At Christmas there is fruitcake. Not the fruitcake you’re thinking of; I’m talking about my cousin. My cousin who sits with his legs crossed and wears pastel khakis and sips eggnog with his pinky out.
Look at that fruitcake, my Dad whispers audibly in a crowded room. His attempts at subtlety never fail to amaze.
Why can’t he just act like a normal person, he continues, making me squirm on the faux-velvet couch. I wince at the sound of his voice, like a dog habitually hit by his owner. Why is it that you feel most related to a parent in these types of situations? Genetic culpability, I’ll call it.
My Dad’s behavior is not new; ever since I can remember he has been homophobic, a reality that has strained our relationship like the Achilles of an overzealous marathon runner or a vat of watery noodles.
I can remember the exact moment when my brother hit puberty, not because his voice cracked or his stubble poked through his face, but because that was when my Dad started asking him if he had a girlfriend. We’d be in his car, making our ritual Sunday trip to Dunkin Donuts, when he’d turn his fat neck around towards the back seat:
Hey bud, he’d preface, his vernacular Boston, hypermasculine.
Ya’ seein’ any girls, bud? I don’t get you. When I was yah age, I was seein’ so many chicks. I couldn’t keep em’ off.
The monologues were choppy, delivered with a mouth full of butternut and strawberry frosted dough, crumbs careening from his lips in all directions and gathering in an anthill at his crotch.
Shut the fuck up, Russ my brother would grunt, adverting his gaze out the car window. His only weapon in these situations was my father’s first name, one that, when used, challenged his paternal clout. I came home recently and saw my brother mowing the yard. His body has changed, become hulkish from compulsive weightlifting. I can’t help but wonder if his new habit is some protective measure, that by inflating and hardening his arms and chest, he is somehow immunizing himself against any and all homo allegations.
As we got older, the interrogations only worsened. Oftentimes my Dad and I would take long walks in our expansive state park. Usually the only sound either of us made during these walks was that of our shoes crunching down on rogue pinecones and brambles. But more often than not, my Dad would use our time together to probe me further about my brother:
Elena, is ya brotha weird? he’d say, his coded bigotry something I had not yet deciphered.
Dad, what the hell are you talking about?
Is he…gay? I never see him around with no girls. He didn’t go ta prom and he’s always alone or with ya’ motha. What’s that about?
I don’t know, Dad. I don’t think so, but I honestly couldn’t tell you, I’d relent, looking down at the day-old horse pies and sunlight wood, trying my hardest to salvage the moment.
I felt sad for my brother, sad that he was subject to such microanalysis. But at the same time, I felt so, so relieved. Because my Dad’s gross obsession with my brother’s sexuality took the heat off of mine.
Since fifth grade I had been developing an attraction to girls.
Sometimes I’d let my mind run wild with fantasies, would stay up late in my closet with a sheet over my head, gawking at female celebrities in magazines, hoping that monthly sleepover with my soccer team would spiral in the direction of truth or dare. I would pine quietly, but aggressively: a slave to the hypothetical. Other times I would deny these tendencies altogether. Because although I didn’t believe anything my father said, and although I felt no kinship towards him whatsoever, there was still some undetected part of me that felt like my feelings were deplorable, abnormal. I didn’t want to be a fruitcake, even if in my heart I believed it was fine if other people were.
To my dismay, I could not stay insulated from his questions for long; when I entered college, my father started to ask me what guy I was dating and if he was my boyfriend yet. I had dated people in the past, had had mock boyfriends here and there, but nothing serious. In order to satiate him I forged relationships; there was Matt from my geography lab, Ian from my hall and Jordan, the business major from Sigma Phi. When the fabrications didn’t feel adequate, I blew jerks, slept with randos, and led the kind ones on until I started to hurt them almost as much as I did myself. Eat. Sleep. Deny. Like clockwork. The lengths people go to avoid shame are impressive. During this time I impressed myself at how well I caged my heart, lived so numbly and predictably, and made it all look fun.
As the year progressed, my yearning for an organic connection with someone began to erode all of the groundwork I had laid to keep my front up. I wanted to experiment. I wanted people to know I was queer, and that meant looking the part. Thanksgiving of my freshman year I chopped off my sandy locks and watched them fall against scuzzy dorm linoleum in matted clumps. I got a nose ring from a seedy tattoo parlor downtown and stick-and-poke tattoo of a warped star from my friend Dana in her stuffy bedroom-attic. But despite all of these aesthetic changes, I wasn’t ready to come out; I still found myself mourning my past self, the one that could so easily navigate the straight world, unnoticed.
The most difficult times occurred when my Dad would come visit me at college in Burlington, Vermont. Burlington is a liberal mecca within Vermont: a crunchy haven for lesbians and queers in an otherwise backwoods state. In Burlington, fruitcakes were unavoidable; we’d be walking down the street, in search of a place to have breakfast, when he’d spot two women peacefully holding hands. Like a birdwatcher, he’d stop dead in his tracks to observe:
Whata they doin, Elena. Ah they togetha or like friends or somethin?
Yeah, Dad. They’re just friends, I’d retort, not wishing to incriminate myself or draw more attention to the scene than already existed. The attempt was otiose; later on we would run into my friend Hanna, the sleeveless kind of dyke, who had just dyed her armpit hair green.
My junior year I fell in love. For so long I had tried to convince myself that I was some variation of straight, that my attraction to women was a phase. And although being in love with a woman felt natural, like tulips opening or sunshowers, it also felt criminal. Because up until that point, everything good I associated with being queer eventually came back to fruitcake: universally undesired, fruitcake.
As I came to discover, when my Dad was sixteen, a priest had molested his younger brother. My uncle Steve came out only a few years after the incident. This abuse, according to my Dad, turned him gay. Steve fled Boston to California in his early-twenties, became an at-home gardener for the LA elite and cut all ties with his family thereafter. I only found out about Steve after uncovering an old picture of him from my parents’ wedding. He looks exactly like my Dad: stalky, olive skin, with the kind of onyx-black hair only grown by an Italian.
In August of my junior year, I reach out to Steve on Facebook. I want support, council for the decision to come. This is the same month I tell my Dad about everything, about you. The gesture is symbolic: a bridging of my careful separation between family and identity, between my father and myself. In both instances, I speak with brevity. When I ask my Dad about Steve he never says much. His reaction to my confession is equally mute. The pain of remembering is too crushing, it seems. I think it’s easier for my Dad to make up some arbitrary claim about Steve’s sexuality than it is for him to admit the tragedy was, and still is, out of his hands. And in some ways, I feel the same. That it was easier for me to accept my father’s philosophy, to feign agency over whom I did and didn’t love, than it was to withstand the possibility of disappointing him; that maybe, the only things keeping us from loving unconditionally are those stories we tell ourselves, which we inherit, then make true: like fruitcake, like tradition.
Elena Robidoux (1993) is a writer of prose poetry and creative nonfiction from Boston. Her work has been featured in Pulp Metal Magazine, Wu-Wei Fashion Mag, Potluck Magazine, Purple Pig Lit, Unreality House and Jerkpoet. http://erobidoux.tumblr.com