I probably could have guessed long before he finally told me the truth.
It wasn’t as though the signs were absent; what was missing in the long term was my own self-awareness, my ability to see what was before my eyes. Instead I was blinded, daily, by the petty things, the minutia. So many excuses, each more demanding than the next – job, household, needy teenagers. When I heard the garage door and then the sounds of Dan’s car that evening, I was stealing ten minutes to catch up on the local news – I’d been so busy with the final flurry of tax season that I’d not been allowed a moment’s indulgence in the past few weeks – lounging on the arm of our couch with a bowl of Rainier cherries perched on my knees, a plastic keg cup into which I spit each subsequent cherry pit clutched in my right hand. With my left I fiddled with the remote, muting the volume so I could call hello to my husband, home after three days away at an academic conference in Omaha.
“They wonder why no one is jumping at the change to go,” Dan had joked a month ago, when informed where the conference series he was required to attend was held.
“Right?” I agreed. I’d been folding laundry during that particular conversation. Catching a towel beneath my chin to crease it, I added, “Shoot for Orlando or Vegas next year. Then you’ll get the whole department, with no complaints,” and was gratified by my husband’s laughter; I’d always been able to make him laugh so easily.
I heard Dan hanging up his coat, the closet opening as he stowed away his umbrella and briefcase, and then Jeff’s footsteps thumped across the floor upstairs; seconds later our fifteen-year-old leaned over the railing to catch a glimpse of his father in the entryway. Lisa’s bedroom door remained shut. Only a few years ago I would have heard her stereo blasting, but with the advent of smartphones and earbuds, my daughter might as well have resided on a distant planet. I hated the silence, finding it eerie, louder than any blaring music; the press of quiet lodged in my ears like a recrimination.
Jeff called, “Hi, Dad! Welcome home.”
I stood and set aside both pit cup and remote, noticing a streak of purple-red juice that had dripped over my left breast, unmistakable against the light gray of my sweatshirt. I wore matching jogging pants, my hair slung in a low ponytail, my feet in fuzzy slipper-socks since the April air still retained a chilly bite. I rounded the corner a second ahead of my son, truly glad that Dan was back on this Friday evening, and felt the first splash of trepidation; something in the way his eyes met mine and held steady, conveying a silent message that only those married for many years – in our case, nearly twenty – can exchange. He remained stooped, tugging at a rain boot, the entryway bulb highlighting the small balding spot which had appeared on the crown of his head in the last year, picking out each individual hair follicle. For a horrible moment I was sure he was going to tell me he was ill. That he’d only just discovered this fact, and that I’d be left raising our children without him.
I was always one to leap to dramatic conclusions.
Oddly, my anxious initial inkling would prove closer to the truth than I could have imagined. Dan, it turned out, was not ill. In fact he’d never felt healthier. I would, however, be without him from roughly this week forth.
He said, “Aura,” in a voice I barely recognized. Standing to his full height, my husband regarded me with his brows and lips set in solemn lines. His gaze moved at once to Jeff, on my heels, and his entire expression changed as he smiled and held out both arms to his son; Jeff, though a high school sophomore, remained unashamedly a daddy’s boy, and hugged his father without compunction.
Dan ruffled Jeff’s wavy hair. “Hi, bud. Where’s Lisa?”
“Upstairs texting Brent, where else?” Jeff said, referring to his sister’s boyfriend.
“You want to run and get her for me?” Dan asked, and another few inches seemed to bottom out of my stomach; other than speaking my name in a voice reserved for funerals, Dan hadn’t yet directly addressed me. I could tell he wanted us to have a moment alone, hence the request for Jeff to run up to Lisa’s room. I crossed my arms and pressed hard against my midsection.
“Sure,” Jeff responded with his usual affability, and jogged up the steps hollering, “Lisa! Dad’s home!”
“What is it?” I demanded, not quite accosting my husband, but not far from it; I held my ground, feeling my erratic heartbeat against my crossed forearms. “What’s wrong, Dan?”
“Aura, I have something to tell you,” Dan began.
“I can see that,” I interrupted, and my voice emerged in a hoarse crackle. “And you’re freaking me out.”
Dan’s posture changed as he approached to enfold me in his arms. I leaned against the familiar strength and scent of my husband and he tucked his chin over the top of my head; my concern only amplified. This embrace left me with an absurd feeling of finality; Dan had returned from an academic conference in Omaha to bid me farewell.
“Are you sick?” I drew away and studied his tanned, handsome face, the periwinkle of his eyes. Dan’s irises were the clearest blue I’d ever seen, angelic-looking, a feature which he’d gifted Lisa. I had never seen an expression quite like the one in my husband’s eyes just now. My heartrate ratcheted up another ten notches. I insisted, “Tell me.”
Dan kept hold of my shoulders and I saw what it cost him to deliver the words. Upstairs, our children were bickering about something. I heard the fridge resume its tuneless, intermittent hum. A car rumbled past on the wet pavement of the street outside. Lisa’s bedroom door slammed and Jeff’s footsteps were once again headed our way.
Dan spoke quietly, without challenge. “Aura, I’m gay.”
The landline rang later that very same night. April eleventh, a gray and sullen day, complete with weeping sky, had yet another blow to deliver before giving way to the twelfth; I groped for the cordless phone on my nightstand, knocking it to the floor. I’d been wallowing in an exhausted stupor, a grim mix of shock and denial, since Dan’s announcement only hours ago. The bedside clock’s green display read 11:52.
“Shit,” I muttered, slogging over the edge of the mattress to catch up the receiver. Maybe Dan was calling. Maybe he was going to tell me this was all one big fucking joke. I brought it to my ear and croaked, “Hello?”
A small and trembling voice inquired, “Is this Aura Clausen?”
“Who’s this?” I demanded ungraciously, wrapping a hand over my aching forehead. I stretched out with my senses, hearing Jeff watching television in the living room but perceiving no trace of Lisa; after attending the short, tense, “family meeting” Dan requested to inform his children of his homosexuality, she had walked right out the front door and into the drizzling rain. I chased her, yelling for her to come back, but of course this only propelled her faster in the opposite direction. Dan immediately followed in the car but Lisa, never without her phone, had already called or texted Brent. Dutiful boyfriend that he was, Brent arrived to collect her at the end of our street, near the orange fire hydrant Lisa had loved to climb atop as a little girl.
Look at me, I’m a fireman! Lisa would announce, showcasing her teeth as she grinned and bounced, riding the hydrant like a pint-sized pony.
Dan had waited in the car, parked at the curb a couple blocks from our front door until Lisa, hair and clothes inundated, had climbed inside Brent’s truck.
“This is Lillian Evans,” warbled the hesitant voice in my ear. “Do you remember me?”
I blinked into the gray dimness of my bedroom. The rain had finally stopped and I thought of a line from one of the kids’ old Dr. Seuss books, about how the drops stopped dropping so the storm could start stopping; it was funny how those old picture books stuck with your subconscious. I sat up, wincing at the pain in my head. “Of course I do. How…” I stumbled over pleasantries, disoriented. “How are you?”
And why the hell are you calling me?
“I’m so sorry to phone this late,” Lillian rushed on, and I pictured the small, birdlike woman who, the last I knew anyway, was my father’s girlfriend. I imagined Lillian with the phone braced between one shoulder and her ear, wringing her fragile hands, which were blue-veined and wrinkled, her fingers decorated by silver-wire rings she crafted herself.
“It’s all right,” I muttered, gruff with impatience. I figured after Dan’s big news nothing else could shock me, probably ever again. But I was wrong for the second time that night and a needle of dread dug into the silence before she spoke again.
With quiet dignity, Lillian whispered, “Your dad passed tonight, Aura.”
I bit back a hard lump of air, which then jammed the hollow space behind my breastbone. A buzzing filled my ear canals. “What…”
Like heavy gray water cresting a crumbling dam, her words came gushing. I could tell she was crying but it didn’t impede her rapid speech. “I took him in just after supper, I made him go in, I mean. He told me his chest hurt while I was making the cornbread and I said, ‘Paul, let’s go to the ER.’ And he said, ‘It’s all right, Lil, don’t worry. You always make something out of nothing.’ And I said, ‘I don’t think it’s nothing,’ but we ate supper just the same. And then right after he lay down on the couch and I knew he was hurting. I said, ‘Paul, get in the car.’ I blame myself, I do. I should have insisted.”
Unable to speak, I listened to her continued self-flagellation.
“I should have bullied him into going before we ate, and I am so very sorry. This is my fault. In the car he was having terrible gas. I’m sorry, I know that’s awful to tell you. And then he crumpled over in the passenger seat and I was so scared. I’ve never been so scared. He crumpled right over.” She gave way to weeping.
“Oh my God,” I whispered. “Oh, my God.”
Lillian collected herself; I envisioned her pressing her knuckles to her trembling lips. “I got him to the ER and they wheeled him away, but he passed. He passed once they got him back there. My last sight of Paul was him getting wheeled away…”
My first thought was, I want Dan.
And then I thought, harsh and selfish, Goddammit, Dad. You stayed stubborn to the end, didn’t you? But why did you have to pick tonight to up and die on me?
Paul Leeward had not been the world’s worst father. In fact, he’d been a pretty darn good one, especially when I was little, before the advent of boys and backseats, cigarettes and pilfered booze, small-town teenage elements by which he quickly lost control of his only child. I felt an imaginary eulogy bubbling up inside my chest, settling in the small, dark space of my voice box, waiting for its subsequent delivery.
Our last name means ‘protected,’ Dad told me when I was in second grade and crying about not having a mom like the other kids did. My father, an auto mechanic, possessed wide, flat fingernails constantly rimmed with a black semi-circle of grease. I recalled absently tracing my index finger over the unkempt nails of his right hand as he said, I wish I could protect you from all the ugliness in this world, honey-bear, but I can’t. But I promise to do my best. Our house will be like the leeward side of a mountain, how’s that? You can come in here and be sheltered from the outside world.
Our “house” was a doublewide trailer with dented permanent siding the color of dead daisies, boasting a view of a rundown playground possessing two swings – one with a broken chain – attached to poles faded even then to a muted mud color. Hard clumps of sand beneath a sheet-metal slide; the backs of my thighs burned if I slid down in the middle of a hot summer day. Dad took me there if he wasn’t too tired in the evening. Later, once I’d been deemed responsible enough, I could play at the park on my own. I saw my old self, my little-girl self, sitting on the swing whose chain was intact, poking listlessly with bare toes at an anthill erupting in the dirt, and was overwhelmed by a surge of self-pity so powerful I couldn’t draw a full breath; a hunk of lead settled upon my chest.
The exterior of our trailer was bleak, the yard consisting of a strip of concrete bordered by loose gravel, a small, rusted-out charcoal grill, and Dad’s blue lawn chair; I made do with a sawed-off log for a seat. But Dad had always taken care to tend the hollyhocks that grew in a towering array of color on the south side of our home – bulbs planted by my mother in a burst of uncharacteristic sentimentality when I was one or two, shortly before her permanent exit from our lives. Two summers ago, the last time I’d visited Dad and the summer he’d put up the trailer for sale, the hollyhocks were in full, splendid bloom, well over six feet tall, scarlet and plum and magenta in color. Dad was planning a move to Lillian’s place back then; she also lived in a trailer park, but one located the next town over, just across the Chippewa River in the northern Wisconsin countryside where I’d been born and raised. Dad had asked during that visit if I wanted to take anything from the trailer, but I hadn’t. My memories were more than enough baggage to haul around.
A different evening flashed through my mind, unbidden and wholly unpleasant; Dad saying, If you need money, come to me. December, 1988, and I had just turned nineteen. Bon Jovi was crooning “Bad Medicine” on the radio atop the fridge and in the glow of the Christmas lights strung on our old tinsel tree, stationed as always on top of our television set, Dad had studied me with a somber set to his face; the wrinkles crisscrossing his forehead gouged deep crevices. He held a can of beer but had not popped the top, searching my eyes as though for clues, gauging a possible way to reach me. I don’t have much, but enough that my daughter doesn’t have to work as a stripper. Jesus Christ, Aura.
Exotic dancer, I had the audacity to counter. Besides, I make so much cash at the club. I’m saving it. I don’t need your money, Dad.
When Lisa was born, in February of 1994, Dan and I made a pact, at my insistence, that we never tell our kids that their mother made her living for a time as an exotic dancer. To this day, I had never revealed this personal fact to my children. It wasn’t that I was ashamed, exactly…
Your name is actually Aura? Randy had asked at my interview, rolling his office chair back and forth. He laughed and slapped his desk with the butts of both broad palms. That’s fucking priceless. I couldn’t come up with a better one myself. Shit. Welcome to the family.
Randy had offered to buy me new breasts within the first three months, after I’d earned him a pile of money and in this way proven myself. I worked damn hard as a dancer, performing three weeks on, one off (which was typically the week of my period), and at that particular moment in my young life I’d been short-sighted enough to believe I would continue down this career path until I met my goal of saving twenty thousand dollars, an arbitrary amount to which I never came close, always too quick to spend, rather than squirrel away, my cash. At least I had been smart enough to turn down the implants.
My husband is gay, I thought, stunned anew at this alleged fact; I hadn’t yet overcome my disbelief, despite Dan’s heartfelt explanation delivered just hours ago in the living room, with the bowl of cherries and my pit cup adorning the coffee table. I listened to my husband speak candidly about his sexuality wearing a juice-stained sweatshirt and slipper-socks. The kids had been seated on the couch, Jeff frozen in shock, barely blinking as he listened; Lisa’s eyes, by contrast, flashed with fiery energy. She still hadn’t returned home. My mind would not bump beyond these things.
My husband is gay. He wants to put his penis in other men instead of in me.
Dan was a graduate student at the university in Madison when I first met him, late November, 1990. He arrived at the club that night along with a bachelor party group, standard frat-boy fare, generic guys with Daddy’s money who drank plenty and expected favors of the blow-job variety, not that any of us obliged. I gave Dan a lap dance that very night while he sat dutifully on his hands, as per club rules, and seemed unable to remove his eyes from my face, which I’d found endearing. He kept saying, You’re so beautiful. And then finally, You look like a woman Klimt would paint.
Buckets of compliments had been dumped upon me by that point in my career – drunk men are especially free with them, most generally when your nipples are in the proximity of their eyebrows, but this was a first. I wasn’t familiar with the painter he named, uncertain if I’d even heard correctly over the club’s pumping sound system. Vanilla Ice was all the rage that autumn and “Ice, Ice Baby” vibrated from the speakers. My hands were braced on Dan’s shoulders – though I hadn’t known his name then – wide shoulders, strong beneath his dress shirt; I remembered even now that his top two collar buttons had been undone. He was handsome in a sensual way, with curved lips and wavy, honey-tinted hair, those clear blue eyes. Long eyelashes, almost as long as the falsies some of the girls at the club wore, and a serious demeanor I was completely unused to encountering. I’d been gliding rhythmically over his crotch, lightly grinding on him, letting my breasts brush his chin, and reflected that rarely did I notice such details about a man’s looks. Men were men were men as far as I was concerned, but Dan seemed different.
Encountering what probably looked a lot like pure skepticism on my face, he hurried to say, No, I mean it. Like the women he painted in his Golden Phase. Klimt actually used gold leaf in that particular phase, hence the name –
I had stopped moving, a little amazed at this explanation.
Dan babbled, I’m sorry, I’m just so nervous. I don’t know what to say or where to look. Or if I should even be talking right now.
Maybe that should have been my first clue, literally right in front of me the night we met.
But I'm still in love with him, I thought now, horribly wounded, raw with disbelief. What do I do about that?
Dan was so easy to love. He was kind, patient with students and strangers alike, a doting father. Even after what seemed like perhaps the most enormous marital confession outside of cheating, I couldn’t deny these attributes. He would have stayed in the house tonight, I knew, but I’d asked him to leave. Not in an angry way, not as an order or an ultimatum. No, it had been with quiet shock and bewilderment. I whispered Please go, and he left without drama, collecting his coat and the car keys, hugging Jeff and promising to call us in the morning. He said, I understand. I didn’t ask where he was going, nor did he offer.
Perhaps a minute had ticked by as Lillian continued waiting for me to speak, while I lay steeped in memories.
My dad is dead.
And for the first time in a long time, sobs heaved against the barrier of my breastbone.
Morning came at long last, a sunny dawn spilling over the windowsill with no regard for my shattered emotional state. I’d slept not at all but proved too exhausted for much tossing and turning; instead I spent the passing hours flat on my spine, wrists draped over my eyes. If I’d had the power to flip a switch and mute my thoughts, I would have paid any amount to do so.
The word why swimming through my head would not be drowned.
Dan was a gentle lover, a considerate one. He was always slow and steady inside my body, getting me there eventually even if I would never have described our lovemaking as incredibly hot, or wild. It was simply good enough, and after three years of stripping I was more than ready for a man who didn’t all but slobber at the sight of my vagina. Who didn’t flick a dollar bill my way for the privilege. After Lisa was born, Dan and I didn’t make love as often but I’d expected that, especially with the advent of a colicky baby girl; once Jeff came along, two years later, Dan and I were lucky to find time every other week to sneak in a quick round of sex. Every other week dwindled to every other month; these days, he held me and stroked my hair far more often than anything else. I couldn’t actually recall the last time he’d actually shucked his pajama bottoms in bed.
Remember when he told you on your tenth anniversary that he felt like it degraded you to give him head?
Shouldn’t that have been another clue? What man doesn’t want oral sex?
It was a crude thought but I hadn’t slept for a minute and enervation claimed the upper hand in my mind. Lisa had crept inside about an hour ago, tiptoeing up the steps to her room; the soft click of her door closing was almost imperceptible over the sound of Jeff snoring from the living room couch. No one had eaten supper last night, even though I’d made cornflake-chicken hotdish, a perennial favorite in our house. Surely the big red casserole dish containing it was still sitting front and center on the stovetop, awaiting our family, unless Jeff had thought to put it in the fridge.
Hot tears welled in my sore, grainy eyes and I draped a forearm over them, blocking out all sight of the advancing day. I did not want the sun to shine so benignly; I needed storm clouds today, heavy pewter ones that would broil menacingly across the sky, perhaps kind enough to strike me dead with a stray bolt of lightning. It wasn’t that I was a coward (nor did I truly have a death wish); I simply did not want to deal with Day One, the first day of knowing my husband was gay, the day I would have to tell my kids that their grandpa in Wisconsin was dead, the last grandparent they’d had. Yesterday I’d been blissfully unaware of these giant stumbling blocks in my life. Yesterday my dad had been alive and I could have called him one last time. I could have said, Hey Dad, I know I haven’t always been the best daughter but I know you loved me. I know you did the best you could, but you were an alcoholic and had your own demons. I get it, I really do. At least you stuck around.
Oh, Jesus Christ…
What will I do now?