August 20, 2020
(after Julian Schnabel’s “The Walk Home”)
I may be wrong, Dad, but I think that you think I don’t think about you. I can sense it when you leave that rare message on my phone, as if I choose not to pick it up, and your voice goes tinny and far away: “Well, I’d like to hear how you’re doing. I love you, son,” with a lilt in your voice right at the end, an ellipsis, as if you think I would hesitate to say those words back to you.
What are you afraid of?
But I do think of you. Here’s this: soon after the Broad Contemporary Art Museum opened on the campus of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Mark and I braved Wilshire Boulevard to see it, one of the biggest private collections in the world. I was teaching visual studies at a small art school at the time, and Mark and I had just moved into a converted 1924 MacArthur Park market building, a giant open space with polished concrete floors. We had a friend build out two bedrooms and, as a gift, he made for us a 14 foot-long wood plank table, to accommodate guests for those rather large Sunday dinners I’ve told you I hosted for years. Mark was very excited about this place. He would say, “it’s our first home together,” and squeeze my hand. But I didn’t tell you any of that, because, well, you wouldn’t have wanted to hear it, then.
On the second floor of the Broad, adjacent to the extensive Cindy Sherman and Jasper John collections, was a single large-scale Julian Schnabel, one of his broken plate paintings from the 80’s, “The Walk Home.” It is an abstract work on six wood panels, the suggestion of a stand of trees made of oil, copper, fiberglass and, of course, the iconic broken plates that signature-d Schnabel as an art-world sensation. I know you don’t care about any of this, but my reader might, so I indulge. The part where you come in: I sat in front of this art work for a very long time, and thought of you, and cried, not in the way we mourn a loss, but in the way we realize a feeling we don’t fully understand. Mark sat very beside me and held my hand. He didn’t have to know why I was crying, and that should tell you why I love him.
There are all kinds of homes, Dad. Humans have lived in some unlikely shit! And I don’t mean inside caves or among the branches of trees. I mean underground, or on the sides of precipitous cliffs, tunnels in abandoned subways, storage spaces in Rhode Island shopping malls. And, igloos? An arch of ice as shelter?
You were hardly ever home, and ours was a classic, run-of-the-mill brick or wood or stucco thing that kept us warm. Mama made it as warm and safe as she could, but you were never there.
I always perceived you as a nice man, and you are. You’re goofy, you crack terrific dad jokes, sing happy birthday so off-key you earn applause. You’re well-liked by your co-workers, your neighbors, loved dearly by my younger sister and her mother, your second family.
But you weren’t ready for your first, especially when fatherhood pounced on you at 20. And you ran, first just away, and then straight into the Marine Corps, and from there, I don’t know where you went.
But when Mama ran from home, ironically into another Marines’ arms, you were left with two kids—a seven year-old me and an already wild-eyed and eruptive 14 year-old Chris. Man, you weren’t ready for that. I believe you loved us, I really do, but you sucked royally at the parenting thing. I guess it was just too much to deal with. You were gone so often, you couldn’t have called us by our true names. You didn’t know what we liked eating, so you bought lots of pot pies. Stacks of pot pies. Pot pies, hot dogs, and mustard. You didn’t know that when I retreated to my room it was to read and speak to my imaginary older sister, and that Chris was already drinking booze and fingering girls behind the K-Bay store—the beginning paths to our becoming. And when you were re-assigned to Quantico, Virginia, it didn’t seem like you wanted to know. You dropped us with your parents in Maryland, and disappeared, again. When you re-emerged, it was with a new wife, a new life. What then? What kind of home were you thinking to provide?
So, yes, on paper it was a military ranch-style house next to a cemetery, filled with new people: your new wife, Pamela, her son, Blair, and baby Bridgette. I guess we tried to make a home, we tried to get along, but you were never there. And don’t say it was work. No Marine worked as late and as often as you. And Pamela didn’t know what to do with us—one kid lonely and unmoored by the tumult, the other completely untethered and wild from losing his trust in the two people who mattered most—and she foundered, to put it diplomatically. Chris ran away, and I stayed outside to avoid the home I never felt welcome in, as late as I could. I hung out in the woods beyond the military housing complex.
It was in those woods that I was assaulted by one of the men that lived there. He was someone I recognized, someone you had a friendly face for. The stand of early Spring trees, dead leaves decaying on the ground, the evening light between branches. Tall silhouettes patterned with dusk, plunging into the dirt. My face slack in the dirt. The smell of the dirt and my own body turned inside out. The making of mud with my own mouth. Pain and its taste of mud and metal.
I don’t know if he knew I was your son. You didn’t know about the assault. I told no one. I walked home, my shoes disappearing with my ever-slow pace into the darkening night, my body an upside-down “Y” to keep the pain smaller. The house was empty, I drank a glass of water, and sat on the edge of my bed in the still air of the bedroom, and watched the remaining light fade from the window. The next morning, I left the house without speaking to anyone. It was easy to tell no one. I was afraid to, anyway. I was ten years old, and in some strange way I blamed it on what you referred to as my “sissy behavior.”
Broken plates frame Schnabel’s painting, jagged edges cutting into the thin tree trunks. Maybe Loblolly pine or eastern redbud. Thin, barren, without the coverage of Spring.
Chris needed you, Dad. So did I, even though I have convinced myself over the years that I didn’t.
That was why I needed to leave. Mama had recently moved to Maryland and, after one visit with her, I knew I still needed a home without knowing the word for it. She was now married to another man (the man you accused her of cheating on you with in Hawai’i), living in a trailer park outside of Baltimore, but the promise of it seemed better, somehow.
I thought moving in with Mama was going to give me that home I needed, and it did in some ways. When I recall this period, I think of making eggs with her in the kitchen, I think of blender milk shakes, and games of Yahtzee and Scrabble, the stuff of home. But her being married to this new man, a schizophrenic, alcoholic ex-Marine, it was a home primed to be blown down.
By the time I graduated high school, I had moved 13 times. You may know this, perhaps only as anecdote, and not for how you should know it.
After my first year of college in Atlanta, I decided not to return to Maryland, and instead rented a small cottage in the city with some friends. I had just come out of the closet, and craved to build the rest of a home around it. That summer you lent me money to buy a used 1982 Chevy Malibu that I called Agnes Faye Chiquita. It was yellow, and the clock displayed a random assortment of numbers at any given moment (Agnes is a character in the play The Shadow Box, whose senile mother repeatedly asks of her daughter, “what time is it, Agnes”? The Shadow Box was the very first drama I was cast in, but you wouldn’t know that, because you didn’t know I was a Theatre minor). I called to thank you. You told me you loved me, but didn’t approve of the “life I chose.” I thanked you again, hung up the phone, and wondered how you could know any of the choices I had made. I could count on my hands the numbers of times I had talked with you in ten years, and we never discussed anything as profound as choices.
The Christmas after your father died, I asked to see you. Remember that? It had been some years. I saw gray in the hair around your temples. Your father was notoriously grudge-holding, and some time before his death, he disowned your brother for, in my estimation, Sicilian nonsense. He died never having invited his son back into his life, and that detail was what made me feel so sad upon his death. I realized I did not want you dying without knowing your own. It was lightly snowing, and we were walking along the edge of Grandpop’s property. You told me you wanted to be closer to me. You told me that you loved me. And, I believe that you did, Dad. But you also told me that you’d still like to discuss “this lifestyle I chose,” as if consultation would lead to some virtuous purgation. I told you with a slit of a mouth there’s nothing to discuss, that if you wanted to be in my life, you had to accept all of me, just as I had accepted all of you. Even then, I saw you see something in me. You looked at me different. Months later, you surprised me by attending my college graduation, and that was the beginning of something, something more than what we never had.
One late summer afternoon, years later, I was sitting on the squat porch of my decrepit yet entirely satisfying Hollywood cottage. The orange tree was overloaded with its oddly petroleum-tasting fruit, the small garden browning from our water-conservation efforts. My roommate, Irwan, was cooking yellow curry that sharpened the air, for our weekly Sunday dinner, where a couple dozen friends and neighbors came over with wine and weekly musings, and we shoved together picnic, dining and end tables into the driveway, our motley al fresco banquet. I heard the faint strumming of a guitar from my other roommate’s room. And, I felt this deep sense of belonging, like I was home, really home, perhaps for the first time. These sounds, these smells, the Sunday ritual. They were familiar, of family. I looked again at the orange tree, the garden. The moment was not long, nor underlined by dramatic thinking, yet became a resolute memory, something chosen. Weeks later, I met my husband Mark. I don’t perceive this as coincidence.
I have lived in many kinds of houses. I’ve lived in turn-of-the-century clapboards, generic 70’s dingbat flats, converted bank buildings, soaring ceiling lofts, trailers, skinny rowhouses. I currently live in a Victorian shotgun in the Western Addition of San Francisco. It is the longest I’ve ever lived in a single dwelling, a single place. Place. Where one is placed.
I wish you had created a home where I could have told you, Dad, a home where I wouldn’t have entered an empty room that closed me up, where I wouldn’t have sat alone on that bed with the dying light, where you would have pulled me tight and told me it was not my fault, would have walked me to the edge of the yard and stood with me in the stillness, would have silently plotted the revenge against your trespassing neighbor. Would have helped Chris and I adjust to your new family, and helped them adjust to your old one. Would have been there. There are so many woulds in this passage. A stand of woulds, without the coverage of Spring.
I’m not sure if this essay is for you, or me. Who is coming home? Where shall we walk? Is it wherever we walk that meets in the middle?
I talk to you fairly often now, more than I ever have. The conversation usually revolves around what school I’m teaching at, how your hand is feeling after the surgery, what movie Mark is working on. You love Mark, think it’s so cool that he’s a movie-man. You crack a few old dad jokes, and the goofy sincerity makes me laugh. You tell me every phone call that you are proud of me, that you love me. You are a nice man. Maybe even a good man.
I fly back to Maryland this summer to be with you for Father’s Day. We drive to Ocean City—you, Pamela, Blair and his new wife, Bridgette and her family, and me—to watch the Blue Angels line and loop over the muddy Atlantic on a sunny day. We eat pizza and dig our toes in the sand, all facing the edge of the world, that awesome seam between water and air. The breeze is good. You say that you wish Chris were here, that he would talk to you, in that tinny and far-away voice. I give you a sympathetic pursing of my mouth, but say nothing, and go back to the ocean.
I see the way Bridgette looks at you, your grandchildren, the way they will lay themselves on your shoulders. In this, I see that you learned to come home. You may not have been home for me, for Chris, but eventually, you found your way. And for this, I feel something good.
MIAH JEFFRA is author of The Fabulous Ekphrastic Fantastic! (Sibling Rivalry 2020), The Violence Almanac (Black Lawrence 2021), the chapbook The First Church of What’s Happening (Nomadic 2017), and co-editor, with Arisa White and Monique Mero, of the anthology Home is Where You Queer Your Heart (Foglifter 2021). Awards include the New Millennium Prize, the Sidney Lanier Fiction Prize, The Atticus Review Creative Nonfiction Prize, the Alice Judson Hayes Fellowship, Lambda Literary Fellowship, and 2019 & 2020 finalist for the Lambda Literary Award for Outstanding Anthology. Miah is founding editor of queer literary collaborative, Foglifter Press.
Excerpt of The Fabulous Ekphrastic Fantastic reprinted with permission of the author.