This is my first entry in the Write-Of-Passage Writing Well Challenge. Like Mrs. Flinger, whose brainchild this challenge is, I like good writing. I read blogs to get a sense of the personalities behind them, but mostly I read them for stories. Well told stories. Yes, this includes using reasonably good English and not murdering spelling and grammar. But (and don’t believe anyone who says you aren’t allowed to start a sentence with a conjunction) it’s more about using language to engage readers and evoke an emotional response.
Anyway, I’m all about good writing and shit. So, I thought, sure, I’ll take the challenge. The first challenge was to describe your most embarrassing moment.
Some of the stories other writers in the challenge have shared are really brilliant. There are links to them at the end of this post so you can see what I mean. Reading them and wracking my brain, I honestly couldn’t come up with a single good story about an embarrassing moment. The few I did come up with paled in comparison to the gems shared by others. Try as I might to exhume a hilarious anecdote about public nudity, flatulence, or general buffoonery, I either had a very high tolerance for embarrassment or I’ve successfully blocked out those parts of my life. There’s no way I was cool enough to avoid them, but I just can’t come up with any.
So, I’m skipping right over run-of-the-mill embarrassment to abject humiliation. Why not go all the way, right? This is a post I’ve been trying to figure out how to write for a long time, and maybe this was the trigger I needed. Here goes.
Junior high sucks. This is a fact like gravity is a fact. You can fight it, but sooner or later it’ll drag you down. Some have it better than others, but for most people there are few times in life more full of awkwardness, confusion and despair than adolescence. Plenty had it worse than I did. I wasn’t one of the popular kids, but I wasn’t an outcast. I was smart, I did well in my classes, and I had friends. Good friends, I thought.
When I was nine, my parents got divorced. Their divorce was not the horror show some could describe. I never heard them fight. I never saw my mother cry or my father storm out. No doors were slammed, nobody got hit, and when it was over we could all still be in the same room together and be basically decent to each other.
My parents were fairly evolved about how they handled their split. Both veterans of the EST training, precursor of today’s Landmark Forum, they were steeped in self awareness and understanding your true motivations and being honest with yourself and all that self-actualized crap. Taken to extremes this can be crazy making, but in moderation there are plenty of worse ways to approach life.
Having done all that self exploration, when the paths of their lives diverged, my parents were pretty grown up about it, as much as my nine-year old self could tell. By the time we kids found out they were splitting up, they’d been discussing it for at least a year and had made the decision to go their separate ways. For many kids my age, this might have prompted a tortured exploration of why this happened. Did my parents not love each other anymore? Did I do something to break the family apart? Why, why, why?
But I knew why. My father told me why. My parents were getting divorced because my father was gay.
“Do you know what it means to be gay?” he asked as we stood alone in his bathroom. He’d just explained to me and my two younger brothers, six and three, that he and my mother were going to be splitting up, then asked me to stay while they went off to play.
“Yes,” I said. And I did, basically. I’m not sure exactly what I knew, or how I knew it, but I had the basic idea. It was the 80s. Reagan was president, AIDS was in the news and gay people were on TV. My parents were both singers and theater people, and had plenty of gay friends. So I knew what it meant to be gay as much as I knew what it meant to be straight in my prepubescent nine-year old way.
“I’m gay,” he went on. He said that was why they were getting divorced. They still loved each other very much, and loved us boys very much, but he was attracted to men, not women, and said he needed to be honest about that and live his life accordingly. I’m paraphrasing now. He said something like that, but after your dad says “I’m gay,” things go a little staticky for a while. He asked if I had any questions and I said I didn’t, and I asked if I could go play, and he said yes.
My memory of that conversation is clear, but the days, weeks, and months after are a blur. My life changed significantly. We moved to a new house. My mom started dating someone almost right away. And I had this new weight on me I hadn’t carried before. My parents were divorced, and my dad was gay. These things were now with me constantly like an invisible, non-fatal illness. I couldn’t change them. I couldn’t make them go away. I just had to carry them around and try to understand them.
My best friends in school at the time were Dale and Mark (not their real names). I didn’t tell them right away about my dad. They knew my parents were splitting up, but that wasn’t so unusual. Lots of kids had divorced parents. It took a while before I was ready to share more details. I don’t know how long it took, where we were, or how I brought it up, but in my very evolved and mature way I told them what, for me, made my whole family situation make sense. My parents were splitting up not because of anything mysterious or sinister, but because my father was gay. No big deal. He’d only just realized it, or come to terms with it, or whatever, and had decided he couldn’t be honest with himself and stay married to my mother.
In hindsight, I can’t say I’m surprised they didn’t take this well. Neither of them came from families that were very socially progressive. Mark lived with his mom. I never met his dad, but I know he at least had some perspective on divorce. Dale, on the other hand, lived with his still-married parents, who could fairly be described as … backward. I don’t know exactly where they were from. Maybe West Virginia. Somewhere south and east of our small Northern California town. Where ever it was, they’d brought their values and attitudes with them and imparted them to their son. Dale would not have sworn allegiance to his parents, but when faced with something as fundamental as homosexuality, he reverted to his roots.
It didn’t happen right away. It started gradually. Dale would make jokes about my dad. About him being gay. Being a fag. He’d draw semi-pornographic sketches of my father with a man. To be funny. I didn’t object at first, tried to be cool about it. It was just Dale. He’d always had a biting and sarcastic sense of humor. But it didn’t stop there. The drawings got worse, the comments more hurtful, and then things took a nasty turn. I’d confided in my two friends. I wasn’t ready to tell just anyone about my personal situation, but them, I trusted. They didn’t take that confidence as seriously as I did.
I emerged from class one day to find Dale and Mark standing with a group of guys who weren’t exactly regulars in our social circle. These were the guys who liked to push the smaller kids around. Guys who took pleasure from intimidating those smaller or less confident. I wasn’t friendly with them, but neither had I spent much time as the object of their abuse. I wasn’t a small kid. There were easier targets. But now they had ammunition. My secret wasn’t a secret anymore. Dale had told the school bullies my dad was gay, and in doing so had allied himself with them as the ringleader of his own humiliation squad. Target: me. Mark stood with them, not quite among them, but not on my side, either. He might have offered a half-hearted “Hey, knock it off, dude,” but no more. They taunted me. They said things about me, about my father, my mother, my step-father, and my brothers. Nasty things about anal sex and incest and things I still don’t like to think about in relation to my family.
I couldn’t breathe. I didn’t know what to do. I might have been able to beat the shit out of Dale on his own, but he, knowing that, had surrounded himself with guys I had no hope against physically. I’d like to say I brilliantly tore him down with my superior intellect like a character in a John Hughes movie. But I didn’t. I screamed “Fuck You!” I cried. I shoved him and was swiftly advanced on by his newly formed gang of thugs. I backed off. I walked away. And I cried some more. Like a fag, as far as they were concerned.
What I felt can’t adequately be described as embarrassment, though that was certainly an aspect of it. I was humiliated. I was hurt. I was devastated. I’d chosen to share a deep personal truth with people I considered my friends, and they had betrayed me fully and with gusto. Our friendship ended there. We still had some friends in common, but the closeness I thought we had was gone.
There’s still a part of me that has trouble trusting people with important but potentially damaging pieces of myself. I have thoughts I don’t share. Or if I do, I share them in a joking tone from which I can easily retreat if pressed. How much of that is because of what happened in seventh grade? I don’t know. But if the essence of humiliation and embarrassment is exposure of something dear and personal, I certainly felt exposed that day. I still cross paths with Dale and Mark now and then. We have friends in common on Facebook. I’ve had beers with them at parties and stood around fire pits talking about mutual friends and our lives now. But we’ve never spoken of what happened then. Part of me wants to forgive them, openly and fully. But another part of me still feels the shame I felt that day, and if it’s possible to grow up enough to move past that, I’m not there yet.