If all goes according to plan, I’ll get to see and touch my book for the first time this Friday, August 21, at Gender Odyssey in Seattle. We’ve had our share of last-minute publishing trials and tribulations, so I’m not 100% sure that this baby will show up on her due date–but I do know I’ll be reading a selection at a free public event that evening. Here are the details:
Transgress Press – Meet the Authors
7:30PM | Washington State Convention Center – Rm 611
Come and schmooze with our 2015 authors, Rex Butt, Seth Jamison Rainess, Paige Schilt, and Dr. Michael Brownstein, and celebrate their recently published and forthcoming books. Get discounted copies of their books personally autographed for you. Light refreshments will be provided.
I’m thrilled to be part of Gender Odyssey this year. When I set out to write Queer Rock Love, my goal was to write a trans family/partner memoir that wasn’t focused on discovery, coming out, or surgery. I knew Katy was trans from the moment I first laid eyes on her. Her transness was an integral part of the person I fell in love with, and I wanted to write a story that focused on the ups and downs of our everyday life. I’m hopeful that lots of folks at Gender Odyssey will be able to identify with our unorthodox, not-a-poster-family family.
Throughout the conference, I’ll be facilitating workshops on higher education, parenting (with Katy Koonce) and the “rules of attraction.” Check out the schedule here, and come say hi if you can.
In the meantime, I’ll be updating this website to be more of a book-related website. Stay tuned for reviews, bonus photos, and information on how to order Queer Rock Love: A Family Memoir from Transgress Press.
Dear Reader, you may have noticed that I haven’t been posting to Queer Rock Love lately.
It’s not that I’ve run out of stories about our queer family life—far from it—It’s just that I’ve been needing to conserve my energies. Now, after months of intensive gestation, I’m thrilled to announce that I’m expecting a baby…a book baby!
We were in San Francisco earlier in the summer and were lucky enough to attend a reading for another Transgress Press book, Manning Up: Transsexual Men on Finding Brotherhood, Family and Themselves. It was exhilarating to hear many different stories from diverse transmasculine experiences and perspectives. As an added bonus, I got to meet face-to-face with my editor, Max Wolf Valerio.
Transgress Press donates 40% of book sale profits to social justice organizations that work to empower marginalized communities and save our planet. They also ask authors to donate part of their royalties to social justice organizations. Stay tuned for more on that front!
But Wait, That’s Not All
When I said “we’re expecting,” I wasn’t just being sloppy with my pronouns. Katy’s been incubating a project too. Her band, Butch County, has been writing a whole bunch of new material, and they’re getting ready to record their next album.
In the meantime, if you have a hankering for muscle-rock-meets-genderqueer-swagger, you can listen to a couple of their greatest hits on bandcamp. You can also see them perform live. This weekend they’re performing on Sunday at 4:30 as part of Stargayzer Fest. And next weekend, on September 20, they’ll be melting faces at 1pm at Austin Pride.
Have you ever wanted to pelt us with questions about how it feels to be a gay, transgender, rock-n-roll family raising a son in Texas? Well, now’s your chance!
Katy and I are doing a thing called “Partnering & Parenting Beyond the Gender Binary” at the upcoming Contemporary Couples conference in Austin on May 17.
I call it a “thing” because it’s not really a presentation or a workshop. Our plan is to interview each other in front of a live audience. I’ve been honing hard-hitting questions like “hey, hon, what’s up with your gender identity these days.”
(I’m actually really looking forward to this conversation, because Katy recently wrote a funny, heartfelt essay about her ever-evolving gender identity for an anthology called Letters to My Siblings. It’s a follow-up to the Lambda-nominated Letters to My Brothers: Transitional Wisdom in Retrospect from Transgress Press.)
Anyone can attend the Contemporary Couples conference, AND many sessions will be especially useful for therapists who serve (or hope to serve) LGBT couples. Some of you may want to refer your therapist for some cultural competency training.
Our former couples therapist, bless her heart, I know I’ve already subjected her to caricature, but I’ll never forget the day that Katy and I were discussing our sex life and she said helpfully “Have you ever considered using a prosthetic?” I don’t know if I’ve ever laughed so hard. (Yeah, we’ve considered that. From many angles.)
Speaking of families, the photo at the top of this post was taken by Erin Walter, who is part of our Butch County/Girls Rock Camp family. In addition to being a badass bass player with stage-presence galore, Erin is also a writer, activist and mom. Check out her sxsw wrap-up (including a super-cute picture of Erin with Laura Jane Grace of Against Me!) at The Admiration Society.
We were in my car, heading north. She was behind the wheel. “If we were straight,” she said, turning to the passenger side, “I’d take you to Atlantic City and marry you right now.”
And then, purportedly, I said, “For all this talk of marriage, I don’t see a ring on my finger.”
There are two problems with this scenario. First, I am not a coquette. It is not my custom to speak like a latter day lesbian Scarlet O’Hara. Second, I am not a believer. I’m the divorced child of divorced parents. I don’t venerate marriage as a natural state, a keystone of civilization, or even a particularly convenient model of intimate relationship.
Still, “I don’t see a ring on my finger” are the words that, according to the only other extant witness, I am supposed to have uttered on September 10, 2000.
This was our second date. I had recently relocated from Austin, Texas, to rural Pennsylvania. As a newly minted English Ph.D., I was eager to take advantage of a visiting professorship at a small liberal arts college just west of the Allegheny River. Nevermind that my new home was two hours from the nearest airport. Or that the local lesbians lived like Jamesian maiden aunts. Or that the weather forecast called for snow from October to May. All the better, I told myself, I’ll hole up by the fire and write.
But I wasn’t writing. I was thinking of Katy. And I invited her to visit my rural abode.
A week-long second date is a risky proposition. Since I had left Austin, we’d thrown caution to the wind, confessing our dearest hopes and desires over lengthy long-distance telephone calls. By the time Katy arrived at the airport, we were already building a future on the flimsy foundation of flirtatious conversation. But we hadn’t even kissed yet. If our physical chemistry didn’t match our conversational chemistry, we would have to suffer a long and awkward seven days.
After our first kiss (in the baggage claim area), we did considerably less talking.
Five days later, we came up for air. Our time together was almost over, and I wanted to find something special to mark the end of our epic date.
A colleague told me about Lily Dale, New York, a Victorian-era village populated by psychics. I knew that my new love had an affinity for the supernatural, and I thought it would make an amusing day trip.
Founded in 1879, Lily Dale quaintly bills itself as the largest spiritualist community in the world—as if municipalities worldwide are vying to be the capitol of a nineteenth century fad. In Lily Dale’s heyday, spirits knocked on tables and powerful mediums oozed ectoplasmic goo. These days, so-called “physical manifestations” are frowned upon. But Lily Dale is still home to 90 registered mediums, who commune with the dead in private consultations and regularly scheduled public meetings.
It’s a strange place for a romantic getaway. Most pilgrims are grieving. They come in search of answers about the death of a child or lover. They want to know where the treasure is hidden or whether their dearly beloved is resting peacefully on the other side.
Katy and I arrived just after the regular season, which lasts from June to August. The weather had turned wet and windy, and mud puddles clotted the narrow streets. Standing water glistened from bright green Astroturf on the ramshackle porches of aging Victorian cottages. It looked like several generations of American optimism had collided and fallen into benign disrepair.
Holding hands, Katy and I followed the path to a pet cemetery in a stand of ancient trees. Under their lush green canopy, Katy told me about the deaths of her dogs, Face and General Lee. She told me about her best friend Jane Ellen, who had promised to visit in dreams after she died. Sitting on a stump in the shade of the forest, Katy told me about her crystal meth days, when she could walk into a library or a metaphysical bookstore and literally hear books calling her name.
Normally, this was the kind of talk that caused me to roll my eyes.
As a teenager, I had been hostage to my mother’s New Age awakening, when she bought a condo in Santa Fe and consulted a psychic to help her find husband number three. Surrounded by tanned white people with positive vibrations, I had resisted with the only weapons I knew—sunscreen and a bad attitude. As soon as I could, I fled to the gothic mists of the Pacific Northwest. I vowed that folk art angels would never adorn my home.
Rather than putting me off, Katy’s mysticism made me want to get closer. Her drug-induced visions of talking books had a dark, malevolent edge that was missing from the usual New Age blather. The darkness allowed me to relax my constant vigilance and adopt a guardedly curious posture toward things that I habitually disavowed.
It helped that she had all the trappings of a Romantic hero: Long, dark hair, a prominent brow, and a death sentence. When she quit drugs a decade earlier, Katy had been diagnosed with Hepatitis C. The future looked like cirrhosis or cancer. Then, a few years later, a new generation of antiviral drugs brought hope for people with Hepatitis C. Katy had weathered their punishing regimen—only to find that her particular strain of the virus did not respond. Now she spoke matter-of-factly about her early expiration date.
“When I’m 65, I’ll start drinking again,” she said. “We can go on one of those Delbert McClinton blues cruises and booze it up until my liver gives out.”
I nodded my head. I had no idea who Delbert McClinton was. In her company, I felt unmarked by loss and experience. Being with her was like visiting another planet. It was like fucking an alien.
I told her about my recently deceased cat, for whom I had built a small (secular) shrine. I told her about my exes, which were the closest things I had to ghosts.
Despite all the stereotypes of lesbian merging, I had no intention of actually changing my mind about New Age spirituality. However, because I was drunk on infatuation, and because I wanted to continue having exciting alien sex, I didn’t voice my usual opinions on mediums (quacks), the afterlife (unlikely), or monogamous marriage (extremely unlikely).
We kissed in the dappled light under the trees. An old man in overalls wandered past the headstones of long-dead pets. I was wearing a blue vintage dress and spiky hair. Katy was wearing combat boots and a black bowling shirt with the name “Dick” emblazoned on the pocket. I wondered, when the old man looked at us, did he see a man and a woman? Or two dykes defiling the woods?
We emerged from the forest and into the circle of Victorian houses where mediums entertain spiritual seekers. My ambivalence was like a powerful alternating current, propelling us up the stairs of each house and then repelling us back down into the street. Each time we found a medium at home, Katy looked at me, trying to sense whether this was the one. Each time, I shook my head no.
In truth, I did not want to get a reading because I was afraid that Katy would see my disbelief. I did not want to pretend to believe, but I didn’t want her to think I was incapable of believing, either. It was confusing. The air was full of other people’s hope and grief and yearning. They mixed with my own swirling feelings and manifested as a lump in the back of my throat.
I do not know if Katy sensed my ambivalence. Having grown up in a culture of ruthless affirmation, I had learned to hide mixed feelings. But, as a dissenter, I had also learned to trust my instincts. And now my instincts were guiding me to the Crystal Cove Gift Shop.
In the car, when the subject of weddings had arisen, Katy had predicted that a place like Lily Dale would surely have a crystal shop with rings. Now that we had passed up all of the potential mediums, she suggested that we seek it out.
Inside the Crystal Cove, I felt like the planchette on a Ouija board. I glided to the jewelry case. Scanning the rows of quartz and hematite, my eyes lit on a silver diamante figure eight, an ersatz antique infinity symbol.
“Can I try that one?” I asked the heavily bejeweled white woman behind the counter. I thought, I can’t believe I’m doing this. I thought, I want it.
While the saleswoman was busy below the counter, I glanced at Katy to see if I was overstepping the bounds. She looked happy and excited. She told me that the ring was perfect for me.
I wanted something of hers to keep. (Later, before she went back to Texas, I would steal her shirt and keep it under my pillow, where I could press it to my face at night and breathe her in.)
If the ring fits, that will be a sign.
I kept looking at Katy. Are we really doing this? She was selecting a ring for herself, a chunky Celtic design that looked at home on her big hand.
We paid for each other’s souvenirs. Back outside, we sat on a wrought-iron bench bedecked with cherubs. We hadn’t spoken about what, exactly, we were up to. Now two small, white cardboard jewelry boxes were sitting between us. Katy looked nervous. I closed my eyes and searched for words and ritual that would consecrate the moment without overwhelming it.
“I love you,” I said.
“I love you,” she replied. Tears streamed down both of our faces. I was crying because I was vulnerable and because it was okay. The lump in my throat was fading away. I felt for the rings and removed hers from the box.
“With this ring, I thee wed,” I said, quickly. I slipped the ring on her finger and smiled.
“With this ring, I thee wed,” she echoed. She slipped the ring on my finger.
I do not believe in mediums, but I do believe in the future.
Photo credits: Tuffy by Ross Griff; Forest Temple by MHBaker.
It’s become an end-of-summer tradition. Over the past several years, I’ve created a collection of posts about family vacations with my gender-ambiguous wife. Whenever we travel, public restrooms are a problem, because we never know when Katy will be read as male and when she’ll be read as female. We’ve studied the variables, but there doesn’t seem to be any discernible logic to the “sirs” and “ma’ams” that come her way. From South Texas to Hawaii, we’ve navigated public restrooms as carefully as the average traveler might step through a poopy cow patch.
This summer, we decided to take a family trip to Japan. Our 10-year-old son is passionate about Japanese cuisine, so we weren’t worried about how to feed a finicky kid in a foreign land. We were meeting our friend Nancy, who travels to Japan several times a year, so we weren’t sweating over transportation or communication. As always, we were concerned about where Katy would pee. It’s one thing to be chased out of the women’s restroom in a familiar culture, and quite another thing to be chased out of a restroom in a place where you don’t know the language or customs.
On our first day in Tokyo, we set out for Senso-ji temple. Perhaps it was the presiding spirit of Guan Yin, goddess of compassion, but Katy spontaneously decided to try the women’s room first. (In the US, the women’s room is the riskier option.)
What happened next was refreshing. No one stared, no one gave her the dramatic double-take, and no one gasped that she was in the wrong place. Senso-ji temple set the tone for the rest of the trip, and Katy used the women’s restroom without incident. It was a rare treat to be able to visit the same restroom together without coming up with some plan (like gabbing in our girliest voices) to encourage people to read Katy as female. We were able to relax and enjoy our favorite Japanese technological innovation—the multi-function bidet toilet complete with calming music and a butt blowdryer. (We are totes going to get this toilet.)
I asked my friend Yumi if she had a hypothesis about why Katy had such a great experience. As a Tokyoite, Yumi suggested that Katy’s difference as a white foreigner probably trumped any other differences. Also, she mentioned that people in the city just want to avoid trouble and go about their business. They’re less likely to engage a stranger—especially when there’s a language barrier.
I suppose we’ll never know why the bathrooms were so blissfully uneventful on this trip, but it was certainly a welcome respite. I’m curious to know what other gender nonconforming folk have experienced in Japan and elsewhere?
Sensoji photo credit: James Willamor.
Wireless Toilet Control Panel photo credit: Chris 73 on Wikimedia Commons.
Philip Koonce II, beloved husband, father and coach, passed away on Tuesday, January 29, 2013. He was born on October 16, 1926, in Shreveport, Louisiana to Dr. Philip B. Koonce, Sr. and Mabel Koonce. Philip is survived by his children: Philip Koonce, III and his wife Gail, Blaine Koonce and his wife Lynn, and Katy Koonce and her wife Paige; his grandchildren: Cody, Bryan, Brent, Haley, Andrea, Jenna, Stephanie, Dylan, and Waylon; and seven great-grandchildren.
I pulled up to Daddy Phil’s house just before the viewing. The family was already at the funeral home, but the garage door had been left open to reveal rows of folding chairs and card tables bedecked with vinyl tablecloths.
Inside the house, the kitchen counter was crowded with boxes of kolaches. I knew that food would continue to roll in throughout the evening and the next day. Friends and family would appear in an intricately choreographed dance, unloading ice and coolers, cookies and casseroles, sodas and red Solo cups.
Growing up in Carthage, Texas, Philip dreamt of becoming a famous country singer like Tex Ritter (another Carthage native son). His mother, the indomitable Mabel Koonce, wrote to Ritter for advice. The country music legend responded with a long letter that said, essentially, “It’s a hard life. Go to college. Explore your options.”
In 1944, Philip enrolled at the University of Texas. He played football and (at Mabel’s insistence) interned for a state senator. Drafted at the end of the war and stationed in the Philippines, Philip found an unusual niche. At 19, he was recruited to coach and quarterback a football team for the Air Core. He also helped organize entertainment for the USO. In a letter, he told Mabel that it was “the kind of a job I’ve always wanted and I’m going to give it everything I’ve got.”
After the war, Philip attended the University of Houston. He walked on to the football team and eventually won a scholarship. He met his future wife, earned a master’s degree in education, got married, and moved to Texas City to begin his career as a high school football coach.
The Koonces are a musical people. Katy’s mother, Donna, wrote volumes of rhyming verse. Her couplets could be simultaneously sappy, pointed and inspired. She might wax poetic about a mother’s love, but she was equally likely compose an epic guilt trip.
Katy’s oldest brother, Phil III, has been known to rhyme as well. His ode to Father’s Day, “A Few Things I Remember About Dad,” hung on the wall above the old man’s bed.
As lead singer for Butch County, Katy growls her rhymes. They’re less sentimental, more sexual, filled with fictional characters and intricate rhetorical acrobatics.
Katy’s middle brother, Blaine, is the kind of musician who can play anything with strings. He’s been in all kinds of bands, from bluegrass to gospel, but his real genius is improvising songs for any occasion, which he delivers in a charismatic comic deadpan.
Despite his reserved demeanor, Daddy Phil had a beautiful voice, which he shared in rare performances at anniversaries and family gatherings.
On the evening of his funeral, friends gathered around the card tables in the garage. They came to eat and talk, to comfort and commiserate, but mostly to listen and to sing.
Sandra and April brought a cooler full of ice.
Pammie brought pasta.
Leigh Ann and Redonda brought King Ranch casserole.
Dede brought paper products, including extra t.p.
Someone brought shrimp slaw and made sweet tea.
Someone else wrote it all down on a yellow legal pad in the kitchen.
Blaine held court with his guitar. As the night wore on, he and his friend Victor played everything from “Let It Be” to “Up Against the Wall Redneck Mother.” The mourners overflowed into the driveway and coalesced around the beer coolers. In the darkness, the warm yellow light of the garage was like amniotic fluid, enveloping and protecting the dearly beloved. I put my arm around my queer-as-shit wife and sang along about “kicking hippies’ asses and raising hell.”
I had hoped to see Katy’s nephew, Bryan Koonce, hip-hop impresario and aspiring MC. After Katy’s mom’s funeral, he had delivered a manic, virtuosic description of what it was like to smoke salvia. I was curious what more I might learn.
I found him inside the house with his two sisters, Andrea and Jenna. They were sitting on the family room couch, texting, seemingly separate from the rest of the party.
“Do you remember me?” I asked, plopping down on the rocking chair. “I’m Paige, Katy’s wife.”
“Yeah, I remember you,” Bryan answered, friendly but distracted by his phone. All three siblings have young kids, and all three live together at their mom’s house. His sister said something under her breath. They seemed to be sparring in real time and via text simultaneously.
“We’re kind of the Jerry Springer side of the family,” Bryan said, bashfully.
I gazed at the family photos on the opposite wall. If they had captions, they’d read like a rolodex of reality show plots: “Addiction Killed My Mama,” “The Brother I Never Knew I Had,” “My Daughter Looks Like a Man.”
“Which side isn’t the Jerry Springer side?” I asked, sweeping my arm around the room and including myself.
“True,” he laughed. I’m not sure if he registered the irony that I, the unlawfully wedded wife of the prodigal daughter, was awkwardly trying to reassure the first-born son of the first-born son.
In 1969, Philip moved to Lake Jackson, Texas, to work with at Brazoswood High School. For 16 years, Koonce served as Assistant Head Football Coach and Defensive Coordinator, helping to guide the Brazoswood Buccaneers to eight district titles and to the state championship in 1974. Former players remember him as stern and disciplined yet compassionate, an introvert with a sense of humor and a talent for storytelling.
I did not grow up in a close-knit community. I never learned to anticipate the needs of grieving neighbors, nor did I know the spiritual comfort that these small gestures give.
I have been honored to write obituaries for both of Katy’s parents, and I have rarely felt so purposeful, rarely known such a fit between the task at hand and my humble tools.
I can’t spin rhymes, can’t keep a tune, but I’m lucky to cast my lot with people who know how to sing and to grieve.
As I was writing this, I found an apropos video by Bryan Koonce. Sample some Koonce family rhymes:
And the soul that I have will lay next to Dodie
Sippin’ on some scotch and listenin’ to oldies
Credits: Kolache photo by Chmee2; Tex Ritter photo from Capitol Records (public domain). All other photos courtesy of Koonce family.
My mom is in Mexico for a few weeks, so I think it’s safe to share this story.
Two years ago, Mom’s dad died. My grandpa was an artist and entrepreneur, a small-time inventor who owned a custom picture framing shop. Over 65 years of marriage, he and Grandma amassed a large archive of slides and photographs that documented everything from their courtship to Grandpa’s business ventures and countless family camping trips.
My sister and I both flew to Phoenix for Grandpa’s funeral, but Kristen got there first. She spent an entire day immersed in the family archive, helping Mom select pictures for a coffin-side photo collage. Ever the social scientist, Kristen wasted no time in sorting through the evidence and identifying her own salient data. By the time I arrived, she had the slide projector set up in Grandma’s living room.
“There’s this picture you have to see,” she said, when we had a moment in private. “It’s Mom and Dad right after their honeymoon. They actually look kind of hip. It’s weird. I need to have it.”
Unfortunately, our mother had already sniffed out my sister’s fascination. She sighed when Kristen switched out the lights. Over the lumbering hum of the ancient projector, Mom performed a multimedia symphony of teeth-sucking and eye-rolling. She actually groaned when the post-honeymoon picture clicked into view. “Oh puhleeez.”
The more we delighted, the more she protested. “Mom, you look so beautiful…I love that dress… You guys were so cute… I wish my hair could look like that.”
“Oh, stop it,” she said. “Just stop.”
The problem was as clear as the Arizona sunlight. In the photo, my father is sprawled in a mid-century lawn chair in my grandparents’ backyard. His hair is slightly long, and he’s wearing Wayfarer-style glasses with black frames. Although my grandparents were teetotalers, Alex seems to be holding a scotch and soda. His lanky legs are crossed at the knee, and he’s wearing a pair of extremely loud plaid pants.
In other words, he looks like he should be having cocktails with Christopher Isherwood and Don Bachardy. He looks like a great big gay.
The next day, after Grandpa’s funeral, we were too sad and tired to bother with the slides. Mom said her husband was going to digitize them all, so it seemed pretty certain that we’d be able to get a copy of The Photo, the one we really wanted.
A few weeks later, Kristen casually asked about the slides. Mom said she would send them. Instead, she emailed a copy of the glamour shot that she uses for her Facebook profile.
Beautiful, but not quite what we were looking for.
An outsider might find it difficult to sympathize with our singular passion for a snapshot. But when you grow up with a closeted parent, there’s a big part of your family history that’s missing. It’s not simply because people are guarding family secrets; the largest holes in the fabric of memory are worn by the unconscious effort of resisting what is already known.
As adults, my sister and I can spend hours analyzing a remembered word or gesture, trying to figure out where we came from and how it shaped us. It’s personal, sometimes it’s sad or frustrating or harrowing. But it’s also pleasurable. The truth is, we like being sleuths in the archive, putting the pieces together in different combinations, trying to see what stories we can tell.
For my parents, the photo elicits different feelings. In these black and white snapshots, they are literally exposed. What should I have known? What did I show? Who knew? Did I seem like a fool? A joke?
Last Christmas, Kristen raised the question of The Photo with our father. Since my dad came out in 1994, I have seen him wear some truly outrageous ensembles. My favorite was the time he showed up at a (Mormon) family reunion in shiny black pants with a chain mail belt. However, as Kristen began to describe the missing picture, he grimaced. It was as if somehow he already knew.
“Am I wearing funny pants in that picture?”
Yes, funnypants, we love you. And, for the record, my mom is at a language school in Mexico this month, and I know she’s rocking those irregular verbs, because she’s super smart.
Before Waylon was born, I believed that my future child would not watch much television. On the rare occasions when he did watch television, I imagined, he would choose something that I liked – something witty and subversive like PeeWee’s Playhouse.
Apparently there’s a karmic debt to be paid for such hubris, because my son did turn out to like television, quite a bit. At age four, his favorite show was Thomas and Friends, a neo-Victorian boy’s tale about anthropomorphic steam engines who compete to be “a really useful engine” in the eyes of a pig-eyed industrialist called Sir Topham Hatt.
“Mom, can I watch just one more Thomas?” Waylon asked, his face a caricature of exaggerated yearning. We had spent the morning jumping waves and building sand castles and flying kites on the beach. We were exhausted and a little bit sunburned. We’d had a late lunch and a shower, I’d removed most of the sand from Waylon’s hair, and now we were lounging on the worn couch of our rented beach house, waiting for Katy and Brian to return from band practice.
“OK,” I said, cuddling him closer. “You can watch one more episode. But you have to turn it off when Uncle Brian gets back.”
Two days earlier, when Brian and his wife Kathy arrived at our house in Austin, Waylon had dutifully dispensed hugs and kisses before retreating to the safety of his toys. Today was our first full day at the beach, and Waylon was still a little shy around the newcomers.
I remembered what it was like to meet some relative whom your parents always talked about. You felt pressure to produce fond feelings, to fall in love with this new person. But it was awkward, even stifling, because the relationship was pre-defined. I was thinking about how to help Waylon feel comfortable (and succumbing to a familiar Thomas and Friends stupor) when I heard the sound of boots on the outside stairs. Katy came in first, walked over, kissed us both, and sat on the couch. Brian entered next, nodded in our general direction, and headed to the fridge for a beer.
Over the past 24 hours, Brian had become increasingly edgy and withdrawn. Today’s practice was the first of only three full rehearsals for the show. Some of the band members hadn’t touched their instruments for almost 20 years. From the look on Brian’s face, I guessed things hadn’t gone so well.
He brought his beer into the living room and sat across from us, looking pale beneath his five o’ clock shadow. He looked like a different man from the rocker in Katy’s old photos. His long, bleached hair was now short and dark. He wore cargo shorts and a baggy T-shirt. It was hard to believe that he’d once pranced around the stage in eyeliner and a jockstrap. Right now he looked like he’d prefer to crawl under a blanket and never come out.
“Waylon,” I said, “it’s time to turn off Thomas.” I was afraid that the minor dramas of the station house would push Brian over the edge.
For once, Waylon turned off the TV without complaining. While Katy and I chatted about band practice, he dragged Master the robot from behind the couch and began to play in Brian’s vicinity. I could see Waylon looking at this new grown-up from the corner of his eye. I guessed that he wanted to engage, but he wasn’t quite sure how to begin. He flipped Master’s switch on and off, over and over again.
“Wait,” Brian said, coming out of his reverie, “What is he saying?”
Waylon repeated it for him slowly, “He says ‘I sense your fear.'”
“No,” Brian said, deadpan. “No.” Waylon looked confused, almost heartbroken.
“No,” Brian explained, “He says, ‘I-am-Master. I’ll-buy-you-a-beer.'”
Waylon cracked up. Apparently this was one of the funniest things he’d ever heard. He couldn’t stop repeating it, talking over Master’s mechanical voice, forcing the robot to buy endless rounds of cheer for everyone in the living room.
Surfside Beach is connected to the mainland by a string of chemical plants. Vast plantations of pipes and cooling towers squat over the shallow waters of the bay. At night, illuminated by security lights, the plants were strangely beautiful. In the daytime, they made me think of cancer and three-headed fish.
We were traversing this no-man’s-land because Katy had a mission. She had found an old picture of Brian onstage, naked except for a cigarette, a fedora, and a strategically placed guitar. We were driving to the Brazosport Mall to get it transferred onto t-shirts for the show.
“I want a shirt too,” Waylon said from the back. “I want a shirt with Uncle Brian on it.”
“Hmm,” I said. “I’m not sure that would be appropriate.”
“Oh, what the hell,” Katy protested. “He wants a t-shirt of his donor.”
“Well, you can’t wear it to school,” I said, weakly. What the hell. It was a hilarious picture.
We were just coming over the bridge to the mainland, and Katy pulled over at a store called Buc-cee’s, which was a combination convenience store, surf shop, and t-shirt emporium. They sold diesel fuel, bikinis, flip flops, and blow-up rafts, along with hamburgers, chicken wings, chewing tobacco, beer, and homemade fig preserves.
Waylon was immediately drawn to a large display of sand pails and shovels. Katy headed for the children’s clothes and started flipping through the racks for a size 4 black t-shirt. I decided to try on floppy sun hats. If you can’t beat the consumers, I figured, you might as well get something good.
“Mommy, Mommy, can I have this?”
Waylon was dragging an enormous plastic ship through the racks of bathing suits and trunks. When it was clear that he was addressing Katy as “Mommy,” everyone in the store, from the teenage girl in the bikini aisle to the trucker waiting for his food order, did a double take. I couldn’t tell if Katy noticed.
“Sure,” she said automatically. “Check out this t-shirt.” She held up a black t-shirt with an anchor on the sleeve that said “Surfside Beach.” It matched the tattoos on her arms.
“Yes!” Waylon exclaimed. They high-fived.
The line at the cash register was long. One vacationing family was buying snacks for a day on Surfside. But mostly it was chemical plant workers, grabbing coffee and donuts before reporting to shifts at Dow and Shintech. Katy scooped up Waylon and held him while we waited. “My boy,” she said, kissing his head. “My boy is going to get a shirt just like Mommy’s.” Waylon nodded enthusiastically.
“If anybody asks you who’s on the back, what do you say?”
“You say, ‘that’s my Donor!'”
That night, after practice, Brian was even more nervous. He sat silently through dinner, answering his wife’s cheerful queries about band practice with terse, one-word answers. Kathy’s daughter, Jessica, was visiting from college, and I felt bad, because Brian’s nerves were casting a pall over their mother-daughter time.
“We could build a bonfire on the beach tonight?” Kathy asked, hopefully. Brian shrugged and stared at his food. The silence was awkward, unbearable. All of the women, myself included, immediately began to fill it with airy small talk. But when Brian left the room, Kathy scraped his plate with barely contained fury, her lips pressed together in a thin line. After the dishes were done, she wiped the formica table in sharp, precise circles.
I hovered between helping and not helping. The whole scene was like a rerun of the family gatherings of my early adolescence. I knew the script by heart: men set the mood, women set the table…and cook, and clean up. As a teenager, I’d vowed to resist my assigned role in this drama. Now, stuck in the beach house, I felt angsty and oddly irritated with Katy. I didn’t sign on for this much heterosexuality! Why are you making me sit through this? I wanted to hold my hands over Waylon’s eyes. Don’t watch!
My angst was tempered by a guilty sense of sympathy. I guessed Kathy wasn’t used to seeing her husband this nervous. They had met long after he retired from Rokitt. In her world, Brian was a caseworker for people with developmental disabilities. I had seen him with some of his clients when we visited Michigan. He was relaxed, patient, sweet.
After dinner, Brian retired to the back porch to smoke. Everyone else gathered in the living room. It was clear that no bonfire was going to materialize.
“Mom, can I watch one more Thomas?” Waylon asked.
I felt ambivalent. I knew he was bored, but I didn’t want to be rude, hogging the TV with kiddie shows.
“Ask Uncle Brian if he wants to use the TV,” I answered. Just then, Brian walked in the door and started to cross the room. Waylon followed him across the linoleum floor.
“Can I watch TV?” he asked, tugging on Brian’s shorts.
“I don’t know,” Brian said, sullenly. His whole body recoiled from the responsibility that the question implied. “Ask your mom.”
The next day, Waylon and I escaped to the beach to jump waves. Every few minutes he yelled, “This is so fun!” as if he couldn’t quite believe his luck. I felt the same way. As a child, I would stay in the surf for so long that my body could feel the rise and fall of the waves in my bed at night. Now Waylon’s excitement was making me feel like we shared a special bond.
When he got winded, I held him on my hip and jumped for him. Waylon told me stories about preschool. I told him stories about childhood vacations. We talked until I ran out of stories, but he still wasn’t ready to go ashore.
“Are you excited for the big rock show tonight?” I asked.
“Uh-huh.” He shook his head. We’d been taking him to shows since he was a month old.
“Are you going to dance for Uncle Brian?” I asked.
“Yes, and I’m going to sing with the band. On the stage.” he informed me.
“Oh.” This was the first time I’d heard of this plan. I didn’t want to smash his dreams, but I also didn’t want him to be disappointed if it didn’t work out.
“Um, Sweetie, Mommy is singing with the band. Did anyone tell you that you were going to sing with the band?”
Two days before our sperm donor was due to arrive in Texas, my wife walked in the door with a bulging sack of secondhand toys.
“Waylon already has too many toys,” I said, shaking my head. “His birthday was a month ago! He’s barely four and he has enough stuff to fill two closets.”
“I know, I know,” she replied, looking sheepish. “But he’s going to be the only kid at the beach this weekend.”
This is one of our most familiar family dynamics: Katy indulges, Paige worries, Waylon gets the loot. But for once I wasn’t worried about my son’s consumer character. I was more concerned about my wife’s impulse to play Santa in July.
On the surface, her justification for the new toys was entirely plausible. We were about to embark on the kind of trip down memory lane that only the middle-aged can appreciate. Katy’s best friend Brian, Waylon’s sperm donor, was coming to Texas to play a reunion show with Rokitt, his hair metal band from the ’80s. But rather than the gritty Texas blues clubs that they played in their prime, this time Rokitt was planning to electrify their die-hard fans from the fluorescently-lit comfort of the Stahlman Park Recreation Center on Surfside, a tiny island south of Galveston.
Surfside Beach is not exactly the Riviera of the Texas coast. But Waylon wasn’t exactly a beach snob. He played in the sand all day long at his preschool, digging holes and tunnels and rivers. Every night at bath time, he reluctantly parted from a personal reserve of sand. Despite Katy’s worries, there could be no doubt that he was looking forward to a vacation that involved beaches full of unlimited sand.
When it came to the ocean, however, Waylon’s expectations were as murky as the waters off the Texas coast. We had taken him to the Gulf of Mexico a few times before, but it wasn’t clear that he remembered. When I asked if he was looking forward to playing in the waves at Surfside, Waylon remained vague. “Uh huuuuuh,” he murmured, looking off into the middle distance.
It was pretty much the same situation when I asked if Waylon was looking forward to seeing “Uncle” Brian. They had only met once, when Waylon was about 18 months old, and I knew Waylon didn’t remember. Brian called him at Christmas and birthday time, and Waylon communicated with the harassed politeness that children everywhere extend to long-distance relatives.
With the Rokitt reunion on the horizon, Katy had been pulling out old pictures and trying to enlist Waylon’s enthusiasm for the band and its sperm donor front man.
“Waylon,” she said, holding out a picture from an amateur photo shoot circa 1987, “Do you know who this is?”
Waylon looked up from his blocks, scanned the picture of a man in a ripped tank top and lace tights, and shook his head.
“That’s Uncle Brian!” Katy explained, in a sing-song Barney voice. “Remember, he gave us the seed that we needed to make you?”
This line about the seed was what we’d been telling Waylon ever since he was old enough for us to tell him something about the way we made him. I worried at times that it was too euphemistic, but it was technically accurate. Thus far, although Waylon loved to hear stories about how his parents met and decided to have a baby, he hadn’t expressed interest in the mechanics of conception. From what I could tell, it hadn’t yet crossed his radar that his moms couldn’t make a baby on their own. Whatever we were saying about seeds just seemed extraneous.
Regardless of what Waylon understood, Katy’s enthusiasm for her best friend and his erstwhile band was hard to resist. Over the last few days, Waylon had begun to recognize the guy in the pictures and to look forward to seeing Rokitt play. I was getting excited, too. But I was also scared.
Brian wasn’t part of our queer milieu of chosen family. He had a wife, an ex-wife, and a son in high school. The few times that we’d met, I hadn’t been able to decipher his dudely, understated manners. From my vantage point, it wasn’t clear if Brian was really down for new and complicated family ties. I worried that this vacation would prepare Waylon to expect a relationship that would never materialize.
When I wasn’t fretting about too little connection, I worried about too much connection. I imagined Waylon, fifteen and leather-jacketed, leaving home in a storm of adolescent angst. “You just don’t understand me,” he yelled as the backdoor slammed shut. “I’m going to live with my Dad.” Dad. Dad. Dad. In fantasy, the forbidden D-word lingered in the air as Katy and I huddled in the kitchen, broken apron strings dangling limply at our sides. What if Waylon and Brian had some kind of mystical masculine bond? What if Waylon decided to abandon his moms? Could Brian love and support our son without trying to supplant us? Was Katy secretly worried about this, too? Was that the real explanation for her toy store shopping spree?
All of these questions were swirling in my mind when Waylon came home from preschool and gravitated to the big bag of toys. Katy told him he could pick one now and save the rest for the beach, so he closed his eyes and plunged his hand into the bag, feeling around until he located the largest toy: a three-foot plastic robot with a helmet and a ray gun. (Apparently, my feminist, nonviolent shopping criteria were the first casualty of Brian’s visit.) Waylon was in heaven. Grinning, he searched for the “on” switch. And then there was sound:
“I-am-Master,” the robot announced. “I-sense-your-fear.”