A guy called me up and said he was responding to the ad I put on Craigslist, that I’d do any odd job so long as it was legal. He wanted someone to sit with him while he came out to his seventy-eight year old mother, and he thought his actual friends would be no help at all. They were busy and emotionally stunted, he implied, too focused on home repairs and family vacations to worry about anyone’s spiritual growth. He worked as a stockbroker and so did they, so his excuses for them made good sense to me. And none of them knew about his queerness, so there was that.
“Why do you want to tell her?” I asked him. I always ask the people I help why they want to do the thing they want to do. It weeds out the ones who aren’t serious, and most people find it endearing, that I care enough about their problems to want to know more.
“She’s my mother,” he said. “She’s been ill. I’d like her to know.”
“And you want me there because…”
“It’ll be easier with a stranger in the room, to keep me focused. Her, too. I don’t want crying. I don’t want celebration. I just want to tell her and move on.”
“Sounds like you’ve never come out to anyone before.”
“I’ve just told you, haven’t I?” He made a good point.
I suggested he and I meet beforehand, so I could get a feel of who he was and who he wanted me to be, but he nixed that idea straight away.
“Just act normal,” he said, to which I assumed he meant I should act like him.
His idea was that he’d introduce me as his friend, and his mother and I would hear the news at the same time. I asked him to at least send me his photo so I’d recognize him when we met up. He sent me the website for his corporate profile. His name was Sebastian. He looked like every guy in a suit you’ve seen on TV, like a stock photo with the watermark removed. Here I’d hoped for a wicked scar or lopsided smile, and all I got was a Park Avenue crew cut and whitewashed teeth.
He picked Saturday because his mother was on dialysis, and dialysis patients are most likely to die on Sunday because they’ve been off treatment for the weekend. He always assumed, when he got the inevitable call, that it would be while he was at church with his wife, and it would be sad, but at least it would give him a reason to up and leave. He hated kneeling at the pew because it made the skin of his kneecaps rough.
I drove to the nursing home in the afternoon and parked next to a Meals On Wheels van. The woman in the driver’s seat was smoking a joint. We waved at each other. She held the joint up as if to offer me some, but I needed to stay focused, and as I was rolling down the window to tell her thanks but no thanks, I got a text. Sebastian had arrived. I wondered if he would chicken out, if he would pass the visit off as a mere check-in, but when I approached him by the entrance he said, assertively: “Let’s go, while I have the stomach for it.” I motioned for him to wait.
“You don’t look like someone who is about to spill a big secret to their mother.” I licked the tip of my finger and tousled his hair, untucked his shirt and wrinkled up the sleeves. He looked at me like I was a freak.
“Just helping you get nervous,” I told him.
“Don’t touch me again.”
His mother’s room was on the second floor, at the end of the hallway. Above the doorknob was a sign with her last name and first initial. A neighbor of hers was sitting in the hallway, facing the sun. When I entered the room I shut the door gently behind me. Even if he didn’t plan on making a big scene, I still thought my guy would appreciate the privacy. I always try to exceed expectations for the people I help.
Thirty years ago, when I came out to my own parents, I suggested we watch a movie about two men in the deep South who realize their love for one another. As the film played, I paid attention to my parents’ side of the couch. I tracked each time they scratched their faces, every time they shifted in their seats, and I wondered whether they were reacting to me, the movie, or something entirely unrelated. When it was over, neither of them said much. My father said he liked the ending song, a country bit by Patsy Cline. My mother said only, as she went up the stairs, “Okay.” My brother hadn’t been around for many years at that point, otherwise I would have asked him if what I did was too subtle, if I should have just told them bluntly and steeled myself for the response. Instead, after the film, I spent the rest of the day wondering if they’d understood, and if I needed to further spell out for them that I lived among the characters they’d watched on the screen.
Sebastian hugged his mother hello and I stood by the door waiting for an introduction. He fished a sweater from the closet because she was shivering.
“Rather keep it cold in here than not,” she told him. “I can shake with chill forever, but when I get hot I pass out. You know, I saw on PBS that cold weather makes the brain better. I always had a sharp mind.”
“Mother, this is my friend August,” he said. He motioned for me to hurry up and greet her, as if she’d fast lose attention.
“A friend of Sebastian’s is a friend of mine. I love meeting new people.”
She put her thumb on my cheek and wiped like I’d fallen in mud. We sat down in a row on the couch: him, her, me. After a moment of awkward silence, Sebastian picked up a photo album from the coffee table and flipped through. I saw a shot of him teenaged and in swim trunks, posing daintily for the camera, hands floppy like dog paws, and I suppressed a laugh so strong that it made my stomach grumble. I told him I used to have those same shorts. Every summer, when I was growing up, my father took my brother and I to a water park on Long Island.
“I used to live in Northport when I was a girl,” the mother said. “My daddy made the best oyster gumbo in the world. Do you remember that, sweetheart, your grandfather’s gumbo? He must have made it once or twice for you.”
“Why did I think those skivvies were fashionable?” Sebastian said to himself. “Good grief.”
When we finished looking at the photos, the mother reached under her seat and pulled out a leather-bound journal with a pen clipped to the side.
“My guestbook,” she said to me.
Three people had signed already: her son, and two signatures so scribbly they looked as if the people were holding the pen with their mouths. It felt special, in some frivolous way, that I was only the fourth person she deemed worthy enough to commemorate. She pointed to the spot where she wanted me to sign. I practiced once in the air, to make sure I recalled how to write in cursive, and put my name down. She complemented my penmanship, said it was surprisingly lovely for a man.
“And what do you do, August?”
“I work with disabled persons,” I told her. Sebastian glared at me. Not as if it weren’t true. He wasn’t able to do this thing that I was assisting him with. He needed help.
“Well, that’s grand. If only I could have convinced Sebastian to do something in public service, instead of hoarding people’s money.”
“The dividends let you live here, mother.”
“I’m stuck,” she said in my direction. “Here, help me up.”
I wrested her from the couch and a vacuum of hot, musty air rushed into my nostrils. She smelled like my grandmother, like she hadn’t bathed in a while but wasn’t prone to sweat, so the aroma wasn’t completely terrible, hand lotion and dairy and a hint of urine. She fished a VHS tape from her dresser drawer.
“I thought the grandkids might enjoy this. I found it at Goodwill, first film I ever saw in the theater. Dumbo, 1942. Mommy brought your Uncle George and me. She curled my hair like Shirley Temple. I felt so fancy. The theater burned down a few years ago. It’s not there anymore.”
“Mother, there’s blackface in that movie.”
“The kids aren’t going to know the difference.”
“What’s that got to do with it? A story’s a story.”
“I’m gay, mother.”
She walked over to the window and poured a capful of water onto a cactus plant. She tripped on the way back and broke her fall on the TV stand, and she rubbed her arm furiously, as if she could force the skin back in place like loose wrappings. It turned out she was totally fine. She sat back down and put her hands in her lap.
“How does that work, exactly?”
Sebastian’s mouth fell open. I could see his whole tongue and the backs of his teeth, three gold fillings. He started to pant. He made some incomprehensible sounds, and when none of us spoke he looked over at me nervously, as if to say:some assistance, please.
“It’s like a married couple, but with two men,” I told the mother. “Laundry, dishes, sex, on occasion.”
“No, I meant how do two men do it? Is it like sword fighting,” she said, making an X with her fingers.
I leaned in to her and whispered. She let out a joyful shriek, as if she’d discovered a long sought secret. I glanced over to Sebastian, who had hunched up and begun to pick at the fringe of a blanket. If I were a parent, I wouldn’t want my child to hear such things either. She snorted.
“His father would have thought it a hoot. He always laughed at poop jokes.”
She had some more questions. Nothing too savage or cruel. She wanted to know if he and his friends used the same type of toys her female friends raved about, if they worked just as well in someone’s rear. It sounds ridiculous, but is it really that odd of a question? Sebastian didn’t say anything, so I told her yes they work fine, at least the ones shaped like an actual penis, not the ones with the extra thumb hook on the end. Then she brought up some school play he’d done in college, said she’d always wondered if he had eyes for the boy he shared scenes with. I tried to feign shock, though none of what they said was unsurprising. It seemed rather routine. Eventually, Sebastian said that he had nothing else to say about hypothetical trysts. He couldn’t even remember the boy’s name.
“Well, honey,” she said, still laughing, “that’s that, then. What did Sarah and the kids say about your discovery?”
“I’m not telling them. I just wanted you to know, because, I thought you should.”
“That’s a pity. I’m sure they’d understand. Folks are so bohemian nowadays. And what do you think about all this?” she said to me.
“Well, I think it’s always good to tell the truth. I’m happy for him. Coming out is always hard.” I put my hand on Sebastian’s leg and he glared at me. I remained compassionately still. After a moment he shook his head and turned to his mother. She smiled and shut her eyes gently.
“How about you, mother? Are you okay with this?”
“What I just told you.”
“What did you just tell me?”
“That I’m gay, mother.”
I couldn’t tell if she was messing with him or not, but the interaction was funny all the same. She reached over to put her arm around him, but he turned away so she missed and hit the cushion.
“Oh, it’s all fine, sweetheart. I’ve lived a long time. You could tell me anything and I wouldn’t care.” She glanced at her yellow plastic watch. “Are you okay with low-sodium soft tacos for lunch? Today is Saturday cheat day. You can have as many as you like and nobody’ll look at you funny. They just started serving. We can dine together, me, my son, and my son’s male friend.”
“He’s just a—“ Sebastian began to say, but she was already out the door. She moved damn fast for someone her age.
When I was twelve years old, my older brother disappeared. My parents sat me down at the dinner table, and my father told me that I should be brave, that a man was made from moments like this. When he ran out of words, my mother said it was all out of my control and I needn’t worry myself with things I couldn’t change. I waited for them to say something comforting. I waited for them to lie to me and tell me all would be well. I waited for them to interrupt the images running through my head, the worst-of-the-worst what-if scenarios imaginable, but still I was allowed to play them all out, all the way to the ending where I never saw Owen again. That evening, I snuck out of my bedroom and went to the bus station. I left a note for my parents on my bed so they wouldn’t worry. When I got to the terminal I sat down by the trashcan because it was the only seat with the cushion still fully attached. I recalled Owen saying he always wanted to go to New York City, so I wanted to be waiting for him when he returned. One man offered to sit with me and keep me company. He asked me what was the matter, and I told him what had happened with Owen, what my parents had said. He told me to keep my chin up. After all, I’d miss my brother if I kept staring at the floor.
A few minutes later, or maybe it was an hour, my parents walked into the station. The man had long since departed. My mother asked if I was all right. My father asked what the hell I was doing. I said I was fine, that I was waiting for Owen, because who knew when he’d return, and he could use a guardian angel.
Whenever I think of my brother I always think of that man, his random act of kindness a balm that I spread on the worst days. It has grown less effective over time, both in strength and duration, but as my parents drove me home that night, I wondered, if I felt that kindness enough times, that the dread in my stomach would eventually go away.
“Excuse me, friends,” the mother said to the room as we finished our meal. The tacos were surprisingly decent, much less bland than I expected from a nursing home buffet. The mother skipped the seasoned beef and just had lettuce and vegetables. Sebastian ate Saltine crackers. She stood and brought a fork to her glass and struck so hard we flinched in fear of shrapnel. “I have an announcement. My son Sebastian, here, has just told me he’s gay. He likes men, in a sexual manner.”
“Like Elton John,” someone shouted out.
“The gays are everywhere,” a woman said as she passed by.
“I have two gay grandchildren,” said another man. “One’s a lesbian. But she’s also gay. Not sure how that works.”
After a few seconds the noise level returned to normal and nobody seemed to care. Sebastian had lumps of cracker in his cheeks, like a squirrel storing up for winter. His face was flushed. A vein had popped up along his forehead. He looked like a cartoon character. When he tried to swallow, he choked. His mother patted him on the back. “Now you don’t have to feel so alone. Secrets aren’t healthy, dear.”
I thought that I should do something to pry him from the shock, tap him on the knee or splash him with water, but then I remembered that I was supposed to be the mediator, that I was supposed to keep him and her in line, and I was failing at all of it, so I sat there and dug at the remains of my tortilla. His lips folded inward and disappeared, like the ring of a clamshell refusing to budge. He exhaled.
“Mother, we’re leaving.”
“Oh, sweetheart. Don’t be mad. I promise they’re not going to tell anyone.”
“One of them is typing on their phone right now, over there” he said and pointed.
“That thing is plastic. The buttons don’t work. His kids got it so he could call Burt Reynolds.”
“Goodbye, mother. I’ll be back next week as usual.” He got up and scowled at me. I would have rather stayed in the room. Those people were way more entertaining than him, way more joyous than most of the people I knew. But he and I made a deal, he was paying me to be there, so I bid her farewell and shook her hand. She smiled.
“Tell me your name again, honey.”
“That’s a nice name. It sounds like an actor’s name. You be good now.” She pulled me in and whispered, “Take care of my Sebastian. I’m so glad he brought you to meet me.”
“He’ll get better with it,” I said to her. “It just takes time.” She squeezed my hand and shuffled over to a group of ladies, and they all waved at us and flashed their denturey grins.
When we got outside I asked Sebastian if he was all right. He seemed in a hurry and nearly tripped on the curb.
“Fine,” he said. “It’s done with.”
“You were kind of frosty to your mother back there. You sure you want to leave it like that?”
“She’ll be fine.”
“Are you going to tell your wife?”
He put the money in my hand.
“Why would I ever do that?”
Before I could say anything he turned and went over to his car, and then he drove away from the place. I sent him an quick email that I was happy to be there and that he should feel free to contact me again if he wanted, even if he just wanted to talk, even if all he needed was someone to tell him that he was okay. But I never heard back. It’s been years. I looked him up once, on Instagram. His handle was, predictably, his first and last name. Pictures of a grandchild, a screenshot of a college football game, beer mugs on a table, a framed photo of his mother atop her headstone. I cried a little bit when I saw that one. She was a terribly nice lady, and I’m glad he told her the truth. The memory of that afternoon always makes me feel warm. I see his mother’s face, and it all gets a little bit lighter.
A few weeks after Sebastian’s announcement, a woman asked me to go to her son’s baseball game. She asked that I give him a high five after he struck out, which he would inevitably do. She said a stranger doing it would make her son feel better, that it might give the boy some confidence for next time. Her own encouragements, at the dinner table, over ice cream sundaes, tucking the child in before bed, never seemed to be enough. All right, I told her. I didn’t mention what actually ran through my head, that her son was lucky to have a parent who at least made the effort to be kind, that her son was lucky that his worst trauma was a strike-out, and if that was the most horrible thing to ever happen to him it’d be a pretty damn good life. I didn’t say any of that.
I took the ferry to Staten Island and a bus to the field. The teams were warming up when I arrived, throwing the ball back and forth, sprinting between the bases. I sat in the front row of bleachers and looked for the short boy with red hair, and he was the only one standing by himself, stretching, not chatting away with teammates.
When he got up to bat, he did all those baseball movie things. He tapped home plate three times, dug in his cleats, flexed his legs. If it were legal I’m sure he would have chewed tobacco just to spit. He swung once, twice. He made good contact on the third pitch but the ball went foul into the empty grass. The fourth throw sped right past him, and he hung his head and tottered back to the dugout. I stood by the fence, my fingers wrapped in the chain links. You will be all right, I kept thinking, you will forget this.
He made eye contact with me as he dropped his bat to the ground. I didn’t extend my hand. I didn’t console him. I did nothing.
He took his seat at the dugout and his coach gave him a pat on the back. His mother, who was sitting off to the side, raised her arms at me as if to ask what the fuck happened, and the only thing I could tell her when it was all over was that I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t lie to the kid. I couldn’t fake it. I had to let him become who he was going to be.
Jason Villemez’s short fiction centers on LGBTQ people and has appeared in journals including F(r)iction, Ruminate, Joyland,