In the desert
I saw a creature, naked, bestial,
who, squatting upon the ground,
Held his heart in his hands,
And ate of it.
I said, "Is it good, friend?"
"It is bitter — bitter," he answered;
"But I like it
Because it is bitter,
And because it is my heart."
— Stephen Crane
I picked up the phone on the third ring. “Hello?”
There was a very long silence.
“Dad, is that you? Are you okay?”
It was strange that he was calling me. Mom is the one who always called. I had barely talked to Dad in 10 years. “Is something wrong with Mom?”
“No, Jakey.” Another silence. “Something’s wrong with me. I have cancer.”
Oh, God. I didn’t know what to say, so the silence now began at my end. I knew the dam of animosity against my father that I had built up for over a decade would not hold. It was breaching in the face of this unexpected statement. “I don’t know what to say, Dad, except I’m so sorry.”
“The doctor says I have at most six months to live.”
“At this rate, that’s probably more than I have,” I blurted too quickly. I hadn’t meant to let my private thoughts out.
Now it was Dad’s time to extend the silence.
“This phone call is certainly costing a lot per word,” I joked, trying to change the mood.
“What’s wrong, Jakey?” Dad asked softly.
“My life is so fucked up I don’t know where to go or what to do or even whether to do it. I’ve been staring at the ceiling of my bedroom for two weeks.”
“Have you talked to a professional?”
“Dad, this is Southeast Asia. Even if there were psychiatrists or psychologists, they probably don’t speak much English. My life is too fucked up, anyway, for some run-of-the-mill psychiatrist.”
I sighed deeply. “Dad, this conversation is much too morbid. Can we change the subject?”
There was more silence on his end—a really long silence.
“Hello, hello!” I said into the void of the telephone receiver.
“Jakey, let me think a few more minutes.”
I could almost feel the wheels grinding in Dad’s head as I waited with the receiver in my hand. By extending my arm to its fullest, I was able to reach the refrigerator and to pull out a beer, which I opened. I took a swig from the bottle.
Dad’s voice came back strongly on the phone. The wheels had turned. It was his most commanding, his in-charge voice that I found it so difficult to ignore. “I am going to make you a bet, Jakey. If I die before you do, you will agree to come home and stay near your mother for…six months. If you die before me…well, you name what you want. Anything.”
The saddest thing is that I couldn’t think of anything that I would want. That’s how bad I was. “Dad, I’ll let you know what I want later, but, okay, I’ll take your bet.” I had six months to muster the courage to do whatever I had to do.
“How is Mom taking this?”
“I haven’t told her yet.”
“Dad, why are you telling me first?”
“Because it’s so much harder to tell her, and I have to look her in the face when I do. Plus, I know she would call you immediately, and I wanted you to hear it from me. I guess I wanted to practice on someone I trusted. And something else: Maybe, just maybe, that will let me repair some of the damage that I’ve done to our relationship over the years. I need to build a bridge back to you, Jakey, quickly, and I want to start by letting you know how much you really mean to me and how sad I am that I may not have the time to make full amends.
“I have put so much pressure on you—so that you would follow in my footsteps, through the military, business school and into our company—so that you would become like me.”
“Dad, I’ve thought so much about this. You didn’t do anything wrong. Don’t blame yourself. You were just looking out for me. I was an adult. All the wrong decisions were mine.”
“You were an adult, Jakey, yes, but barely so. I never treated you as a full adult, and for that I’m forever sorry. I should have known that when you went to Mississippi that I had to let go. But I couldn’t, and you were gone for that summer. And when you were drafted, I should have let you decide on your own.”
“No, Dad, I am a part of your life and your experiences. The fact that the Vietnam War was so misguided was not your fault. We can’t go everywhere the country goes wrong, but we need to support it—and fight back within the system. That you taught me, and, even though my service turned out to be a personal nightmare, I don’t blame you, Dad. I don’t.”
“Jakey, I was wrong.”
“Dad, you didn’t send me into the Army. I could have gone to Canada, but I felt the duty to my country. I felt the special connection between you walking into Bergen-Belsen and me preventing something like that in the future. The country screwed up in Vietnam, but not for the wrong reasons.
“For me personally, though, I can never escape what I did there. And that’s not your fault, Dad. I will live and die with my demons.”
“Jakey, would you come home?”
“Not until the demons are gone, Dad. Not until then.”
There was another long silence across the telephone lines.
“Jakey, have you ever loved—really loved someone, someone you wanted to live with for the rest of your life?”
“And what happened.”
“He went away, and I went away.”
There was a very long pause.
There was an even longer pause on my end after I realized what I had said. “Yes, he. He got married and had a son the last time I heard,” I said, hoping to end the conversation. I thought I could feel my father’s mind churning again. I felt that once again I had disappointed him.
“Are you … homosexual?”
“I think the latest word is ‘gay’, Dad.” I was stalling. I needed to think about how to answer the question.
“Are you ‘gay’, then?”
“I don’t know, Dad,” I said finally. “This is the first time that I have openly thought about it. I’ve been heterosexual until now. I’ve always thought I was heterosexual until you asked me that question and I answered. I’ve lived with several women over here, and I have a girlfriend now.” I realized what I had just said wasn’t exactly true. “But I’m not sure. I need to change things, but I don’t know if I can.”
I was thinking out loud, and I realized I was talking to my Dad again—as a troubled son would talk to an understanding father. “Dad, I’ve never done anything with another man, but I fell incredibly in love with Robbie Ellis in Mississippi—in every sense—and that is changing everything. It’s time to question everything, including my sexuality. Robbie and I did nothing, but I realize now he meant everything to me. And he left and went back to Seattle. I got a note from him saying he’d gotten married, and then I got a card saying he had a son. Then I lost him.” I paused. “Dad, I don’t know what I am.” Except, extremely, extremely sad, I said to myself.
“Dad, I think I might be gay,” I announced, and a wave of surprise and relief passed through me followed by a wave of anxiety and doubt.
“Jake, I can’t care any more whether you’re…gay…or not, even if I might have cared in the past. And I truly don’t care. I don’t know how to react, let alone answer your question. I don’t really know you anymore, and I don’t know whether to love you or condemn you or just accept you as you are. No, I’ll never condemn you. I may be disappointed, and I’m sure your mother will be disappointed without grandchildren, but I’m not sure at your rate that she would ever be a grandmother anyway.” I could see his wry smile across the wires.
“Dad, I love you, and I’ve missed you in my life.” Then, it really hit me that I might soon be missing him forever.
“Jakey, I love you, too. It’s too much my fault that my boy hasn’t been a part of my life. And now…”
“Dad, I’m just looking to find myself, if that’s possible.”
“Bye. I want you to. I love you.”
“Good bye, Dad.”
The call triggered all the deep memories of the past decade: the awful ones of Vietnam, the drifting after my discharge, the shortage of real personal relationships. The call triggered in me thoughts about my sexuality that I had not faced before. I realized one reason that I was reluctant to get too close to Kingman; I was deeply afraid of Kingman’s rejection if I uncovered my feelings.
I think it was my father’s call that stopped, but did not reverse, my recent slide but maybe not the oblivion at the end. Time would answer that question. The blank on my ceiling as I stared up from my bed at Kingman’s matched the blank in my heart.
Pain has the element of blank;
It cannot recollect
When it began, or if there were
A day when it was not.
It has no future but itself,
Its infinite realms contain
Its past, enlightened to perceive
New periods of pain.
— Emily Dickinson
When I picked up the phone and heard the sobs of a woman across the thousands of miles, my heart skipped a beat.
“Jake,” Mom said.
“Your dad has only a few days to live. Come home!”
My heart broke. “I’ll be on the plane tomorrow.” There was only quiet sobbing on the other end. There was not much more we could say to one another, and I said goodbye.
I started to sort and pack my bags for a long stay. Everything I owned except my work clothes and books fit, sadly, into two suitcases and a few plastic bags. I put my books into boxes, sealed them and wrote my Massachusetts address on them and left a note and some money for Kingman to send them to me. I’d already called the airline and bought a one-way ticket; I’d lost the bet with my father. I called my boss and told him my father was dying and I didn’t know when I’d be back, if ever, and he’d better find a replacement for me. I left another note for Kingman and left a check for six months’ rent.
That evening, I went to Harry’s Bar to say good-bye to my buddies. There were five of them there—Plancich, Lawrence, Blalock, the New Guy Peterson and Kingman—drinking beer and talking loudly, as usual. I bought a beer at the bar and carried it to the table.
“Hey, Cantwell. What’s up?” Plancich asked as he started to smile.
The look on my face stopped him cold. I looked down at my beer, took a swallow, and said: “My dad’s dying, I have to go home, and I’ll probably be gone a long while. I promised Dad I’d stay near my mom for a while if he died.” I took another big swallow of the beer. “I came to say goodbye. I’m going to spend all night packing and getting ready, but I wanted to stop by one last time.”
The chorus of “I’m sorry, man,” “Tough luck,” “I hope you’re okay,” was heartfelt. These were the guys I worked with every day when I was out on a job, even if I was in the construction office in recent years. I realized that they were somewhat more than acquaintances; they weren’t bosom friends, but they meant something to me.
I finished a couple of beers and knew I had to leave. It had been a couple of hours since I had come in. I stood and went up to these people that I had known for so long. I hugged Plancich, Lawrence and Blalock, murmuring my thanks for their sympathies. I shook the New Guy Peterson’s hand because I didn’t know him that well, but he pulled me into a hug anyway.
Then there was Kingman. He was going to be the hardest to leave. Kingman and I went back so many, many years. Kingman was my bosom buddy. He had been my confidant when I broke up with Mei, when I broke up with Phoum and most recently when I broke up with Hiromi. We were like brothers—and more. I realized how close Kingman and I were. The memories of him would last—memories of working out at the gym, of playing badminton for hours at the gym until we could go on no more, our bodies glistening with sweat and maleness as we went to the showers.
There were memories of Kingman and me going out on the town when I was between girlfriends—and even when I was with my girlfriend. Only he among all those I knew in Jakarta really understood how sad my life really was, though he didn’t know why; I’d never told him. He listened to me spout poetry when I was drunk and when I wasn’t, hearing and maybe understanding, but understanding certainly my need to vent my feelings through somebody else’s words.
Until my break with Hiromi—until my recent struggle with depression—when I was unattached or during the last trying months of my relationships, we would go to clubs and get horny and howling drunk, and when I left the bars—since I didn’t believe in one-night stands—he would walk home with me, or me with him, our arms across each other’s shoulders. We would pass out in each other’s beds, side by side, and in the morning Kingman would bring me aspirin and juice if he got up before I did, or I would bring him the same if I got up before him.
I stood before Kingman and looked him in the face. I couldn’t just hug him like I did Plancich, Lawrence and Blalock, even with a few extra pats on the back. I had to do something more—to express the closer relationship that was ending. My impish self coming to the fore. I put my arms around his neck, pulled him to me, kissed him square on the lips, gluing his to mine. He struggled, but I wouldn’t let him go. Holding on was hard to do, because I couldn’t help but laugh, the first humor I felt since my mother’s call, especially when he started to flail his arms like a rag doll and mumble something like, “Fuck you. Fuck you. Fuck you,” underneath the kiss as we spun around the floor of the bar, turning and turning like a whirlwind. I could see the laughter on the faces of Plancich, Lawrence and Blalock, and I could hear them telling each other that they always knew I was crazy.
And then I stopped, and time stopped. I pulled back, not loosing my arms from around his neck and looked into his eyes. We stared at each other, the rest of the world receding into oblivion, into the neon and gloom background light of the bar. Kingman’s eyes were glistening, as were mine. He started to say something, then pulled back. Finally, he asked the question for which he knew the answer: “You’re not ever coming back, are you?”
I shook my head, the movement so slight as to be almost imperceptible, but enough for him to see. His brown eyes glistened and reflected the red and green neon lights of the signs behind the bar. We stood and looked at each other.
“You fuck! You crazy fuck! You crazy, crazy fuck!” he said in a voice little louder than a whisper, shaking his head slowly from side to side. Then he leaned his head toward me and kissed me on the lips, but this time with a kiss that started softly, with the moist pillow of his lips, then intensified into real passion with the probing of his tongue as I opened myself to him. The red and green lights of the bar became the universe—a glittering sky in the background. Time moved to a crawl. I felt a stirring. I felt my cock rising, becoming as hard as it had ever been. I didn’t know what was happening to me. I didn’t know what was happening with us. Though maybe I did.
“What did you do that for?” I asked, softly, a bit of surprise in my voice.
He reached over and brushed the hair away from my face. “For what might have been,” he replied.
And then I thought of the other things that might have been, and how I might have been able to have a relationship with Kingman and stave off my growing feelings of helplessness. I wanted to cry. I didn’t know if I could have developed such a relationship, but it didn’t matter anymore, because this phase of my life was over.
At that moment, looking into his eyes and he looking into mine, I felt that the kiss and my response to it was forcing on me yet another turning point in my life—added to my father’s illness and my obligation to go home again. Yesterday, my life only revolved around avoiding pain for the next night and the next day. Now, everything had turned topsy-turvy, including, the large surprise of it all, my sexuality. The kiss and my physical reaction opened up a part of my being that I had barely realized. It raised questions about where my life might be going, after and in addition to my family duties. Did that kiss and my reaction to it mean something was happening that would change my life forever, however much longer it might be?
My arms were still on Kingman’s neck, so I just leaned in and kissed him back—on the lips, letting mine linger on his, feeling the softness, feeling his tongue in me and mine in him and, yes, the yearning that apparently was traveling between us. Then I broke it off. I leaned back and looked him again in the still-glistening eyes.
Kingman pulled me into a hug, his fists hitting me lightly on the back, male-hug style. Afterwards, I saw him adjusting his pants, and I was doing the same. I realized that in all the years, he had never had a steady girlfriend. Maybe there was a reason. The thought flashed through my mind that I wished I had noticed it sooner.
Nearby, Plancich mumbled something like: “It figures.” Typically, Lawrence and Blalock were blasé at our display. Expatriates living in Asia had an immense tolerance for the foibles of their fellow men and the many variations of sexual relations. Not so typically, though, the New Guy Peterson watched the whole scene between Kingman and me. Afterwards, I saw him adjusting his pants while trying to keep from being noticed. Hmm…! Maybe some hope for Kingman.
When Kingman came home that night, drunker than he usually let himself be, I was still frantically packing and sorting my things. He came over and gave me one last hug and went off to bed. I said to myself that I would say goodbye again to him in the early morning before I left, but I never did. I looked into his room in the dawn light, put some aspirin and juice down on his bedside table and let him sleep peacefully.
* * * * *
The long plane ride from Jakarta was hellish—hours in terminals and hours and hours in the air—but I needed hell for a while. It was the time I had to think. All the sadness and all the frustrations of my last few years welled up in me—a dam near breaking. My fucked-up life, the too-late reconciliation with my father, his impending death, the uncertainty of what would happen to my mother, all the missed opportunities, all the short-term decisions, the choice of instant gratification over permanence—all these memories, all these choices came back under the deep drone of the jet engines that offered little change of pace for hours and hours and miles and miles.
I guess I was thankful that my intentions about suicide had come up short, after the gruesome bet with my father. On second thought, maybe I would be happier if those jet engines sputtered out and the plane plunged into the Pacific. No decisions, then, no rest of my life to worry about, no nothing. Sweet oblivion.
The undercurrent of my thoughts, what kept rising to my consciousness, was Kingman’s kiss and my response to it. At one level I found the kiss deeply disturbing. Why had I kissed him in the first place? Why didn’t it stay just a joke, or a lark between us—and just one kiss? Why did it become serious? Was it all Kingman’s doing when he kissed me back? Was it he that made it something other than a joke? Or was it something deeper?
At another level, I found my kiss back at him revealing. I hadn’t felt such a sexual rush since…well, since those days in Mississippi. I didn’t know what to think, except that I was confused. Then again, maybe things had gotten clearer instead of murkier. Maybe my relationships with Robbie and Kingman were much more reflective of where and what I wanted to be. Maybe my unthinking answer to my father, “I think I might be gay,” really was true.
“Can I get you something?” the attendant asked. Startled, I looked up, into the eyes of a handsome man a few years my junior pushing a drinks cart through the cabin.
“Just some water, please.”
“Still or sparkling?”
The attendant reached into the cart to get a bottle of water, handed it to me along with a plastic glass.
Our eyes lingered on each other for just a moment too long, and then he moved down along the aisle to serve the next passengers. My groin stirred as I looked at his black, tight-fitting pants and uniform shirt.
I leaned back in my seat as the low hum of the jet engines floated in and out of my consciousness, a constant counterpoint to my thoughts. I realized how the physical entered my observations now that I was aware of them. Were they always there? Maybe I was gay.
No, no. I couldn’t be gay. I was a typical red-blooded, screwed up American boy—well, man—but I thought of myself as a boy still.
When I got off the plane, weary and grimy from 25 hours’ traveling, I looked at my mother and I knew that Dad had already died. And I felt I had missed an opportunity to close out that portion of my life, to take my father’s compass gift from him as my own. I felt further at sea.
Mom’s face showed incredible sadness and resignation as she came up to me. This small, trim woman, who everybody said looked like me, pulled me to her so tightly that I was stunned at her strength. There were no words spoken. There was no need for words to be spoken. We held each other, as the tears started to pour down my cheeks, and I sobbed for all the lost years without a father and for the sadness of my mother.
* * * * *
The next few days flew by in a flurry of calls and notes of condolence, of relatives and friends bringing dishes of food by as they and their ancestors had done for hundreds of years. There was little time to think, and that was probably for the best—for both Mom and me.
* * * * *
A Wind Has Blown the Rain Away
a wind has blown the rain away and blown
the sky away and all the leaves away,
and the trees stand. I think i too have known
autumn too long
(and what have you to say,
wind wind wind—did you love somebody
and have you the petal of somewhere in your heart
pinched from dumb summer?
O crazy daddy
of death dance cruelly for us and start
the last leaf whirling in the final brain
of air!) Let us as we have seen see
doom’s integration . . . . . . . . . . . . . a wind has blown the rain
away and the leaves and the sky and the
the trees stand. The trees,
suddenly wait against the moon’s face.
The memorial service was scheduled for Tuesday. Dad had wanted to have a service at our beach place in Rhode Island—in the green of the large lawn that extended from our beach house seemingly into the sea. Dark-green summer-loaded trees framed the vista of the beach dunes and the sea as it had done throughout my childhood and my dad’s. Dad wanted his ashes scattered there in those dunes and in the Atlantic.
I thought of how close the bet between us had ended up. I wondered what Dad would have done if he was standing in my place. Where would he be standing, and where would my ashes be strewn?
* * * * *
Dozens of cars had already lined the roadway and were pulled onto the lawn where it met the highway as Mom and I arrived in a dark-colored limousine. The gray of the overcast ocean day made the green of the lawn and the trees more subdued and less intense than normal. The colors and tones were a perfect match for the mood of the occasion.
Mom and I arrived only shortly before the service was to start, so we made our way to the beach side of the house, where chairs and a small stage had been set up for the sorrowful occasion.
During the last few minutes before the service, the chairs filled, many with people I recognized from over the years. A few people near the aisle stood as we walked toward the platform at the front, giving Mom hugs, speaking a few quiet words with her and looking at me seemingly like the near-stranger that I was, then shaking my hand. A brass quartet was set up on the grass next to the platform. As we neared the front, they were finishing Sheep May Safely Graze, then started on Jesu Joy of Man’s Desiring. I had forgotten how much Dad loved Bach, and the thought triggered an incredible emptiness—a recognition of all the time I had missed with him.
And I almost lost it, until Mom took my arm and, with her New England resolve, led us stoically to the seats reserved for us, her eyes forced dry by sheer will. My body and mind cried out to me to break down, for my dad, for me and for all that I had lost, but I managed, barely, to hold myself together. Later, after the service and the day of sadness; later, when I went to bed that evening, I bawled into the pillow all night, letting loose the tears for all the lost ones of my life, including me.
The service started. Our longtime minister told the history of the man that I knew as my father. The stories that came after, told by his colleagues at work and his friends, were sweet and full of his kindness—of a gentle man that I realized I did not fully know.
The service ended, but the musicians played on as people stopped to extend their sympathies and have some of Dad’s favorite food and wine. The flower colors, subdued by the service, seemingly came to life, as sorrow turned to a celebration of his life. Some people came up to me, saying they remembered me and wondering what I had been doing. I wanted to scream that they remembered me as if I was what I was a decade earlier, not as the screwed-up person that stood before them. Instead, I smiled brief smiles and thanked them for their kind words.
The food and the wine flowed.
* * *
“Jake, your father left this letter for you.” Mom handed me a crisp, white envelope with my name written on it in Dad’s careful handwriting.
The last few days of my life, 1983
If you are reading this, I’ve won our grisly bet. And I’m glad. You have so much going for you. As a child and a young adult you had a disarming charm that could capture anyone—with your smile, your wit, your brightness and your personality. In fact, I had to “uncharm” some of them, particularly the young women, to make sure they weren’t taken advantage of, even though they would never have realized the power you had exerted over them.
I’m certain that you can reach back to those roots and piece your life back together—to start over. Try to do so—for me.
Meanwhile, collecting on our bet—you never sent me what your end of the bet was, by the way, but it no longer matters. Your mother is strong and she will survive, but she will need some help over the next few months. Make sure she stays active with the groups she’s involved in. They will be her support ultimately.
I talked to a good friend, Andrew Molini, about a possible temporary job while you’re here. Call him; try his company out. He is a fine man. Sometimes it’s more important to pick a boss than to pick a job.
Finally, I had someone in my office do some searching. Robbie’s number in Seattle is (206) 325-7724. He’s employed as a financial consultant.
I always loved you, and I will watch over you if I can. I want you to be happy.
Thank you for coming home. Thank you for honoring your end of the bet. You are a part of my life again, I know.
The bustle in the house
The morning after death
Is solemnest of industries
Enacted upon earth,—
The sweeping up the heart,
And putting love away
We shall not want to use again