I Am, I Said

By DAVID MEISCHEN

The evening of September 30, 1993, I walked into an Austin coffee shop adjacent to the university, sat down with two women who were teaching colleagues, and launched into a discussion of ninth-grade curriculum in the magnet program where we taught. I was in high spirits that evening. Euphoria is the word that comes to mind, a physical state with me—my hands in nonstop motion, words spilling over the table like rapids. At a juncture in the conversation, I happened to glance about—just as a young man at the nearest table flicked his eyes in my direction. “Oops,” I thought, “I’m overdoing it. Need to rein myself in.” But then I glanced again.

Our eyes met. How do I explain what happened in the fraction of a second before I turned back to my colleagues? An old friend, a close friend who is gay, once told me about such a moment on an escalator somewhere in Europe. Going up, he caught a glance from someone going down, who reversed direction, out-paced the escalator to meet him at the top, where, without words, they made straight for a stall in the nearest men’s room. Recognition was in the look. And sex—the juice of arousal.

The curriculum talk went on without a ripple—my enthusiasm for the classroom transformed by an occasional exchange of glances, the hint of a smile winging my way. Rib cage buzzing with tremors, I opened myself to the spark igniting between me and this stranger, my pleasure intensified by knowing that our exchange was invisible to my friends, to the habitués at nearby tables.

As my colleagues and I gathered our things and rose to leave, our neighbor stood from his table, shouldered a backpack, and walked out ahead of us. After goodbyes on the street, I turned to follow the receding backpack. He walked ahead, two blocks into the West Campus, stopped, turned in my direction. Nondescript shirt, utilitarian below-the-knee shorts, standard walking shoes. He looked like someone I might meet hiking the Shoal Creek Trail. And not give a second thought. But the glance had happened; the silent exchange had happened. The unspoken had changed me, changed him. I could see what was not visible.

Memory has lost what was said when I reached where my stranger was standing—an old, uneven sidewalk, weedy yards, ramshackle boardinghouses. We made social noises at each other and returned to Quackenbush’s. An exchange of names—I’ll call him Carson. Thirty years old, clearly American, though recently arrived from Germany. A graduate student in psychology. Short. Thinning blond hair. A wry tilt to his eyebrows.

I opened my mouth and babbled. In the space of minutes, Carson had a thumbnail version of my life story. When I got to marriage and sons, he stopped me.

“I thought you might be gay.” His tone, his eyes were wistful—at odds with his mouth, the straight line of it, thin-lipped, a caricaturist’s hasty pen stroke.

Right there, in the moment, surrounded by students, by devotees of the pastries and espresso drinks Quackenbush’s was known for, I outed myself.

“I am.”

A tilt of his eyebrows, a mildly sardonic curve in the line of his mouth, and Carson told me about himself. He’d left a partner behind in Freiburg, where they’d spent the past seven years, their relationship continuing long-distance while Carson pursued a PhD. He and his partner had given each other permission to have sex while they were apart—no emotional attachments allowed.

“I can do what I want,” he said.

Behind me, the barista whooshed steam into milk. Carson paused, his gaze on me, unveiled hunger there.

I dispensed with subtlety and just asked: “Do you live around here?”

“Couple of blocks,” he said. “Place called the German House.”

Something like laughter choked out of me. The German House was my touchstone for the self I’d been at twenty, twenty-two, twenty-four. It had been my gateway to a life outside South Texas. I’d made friends for life there. I’d met my wife there.

But I was sitting at a table with temptation. Setting irony aside, I suggested we adjourn to Carson’s room.

“Not tonight,” Carson said. It was late. He was new to Austin, he’d hardly unpacked, his room was a mess. But soon.

By the time I arrived home, it was going on midnight—too late to call my father and wish him a happy birthday. The house was dark; Karen had gone to bed. She knew I’d gone out with friends. She knew that, once started, I could talk for hours. I slipped quietly into the bedroom and undressed. By the time I settled in beside Karen, I had given myself permission.

 

Sixteen years married, I had not expected anything like this coffeehouse encounter, anything like the ease with which I jettisoned a self. For several years I’d known that I was not happily married. More than once, I’d stared at myself shaving and admitted—almost—that there was more to my sexual self than “ambivalence,” that I was a gay man married to a woman, a gay father of sons. But I was committed to the promises implicit in these words: married father. Permanently committed, or so I thought—until the moment Carson said, “I thought you might be gay,” and without the slightest resistance, I said, “I am.” Those two words changed everything.

 

The next day at school I called Carson from an office phone and arranged to meet him at the German House. No lowered voice, no subterfuge. I was hiding in plain sight, aware that my voice betrayed nothing to the administrative assistant who’d said yes, I could use her phone.

When school was out, I drove to the West Campus. I was wearing my standard teaching outfit of that time—dockers with shirt and tie, dress shoes—a stark contrast to the shorts and jeans, the tees and plaids I’d seen at Quackenbush’s the evening before. Approaching the German House, walking with Carson to his room near the back, I saw undergraduates a decade younger than one of us, two dozen years younger than the other. An odd feeling overcame me, an overlapping of time, as in a fantasy novel with portals between one reality and another. A ghost of myself at twenty flashed down the stairs fast as a glissando. And gone. I was there for Carson. The German House of before had no claim on me.

His room had been tacked into the corner of an L. The floor had a slight but perceptible slope. Murky sunlight filtered in through banks of windows on the outer walls, revealing a ramshackle space—drab, unadorned walls, a closet with shabby panels of curtain in lieu of a door. A basic student desk sat orphaned along one wall—books and papers stacked there, a generic alarm clock at one edge. Beside the desk, below the clock, a lumpy, narrow mattress slung on the floor and covered with sheets Carson confessed he’d purchased after my phone call.

I didn’t care about the room.

I don’t believe we even spoke. We got out of our clothes and took care of each other. No foreplay, no kissing. His hands and my hands. Down and dirty and done.

 

As luck would have it, I was enrolled in a graduate poetry seminar that met every Wednesday evening for three hours. Each week during the half-hour break, I met Carson at Quackenbush’s. When I left for the second half of class, he stayed on, studying—always a smile for me when I arrived at his table for the next installment of our conversation. From the outset, we discussed boundaries. Mine came crashing down. His did not. He rarely allowed others inside; he was aware of making an exception for me. “I let you in,” he said, though from the outset, he was honest about us in future tense. “We have an endpoint.” There was the man in Freiburg. Carson had plans to be with him between semesters, to spend the summer back in Germany. When he was done with his degree, he’d be gone from Austin, gone from me. I heard him when he said these things. I concurred. That is, my words concurred.

But the man in Germany was several thousand miles away. I knew his name, along with details of his history with Carson. But I’d seen no photograph of him, no photograph of Carson with him. What I saw was Carson himself. Carson across the table from me at Quackenbush’s, Carson looking at me with eyes that said he wanted me. When I was ready to leave the coffee shop and adjourn to the mattress on the floor of his room, his eagerness matched mine.

After the first couple of times I experienced the pleasure of his body, I relaxed into my nervous energy and let my hunger follow itself. The thin line of Carson’s mouth relaxed when I kissed him. Whisker burn of his lips against mine. Tasting his kisses, I wanted more. And then more. My fingers at the button of his waistband, the buzz of his zipper opening. All over, we tasted each other.

Years ago I read somewhere that Jim Morrison, trying to explain himself to a nonplussed reporter, said that he felt like a guitar string gripped between thumb and middle finger, pulled taut, the tension increasing imperceptibly. For eighteen years. Until the fingers pulling on the guitar string released. And the energy held back expressed itself.

The night I met Carson, the insatiable weeks that followed—I knew the feeling Morrison was trying to convey. I was forty-four years old, twenty years since a vacillating same-sex failure in Galveston, thirty years since my first sexual experience, decades removed from age eight, sitting in the family farm outhouse, staring at the men’s underwear pages in last year’s mail-order catalog—decades of denial, of telling myself no, of never quite releasing my internal guitar string and letting it play the note it was meant to play. Until I met Carson and turned myself loose.

The frayed spiral notebook I carried with me has a page near the end that only its owner could decipher. It’s a list of days and dates on narrow-rule paper, tinted with just the slightest hint of green, what the marketers called eye-ease paper. Here are the first ten items:

Th., 9/30 — Quack’s
Fr, 10/1 — G.H. — after sch.
Wd, 10/6 — G.H. — after R&J
Fr., 10/8 — G.H. — after sch.
Sn, 10/10 — Wd. Bnq.
Wd, 10/13 — Qks etc.
Sn, 10/17 — Qks. etc.
Wd, 10/20 — Qks etc. (2)
Sat, 10/23 — GH & Qks
Wed., 10/27 — Qks. etc. (2) fm

The locations are obvious—Quackenbush’s and the German House. Two of the abbreviations spur memories. On October 6 Carson and I met up after a performance of Romeo and Juliet by my high school’s drama department; on October 10 we saw Ang Lee’s fabulous gay-themed film The Wedding Banquet—an hour and forty-six minutes in the dark with Mitchell Lichtenstein. Here’s a key to what I most wanted these entries to save: etc. means sex back at his room; the number 2 in parentheses means we had sex twice. Further, when I jotted down the final item, I’d begun to think about who did what to whom. The m in fm means me. The f stands in for a common Anglo-Saxon verb.

 

With Veterans Day approaching, I had tickets for a four-day weekend in San Francisco. Karen and I had often traveled separately. Work and professional conferences regularly took her out of state. Visits to old friends did the same for me. Karl Auld had been my best friend, my emotional touchstone, since September 1967, our first day of German class. In 1973, fumbling into adulthood, I had made my way to his Munich walk-up. Weeks we had spoken, Karl’s voice reassuring me as I felt my way forward—twenty-five years old and tired of dithering about the path my life would take. I want to be married, I told Karl. I want to be a father. And though he was sure his best friend was gay, he gave his approval to what he knew I wanted. Now here I was again, seeking Karl’s advice in San Francisco, turning away from the path I had once claimed with him as witness.

Karl and his wife, Patti, were living in the Potrero Hill neighborhood, their house on Rhode Island Street looking down across Highway 101 and the houses beyond. Like the rest of San Francisco, their street was chilly year-round, wintry sunlight alternating with ghostly fog.

On the morning of Veterans Day, Karl and I walked the Pacific Beach. I hugged myself against wind sweeping in from the ocean, laden with salt and cold, wafting my words away before I could scarcely release them. Karl listened. He’d known me when I was unwilling to know myself; he’d long suspected this was coming. But Karl was not judgmental, no hint of I told you so in his demeanor as he walked along beside me. It wasn’t even listening I needed—but his company, the years of knowing me, of loving me.

Later that weekend, I sat down with Karl and Patti, golden warmth pooling in their living room, rippled by our voices. Mine rattled on in a loop, rehearsing details of the double life I was living back in Austin, the dilemma I’d gotten myself into, as if I could talk myself out of a sprung trap.

Karl listened. Patti asked questions. Like Karl, she was not so much surprised as worried for me, for Karen, for our sons, Karl and Jack. At a lull in the conversation, she placed a stone in my palm, deep gray, with a faint sheen where centuries of river tumbling had smoothed its roughness. It became my worry stone, safely in a pants pocket for the difficult months to come, a soothing shape, soothing weight when I palmed its surfaces.

Sunday evening, with my departure coming early Monday morning, Patti offered a single piece of advice: “Karen doesn’t like surprises. If you’re serious about leaving your marriage, tell her now. Give her some kind of warning. She will need time to face what’s coming.”

 

Broaching the subject with Karen turned out not to be necessary. In my absence, she had invited friends for dinner. Our dining room doubled as my study, with the table up against a window as my desk. Before the guests arrived, she cleared the table, carrying my things to her study so that she could move the table to the center of the room and set it for dinner. On one of her trips out of the dining room, a sheet of loose-leaf paper fell to the hardwood floor, fallen out of a journal, though Karen didn’t know that until a glance arrested her.

Isobel [one of my friends at Quack’s the evening I met Carson] is right. “If you change one thing, you change everything,” she said to me when I told her about meeting Carson—and planning to see him again. It’s too late to go back. I uncaged something inside me. Now it would never go back in.

From this moment, though I was not yet aware I’d made the Freudian slip of a lifetime, it was—as I’d understood in the journal entry—“too late to go back.”

Though there were delays.

When I got back into Austin, Karen was in Honolulu—something to do with a research project. My journal doesn’t tell me who looked after our sons during the days when we were both out of state—only that she was to return on Wednesday, two days later than I. Our first connection was midday on Wednesday. A phone call. I told Karen I would need some of her time on Sunday “to talk about us.” She told me about the incriminating sheet from my journal. She expected a promise from me. That I would put the gay me back in his cage.

“No,” I told her. “I won’t do that. I won’t stop seeing Carson.”

In the months that followed, Karen was often deeply unhappy. At one point, facing me across our bed, her voice tight with pain, she said, “This—what you’re doing, breaking us up—this will be the most important event in my life. And I don’t even get a vote.” Often afterward, the truth of what she said came back to me: I don’t even get a vote.

 

When I am curious, when I can stand the burning embarrassment, I browse the journal I kept during the months of Carson. I wouldn’t call the entries obsessive exactly. I can attest that I wallowed.

In the San Jose airport, closing out the visit with Karl and Patti, I wrote my first entry in a new journal. It’s a hardcover blank book, ruled, perfect-bound, with a shiny cover—shades of blue with a jagged patch of tan. I suppose I just grabbed it at home as I packed. On three lines inside a preprinted oval on the inside front cover, I read:

Merry Christmas
To Dad
From Karl

Then, on the verso page of the first spread, in a mix of block and script letters: Dad’s Journal ’93, beneath which my twelve-year-old son had drawn an image of me—bearded, with glasses, and a thought bubble saying, “Hmmm….” Finally, beneath my thinking head, Karl had sketched a ruled page with a heading—A Poem by D. Meischen—and wavy lines to indicate the poem.

After which: pages of deeply confessional, deeply intimate jottings about sexual passion that was undermining everything represented by this child’s image of his father.

 

On Saturday, December 4, I took Carson to a small gathering hosted by a gay acquaintance to whom I’d been out for several weeks. Afterward, we spent the night in his room at the German House.

I was still discovering what it felt like to be with Carson, embracing him in the aftermath of orgasm. There’s a reason we call these sensations afterglow. Body surfaces, muscles, nerve endings buzz from satiation, from the lingering pleasure in touch. Being with a woman was not like this. Always the aftermath had been brief—pleasant is the word that comes to mind, mildly pleasant—sleep often taking over within minutes.

The first time I allowed myself to linger with Carson after sex, beneath the delirium of touch, I was overwhelmed by what I’d been missing. Always before, with men, the aftermath had been cut short. Or the few times emotions were involved, I hadn’t let everything else drop away and revel in being present. Before the party Carson and I attended as a couple, there’d been several occasions where I prolonged my time with him, wanting more of his fingertips drifting over the planes of my body, more of what it felt like to look at him and lose myself when he looked back. Each time I wanted more. Each time I wondered what a night with him would be like.

It was everything my hours with him had led me to expect. We had sex and talked, our voices tempered by darkness, by the lights of a city at night filtering in at the windows, by the ease of bodies at rest after pleasure. We had sex again and slept. We woke and had sleepy early-morning sex. As day brightened at the windows, we talked. According to my journal, I spoke about “greedy and selfless love. About not wanting the greedy me to push him away. He loves me—openly, directly, honestly. But says at some point we will have to part—unspoken here that he will go back” to the man in Freiburg.

It was a bit past nine a.m. when I got back to the house, another boundary breached between the lover and the claimed life. Karl met me in the kitchen with his hands on his hips. My alibi was as lame as it was glib: “I fell asleep in a chair at the party.” My son harrumphed and left the room. His mother knew where I’d been and with whom. His brother was quietly assembling Legos in his own room.

 

“Are we just animals, then?” The context of this question has faded. I don’t remember the room or the time of day. I don’t remember what was said before. Or after. I hear the question in Karen’s voice, though it is possible that my Quack’s friend who knew about Carson asked me while I was exploring my attraction to men as an implicit defense for dissolving the life Karen and I had constructed together, the promise we had made that our marriage was permanent, the years we had lived this promise—as husband and wife, as parents.

What I do remember is the space this question opened up inside, how the moment of the question stayed with me during the months to come. Palpable. Like Patti’s stone. If I learned anything being with Carson, it was that—yes—I am an animal. That, lacking animal passion for the body of a woman, I was poorly equipped to be the kind of husband my wife needed. That marriage to a woman caged the animal in me. That sex with Carson woke—and satisfied—my animal hunger. There is more to me—to humans—than the many ways in which Carson and I explored our animal bodies. But the animal is essential.

 

December 9 turned into an exercise in managing extremes. I left school in the middle of the day, took Carson out for lunch, and drove him to the airport. The Mueller airport looked and felt like a time warp from an older Austin. Lighting, design, furniture put me in mind of The Jetsons. I don’t remember people, though there must have been travelers coming in, going out. When it was time for Carson’s flight, we hugged and kissed—a milestone for me, this public claiming of my love for another man. He walked onto the jet bridge, heading to Paris for a holiday vacation with his partner. I drove back to my campus and finished the teaching day.

In the evening—frazzled, sleep-deprived—I drove my son Jack to the Erwin Center for a World Wrestling Federation event. It was like watching a drag production on steroids—one of the wrestlers got up in a country queen look, with black and white polka dots and black and white stripes, the Hulk parading as Mae West. As the show went on, I noticed a preference for hot pink tank tops, erect nipples blatantly visible beneath. Bret Hart’s curly do was styled in the wet look.

The audience—including trim-bearded, pumped-up shitkickers draped in gold chains and polyester—roared for the camp preening and the stylized violence. It was as if some crazed visionary had dreamed up a dystopian hybrid of homoeroticism and homophobia and turned it into this living nightmare just for me.

I slept poorly that night, taught school the next day, a Friday, then drove to Corpus Christi, where I came out to my sister and one of my brothers. I remember sitting on the sofa in Judi’s apartment. I lost track of the times I veered from the words I’d come there to say, turning a sentence from where I wanted it to go while I looked anywhere but at Judi and Larell. Finally, I managed to say it: “I’m gay.” Their reaction was subdued. They advised discretion, advised against coming out to our parents, forty-five miles inland on the family farm.

Afterward, we drove to a seafood restaurant for late dinner. “Blood is thicker than water,” Larell said over oysters and shrimp. I was so relieved I think I giggled.

On Saturday I drove to Houston, where my other brother and his wife lived. I don’t think I realized how drained I was by the evening before—my first step in coming clean with members of the family who’d lived in the farmhouse with me, who’d shaped me growing up. When I opened my mouth to tell my news to Vance and Mary, I started to cry. The words poured out with my tears. They listened. They were kind. Then I drove back to Austin, somewhere beyond exhausted.

 

1993 whirled into 1994. Carson returned January 6. On January 10, he turned thirty-one. Karen knew about the birthday; she knew where I was going when I left the house. Five days later, I drove to Dallas to see a friend from my undergraduate days in the West Campus. Karen, again understandably suspicious, confronted me before I left. “He’s going with you. Isn’t he?”

Monday afternoon, home from my Dallas weekend with Carson, I inflicted more pain. I brought my sons to the kitchen table. I sat down with them. Karen sat down with us. All these years later, the moment continues to unfold.

I face my sons; I say it to them: “Your father is gay.”

Jack goes mute, his face a map of pain, of empathy.

And Karl: “Daddy, you lied to us.”

The four of us hold then, like sailors trapped in a hull already fatally damaged, as the word, the lie, sinks into a terrible stillness, husband, wife, and sons waiting for the charge to reach its depth.

Disruptive as was the truth, I couldn’t breathe without the words pushing to be spoken again. On Thursday, January 20, 1994, I drove to the family farm, two hundred miles south, and broke out of the lie I’d sustained with my parents since the day of my first halting same-sex experiment. My mother expressed shock, but she was able to absorb the news. “You’re our David,” she said. My father and I never found common ground on the subject. But that is another story—of coming out as an insistence on coming together, disparate facets of a life fusing into a single difficult truth. It ran concurrently with the story I unreel here, in which everything came apart.

 

Near midnight on March 28, with marital tension reaching a breaking point, I threw clothes into my pickup truck and drove to a seedy motel on Austin’s interstate. As I parked, a clearly strung-out hooker approached. In a voice somewhere between whispery seduction and husky lunacy, she offered to spend the night with me. I grabbed my things, rushed into the room I’d been assigned, and locked the door. Before bed, I wedged a chair beneath the doorknob. Sleep came later—fitful, luridly lit, my night in forties film noir.

At home, my sons slept peacefully. At least, I like to think so. They woke to a house without a father.

At 6:30 on the morning of the 29th, I rang the doorbell at the home of friends. Paul was a teaching colleague, happily coupled with Gordon, a doctor. I spent a month in their spare bedroom, then moved into a one-bedroom apartment just north of the university. Weekdays, I taught. Weeknights before bed, I poured myself a glass of Merlot and sipped it sitting bedside and looking out the window, watching as the occasional student strolled by on the sidewalk, listening to the murmured voices, the intermittent whir of cars on my quiet street. It was a calming ritual. Wine, voices, humming motors helped me relax into sleep.

I saw Carson frequently—sometimes at my place, sometimes at the German House. Except for one night with him that spring, I don’t remember so much as a moment. We ate meals I prepared, talked across the table I’d purchased for the apartment, sipped glasses of Merlot, adjourned to my bed together, made love and slept, had breakfast before I drove him back to campus. Gone, every minute of our time together in my place. Erased. I think it was my brain’s way of exacting some kind of karma—deleting Carson, deleting us—payment for the husbandless bed, the fatherless house my wife and sons were inhabiting.

My journal reveals much about my state of mind, about the tensions of those months. The last entry on bound pages is dated April 30, 1994—remaining pages blank. Sandwiched between the last filled page and the next page, still waiting for words twenty-nine years later, I find a sheaf of papers—folded sheets of printed pages from my scrap-paper tray interleaved with ruled sheets of three-hole notebook paper, each with a list of dates, each date with scribbled notes I intended to expand into sentences, paragraphs, reflections.

The days were coming at me fast, events from my two lives overlapping and colliding. I wasn’t finding time to sit down and make sense of them. The note for Friday, May 13, reminds me that Carson rode with me to San Antonio, where I introduced him to Shannon Carroll, my Galveston lover of two decades before, living with his partner of almost twenty years. Shannon was fifty-nine, Carson thirty-one. I split the difference, lingering at the portal between two stages of myself—younger man falling and failing, older man calmly looking back. Shannon welcomed me, welcomed us. We sat in his kitchen and talked. This much is from memory—our voices and Shannon’s cigarette habit. The house was murky with smoke. The hasty list for my journal tells me almost nothing about May 13 and 14, except that, after retiring, Carson and I had sex. I was still keeping stats on us.

 

I do remember May 20, 1994. A small lined tablet page from the sheaf I just described, scribbled back and front, fills in the details. It was Carson’s last night in Austin—before a summer in Germany with his partner. We started with Mexican food and margaritas at La Zona Rosa, in the old Warehouse District. From there we walked the Shoal Creek Trail to the river and strolled east, pausing to take in the lights rippling up from the water. At one vantage point, he took my face into his hands and kissed me—several deep and lingering kisses. Approaching the Holiday Inn, we left the trail, walked across a swath of grass, and sat beneath a three-quarter moon. We talked. We kissed again. “I love you,” he said before we rose and walked back along the river.

At Carson’s direction, we left the river trail and walked up to Fifth Street. This part of downtown Austin was still shabby then—a moldering mélange of ramshackle warehouses and timeworn storefronts, some of them unoccupied. But there were intermittent pedestrians where we walked—and plenty of noise filtering down from the bars proliferating along Sixth Street. Without warning, Carson said, “Here we are,” and led me through a doorway emanating music and voices. A glance at the clientele and I knew we were in a gay establishment.

Carson guided me to the edge of the dance floor, then stood beside me grinning, while I turned my eyes to the dancers and gaped. The Fifth Street Station was not just any gay bar with a dance floor. It was a gay country music dancehall, and the floor was packed—men cheek to cheek, dressed head to toe in boots and jeans and flashy western shirts. Dancing. Together. The DJ was spinning “Someday Soon.” The voice was Suzy Bogguss, covering a Judy Collins tune I’d sung out loud from the porch swing at the German House some two dozen years before, my friends singing along.

I would follow him right down the roughest road I know.
Someday soon, goin’ with him someday soon.

I stood there, not believing the collision my eyes could plainly see—country music with its man-and-woman narrative, with its man-and-woman two-step—country music propelling coupled homosexuals to its irresistible rhythms. For minutes I looked on in shock, thinking men can’t dance with men to country songs. But the music was in me. As I stood there, judgment slipped away, and with Carson beside me I felt joy flooding my airways.

 

My summer alone turned out to be extraordinarily difficult. Hours after I dropped Carson at the airport for his departure to Germany, my father’s brother, who lived in Austin, died on an operating table. Cousins arrived for the funeral to discover I’d moved out of my life. Karen, Karl, Jack, and I limped through the family gatherings, the funeral, the burial. And I went back to a painfully silent, painfully empty apartment—a series of days that dragged, that threatened never to end. I did the best I could with uncertainty, knowing the man I loved was back in the life for which I’d served as intermission.

 

In August, when Carson returned, he spent ten days at my apartment. One afternoon when I was gone, the phone rang. Carson answered. A voice—my son Jack’s, though my lover didn’t know that—said, “Who is this?” Carson repeated the question: “Who is this?” Jack hung up. Carson hung up. Both were missing a crucial piece of information. I hadn’t told Jack that Carson was there. I hadn’t told my lover that my sons didn’t know he was there.

The weeks that followed blur—no journal entries to help me reconstruct what happened with Carson or what I was thinking about him and our time together. Fast as a carnival ride, Thanksgiving was upon us. During a brief half hour when I could get away, Carson sat across a table from me. I don’t remember where, though I like to picture us in the open air at Les Amis, a hippie-esque West Campus hangout that had been serving up burgers and beer since 1970. Carson and I were never at a loss for words. He never veered away from what he felt needed to be spoken.

“This will end,” he said.

Each of us bore the onus of betrayals. Carson had fallen in love with me, despite promises to his partner in Freiburg. I had violated vows to my wife, my sons, myself.

“You take charge,” Carson said, his gaze steady as a steel beam. “You decide when.”

Delaying the inevitable, I chose December 16, when he would depart for Christmas in Freiburg.

One afternoon that weekend, I was with Karl and Jack at the house the four of us had shared. Karen was gone somewhere. Sitting on the bed in Jack’s room, looking out the window at our backyard, leaf-dappled, I felt my rib cage tighten, my breath constrict. The boys were in the living room playing Nintendo. I told them I needed some air. At the street, I picked up my pace and walked a familiar two-mile route through our neighborhood. Houses in Bryker Woods dated as far back as the thirties. They were well kept, with immaculate, heavily shaded lawns. The leaves were down, the sky above them clear but wintry. The walk itself was a route, a habit I enjoyed. The streets, the houses, the trees had roots. And I was going to yank myself loose. The prospect increased my panic. Lengthening my stride, walking briskly, I managed to outwalk the jitters. By December 16, when I drove Carson to the airport, I was up to four miles a day.

 

On December 27, 1994, Karen and I drove together to a courtroom in downtown Austin—lots of wood, like something out of Raymond Burr’s Perry Mason, shadowy enough that it even felt like black and white. Other couples were in the chamber with us when the judge tapped his gavel, dissolving a cluster of marriages. Among those present was a teacher from my campus, a chronic alcoholic, desperately incompetent—a woman for whom I’d always felt some combination of pity and contempt. Afterward, as Karen and I approached the stairway that would take us out of the building, my colleague approached me and made a chummy comment about this new bond she thought she felt between us. I cringed inwardly and fled down the stairs.

We were in Karen’s car. Back at the house that had been ours, she pulled into the driveway beside the little maroon truck that was now legally mine. It was a quiet moment, tensions in abeyance between us. As I opened the passenger door, I turned to this woman who was no longer my wife.

“Put this behind you,” I said. “Put me behind you. Move on.”

 

I answered my phone one day in January to find my sister Judi on the line from Corpus Christi. She had news we’d both been dreading. After six and a half years of intermittent treatment, the doctors had run out of options for our mother. She’d endured her last bout with chemotherapy.

We spoke tersely, though in every word I felt the unspoken bond I shared with my sister, each of us bearing the weight of what our words knew. That our mother was coming to the last of her days with us. In the new life unfolding for me, Mother had been a godsend. She was able to hear that I am gay. She was able to say the word in my presence. And Daddy was silenced—wrecked—by knowing he would lose her. He had no energy for conflict, no stamina for anything except loving our mother.

Judi had called me in 1990, when the news of a recurrence brought Mother’s first symptom-free period to a close. My sister was a career nurse; her husband, Jake, had died of complications from lymphoma. “You know,” Judi said during that first call, “if cancer comes back once, it usually comes back again. And again.” I want to say that her words were cold. Not my sister herself. But the words. They settled in me like stone, a weight that chilled. I might almost forget, might move through a succession of weeks unburdened by dread. Until the phone rang again, as on this bleak January day. This call was different. It was the final call about our mother.

Four months later, she was gone.

 

In December, when Carson and I had parted, we’d agreed that I would pick him up when he returned. Our romantic, our sexual relationship would be over, but we’d thought to go on as friends. Days before his scheduled return, knowing I was nothing like ready for friendship, I drove to the German House and recruited his closest Austin friend to retrieve Carson from the airport. About my now ex-lover, I was still quite simply desperate. Our love—the sex that had fed my hunger for more—felt like all of Juliet’s oxymorons about Romeo knotted into a single unbearable blast of delirium. I had never felt this kind of love. I had known it would not last. There were too many complications, an excess of culpability in each of us, having what we wanted despite obligations elsewhere. Not seeing him was hard. But I could do it. I wasn’t sure I could see him and not have him.

Weeks after his return date, I meandered across the university campus one day. I heard my name called out behind me and turned to see Carson. We spoke briefly. I don’t remember the words. I remember numbness—like a root canal on the verge of waking. My memory of those months is sketchy at best. And not a single journal entry to help me reconstruct a chronology. The next time I saw him—I don’t remember how it happened, who called whom—Carson was my guest for the one meal we shared that spring. A bottle of Merlot as we ate, a long talk about life and love and us and the future. Shamelessly, I asked if we could have farewell sex. Just once. And then no more.

We adjourned to my bed. This time is like so many of the others. I remember what we did. He didn’t use a condom; I didn’t want him to. I wasn’t playing roulette with HIV. I wanted to feel Carson inside me; I didn’t believe we were taking a risk. I don’t remember the act itself, the sensations I wanted to feel. I don’t remember if he looked at me. I don’t remember what we said to each other, if anything. I don’t remember dressing afterward. Or watching him dress. Departing words, if any, floated away into the night. Departing gesture? I don’t know, though I assume that I drove this man I loved back to the German House, that we said something to each other before I drove away.

Weeks later—it was an evening in April—we spoke on the phone. Carson was in casual, newsy mode, talking as if to a friend who had no connection with his relational life. Blunt as gunfire from a practiced marksman, he delivered two items of interest. Bang: he’d ended his relationship with the man in Freiburg. Bang: he’d met someone new and moved in with him. I suppose I should have been grateful for shock, which kept me from uttering a word of reaction. Then we said goodbye and hung up.

I stood there for a moment, not quite inside myself. Then it hit me that what might have been was irretrievable. Grief came howling out of me. Sobbing, I called Judi. I think she thought I’d lost my mind. She kept saying, “But you told me it was over with him.” I hung up and called Paul and Gordon, who’d hosted me in their guest bedroom scarcely a year before. I was crying so hard they were at my door before I’d more than hung up. They thought surely I’d tested positive for HIV. The tears flowed while they were with me and flowed when they were gone. I cried until I’d used up all the air I had for crying

I could have absorbed hearing that Carson had ended his long-term relationship. Distance might have been a factor. Falling in love with me. Feeling that the overlap had jinxed both relationships. But in the space of weeks, he’d exchanged glances with someone in a bar—I learned the details later—hopped into bed with the new man, fallen in love, then moved out of the German House and into a tract house in South Austin, the neighborhood itself just oozing domesticity. As the recent lover—recently ex—I couldn’t ask him to explain. Anything I might have said would sound like sour grapes.

What he’d done looked hasty, impulsive, rudderless. Still does.

 

In early June, Carson and his new main squeeze said yes to a party I hosted. I was hoping we could be friends, stilted as I felt schmoozing with Carson while he stood arm in arm with the new man, awkward as I felt about his sudden transformation of two months before. Not long after, a woman friend accompanied me to dinner at their house. I managed to act like a friend who enjoyed the company, the stories about how they met, the smirking innuendo about their bedroom adventures. Still. All the passion and then the heartbreak reduced to this. Four voices making nice over dinner.

In 1999—or thereabout—I ran into Carson in a café attached to Central Market. In the interim, my life had changed dramatically. I’d fallen in love with the man who has shared my life since the opening moments of our first restaurant meal. Six months into our relationship, we’d purchased a house together. Friends had told us we were old enough to know better. Our answer: We’re old enough to know.

That day at Central Market, Carson and I spoke briefly—like two men who used to be friends—a casual exchange of inanities. Twice during the new century, I’ve gone to Google. Both times I found him, the second time as I was working on these memories. He looks to be doing well, sixty years old now, wearing a suit and tie in the professional headshot posted by the university where he serves as an assistant professor. Seeing him, I feel no sense of personal loss. He loved me once. I loved him then. Briefly. So briefly.

 

In the year that everything came apart—and the year that followed—I regularly encountered what I can only call a myth about the gay man who marries a woman and fathers children and then, facing the fact of himself, leaves his marriage. A fable, really—impossibly simplistic, invested with a cloying moral—this version of no one’s story scans like a suffering-and-redemption story inspired by Hallmark. Part One features a painful but clean coming to self-awareness, the major parties—husband, wife, children, confidants, outside love interest—are marked by a noble, self-sacrificing something or other. Part Two shows the coming to understanding that can be achieved by essentially sympathetic and mature adults united by a spirit of loving cooperation. I’m a career English major. I expect a modicum of nuance in a story that purports to say something about me—not a Lifetime movie of the week. Or a well-intentioned book for children in need of instruction about gay fathers.

I encountered a variant of this myth in the response of more than one sympathetic soul who, hearing that I was a gay divorced father, would all but pat me on the back, cooing bromides, the drift of which was this: Poor homosexual hiding in a loveless marriage. Trapped—O! The injustice!—in a world that wouldn’t accept him. And now he’s summoned the courage to be himself. I can’t speak for others, but for myself I say bunk. I wanted children before I had words to express the need. I loved the woman I married. While it is true that I didn’t want to be gay and didn’t want others to suspect I was, my marriage was not motivated by the need to hide.

Further: sometimes a man finds himself—finds courage, if you will—only by falling into the arms of another man, only by discovering the vehicle to ecstasy his body can become when sexual glue comes uncorked and spills out to work its magic. Sometimes coming out is messy. Sometimes everyone gets hurt. Sometimes Part Two is something other than redemptive. Sometimes the only lesson lies in simply getting through the days that come.

 

David Meischen is a Pushcart honoree with a personal essay in Pushcart Prize XLII. He is the author of Nopalito, Texas: Stories, forthcoming from University of New Mexico Press, and Caliche Road Poems, forthcoming from Lamar University Literary Press.

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