Mother and Son (Stuart Barnes)
For thy sweet love remembered such wealth brings
That then I scorn to change my state with kings
Mid-December 1994. Recently I’d turned 17; my parents had separated. My uncle extended an invitation to my mother and me to housesit his and his wife’s Cremorne mansion while they revelled in a Northern American adventure. We were desperate to be anywhere but Hobart: that backwater had become hazardous: every other weekend my mother would encounter—in Myer, at Salamanca Market—the former classmate with whom my father had had an affair and intended to marry; at the private school I was forced to attend I’d invite—by listening to The Cure, by studying anything other than Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue in the Common Room—the raging rich kids’ gauntlets.
So we promptly booked flights and packed; and the very next morning taxied from the small voltaic unit we occupied like lioness and zebra to the capital’s pastoral International Airport.
Mother in tow, I speared from the QANTAS Boeing, through the refreshingly mixed gridlock, the smeary sliding doors, then was belted across the jaw by the fist of a sweltering Sydney.
Instantly I loved it; she loathed it.
In a parking bay, in his Range Rover Classic, awaited that Irish giant, itching to zip us home. Crossing the Harbour Bridge, I was ecstatic, my mother ‘so seasick’. Hungover, I knew. (Every night she consumed a bottle of Teacher’s Scotch Whisky.)
Steel and water glittered.
Our bedrooms had been ‘appointed before dawn’ by my aunt, an angular firecracker. My mother’s was on the second floor, overlooked ‘a park where men’—rage spewed from the rear-view mirror—‘prowl at night’, mine the fourth, ‘in case he tries to sneak out: the stairs creak’. Sniggering, he jabbed my snoozing mother in the ribcage.
Carbon dioxide leaked from me as it leaks from a child’s balloon.
The following afternoon my mother and I farewelled her brother and sister-in-law.
‘Thank God they’re gone. I love them, but …’ A bottle of Coca-Cola hissed, a tray of ice cubes crackled on a hideous marble bench. ‘What’re you doing till dinner?’
‘Taking out the 4WD: need black hair dye.’
‘Jesus fucking Christ! So it’s not enough that I’m tortured twenty-four seven by the wailing of Robert Smith and his …’—his pack of fags? I willed her to spit it again. ‘For the next month,’ she moaned, ‘I’m going to be shadowed by a clone.’
‘Would you rather I drove off The Gap?’
This vicious allusion to my latest suicide attempt momentarily rattled my mother; and then her top lip arched like a canine’s. ‘Don’t buy foundation … or lipstick … or mascara!’
I seized the Bluebeardesque ring of keys from the bronze hook in the foyer. ‘I won’t,’ I laughed. ‘I can use yours.’
As I started the engine the front door shook in its jamb.
The month with my mother was like a game of cricket: agonizingly slow. In mid-January 1995, my uncle and his wife returned—sans thanks—from the U.S. (then retreated, for six weeks, to their ‘châteaux, for some R&R’); my mother to Hobart.
Finally I was alone.
Every day I woke late and gorged on bacon and eggs; tripped, after a long bath, into clean jocks and socks, the same Einstürzende Neubauten T-shirt—white-eyed, well-hung red stallion, pissing—and frazzled black shorts; laced, carefully, my gleaming black 14-Hole Docs; smeared, in my aunt’s en suite, kohl on my upper lids; backcombed my mud-brown hair (‘If you’d peroxided it before you’d coloured it, it would’ve taken on the L’Oréal,’ sighed a friend in Tasmania).
In regalia, war paint and headdress, I rifled the city’s gifts: Oxford Street’s Pop Shop, Centennial Park’s copses, the Museum of Contemporary Art…
One sultry evening I talked my way into a Darlinghurst deco pub. There I collided with Mark, my ideal composite (although he—‘I’m only a bus boy’—disagreed) of the scholars, heroes and gods with whom I’d coexisted since Year 9 Classics.
It was, to quote Joseph Heller, love at first sight.
On a break, he whisked me to the fire escape, where we kissed, then propped me on a stool that towered over sparkling wet asphalt and headlights that wavered like Mediterranean jellyfish. Every so often he’d swing by to nuzzle my nape, to collect an empty glass, to deliver a fresh pint, to introduce a friend. ‘We adore him—’ ‘Not once has he judged us,’ the man’s brother—graced also with sarcomas—finished. Crowed a leatherman, a former Professor from Arkansas: ‘I’m just waiting for God … O!’ ‘I had to stop taking my pills,’ a twenty-year-old confessed. ‘They made me sicker than the illness.’ He placed a hand—bony, pale—over mine. ‘I know I’m going to die. I’m not afraid.’
But I was.
Not of him.
But for him.
For them all.
For there—“God’s Waiting Room” (‘Charming, isn’t it,’ fumed Mark one night, ‘the epithet those fortunate HIV negative men have branded upon the place I work’)—preyed an impatient, ruthless dog.
Despite spiralling to Hobart in mid-February, I continued my relationship with Mark. We spoke when we could, wrote to each other weekly. One of his letters—in which Sonnet 29 had been elegantly transcribed—precipitated my coming out.
‘Who’s Mark?’ screeched my mother.
She found them, she found them.
I was more relieved than alarmed.
‘Stuart? Who the fuck’s Mark?’
I marched into the lounge-room. She was perched on a florid pink and grey recliner that had been swivelled toward the doorway. Her face was starched like a hospital sheet. The letter was squatting in her lap, a fat toad. The others, which had been plucked from their envelopes, were crumpled on the carpet.
‘Are you gay?’
For years I’d anticipated the question from her. As a child I’d decided that when I was asked I’d answer honestly, believing she—of all people—would be receptive.
‘Yes, Mum. I’m gay.’
I’ve never forgotten her response:
‘What about my grandchildren? You’ll fucking die from AIDS!’
After this, I remember very little: gathering the letters, the envelopes; stuffing clothes and notebooks into my school backpack; searching for loose change to call my friend Andrew, who knew I was gay, from the nearby Telstra payphone; praying (not to God: I electrocuted Him at thirteen while a priest’s doughy appendage caressed my knee) that payphone not be out of order.
‘What the fuck,’ my mother bellowed, ‘do you think you’re doing?’
‘Getting the hell out of here… Going to meet someone.’
‘You don’t know him.’
‘Is he also—’
‘Gay? Yes, Mum. He’s gay.’ The more I uttered the word, the more hopeful, the more relaxed, the more unencumbered I felt.
‘If you go out my door I’ll telephone your father and tell him you’re—’
‘Gay? Gay! Gay!’ My nose’s tip almost brushed hers. ‘If you tell Dad I’m gay you’ll never see me again.
Keening, she lumbered to her bedroom.
I wrote on the kitchen bench’s floral pad:
Mum, I’m gay.
I always have been.
If you can’t accept this…
I’ll be in touch.
I glided from the unit to the payphone. One ring, two rings, three rings. Shit! And then Andrew answered his black analogue brick.
For the next week I stayed with his good friend Peter, who I previously hadn’t met. He encouraged me to buzz my mother, to let her know I was safe. By the time I did—around midnight—my stomach had completely emptied itself. My mother’s voice was rich with bitterness, with whisky. ‘Where the fuck are you? With who? Sounds like a bleeding peedaphile! If you don’t fucking tell me where he lives’—sniffles; quickly she composed herself—‘I’ll hire a private eye, have him tail you after school!’
Anxiety mutated into fear; I dropped the handset. Peter chatted briefly, gently, yet firmly, with my mother, then held me as I howled.
If it weren’t for him (and Andrew, who visited each night), I wouldn’t be alive. Mornings, he washed, dried and ironed my uniform; filled my lunchbox with sandwiches and fruit; drove me to school. Afternoons, he picked me up, returned me to his plush, comforting home, where he insisted I ‘drill until dinner’ (he lectured at a nearby college, proposed I apply to interstate universities). Dishwasher stacked, we’d retire to the sitting room, he with a snifter of brandy, me water; there I was introduced to the films of Fellini, the concertos of Mozart, the novels of Patrick White.
Those were some of the happiest evenings of my life. I was blessed to have known Peter, to have been one of the dozens of young—and not so young—gay men he sheltered, comforted and supported.
At the end of that week in Oz, my mother materialised at my school like the Wicked Witch of the West and begged me to head back to Kansas. A fortnight later—‘You’re a fucking liar!’ ‘You’ve changed!’—she kicked me out. I moved into a three-bedroom flat with two female university students whose friend—a gay guy with whom Andrew was acquainted—had recently relocated to Melbourne. It was almost overwhelming, knowing they weren’t repelled by my sexual orientation.
The first night in my new home, two school friends helped me unpack. From my atlas slipped a sepia photo—taken at Central Station in a romantic rickety booth—of Mark and me kissing. They snatched at it the way sea gulls snatch at chips. ‘What’s this?’ ‘You a Fudgepacker?’ ‘No! It was a dare!’ But the quaver in my voice betrayed me. Some excuse—‘Gotta get our bitches’—then they left.
The next morning, in halls, in classes, ‘Doughnut Puncher’ and ‘Arse Bandit’ were supplanted by ‘Grim Reaper’ and ‘You’re. Fucking. Dead’. Terrified, I confessed everything to my headmaster. He immediately convened students and staff, then told them in no uncertain terms that ‘homophobic hostilities or toleration of will effect expulsion or termination’. The tirade’s crescendo: ‘For Christ’s sake, grow up! From all of you I expect compassion for this young man who’s been outed!’ (So as not to roar nor cry, I bit my tongue until I tasted rust.) After that, not a single raging rich kid could look me in the eye.
At lunch I came out to my closest friends. Sam, in full view of hundreds of teenagers wrestling on the oval like Ancient Greeks, hugged me, then kissed each cheek. ‘Okay,’ said James, ‘wanna kick the footy?’ Adrian was typically facetious: ‘Always wondered why you hated threading worms onto fishhooks.’
Several months later, ‘Dad, I’m gay’ flew from my mouth, a beautiful bird. ‘I know,’ he smiled. I was speechless. ‘Deanna—then his fiancé, now his wife—‘thought so, a while ago. She’s a finely tuned … Gaydar?’ When my silence lingered, he offered: ‘You’re my child, and I love you. I always have, and I always will—no matter what.’
Mark and I amicably broke up. Although we’re no longer in touch, I occasionally re-read his letters. They remind me of summer, of young love, of losing my virginity, of Sydney’s men, of Andrew, Peter and my headmaster, of Sam, James and Adrian.
And they remind me of my mother. In thirty-four years I’ve thought often of blood; and I’ve realised—with sorrow, with hope—that it isn’t thicker than water.
So my mother and me?
We do not even know each other. We look alike but we have nothing to say. But I won’t hang around in my hospital shift, repeating The Black Mass and all of it.
I say Live, Live because of the sun, the dream, the excitable gift.
(Final three lines from Anne Sexton’s Live or Die, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1966.)