Through The Grapevine
My dad’s parents had visited us every month for as long as I could remember. Father grew up in Ann Arbor, and his parents never seemed to accept that he moves out. They would always set his place for dinner and pretend he never left. At ten the next morning, they showed up at our door with a week’s worth of luggage. Elena immediately dropped her bags and hugged mother. She doesn’t want us to call her Grandma, because she says it ages her. It was Elena or nothing, even when we were babies. Her hair was brown and tied into a bun, with grey root sprouting nearly to her ears. Behind her Grandpa leaned on his cane. Grandpa would have a stroke if we called him anything but Grandpa, Gramps or something along those lines. It made him feel closer to his family. Mother’s father, Mr. Carlson, lived in a home down in Colorado Springs. Her mom died in Beirut while in service when mom was two. Mr. Carlson always said she was the kind of woman who could bring the sky to its knees. She was the kind of woman who would watch the sun bow to her each night.
Elena had a wild spirit. She worked as a physical therapist for most of her life. Everyone in the family went through some sort of addiction, and hers was to caffeine. She was constantly inhaling the steam off coffee like a drug. She says that’s why she’s pocket sized. She was in a never-ending cycle of trying to keep up with the rest of the world. She only slowed down because two years ago she had a caffeine overdose. I bet you didn’t think those existed. But, they do. She chugged 34 coffees in 30 minutes to prove a man wrong at the bar. It ended with her flopping like a fish out of water and a puddle of vomit for the janitor to clean.
Grandpa was an artist from birth. He played everything from drums to the clarinet. He painted, sculpted, and would cook almost anything under the sun. He’d crack raw eggs into a glass and drink them in one gulp.
We let them inside and sat them down on the couch. Mother spoke to them in a low voice, as if Anne’s death was a secret she planned on taking to her grave. Mom sent me to the kitchen to get Elena a tea. I stood and made myself invisible as I disappeared into the kitchen. I put the sloshing tin kettle on the stove and turned the knob, waiting for the ticking to stop. When the fire caught, I walked to the mirror above the sink. My face was a mess. Not visibly, no. But you could tell there was something off. My hair was sticky. It had been a tradition for Mother to cut my hair, even though she was not very good at it. She’d put a bowl over my head and cut along the rim. My hair had an intense, uneven chop right across my forehead, and the back of my neck was nearly bare. There was a cut along my cheek from sleeping on dad’s keys the night before, and my shirt was unevenly buttoned. I was just slightly cracked. I poured steaming water into a mug, and splashing onto my hand. I threw down the kettle and put my hand under cold water from the faucet. I exhaled desperately, choking on my air. Groaning furiously I collapsed into the kitchen floor. I wiped my face and as soon as my meltdown was there it was gone.
I walked back into the room to Elena and Grandfather holding hands, nearly in tears. When they were young, Father told me once, that they were so in love they were the kind of people to do it in public. No, they never did, but he said he wouldn’t be surprised. Grandpa always said instead of settling down he settled up. I held out the tea for Elena and she took it shakily. This was the first time I hadn’t seen them joking with each other. Usually their jokes would wind them to the point of gasping for air.
Elena and Grandpa ended up sleeping in my room, so I brought a quilt to the couch to camp out. I wrapped myself in the blanket and stared out the skylight. I watched the slow moving clouds inching away into the dimming horizon, and pulled the blanket tighter. And I sat there, gazing out of the glass until the sky and the walls around me were blanketed in darkness.
The next morning I awoke to Ernie buzzing loudly. Ernie is the name of our coffee machine. We named it after someone famous, but after a month we had already forgotten who it was. It’s at least ten years old, and every time you turn it on it buzzes so loud your skull shakes. I sat up, dazed. The electric clock on the fireplace shelf read seven thirty in the morning. I sat up as the whirring stopped, and crept my way into the kitchen. Elena stood, leaning over the coffee machine and hitting it with the palm of her hand. She looked up at me, startled.
“Elena, what the heck are you doing?” I wiped my eyes. She backed away from Ernie, fidgeting.
“I got… thirsty?” She wrung her hands. “Look, babe I know you’ve had a hard time lately, so have I. I just need a bit of a pick me up. You know, to keep me going through the day.” She smiled weakly.
“But… you could die.” I said, still holding the quilt around my waist.
“I promise to keep it to a minimum if you promise to keep my secret.” She said, rubbing my shoulders. I nodded. And I kept nodding until I cried. I kept nodding until my soul shook the earth from it’s core. I kept nodding, though it hurt to know I was watching Elena die before me
When you start to break down and collapse onto life, it doesn’t work very well. The sun still rises every day, and life pulls you forward with a hook through your cheek. So the next morning I decided I might as well swim along for the ride. The first step was for me to relearn my home. By my home I mean my house, neighborhood and all of Orlin. My house had four big rooms. Mother and Fathers, the living room, the dining room and my room. I spent hours running my finger along every bookshelf, every hunting trophy, every mirror. Without putting shoes on, I swung open the front door. Though I felt like life had shifted tectonic plates, Lexing Boulevard looked just the same. The air still smelled like cut grass and gardening chemicals. It was still quiet enough to hear the cars driving into town a mile away. The sky was still leaking humidity and the sidewalk was still covered in a thin layer of dirt. Our neighbors, the Olsens were eating breakfast. I passed Ms. O’Neal’s place, a widow with two daughters who were all above six feet tall. The two daughter’s kept to themselves, never waved back or made eye contact. I passed the Carter-Johnson, a family of eight who all had nearly the same face. When you’d see one, they’d call your name and rush over for small talk. Across the street were the Allisters, a family of the three richest people in the county. Yes, that includes their nineteen year old daughter. She began her business plans at five, and was assistant director of a small company in town, and worked at least four paid internships. The parent ran the bank in town. Once I heard a boy joke that they were Jews in sheep’s clothing. Anne always hated violence, but she smacked that kid so hard the stars could see him. I plugged my nose when passing the pile of trash bags, and ran my hand along the twitching skin of the dogs that sleep on the corner. One lifted its eyes to my face, and licked my hand. I walked barefoot until I reached Rudder’s.
I knocked on the frayed wooden door next the shop and waited. He pulled open the door with his toothbrush hanging out of his mouth. “Good morning.” He said sarcastically, arms outstretched. We walked up the stairs and were instantly attacked by his parrot Henley. Every time Hen saw people he’d act like he was just injected with five different steroids. He couldn’t speak, he wasn’t that kind of parrot. Infact, Henley was Illegal. When Rudder and Sherry wanted a parrot, a friend recommended a guy. When they had to do the trade in the dead of night behind a gas station, they still didn’t suspect anything. Turns out Hen is an endangered species from Puerto Rico. I spent hours at his house, and eventually decided to sleep there.
That night, Marissa and Avery’s house burned down. While they were sleeping, four men snuck onto their front yard with a pride flag. They set it ablaze, and soon the grass it got out of hand and the Nersha’s house caught fire. Three of them were arrested and identified, one ran from the scene. Marcus Hewing who worked at the bike shop a couple blocks east, Larry Fuller who ran a diner, and his son Emm. The next day father when Father opened the paper to the shocking headline, he shook his head.
“The gays, they are troubling. But the ones who recklessly attack them are highly dangerous. It was stupid, what they did, too.” He put the paper back on the table as mother came in with breakfast.
“The first amendment.” Mother said in a singsong voice, stroking dad’s balding hair.
“Betty, no.” He moved her hand to the table.
“I just think they’re exercising their faith to God and this country.” She said hesitantly. I pushed my chair out, and walked away without eating breakfast.
I wasn’t sure where I was going, but it was sure as hell away from there. Soon I found myself in front of Ledgeherd Motel. I hung close to the edge of the walkway, and came to room 8. I rang the bell. The door opened with the chain still connected. A red-faced flustered Avery Nersha looked me dead in the eyes.
“Aaron! Give me a second.” She closed the door, and after a few clicks the door opened wide to reveal a small scrappy motel room. There was one unmade two person bed, an armchair and a small black and white TV. What they managed to get out of the fire was piled on the arm chair, a spilling tower of clothes, books, and a tablet. Marissa sat on the bed reading a slightly burnt novel full of dog eared pages. She looked up, and her face brightened.
“Aaron! I apologize, our hairbrush was lost in the fire.” She laughed.
“I say this is just a discount honeymoon.” Avery happily fired back. They were both in pajamas, with their hair scraped into buns with rubber bands.
“So how’s life on the other side?” Marissa said.
“Just peachy.” I said sarcastically. I looked around at their walk in closet size home, and frowned. “Do you guys want to stay in my house for a little while? This is no place for newlyweds.” Marissa dropped her book onto the stack.
“Are you sure Mrs. Walker will be okay with that?” Avery asked, finally closing the door behind us.
“Oh, yeah absolutely. She loves to have guests over. My grandparents are in my room currently, so maybe you could sleep on the couch and I could take the porch.” They looked at each other for reassurance.
“We’d love to.” Avery beamed.
It took about fifteen minutes to convince Mother to let them stay. Their house had burned down after all, and she wasn’t that cold hearted. It took about another fifteen to move my stuff outside and their things into the living room. Mother kept whispering under her breath during dinner about betraying God or whatever. I was just happy Avery and Marissa were out of that motel. They were both in their mid thirties, but age hadn’t really locked in on them yet. In their minds age was nothing more than a level in a video game. Marissa had dark shoulder length hair, which was wet from the shower. Avery’s hair was partially shaved on one side, but she covered it with the rest of her hair for dinner. They were both in my mom’s clothing, seeing as most of theirs were either dirty or burnt alive. They were both vigorously complimenting her meatloaf, and her generosity for providing them with a living space. She just smiled and nodded painfully.
After we successfully made it through an unoffensive dinner, everyone retreated to their rooms. I opened the porch door to a warm gust of air. My house was in a constant ice age. When I was younger I’d sit around the table with Anne in full snow gear and play checkers. One winter it was cold enough to see our breath. On the rare occasions there was good heating, the radiators would burn anything on top. They would whistle and growl until each of us lay on the floor, roasted to our deflated lungs. I lifted my quilt back onto the porch swing, and collapsed into it. Just when I was about to decompress into a puddle, I heard whispering.
“I mean it’s not like it isn’t clear…”
“She used to wave to us when we passed this house, now she may as well keep her windows bolted shut.”
“I wonder why she even let us stay here. It’s like a lion’s den of her homophobia.” They laughed quietly.
“Aaron probably pulled strings for us.”
“Yeah, definitely.” I stood up and made my way back into the house. Avery and Marissa were sitting on the couch, Avery collapsed onto Marissa’s shoulder.
“Aaron, hey.” Marissa smiled. I made my way over and sat on the arm chair.
“Do you guys need anything? You’re our guests after all.” I said. They glanced at each other for approval.
“We’re okay.” Marissa said. I eased into the back of my chair.
“Why did you guys get married?” It spilled out of me. They raised their eyebrows simultaneously.
“Well…” Marissa pushed herself up. “Avery knows what I’m thinking before I say it. She’s understanding and can be my rock when I need her. She’s the yin to my yang.” Avery kissed her cheek.
“Ditto.” They smirked at each other, and then looked back at me. “Why do you ask?”
“I’m not sure. When did you… know you were gay?” I recoiled at that sentence. The air condensed.
“It wasn’t really hard, when you know you know.” Avery said.
“It happens different for everyone, you meet a person, things happen and it turns out you aren’t who you thought. Sometimes you’re not even with someone to know. Sometimes it’s just engraved in your DNA.” Marissa responded.
“Why, are you questioning?” Avery asked, shifting her face in my direction. My vision unfocused, and static filled the air. I was a broken record. Not one skipping to the same spot, one that had been smashed by and angsty teen high on Advil. “Aaron?” My vision was grainy.
“Give me a minute.” I staggered to the bathroom. No, I just walked. But I felt like I was staggering. I locked the door behind me and vomited into the stool sized sink. I coughed as my vision began to fade back, and then puked again. There goes all of Mother’s meatloaf. I washed out my mouth and wiped my face with a towel. The mirror was lying. I should have looked like I had broken every tiny bone in my face. But I looked fine. Utterly, fucking fine. I walked out of the bathroom. My feet were heavy as if I were in moon shoes. Marissa felt my head. She asked me if I was okay and I nodded. I walked out onto the porch and Marissa followed. Aaron. I buried myself in the quilt and shivered deeper, until all I could see was through a small crack in the fabric. Marissa put her hand on my shoulder. Aaron. I told her I’m fine. I just need sleep. She told me okay and I heard the door close. And then it got darker. And colder. And I curled into myself until I was the size of a seed. And you could plant me but no matter how much you shower me in water I would not grow. I would not unroll because if I did I knew I wouldn’t grow like you said. I would dissipate into earth, dirt, and rock. So I melted back into my mind where it was warm and familiar.
The next morning I was sent back to school. I woke up before the sun and showered. Before I could eat breakfast Mother woke and insisted on making me eggs. I sat at the table and watched my hands curiously. She sprayed my hair with product until it could stand up straight on its own. By the time I got to school my hair had become a modern art sculpture. Classes were slow, and people were still telling me they were sorry for my loss. During lunch I was walking down the stairs with Eric. Eric was one of my distant friends, who was about my height with nearly shaved hair. We were in multiple classes together, and he was missing one of his front teeth.
I was telling him about Marissa and Avery staying at my house.
“Hey.” He stopped moving, so I paused too. “You have, like, gay people in your house?” My heart started to beat faster. Did I do something wrong? I didn’t know even housing gays was against the unwritten rules. I began to panic, and turned my face back to him. He looked at me for a long second, and then pushed me up against the wall and kissed me. What? I pushed him away, in shock. He searched my face.
“I’m sorry I didn’t-”
“No it’s okay-”
“I thought we were-”
“I promise it’s fine.”, I said. He looked like he was about to burst into tears. I felt an immediate need to hug him. I held out my arms, and he collapsed on me, sobbing. It was as if a dam had exploded. We sat on those stairs for hours while he vented about his parents and how he was so confused about everything.
“I’m really sorry, though. I think I was just desperate for some kind of answer, and there you were.” His face had dried and he was sitting up again. Is this what it’s like to be the gay kid? Everyone using you for their own personal experiment?
“Again, it’s totally fine. We’ve all questioned, I think it’s normal.” I said casually. He looked at me like my face had been rearranged.
“You’ve questioned too?” Did I screw up. I cleared my throat.
“Yes? I mean… I think so? I’ve always liked girls too though.” I said nervously. That made Eric think. I tried to cover it up. “I don’t think it really means anything. Sort of like a mid-life crisis for teens.” He nodded, and then looked back at me.
“How late to class are we?” He laughed.
“Precisely forty-eight minutes since lunch should have ended.” I say nervously. He laughed. His laugh was a sort of cackle. “We should go…”
“Yea, we really should have like negative fifty minutes ago.” That was the day I knew I was no straight boy.