If your father’s life had been a movie, he would’ve been your father’s “friend.” They shared a love that had a name, though no one dared to speak it.
The disease your father’s friend contracted after your father left New York was once called GRID. It was also called the Gay Plague, and some called it 4H Disease, so called for four of the communities affected in the early days of the crisis: homosexuals, heroin users, hemophiliacs, and Haitians. Your father is only one of these things.
When you were a teenager, you volunteered for an organization in the town where you grew up, a town so small most people called it by the name of the city beside it. The organization raised money for people living with HIV and AIDS. You’ve forgotten the name of the organization, but not the names of the people you met there. Michael. Terry. Anthony. Angel. Always men, even when their names were fluid.
In 1993, your father explained there were words you couldn’t say. You weren’t allowed to say the word fag. (Your brother already had.) Your father explained that words like that were unacceptable from you. We don’t blame people for who they are.
Still, you’d later learn he applied this rule only to men. When your father was among his circle of friends, cruel names were fine for women. Pussy Mouth. Fish Breath. The female equivalents for fag.
It was and wasn’t your place to ask why that sort of name was acceptable.
At 16, your volunteer work hit a peak. You were a steward for a portion of the AIDS quilt. Your first reaction: Where’s the end? You didn’t know endlessness could make a point. The names and the quilt went on because there was no shortage of people who’d died, and no shortage of people who’d loved them enough to build a memorial.
You didn’t look for the name of your father’s friend—not at first—though you’d learned his first name, and that they’d spent at least three years together. There must’ve been names your father had for him, names nobody else knew, not because your father hid them, but he doesn’t grieve that way. His grief isn’t forthcoming or nostalgic or really even fond. It could be confused with depression, but that’s the wrong name for what he does. Depression is a thing that happens to a person. Your father constructs his grief. He builds a room of repetition and dwells in there for days. In his room, he talks about loss in a cyclical, fortifying way. He’s always losing. He’ll continue to lose. His losses will repossess his gains. Eventually, they’ll rechristen him. They’ll be all he has to his name.
Melodrama is too tame a word for your father’s brand of grief. Closer: wallowy grandeur. He believes loss will be his legacy. Bankruptcy despite security. Insolvency despite thrift. Deviance despite celibacy. Tedium despite desire. But underneath each, regular trips to the city where he might’ve been free. He took you to see where he’d lived, though not the street or even the neighborhood. Your father’s middle name was Approximation. A blend of what was and what is. As if the past could hope to marry the present. As if the past could take the present’s name, and become both Mr. Then and Mr. Now. As if your father’s departure from New York and his marriage to your mother and their subsequent parenthood could have happened right alongside the life he’d had to give up. As if your father’s friend hadn’t become a name on a list of political casualties, a name cast among those thousands of others lost to complications, a name on a quilt that you suddenly remembered you could easily look for.
Questions you didn’t think to ask: What if he didn’t have a patch? What if his patch wasn’t part of your section? Why did his first name have to be so easily mistaken for someone else’s? Not Benny or Brian or Billy or Brad, but close enough to those—a first name so common that, even if you’d found his patch, you would’ve doubted it was his. But you looked anyway and tried to find one with the name your father knew. The name attached to a life that ended and so upended your family.
The year his friend died, your father told your grandmother and uncles who he was. It took the death of his dearest friend for your father to reclaim his life. But the loss of that name—that your father could say it, yet never again hear “Yes?” or better yet, “Yes, dear?” or best of all, “Come on. I want you to say it again”—that loss, the name and the life that went with it, was more than the loss of a life. Your father’s wishful thinking was over. The past was a funeral notice.
Your father’s loss and his response to it made you consider your death. Though that’s not really the right name for what you were considering. Closer: your unbirth. You thought, if your life could be exchanged, why not swap it for his friend’s? This was before you lost patience with your father’s insistence that the world was set against him, and, therefore, also set against you, because, to him, you were not a person—you were the result of his choices, an extension of his life and his sacrifice—which you also came to believe because you hadn’t yet questioned your father, and when you eventually tried, he held your mouth shut and said he could unmake you. And there, like a spell: an offer of reversal. The old switcheroo. It was almost too perfect, your end and his beginning coming at his own hands. But he never went quite far enough. Just lifted you up by your hair. Pulled your shoulder from its socket. Blacked your eyes. Clamped his hand on your mouth. He didn’t want you dead—only silent. Because silence was close enough to obedience. And because your name was basically property. And because when you heard him say it, property more or less rhymed with daughter.
But you are not your father. You are not his friend. Lives are not exchangeable. So you learned as you read the AIDS quilt. Every patch, every name, every life: itself. None of them were his friend’s. Not even the one that had his friend’s name. And the year he died. ’93. But it couldn’t have been his: there was no mention of the life he shared with your father. No space for the love that outweighed every love your father encountered thereafter: namely, yours and your brother’s, and your father’s for you both, and the little love he saved for himself, which wasn’t enough to save him from the depths of survivor’s guilt.
The guilt, he’d passed down to you with your share of inherited shame. The shame you thought he would’ve recognized when he’d grounded you at 18: literally grounding you, shoving you to the floor, and sitting on your waist, to stop you from moving out. This was months before your estrangement took root, but you’d already stopped talking to him. And he was convinced he knew why—convinced you hated his gayness—but he couldn’t even say it. He used another name. “You can’t stand me. Because I’m one of those.”
Yes. You were ashamed. But only of yourself.
At 14, a friend confronted you. A girl that used to be a friend. She asked if what she’d heard was true: had your grandmother moved out of your house, had your uncles left too, had literally half the people in your house just one day up and left, had the reason they left been your father’s revelation?
Had your grandmother wished AIDS on her son?
Your former friend didn’t actually ask that. She didn’t ask because she didn’t know. None of your friends cared about your family drama. Like your other neighbors, they cared about themselves.
That’s why this girl asked if your father was gay. That’s why she expected a response. She was thinking of herself. She was thinking of the neighborhood. She was thinking she knew who you were.
At that age, in 1996, you’d never heard of being outed. All you knew was you didn’t want your father to bear the weight of whispers and shame. He was already carrying far too much. He already hated himself. And you’d come to suspect he hated you too.
Three years after you had to decide whether to out your father, a friend of his asked him, “What if she’s gay?” The she in this scenario was you, and your father responded, “Don’t say that. Don’t ever say that to me.” Your father’s friend had outed you. To your face. You were there. And while your father didn’t wish you ill (or any fatal illness), he discounted and denied who you were.
He asked you to never repeat it.
The reason you stopped talking to your father wasn’t because he was gay. You needed a break from his paranoia, and he gave you no other options. He wouldn’t let you spend time with anyone you hadn’t known from school. He wouldn’t let you go out after work. You were perpetually grounded. At 18 fucking years old, a phrase that matched his reasoning, he grounded you because he thought you were having sex with one of your coworkers. And when he announced (that is, when he screamed) that he knew what you were doing, that he knew what you were up to when you left in your coworker’s car—the name he called you felt inevitable. Your father was the first person to call you a whore, and it felt coarse to your ear. But also funny. Not funny ha ha—funny queer. So you started to laugh. You laughed until it hurt your face. He hurt your face when he hit your face. It hurt your mouth when you stopped laughing to ask: “Who would have sex with me?” You weren’t being coy. You truly didn’t know.
You weren’t and aren’t a lesbian (though, surprise, you’re not straight either), but you didn’t know how to name what you were after your father demanded you never say it. You wished you were something so easily named. There was no word you knew at the time. Not gay as in happy— So you never told him who or what you are. Not gay as in happy, but queer as in fuck you. And so, you let him assume, like he had about your sex life, that what you were had a name. The coward’s route, obviously. But, at that point, you’d more than earned the title.
The clouds of panic had thickened around you and your former friend. She’d expected you to restore the peace. For everyone except your father. For him, it would’ve been more of the same. Death by a thousand whispers. Suburban mortality measured in suburban mortification.
What a feat if their fear had ended with you. What a triumph if you had refused it.
But you’d told her no. Denied it outright. Definitive. Simple. “No.” Yet, as soon as you answered, you wanted to go back and set the record gay. But what words would have done the trick? Would yes have been enough? What threat could you have named to say, So help me, if you use this to hurt him that your former friend wouldn’t also have heard as, So help me, if you ever repeat this.
Carissa Halston writes fiction and reads everything. Her stories have appeared in The Massachusetts Review, Longform, Willow Springs, Fourteen Hills, and elsewhere. She runs the small press Aforementioned Productions and the literary journal apt, and she's currently at work on a novel called Conjoined States.