I go to the window, and this is what I see.
Light, a draft, and then outside, cold, austere, the small garden pitching itself against the city. Green even in winter, the humidity keeps things alive despite the cold. But it will only be winter here for a week or two.
The small Japanese fountain, though, is dried. Someone should take care of that. The few leaves that fall have choked it. A pity, really.
In my own way, I will miss this garden the most, even what I never knew about it. Succumbing to a rare moment of nostalgia, Mama told me what she knew, what I didn't know already myself, such as how my uncle was fond of pulling weeds in it while the strains of a forgotten concerto seeped from the open window. He wore Donald Duck booties with the silk kimono, underwear optional, while working the garden. I couldn't help but smile.
The garden occupied much of his last good year, when he could still get around. Remission, they called it. The years before that were touch and go, the bone cancer a constant companion, waking him up in the middle of the night for their intimate communion -- retching over the toilet, blood in his urine. The disease or the treatment? He could never tell.
One night, at the end of the good year, he called my mother, insisting that she come pick him up. The drive from Metairie to Royal Street, where he lived in this townhouse, was a good half-hour. But she knew it would take more, easily a full hour in the Mardi Gras traffic.
He had threatened suicide. Mama, having played this game before, knew she would go. Grabbing her keys, she put me, fifteen, in charge of my sister, and then she was gone.
Two hours later, they came in, my uncle still in his kimono. By that time he was completely bald, stooped. Pathetic. He stopped at the door of my room, wanting to listen to the music, "Appalachian Spring." He stalled for a moment, exhausted, bloodshot eyes incapable of tears. I had wanted to shut the door, but couldn't. After a minute, he left, groping the wall to the spare bedroom.
The good year was over. Two months later he was dead.
I turn from the window and look back into the kitchen. The smells of cooking remain. Are they memory, stubborn? Probably more real than not. But it's hard to tell. I haven't been here in over ten years. Sometimes I can't figure out why Mama insisted on keeping it. The rental revenue barely kept up with the repair bills. Now she's too old herself to look after it and she wants to retire, finally.
Ironically, the decision is mine. At least, that's what she says. If I want to keep the place, I can. If not, I should sell it, using the money for a down payment on my own home. But I'm not ready for these decisions. "Who is?" I think, consoling myself. But I already know what I'm going to do.
And right now, what I want is to fly back home.
A draft from outside and I turn around to see myself in the garden, seven years old, playing in the fall.
"Scott! Put your coat on. It's getting cold out there."
Even now I hear her voice, coming from the backdoor. I can see her turn to go back inside, mumbling under her breath about her boy. She and Gary are making dinner in the kitchen, my father probably watching television with Martin in the living room.
I run into the kitchen, my uncle catching me in mid flight.
"Watch out there! Don't run in the kitchen."
"But I've got to get my coat! Mama said so! She thinks it's cold."
"And you don't, do you? I'll show you cold..."
And with that, he reaches behind me while spinning me around and drops an ice cube down the back of my shorts. I scream while mother stirs her bowl, and then I'm digging in my underwear to retrieve this bit of cold love.
"Get your coat, Scott."
"Yes, mom," I giggle.
Then I'm back outside.
Everything seemed completely normal -- the monthly dinners at my uncle's house, Gary and Martin bringing doughnuts to my parents' on Saturday mornings, the afternoons at their townhouse playing in the garden. One time I clogged the little fountain with some dried rice I'd stolen from the kitchen, thinking that I too could make dinner for all of us, just like my uncle did.
But the meals seemed the best of times, as the two couples shared some food and some laughs, and I would play with the dogs while they washed the dishes. A good night had by all. Later in life, after sharing meals with many families and many friends, I would think back and realize how odd those meals really were. None of the adults touched. There was no kissing, no handholding, not even a passing caress. It was as though touch, except for roughhousing with the dog, might pry their lips open and force the simplest, most childlike annunciation of reality, a game perhaps of "which one of these is not like the other." But my child's mind didn't know how to play this game. Meanwhile, the adults played at being brothers and sisters, sharing the harvest bounty, gathered at the table, thankful. But for what?
He first became ill when I was a freshman in high school. This was not a good time for either of us. I was gawky, gangly, pimply. The adolescent fates were neither kind nor fair in the allotments of puberty panic. I was in for a rough time and I knew it. Contagions were infiltrating both our bodies -- the cancer in his and the social order in mine.
To make matters worse, I was quiet, shy, a reader. With glasses. Not characteristics of value in an all-boys high school. Indeed, in the grand scheme of the teenage world, I was a nerd. And, since I did well in English as opposed to the sciences, I couldn't even ascend to the level of math nerd. I was probably a fag and just didn't know it yet. Others, needing a mission in life, would help me figure that out.
Indeed, my first important lessons were about sex, though not through first hand experience but by word of mouth. A wrestling coach taught health, and the stories he told were of far more educational value than the potentially obscene pictures in the textbook.
"A friend of mine works in this hospital downtown, in the emergency room, and you wouldn't believe what he sees, all on a regular basis. People are always getting stuff stuck up their privates and can't get them out, so they're rushing to the emergency room for help. The fags in particular like stuffing shit up their butts. One time, my friend had to put a probe up this guy's butt, one of those little probes with a light on the end so they could see, and he found a light staring back at him. This guy had put a flashlight up his ass!"
The moral of the story was clear. No matter what you put up your butt, make sure you weren't a fag.
Later that night, I told the story to my parents and my uncle. We were at his house while he was making a Halloween costume for my little sister. My uncle silently stewed throughout my retelling, but even before I was done, he turned to me, fistfuls of cloth in this hand, "What do I care about somebody else's problems! I've got enough of my own!"
It was then that I noticed that he had less hair than the last time I saw him. Later that night, after dinner and a round of trick or treating, my mother told me that Uncle Gary was sick, and that I shouldn't say things to upset him. How was I supposed to know that that story would make him so mad? It was supposed to be a joke...
"Your uncle, Scott, is a homosexual."
Although some people know they are gay when they are five or six (or so they say), I didn't know until after my uncle died, about a year after that revelatory Halloween. I suppose one could say that I had repressed from my conscious mind any inkling of sexuality, which seemed a thing begging to be repressed, something not to be talked about.
"Mom, if Uncle Gary and Martin are gay, why don't they hold hands?"
"Because it's not right. It's not something that should be talked about or seen in public."
And when it was talked about in public, it more often than not appeared in the guise of a weapon, shot from the mouth.
"C'mon, say it. You're a fag, aren't you? We all know you're a fag."
"Little book-reading faggott!"
No matter what the taunt, I kept my mouth shut. Emotion betrayed, and I could intuit that I had a lot to loose. About what, I wasn't quite sure. But I empathized, unconsciously I think, with my uncle: the fight, for both of us, was on. I didn't know at the time that only I was winning.
When my uncle died, I didn't cry. I don't think I knew how. Instead, I spent my time wondering what Martin was going to do. Would he move or would he stay on in the townhouse? Would he find another lover or was he to live his days as a widower? Would he cry at the funeral, or suck it up like a man?
What does someone else's grief look like?
I wanted to see him and talk to him and just look at him, look at someone left behind, see what sorrow did to the face and the eyes. But I couldn't find him at the wake in my uncle's house. I searched in the kitchen, the bedrooms, and even the garden. Perhaps, I thought, he didn't want to be seen in mourning. Then my mother told me. Martin hadn't been invited. He would never be invited again.
I went to the window and looked outside. I remembered playing, happy, content. Now everything, the garden, this house, seemed exotic and strange and adult. I wanted to run outside and sit on the grass, but I stood by the window and clenched my fists instead, in and out, over and over again.
Then out of nowhere, memories, stubborn, come. A cello concerto, maybe a sonata, Bach, perhaps...and Donald Duck booties padding around the garden...the rustling of silk...a call to dinner..and my uncle catching me in mid-flight, dropping ice down my underwear.
I stared outside. I was furious. And at that moment, I knew.
I came out to my mother in this room, right beneath this window. We were crouched on the floor, cleaning out the kitchen, scrubbing grime and a life out of the baseboards and off of the floors. The funeral had been over for a week.
"Mother, you know how Uncle Gary was gay..."
"Homosexual, son. There was nothing 'gay' about his life."
"Yes, but. Do you think it's wrong?"
"Being gay. Or homosexual. Do you think it's wrong?"
"Well, it seems to me that your uncle lived a pretty miserable life...."
"But wasn't that because of the cancer?"
"After all, he had Martin, just like you've got dad..."
"No. No! It's not the same. Your father and I are normal people, with normal lives..."
"But look around at this kitchen, Mom. Pots, pans, forks, knives...the plates you bought him at Sears. Isn't this normal..."
"No...NO! It's not!"
She put her sponge down and started to sob. I went to her, putting my hand on her shoulder. I didn't say another word.
There is so much more to tell. The first fuck, the first boyfriend. And then the second boyfriend. And the third. And let's not forget the one night stands.
I never brought a boyfriend or lover home, but I would drive them by my uncle's townhouse. For a few weeks in March of my sophomore year in college, the place went unrented, and Dominick and I had a delightful time on the living room's hardwood floors. It's amazing what shapes a sleeping bag will take.
In grad school, I eventually moved in with a boy named Steve: Scott and Steve...how cute. My mother spent a lot of time at our apartment, baking us cookies and washing our clothes, thinking I had found a brother, no longer an only child.
She found a condom in the laundry one day and she never came back. We'd talk on the phone, but Steve was never mentioned again. To this day, I don't know if I left the condom in the laundry basket on purpose or not. In a way it doesn't matter. And in a way it has mattered more than I can say.
The draft returns. The humidity, riding the breeze, will bring mold to the kitchen sink. Someone will have to see to that. But not me. Of that I'm increasingly sure. This home belongs to someone else now.
And the kitchen should be cleaned. Someone else will want to use it. And the garden, its leaves unfolding, withering in the perpetual damp -- it should be cleaned as well.
But I close the window and leave.