Chapter 1

 

CHARLES DICKENS said it best: “It was the best of times; it was the worst of times.” I don’t normally quote Dickens, or any author for that matter, but since we read A Tale of Two Cities in English class this past year, it stuck in my mind. That’s what this summer was for me—the best and the worst. Mostly the worst. But it got better.

I made a total mess of my life and everything I touched this summer. I went apeshit crazy, letting things pile up on me because I didn’t have my head on straight. And then, because misery loves company, I guess, I spewed venom, wreaked havoc, and rained down fire on everyone I came into contact with. Some I’d known and loved for years, like my best friend and my mom and dad. Others were people I’d just met. But I hurt myself the most. And before the summer was over, I was on a collision course that could have been just as devastating as that famous ship hitting the iceberg.

The summer of 2015 was the summer of HERO, the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance. Back in May of 2014, the mayor and her city council passed a law that granted equal rights to anyone and everyone in the city. But the way a lot of people saw it was this: it gave gay people special rights. And especially, it gave transgenders the right to use whatever public restroom they wanted to. Oh, people were up in arms. You can’t do that! You can’t let men use the women’s restrooms! They’ll molest our kids!

My first reaction, like men would dress in drag just to rape little children. Come on. The only people who like to dress in women’s clothes and get all dolled up are not interested in little kids.

If only I’d stuck to that opinion.

The uproar started a movement. A couple of gay-haters spoke up, and before you knew it, pastors of a bunch of churches—my mom’s preacher the loudest—got all hot and bothered over the idea, and they filed suit. Eventually HERO got put on the ballot. Houstonians would get to vote come November if they wanted equal rights for people.

And my mom got right in the middle of it all. Mom is easily influenced. She goes crazy over a cause. It used to be she—read, that her church—was against gay marriage. That fizzled when SCOTUS made gay marriage legal. So they needed a new way to give gay people grief. Mom and her church can’t just sit back and chill. They need to always be against something. So, HERO had already been passed, the lawsuit was filed, the ruling came down, and Mom was ready to pounce. She and her Christian friends would defeat this abomination or die trying.

I stayed out of it at first. The more I could ignore Mom’s church stuff, the better off I was. Knowing what I knew about myself, it was best to just lay low and stay out of Mom’s way in regards to the HERO thing.

Now, Dad. He’s a Titanic nutcase. Note, that’s Titanic with a capital T. For as long as I can remember, he has obsessed over the story of the boat that hit the iceberg. When I was little, I always wanted to play with his scale model of the ship—“Don’t touch, Jake-O”—and I was always ready for him to tell me stories of how a big chunk of ice sank the unsinkable ship. There was even an old black-and-white movie we watched every time it came on TV. It was called A Night to Remember… one of those old fifties flicks. But I loved it. I was a kid. What did I know? And besides, I was sitting there, snuggled up to my daddy, a big bowl of popcorn. Could it get any better?

But then that movie, the longest movie ever made, it seemed, came along. You know the one I’m talking about because you’ve seen it on TV. Titanic starring Leonardo DiCaprio and that redhead, Kate—Windstead? Winslow?—no, Winslet. That’s it. Everybody in the world has sat through it at least once. “I’m the king of the world!”? There’s Le-ho standing on the bow of the ship and screaming his lungs out. Cut me a break. The movie was okay the first time. I even liked Celine singing that song over the closing credits.

But then came the DVD. Ugh. I bet Dad’s watched that thing hundreds of times. I’m not exaggerating. And at least a third of those times, I’ve had to endure it with him. If I have to hear SeaLion Die-On warble “My Heart Will Go On” one more time, I think I will retch so hard that my stomach lining will plop right into the toilet. And don’t get me started on Le-ho. He looks about twelve, and Red eats him up like he’s peanut butter fudge.

So that’s where I stood with the Titanic movie crap. I didn’t use to feel that way, but I guess I just didn’t like sharing my daddy with Le-ho and the gang. I only saw Dad for two weeks in the summer and alternating Christmases. And every one of those visits included Le-ho and Red and SeaLion. Sometimes I thought it was like he couldn’t find any other way to relate to me, his son. Like we were so different that I was an alien to him. It hurt when I looked at it that way, so I just pushed the thoughts away. My dad is a great guy. I love him, and he loves me. It was tough when he moved away, but we made it work. I didn’t even mind his Titanic obsession so much. He’s a workaholic, so it’s good he has a hobby. So I don’t like Le-ho and Red. I watch with him like that’s the best movie ever made. That’s the least I can do for him.

Back to Mom, the religious fanatic. Not the Bible-thumping, Watchtower-distributing, “come to the door” nut, but rather the “I’ll be at the church whenever the doors are open” type. I know Mom really believes all the church stuff, but I mostly see her get all frothed up over the causes, and it pisses me off. She even works for the church. It’s one of those megachurches that are getting to be so popular. Houston has so many of those places that if you put a dot on a map for each one, said map would look like some gangbanger sprayed it with an AR15.

They only need a little tear in your moral fabric to get their talons planted, to lure you in. Mom went with one of her girlfriends, and in record time—since Mom is really, truly vulnerable—she was there twice on Sunday and every Wednesday night. Then she started teaching a Sunday-school class, next it was the Wednesday-night dinner committee, and before I could take a long breath, she had signed up for committees that took her away from home, it seemed, almost every night of the week. And then came the job—church secretary. That church latched on to Mom like a python. That church squeezes the life out of her. And she loves it. I guess that’s important. As long as she doesn’t make me go with her. Dad took time off from his obsession with Le-ho and Red to make Mom promise to keep me away from the church. Separation of Jake and Church. Probably in the divorce decree.

So, I guess I’m sounding like some spoiled brat here, whining about how Mommy and Daddy ignored me, my life was terrible, nobody liked me, everybody hated me, I’m gonna eat some worms. Not so. Maybe rethinking the beginning of this traumatic summer just thrust me back into the me, me, me that I was feeling then. So I apologize.

Now, back to my life. And for that, I have to go back further than this past summer.

Thirteen words that changed my life. “We want you to understand this has nothing to do with you, Jakie.”

There I was, a twelve-year-old, happy as a clam, minding my own business, perfecting my bucket-shooting skills, trying not to touch anything in the Titanic room, enduring Mom’s prayers over me, when the cataclysm occurred. It was before dinner on an April 14. How could I forget something like that? That was the day the iceberg hit the Titanic, and that was the day an iceberg ripped apart my life as I knew it.

“Jake,” Dad said, “your mom and I have some news.”

Now, normally on April 14, Dad is sort of in mourning. There’s the ritual consumption of the final dinner from the ship, and we listen to “Nearer, My God, to Thee,” one of the songs the band played as the boat went under. He was a bit somber through it all, but I always found the “final dinner” a lot of fun. Made me feel like I was a part of his favorite thing in all the world. And what kid doesn’t like feeling that way?

“We want you to understand this has nothing to do with you, Jakie,” Mom said. There they were, the big thirteen. There was something in Mom that made me shiver. The look. Her voice was calm and loving. But the look in her eyes was cold as she stared at my dad.

This wasn’t anything about the Titanic. This was going to be titanic news for me. I wanted to cover my ears and sing at the top of my lungs, “Nearer, my God, to thee, nearer to thee!”

“Jake-O, Mom and I love each other very much. And we both love you more than life itself. You understand?”

The shock of the thirteen words roiled inside me. More than Mom loves her church? More than you love your precious boat? I thought that, but I kept quiet, mute with fear and dread.

I looked from Dad to Mom. He had a concerned smile pasted on his face. Her smile was forced, trying to mask everything that was about to come. But the tear in her right eye told me she was aching for me at that moment.

“But sometimes love isn’t enough, baby,” Mom said. And the tear fell.

This was the big reveal. I’d not had much experience with the D-word, being twelve and all, but a couple of my friends had divorced parents, and they were miserable. That’s how I learned the term broken home. One of my classmates used it, talking about those guys whose parents had split. Broken home. Terrifying words. The thought was so hideous, so unthinkable. I felt ice rush my veins. I wanted to run. Get as far away from this news as I could. Make it go away. If it was left unsaid, then it would be left undone. Mom and Dad and I would stay a family. Don’t say it, Dad.

He took a huge, deep breath. “Your mom and I are divorcing, son.”

And the iceberg ripped me apart. My life, as I knew it, sank.

Mom grabbed me and tried to hug me, but I pulled away. There was an incredible look of pain on Dad’s face. But I wasn’t having any of it. If they really wanted to comfort me, to save me, they wouldn’t try hugs and pain-filled looks. They’d stay together.

“Since my job requires that I live right here in the hotel”—he manages fancy hotels—“your mom and I have found an apartment close by for you and her to live in. You won’t have to change schools, and you’ll be close enough to the hotel that you can see me any time you want.”

So they had a plan. Didn’t ask me. Just told me.

They had it all figured out. My life was over, pulled down by a sinking ship, but everything was okeydokey for Mom and Dad. That, for me, was the beginning of the love/hate. Hate’s a strong word, but it’s a valid choice when your parents betray you like that. I vowed I would never learn to live with it. And I would never forgive either of them.

That’s how I felt at the time. But I got used to it. I managed. As long as I willed myself not to think about it all, I could deal with it. I adjusted, as my shrink said. Yeah, I even went to counseling for a while. My parents insisted. I spilled my guts twice a week, and after a lot of months, I was declared cured, crazy no more, ready to resume my normal, by then thirteen-year-old existence. I was smart for my age. After all, I convinced the shrink I was well adjusted when I was still royally pissed off and hurt and angry and determined not to cut my dad any slack.

And why should I? Right in the middle of the miracle cure, Dad moved to Philadelphia. He said it was a promotion. The hotel chain was giving him a big raise and a fancier hotel. I didn’t buy it. The Grayson hotel that he managed was in the ritziest section of Houston, the Galleria area, and it was all the time getting famous guests. I mean, Taylor Swift and Bradley Cooper don’t stay at Motel 6, you know?

No, Philly sits a cool 1600 miles northeast of Houston. I may have been only thirteen, but I figured out real fast that Dad wanted to get as far away from Mom and me as he could.

They both talked the good talk. Dad really never said anything negative about Mom. But she’d spit out—every once in a while—a nasty remark about him. Nothing specific, so I never knew why they’d split and why she was so angry with him.

After the divorce, after Dad left, she sank quickly into the religion business, prayers seventy-two times a day and a trip to the church every night after dinner, sometimes dragging me along. I didn’t mind it too much because the place had a pool and a basketball court, so at least I could just hang out and have fun. I was still just a kid, but I think it was in the divorce that Mom could not force me to go to her church. Dad, I’m pretty sure, wasn’t against saving my soul. He just didn’t want it to happen at Mom’s Bible-thumping prayer palace. Personally, I didn’t think she was doing an end-run around his no-church decree because I didn’t think she could save my soul by letting me shoot hoops or swim. But he put a stop to that right quick. I wasn’t privy to their conversation. They never let me know anything until after the fact. Dad just told me that Mom wouldn’t be taking me to church anymore unless I specifically told her I wanted to go with her. And if she took me against my will, I was to call him immediately. Yeah, right. He ran off to Pennsylvania, abandoning me. I had to live with Mom. It would take a very heinous act on her part before I tattled to Dad about anything Mom did.

That’s how thirteen-year-olds think. Divorce is probably the worst thing that could happen to you when you’re that age. Life goes on, though, and wounds heal. Dad was in Philly and not physically around, but we skyped all the time, so I soon realized he hadn’t left me at all. I even figured out that putting space between him and Mom was a good thing. She mellowed too. It was a process, but she got less and less bitter about him.

I’d catch bits and pieces of telephone conversations between them sometimes. Because I was always left out of the loop where their schemes for me were concerned, I got pretty good at listening around corners. I tried to pick up the phone once, but they both heard me on the other line and told me their conversation was private. And then Mom had the landline taken out. So I had to content myself with sneaking around. I only heard her side when I listened, but they argued more and more. She used words like abomination, sin, hell. Then I didn’t blame Dad for trekking those 1600 miles away.

It wasn’t like she beat me or anything. Like I said, Mom mellowed. Still whacko religious, but not so much harping against Dad. It was like, little by little, she began accepting him in some way. I didn’t know if they had struck a truce or if there was genuine understanding—about what, I didn’t know—growing between them. I just knew my life got a little more bearable without the postdivorce quarreling and with the time I spent on the computer with Dad. I got over it and learned to love my parents again. Actually, I never stopped loving either one of them, but it felt like I hated them for a good year or more back then.

Thank Mom’s God that I got over the divorce thing. A new friendship was key to that development. More about that later. But feeling better about my life and accepting that I had two very loving parents did wonders when it came to accepting what came later.

But I’ll get to it all. More about my recovery from the ravages of divorce now.

Dad came back to Houston for important school things. He was always tethered to his cell phone—the hotel couldn’t operate without his constant input—so I never got his undivided attention. But he made my middle school awards program (Math Award!) and he made the playoff tournament where I scored the winning points that brought us the state private-school basketball championship. We had an awesome team last year. For those two things, the biggest of my life so far, he turned his cell off! I felt like the king of his world.

By court order, I had to go to Philly for two weeks every summer. Dad never stopped working, so he had to fit me in. I spent a lot of my two weeks at the pool or watching TV. But when he could free up some time, being with him was a lot of fun.

Philadelphia was a welcome vacation each year. The Grayson in Philly really was more luxe than the Galleria Grayson, and Dad carted me around town to see the sights, cell phone firmly fastened to his belt. There was always the inevitable Le-ho. The minute the DVD went into the player, I started praying for a Grayson crisis to pull him away. He didn’t know when to quit with the Titanic stuff. He was a grown man, too old to play with his toys. But he loved his pop-up book of the ship, his scale model. I figured I could indulge him.

So in the last four years, I grew up a lot. I discarded the romantic notion of 99 percent of children of divorce. Mom and Dad were meant to be and would get back together. Mine weren’t and wouldn’t. I made the best of it, loving them separately, rather than clinging to the “one big happy family again” notion that so many kids have, getting more and more bitter as they age, some into adulthood, and choosing sides, like there is ever one parent to blame more than the other. I guess if one is a serial cheater or something like that, there is a side to take. But that wasn’t the case with mine, so I loved them equally, despite their quirks—churchy Mom, Titanicky Dad.

Life, however, takes strange turns. I began to notice my father becoming more distant, and I don’t mean the 1600-miles-away thing. It was like I didn’t hear from him as much, and when he did call, he didn’t talk much. I got the feeling that something was bothering him, but he couldn’t figure out a way to tell me. And that bugged me a lot. I found myself, I don’t know, worrying about him. That kinda scared me. I had never actually worried about either my mom or my dad. This was a new thing.

I tried to talk to my best friend Mallory. She’s the person I mentioned who helped me get over the divorce. Mal, who has an opinion about everything and shares it liberally whether invited to or not, was at a loss on the Dad-being-distant thing. She’d say, “Your dad is the greatest on the planet. Nothing’s wrong. Now, if it was my daddy….” And then she’d start ranting about her parents, both of whom I’ve spent a lot of time with, and neither of them is as nonstandard as the pair I’ve got.

My mom… things just got weirder and weirder. I thought Dad was an unsolvable problem, but she, totally in line with her church and Pastor Stillmore, jumped on the anti-HERO bandwagon. As previously noted, she went into it with a vengeance. Suddenly my mother was fighting for her right to have a man-free public-toilet existence. I thought it was total crap, but I learned long ago, especially with church matters, you can’t reason with Mom. I kept my mouth shut. I refused to join her cause or even take a stance, but I guess, deep down, if I was forced to think about it, it did seem weird that anybody could be born one gender and have all the equipment between the legs and suddenly decide they weren’t that person at all.

So, as I prepared for my annual trek to the City of Brotherly Love, I hoped that I would have two weeks of freedom. Away from Mom and her obsession. I looked forward to the trip. If I played my cards right, I could find out what had been bugging Dad while spending two blissful weeks away from the church’s fight against HERO, which would be an all-summer-long thing. It was good I was getting a break.

And that was my life in a nutshell prior to being on a plane, the middle of July and three weeks after my sixteenth birthday, whizzing my way to PHL, Philadelphia International Airport, my home away from home.

Oh. One other thing. I’m gay.