saw a creature, naked, bestial,
squatting upon the ground,
his heart in his hands,
ate of it.
said, "Is it good, friend?"
is bitter -- bitter," he answered;
I like it
it is bitter,
because it is my heart."
-- Stephen Crane
Call from home
I picked up the phone on the third
There was a very long silence.
“Dad, is that you? Are you okay?”
It was strange that he was calling me. Mom is the one who always called. I had barely talked to Dad in 10 years. “Is something wrong with Mom?”
“No, Jakey.” Another silence. “Something’s wrong with
me. I have cancer.”
Oh, God. I didn’t know what to say, so the silence now began at my
end. I knew the dam of animosity against
my father that I had built up for over a decade would not hold. It was breaching in the face of this
unexpected statement. “I don’t know
what to say, Dad, except I’m so sorry.”
“The doctor says I have at most six
months to live.”
“At this rate, that’s probably more
than I have,” I blurted too
quickly. I hadn’t meant to let my
private thoughts out.
Now it was Dad’s time to extend the
“This phone call is certainly
costing a lot per word,” I joked, trying to change the mood.
“What’s wrong, Jakey?” Dad asked
“My life is so fucked up I don’t
know where to go or what to do or even whether to do it. I’ve been staring at the ceiling of my
bedroom for two weeks.”
“Have you talked to a professional?”
“Dad, this is Southeast Asia. Even if there were psychiatrists or
psychologists, they probably don’t speak much English. My life is too fucked up, anyway, for some
I sighed deeply. “Dad, this conversation is much too
morbid. Can we change the subject?”
There was more silence on his end—a
really long silence.
“Hello, hello!” I said into the void
of the telephone receiver.
“Jakey, let me think a few more
I could almost feel the wheels
grinding in Dad’s head as I waited with the receiver in my hand. By extending my arm to its fullest, I was
able to reach the refrigerator and to pull out a beer, which I opened. I took a swig from the bottle.
Dad’s voice came back strongly on the
phone. The wheels had turned. It was his most commanding, his in-charge
voice that I found it so difficult to ignore.
“I am going to make you a bet, Jakey.
If I die before you do, you will agree to come home and stay near your
mother for…six months. If you die
before me…well, you name what you want.
The saddest thing is that I couldn’t
think of anything that I would want.
That’s how bad I was. “Dad, I’ll
let you know what I want later, but, okay, I’ll take your bet.” I had six months to muster the courage to do
whatever I had to do.
“How is Mom taking this?”
“I haven’t told her yet.”
“Dad, why are you telling me first?”
“Because it’s so much harder to tell
her, and I have to look her in the face when I do. Plus, I know she would call you immediately, and I wanted you to
hear it from me. I guess I wanted to
practice on someone I trusted. And something
else: Maybe, just maybe, that will let
me repair some of the damage that I’ve done to our relationship over the
years. I need to build a bridge back to
you, Jakey, quickly, and I want to start by letting you know how much you
really mean to me and how sad I am that I may not have the time to make full
“I have put so much pressure on
you—so that you would follow in my footsteps, through the military, business
school and into our company—so that you would become like me.”
“Dad, I’ve thought so much about
this. You didn’t do anything
wrong. Don’t blame yourself. You were just looking out for me. I was an adult. All the wrong decisions were mine.”
“You were an adult, Jakey, yes, but barely so. I never treated you as a full adult, and for that I’m forever
sorry. I should have known that when
you went to Mississippi that I had to let go.
But I couldn’t, and you were gone for that summer. And when you were drafted, I should have let
you decide on your own.”
“No, Dad, I am a part of your life
and your experiences. The fact that the
Vietnam War was so misguided was not your fault. We can’t go everywhere the country goes wrong, but we need to
support it—and fight back within the system.
That you taught me, and, even though my service turned out to be a
personal nightmare, I don’t blame you, Dad.
“Jakey, I was wrong.”
“Dad, you didn’t send me into the
Army. I could have gone to Canada, but
I felt the duty to my country. I felt
the special connection between you walking into Bergen-Belsen and me preventing
something like that in the future. The
country screwed up in Vietnam, but not for the wrong reasons.
“For me personally, though, I can
never escape what I did there. And
that’s not your fault, Dad. I will live
and die with my demons.”
“Jakey, would you come home?”
“Not until the demons are gone,
Dad. Not until then.”
There was another long silence
across the telephone lines.
“Jakey, have you ever loved—really
loved someone, someone you wanted to live with for the rest of your life?”
“And what happened.”
“He went away, and I went away.”
There was a very long pause.
There was an even longer pause on my
end after I realized what I had said.
“Yes, he. He got married and had
a son the last time I heard,” I said,
hoping to end the conversation. I
thought I could feel my father’s mind churning again. I felt that once again I had disappointed him.
“Are you … homosexual?”
“I think the latest word is ‘gay,’
Dad.” I was stalling. I needed to think about how to answer the
“Are you ‘gay,’ then?”
“I don’t know, Dad,” I said
finally. “This is the first time that I
have openly thought about it. I’ve been
heterosexual until now. I’ve always thought
I was heterosexual until you asked me that question and I answered. I’ve lived with several women over here,
and I have a girlfriend now.” I realized
what I had just said wasn’t exactly true.
“But I’m not sure. I need to
change things, but I don’t know if I can.”
I was thinking out loud, and I
realized I was talking to my Dad again—as a troubled son would talk to an
understanding father. “Dad, I’ve never
done anything with another man, but I fell incredibly in love with Robbie Ellis
in Mississippi—in every sense—and that is changing everything. It’s time to question everything, including
my sexuality. Robbie and I did nothing,
but I realize now he meant everything to me.
And he left and went back to Seattle.
I got a note from him saying he’d gotten married, and then I got a card
saying he had a son. I lost him.” I paused.
“Dad, I don’t know what I am.”
Except, extremely, extremely sad, I said to myself.
“Dad, I think I might be gay,” I announced, and a wave of surprise and relief
passed through me, followed by a wave of anxiety and doubt.
“Jake, I can’t care any more whether
you’re…gay…or not, even if I might have cared in the past. And I truly don’t care. I don’t know how to react, let alone answer
your question. I don’t really know you
anymore, and I don’t know whether to love you or condemn you or just accept you
as you are. No, I’ll never condemn
you. I may be disappointed, and I’m
sure your mother will be disappointed without grandchildren, but I’m not sure at
your rate that she would ever be a grandmother anyway.” I could see his wry smile across the wires.
“Dad, I love you, and I’ve missed
you in my life.” Then, it really hit me
that I might soon be missing him forever.
“Jakey, I love you, too. It’s too much my fault that my boy hasn’t
been a part of my life. And now…”
“Dad, I’m just looking to find
myself, if that’s possible.”
“Bye. I want you to. I love you.”
“Good bye, Dad.”
The call triggered all the deep
memories of the past decade: the awful
ones of Vietnam, the drifting after my discharge, the shortage of real personal
relationships. The call triggered in me
thoughts about my sexuality that I had not faced before. I realized one reason that I was reluctant
to get too close to Kingman; I was deeply
afraid of Kingman’s rejection if I uncovered my feelings.
I think it was my father’s call that
stopped, but did not reverse, my recent slide but maybe not the oblivion at the
end. Time would answer that
question. The blank on my ceiling as I
stared up from my bed at Kingman’s matched the blank in my heart.
has the element of blank;
it began, or if there were
day when it was not.
has no future but itself,
infinite realms contain
past, enlightened to perceive
periods of pain.
-- Emily Dickinson
When I picked up the phone and heard
the sobs of a woman across the thousands of miles, my heart skipped a
“Jake,” Mom said.
“Your dad has only a few days to
live. Come home!”
My heart broke. “I’ll be on the plane tomorrow.” There was only quiet sobbing on the other
end. There was not much more we could
say to one another, and I said goodbye.
I started to sort and pack my bags
for a long stay. Everything I owned except
my work clothes and books fit, sadly, into two suitcases and a few plastic bags. I put my books into boxes, sealed them and
wrote my Massachusetts address on them and left a note and some money for
Kingman to send them to me. I’d already
called the airline and bought a one-way ticket; I’d lost the bet with my
father. I called my boss and told him
my father was dying and I didn’t know when I’d be back, if ever, and he’d
better find a replacement for me. I left
another note for Kingman and left a check for six months’ rent.
That evening, I went to Harry’s Bar
to say good-bye to my buddies. There
were five of them there--Plancich, Lawrence, Blalock, the New Guy Peterson and
Kingman--drinking beer and talking loudly, as usual. I bought a beer at the bar and carried it to the table.
“Hey, Cantwell. What’s up?” Plancich asked as he started to
The look on my face stopped him cold. I looked down at my beer, took a swallow,
and said: “My dad’s dying, I have to go
home, and I’ll probably be gone a long while.
I promised Dad I’d stay near my mom for awhile if he died.” I took another big swallow of the beer. “I came to say goodbye. I’m going to spend all night packing and
getting ready, but I wanted to stop by one last time.”
The chorus of “I’m sorry, man,”
“Tough luck,” “I hope you’re okay,” was heartfelt. These were the guys I worked with every day when I was out on a
job, even if I was in the construction office in recent years. I realized that they were somewhat more than
acquaintances; they weren’t bosom friends, but they meant something to me.
I finished a couple of beers and
knew I had to leave. It had been a
couple of hours since I had come in. I stood
and went up to these people that I had known for so long. I hugged Plancich, Lawrence and Blalock,
murmuring my thanks for their sympathies.
I shook the New Guy Peterson’s hand, because I didn’t know him that
well, but he pulled me into a hug anyway.
Then there was Kingman. He was going to be the hardest to
leave. Kingman and I went back so many,
many years. Kingman was my bosom buddy.
He had been my confidant when I broke
up with Mei, when I broke up with Phoum and most recently when I broke up with
Hiromi. We were like brothers—and
more. I realized how close Kingman and
I were. The memories of him would
last—memories of working out at the gym, of playing play badminton for hours at
the gym until we could go on no more, our bodies glistening with sweat and
maleness as we went to the showers.
There were memories of Kingman and me
going out on the town when I was between girlfriends—and even when I was with
my girlfriend. Only he among all those
I knew in Jakarta really understood how sad my life really was, though he
didn’t know why; I’d never told him. He
listened to me spout poetry when I was drunk and when I wasn’t, hearing and
maybe understanding, but understanding certainly my need to vent my feelings
through somebody else’s words.
Until my break with Hiromi—until my recent struggle with
depression—when I was unattached or during the last trying months of my
relationships, we would go to clubs and get horny and howling drunk, and when I
left the bars—since I didn’t believe in one-night stands—he would walk home
with me, or me with him, our arms across each other’s shoulders. We would pass out in each other’s beds, side
by side, and in the morning Kingman would bring me aspirin and juice if he got up
before I did, or I would bring him the same if I got up before him.
I stood before Kingman and looked
him in the face. I couldn’t just hug
him like I did Plancich, Lawrence and Blalock, even with a few more pats on the
back. I had to do something more—to
express the closer relationship that was ending. My impish self coming to the fore. I put my arms around his neck, pulled him to me, kissed him
square on the lips, gluing his to mine.
He struggled, but I wouldn’t let him go. Holding on was hard to do, because I couldn’t help but laugh, the
first humor I felt since my mother’s call, especially when he started to flail
his arms like a rag doll and mumble something like, “Fuck you. Fuck you.
Fuck you,” underneath the kiss as we spun around the floor of the bar,
turning and turning like a whirlwind. I
could see the laughter on the faces of Plancich, Lawrence and Blalock, and I
could hear them telling each other that they always knew I was crazy.
And then I stopped, and time stopped.
I pulled back, not loosing my arms from around his neck and looked into
his eyes. We stared at each other, the
rest of the world receding into oblivion, into the neon and gloom background
light of the bar. Kingman’s eyes were
glistening, as were mine. He started to
say something, then pulled back.
Finally, he asked the question for which he knew the answer: “You’re not ever coming back, are you?”
I shook my head, the movement so
slight as to be almost imperceptible, but enough for him to see. His brown eyes glistened and reflected the
red and green neon lights of the signs behind the bar. We stood and looked at each other.
“You fuck! You crazy fuck! You
crazy, crazy fuck!” he said in a voice little louder than a whisper, shaking
his head slowly from side to side. Then
he leaned his head toward me and kissed me
on the lips, but this time with a kiss that started softly, with the moist
pillow of his lips, then intensified
into real passion with the probing of his tongue as I opened myself to him. The red and green lights of the bar became
the universe—a glittering sky in the background. Time moved to a crawl. I
felt a stirring. I felt my cock rising,
becoming as hard as it had ever been. I
didn’t know what was happening to me. I
didn’t know what was happening with us.
Though maybe I did.
“What did you do that for?” I asked,
softly, a bit of surprise in my voice.
He reached over and brushed the hair
away from my face. “For what might have
been,” he replied.
And then I thought of the other
things that might have been, and how I might have been able to have a
relationship with Kingman and stave off my growing feelings of
helplessness. I wanted to cry. I didn’t know if I could have developed such
a relationship, but it didn’t matter any more, because this phase of my life
At that moment, looking into his
eyes and he looking into mine, I felt that the kiss and my response to it was
forcing on me yet another turning point in my life—added to my father’s illness
and my obligation to go home again.
Yesterday, my life only revolved around avoiding pain for the next night
and the next day. Now, everything had
turned topsy-turvy, including, the large surprise of it all, my sexuality. The kiss and my physical reaction opened up a
part of my being that I had barely realized.
It raised questions about where my life might be going, after and in
addition to my family duties. Did that
kiss and my reaction to it mean something was happening that would change my
life forever, however much longer it might be?
My arms were still on Kingman’s
neck, so I just leaned in and kissed him back—on the lips, letting mine linger
on his, feeling the softness, feeling his tongue in me and mine in him and,
yes, the yearning that apparently was traveling between us. Then I broke it off. I leaned back and
looked him again in the still glistening eyes.
Kingman pulled me into a hug, his
fists hitting me lightly on the back, male-hug style. Afterwards, I saw him adjusting his pants, and I was doing the
same. I realized that in all the years,
he had never had a steady girlfriend. Maybe
there was a reason. The thought flashed
through my mind that I wished I had noticed it sooner.
Nearby, Plancich mumbled something
like: “It figures.” Typically, Lawrence and Blalock were blasé
at our display. Expatriates living in
Asia had an immense tolerance for the foibles of their fellow men and the many
variations of sexual relations. Not so
typically, though, the New Guy Peterson watched the whole scene between Kingman
and me. Afterwards, I saw him adjusting
his pants while trying to keep from being noticed. Hmm…! Maybe some hope for
When Kingman came home that night,
drunker than he usually let himself be, I was still frantically packing and
sorting my things. He came over and
gave me one last hug and went off to bed. I said to myself that I would say goodbye again to him in the
early morning before I left, but I never did.
I looked into his room in the dawn light, put some aspirin and juice
down on his bedside table and let him sleep peacefully.
* * * * *
The long plane ride from Jakarta was
hellish—hours in terminals and hours and hours in the air—but I needed hell for
a while. It was the time I had to
think. All the sadness and all the
frustrations of my last few years welled up in me—a dam near breaking. My fucked-up life, the too-late reconciliation with my father, his impending death,
the uncertainty of what would happen to my mother, all the missed
opportunities, all the short-term decisions, the choice of instant
gratification over permanence—all these memories, all these choices came back
under the deep drone of the jet engines that offered little change of pace for
hours and hours and miles and miles.
I guess I was thankful that my intentions
about suicide had come up short, after the gruesome bet with my father. On second thought, maybe I would be happier
if those jet engines sputtered out and the plane plunged into the Pacific. No decisions, then, no rest of my life to
worry about, no nothing. Sweet
The undercurrent of my thoughts,
what kept rising to my consciousness, was Kingman’s kiss and my response to
it. At one level I found the kiss
deeply disturbing. Why had I kissed him
in the first place? Why didn’t it stay
just a joke, or a lark between us—and just one kiss? Why did it become serious?
Was it all Kingman’s doing when he kissed me back? Was it he that made it something other than
a joke? Or was it something
At another level, I found my kiss
back at him revealing. I hadn’t felt
such a sexual rush since…well, since those days in Mississippi. I didn’t know what to think, except that I
was confused. Then again, maybe things
had gotten clearer instead of murkier.
Maybe my relationships with Robbie and Kingman were much more reflective
of where and what I wanted to be. Maybe
my unthinking answer to my father, “I think I might be gay,” really was true.
“Can I get you something?” the attendant asked. Startled, I looked up, into the eyes of a
handsome man a few years my junior pushing a drinks cart through the
“Just some water, please.”
“Still or sparkling?”
The attendant reached into the cart
to get a bottle of water, handed it to me along with a plastic glass.
Our eyes lingered on each other for
just a moment too long, and then he moved down along the aisle to serve the
next passengers. My groin stirred as I
looked at his black, tight-fitting pants and uniform shirt.
I leaned back in my seat as the low
hum of the jet engines floated in and out of my consciousness, a constant
counterpoint to my thoughts. I realized
how the physical entered my observations, now that I was aware of them. Were they always there? Maybe I was
No, no. I couldn’t be gay. I was a typical red-blooded, screwed up
American boy—well, man—but I thought of myself as a boy still.
When I got off the plane, weary and
grimy from 25 hours’ traveling, I looked at my mother and I knew that Dad had
already died. And I felt I had missed
an opportunity to close out that portion of my life, to take my father’s
compass gift from him as my own. I felt
further at sea.
Mom’s face showed incredible sadness
and resignation as she came up to me.
This small, trim woman, who everybody said looked like me, pulled me to
her so tightly that I was stunned at her strength. There were no words spoken.
There was no need for words to be spoken. We held each other, as the tears started to pour down my cheeks,
and I sobbed for all the lost years without a father and for the sadness of my
* * * * *
The next few days flew by in a
flurry of calls and notes of condolence, of relatives and friends bringing
dishes of food by as they and their ancestors had done for hundreds of years. There was little time to think, and that was
probably for the best—for both Mom and me.
* * * * *
A Wind Has Blown the Rain
wind has blown the rain away and blown
sky away and all the leaves away,
the trees stand. I think i too have
(and what have you
wind wind—did you love somebody
have you the petal of somewhere in your heart
from dumb summer?
O crazy daddy
death dance cruelly for us and start
last leaf whirling in the final brain
air!) Let us as we have seen see
integration . . . . . . . . . . . . . a wind
has blown the rain
and the leaves and the sky and the
the trees stand. The trees,
wait against the moon’s face.
The memorial service was scheduled
for Tuesday. Dad had wanted to have a
service at our beach place in Rhode Island—in the green of the large lawn that
extended from our beach house seemingly into the sea. Dark-green summer-loaded trees framed the vista of the beach
dunes and the sea as it had done throughout my childhood and my dad’s. Dad wanted his ashes scattered there in
those dunes and in the Atlantic.
I thought of how close the bet
between us had ended up. I wondered
what Dad would have done if he was standing in my place. Where would he be standing and where would
my ashes be strewn?
* * * * *
Dozens of cars had already lined the
roadway and were pulled onto the lawn where it met the highway as Mom and I
arrived in a somber-colored limousine.
The gray of the overcast ocean day made the green of the lawn and the
trees look darker and more intense than normal. The colors and tones were a perfect match for the mood of the
Mom and I arrived only shortly
before the service was to start, so we made our way to the beach side of the
house, where chairs and a small stage had been set up for the sorrowful
During the last few minutes before
the service, the chairs filled, many with people I recognized from over the
years. A few people near the aisle
stood as we walked toward the platform at the front, giving Mom hugs, speaking
a few quiet words with her and looking at me seemingly like the near-stranger
that I was, then shaking my hand. A
brass quartet was set up on the grass next to the platform. As we neared the front, they were finishing
Sheep May Safely Graze, then started on Jesu Joy of Man’s Desiring. I had forgotten how much Dad loved Bach, and
the thought triggered an incredible emptiness—a recognition of all the time I
had missed with him.
And I almost lost it, until Mom took
my arm and, with her New England resolve, led us stoically to the seats
reserved for us, her eyes forced dry by sheer will. My body and mind cried out to me to break down, for my dad, for
me and for all that I had lost, but I managed, barely, to hold myself together. Later, after the service and the day of
sadness; later, when I went to bed that evening, I bawled into the pillow all
night, letting loose the tears for all the lost ones of my life, including me.
The service started. Our longtime minister told the history of
the man that I knew as my father. The
stories that came after, told by his colleagues at work and his friends, were
sweet and full of his kindness—of a gentle man that I realized I did not fully
The service ended, but the musicians
played on as people stopped to extend their sympathies and have some of Dad’s
favorite food and wine. The flower
colors, subdued by the service, seemingly came to life, as sorrow turned to a
celebration of his life. Some people
came up to me, saying they remembered me and wondering what I had been
doing. I wanted to scream that they remembered
me as if I was what I was a decade earlier, not as the screwed-up person that
stood before them. Instead, I smiled
brief smiles and thanked them for their kind words.
The food and the
* * *
“Jake, your father left this letter
for you.” Mom handed me a crisp white
envelope with my name written on it in Dad’s careful handwriting.
last few days of my life, 1983
If you are reading this, I’ve
won our grisly bet. And I’m glad. You have so much going for you. As a child and a young adult you had a
disarming charm that could capture anyone--with your smile, your wit, your
brightness and your personality. In
fact, I had to “uncharm” some of them, particularly the young women, to make
sure they weren’t taken advantage of, even though they would never have realized
the power you had exerted over them.
that you can reach back to those roots and piece your life back together—to
start over. Try to do so—for me.
collecting on our bet—you never sent me what your end of the bet was, by the
way, but it no longer matters. Your
mother is strong and she will survive, but she will need some help over the
next few months. Make sure she stays
active with the groups she’s involved in.
They will be her support ultimately.
I talked to
a good friend, Andrew Molini, about a possible temporary job while you’re
here. Call him; try his company
out. He is a fine man. Sometimes it’s more important to pick a boss
than to pick a job.
had someone in my office do some searching.
Robbie’s number in Seattle is (206) 325-7724. He’s employed as a financial consultant.
loved you, and I will watch over you if I can.
I want you to be happy.
for coming home. Thank you for honoring
your end of the bet. You are a part of
my life again, I know.
bustle in the house
morning after death
solemnest of industries
sweeping up the heart,
putting love away
shall not want to use again
welcome at vwl1999 at lycos.com
Thanks to Sharon for editing!