Blue and Gay

“How many Yankees were there? 10,000! How many Rebels? TWO! What did they do? CHARGE! What did they do? CHARGE! What did they do? CHARGE!” I am performing a cheer for Paul that we used at our community swim meets when I was growing up in North Carolina in the 1970’s. The wide eyed look on his face is one of bewilderment and worry. If I could read his mind I think it might be saying “Mental note: check the mail for any telltale ties to hate groups”.

“Your mascot was a rebel? Ok, not only is that borderline offensive, but stupid too: Two men against 10,000?” Paul says. “Well, think of it in terms of the movie ‘300.’” I toss this out as a bit of homoerotic mind candy in the hopes that the image will wipe away the last thirty seconds. But I have forgotten that Paul prefers my “mono-pack” to Gerard Butler’s “six pack”. So I decide to have fun with it. “Oh, we had a children’s TV show called The Old Rebel. I was on the show when I was in second grade.” Not surprisingly, Paul’s expression does not change.

If there is a negative stereotype that New Englanders apply to Southerners it is that we are a bit slow on the uptake and racist. Exhibit A: My swim team cheer. But being a part of a minority group myself, I realized long ago that racism and stereotypes are by-products of fear, hatred (many times self-hatred) and stupidity. Southerners themselves are apt to apply a negative stereotype to “Yankees” as anyone north of the Mason Dixon line is called.

“Ya’ll are moving to Bawston? That’s almost a foreign country! People are different there!” One of my neighbors’ said when I told her I was moving from Virginia years ago. And I knew that what she meant by “foreign country” was both literal and figurative. Boston was basically southern Canada and Yankees were rude, brash and liberal. The liberal part suited me just fine. It was the rude thing that I was worried about.

My brother Jake from North Carolina visited us a week ago on a work related trip and sent me this e-mail: “I would say that people don't really say "good morning" or look up at you when you try to say it.” I laughed when I read the e-mail, picturing him trying to engage people on the street. But his e-mail pretty much summed up what I had forgotten. The pleasantries and genteelness of the south are not as evident here. And I began to think about how I missed them.

When Paul and I were planning our wedding vows, I worked for months on just the right words and selection of readings. During a planning session I recited all of those words to our Justice of the Peace and then looked at Paul. “Ditto” was his reply. “Ditto? I worked for months on this and your reply is ditto?” This was clearly the difference between north and south. Paul’s reply was direct, simple and true: “Actions speak louder than words.”

I might miss the nice words and southern hospitality. And I might not always like the frank directness of my fellow New Englanders. But I am an equal here. Actions speak louder than words.


Hold the phone!

“Well if he is good enough to spend time with Justin Brenner then he’s good enough for me!” I am listening reluctantly to a stranger’s phone conversation on the bus. As far as I can tell, “Justin Brenner” is the young man talking on a cell phone about himself in the third person. Basically he is saying that if this “Mr. Wonderful” is good enough to spend time with him, then he, Justin Brenner, is good enough to spend time with that someone else. It is the stupidest shit I have heard in a long time. Could the bar be set any lower? Following his logic, a stray cat, a stalker and a kidnapper all stand the same chances of becoming his Mr. Right. I am rooting for the kidnapper.

I really shouldn’t be so critical, but because he is talking so loudly not only do I have the right, but also the responsibility to judge him. His tone comes across as “Hey kids, let’s put on a show!” which adds to the irritation factor.

“I know it’s only been two weeks, but I have a good feeling about this!” He says. I laugh out loud and Justin quickly turns to look at me. I look down at my book and pretend to be amused by what I am reading. Pointing my index finger at a paragraph in my book and chuckling.

There is something particularly irritating about hearing half of a conversation in a public area. Not just any public area, but in spaces where I cannot get away, such as buses, check-out lines, the subway and public restrooms. Maybe it’s the fact that I am only allowed to hear one half of the equation.

I can't say that this is a recently acquired irritation.  I have had to deal with this since childhood. My mother would talk on the wall mounted phone located next to the den for hours at a time.

“uh-huh, uh-huh, uh-huh” Pause and then  “OK,OK,OK,OK”

She sounded like a record player that needed to be bumped. Irritated, I would yell at my brother “What did Dr. Bellows say? Turn up the TV!” My brother would have to actually get up off of the floor and manually turn up the volume.

I know what you’re thinking. I could have escaped my mother’s phone conversation, but there was simply no way around it. This was the 1970’s. In our home, there was one TV, one phone and no way to record “I dream of Jeannie”. My brothers and I were prisoners.

Eventually my mother stretches the phone cord and steps into the den, snapping her fingers while staring at me. I point at my brother with a questioning look as if to say “You want Jake?” My mother shakes her head, snaps her fingers again and points at something in the room while silently mouthing some indistinguishable word. “The lamp? The cat? You want the cat?” I say while picking up our bewildered cat named Al. I am looking at my mother with an expectant look.

“Hold on Sootie!” My mother says in a half irritated, half apologetic tone and then covers the receiver. “Why would I want the damn cat? THAT! Give me THAT pen!” I drop the cat and it is at this point that I realize I would be in trouble if I were a deaf child. My mother’s hand signals and lip movements are a foreign language.

After grudgingly handing my mother a pen, I return to “I dream of Jeannie” and begin to think of what my three wishes would be. 1) There would be multiple TV sets in the house. 2) Telephones that could be used anywhere and 3) The ability to read someone’s mind so that they would not snap their fingers and yell at you when you couldn’t read their lips.

It is the future and I realize that all of my wishes have come true. For the most part this is good. Except that the number two wish has enabled number three. We listen to everyone’s thoughts each day while they chatter incessantly on their mobile phones. I have to reconsider my third wish. Who wants to be privy to someone’s rambling thoughts anyway?


Creepy little baby teeth

Determined to obtain a movie star smile in 2003 I started a journey that would ultimately lead to the murder of one of my babies. “People look at your smile and they can tell something is off, they just don’t know exactly what it is.” I knew that my smile was off, but I didn’t realize how off it was. From that moment on, I worried that people would see me smile and think “Freak!” I had come to see the orthodontist for my crooked teeth, but apparently there was much more wrong with me than I realized. Not only did I have crooked British teeth but “Peg lateral incisors” too.

On either side of my two middle upper teeth were two small stunted teeth. The rest of my mouth had matured, while the two little upper lateral incisors where eternally young. Just like Peter Pan they refused to grow up. I never noticed them before, but as my orthodontist pointed out, oh people noticed, they just couldn’t put their finger on why my smile was so bizarre.

My orthodontist had great hopes of improving my smile power, but half way through the process I moved from Virginia to Boston. Two years later, my new orthodontist was less enthusiastic about creating a Tom Cruise smile. “What do you say we remove those braces now and just put a little bonding on the lateral incisors? There really is no way to make enough room. They look fine.” I fell for it. In retrospect, I should have realized that he was just lazy and couldn’t see my vision. But I was tired of sitting next to the other awkward thirteen and fourteen year old boys and girls in the open concept office, listening to their junior high school prom stories.

When I moved into the city, I changed dentists again and during a routine cleaning the hygienist commented on my teeth. “Wow, you have really straight teeth; it’s too bad that you still have those two baby teeth.” I had a little melt down. “I know, I tried to get them fixed and now I’m stuck with them!” She sat me up, gave me a tissue and told me to rinse. Moments later the dentist was in the office describing how he could shave the two middle teeth and fit “enamel jackets” around the two baby teeth and my smile would finally look normal.

I was ecstatic. That night at dinner I had a little coming out party for my baby teeth. “See them?” I asked while pointing to them.

“Oh, yeah, I never noticed, they’re so cute!” Paul said.

“No they aren’t. They’re hideous! Don’t look at me.”

“Oh, but I like your creepy little baby teeth.”

“Well take a good look at them, because tomorrow, I’m putting them up for adoption!”

And just like that I sealed their fate. Well, not quite just like that. If I was going to get rid of my creepy little baby teeth, I might as well whiten the remaining teeth. It was called Zoom whitening, but in my opinion it should really be called “Holy shit! Whitening” because that is what I was saying as I felt the electric “zingers” that were a result of the bleaching agent hitting the nerves of my teeth.

But the end result was perfection in my mind. Even if I had to point it out to everyone. “Oh yeah, OK, I see it now, I never noticed the other teeth.”

That was one year ago and now I am sitting in the dentists’ office looking at an x-ray of a dying baby. “It couldn’t take the trauma of the re-shaping. See this dark area? That is an abscess. We’ll have to drill through the tooth and remove the inside and fill it with cement.” I am heartbroken. Maybe I shouldn’t have been so cavalier about giving them up. But then I hear an exchange in the lobby area. “Oh my gawd! He says I have to have a root canal and it’s going to cost six hundred bucks!” A woman says to her husband. “How much to just pull it?” The husband asks.

How callous, I think to myself. They are ready to toss the tooth away for the price of six nice dinners out on the town. Not me, I am much more caring. I will memorialize my tooth and preserve it. But maybe the dentist can shape my eye tooth just a little while he’s in there.


Never can say goodbye

My father never could say goodbye. You know the feeling: Someone across the room that you really don’t recognize waves and smiles at you. You return the smile and wave eagerly thinking “Oh, hello…you!” Then you realize the intended recipient of the wave is behind you. It’s embarrassing and awkward. Just like conversations with my father on the telephone. One minute he was there. The next minute, I never really knew when, he had finished and hung up. No goodbye. Red-faced, I would keep on talking just in case anyone within earshot could hear me. “Oh, yeah, uh-huh, OK Dad, sure goodbye!”

He was not being rude. He was just efficient. I guess that’s just about the nicest way to say it. His efficiency extended to how he addressed each of his five children, all boys as “Son”.

“Son, this is your Dad. Just calling to see if you’re still alive”

I suppose the Dad part was redundant. But you have to admire the efficiency of not having to remember our names. On the rare occasion when he did try to call us by our name it was as awkward as his telephone conversations. He would go through the list: “Chu, John, Matt, Bill…” After each name, he would realize that it didn’t work, blink and snap his fingers. Put a beat behind it and it was a name calling scat routine.

And if he had issues with remembering our names, it paled in comparison to the list of his “lady friends” names. Being the cunning attorney that he was, he found a way to identify them all without admitting the guilt of not remembering their names. The waitress, the girlfriend, the wife, the lady with the husky cigarette voice and fire red nails all had the same name: “Sweetie”. It was necessary because he always had one waiting to enter center stage as the other one exited. Performing a Scat of girlfriend’s names was not acceptable.

I did not have the type of lady friends that my father had. My friends, who were female, actually were my friends, which was a source of constant worry for my father. While I could admire the wrapping on the package, my father enjoyed what was inside the package much more.

I did have two female roommates in college. It was a “Three’s Company” type of arrangement, but with a twist. I was the gay man playing a straight man. Because my father provided a monthly stipend based on half of the apartment costs, it only made sense to take in a third roommate without telling my father and spend the leftover money on beer. This was my college finance major in action!

What I didn’t count on was my father calling the apartment and talking to my third roommate, a blond bombshell. When Karen told me that she spoke to my father I felt like the gig was over. “But he seemed really sweet.” Karen said. “He called me sweetie!”

I called my father prepared to admit the scam.

“Hey Dad, so about Karen…” I started.

“Son, you never told me about her.” He said.

“I’m sorry I should have told you I had another roommate.”

“Yeah, sure son, another ‘roommate’” He chuckled. I could almost see the invisible air quotes he was making. This was not the reaction I expected. He suddenly sounded like Dean Martin. I half expected him to say “You old dog, you!” Then it clicked. He wanted to believe so badly that Karen was my live in lady friend: a real lady friend, happy ending and all. Who was I to deny him this one small pleasure?

Many years later he lay in his bed and waited for all five of his sons. After we all arrived, he quietly slipped away. A year after he died I was determined to visit his graveside and tell him who I was: disclosure and closure. I searched the cemetery for hours in tears looking for his tombstone. While I knew exactly where he was buried, I could not find him. Later I learned that my brother had neglected to order the headstone. Even in death, my father never could say goodbye.


What I did on my summer vacation

The sound of women’s laughter pierces the evening breeze like breaking glass. Children fueled by hot dogs and sugary frozen Slurpee’s run with sparklers through the back yard. Their happy screaming voices like a pendulum, now close, now far away. In the upstairs bathroom I look at my reflection in the mirror and begin to hum “I’m going to wash that gray right out of my hair”. Damn you Miss Clairol, that jingle will be stuck in my head for a week. If you are somewhere near my age, it will be stuck in your head too. You’re welcome. No one likes to suffer alone.

It is the third of July. How quickly Paul’s family, has become my family; the day before the fourth, now our annual Independence Day celebration. Regular time stops long enough for me to understand. This is my life. This is a tradition.

As I walk out of the house and into the back yard, I see Pops giving a geography lesson to my daughter Taylor and her friend Lisa. He is pointing to the wall map of Cape Ann located behind the outdoor bar. There is a knowing and unexpected mature look exchanged between Lisa and Taylor. They are more interested in eighteen year old boys, but will kindly listen to my father-in-law’s story.

While watching the lesson unfold, something my mother-in-law said two weeks ago surfaces in my conscious brain:

“Oh my Gawd, Pops is so conceited. When he gets out of the showa’ he says ‘don’t peek!’”

I have seen my future.

I cannot count how many times I have heard Paul make that same statement while gingerly covering himself. And in terms of lessons, life with Paul is an extended “Jeopardy” episode. “I’ll take Boston history for $100, Alex”. But there is a comfort in knowing what lies around the corner. Just as I know that when it turns dark, we will fill our plastic cups with a “bikini martini” and walk down to the town common.

Most of the town will be there, waiting for flames to engulf a ten story pile of shipping pallets with an outhouse crowning the top. Firemen will spray the area immediately surrounding the kerosene soaked wood to prevent a forest fire. The fire hose will then be turned on the delighted crowd when the flames are licking the sky and red hot embers are raining down. Just to clarify, this is not my birth state of North Carolina, but Ashby, Massachusetts. Watching the crowd’s thrilled reaction, I am reminded of a joke. What are a redneck’s last words? Answer: “Hey ya’ll, watch this!”

The next day we leave the small town for Boston. Our plans mirror last years: watching fireworks with thousands along
 the Charles. Unable to face the crowds, at the last minute, I text my friend Sam and ask if we can see the fireworks from his rooftop deck. When Taylor and Lisa emerge from our Boston condo bathroom, they have grown four inches taller and five years older. “Wedge” sandals are in and these girls are now young women.

As we pass the “Frat house” on our way to the T stop, I catch a young shirtless frat boy looking like an eagle on the upper deck eyeing his approaching prey.

“You should be glad your fah-thuh’s are with you, otherwise I’d say a lot more. You’re lucky men” He shouts.

Paul is retelling the story on Sam’s roof deck when he turns to me and asks “How come the frat boys never notice us like that?” But I am too busy thinking about how my gray hair has given me away as a father. And in what universe would a father be lucky that his daughters were knock outs?

But then I look at the 360 degree view surrounding me. There are fireworks filling the night time sky from the south shore to the north shore.  “Boom!” the fireworks over the Charles explode in the night time sky framed by the Boston skyline before us. I feel like a child. Maybe I don’t know what’s around every corner. But I know who will be with me.


The Odd Couple

Whenever Paul reads one of my blog posts he invariably reacts differently than I anticipate. At one end of the reaction scale he does not find them nearly as humorous as I do. At the other end, he is horrified.

Take The “C” Word for example. I laughed out loud while writing that one. As Paul began to read it I waited for the belly laughs, the guffaws. By the time he had finished, the disappointed look on his face made me wonder if he was constipated or had just remembered that yesterday was his mother’s birthday. His response was: “You dropped a lot of F bombs in that post.” Defensively I said “Well, that was how I felt!” I had presented my precious baby to him and his response was “Uh-huh, ugly.”

After reading another post I expected his response to somehow mirror my sentiments about our lost summers of youth accompanied by a far-off wistful look. What I saw was more of a “Where did I put that suicide prevention telephone number?” look.

“Are you getting ready to check out?” He said. There was real concern in his voice.


“Pookie, I’m concerned, are you really that tired?”

“We all get tired. I’m just going through one of those phases.” I simply said

“I don’t allow myself to be tired.” Was his response.

I wanted to laugh. But he was serious. And then I began to think about it. It reminded me of something a neighborhood Mom had said when I remarked how well behaved her children were. “We do not allow them to misbehave.” I was as dumbfounded then as I was now. I had always thought that controlling children was just as futile as controlling bodily functions. Quite literally, shit happens.

If controlling my body was an option, sign me up. I’d start with my abs. “I don’t care what you say about the mouth eating all the time, I’m talking to you now little mister, so flatten it up!” And to my hair: “You’re looking a little thin and pale lately sweetie, let’s fatten you up and get some color back in those pretty little follicles!”

Paul sent me an e-mail this week that was a perfect example of how we differ. He had decided to get up early and drive from our condo in Boston to make a 9:30 AM appointment in New York. The e-mail started with “I got here an hour and a half early, so I put Wal-Mart in the GPS and shopped for our supplies for the weekend.” Number one, I would consider arriving anything other than five minutes early to be a waste of perfectly good sleep time. Number two, Wal-Mart would be the furthest thing from my mind at 8:00 AM. And finally, shopping for the weekend on Tuesday?

But this is how Paul operates. His mind and body are in constant planning and production mode. While it is generally accepted that once my work day ends, sitting on the sofa and watching trash TV is just about as industrious as I am going to get. I am good with creative thoughts, but bringing them to fruition is where Paul comes in. My off –hand comment that it might be nice to have a honey onyx backsplash becomes reality just by mentioning it to Paul. I pass the ball and he takes it to the end zone.

The second part of the e-mail elaborately detailed how he was going to borrow his sister’s truck to pick up a new bed at Ikea and swap the one in our Boston condo for the one in New Hampshire and then switch Nick’s bed for the one that we had. I was exhausted by the end of the e-mail. But it occurred to me that how we differed was also what made us strong. Each of us has his strengths. Maybe having a differing sense of humor also made us stronger.

Finally, Paul’s e-mail stated that he would stay in New Hampshire that night so he could get a good night sleep in the larger bed and give his “restless legs” a break. Even his legs are constantly moving. I wanted to reply back “Well maybe you just need to have a little talk with those legs. Show them the back of your hand and then we’ll see who stops shaking!” But something tells me that he would not see the humor in that.

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