For My Son: A Coming Out Story

As I looked toward the front of the warm Septa bus, I couldn’t help but sigh as a cluster of high school students boarded the bus while hanging onto laughter and indulging themselves in gossip. If working at Mercy’s Department Store and encountering rude and impatient customers wasn’t bad enough, taking the hour-long trip home with loud and obnoxious school kids made it worse. It’s all the same, each day. It’s the same group of kids that crowd the bus, and it’s the same broken community that I see as the bus rides through Uptown Philadelphia. “It’s depressing,” I thought as I stared out the window at the Oak Lane Diner, which once brought pride to our community and now sits as a stalled construction site at the center of this crime-infested neighborhood. My dislike toward those rowdy school kids became numb as I thought of their parents. They were probably working two jobs like me, trying to make ends meet. They were probably trying to keep their kids off the streets, but only if they could see how their kids are behaving now. My Manny would never behave like this. I’ve raised him to use manners and be respectful. No, it wasn’t easy raising a boy alone, but I did it. When David was around, things were very different. I worked at the laundromat on Ogontz Ave. on the weekends, just to keep myself busy. But David was the one who provided the food and paid the rent. He was a great father and a loving husband. He often came through the door with little gifts or love letters showing how spontaneous he could be, but that was twelve years ago. David is long gone now. After he died in that car wreck, I dated a few men, but they were all dogs. Once they found out I had a five-year-old son, they would disappear. Soon enough, the money from David’s insurance policy ran out, and I had to get a second job. Working at Mercy’s isn’t fun, but it pays the bills, and it keeps my Manny healthy and happy. “Next stop, Broad and Chelten,” said the bus driver. I took my time getting up, making sure I wasn’t leaving anything behind. When I got off the bus, I walked along Broad street, staring into the many convenience stores that lined the strip. I couldn’t help but notice my reflection as I stared into the Chinese store. I had put on a few pounds over the years, and my smile is not what it used to be. My once long and curly hair is neglected often because I always throw it into a ponytail. And the mole on the left side of my chin seems to get bigger each year, but my heart looks good - my son has kept it beating steadily. As I walked along the strip, my eyes drifted toward the Cognac advertisement hanging in the window of Kim’s liquor store. I reluctantly looked away and proceeded into my apartment building. Walking up the three flights of stairs was not a difficult task, but the school and urine stench that aligned the walls made it impossible to breathe. I’ve been complaining to the landlord about hiring someone to clean up around here, but he does not budge unless the rent is late. As I wedged open my front door, I smiled and walked into the calm living room. Aside from the peeling cream wallpaper and the worn brown furniture centered around the television, my living room has remained comfortable and spacious. It felt good to be home. I could hear Brandy’s raspy alto coming through the speakers in Manny’s room and could smell the vanilla scented candles as they burned in the bathroom. “Manny!” I yelled as I placed my bags in the dining chair by the window. “Hey mom,” he said as he walked out of his bedroom. “How was work?” “Same ole’, same ole.’ How is school coming along?” I replied. “Ugh! I can’t wait to graduate. Those teachers are always getting on my nerves,” he said, searching through my bags for a snack. “Well, I don’t care who is getting on ya nerves. You just better make that Honor Roll this period!” “Yeah, yeah, yeah,” he said as he grabbed the bag of peanut M&M’s from my bags, kissed my cheek and walked back to his room. I admired him as he walked away. Manny was the spitting image of his father––6’1 with the body of one of those basketball stars. He had my fair, coffee-brown complexion, but had his father’s big brown eyes and a bright smile. I’m sure all the girls loved him, but he was too afraid to bring any of them home. After changing out of my work clothes, I put some chicken breasts in the oven and then watched Fox29 News for a good hour. “Manny! Come help me finish cooking dinner,” I yelled out of the kitchen. When he came into the kitchen, I pointed toward the stove. He ignored my hand motion and gave me the tightest hug ever. “Hey, mom, I’ve got somethin’ to tell you. I been tryna’ tell you for weeks, but... here it goes.” “I’m listening,” I said as I set the table for two. “Mom, I’m gay,” he said as he stood looking at me with questioning eyes. “Boy, stop playin’ and stir that macaroni,” I said, spreading a smile across my face. “No, mom. I’m serious,” he said as he turned toward the stove. “Stir that damn macaroni,” I said between clenched teeth. My hands were trembling, and the smile vanished from my face. Manny is always joking around, but he doesn’t know when to be serious. I didn’t believe him, but something was building up inside of me. It was anger; no, it was fear. The room fell silent as we paced around the dated kitchen for ten minutes while fixing plates and making Kool-Aid. Tension filled the room, and I was tempted to allow him to eat in his room, but I wanted to have a relaxing dinner. So I made him sit at the worn wooden table and eat with me. Our eyes darted back and forth, running from each other as we ate in silence. “Mom, you’re going to have to say something. I am...I'm sorry.” “Sure, but you’re not gay,” I chanted in a low, stern voice. “Yes, I...” “But why, Manny?” I questioned. “I ain’t sayin’ it’s wrong, but there are plenty of pretty young girls out here. What about Tisha from 16th street? She’s a nice little one.” I said, almost pleading for my son to take his confession back. “Mom, I’ve fought this for years. I’ve hated myself because I knew that this would one day hurt you. But I can’t keep denying who I’m attracted to. It’s not something that I can wash away like some dirt from a hand. You always tell me that one day I’ma be a strong man, but I feel weak. I feel weak ‘cause I can’t fight this shame and guilt that’s tied to my name. I feel weak ‘cause I can’t bring myself to kiss a girl or even hold her hand. I feel weak ‘cause I haven’t dared to tell my best friend that I’m gay. I’m ashamed, and every time I catch my eyes following some dude, I feel strange. I’m queer, and I’ve been too afraid to say it. But mom, gay isn’t who I am. It’s only a minor part of me. I am, first and foremost, your son, and I’ll always be. I’m sorry that I’ve hurt you or haven’t lived up to the expectations you’ve set for me, but I know you’ll love me no matter what ‘cause the boy that you’ve raised is still inside of me.” My mouth wouldn’t part for words to escape. Tears flowed from my eyes like water pouring from a kettle. All I could take from what my son said were the words queer and gay. They were hanging above my heart like a gloomy shadow. “Gay? Not my son.” was all I could mutter through the tears. I could see Manny becoming angry. I knew I wasn’t telling him what he needed to hear, what I wanted to say, but I couldn’t. Manny stood up from the table, dropped his plate in the sink, and wandered into his room. The only thing I could think to do was call my mother. “Are you sure? He can’t be Shelley! That ain’t right!” My mother’s words were ringing in my head. I never saw this coming, at least not from my son. I should’ve seen the signs. I mean, how could he just walk in the kitchen and hug me? What was I supposed to do? What was I supposed to say? He hugged me so hard - so warm and heavy that I felt the worries and pain being lifted from his chest and placed onto mine. I guess it’s best that way, but I still don’t understand. I’ve been a good mother and even a father when I needed to be. I’ve never been wealthy, and sometimes I’ve been very inattentive. Just the same, I’ve been loving and caring. Hell, I’ve made sacrifices! I’ve worked two jobs for the past twelve years so that I could keep a roof over his head. I’ve been in and out of that damn welfare office, sometimes three times a month, making sure I was able to provide food for my son. All of this was for my son. Have I done all of this just for him to be gay? Momma said, “Shelly, you can’t blame yourself now. This is something he has to go through alone. It’s just a phase. Honey, trust me.” But I had to hang up the phone because Momma don’t understand. She’s wrong; this is all my fault. She doesn’t know how I used to take him to my book club meetings when he was seven years old. He would sit in that room and listen to us women fuss and argue about men. He would tilt his head and smile whenever I fell over in laughter or used my hand to twirl my hair. I should’ve known then. See, Momma doesn’t know how he used to watch me drink Hennessy after dinner. I would sit there and cry, sometimes about work and other times about men. She doesn’t know about the conversations we used to have. I would stand in the bathroom and grease my scalp, and he would walk right behind me and take a seat on the edge of the tub. On those nights, we confided in each other, or I confided in him. I’d tell him how all men were dogs and cheaters. I would watch his eyes light up during those conversations. And once again, he would tilt his head and smile. I have turned my son gay. What am I going to do? Can I love him just the same? How am I supposed to hold him? How am I going to be his mother? I sat there quietly for a half-hour pondering to myself as tears gently glided down my soft brown cheeks. I wasn’t upset with him; I couldn’t be. I’ve seen many of these little boys out here strut down the street with nothing but sugar on their bones, and I’ve done nothing but shake my hand and laugh. But I would’ve never thought that Manny could walk that way too. Rubbing my worn fingers across the stick figures that Manny had carved into the wooden kitchen table when he was younger, I began to long for that sweet taste of Hennessy. I hadn’t picked up a bottle in years, but I sure needed one now. I stopped drinking when I realized what the fermented tea was doing to me. I’ve sat at this very table many times in the past, wallowing in pain while drinking, but I hated the way Manny would look at me back then. So I stopped, for my son, and I wasn’t going to start again now. I stood up from the table as the wooden chairs screeched across the tile. I was drained - emotionally and physically. Still wanting to talk to Many before I closed my eyes, I turned off the kitchen light and walked down the hall to his room. As if he told me again for the first time, tears began running down my face, and I just stood there wondering whether or not I should knock. So I leaned against the door, and it inched open. Manny was lying across his bed, asleep with his head under his pillow. I stood in the doorway facing the dimly lit light, watching him sleep as I used to when he was younger. Back then, I was able to protect him - carry his grade school worries in a duffel back over my shoulder. He used to always come to me with stories about his classmates and tales about recess. I was his best friend, but highschool changed all of that. I began to work the night shift, and he could only write me notes that I would read when I got in from work. Then the notes stopped coming, and he became more distant. But I have a chance to hear my son’s voice again, not read a letter that was written with a marker or blue ink pen. I’m not going to give that up over some sexual liberation. For my son, I’m going to let these tears dry and let him be. With that, I turned off the lamp on his dresser and gently closed the door as I left his room. “Right, I’ll just let him be,” I softly spoke as I peddled to my room. -Anonymous