"I know, Ma." The door opened and Aaron came in. He'd been at the university all day, working in the editing suite with some students on their final projects. "Aar just came in, so I've got to go. I'll talk to you later."
"Tell that boy of mine that I love him," she said. "And I love you, too, baby."
"I will, Ma. Give Sam my love."
"Did you talk to both of them?" Aaron asked as I put down the phone. He dumped his briefcase and another large carry-all on the floor and sat down next to me on the sofa.
"Yup. They both want details about the move and the job."
"Jesus, everyone wants details! Maybe I should fax Mama my contract?"
"She'd take it over to the Senior Center and find a lawyer to go over it. Then she'd call to let you know where all the loopholes are!"
Aaron burst out laughing. "You're right! That woman should have been an attorney! She'd probably be on the Supreme Court by now." Aaron cocked his head, listening to the music I'd put on. "Why are you listening to the Beatles?"
"I don't know. I felt like it."
"Sounds good." He leaned his head against my shoulder and closed his eyes. "Remember my old apartment near NYU? That crummy cassette player I had? I had about a million tapes!"
"How could I forget? I thought it was the coolest place ever!"
"It was a rat-hole," Aaron stated. "An expensive rat-hole."
"It wasn't a rat-hole," I replied. "Believe me, I know what a real rat-hole is and your apartment wasn't one."
"I know that, Baby," he said. "But I promised you back then -- no more rat-holes again, ever. And I mean it. From now on it'll be nothing but the best. This job is only the beginning. Once my agent out in L.A. gets off his ass and gets me a production deal we'll be flying! The sky's the limit, as they say. You'll see, Shea. Nothing but good times from now on."
It was hard not to get caught up in Aaron's dreams, especially when we'd come so far already. But that sliver of anxiety was always there, lurking. Putting that doubt in me. That fear in me.
I closed my eyes, too, but all I could see was nothing. But it was a quiet, peaceful nothing. I let it wash over me.