I grew up around gay men. But I didn’t know my father was one.
My mother was a musical theater actress—that I knew. My earliest memory is sitting backstage in her dressing room, at a dinner theater in Florida, lit by a makeup mirror, listening to a woman in a bra talk to a dude wearing fishnets. After the shows, we’d go out for dinner, me, age 4, thinking they were still in character, they were so theatrical.
One time, she played Sally Bowles in Cabaret, and I got a front-row seat. During intermission, I told the old man next to me: “That’s my mom!”
I was never that proud of my dad. He worked for computer companies his whole life, thanks to a degree in engineering, but he wasn’t programming video games or inventing iPods. He was a bookkeeper, and I had to show him how to use the computer.
He revealed he had been depressed his whole adult life, depressed during both marriages, and was now on anti-depressants. Because we weren’t close, I didn’t pry.
But it was he who fed my younger brother and me, when my mother left for New York to try for the big time. We spent 12 years in the suburbs, wedged into various pre-built homes. And no matter which city we were in, his routine was the same: He’d go to work, come home, then lay in his bed to gorge on chips and watch Dallas or Dynasty. He never seriously dated a woman. Or a man. He never left the house. He got fat. On weekends, he’d take us to R-rated movies like Places in the Heart, while couples made out. Nannies came and went.
“Your dad’s a loser,” one of them told me—a hot one, so I believed her. By that time, I was 13, and despised both of my parents, her for leaving, him for never leaving his bed. So I called my dad a loser, too. And bullied him. He’d fight back, with threats to send me to boarding school. In response, I’d punch him in the gut. My brother was caught in the middle, probably grateful I wasn’t attacking him (or his dog).
By college, I had moved to New York and stopped talking to my dad entirely. I wanted to learn, and he had nothing to teach me.
Meanwhile, I heard my father married his high-school sweetheart and divorced her six months later, losing half his savings. He also apparently had a heart attack. When we finally reconnected, five years later, I asked him what happened. He revealed he had been depressed his whole adult life, depressed during both marriages, and was now on anti-depressants. Because we weren’t close, I didn’t pry. But I could relate: I had been depressed, too.
By then, he had moved to San Francisco. There, he started to call me more often, only to make small talk. One Halloween, I called him. “I’m going to a costume party,” he said.
“What are you dressed as?” I asked.
“The emcee from Cabaret,” he said. As he hung up, male voices called to him, cheering. My dad: The dude in fishnets. A year later, the family met Ted. He wasn’t introduced as a boyfriend but he was there for Thanksgiving. And the next.
“Of course you’re dad’s gay,” my mom told me. She now taught musical theater, so was still surrounded by gay men, but wasn’t ready to embrace Ted. “Your father had a lover in Amsterdam before we met, and I caught him once with some guy on our couch.”
I never asked my dad about that. I never asked about his sexuality at all, and never will. He died of a heart attack on the street last year, while visiting me in London, at age 67. After identifying the body, I returned to his hotel to break the news to Ted. He sobbed in my arms, and wept again when I left him at the airport. My mom cried, when she called. “Your father was proud of you,” she said. My brother said goodbye to my dad over the phone, when I held it up to the coffin right before it was cremated, a plaque with his name on it engulfed by flames.
I didn’t cry until a week later, at the funeral, back in the States. Two singers sang “God Only Knows,” and I remembered my dad listening to that in the car, driving us to the grocery store, or maybe Blockbuster, me calling him “fat-ass” from the backseat, him thinking … what?
What was he thinking?
Here’s what I think about: What would have happened, if he had come out earlier? Did he lose decades of his life? Would he have come out sooner had he been born a generation later, and gotten married on the steps of City Hall?
I don’t know exactly why my dad made the choices he did, but I know where he ended up. In the last week of his life, he visited my brother and his kids, then the old lover in Amsterdam, and, on his last night on earth, ate dinner with me after seeing my daughter. All accompanied by a partner who cried over his death.
Of all the weeks to die, that wasn’t a bad one. Yet my lasting memory of my dad is not his final days, or the fights we had, but of the back of his head, at a no-name strip club. A friend and I asked him to go once, selfish and horny, mid-twenties, wanting to see boobs. We sat him in the front row alone and gave him dollar bills. He put them in the stripper’s thong while we watched and cheered. He had originally wanted to go to a gay club “for the music” and we voted that idea down. He scarified his joy for mine that night. It wasn’t the first time.