After reading Sonia Sanchez’s Does Your House Have Lions?
Like losing thoughts, they go in silence – Phillip Larkin, “Faith Healing”
It felt like too much sometimes. When Sydney was younger, like a toddler, he had fair hair, a sandy brown, and by the time he married the color had changed to a rich brunette, so if you’d used the color for ink it could have been read.
I don’t know much about the rest. He didn’t have many opinions, as a young man, so much as actions were his—in cars, on fields, in classrooms, in friends’ houses, and often they didn’t even need the drink. In a yearbook picture—a candid shot—his entire face looked like an opened eye.
White straight cis middle-class until you drove somewhere, or got to a state of connection with somebody, that felt like a frontier, yeah, and temporarily not want it, cast it aside like a husk you were too powerful in the first place to need, if only so you can feel its embrace when you eventually return home. To parents that paid for you. As a young man he felt like politics had little to do with him and when that turned out false, by middle-age he got conservative.
You want to list the characteristics in somebody’s face that make it look kind, and you want that appearance to mean more.
At twenty he went to California to see if his world held up there, too, worked all kinds of jobs and entered a bar where some open-mic night was on, one night.
Not that he didn’t have something to express but music, which was the art form he’d always felt closest to, wasn’t the means he would have chosen. It just wasn’t in him to go up on stage like that, but such a quality wasn’t anybody’s lack. However it was evident to him, who always got awed by such dark sonorous rooms, that the performers who risked it were full of something that was nice to have. That people like Sydney needed. As he got older he was slower and slower to commend anybody that drew attention to themselves, but piss-poor musicians, close to the source, were some for whom he reserved acknowledgment of integrity.
Instead of music he worked and watched television and ate and saw his friends a handful of times every year. He was married and had a family too but that all, it seemed, required a version of him that wasn’t alone, that wasn’t where any music could have come from, wasn’t part of his identity when he listened to the radio. Who he was when being a husband and parenting—that amalgamated identity had cracks and through them his soul came like rainwater. No part of what he did, however, was more or less his.
When he listened to you he’d lean his entire upper-body into the edge of the table and cross his forearms on the wood or laminate surface, so long as the plates had been cleared already, and there wasn’t a plastic placemat to imprint some stupid textured pattern on the skin. I never saw him cross his legs. Talking, his hands, gesticulating, never went above his shoulders, and his voice had two ranges of pitch he used for argument. If you were sleeping in a bedroom above that of him and his wife, Eve, it would be his baritone that you’d hear in tranquil volley with a quieter woman who sat up in bed.
For him, dying would start early with kidney stones and abrasive particles in his small intestines and things of that sort; the further he got into it the more racist he sounded and the more his wife observed how little she’d gotten to know him. If I were him I’d feel insulted reading this—because I have more of an ego, I’m trying hard to write exactly what that means, because he would accept that different people have different ways of seeing things and think no more on the subject. If you write about somebody you love and don’t say how much you love them, then the closest you can get to a good evoking is to narrate the shadow of their heart. I think Sydney had a lot of patience and his wife would observe, startled, whenever it stopped. This short story is about his gay son, Robert, and the fact that Sydney had few ideas about gay people—when would he have to think about them?—really saved Robert’s life.
I’ll tell you now that keeping straight men and gay men from talking to each other is canceling a source of power that can intervene on how fucked up patriarchy is. Evidently, gay ones are watching straight ones and falling in love with them sometimes—this narrative, and invariable betrayal, is the bone of much art made by gay men, I’m thinking of a few things made by white cis gay men but I won’t assert that it’s only us for now. Fuck what I just said—it’s the observation, and the fact, as I’ve watched it in action, that the last thing a straight dude expects is to be watched. Sometimes I think one of the most important elements in the changing of somebody’s consciousness is surprise. So maybe this isn’t a program, but—if Robert and Sydney really talked to each other about how one felt alienated by the other sometimes, because Robert too pushed his father away, for reasonable fear that bringing him closer would cause Sydney to say what he really thought of faggots, then who knows what would have happened. Their lives aren’t over. I’m just describing an event.
Robert, in addition to being gay, was also far out on the Left—and when sparring Sydney would assert that his opinions were noble and everything but for now, Robert didn’t own anything, and that made a difference. Robert didn’t know how to express that Sydney presently, and always had, owned something Robert could never. Not property—but property was a symptom.
Between Sydney and Eve, there was a marginal but imperative class distinction. Their parents had all been working class, but Eve had one sibling while Sydney had four. So imagine—the same money, roughly, going to each household. While eating a steak dinner one afternoon in August, the bottle of barbecue ketchup was almost at its end, and instead of opening a new one Sydney gracefully went to the sink, filled the brown-bottomed bottle with water, shook, and poured his result over the meat. Eve looked a little repulsed, while Robert and his younger sister Ruth were fascinated.
In his thirties, Sydney changed diapers, gave his children baths, got them ready for school as Eve needed to report to work earlier, drove his children and even neighbors’ children to the school mornings, and took care of all the outdoor work to be done as his own father had for the house where he’d spent childhood. If a hallmark of the white liberal is doing incessant villainous lip-service to the fostering of all humanity, such poison was absent from Sydney’s talk. Even Eve, who was always more moderate, judged politics with a policy of noninterference—the more she kept to herself, the better, because trouble might come when all her energy might be required.
He worked through lunches. He got home late. Probably the most moving visible moments between him and Eve were when, driving, a song came on classic rock radio that they remembered hearing when they hadn’t known each other—in a hippie’s high school English class, for example. That “After the Gold Rush” song by Neil Young—neither of them were environmentalists, Sydney said the earth was going through a natural warming period and Eve only really paid attention to political candidates’ positions on public schools like where she worked, but for the moment where activism set to music was tenable, observed if not enforced, that car with the kids in it felt like church. Or—better—a vigil for what had been lost, for the planet dies more every day.
Sydney would say things to his teenage children like, “You guys know I’m worth more dead,” talking about life insurance, and for a second this sounded like his measurement of personal success.
Watching guys he wanted to talk to, but couldn’t bring himself to, Robert for years said or whispered or thought—“What the fuck do I do, Dad?” But Sydney was never in hearing. Just, faced with anybody’s silence that had a male temperature Robert traced a synthetic or true continuation, as if context could dilute, from Sydney’s old comportment, on the couch by himself all weekend long. Sydney wasn’t indifferent towards him, but, growing up, Robert learned why indifference happens. So when at eighteen he just up and left without a trace, part of it was to get a reaction out of someone male.
Eve was quiet all the time, you almost wondered if she’d never wanted to seem particularly vulnerable. Ruth and Robert saw her when she broke, but it was more of a fracture, each time. She told them, confessing, that she cried all the time but they hardly ever saw her do so. In her Robert identified with the struggle of when to be alone, when to seem imperturbable, when to seem professional, when to close the door and when to have people over.
Alone she felt that things would work out well. In some of the most questionable moments, she talked about spirits and things floating around her, birds and butterflies, and professed she’d always felt that in some remote past life she’d done terrible things so in this one she’d never wanted to cause anybody harm.
There was really no agenda with her, besides that. If we’re focused on Robert’s experience for some of this story, I can relate that she told him from an early age just that being gay is “harder”—but how that statement didn’t carry any exclusiveness or shame I don’t know. For a while Robert would think it should have sounded that way, victimizing—but once some time had passed he re-heard it as it had been stated, only as observation, and a connection his mother had made to an experience that wasn’t hers. Many parents suspect their children are gay. This was never communicated to Robert—but also, it was never implied that Eve or Sydney assumed he couldn’t be. Eve took better care of her and her husband’s position on this because homosexuality was a weird thing to bring up with any straight man.
As teenagers she and a next-door neighbor felt the culture didn’t tell them what they really wanted to know about sex. They didn’t think it shameful, they didn’t think it frightening—both of them, as teenagers, just sensed that it was a necessary part of life and saw it stupid how people put all kinds of cloaks of shame and invisibility around it. As Eve grew up she didn’t protest, she didn’t take to the streets, she didn’t call herself a feminist—indeed, she was more consistent about going to Catholic masses and getting what she wanted for guidance from there, it was what her mother and aunts and other ancestors had consulted and they had lived. At the same time she never vilified anybody for being too far left, even as she identified as moderate. When riots happened she came from a place of understanding—she was sorry to see the trouble, because she wanted to cause no one trouble, but part of teaching which was her profession was, ideally, understanding that the experiences of young people as well as anybody older might seem strange to her. However, all of them, all her students, had to be valid if her job was to be successful. She didn’t work to change the curriculum so much as she tried keeping to what she knew worked—what kids liked, what made them read and write and remember literacy.
Maybe what she saw in Sydney many many many many years before was another person cognizant of how monitoring one’s own conduct, being vigilant about it, wasn’t the same thing as thinking oneself the center of the universe. That you had to do good especially when people weren’t watching. There was more space for this in patriarchal femininity than patriarchal masculinity, and some results of that are evident in Sydney and Eve’s lives, separate and together.
If one of them could be brought out on the streets for a riot—Eve would. Robert remembered, at eight, being taken to a union demonstration outside of a local park; every union having problems signing a contract, teachers’ unions and others, would rent an inflatable rat that either bookended the picket line or went at the center of rotating people holding signs. This was also where Robert learned about indifference. Because, Eve explained, her bosses weren’t evil, they didn’t mean harm—but they were irritating and harmful because they did not listen to the needs of people who worked for them, whose numbers were greater, who needed more support and were paid less. They worked for years without a contract, teachers from other school districts began picketing with them, a favor which Eve and her coworkers would later repay, and when the thing was signed no, it wasn’t ideal. Progress still had to be made. But the solution was never to vilify, dissolve, or do anything to weaken unions, labor. After decades of working in the private sector, Sydney would get laid off. With a generous severance package—but he still got laid off, and sometimes Robert would wonder if the severance package, in an invincible way, didn’t end up hurting his father more.
For a long time Robert was never betrayed but expected more from people, all kinds of friends, than they could give. Eve shared this experience but never talked about it, because betrayal, being older, was something she’d known.
Mother and son loved each other very much but sometimes there didn’t seem to be a place for it that wasn’t also weak. When Robert, at eighteen, left, she knew he was alright but wondered why in hell he hadn’t talked more.
My mom and I love each other very much, we don’t talk about it though because we’re different. It’s hard for women to talk about how different they are from each other when the difference is something that we love. There’s little precedent so we’d rather it came out as if by mistake, to take some of the pressure off. However—I really do, and I see the two of us as kind of parallel lines, hers starting before mine, mine going on after hers ends. We’re alive.
I’d change parts about my dad, but—not for me anymore, just to make him happier because there are some general things everybody should do that applied to him would make a difference. He should talk more. He should go to a protest and take part in it. He has a child who’s a woman and a child who’s a gay man. On top of living in this fucking world, that’s enough.
There’s no way to be happier other than being healthier—because any other joys just aren’t sustainable. I think my generation—I won’t give it a name—young as we are have gotten something right so far, which is deciding once and for all that life doesn’t end after youth. Maybe because the economy’s tanked and crimes against humanity are still happening all over the world—because we want to see a different world we won’t just fuck off and pretend to be voyeurs, or whatever. We’re not above everything. We’re in it. That’s a change from my parents’ generation—who, even when they were younger, tried keeping to themselves, I think. But maybe everybody has that suspicion about their parents. Should have gone this way, that way. My brother, for example, at eighteen left and told nobody that he had a boyfriend and a whole life set up in North Brooklyn—he wanted to see what would happen, which was fucked up, but understandable. It took us like a week to track him down. We just asked his friends, none of whom we’d met before. Then again, this was my parents, I stayed out of it.
Something I learned from Robert was what foolishness it is to take yourself out of situations where you might get close to people just so you don’t hurt anyone. Pain is like life. But if the pain is all you think about you’re fucked. Remember growing up? How that was painful too? And even your first kiss might have seemed painful because it was new. It was great, but—also a challenge.
You really can’t escape. And if you think you have to, you’re so fucked.
I’ll tell you what I’m nervous about—we can’t use the current model of political power where we do whatever we want to get influence and then plan to use it well once it’s ours. Too often, once it’s ours, too much damage has already been wrought by our ambition. Ambition eats you alive because you’re taught to supplicate it in yourself and others. No.
We need a separate network. The bare bones are there but we need the flesh to it, you know, we need a political body of a new state, which is promising because we are here, we are showing up, young people are getting attention but we can’t just stop at the attention what we need to do is attend, go farther, because time—we know it, we know it better, we are knowing it more every day—time is just going, running out. I’m not afraid of my own death. I’m afraid of letting other people die—I am a white cis straight American, and that will happen they say for my security.
One night I was with Robert in his apartment his boyfriend was out we smoked a joint and for once the streets they had nobody on them and we passed a few blocks until he said, “I’m alive, you know” and I told him what I’d always believed which is that “Yes, you’re alive, I’m alive, and there has to be more of us. The miracle and the drive.”