This is a bad idea.
That is my very thought as Wes’s father’s Dodge pickup swings into our driveway. I’ve had that thought before. In fact I’ve known nothing good would come since the idea’s inception six weeks ago. I’m a very intuitive person sometimes. I get a feeling when things are about to go bad, and I’ve had that feeling intensely since it was decided Wes and his father would spend Christmas Eve with my family.
If my mother had put the question to me, perhaps I could have stopped it. But she posed it to Wes instead, as we stood in her kitchen a couple weeks before Thanksgiving. Wes was talking about holiday plans, and how, ever since his mother’s passing, it was just him and his father.
“Invite him to spend Christmas with us,” she told him, her uber-generosity on display. That’s her way — an impulse to share. My boyfriend of six months dutifully pulled out his phone and within minutes, arrangements were made. I knew better than to raise the issue with Mom. Once she’s made up her mind, not much changes it. I did raise it with Wes though, as he took me back to my loft in the city that evening.
“Come on, Anita,” he answered. “It’s just a holiday dinner. What could happen?”.
What indeed? All I had was vague foreboding, nothing nearly concrete enough to voice a cogent objection.
So now here he is, crossing my parents’ threshold. “Wally Stout,” he announces, offering his hand to my father. True to his (and my boyfriend’s) last name, he is a broad-shouldered, vigorous looking man in his early 60’s. Stepping into our foyer, he pulls off his rugged black baseball-style cap.
“Michael Delamonte,” my father replies, giving his hand an uneasy shake. Dad has a PhD in forestry and consults for the government on the effects of climate change on the nation’s woodlands. He’s much more at home among firs and ferns than socializing with humans.
My mother, on the other hand lives for such moments, and gushes about how pleased she is. She throws her arms around Wes’s father in an easy hug, as she does pretty much everyone she sees, friend and stranger alike.He reciprocates stiffly and I can tell he is still disconcerted as she hangs his flannel coat in the closet.
When she returns, he hands her a box with red wrapping and a gold bow. “You can put it under the tree for tomorrow morning,” he tells her, and there is some uneasiness in his voice. He’s not accustomed to this, arriving as a guest in someone else’s house, and his uncertainty is evident.
“Oh, we always do the presents the night before,” she tells him. “I can’t wait to see what it is.”
I wish I could describe the look on Mr. Stout’s face. Bewilderment perhaps. As if he can’t begin to comprehend how presents could be opened any time other than Christmas morning.
We settle in the living room, waiting on my brother’s arrival with his girlfriend. People begin to relax. Over cheese and crackers and glasses of wine, my mother peppers Mr. Stout with questions about his dairy operation, and elicits all sorts of details about feeding and milking schedules, and how many head of cattle he has. My father sits silently and spectates, as Wes takes my hand and gives it a comfortable squeeze. He’s saying, see, I told you it would be fine.
And fine seems to describe it well, clear up until the time my brother shows up.
It’s not evident right away. He walks in as Mr. Stout is describing the impact of a change in the cows’ feed to their milk production, and all ears are attending to the details of his story. Only I take in my brother’s face as he stops in the doorway. There’s something wrong. He doesn’t enter right away, instead staring as if gauging whether it’s safe.
I’m not sure what to do. If I’d understood how bad it is, I might have found a way to warn Mom, who has a tendency to plow ahead obliviously. When she notices him, she does just that.
“Oh, Kyle. Don’t stand there. Come in and meet Wes’s father.Step inside so Kristy can come in too.”
At the mention of Kristy, I can see something shift in him. He shakes his head but can’t bring himself to speak.
I use my most understanding and compassionate voice. “Has something happened to Kristy?”
He holds it together for all of one word. “She…”, is all he can manage before an anguished sob escapes his lips.
I bolt from my spot on the sofa, leaving Wes’s hand unexpectedly dangling, and throw my arms around my brother. He’s always worn his heart on his sleeve. My earliest memories were of cuddling him when we were both toddlers, me with my powerful motherly streak and him moved to tears at the drop of a hat. He never completely outgrew it. He takes after Mom’s artistic streak, prone to feeling the ups and downs of life more strongly than most.
“Kristy’s not with you?” I ask, feeling the cold draft from the open front door and wondering whether someone else was about to walk through it.
Three more hiccuped sobs release, before he forces out the words. “…Not…coming. Gone.”
I step back from him. “Gone? What does that mean?”
By this time everyone has risen from their seats and are gathering around us. Ever mindful not to waste energy, my father has shut the door. My mother has taken over hugging duty, and even Wes and his father have gotten up and stand in the background. I take in Mr. Stout’s face. Not disapproving, exactly, or perhaps beyond disapproving. Utterly shocked would be a closer description. In disbelief that a grown man could act that way.
We lead him to the couch and Mom hands him a glass of wine, which he gratefully sips. It calms him and the story gradually slips out.
He went to pick her up as planned. She wasn’t there, and he found a note left on her door. She went to her parents for Christmas instead and she doesn’t want to keep seeing him. He inadvisedly hands the note to Mom who feels compelled to read it aloud for my father’s benefit. Maybe she has forgotten we have guests. She certainly has no idea what sort of surprises lie within its text. She doesn’t think to stop until after she reads the section about how Kristy thought she would be okay with Kyle being transgender, but she now realizes it’s important to her to be able to have children with a man.
Mom’s mouth hangs open, and stunned silence descends. I now understand the depths of my brother’s unhappiness. He’s dated a series of women in recent years who couldn’t accept his history, but he thought Kristy was different. Weariness at having his heart broken repeatedly ground him down into a dark funk, and it has been nice to see him upbeat for the months since meeting her. That has all come crashing down. I reach out and stroke his back reassuringly, as he begins to dry his eyes and compose himself.
Once calm, he belatedly introduces himself to Mr. Stout and greets Wes. We sit down to dinner amid a slightly more somber mood than we expected, but Mom’s excellent food and a second bottle of wine manages to bring a glow of pleasure even to Kyle. We finish the main course with my mother reassuring Kyle that the right woman is out there, that Kristy is the one missing out on a wonderful catch, and that it is better for him to find out now than much further down the road.
Kyle is only partially consoled. “I feel like I’m being punished,” he says. “Like my penance for being myself is that I’m unloveable.”
I’m looking at him as he says this, but a movement catches the corner of my eye. I get a strong sense that Mr. Stout has had something he’s wanted to say, and can hold in no longer.
“Maybe God is trying to tell you something,” he says, somewhat under his breath like he’s hoping no one hears it.
If you know what I do for a living, you’ll understand why I reacted the way I did.
I’m an advocate for the homeless. I work for an organization that runs homeless shelters in the city and part of my job involves going around to officials and making them aware of the dire needs of their citizens. I deal forcefully with those who stigmatize or denigrate our clientele. These are human beings deserving of dignity and comfort. When someone says they are lazy, dirty, crazy, or any of the other put-downs I hear daily, I cannot let them go unanswered.
The same reflex kicks in. My anger flares.
“What, exactly do you mean by that, sir?”
Mr. Stout is not one to back down. “It says in The Bible, ‘Male and female, He created them.’” He stops then, as if this fragment of verse unambiguously answers all possible questions.
I feel disapproving stares from all around the table drilling through me. I ignore them and focus on my boyfriend’s father.
“Do you know what gender dysphoria is?” I ask him. I don’t wait for an answer. “It’s the painful feeling that comes when you’re not lucky enough to be born with a brain whose gender matches your body. It destroys people. Do you think YOU could live with it?”
He raises his hands, palms outward in front of him, as if warding off an onslaught. “Just my opinion,” he answers with exasperating calm, clearly quite put out that anyone would make a big deal of it.
“Your opinion, is hateful, sir,” I tell him. “Your opinion is uninformed. And your opinion is hurting my brother.”
Mr. Stout’s answer is matter-of-fact, as if discussing the best route to the next town. “I’ll believe what I want. You believe what you want. That’s how it works.”
I can see Kyle shaking his head through the corner of my eye. He doesn’t want me to stand up for him the way I did on the playground when kids called him “tomboy” or “dyke”. But Mr. Stout’s manner has me furious.
“You don’t get to come here and say hateful things to my brother. How dare you!”
Kyle gets up and bolts from the table.
Wes tries to calm me down. “It’s Christmastime. We don’t have to agree on everything to have a nice dinner together.”
I look Wes straight in the eye. “There’s a bi-i-ig difference between disagreeing and spreading hate and lies. I’m disappointed you don’t understand that.” Afraid I’ll say something I’ll regret, I leave the same way Kyle did..
I catch up to him upstairs in our old bedroom, the one we shared growing up when I still thought of him as my sister.
“I’m so sorry,” I tell him, though I’m not sure for what. Wes’s father? My own outburst? The general situation?
Kyle nods. “I’m sorry too. I don’t want to get between you and Wes. At least one of us should have a decent love-life.”
For the first time since the tense evening started, I laugh. “Wes and I are at an awkward stage.”
“We’ve been together long enough that we’re both starting to think about whether it’s going to be a lifetime thing. And that always brings about … hard thoughts.”
“I thought you and Wes were deeply in love.”
“Oh, we are. If we weren’t, we wouldn’t be taking this so seriously. But there are some things about him that may be deal breakers.”
“Deal breakers? He’s a great guy. What could be a deal breaker?”
“I need a guy who will support me no matter what. Even when he’s not sure he agrees, I need him to stay by my side and at least respect my determination. But he’s all about everyone getting along. I don’t know that he has it in him to look someone in the eye and disagree with them.
“That’s part of what bothered me down there. Wes accepts you 100%. He knows what his father said is malarkey. He understands all about needing to transition. It’s his father. Why couldn’t he say something?”
“It’s hard to contradict a parent.”
There’s a shadow outside the open door. I lean over so I can see who it is. Mom. Uh oh.
“Kyle,” she says. “Can I ask you to go back downstairs? I need a word with your sister.”
He gladly agrees, and now I’m face-to-face with my mother.
She’s not mad. She’s never mad. But she always manages to convey her unhappiness and her unwavering high expectations of me.
“He is a guest in our house,” she says. She doesn’t need to raise her voice. I know I should have kept my mouth shut.
“I want you to apologize to Wally. Tell him he’s welcome in our home.”
“But Mom, you heard what he said.”
“He is a guest.”
Mom is right, and I meekly follow her with all the eagerness of a truant following his father to the woodshed. Downstairs in the dining room we find Dad and Mr. Stout in a conversation about weather patterns as if nothing had happened. Wes and Kyle are nowhere to be seen.
I take my seat, keenly aware of my mother’s stare. I dare not chicken out.
“Mr. Stout,” I tell him after a tense pause. “I’m truly sorry for my outburst. It was rude and uncalled for.”
He responds with a faint smile. “Thank you for that.” No apology on his part for invalidating my brother. I don’t know why I expected one. He simply goes on discussing the weather with Dad as I sit and try various meditative techniques to calm myself down.
It doesn’t work. I’m watching the two older men relate, and my fake smile provides only the thinnest veneer over my seething interior. A film reel is playing in my head of every time a male in a dominant role has completely dismissed my concerns, and believe me, by the time a woman approaches the end of her 20s, such a film easily reaches feature length. When my mother slips into the kitchen to attend to some detail of food preparation I seize my opportunity and charge through the swinging door after her to see if she needs help.
She turns my way. “Are you OK?” She knows what it took to suck up to Wes’s father.
I can’t pretend. “Physically, I’m fine. Spiritually, I don’t know.” My voice is low, though the men are so wrapped up in discussion we could yell and they wouldn’t notice.
She turns to face me, pulling off the heavy oven mitts. Her keen gaze invites me to say more.
“I don’t know if Wes really gets me.”
“Did he have any idea what it did to me to hear his father say those things about Kyle?”
“Everyone has their good points and everyone has their flaws, dear. Wes is one of the nicest, kindest, most generous, and most big-hearted men I’ve ever met. I think you’ve chosen well.”
“But he never stands up for me. Ever. I know that’s the way he was raised. His family never fought. His mom, when she was alive, always insisted upon making peace. So he doesn’t stand up for himself. He doesn’t understand why I need to.”
Mom keeps her gaze fixed upon me, and it compels me, as always, to keep talking.
“I don’t know if I can deal with this for the rest of my life.”
Her expression grows just the smallest bit darker. If I hadn’t known her all of my 28 years, I might not have noticed. But my mood changes to mirror hers, and to amplify it, and I have a sense of foreboding as I ponder that last line. A thought begins to form, too horrible to speak. I can’t marry Wes,. And another. If we have no future, what do I do now? Of its own accord my mind starts down the unthinkable road of planning the process of breaking up with him. I try to stop it, to think of something else, but still I find myself formulating plans.
Mom must have some sixth sense about what is going on inside me, because in a quick motion, she tosses aside her slimy apron and envelops me in a powerful hug.
The waves of maternal love momentarily distract me from my jarring thoughts, but the hug is short lived. We hear some sort of commotion in the dining room involving raised voices. I follow her back out the swinging door to join the men.
Wes is standing at the opening that leads from the dining room to living room just beyond. He’s facing his father who still sits at the table, now turned toward him. Behind Wes in the living room, I can dimly make out Kyle’s shape, keeping his distance.
“…yes,” Wes is saying assertively. “I need to talk to you. Now.”
“Wesley, there is no need to take that tone…” his father replies, but Wes cuts him off.
“I need you to listen to me, and listen good. One of two things is about to happen. Only you can decide which.”
“I don’t like…” Wally starts again, but again Wes cuts him off.
“The first thing that can happen is that you say right now with everyone here listening that you accept Kyle as he is and you agree to give him your enthusiastic support for the way he lives.”
Wes pauses, expecting his father to cut him off, but Wally is too shocked at his son’s brazen tone to respond. Wes takes a breath and continues, even more forcefully. “The second — and I really hope this doesn’t happen but I will not hesitate to bring it about if I have to — the second is that you and I are no longer family.”
Wally reacts angrily. “You can’t decide that I’m not family.”
Wes responds quickly and firmly. “I can decide that you are no longer a part of my life. I can and I will.”
“You’re talking crazy.”
“No I’m making sense. Dad, family supports each other. Like it or not, as long as I’m with Anita — and that will be as long as she’ll have me — then she is my family and yours, and Kyle is my family also and also yours. If you will not support him and every part of who he is, you are not family. It’s that simple.”
“You wouldn’t do that.”
Wes ignores him. “Decide now. Which will it be. Either you tell Kyle, with everyone here listening, that you accept him and give him your support, or you are no longer family.”
Wally’s composure slips. “This is ridiculous,” he snaps, pulling his napkin from his lap and throwing it on the table.
Wally stands up and orients himself toward the front door.
“Decide. Are you sure you want to up and leave? If you do, you will regret it. I refuse to expose Anita and her family to hate. And refusing to accept Kyle is hateful. You can decide not to be hateful or you can decide to be gone, from this house and from our family. I love you, but I will not tolerate treating her family badly. Is walking out that door, what you really want to do? Think about it.”
Wally takes a step to the door. Wes has raised his voice now to a level that echoes from the ceiling. “Before you take another step, think about it.” His tone is so commanding, that Wally pauses. Reluctantly he turns toward Wes.
Wes steps aside so Wally and Kyle have a direct view of one another.
“Tell him, Dad. Tell him you accept him as a man and support who he is.”
Wally stares at Kyle. He turns toward Wes.
“Tell him, Dad. Now.”
Wally turns again toward Kyle and opens his mouth, but doesn’t speak.
Wes lowers his voice. “Dad, please say it. ‘Kyle, I accept you as a man. I accept that that is who you are and I will support you however I can.’”
Wally turns back to Wes in a voice that is almost plaintive. “I don’t think I can.”
Wes answers gently, now. “Go ahead. Try it. ‘Kyle I accept you as a man.’”
Wally turns toward Kyle, but again doesn’t speak.
“‘Kyle, I accept you as a man,’” Wes prompts. “Come on.”
Tentatively, as if against his will, Wally speaks those words. “Kyle, I accept you as a man.”
Wes jumps in quickly. “Now, enthusiastically. Because you know Kyle deserves it. He is family. He means a lot to Anita, and so he means a lot to me, and therefore to you. He is family. Please give him your enthusiastic support. “Kyle, I will support you however I can.”
There is enthusiasm in Wally’s voice now.
“I will support you however I can.”
Kyle marches forward and offers his hand to Wally. “Thank you sir,” he says. “It means a lot to me.” As the two men shake hands, my mother calls out, “Who wants pie?”
* * *
Much later, after Wally has headed home, I’m hugging Kyle goodbye while Wes is out warming the car. “I predict you’ll be wearing a ring next time I see you,” he tells me, making a point of crossing his fingers.
“I hope so. He showed me something tonight I’ve never seen before.”
“Expect this new Wes to be around when you need him.”
“How do you know?”
“Let’s just say I took him into the garage for a man-to-man talk.”