Things happened quickly as soon as the semester ended. Once Aaron had mentally finished with Boston State, he wanted to be physically finished with it as well. He found an in-coming professor who agreed to sublet the apartment for the final two months and then take over our lease. He also hired actual movers to pack up the apartment. I was happy about that. I'd been dreading gathering boxes from the local liquor and grocery stores and trying to cram all our possessions into them, not to mention the inevitable loading of the U-Haul.
The movers showed up early on the Saturday before Memorial Day and within a few hours they had put everything into the van, with plenty of room to spare.
"Is that it?" asked the guy in charge.
"That's it," Aaron confirmed.
"Okay." He signaled for his men to close up the van. "We'll see you in Indiana on Tuesday." He checked the address on his clipboard. "Hastings, Indiana. Is that correct, sir?"
We watched them drive away with all our stuff.
"Why do I get the feeling that we'll never see any of those things again?" I sighed.
"You're paranoid, Shea!" Aaron laughed. "Besides, we still have most of our clothes in the suitcases, not to mention the computer and all of our important research material. And my film, of course!" Aaron wasn't about to let his film drive away without him. In fact, his documentary material -- past, present, and future -- filled up the backseat of the Toyota.
I took one more look around the apartment, but it was empty.
"Let's get out of here," I said.
And we did.
We reached Cleveland around 11:00 that night. It's a long, mind-numbing haul, especially all those hours on I-90 through New York and Pennsylvania, but Aaron insisted on driving it himself the entire way. I read the papers, listened to the radio -- constantly trying to re-tune it to NPR whenever we moved into a different area -- and pondered the next few days with my family.
My family. Everyone thinks their family is nuts. I know Aaron thinks his is, even though for me they were an island of sanity after the shipwreck of my adolescence. My family is batshit crazy in the way only large, dysfunctional, alcoholic Irish Catholic families can manage.
My old man, who was the focus of most of the crazy while I was growing up, has mellowed of late. Major heart trouble followed by prostate cancer will do that to even the most malignant son of a bitch. And like a lot of troublesome Irishmen, Jackie Desmond was considered a great guy by his cronies at work and at the union hall: a great drinker, great gambler, and great womanizer, much like his old man before him. Also a great talker, joker, and storyteller. A great one for rewriting history to make himself the hero. A great guy to spend an evening with. But not so great to live with every day. Just ask my mother about that.
My mother, Marie Conroy, was considered a real catch back in the day. Born in a tiny town in Quebec and convent educated, the daughter of a beautiful French Canadian mother and a brooding Black Irish father, she came to Cleveland in her early teens when Big Bill Conroy started working in the foundries, which were booming during the 1950's. She wanted to be teacher, but she never got to college. College wasn't a huge priority for working class Catholic girls in those days. Getting married was the thing. And if the wedding was a tiny bit hurry-up, that was an embarrassment, but not a fatal one, especially when the twin girls that came along shortly afterwards were so perfect. That is, perfect as long they were small and unable to talk back. After that, they were perfect little hellions.
My sisters, Marianne and Anne Marie, are redheads, with all that implies. They are fiery, turbulent, strong-willed, and born to be rebels. They take after the old man and the rest of the brawling Desmonds. Eventually Marianne settled down, married Mike Fagan, a successful salesman, and had three kids: Mike Junior, 10, Emily, 8, and Sean, 4. They all live in a house twice the size of the one we grew up in, in a West Side suburb called Fairview Park. Marianne is mainly a stay-at-home mom, but she also does those parties where she comes to a woman's home and sells her and her friends stuff. That stuff is sexy lingerie and sex toys. Like I said, Marianne is still a bit of a rebel underneath it all.
Anne Marie, younger by twelve minutes, is a legal secretary who lives in an apartment on Clifton, not far from my parents' house on Thomas Avenue in Lakewood. Her son, Danny, is the 5-year-old with the Little Mermaid fixation. I think I mentioned before that Danny's father is assumed to be the guy Anne Marie has been having an affair with forever, Tate Jameson III, a partner in the aggressively WASPy law firm where she works. Jameson is also married. To another rich WASP. They have two kids who go to private school and they live in Hunting Valley, a fancy East Side suburb where if you don't have horses and at least ten acres you might as well be living in the slums.
That's the thing about Cleveland. It has an East Side/West Side mindset. Maybe you have to have grown up there to understand it, but it's like the Cuyahoga River is a barrier that splits the city along lines of race, class, religion, and snobbery. The East Side includes most of the poor black neighborhoods, but also the most exclusive suburbs, starting with Shaker Heights and moving out into the country to Pepper Pike, Hunting Valley, Gates Mills, and Chagrin Falls. The Jewish suburbs, Cleveland Heights and Beachwood, are also on the East Side, as well as Little Italy for a taste of diversity. It's also the intellectual part of the city: University Circle, the museums, the Cleveland Orchestra, Cleveland Clinic, all are in the East. When I was a kid the only time I ever crossed the river into that alien land was to go to see Santa Claus at Higbee's Department Store downtown, or to take a school field trip to the Natural History Museum or the Western Reserve Historical Society. My friend Rich lives and teaches at Forest City University on the East Side; whenever I visit him, I still check a map before I leave, praying I don't get lost.
The West Side is more working class, more ethnic, more insular, and more Catholic. Two Catholic groups have traditionally held sway there: the Irish and the Poles. Lakewood is traditionally the Irish suburb, while Parma is the Polish one. It was true while I was growing up and is still true to some extent, but with one crazy twist that I never would have seen coming when I was a young gay boy: Lakewood is now also the Gay Suburb. Yes, amazingly so. Some time in the 1990's the homos began moving in, buying cheap Craftsman-style houses, fixing them up, and flying rainbow flags. They opened businesses -- hair salons, trendy boutiques, intimate coffeehouses, and cutting-edge clubs -- and started having a voice in the community. While once-upon-a-time I would have had to find my way to the East Side hipster enclave of Coventry (where Rich now lives) or to the slightly sleazy strip on the bluff above the Flats where the gay bars and bathhouses were huddled in order to get a glimpse of a real live fag, now here they are, right in my parents' own backyard!
"This will be a nice long weekend," Aaron commented as we turned onto Thomas Avenue.
"My mother says the old man isn't doing so well."
"How do you feel about that?"
I shrugged. "I don't know." And I didn't. My relationship with my father was so disjointed that I no longer knew what to feel.
"What will your mother do if... if anything happens to him?"
That was a good question. As much as my parents' marriage hadn't exactly been a model of bliss over the years, I couldn't imagine what she would do without him. She was a woman who had never worked, never done anything except take care of him and her kids. She had her friends and volunteer work at her parish, St. Clement's, but that wasn't the same.
Aaron pulled the car into the driveway. "Welcome home, Baby," he said.
"Very funny." This hadn't been my home since I'd walked out the door on a cold night in November 1987.
Aaron sniffed. "See? Thomas Wolfe was wrong. You CAN go home again!"
"Whether you want to or not."
My father was in his recliner, watching 'Letterman.' In his lap was Gorcey, his elderly Boston Terrier. The dog yipped and jumped down, running to the door to greet us.
"I was wondering when you boys would blow in."
"Hey, Dad." I never knew whether or not to kiss him. He wasn't a kissing kind of guy. So I just tapped him lightly on the shoulder. "Where's Mom?"
"Upstairs. Asleep." He laughed. "She can't stay awake and I can't sleep. All in all, it works out. Hi there, Aaron."
"Hello, Mr. Desmond." My partner nodded to him.
There was a time when my old man hated the very idea of Aaron, but now they'd come to a tacit understanding. One thing my father admired was success, and Aaron had proven he was successful. That gave him a status that overrode all other objections the old man had against him, like the faggot thing. And the Jewish thing.
"How are you feeling?" I hated to ask that, but I had to because he looked awful. So much worse than he had at Christmas. And that scared the hell out of me.
My old man had always been a big guy. As tall as Aaron -- around 6 foot 2 -- but much bulkier. Broad shoulders, big arms, later a beer gut to go with it, and no ass. That's a Desmond trait even I inherited -- his pants always bagged in the back, even while they expanded in the front. All my uncles are the same way. And I've got a flat butt, too, although the rest of me is slim. I take after my mother in that -- dark-haired and slender, while the rest of the clan are textbook freckled, fleshy redheads.
But the man I saw before me looked reduced, as if all the juice had been bled out of him, leaving only the husk. His cheeks were sunken and his hands, as they held the TV remote, were frail, trembling slightly as they jumped through the channels, searching.
"Nothing but crap on," he said to no one in particular. "I feel okay. Tired. Here! Boy!" He snapped his fingers at the dog, who jumped back up onto his lap. Gorcey's bug-like eyes stared at me and Aaron. It was hard to believe that once I'd been so afraid of this man that I'd fled my home and preferred to take my chances on the street rather than return. I'd even used his name to spite him. It gave me a perverse satisfaction to hear my tricks call me by it as they were fucking me. But Jack Desmond was now a different person and so was I. "That's my boy! Good boy!" He rubbed the dog, who sighed in contentment.
He'd never touched me like that in my entire life, but I could still remember a time when I had wanted him to so badly I could taste it. Wanted his recognition. His approval. His love. And now it was too late. My father would die before too long, never really connecting with me, never really understanding me. And he'd die without caring. I meant nothing in the greater drama of his life. That dog meant more to him.
"Your sister and the kid are coming over tomorrow," he said, meaning Anne Marie and Danny. "I think your mother's roped her into going to Mass with her."
That surprised me. My sister might go once out of obligation, but never more than that. My sister never did anything she didn't want to do. "Mom told me that the other week. Is this an on-going thing?"
My father made a face. "I don't know. Maybe they got a good-looking priest over there and your sister thinks he's worth a shot."
"I doubt that," I sniffed. "If they do, he's probably playing for our team."
Aaron shot me a warning look, but I shrugged it off.
"You said it," my father cracked. "Playing for your team! That's a good one!"
"It's been a long day." I tapped him on the shoulder again. If it had been Aaron's father, Sam, I would have kissed him good night, but I still couldn't do it. "See you in the morning."
"Yeah, right," he said. "See ya." And he went back to clicking the remote, searching for something. Anything.
Aaron and I climbed the stairs to my old room and went to bed.