an Essay by TK Dalton
Like MTV and brand-name snacks, Chinese food was arbitrarily unwelcome in my parents’ house. That house, a fixer-upper in the Boston suburb of Natick, stood directly behind the largest mall in New England. When the mall was combined with the mid-sixties vintage Shoppers World and its auxiliary strips on Route 30, it formed what Natickers called “The Golden Triangle.” My mother, a Vermonter, and my father, a flatlander from St. Lawrence County, did not call it that. When Shoppers World was built, my parents were teenagers in hamlets of less than 1,000 residents. When I reached the age they’d been then, my friends started smoking their parents’ cigarettes and shoplifting hackeysacks and baseball cards from storefronts that had long since lost their shine.
The mall and its icons of consumer culture shaped me, as did my parents’ prohibitions. I wouldn’t break their rules, if only because my younger brother, who is on the autism spectrum, perpetually tagged along and tattled so credibly and thoroughly that he became a second conscience. My middle school self wondered about Chinese food the way my high school self wondered about sex. It seemed like something everyone did, and some people even enjoyed. For a while, I thought I just didn’t have a question. Then I realized, to borrow the phrase from my brother, that I couldn’t find the words—yet.
On a dreary Sunday afternoon during my first semester in college, my parents and I took our seats at Panda East, the first Chinese restaurant the three of us had eaten at. Outside, low gray clouds blanketed the town of Amherst, on this first day of November—All Saint’s Day, my teachers were sure to call it, back in overwhelmingly Irish Natick. Inside the restaurant, the lighting was excessive and harsh, like an operating theater. There was no music. Eating out with them required a minimum of ambient noise. My father had lost his remaining hearing the year before, while undergoing a radiation treatment for tumors on his hearing nerves.
The silent restaurant was also empty except for us. For good reason, too: my birthday, which happens to be Halloween, continued only in the form of several hundred hangovers across Amherst. I didn’t drink—epilepsy, caused by my own brain tumors, for which I’d had two surgeries. My sober night had retained a blurry quality regardless. Though the costume aspect of the holiday I share with my birthday makes me as ill as the candy aspect, I had done some small-time, 2am drag for the first time with friends the previous night, sometime after the late-night diner trip and sometime before the surprise encounter with heterosexual sex.
I aimed to avoid all of these conversational topics, but my father’s hearing loss jeopardized this goal, as did my mother’s related need to control the flow of information. At Panda East, I described my courseload between sips of water. My hand on the cool glass reminded me of the last meeting of my favorite class, “The International Short Story in Fiction and Film.” For our most recent discussion, we’d read Joseph Conrad’s “Amy Foster.” In that story, a shipwrecked sailor named Yankoo lands in a country where he is a stranger, lacking any of the local language. Against the wishes of the community, he courts and marries Amy Foster, the servant girl who gives the story its title. Though their language difference makes communication difficult, they have a son together. Years pass, and then one night Amy finds Yankoo teaching their son to pray in his—Yankoo’s—native language. Yankoo soon falls sick and talks almost exclusively in that language, and Amy flees with the son. Yankoo’s condition worsens, and Amy returns to his sickbed. Yankoo has a fit, and unable to communicate to Amy what he needs, urgently, he dies. What was he trying to tell her? The word in his native language for “water.”
The plot summary I gave in the restaurant was much shorter than that: “Shipwrecked sailor marries badly, then dies tragically.” My mother asked me what I liked about the class, not understanding that the answer to this question was already underway. My father leaned forward, touched the beard he has had for my entire experience of him, with the exception of the recovery from his treatment for the first tumor, a surgery. Every week, he’d trim it close, spreading newspaper over the bathroom sink to clear the growth on his neck with a disposable, yellow-handled, single-bladed Bic.
“But I want to know why you like the class,” my mother said.
“Let me finish the story,” I replied. By then, I knew, I had lost my father. This wasn’t a story I had planned to tell, and so it was hard to signal to him where it was going, not when I hadn’t rehearsed it in other recountings, and not when I barely knew myself where a story like this could go. No problem, I thought as the dumplings arrived. Just finish the story and move on.
In class, I explained to my mother, I had argued that the problem these two outsiders had that was irreconcilable was not language but sexuality. I had pointed to the text, where there were numerous instances of the word ‘queer’. “I talked out the theory to three friends from class,” I said, mostly to assure her that I had them—friends, not theories. “I checked the dictionary, even, the honking one in the library.” I paused, picturing the tome heaved open in its thick wood frame, pages thin as an eyelid. I selected my words carefully, to sound as smart as I felt. “In Conrad’s time, the word ‘queer’ did have the secondary connotation of a homophobic slur.”
The fear that rules Amy Foster, the mother, totally escaped me at the time. Solipsistically, I failed to see my own mother anywhere near this text, while listening to me monologue, she must have seen herself immediately. In my mind, then, the fear of the mother losing the son to the strangeness, the otherness of this man she’d married related strictly to the strangeness and otherness of the man himself. In class, conveniently ignoring the title, I’d made the argument that strangeness, otherness, queerness had to be about sexuality, and male sexuality at that. The classroom listened in a silence. I must had thought myself, back then, a taxonomist of silences. I heard that one as affirmation.
“What else,” I had asked my peers, “could be such a threat to a heterosexual marriage?”
“You might have a publishable paper there,” my teacher had said. I remember that comment, and the pride I felt. For the first time I had generated an idea, all my own, whose genesis I could trace from reading the photocopy of Conrad’s “Amy Foster” at Rao’s Coffee, not a hundred yards from Panda East. I had pure faithfulness to my idea, and other arguments seemed inconceivable. A dispute about language causing a deep rift between spouses? It didn’t occur to me to look across the table.
“My teacher said I was right,” I told my mother. “She said I could get it published.”
Only after I had taught first-year college students myself, and for nearly ten years, did I recognize my teacher’s comment as she more likely might have meant it: as an inside joke with herself about academia—its love affairs with revisionism and hot theory, its arms race of prestigious publication—as a backhanded compliment, barely addressed to me. None of that occurred to me then. Instead I thought, Wow—I’m home.
“Get what published,” my mother asked.
“My idea. About ‘Amy Foster’.” My mother had no response beyond a facial expression of disbelief—not the awed kind, the ‘yeah right’ kind. My father hadn’t followed anything, but he wasn’t asking for repetition, either. Repeating without prompting would be bragging. I don’t brag. “Isn’t that exciting?” I asked.
She looked puzzled. My father adjusted his glasses, one of his many nonprescription reading pairs, bought from CVS by the fistful and custom fit with his office scissors to accommodate his hearing aid. I found it nearly impossible to call him out on not following even the most basic ideas of conversation. He had my sympathy. I’d gone through my own recoveries. The radiation hadn’t saved much hearing, it saved far less than the doctors had thought it would. Later, we wondered if it had caused other problems: a small benign tumor that nonetheless ate into the bone under his eye, chronic acid reflux and sinus issues that required him to clean his nose with coarse salts whose crystals had individual weight.
“I think it’s exciting,” I said, signing EXCITING as I spoke. Nothing in his face changed.
Though my father’s hearing had deteriorated almost overnight, his withdrawal from the world of sign language came more gradually. My sophomore year, he had stopped taking sign language classes at a nearby Deaf school. My junior year he gave up trying to interact with Deaf people at meetups in the town bordering the one I’d grown up in. By my senior year, he had stopped teaching ASL at the community education center, though he was organized, prepared, and popular. As I packed for college, he boxed a shelf full of sign language videotapes and materials to a cousin who taught at a school on a farm. My father, even then, had moved to the mucky, flooded, unincorporated outskirts of hearing society, but not yet to the small city he’d heard of and read about, the one across the lake where everyone knew sign language.
“More water?” the waiter offered. My mother nodded. My father passed his glass. The ice—on this, the first of November—clattered in the plastic pitcher. I tried to bring the conversation back to school, back to the class that had made me feel smart again. My mother tugged it back with her refrain, “I don’t understand,” anytime I talked about close reading, about textual analysis, about the symbolic nature of language.
My father registered this with the same blank, faux attentive stare I knew him well enough to translate accurately: I can’t help you, and it kills me a little. I don’t remember my first gran mal seizure, but I am told it happened while my father pushed me on a swingset. He had banged my head against a post after the chain twisted. When I see him in that story, he wears this expression, the one I call, I can’t help you, and it kills me a little. Wearing this mask, his eyes became cheap and false as color contacts. He wore that mask at appointments with my neurologist, Dr. Erba, where I’d sit in an over-warm room being asked to touch my finger to my nose, to follow a rubber hammer with my eyes, to squeeze two fat, warm fingers on each of my doctor’s hands. Each of these tests, I gathered, measured something, but in an overstuffed chair, looking up at overburdened bookshelves, I didn’t know what, and nobody told me anything except, with silence, not to ask. In the first years of these appointments, my father’s silence meant close listening, the solid groundwork for a barrage of sharp, practical questions in a voice that never shook. His voice, back then, did not shake because its speaker could modulate it naturally, could keep it within the natural range.
The worst part of those appointments was when Dr. Erba would ask me about seizure activity. I was supposed to write them down, but I was also supposed to practice for my piano lesson. On the spot, I would try to remember how often my seizures were happening. (Gran mal, hardly ever. Petit mal, too often to count, dozens a week, a hundred or more in a month.) In Panda East, my father leaned over his shrimp, adjusted his hearing aid, and tried to show how hard he was working to listen. Fine, I thought, I know. But the look I knew from Dr. Erba’s, that look made me ashamed. It reminded me that even when it was someone’s whole job to ask and understand what was happening in my riotous body, when they relied on me to deliver the information, how poorly I managed my own story.
“Are you trying to say you think you’re gay?” My mother asked, just as I was about to repeat the story, in shorter version, to my father.
I said nothing, shocked, though maybe I shouldn’t have been. I was trying to say something important, but I was not trying to say what she had heard. If I hadn’t prepared to tell them about “Amy Foster,” I certainly had never rehearsed this moment, one I’d only recently imagined it might occur. I didn’t want to lie. After two months in Amherst, already I felt the fresh air of a new honesty. My choices of Simplest Possible Answer—either Yes or No—would have each been false. Either answer would have confused what was confusing enough already.
“Do you think you’re gay?” she said, and this slightly different question gave me the opening I needed. I didn’t like that it still focused on my perception, its invalidation of gayness as an identity. I liked, on some level, that her question was less about what I was trying to say and more about what I ended up saying—it makes it seem, through the distance of years, that my mother was actually listening, if not exactly for two, then twice as closely as I’d given her credit. The waiter filled our glasses with water. I thought, once more, of “Amy Foster.” Yes, I could answer her honestly, right in that moment, and so I did.
“I don’t know,” I said.
My mother shook her head, fought tears. She turned to me and looked me in the eyes. “Your life is going to be so hard,” she said, angrily. At the time, I heard blame in her anger. Really, it might have been just worry mixed with her sense that she was living the life of Job: one son with brain cancer, another with autism, her husband late-deafened, and now…this!
I knew, that even if my father were following the words, even if I summarized what had happened so far, even if I asked him to talk to my mother, to redirect her, it would have been impossible for him to hear what I heard in my mother’s tight, teary voice, a violin string about to snap. I couldn’t see then what fueled her reaction, even what drove the question whose answer she might have known on some level that she couldn’t handle, what was probably fueling it was something more like fear, or what felt like the certain knowledge that the world of 1998—two full years before Howard Dean’s passage of civil unions in Vermont—couldn’t possibly change to accommodate variations in sexual orientation. From 2015, civil unions can feel like a throwback and a partial measure, but back then, they were radical progress. The law led to signs on yards across my mother’s home state that read “TAKE VERMONT BACK.” (And then, in perfect response to the bigoted call, “TAKE VERMONT FORWARD.”) How much of her anxiety and his detachment had to do with their own displacement, country mice who’d landed in the soulless suburbs?
“If it makes you feel better,” I said, “I hooked up with a girl last night.”
I didn’t hear the evil in the words as they gathered in my head. I didn’t hear all of it as they left my mouth. I did sense my answer’s spite and petulance, its unavoidable yet vague crudeness. Drag an answer out of me, I might have thought, that’s what you get. And I realized, on some level, the unfairness of dragging into this discomfort a person I hadn’t even introduced, who at the time went by Jess and used female pronouns, who was not only conceivably now my girlfriend, but the first person I had come out to on campus, and queer-identified herself. I didn’t mention that I had come out to her already, a consequence of seeing her on my way to a bisexual support group at which I was the only person self-identifying as male, a ‘unicorn,’ the joke would go. My rash indiscretion repulsed me, and I looked to my father for recognition, ashamed of myself. My mother wasn’t interested in this red herring, this counterfactual complication. She wanted answers.
“Why would you choose to make your life so hard?” she asked me.
I knew most of the ASL vocabulary I would need to know to explain what was happening to my father, but I didn’t know if he knew those signs. I didn’t know how to involve him in the conversation without antagonizing my mother. I didn’t say anything.
“I’ve worried about you your whole life,” my mother said. That day, I hear selfishness and narcissism between her words, but writing this now I hear no prudish prohibitionist, just powerless language. When across the years I hear what she said next—“Now you’re going to make me worry even more.”—I hear no evil, just exhaustion.
A birthday is a kind of celebration that you’d think would be charged for a cancer survivor, especially when the date coincides with Halloween, a celebration of the dead and undead. Here in the U.S., of course, Halloween embodies much of what my parents disliked about the mall: the crassly commercial, the gaudily gory, the sentimentally and unimaginatively sexual, and ultimately blandly conforming to conventions. Radical and transformative of an act as it is, the process of coming out has its own conventions, too, its typical Freytag’s triangle of situation, rising action, climax, and denouement. My own story departed from those conventions, mostly because of the disconnections between the three players on the stage. Exactly what was I coming out as, or into. “Gay” wasn’t it, or wasn’t all of it, or wasn’t always going to be it. But I’d known for six months as a pure fact that “straight” didn’t describe me, either. Questions like this had long nagged me. As I worried them, they worried others, too.
In the early parts of that year, I had been dangerously depressed. To phrase it glass-half-full, most days I felt seventy percent certain that this birthday—this Chinese food, on this Dia de Los Muertos—would happen at all. Starting in January and into February, I had been cutting myself with razors and punching concrete walls with my hands. I also dated someone, a girl who had a history of self-mutilation that predated mine. Her cutting episodes had brought us together, talking in quiet, teary voices on a long bus ride home on a marching band bus. Through her, I found a shortcut to the release of pain expressed getting the satisfaction of articulation without needing to do the work of finding the words.
Telling the “Amy Foster” story to my parents on my birthday, then, was my way to let my mother know that I was undergoing a radical transformation. Here, at UMass, I made points and connected dots with lines. I took reason, and emotion, and language, and triangulated them to take a story and create my own meaning. Here, I wanted to say, I felt smart, not stupid. Here, I wanted to say, Don’t worry about me. Here, I am safe. Stop asking.
My father motioned for the bill. None of us were talking anymore. My mother fought back tears and wrung her hands, my face reddened as I stared at the foreign characters on the table. I excused myself to go to the bathroom.
I washed my hands, splashed water on my face, smoothed the tri-colored goatee I had grown. Under it, I felt a pimple. One more reason to put off shaving. When I cut, I used replacement razor cartridges made by Gillette. The blades were small, but just out of the pack of five, they were sharper and more satisfying than the yellow Bics my father kept. I bought them with my own money. The cut could be superficial or deep, depending on what I found worked.
I didn’t want to think about this anymore today. I washed and dried my face and checked my teeth. In the Panda East bathroom mirror, my left eyelid sagged, as it did when tired. The whole left side of the body had been the one partially paralyzed by the second surgery, the one that required months of physical therapy. My left side never healed enough to go back to the 110m hurdles or the high jump. When I had to quit track and soccer, I rejoined marching band. Once, at a Tuesday night rehearsal, near the end of the third hour running the halftime show, I tried to turn and fell. The plastic bell of my Rico clarinet echoed through the parking lot. My mouthpiece chipped, the reed snapped, my ligature went flying. Years later, a yoga teacher would tell me, “Falling is learning.”
In my brief absence, the restaurant had started to fill up with ones and twos. Nobody came here, as I had, with their parents. Judie’s, the upscale home-cooking spot halfway down North Pleasant Street, was the place for that, but it was loud, and expensive, so we were here. I bumped the corner of an empty table with my hip, and the sound causes my mother to look up. I could tell by her face she’d been recapping her version of events. I saw our waiter heading for our table along the same path I was one, and adjust my route.
Back at the table, my father scrawled his signature on the receipt. He had told me recently that he thought he’d been born left-handed, and forced by his parents to use his right. Shame lives in the body. Shame lives outside the body, too. The first room in which I cut was my father’s carpentry workshop. I used an Stanley boxcutter with an old and certainly unclean retractable blade. The razors, first Bic, then Gilette, represented a step forward of sorts, as did the shift of venue to my bedroom, but everything I’d touched now both held associations I couldn’t shake, haunting echoes only I could hear.
I recalled how my father found out about my cutting because Suzanne told my mother, who told him. All the bad news he got was secondhand, in need of confirmation. Once they knew about the cutting, my mother sent me to see her therapist, a woman she’d seen for ten years. My father said simply, “Stay out of the workshop.” I can’t say, now, if his understated reaction belies his capacity for denial or his belief in my resilience. Judging by the sharp-object filled toolbox he gave me as a going-to-college gift, maybe he foresaw I’d be as practical and self-sustaining as he grew to be after leaving home. Such vision is not a gift of mine.
The bill paid, I stood behind my seat, and in a moment we were out the door, exiting down a wheelchair ramp. My father led, with me right behind him, and then my mother. As we neared the bottom, where my father waited, my mother pulled me to her and said, “This is because of your father’s deafness.” I shook my head, unable to even voice a response. I wonder now why I didn’t respond beyond a simple rejection of the premises: that sexual orientation was a problem, let alone a problem with a cause or a source to blame and assault. In the moment, I couldn’t articulate that thought, out of fear that I wouldn’t be understood or that my own premise would be rejected, rational as it seemed to me, as I had rejected her premise, sound as it seemed to her. Without an arbiter, as my father had sometimes managed to function before and even between the treatment of his first and second tumor, I was on my own.
On my own, though, was just where I told myself I wanted to be. Paused on North Pleasant Street, before I walked back towards campus and they walked to their car, I understood a reason my mother worried. She had things to worry about, and they were real. I tried to tell her I understood at least that. “I’m sorry,” I said, short on specifics, hoping to compensate in sincerity, not unlike my own father.
An email from his work computer arrived at the next morning:
Mom told me what you told her. We support whatever you decide.
This is my father: a generally positive comment, removed from the gore of the actual conflict. He’s a United Nations resolution against the scourge of malnutrition, which is noble enough but which is not food. When I read that back closely, the way I learned to read Yankoo in “Amy Foster,” I think maybe the words I just wrote don’t make the best simile. If I tried to tell him what I wanted all along, it hadn’t been food. What I’d wanted was water.
T. K. Dalton’s essays have been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and for inclusion in Best of the Net. His work appears in The Millions, Southeast Review, Radical Teacher, and elsewhere. He is the Prose Editor of The Deaf Poets Society, a new literary journal focused on disability literature. With John Maney, Jr., he edited the anthology What If Writing is Dreaming Together? He lives with his wife and two children in New York City, where he works as a sign language interpreter.