I was six the first time the word ‘gay’ was lobbed my direction. I asked my mom what it meant.
It was after school and I was in the sandbox with my Tonka trucks, I heard Mom coming and looked up. She was wearing an orange and turquoise floral print bikini and canvas sneakers. Mom was unwilling to give up on summer, and that mid-September Pennsylvania evening was humid and warm.
“Mom,” I said as she passed, “What’s gay?”
I suspected it was something bad, so I didn’t make eye contact.
Mom responded without stopping, breathing or thinking. “It’s when two men love each other the way moms and dads love each other. Or it means to be happy.”
That was that.
I watched her as she passed. She had a mud-covered shovel slung over her freckled shoulder.
Mom was forth-right about things when asked. Especially then, in the 1970’s. When I was little Mom was more feminist, social-justice minded. She was strong and out-spoken. My siblings were both born later, in the Reagan-era, when Mom had shifted into a family-values Christian housewife with big curling-iron hair and navy-blue skirt-suits. I suspect my sister and brother do not remember the Mom who gardened in a bikini.
Maybe the memory stands out to me because, just a few years later, I was learning to keep things from Mom.
My fifth grade teacher was Mrs. Clayton. Mrs. Clayton had hay-bale colored hair above a ruddy face. Before she was my teacher, I watched Mrs. Clayton pull Jerry Baum out of line by grabbing the back of his collar. He never saw it coming. I think he choked on the spitball he was aiming. The straw in his hand, just about to touch his lips, flew clear down the hall.
In Mrs. Clayton’s room, there were three possible places to sit. One was beside Mrs. Clayton, facing the class. This was reserved for her favorite. To the right of the favorite was a grouping of desks called the dunce pool, which grew and shrank depending on classroom behavior. Most of us sat in rows, the silver-dollar sized feet of our desks covering dots on the floor showing how far apart we were to be.
At recess I played with four girls. Jennifer LaChance, Barbara Savage, Kelly Snow and Rebecca Housechild. None of us ever sat at the desk beside Mrs. Clayton. Barbara and Jennifer were tough girls from the city. They wore heavy eyeliner, roach clips with feathers and jean jackets. They got caught smoking in the bathroom, more than once. Jennifer had a regular seat in the dunce pool. Facing us, she would make big eyes and pouty lips behind Mrs. Clayton’s back. It was hard not to giggle at Jennifer, but we tried to keep our faces under control. Our giggles only resulted in more time for her in dunce pool.
Rebecca got her week in the dunce pool because of squirming; she was covered in a poison ivy rash from head to toe.
Kelly and I were the good kids. Not good enough to be a favorite. But good enough to be kept free of the dunce pool.
Kelly and I were also the non-Catholics of our group. At recess we played Confession. I was assigned the role of the priest for two reasons: one, I was a boy; two, the girls believed that I had nothing to confess.
They confessed. To me.
“When we tell you how bad we are, you have to tell us how many bloody Marys we have to drink,” Barbara said.
Jennifer and Rebecca laughed at this joke every time.
I was a little afraid of Catholics because Kelly told me that the priests drink blood during the service; the bloody Mary. I didn’t know about Hail Marys or bloody Marys.
Most days I offered them forgiveness for having sex with their boyfriends and smoking marijuana until they dissolved into giggles and the game was over. I had no idea how these girls knew so much about sex and marijuana. I assumed they made it all up.
Until the day Rebecca confessed to me for real. Taking me by the hand, she dragged me to a corner of the playground, where the shade of giant poplar trees killed the grass. Standing on the hard-packed mud facing me, she told me that her boyfriend, who was two years older than her, had taken her into the woods. They took off their clothes. And she laid in a patch of poison ivy while he fucked her. The rash, she said, was making her act crazy.
I was stunned by all of it. Despite all the practice of offering absolution, when asked for real, I was frozen. Speechless. I hadn’t known what it meant to be a ‘virgin’ until that moment, despite constant bantering with the word. I felt ashamed—and I felt aware of knowing what was right. What happened to Rebecca was wrong. The adult reaction was to move her to dunce pool.
Later that fall, Mom brought cupcakes for the class on my birthday. I had been excited about the idea, until it was unfolding in real time. First, the cupcakes were homemade—from scratch—so they did not have the poofy softness of box-cake and, the frosting was thin chocolate—not pasty and sweet like the kind you buy at the store. My choice of brown-on-yellow seemed as tacky as fake wood paneling now. Mom, trying to engage with my friends, met Barbara Savage’s stony scowl with a smile. She was unfazed by Jennifer’s snarkiness. Rebecca smiled back, but avoided eye contact. Kelly gave Mom a hug and complimented her on the cupcakes. The boys competed, stuffing everything into their mouths in one giant bite while elbowing each other and saying things under their breath.
I was too old for my Mom to bring cupcakes. Neither Mom nor I had realized it.
Something else happened that clouded the event. Something Mrs. Clayton had said to Mom. I don’t know what it was, but I knew Mom was mad. Mom stayed up late that night talking to Dad in a hissing voice. Wrapped in the quilt from my bed, I sat near the door, ear to hall, listening. What happened? Was it my fault? But, as usual, Mom’s words, the juicy ones, were muffled and Dad only said things like, “I know” and “you’re right.”
Not long after that, Barbara renamed me.
“Hey, Father Fag,” she said, approaching me from behind and poking me in my sides.
I leapt up, yelling and grabbing my belly.
Kelly defended me. “Don’t say things like that!” she said.
“He is a fag,” Barbara spat back.
“He is not!” Kelly said.
I stood, holding my sides, watching them fight. Saying nothing.
“Fucking rich goody two-shoes perfect family assholes,” Barbara said. Then Jennifer and Barbara stalked off and that was the end of recess games.
Mom had driven us all to the roller rink a few times. What could Mom see in these girls? By the time of the Father Fag incident, Jennifer and Barbara were catching rides with other people.
In the spring, Barbara’s parents split up. Jennifer, who didn’t know her dad, was sent to live with her grandparents after her Mom’s trailer burnt down and her Mom went to jail.
The next week Jennifer ran away with her boyfriend, a 7th grader with a moustache. She was missing for two weeks. Then, when she came back to school in sunglasses, Mrs. Clayton forced Jennifer to take off the glasses and reveal her black eye.
I mentioned it to Mom while unloading the dishwasher.
“What did you just say?” she asked. Her blue-green eyes squinting in the way that made me know I’d said something wrong.
Paralyzed, I stumbled over words, trying to minimize the story.
“Did Mrs. Clayton call her mother? Did she send Jennifer to the nurse?”
Of course not. Mrs. Clayton sent Jennifer to the dunce pool. But I didn’t tell Mom that. I shrugged.
Mom called Jennifer LaChance’s mom, but the line was disconnected. She called Barbara Savage’s mom but couldn’t get through. She called Rebecca’s mom and Kelly’s mom. I listened, knowing that when I got to school, I would have no friends.
I didn’t know Mom’s story then. I knew she’d been poor, but I didn’t understand all the things being poor meant for her. I didn’t know about her shame, or the abuse, or mental illness, or how she had cared for her siblings, without adults, when things were not safe for any of them.
“I want you to tell me if anything like this ever happens again,” she said. “Those girls might be in danger.”
Despite the chill Mom laced into the word danger, I didn’t tell her. I was afraid. I stopped being absentminded in my conversations with Mom. I stopped telling her things.
in Part Two, Mom and Mrs. Clayton go head to head after I nearly get arrested for breaking Pennsylvania vehicle registration laws. Don’t miss it!