Notes: The title is a riff off the Lerner and Lowe song How to Handle a Woman from their musical, Camelot. The way to handle a gay son... "... is to love him, simply love him, merely love him, love him, love him." ~~~~ indicates a break in time. The towns, businesses, and schools on Long Island are real, and no disrespect is meant to any of them. However, while there is no bar called the Sinn Fein - it is my own invention - the stories told there are true; only the names of the men they happened to have been changed. Needless to say, the Management does not advocate underage drinking or drinking and driving. Many thanks, as always, to Gail, without a doubt the world's best beta.
I came home from work and sniffed the air in anticipation. Alice Wainwright, the woman who had been with us even before the day I'd married Jill, my second wife, was one of the best cooks it had been my pleasure to know.
"Honey, I'm home," I sang out. As long as we'd been married, Jill still loved to hear me say those silly words, and laughed as she had the first time.
"I'm in the kitchen, darling Jack."
I found her in the room I'd remodeled with a gourmet cook in mind. It had a warming drawer, a pot filler over the six-burner range, two ovens, dual dishwashers, an appliance garage, and more cabinet space than the average housewife or househusband could dream of.
"JR and Marti have already eaten - Alice made them burgers and fries before she had to leave - and are doing their homework." She was stirring something in a saucepan.
"Alice had to leave?" I stared at her uneasily. "Is that why you're cooking dinner, Jill?"
"She's on her way to New York to see her grandkids." Her smile was entirely too innocent. "Didn't I tell you?"
"Oh, dear. I was sure I'd said something about it. Sit down, darling Jack. I'm making you a very special dinner."
That was what I was afraid of. I loved Jill more than anything. Well, except our kids. But as much as she loved cooking - the idea of it, collecting recipes and cookbooks, buying the latest in cookware - she couldn't cook. She'd actually sent me to the hospital with food poisoning once, although I'd told her it was a stomach bug.
"Jilly, just tell me what you have to tell me. Then we'll go out to dinner. The Elephant Walk, or Casablanca if you'd rather. Jar is old enough to keep an eye on Marti."
"Oh, but Jack, I was making this just for you."
"Please, sweet girl?"
"All right, party pooper." She cleared her throat. "Let me get you a beer."
I sat down. Now I was really getting nervous. "Is everything all right? The family?" That would be my family, my son Wills, who lived in DC, my parents, brothers, sisters-in-law, nephews, since Mathesons ran to boys.
"No, no, they're all fine."
Jill didn't have much contact with her own family, but I asked anyway. "Your folks?"
She shrugged. "The last I heard, they were fine as well." She looked at me from under her lashes. "Actually, it's about Wills."
A cold chill ran up my spine. "He didn't have another car accident, did he?" A few years before he'd been in one bad enough to put him in the hospital.
"I'm sorry, darling Jack. I didn't mean to worry you." She ran her fingertips over my cheek and handed me a bottle of Michelob. "No, he's fine too."
I sagged in relief, and she sat down on my lap and toyed with a button on my shirt. I liked her weight on my thighs, and I set the beer down on the table and began nuzzling her earlobe.
"He called today, just to catch up."
I drew back enough to look into her eyes. "In the middle of the afternoon on a workday?"
"That's what I said. He finished an assignment, and it turned out so well his boss gave him the day off."
"That's my boy!"
"He's such a sweetheart. Just like his father." She ran her fingers through my hair at my pleased grinned. "I told him about Jar wanting a Prince Albert."
"What did he say?" I knew Wills was more relaxed with the trends today's teens followed, but I wondered how he'd regard his younger brother having his dick pierced.
"He said, and I quote: 'Just the idea makes me want to cross my legs!'"
"Maybe the next time he comes home he can tell Jar that the old man isn't as behind the times as Jar claims."
"What old man?"
I stole a kiss and pinched her chin. "So what else is going on in our nation's capital?"
"The usual, I suppose. We really didn't talk much about... about that. Actually, he called to let me know about this weekend."
"This weekend? Oh, the Memorial Day picnic." Jake, my oldest brother, and I took turns throwing the holiday gathering. Sometimes Pete, a Marine sergeant major, was stationed in the country and could come. Sometimes Simon, who was closest to me only in age, would fly in from the West Coast with his wife and boys. This year, though, it was just going to be Jake and his wife, and their sons and families. "Any chance Wills'll be able to come?"
"Yes, as a matter of fact, he has the weekend off."
"That's wonderful!" He hadn't been able to join us the last few years. The company he worked for kept him hopping. But they valued him - he'd got a promotion earlier in the year - and I didn't know who was more proud of him, Jilly or myself.
"He... he wants to bring someone home with him, Jack, and he wanted to clear it with you first."
"He always was a thoughtful boy." I grinned at her. "The double bed in his room will be fine for two, but I think I'll tell him his young lady will have to sleep in another room." I was pleased that my oldest son was finally getting serious enough with someone to bring her home. The last time he had spoken of a girl had been back in college. I knew that he was busy with work, and of course he wasn't the type of young man who would mention any one night stands. "So, what's her name?"
"It's Theo, Jack." She got off my lap.
I blinked. "Jill, that's a boy's name."
"Yes. Theo Bascopolis. Wills is bringing home a young man."
"Oh. A friend. Well, that's... that's okay." I tried to hide my disappointment. I was getting as bad as Charlie, Jake's wife, who had wanted to see all her sons married and settled down. "I know he misses Michael very much, so of course I'm glad to hear he has a new friend." I tipped the bottle of beer to my lips.
"Jack." She wound her fingers in my hair and began to massage my scalp. I liked the way it felt. "Theo is more than Wills' friend. He's his... He'll be staying with Wills in his room."
"We have more than enough room for him to have his own... "
"Darling Jack. Please don't be obtuse. Theo is Wills'... boyfriend, I guess we could call him."
The bottle fell from suddenly numb fingers, and the beer spilled out onto the table. Jill went to the sink and got a dishcloth.
"You're telling me my son is gay?" My voice hoarsened and deepened with each word. I had a brother who was gay, and I knew how hard it had been for him, having to live all his adult life in the closet. That was the last thing I wanted for my son. "No. I... "
"Won't permit it?" She cleaned up the mess, then came to stand behind me, her fingers working the knots in my shoulders. "I really don't think you have a say in it, darling."
"No." I couldn't seem to come up with any other word. Pete was a strong man, a Marine, but my boy...
"Jack, you have to try to understand Wills' point of view."
"How can I? How can he... " Oh, Sophe. No grandsons with your eyes, your mouth, I mourned. The discrimination and bigotry he faced... "No." Maybe if I said it often enough, this would turn out to be a bad dream, or Jill's idea of a practical joke. "If that's the road he intends to travel, then... "
"Don't you say he's no son of yours, Jack. You'll regret it for the rest of your life!"
"Don't tell me what I will or won't regret, goddammit!" I spun around in the chair, dislodging her hands from my shoulders, hurt that she would misjudge me so. And so I lashed out at her. "Why would it make any difference to you anyway? He's not your son!"
It abruptly felt as if the Earth had stopped turning. //Oh, my god. Please tell me that hadn't just come out of my mouth!//
"Is that what you believe, John?" My wife was sheet-white. "That because I didn't give birth to Wills, that makes him any less my son than JR, any less my child than Marti?"
"Jill. Jilly, I'm sorry, you know I didn't mean that." I got to my feet and took a step toward her, and was horrified when she backed away from me.
"Do I, Jack? We've been together seventeen years now, and I've known you for longer than that. Or at least, I thought I knew you. Now I'm not so sure." She turned away and walked toward the door.
I felt myself turn pale. There were things that she didn't know, that I'd never felt the need to share with her.
Sophia, Wills' mother, and I had tried various positions and acts while making love, including times when I would slide her slim vibrator into her plump bottom while I rode her. I tried desperately to remember if we'd done that while she was pregnant with Wills. She'd even used that vibrator on me, and once I got used to the feeling of fullness and she'd found the angle that brought it into contact with my prostate, I'd enjoyed it. Not to the point where I would ever want to fuck or be fucked by a man, but... the sensations were interesting.
Could Sophe and I have done this to our son? "Jill, all through high school and college he dated girls. Lots of them. Has he... has he always been like this?"
"Does it make any difference?" She paused and spoke without looking back at me. "Wills is your son, Jack. Are you willing to throw him away simply because the person he's fallen in love with has a penis instead of a vagina? Eat dinner here or go out for something, it makes no difference. I've lost my appetite."
And then she walked out, not giving me a chance to respond.
Blindly I turned and sank down into the chair, my elbows propped on the table, my head in my hands.
How was I to deal with the fact that my firstborn son was gay? His mother was gone, killed in a car accident on Hicksville Road when he was five, and although I had remarried and had two more children, right then I felt as alone and lost as I had when my first wife had died.
* * *
The Sabatini family moved next door to our house in Seaford, on Long Island, when I was nine. There weren't many Italian families in our neighborhood. Rumor had it Mr. Sabatini used to drive for one of the Mafia dons, and that could have been true, but all anyone knew for sure was that he'd opened a gas station on Montauk Highway and went to work there every day.
They were a small family for Italians, just the mom and dad and two kids. Later we learned that Gregorio, the oldest son, had been killed in the line of duty - he'd been a New York City cop - and Maria, the oldest daughter, was actually Sister Marie Saint Paolo.
Tony Sabatini became my best friend. We played cowboys and Indians and war, and biked everywhere together, running errands for our mothers, and as we got older, going to the movies or to White Castle or McDonalds. His sister Sophia, a year younger, tagged along wherever we went. A lot of times when I went to the library, I'd find her there, and we'd study together. She had the same olive skin tones, dark brown hair, and eyes the color of bittersweet chocolate as the rest of her family. She always wore jeans, which drove her mother nuts, because if girls wore pants, they were either capris or pedal pushers, and Tony's shirts, which drove him nuts.
I was sixteen when I realized she looked better in them than he did, and more than anything I wanted to ask her out on a date. I would have, as much as I valued my friendship with her brother, but everyone knew that Mr. Sabatini didn't look kindly on the neighborhood boys asking his Sophia out.
I asked Jenny McDermott out instead.
Jenny McDermott also had brown hair, although it was much lighter than Sophe's. Her eyes were an astonishing blue. She lived down at the end of the cul de sac a few blocks away. In the normal course of events, we would never have gotten together, but she sat behind me in homeroom. "I love your hair," she whispered and ran her fingers through the blond strands. I loved the feel of that, something so erotic I was suddenly, embarrassingly hard.
"Want to go out Saturday night?" I heard myself ask.
"And do what?" She watched me from under her lashes.
"We could go to the movies, and then go to Mrs. Dee's for pizza."
"I'd like that." She smiled.
We had a good time. That date led to another and another, and before long, Jenny was considered my girl. We went steady throughout high school.
I tried to talk her into going to college after graduation, but she gave me a lopsided grin. "My folks can't afford it... "
"There are scholarships." I planned on going to Cornell up in Ithaca to get a degree in architecture, and while my Dad had set aside something for college for all of his sons, I also had a few scholarships lined up myself.
"... and besides, my grades are awful."
"I could help you."
"No. Barb said she'd get me a job at Woolworth's." Barb was her oldest sister. She worked behind the cash register in the notions department five days a week.
I couldn't think of a more boring job and said so.
"It's only until we... I get married."
I liked Jenny. Maybe... For a moment I thought wistfully of the girl who lived next door, then pushed her image from my mind.
Maybe I even loved Jen. But I wasn't getting married until I finished college, and I told her so.
After we graduated from high school, Jen did start working at Woolworth's.
Tony was going to college in the fall too, to the State University of New York at Stony Brook, out in... well... Stony Brook on the Island. His Momma couldn't bear the thought of him going away, and as a good Italian son, he was willing to stay local, even though it meant a pretty long drive. "Hey, Jack," he shrugged, "it gets me wheels!"
That was in the fall, however. Until then, I would work with Dad and Jake as I'd done every summer in the family's construction company that my grandfather had founded. Dad had started me when I was fourteen and old enough to get working papers, but I'd been at the various sites even before then. I'd run for coffee or sandwiches, and the guys had always given me the change as a tip.
'Whatcha gonna do with all that money, sport?' they would tease as I pocketed the coins.
'I'm savin' up for my own house.'
And they'd laugh.
Even Dad would laugh, and he'd ruffle my hair. 'My boy's gonna be an architect and join his old man and his big brother in the business!'
Peter and Simon, the brothers between Jake and me, had decided against a job in Matheson & Sons. Pete was a career Marine - Mom went to church with Mrs. Sabatini everyday and lit candles for him to stay safe - and Simon was teaching chemistry at Cal Tech. Mom lit candles for him too, because everyone knew the next big earthquake would send California sliding into the ocean.
I didn't mind that Dad had planned out my life. I liked the work, and I couldn't wait to eventually go away to college so I could get my degree.
And now it was almost here.
There was the usual block party for the 4th, and I brought Jenny to it. We played volleyball, danced to music on the record player someone had attached to a long extension cord and propped on a crate that had held soda bottles - I even kind of danced with Sophia. Kind of, because it was the Twist, and I didn't have my arms around her - and ate hotdogs, hamburgers, and Mrs. Sabatini's mouth-watering sausage, peppers, and onions heroes.
When it started to get dark, I borrowed Dad's Chevy and drove with Jenny over to Massapequa Park to see the fireworks display. There was patriotic music on the radio, and Jenny oooh'd and ahh'd as the sky lit up and cuddled against me. After the grand finale, we drove around until I found a place to park, and Jenny and I got in the back seat.
"We could get married, Jack." She brought it up again.
"I've got to go to college, Jen. You know my dad would have a conniption fit if I didn't."
"Am I still your girl?" She began unbuttoning her blouse.
"Well... well, sure."
"You're going to meet all kinds of girls while you're away. Pretty, sophisticated, wild." She undid her bra and brought my hand to her breast. "Promise me you won't date them."
"Sure, Jenny." I rubbed her nipple, and it swelled under my touch. My dick grew so hard I ached. Usually we touched each other while we made out, but always over our clothes. My hand began to tremble. I eased her down on the seat, fumbling with the button of my fly. At that point I would have promised her anything.
It wasn't until a couple of weeks later, when Jenny and I went parking again, that I realized how stupid - how lucky - I'd been.
"We can't do anything tonight, Jack," she murmured in my ear as I slid my fingers under the cuff of her shorts. "I have my period."
It slammed into me that instead of going to college, I could have been getting married, because, of course, if I'd gotten her pregnant, I would have married her.
Before our next date, I made sure I went to a drugstore a couple of towns over where no one knew me and bought a box of rubbers. Jenny wasn't happy about that.
"You don't need them, Jack. I trust you to pull out in time." She rubbed herself against my thigh, and her heat took my breath away.
"I'm not sure that I could, Jen. You're so hot, and it feels so good... We're too young to be parents."
"I thought you loved me. Don't you want to marry me?"
"Not now, Jenny!" I couldn't believe she was actually willing to play Vatican roulette. "Jesus, we're only eighteen."
"My mother got married when she was sixteen."
And even living a few blocks away, we had heard tales of how successful that marriage was, how Mr. and Mrs. McDermott could be heard screaming and throwing pots and dishes at each other on the hot summer nights when the windows were open.
"I'd better take you home, Jen. It's getting late, and I need to be up early in the morning."
She pouted the whole ride home.
"You... uh... you want to go to the movies next Friday night?"
She shrugged, but she didn't say no.
Things were a little cool between us until my last week at home. She called just after Ed Sullivan on Sunday night.
"Jack, my parents are going to the Poconos on Friday, and they're taking Kevin and Little Sean with them." They were twins, the youngest of the McDermott brood. Jenny had often been responsible for their care.
"What about you, Jen?" Shouldn't I have been disappointed that she wouldn't be around?
"Oh, I have to stay home. I haven't been at Woolworth's long enough to get a vacation. You could come over if you like. You could... you could even stay the night." As if she could sense my reluctance, she began to sniffle. "Please, Jack? You're going to be gone for so long. Please, honey?"
Tears always made me feel like a bastard. "Okay. What time do you want me over?"
"Right after work? I'll cook dinner for you."
"Sure, Jen. I'll see you on Friday."
"Cool! Bye, honey." She blew a kiss into the phone and hung up.
I was about to hang up myself, when I thought I heard a click on the line, as if someone had been on the extension. But my mother was in the kitchen singing 'Stupid Cupid,' and Dad was in the living room looking for something else to watch. I shrugged and went in to join him.
After work on Friday, Jake slung his arm around my shoulders. "What do you say to coming with Dad and me to the Sinn Fein?"
The Sinn Fein was a little corner bar on Route 109. It was dark and smelled of beer. The jukebox was loaded with Irish songs, The Lonely Hills of Upton, The Wild Rover, The Black Velvet Band. All the men went there after work for a few beers, but Dad had always sent me home.
I turned to my father. "Can I, Dad?"
"You sure can, sport. You're gonna be a college man and help us put this little company on the map. I think that means you're old enough to knock back a few."
"But Mom... " She'd blown a gasket the one time she found out Tony and I had snuck some beers on Jones Beach after dark.
"I already cleared it with your mother."
I forgot about any other plans I might have had.
We sat at the bar. I was a little disappointed that Dad bought me a Coke, but then he slid his glass of beer toward me, and ordered another for himself.
"Just don't let anyone see that glass in front of you. Gene," he nodded toward the bartender, who smiled and continued filling little bowls with beer nuts, "could get in trouble."
Somebody brought in pizzas, and someone else brought in Chinese food. Songs poured out of the jukebox, and I listened, wide-eyed, as the men told stories of different jobs they'd been on, of the piss-poor helpers and rotten bosses, Grandpa and Dad excepted of course. As the beer continued to flow, they went on to tell how Bob Johnson had gotten so bombed he'd driven into an airport limo - "And let that be a lesson to you, sport," Dad whispered. "Never drink and drive!" - how Charlie O'Neill had walked home from the bar after closing one night, then reported his car stolen the next day because he'd forgotten he'd left it there, how Joe Johnson, brother of Bob, had fallen asleep in his car outside the Sinn Fein after throwing up Bloody Marys, resulting in an emergency call for an ambulance because the tomato juice on his tee shirt looked like blood and an unsuspecting good Samaritan thought he'd been shot.
I laughed until I had hiccups, and before I realized it, it was after 10 PM.
"I'd better go, Dad." Jake finished the last of his beer and left the change in front of him as a tip. "My Charlie's gonna be wanting me home."
The men teased Jake about being tied to his wife's apron strings. He just laughed and walked out.
I wondered if I'd ever love Jenny that much. Jenny... There was something I was supposed to do that concerned Jenny and Friday night...
I forgot all about Jenny. "Oh, Jesus, Dad, Mom is gonna kill us!" Friday was soup night, some kind of vegetable soup because it was a day of abstinence. Mom always wanted us to have dinner at home, and while she didn't mind if Dad stopped to have a couple of beers, she wasn't going to be happy about this.
"No, it's okay, son." He ruffled my hair as if I were still twelve years old. "I called her when Charlie O'Neill brought in the pizzas. She said she'd put the soup in the fridge. We'll have it tomorrow night."
"Cool. Um... Do we have to go home now?"
"Not a chance. 'Dawn Patrol' is coming on."
The bar fell silent. Gene had turned on the little TV above the bar, and we all settled in to watch the Errol Flynn movie.
The second time my chin slipped off my palm, Dad patted my shoulder. "We'd better be heading home, sport. 'Night, everyone."
"Yeah. 'Night, everyone," I mumbled and followed after him, unable to walk in a straight line but somehow managing not to trip over my own feet.
I fell asleep on the car ride home, and semi-woke when Dad hoisted me over his shoulder in a fireman's lift.
"'m not drunk."
"I know." He gave my butt a light whack. "You're a Matheson, after all."
"'kay. Jus' so y'know." I began to sing, trying for an Irish accent. "'I've been a wild rover fer many a year, An' I've spent ahl me money on whiskey and beer... '"
Dad laughed and carried me to my room and dumped me on my bed. That was the last thing I remembered until the next morning. Someone tapping on my door woke me up, and I managed to get my eyelashes unstuck and an eye opened. I was wearing undershorts and an undershirt. Dad must have undressed me the night before.
Jake leaned against the door jamb, grinning. "Morning, merry sunshine. Mom's made breakfast."
The smell that came wafting up from the kitchen would normally have had me drooling in anticipation, but that morning my head was pounding, my mouth tasted vile, and my stomach was undecided as to whether it liked me any more.
It decided it didn't, and I bolted for the bathroom down the hall, making it just in time.
"How come you're not puking your guts up?" I griped when my stomach had untwisted itself.
"The first time Dad took me to the Sinn Fein, I did. You'll do better from now on."
"Oh, no. No more drinking for me, ever!"
"Moderation, sport. Everything in moderation."
I just washed my face, brushed my teeth, and swallowed the aspirin he handed me. "What are you doing here anyway? Aren't you married?"
"Yeah. But Charlie wanted to sleep in. She gave me dispensation to take the boys and be elsewhere, and Mom has volunteered to keep the boys today."
"Huh." I opened the medicine chest and took another aspirin. "Is she pregnant again?" My brother and his wife already had two sons, and Charlie had said she wanted to try for a little girl, even though everyone knew Mathesons ran to boys.
"We don't know yet. It's too early to tell. Don't dawdle, Jack." He went downstairs, and after I pulled on a pair of pajama pants, I padded down after him.
"Uncle Jack! Uncle Jack!" Two blond boys threw themselves at me.
I flinched at the shouts that greeted me. "Ben. Stevie." I swallowed and patted their shoulders.
"Now, boys, Uncle Jack isn't feeling too well." Jake was laughing at me.
"Sorry, Uncle Jack," they murmured in chorus.
"Why don't you go inside and see if Bugs Bunny is on."
"Okay, Daddy." They left at a gallop, and I flinched again at the sound of their sneakers on the linoleum.
"Thanks, Jake." I decided I'd forgive him for finding my affliction a source of amusement.
"Don't mention it, sport."
"Good morning, John."
"Morning, Mom." I felt her eyes on me and wondered if I looked as green as I felt. I took my seat at the kitchen table. A glass of orange juice was at my place, and I picked it up.
Dad clapped a hand on my shoulder. "Our boy is a man."
Mom snorted and put a cup of coffee and a plate of bacon and eggs before me. The aspirin must have started working, or maybe it was the orange juice that helped, because surprisingly, my stomach didn't object.
"Someone ask me how my evening was." She poured more coffee for Dad.
Was that a trick question? "Uh... how was your evening, Mom?"
"I'm glad you asked. I spent it answering the phone." She turned back to the stove to ease over the eggs. "I answered the phone twelve times. Now ask me who was calling."
I took a bite of toast. "Who was calling?"
"Oh, sh... ! Um... sorry, Mom."
"I take it that you forgot you had a date last night?"
"Completely. I'd better call her."
"You might want to give her some time to cool off, son."
"She's wasn't happy, huh?"
"To put it mildly. Her last words to me were she didn't want to see you or talk to you ever again. Ever. To tell you the truth, I was surprised not to see fireworks coming from the direction of Joyce Hill Court when I went to let Dog out."
Dog, our yellow Lab, was lying in front of the refrigerator. Even in the summer she loved the heat it threw off. On hearing her name mentioned, she raised her head. Her jaws parted in a doggy grin, and her tail thumped against the floor.
I blew out a breath, waiting for depression to settle in. Jenny and I'd had a fight and broken up once when we'd first started going steady, and all I'd done for the two weeks before we got back together was mope around the house. Now there was just a sneaking feeling of relief.
I broke off a piece of toast and held it out for Dog.
"Could I have some more bacon, Mom?" I looked up in time to see her exchange a smile with my father. "Mom?"
Then she smiled at me. "Of course, John."