The Distance, Part 1
Friday night at Bo’s. I was spending the evening with my friend Thad the Cad, guzzling down Long Island Iced Teas and trolling for hotties to fondle by bar time. Thad was one of those boys that were too pretty for their own good with his tanned skin, immaculately styled hair with highlights, a trendy tribal tattoo on his back, and the kind of rebellious yet wholesome persona that the likes of Chad Michael Murray and Benjamin McKenzie have built teen soap opera careers off of.
And that night at Bo’s, Thad was looking ever the part of pretty boy in his tight maroon t-shirt with Cash is King scrawled across it, a baseball cap turned backward, the little bits of hair making up a goatee on his chin neatly trimmed, and his feet adorned with the mandatory metrosexual brown sandals. He had come back to River Falls to take a summer school class and had promptly called me when he was bored at his apartment and easily dragged me out to the bars.
“There are no cuties here at all,” he said, sipping his drink and craning his neck to scope out the sparse crowd of people at Bo’s. “Not a single one.”
“I thought you were trying to be good,” I said, stirring my drink with my red straw.
“I am,” he said. “I’m not looking for a girl to fuck necessarily, just some eye candy. I have nothing hot to look at.”
“Well I guess I’m the lucky one,” I smirked, staring right at him.
“So have you kept out of trouble since I’ve been gone?” he asked me as we found a little booth out of the way.
“For the most part,” I replied. “I did see the Russian when I went back to La Crosse for the Fourth of July.”
“Did you fuck him?” he asked me.
“Oh God no,” I interjected.
“You did, didn’t you?”
“We’re not all whores Thad,” I playfully snapped at him.
“I am not a whore,” he hissed at me, sounding eerily like Elizabeth Berkley in Showgirls and just like in that movie it was delivered unconvincingly. “I have been good. I’ve just been here, going to class and working. Nothing else.”
I stared at him a bit, his puppy dog eyes all aglow somehow managed to seem sincere even when telling a boldface lie. That’s the thing about pretty boys. They always know the right thing to keep you just close enough.
A few hours and several drinks later, I convinced Thad to show me his humble abode located all the way across town. We trudged along together, me stumbling just a bit as I heard the smacking of the bottom of his sandals as they hit the pavement.
“So this is where you live,” I said as he unlocked the door to his apartment led me in.
As my eyes looked around I was struck at the normality of the place. No condom dispensers, no sex swings hanging down from the ceiling, his apartment that he shared with a couple of his friends was so refreshingly un-Thad that it made it and him all the more endearing for some reason like the décor of the apartment was some peek into a more responsible part of Thad’s psyche.
“Oh no,” he sighed, looking at the mail. “They’re taking away our Skinemax.”
Or maybe not.
We sat up for another hour, drinking beer and bullshitting until it hit three. I had a long day of shopping the next day and was about to start putting on my blue Converse shoes when Thad stopped me.
“You can sleep on the couch and I’ll give you a ride home in the morning,” he offered.
With my dorm room way across town, a dorm room without air conditioning, and since I was already right there at Thad’s and he had one of those nice box fans, I figured that it would be rather rude of me to leave.
As I crawled under the comforter that Thad had laid out for me and watched him sashay his way back to his bedroom, I wondered how many girls had made the walk I had made but ended up in his bedroom. How many had stumbled home with him in their high heel shoes and camisole tops to wind up next to him in bed so they wouldn’t spend another Friday night alone. One, two, three, four, five? That night I went to bed with that on my mind, counting bar sluts instead of sheep.
- - -
And from bars to brunch, a few days later I was at Perkins with my mother who always knew that on Sunday mornings I only got out of bed for free breakfasts. As I chugged down a glass of orange juice, she tapped her newly manicured nails across the table and told me all the little things she had been up to since I had seen her last. With me being in River Falls and my mother being in Eau Claire, I hardly ever saw her except for these little jaunts she made through on her way to and from the Twin Cities area.
And from all these years of traveling back and forth in her car, my mother had learned that both on the road and in life, it was best to take the most direct path.
“We’re selling your grandmother’s house,” my mother told me off-handedly. “It’s been in the works for the past three years or so and we’ve finally gotten Grandma and your Auntie to finally move out of Georgia Street and into a townhouse in a nicer suburb. Your Aunt is difficult as ever. She keeps complaining about how far it is from work and your Grandma is just trying to wrap her head around not being on Georgia Street.”
“And it’s such a lovely neighborhood with the shootings and the mandatory liquor-store-on-every-corner,” I interjected.
“It’s her life though,” my mother said with a shrug, letting out a little yawn before continuing. “It’s something important that she’ll be losing. But it’s been in the work for three years so she’s had plenty of time to get adjusted to it. And your Auntie, well, she’ll complain the whole time just for the sake of consistency. It’d be easier if I was closer so these things would go smoother but that’s life.”
Midway through brunch, my mother turned her attention to another familial relationship she thought was being impeded by distance: ours. My mother, since retiring last summer, had become a constant commuter on the Internet superhighway and expected me to be as well when it came to her frequent e-mails that filled my Yahoo account.
“I’ve just been so busy with work that I just don’t check my e-mail ever,” I said, trying to get a piece of bacon out from between my teeth. Over the years, I had learned when dealing with my mother that in order to stay close I had to keep her as far away from the truth as possible. “I don’t even see my friends that much. I just work and go to sleep.”
She let out a sigh as she paid for brunch and got another refill on her water. “You know I’m a worrier. That week you didn’t return our calls your father and I were tempted to come all the way up to River Falls just to make sure you were alive.”
“Well that’s good to know that I have parents that will make that long of a trip but I’m just busy all the time,” I reiterated. “But I promise I will e-mail you more often.”
My mother let out a yawn. “I don’t know why I’m so tired all the time now.”
“It’s called being old,” I replied.
“I just need to get home and crawl onto the couch and watch me some Perry Mason,” she said as we made our way out to her light blue Le Sabre. “Then I can nap for the rest of the day.”
“You really are a senior citizen aren’t you,” I smirked.
She dropped me off in front of my residence hall and rolled down my window as I slammed the door shut.
“Remember to e-mail your mother,” she said. “She’s a huge worrier.”
I nodded my head and watched her car around in the narrow little street and pull up to the stoplight. I saw her stare at me for a second. It was the same look she would have when I was younger and would go play with a few of the neighborhood kids. It was like she trying to create a telepathic bubble to protect me from the ne’er-do-wells of the world. And as I stood there on the steps of the dorm, I could still feel her trying to protect me. That’s the thing about mothers, though. Or at least the good ones. No matter how far from them you are, they always manage to be right there with you like the maternal version of Triple A.
- - -
Later that day I got in contact with a man who had for the most part been too far out of reach due to our conflicting schedules: Ridley the Rugby Player.
“Hold on,” he typed to me after I said hi. “I have to go get something.”
And apparently was still out of reach until he returned back to his computer about fifteen minutes later.
“Sorry,” he typed to me. “I’m making bread.”
“You make your own bread,” I typed back with the appropriate sarcastic smiley face accompanying it. “What kind do you make?”
“How healthy of you,” I replied. “Are there any other domestic things you do that I should be aware of?”
“Umm, I can sew,” he said with a beaming smiley face. “Cooking is easy though.”
“I’m not really good at cooking meals,” I said. “I’m more of a dessert maker. I kick ass at cookies. If only I had, you know, pats and pans and cooking utensils to make the stuff because then I could get all Emeril on your ass.”
“Oh I bet,” Ridley replied.
“Could you imagine the two of us cooking together,” I joked. “We’d be the gay interracial Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan cute movie montage.” I paused for a moment. “I wish you were nearer. Then we could see each other.”
“Yep but we are too far away from each other,” he replied.
I let out a sigh. They say that absence makes the heart grow fonder but they neglect to mention that distance is such a motherfucker.
- - -
A few mornings later, I was checking my e-mails. I started subscribing to HGTV and getting recipes for my eventual cook off with the Rugby Player. I was determined to win with a triumphant tiramisu, a dish that my mother had recently fallen in love and had tried to make recently to varying degrees of success.
And speaking of my mother, as promised, had sent me an e-mail.
Just checking in. How are you doing?This past week has been a little busy, because I needed to go to LAX for my physical. Since I have lost so much weight, my doctor had me take a number of tests. Unfortunately/fortunately (whichever way you look at this), he discovered that I have diabetes. I am sharing this information with you, not to scare you, but so you will know that diabetes didn't SKIP my generation. Both of my Dad's parents had diabetes. My Dad's mother lived to be in her 80's (that's a hopeful sign). I won't know what I have to do until I meet with my physician, dietician, and nurse on Tuesday, August 2. I leave for Gary on August 3. I am planning to take the Eau Claire Passenger Van to and from the MPLS airport (so I won't get to have brunch with you on this trip). I'll be in Gary until August 8. Your Dad is planning to come to Eau Claire to celebrate our 26th wedding anniversary on August 9.I hope this summer has been a good learning experience for you. We miss you, but we are glad you found a job yourself and are working hard at it. As you know when I'm in LAX and in Gary, I won't have access to a computer on a daily basis. So if you want to communicate with me while I'm there you can call me.Love ya,Mom
I paused. I was stunned by both the news and the way it had been delivered. I started a response to her. I wanted to ask her what type of diabetes she had, how long the symptoms had been around, the seriousness of her condition. But instead, I told Thad I was meeting him at the bars and turned off my computer. I needed some space.
The Distance, Part 2When we were little, our lives were consumed with playing games: kickball, softball, four square. They were simple games with basic rules that told us how to play it, how to maneuver within it, and most importantly how to win. While most of these games died out by the time we reached puberty when pin the tail on the donkey turned into trying to nail the hot ass, we still found ways to incorporate games into our ever changing lives.
Since finding out about my mother’s diabetes, I had decided to play a game of my own: emotional hide and seek. I had been confronted by a serious issue, my mother’s health, and had to make the choice of whether to seek out all the information I could about it or I could merely hide from every feeling that this issue was making bubble up within me. Like any responsible 22-year-old, I decided to hide. But just because I decided to hide, it didn’t mean I wasn’t being sought out by both my parents’ and what I later determined the whole of the universe.
I sat, hold up in my dorm room, and watched what has become for me an antidote for feeling bad: bad reality television. So I ate some donut holes and tuned into another trashtastic edition of The Real World. Between the message t-shirts, the hot tubs, and the totally oblivious nature of the participants, I felt confident I had found the best hiding spot.
“Your mom died Danny,” an off-the-screen voice said to Boston Danny who had in his short three-week stay in Austin, Texas had managed to get into a fight and has to have surgery on his left eye.
“You’re lying,” he kept stammering in his thick Boston accent that normally is somewhere between aggravating and grating but now was painful not because of his odd enunciating but of the hurt that quivered through it.
I watched, unable to turn away for it was both compelling television and I didn’t have a remote easily available. I couldn’t believe it. He kept crying and I kept watching the emotional carnage. At that moment, I had officially hit mother overload.
I crawled out of my bed and plopped down in front of my computer. I opened a blank e-mail and started to type all of those questions you’re supposed to ask and write all those words of encouragement you’re supposed to say. But midway, I stopped. If I sent off the e-mail, I would get a response back and then all of this would become all too real. So instead I logged onto instant messaging, looking anyone to talk to about anything not related to mothers.
After sitting around, playing endless games of solitaire, I discovered that I wasn’t the only person in hiding.
“Hello,” said Ridley the Rugby Player, who was on invisible mode.
“Are we hiding from someone?” I typed to him. “It’s me isn’t it?”
“No but if you want I could say yes,” he wrote back with a smiley face.
I asked him what he had done that day and he replied: went and sold DVDs, practiced some footwork for rugby, made dinner, and watched the Sci-Fi channel for a few hours. He asked me what I had done and I was even more succinct: worked, ate, and wrote a column. I decided that it was best that “irrationally freaking out about my mother and avoiding my feelings like a two year old” wasn’t something I’d put on the list.
He paused for a moment. “So what else have you been up to?”
“Being sick,” I replied. All this worry about my mother’s illness I had forgotten that I was sick with a slight fever and a runny nose.
“Well if your nose is runny than you should probably catch it,” he typed.
“So my act needs some work,” he typed with a shrugging smiley. “I’ll be the greatest someday. You’ll see.”
“And I’ll be able to say I knew you when,” I smirked.
“And when you’re a huge writer I can say the same,” he said. That was the thing about Ridley. He never let the distance of him being in the Cities and my hiding at the moment stop him from getting close and finding me. “Maybe you can be the comic and the writer.”
“Making one rugby player laugh does not a career path make,” I snickered.
“Huh?” he answered back at first. “That was harder to follow than Yoda at first. Did I tell you I am being slow today?”
“Are you still cute?”
“What do you mean by that,” he wrote back with feigned anger. “Of course I am.”
“Well then you’re not totally useless,” I teased.
“I can’t stop being cute even with a head cold,” I wrote back.
“Maybe that can be your super human power,” he encouraged me. “To bewilder your enemies with your awesome cuteness and shining wit.”
“Don’t forget my inability to blush due to my dark brown skin,” I added. “What would your super power be?”
“Well I could fly and destroy all in my path with my smile,” he said, placing a beaming smiley face at the end of the statement. “Well I have to run. We can discuss super powers more later.”
He logged off shortly thereafter. Though it had been just two guys playing pretend, it had brought me back to reality of human interaction and made me move a little bit out of my hiding spot.
Something I should’ve known better to do from the years of losing at it in elementary school. I’d always be close to winning but I’d get too ambitious and dart out and would be caught. That Sunday afternoon, history decided to repeat itself.
“Your mother and I are coming through town tomorrow,” my father said on my answering machine. “We’ll see you at five or so. Have a good day.”
I deleted the message and sighed. There were no more chances for hiding. I had been tagged out.
The next day my mother and father pulled up along side my dorm in my mother’s powder blue Le Sabre. I slammed the backseat door and buckled my seatbelt as my father pulled away and drove towards the local Perkins.
There, in the confines of the blue Le Sabre, we all played our own game: The Let’s-Not-Talk-About-The-Diabetic-Elephant-in-the-Car. I blathered on about the job, making beds for the Kansas Chiefs and the various things I found in their rooms: bottles of pee, Bibles, porn, the classic film Booty Juice. My father asked about different players, forgetting that I had never had any interest in football and that managed to even decrease further over the weeks of making hospital corners. My mother laughed every so often at a story here and there I told. It was the kind of nervous laughter I had never heard her have before and it scared the shit out of me until she did something that was so classically here that I knew we weren’t so far from our normal selves.
“You couldn’t even send an e-mail with some words of encouragement,” she snickered, looking back at me with a sly smile. “Look at your son. Even when he knows his mother has a disease, he still can’t e-mail her back.”
“Well it’s not like they make ‘Sorry for the Diabetes’ e-cards at Hallmark.com,” I explained with a little chuckle.
“Well I didn’t know when I was going to see you next,” she replied.
“You could’ve called,” I offered.
“I totally forgot about that,” she laughed a bit. “Your mother’s old.”
“Well the first step is admitting you have a problem,” I giggled.
Over dinner at Perkins, my father dished out the neighbors, I gobbled down a hamburger and my mother was, well, acting like my mother as she kept prodding me to shave and asking me if I needed another napkin.
“You know they busted a whole tribe of Black people for drug stuff,” my dad told me as we sat, eating our food. “A whole neighborhood.”
“Don’t call them a tribe,” my mother interjected. “Call them what they really are: a bunch of hood rats. They keep forgetting that La Crosse is not Milwaukee. We Black people stick out.”
“Well besides drug busts what’s going on in La Crosse?” I asked.
“Just the usual stuff,” Dad sighed. “We went to a new bar last Thursday. Very nice.”
Since my going away to college, my sixty-something father had, with a group of his professor buddies, morphed into a twenty-something male who went barhopping every Thursday night.
“Well that’s lovely,” I said with a smirk. “What’s next, you going to start hitting up keggers in the fall?”
It was around the time we ordered dessert that we finally talked about my mother’s diabetes. I know that dessert seems like an odd time to talk about a serious topic and especially about diabetes, but my family had a history of talking about serious things over dessert like an After School Special version of those cheesecake scenes on Golden Girls. In fact, I came out to each one of my parents over dessert. My dad was Dutch Apple at Norske Nooke and my mother was French Silk at Baker’s Square that is oddly enough the same dessert I order at Perkins.
“So I’m type two diabetes,” she explained to me. “I take two pills a day. Then I switch to some bigger pills next week. But I’ve been doing all the proper stuff all along: exercising, curbing desserts, watching intake. So at least I won’t have to a total change in my life style.”
We went back to eating our desserts when I decided that I could for once stop hiding my lifestyle and talk about it.
“I’ve been trying to get some applications to some gay publications,” I said. Both of my parents just stared at me. “Legit gay publications.”
“Well that’s very good,” my dad said.
“It’s nice that you’re taking the initiative,” my mother said with a big smile.
I nodded my head and took another bite of my French Silk. We sat at that booth at that restaurant with no hiding, no pretending. It was just some dessert and us. We had all come a long ways and we all had a long way to go to make the distance from fear to hope, from indifference to acceptance but the place seemed closer than ever. As we laughed, I thought to myself that maybe it’s not the journey or the destination. In life, maybe it’s little pit stops on the way that make all the difference and the wisdom to pull over to them to stop, breathe, and stretch. And that’s what we did.