When I was a boy, my dad always said not to be like him. People would say, “You look just like your Daddy,” which I heard so often he sometimes seemed more like my twin than my father, and I felt at times unsure of where his identity ended and mine began. Generally, the follow-up question from grown people would be, “Are you going to be a dentist when you grow up?” My dad had made no secret of the fact that being a dentist made him miserable, and he didn’t want me to be as unhappy as he was. Though his misery was induced as much or more by the secret he was keeping at the time, I didn’t know he was hiding anything. “No way!” I would say to the puzzled adult looks. “I’m never going to be a dentist.” But I couldn’t help looking, walking, and talking just like him no matter how I tried. People continually reminded me of how much like him I was and am, but I have hoped and dreamed of somehow being happier than he was, than he has been. Like, I imagined I might one day be happily married with children even though my parents’ marriage was far from a happy one.
My mom says she almost backed out of marrying my dad, and I didn’t know the story for years, how she and her mother (mostly her mother) planned a big wedding at the First Baptist Church of Laurens, lots of family and friends and acquaintances invited on both sides. Mom was a shy person, avoided the spotlight, and felt uncomfortable as the center of attention. I don’t know how much of her anxiety was a feeling that maybe my dad was hiding something, which he was, though only he knew it at the time (as far as I know). My mom claims it was more about the size and scope of the wedding, but I wonder if she had an intuition. She called the wedding off at one point.
My dad says his parents blamed him when she canceled the ceremony. When he told them about it, he tells me they said, “What did you do to her?” He chuckles now at this accusation. At the time, he was mortified.
He said, “I didn’t do anything!”
His mother said, “Well, go talk to her.”
I can see my grandmother now, as her mother self, her lips puckered into a tight little “o,” as tight as the curls in her perm-cropped hair, her brows furrowed, her eyes severe.
So my dad went to visit my mom and said sweet words and reassured her. I imagine they sat together in a safe place where my maternal grandmother, Ruth the Baptist, would know they were chaste. My dad must’ve been earnest and anxious, and my mother was probably quiet, uncertain, reticent, like now. I picture my dad on one end of the couch in grandma’s plush, seldom used living room, my mom at the other end with her hands in her lap. Dad would’ve worn prescription glasses with chunky, black frames. Mom’s hair was bobbed and grew wavy and thick. There were family portraits and a decorative Bible and a fireplace with gas logs.
They ended up marrying each other at the small chapel next to the First Baptist Church of Laurens—the chapel is a tiny version of the larger brick church used for Sunday services. Only my parents’ closest family accompanied them. I was born almost a year after the wedding.
Eleven years later, on the first day at Albritton Middle School in Ft. Bragg, NC, a group of kids stood outside waiting for the doors to open. I stood among them wearing gray and pink Gotcha! brand shorts with a t-shirt depicting a surfer riding waves. I wore my slip-on Vans, checkered black and white, and pastel jelly bracelets like I did the previous year in my old school. I was cultivating a style and rode a skateboard, a Madrid Explosion that was blue with an abstract, eponymous deck design and flypaper grip tape. I tried to spike my hair, but it was too thick and curly and rebelled against hair products.
Kid next to me laughed and said, “Look, he’s wearing jelly bracelets.” He pointed.
I remember looking up to this boy because I was a short kid, how I saw the blue sky behind him, hazy with thin, white wisps of water vapor. This was August, and it was hot.
“Faggot,” he said like the word was a bludgeon.
His friend standing next to him said, “Don’t.” I had the sense that this sort of thing had happened before.
I stood my ground and gave them the side eye but kept my mouth shut as the doors swung open, and I strutted to Mr. Malveaux’s homeroom where later that year I would watch the Challenger Space Shuttle blow up on television.
I sat down at a desk while teacher called roll, thinking about that name I’d been called, and I knew that people used the word as an insult and thought it had something to do with being girly, which made me think of my father. Sometimes I worried that others might think my dad was effeminate, which I’d learned was not ideal for a man, so I thought of defenses for him. One, he proved men didn’t have to like sports. A man could prefer antiques to football, as my dad did. Rather than playing ball, fathers could take their sons to the Biltmore House for fun when they’re ten, like mine did though I didn’t know of any other fathers who took their sons to Biltmore. When my dad took me to the Biltmore House, he said, “Let’s go to Biltmore!” I didn’t want to, but we went anyway, and he walked super fast through the humongous front yard. I could hardly keep up with such short legs, so I ran in the sunlit grass toward the mansion. Inside on the walls hung heads of various game animals. There was a bowling alley in the house, which I would later recognize as an adult in the feature film by P.T. Anderson, There Will Be Blood. Old Vanderbilt had an indoor pool and ceilings that seemed hundreds of feet high. The grounds crew maintained a big garden of flowers outside, and I was reminded of my dad’s garden at home, how he’d planted over one hundred roses of different varieties, how sweat dripped from the tip of his nose as he sprayed and powdered his roses with the care and attention I wished he’d show me. Other fathers, other men I knew, were not like my dad, so I thought, I guess men can like stuffy old mansions and gardens, too, with a hundred and elven varieties of roses—aman can grow roses if he wants instead of watching football or NASCAR—a man can play piano instead of hunting or fishing—a man doesn’t have to fight, or spit, or cuss, or drink—a man can instead grow roses. A man can grow roses.
Despite my view of my father’s masculinity, I preferred soccer, tennis, football, and baseball to antiques and the Biltmore House, maybe because that was what seemed expected of me outside the home. My best friend’s dad taught me how to fight back against bullies. My uncle taught me to play basketball, baseball, and football, and my blind paternal granddad encouraged sports by giving me and my brother and our cousins different kinds of sporting balls every Christmas: footballs, baseballs, soccer balls, and tennis balls. My maternal grandpa played golf and let me drive his cart and caddy him around the course, taught me a thing or two about the game. My mom played all kinds of ball with me and was on the basketball and softball teams in high school, but my dad never played sports but instead played clarinet and piano. He would practice piano in our living room, which was a room I rarely entered. The living room held all the nicest furniture, the furniture that went unused unless we had important guests to impress. Once, I opened the door a crack to peep in while Dad played Bach’s “Invention 13,” which he practiced a lot and was my favorite. He hung his head and puckered his lips with his eyes shut tight in a pained expression until he slumped his shoulders and sobbed and kept sobbing. My uncle showed up having driven nearly an hour to console him with my mother. In my memory, more hours seemed to pass before my dad grew quiet. I remember he said, “I don’t know what to do!” from the piano bench, and I heard him through the closed swinging doors and no one could see me standing there befuddled and frightened in the hall, wondering what was happening, not knowing the secret.
When I was twenty-one, I read my mother’s private therapy journal on accident one summer during the break from college. I had visited an old friend from high school, and we drank beer and smoked weed until midnight when I walked home, raided the pantry for a pop tart, sat down at the kitchen table, and saw it. An unmarked, spiral-bound notebook sat on top of the placemat. I thought it might hold recipes, but instead it held secrets about an impending divorce and confusing sexual problems. The first words I saw on the first page read, “ . . . married to a homosexual man . . . ” which was shocking to me, a sheltered Carolina kid. Before reading the journal, it never occurred to me that my dad could be gay. After I read it, I quit going to church and believing in God, which part I keep secret from my mother and father. I learned to withhold from my loved ones and, feeling guilty like I violated my mom’s privacy, didn’t confess to them until I grew increasingly ill and went to a gastroenterologist who convinced me I was making myself sick keeping things in. So that Thanksgiving I told my mother, and in December I told my father.
“I’m sorry I wasn’t a better father,” he said from under the covers of his bed where he was watching television, some sentimental Christmas movie.
“I think you are,” I said not watching the program but looking at my dad who continued to stare at the show with an embarrassed look on his face.
“Thanks,” he said.
Later, my brother learned the secret in a less traumatic way. Like me, he writes stories and took a degree in fiction. He told me one Thanksgiving that Dad came out to him when he was sixteen. He said Dad took him for a ride through the countryside and told him he was gay. Like it did for me, the news surprised my brother, caught him unaware. I don’t know why I didn’t tell him myself, but maybe I didn’t think it was my place to betray my father’s confidence.
Mom says she learned Dad’s secret when I was in elementary school and my brother was still a baby. She caught on to a crush my dad developed for a family man at our church. My mom decided to keep the secret to herself and try to work things out until my brother and I were older. My parents finally separated after my college graduation while I was in Seattle on a cross-country trip with a friend and his parents in their van. We drove for days from South Carolina to Washington, and I called my aunt from a hotel tower overlooking Puget Sound. I told her my dad was moving out that day—it was summer of 1997—though she already knew. We cried, and I tried to keep my composure, to hide it from my friend and his parents, so I could keep the secret. I never mentioned it as I drove my buddy’s family van, the two of us taking turns at the wheel as we cruised roads from Seattle to Portland to Salt Lake City to Moab—where I dangled my feet over the red ledge of a cliff overlooking the natural arches—and all the way back home to Carolina and a confusing new life.
When I was still in college before I knew the secret, my dad seemed happy for the first time I could recall. He would come down to Charleston and take me out to Hyman’s Seafood restaurant. We ate there one day when I was nineteen, maybe twenty. Dad told a story about going to a dental conference in New Orleans and drinking until tipsy. This was the first time I knew of that my dad had caught a buzz.
Then he said something puzzling as we sat there in Hyman’s eating fried fish. We were on the second floor at a two-top table by a window with a view of Meeting Street below where people walked by and stood in line and toured the old slave market trying to find baskets of sweet grass woven by women who sat on the sidewalks working their hands, winding the blades together to make them stronger.
My dad said something like “I woke up the next morning in a man’s room.”
I remember him having a little bit of a smile on his face, the smile of one who is embarrassed and hoping for an encouraging response. He had woken up in another man’s room.
I think he could’ve said, “In his bed.”
I know I said, “Was he gay?” Foolish boy.
My dad hesitated a brief moment. I can only guess at what he was thinking. He might’ve been thinking, He’s not getting it. And he would’ve been right. I was so deeply in denial and so naïve that I never even considered that my dad might have had sex with this man while he was still married to my mother.
Years later, maybe twenty, I realized as I was writing in Tampa what my dad was trying to say to me all those years ago in Hyman’s. I sat in a university classroom and thought of my dad and his drinking in New Orleans story, which stood out because I’ve never seen my dad drink more than two drinks in one sitting. So I wrote a line about how I rarely saw my parents drink, hardly ever saw my mother drink (except when she sipped wine on special occasions).
Then I wrote about how my dad never really drank much or got drunk but told me this story once about how he got drunk in New Orleans and woke up in another man’s bed. And my response was, “Was he gay?”
My dad said, “I don’t know.”
Twenty years later, as I sat there in the workshop it struck me that my dad had tried to come out, had tried to tell me before I read mom’s journal. When he did, I failed to understand him and remained a short while in denial until finally reading the journal a year or two later. How could I have been so stupid? I wondered, amazed, dumbstruck, as I sat there at my desk among other writers who were also scribbling notes about who knows what. My father actually tried to come out to me, and I didn’t get it.
Recently, I went to visit my dad in South Carolina, where he now lives alone. Before I went, I ordered a t-shirt, a white one that reads, “I [heart] my gay dad.” The letters are all caps and boldly black against the shirt’s white cotton while the heart is symbolic and, of course, red. A friend had recently suggested an idea I liked very much—they said I should invite my dad to go to next year’s Pride Parade in New Orleans and wear the shirt alongside him. In New Orleans. I told my dad about the idea.
We were at his three-bedroom home, in the den, and the television was on. Dad stood behind his brown leather chair looking embarrassed and put out. He gazed directly at the television all the while.
He said, “No. I don’t do that. I’m just a private person.”
My heart sank, but I thought about it some. I thought that maybe I would feel the same way. I concluded I can’t really say what my dad should do or how he should live, so I have to accept that we won’t stroll around New Orleans, walking alike, talking alike, looking alike. No one will see my shirt as I stand next to my dad. I imagine what they would say if we did. “You look just like your dad,” they might say. Strangers would walk up and say, “You must be father and son” or even, “You must be brothers.” I take pride in saying, “Yes! That’s my father, and I love my gay dad.”
Martin Fulmer is a South Carolina transplant at work on a PhD at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. He holds an MFA from the University of Tampa, MA in English from Clemson University, and a BA from the College of Charleston. His fiction appears in Bridge Eight, Connotation Press, Corium Magazine, Fantastic Floridas (formerly Burrow Press Review), Story Quarterly, storySouth, and elsewhere. He is writing projects including a novel tentatively titled THE HOMOGENIZATION OF HENRY LEGARE, a story collection called THE HERBARIUM OF EDWIN CALHOUN, and a memoir called FATHERS COULD TAKE THEIR SONS TO BILTMORE. This is his first creative nonfiction.