(Trigger Warning: Suicidal thoughts)
by Eric Pitsenbarger
I remember walking home from Scott’s little house in the bright early morning feeling triumphant, jubilant! Finally I knew! I knew and was ecstatic! In my seventeen years of doubting, of struggling, the significance of this moment was huge. This time there was no doubt. The internal struggle had finally ended and my heart was full of joy. It felt like the sun’s radiance.
Really, I’d known as early as nine…but didn’t have words for it, I didn’t know what to call it. There was also a growing suspicion that whatever it was, it was wrong. My sensibilities and characteristics pointed to the fact but every turn seemed booby trapped with contradictory information, insidious doubt and confusion. It was like torture! Now I knew. All the testing and fumbling, the crushes and odd situations, the experimentation and fantasy games, the ways in which my young self manifested was a natural reaction to the…unnatural. Confusion had finally ended and this didn’t feel wrong at all! It felt so right! With Scott’s loving help, I had conquered my fear and faced the world with new eyes. This was an epiphany!
Clarity now also meant that the bullies were right; however, not only did I not care but, was proud of the fact. I wasn’t ashamed or terrified any more. I was stronger. This was euphoric! Wow…I was gay! There was a word for what I was. That was me, I was it. I was gay and my night with Scott was the very example of love making. This was how it was to actually make love with someone. An electric connection, the tenderness, the rising passion and explosive release. By comparison those few lame attempts with girls looked like drunken apes boxing to me now. Clumsy and weird. Overnight I’d morphed from shy, confused invisible dork…into Superman! After such a long struggle, this felt exactly like I had super powers.
I’d been gone all night and would have some explaining to do. The parents would want to know why I hadn’t come home last night and why I wasn’t there in the kitchen helping with the chores of the family restaurant on a week-end. I’d stayed out all night before so this wasn’t a precedent and would apologize profusely for being tardy, but this time it was different. I had big news!
This was huge and I knew that it would be quite the statement; but I’d never felt so sure about anything and for troubled, shy Eric to come home buoyed with such confidence would be a miracle in itself. I felt so sure that I would and could take any scolding my parents might exact. Certainly any disapproval would subside after the finger wagging. They would be happy for me, even proud that I’d made such a brave leap, had made my choice; as they had always been so encouraging, providing multiple ways in which to explore the world and to become my own genuine self since childhood. Encouraged in all creative activities, even mentored towards a more artistic and gentle outlook, I had been taken out of the public school system and given tantamount permission to stretch and to ‘find myself’ as part of a community of other hippie kids.
I had however become an undisciplined, laconic teenager. Depressed and confused; wasting time, running in circles…running away from what was right in front of me. Avoiding lessons, avoiding experiences and spending my days acting out role playing games as the all powerful Robot from: “Lost In Space”. A sentient machine in absolute control of a stylish, powerful flying saucer and guidance counselor to a misfit family of space wanderers. A cartoon paradox. The further away I flew, the closer I got to the truth; learning along the way a bitter caveat to so much freedom. Everything and anything was possible…except for one thing: The one thing I knew I truly was. A gay freak. I was a gay freak and the world was a surreal and scary place for the likes of me and this knowledge kept me wandering, afraid of the world.
How was I going to survive…lost in space? Encouraged on one hand to be myself while also being given the message that who I was…was wrong, I felt so alone and rather crazy, considering suicide many times with no resolution to my conundrum. I received no council from adults…only more space to float endlessly. No one else knew my horrible dilemma.
There was much more of course. I stuck around. Too chicken to kill myself and still intrigued by life; following the proverbial bread crumbs through the forest and finding myself along the way. I figured it out on my own and this made me extremely happy. A quantum leap from my swiss cheese confidence into Superman. The desperate search was over! I’d finally found myself and wanted to share the news!
All roads had lead to this moment. Now: as Superman I had in a single night grown from scared child to confidant young adult, leaping tall buildings and booby traps in a single bound. The world was not as scary or strangely surreal; it actually looked bright and warm, full of possibility…and fantastically sexy! I could still feel Scott’s warm hands on my tingling body! His beautiful brown eyes looking directly into mine. No one had ever looked at me like that, right into my soul. He had seen who I really was and liked what he saw and I had given him just as much pleasure in our embrace. We were satellites together spinning in space. Striding back home with birds celebrating and the sun beaming, I knew that everything would be different and better from this day onward.
Taking a deep breath, opening the side kitchen door the smells of bread and onions enveloping, I greeted mom and dad who were both at their usual stations, deep into the morning preparation. Mom smiled weakly…but she smiled. Arms in a bowl of pastry dough, her table in the corner a mess of flour and wax paper. Dad being his sarcastic self, raised an exaggerated arch eyebrow, saying something like: “Well! Look who showed up this morning!”. I apologized and was thankful, as it seemed that this was all I’d get in the way of lecturing. Whew! I decided to just say it. The opportunity was ripe. It was just the parents and me. My two sisters were somewhere else…upstairs still?
“Mom, dad…I need to tell you something. It’s kind-of important. Please listen for a moment”.
That got their attention. I was never as formal or had ever requested they stop the all important progression of the morning. Mom wiped her hands, straightened her apron. Dad put down the knife he used to skin fish. OK. Eyes and ears were focused on me. My nerve was wavering, the kitchen clock banged out the seconds.
“I spent the night with Scott. It was amazing. I love him. I’ve made a great discovery! I think I’m gay! I know it. I’m Gay!”.
Silence. There was a pressure change. The warm kitchen full of light and life, suddenly became cold and dark, air sucked out like the cargo hold of a spaceship. Mom stood frozen in her pantry enclave, dad rooted to his chopping block…the knife right there. The clock ticked, soup pot bubbled. Heady smells of cooking surrounded me, crushing. The long nothing, their non-reaction was not encouraging. I had been so sure that it would have been something else, but not this. Not horrible. Then, dad exploded.
“You are not gay! This is not real and you are just a kid. You don’t know anything!” Wow. He was turning purple with rage.
I stood my ground. “Dad, I am gay. I’ve been struggling with this for years. I’ve known for a long time…”.
Not able to finish my sentence, dad interrupted by rushing at me, yelling in my face: “Then you are not my son! You are dead to me! Get out! You no longer live here! I never want to see you again! I don’t care if you die!”
Mom was cautioning him, coming forward, hands out…trying to make peace as always. I had backed up against the kitchen door, shocked and winded. Deer in the headlights. Dad reached out and grabbed me by the back of the neck like a child or a dog, roughly flinging open the door and shoving me out.
“You are no longer my son! Never come back! Get out! Out! Die if you can!” He slammed the door in my face, which was now flooding tears and he turned his back, going right back to his work, as if this had only been a minor interruption.
I was dead. Struck dead on the spot by the violent reaction of my own loving, encouraging (if albeit harried), dad turned suddenly into a monster! Had I indeed made a terrible mistake? Was I so wrong? All the doubts came rushing back. Was I actually crazy and didn’t realize it?
Stumbling out into the street, away from the house I heard crashing and smashing, yelling. Mom and dad were yelling at each other! The first time I’d ever heard them argue! Everything had come apart and I was sobbing, terrified again…the horror of what had happened collapsing any joy I’d felt. I had done a horrible thing, had made a terrible mistake and now must pay the price. Unprepared for the fallout, this felt exactly like I was dead. Cold and empty. Where would I go? Where did I live now? Homeless.
Walking back and forth in the street, numb and shaking I saw the upstairs bedroom window fly open and in a moment clothes, records, books…all my things were thrown out into the street. All my stuff being discarded like trash. I used to be a son, a family member…now just trash.
It seemed wrong! It was wrong! This was ridiculous! I began to get mad. Dad was the one who was wrong, not me. I had harmed no one and was in fact a raving success! Dad’s reaction was about something else…there was a fire coming from somewhere I couldn’t see. More confusion. Maddening, exhausting confusion.
My two younger sisters came running outside. “What’s happening!? What’s going on!?”
I told them in between gulps of air, could barely breath. Greta rushed back into the house, screaming at dad. Greta, my closest sibling was also my staunch defender. She’d come to my rescue more than once. I could hear her, a fourteen year old taking on the Seven Headed Hydra that used to be my father.
“Stop it! Stop it! That’s Eric! You can’t do that!” It was impossible to consider. Dad had excommunicated his one and only son…for being himself, for being gay. Obviously the worst offense possible.
Picking through my discarded things on the street, everything looked shabby and ugly. Broken records, torn books, dirty clothes. I didn’t really want any of it. Little Kristin stooped and helped me collect a bit, moving it all to a small pile in the gutter.
I was a zombie. I moved, but was dead. Kristin’s eyes were wide and staring at me, she didn’t understand. Enraged at dad for harming her as well through this outburst, I threw the broken articles down. This stuff didn’t matter anymore. Our lives were now wrecked because of this unbelievable outburst. My father was a total asshole! Unforgivable. My innocent little sister, watching her older brother be cast away like trash…and how did that make her feel? Traumatized! What was she thinking? That she could be next?! I hated dad now for what he had done. My respect for him lay there broken in the gutter right along with the pile of stuff. If he had rejected me as a son…he as well was now just a thing and not my father at all. My father died right along with the rest of us this day, killed by a horrible act. Everything had changed.
The world was indeed very different and I was once again lost in space but this time not at all in control; not an unfeeling robot or master of anything, but a critically under-dressed astronaut, floating untethered to anything, except the tenuous feeling of self righteous pride in the “great work” I’d accomplished and also, bitter irony at what that had caused. None of this made any sense somehow.
Retracing my steps aimlessly towards Scott’s place, one foot in front of the other, barely looking at where I was going. Almost wishing a car would just mow me down as I wandered blind into the street. A slow moving zombie teenager was an easy target. I didn’t care if I made it to the next block or found myself at the edge of the cliff, overlooking the ocean. I didn’t hear the joyful Robin-song of earlier, sea gulls were laughing overhead. A chill sea breeze blew hair in my face. Fog was seeping in and blotting out the sun; the day dissolving into nightmare.
Maybe I would actually do it this time: Toss myself off the cliff like I’d heard others had done. Crazy people, drugged out hippies, stupid tourists…desperately lonely, broken hearted teenagers. Just sit on a cliff’s edge in a precarious spot and wait for a large wave to wash me off and suck me under. The end.
I didn’t drown, but took a long staggering walk around town, finally ending up standing in front of Scott’s. The wooden gate was ajar and I could hear our muse Joni Mitchell singing about Big Yellow Taxi’s from inside. He was still here. He would comfort me…but it felt awful, asking to be comforted. Embarrassing. Imposing my sudden drama on him. This beautiful, sophisticated young man who was so far beyond my simple small town clumsiness. Being gay was normal for him, he had been out forever it seemed. This stuff would seem silly to him; and here I was about to muddy the perfect gift of this experience with my sad spectacle.
He did comfort me and offered me sanctuary, but I could tell that he was also uncomfortable and that the blush of euphoria I’d felt with him was fading rapidly and turning into something else. He had to get on with his day, had his workshops to attend. He had somewhere to go, was independent and not as attached to me and this odd moment. Another bitter life lesson.
After he’d gone for the day and I sat there listening to Joni wail about lost love and squandered opportunity, there was a knock on the door. My two sisters Greta and little Kristin were standing on the stoop like small statues, looking at me with different eyes. How did they find me!? How had they known where to go? It was a very small town, but I hadn’t told anyone where Scott lived.
“Mom says to come home. It’s alright. Dad’s calmed down.” They both threw their arms around me and we stood there on Scott’s porch holding each other. The sun was out again. Typical summer weather on the northern California coast.
I wrote Scott a brief note, thanking him and walked back home with the girls. A strange stroll, once again past all those smiling Victorian homes that I’d past three times today now…had grown up with. All of them looking like grinning old man faces, faded and creased, all staring at me.
Life returned slowly to ‘normal’. Dad apologized in a casual way, as if it had almost never happened. Later even forgetting the incident entirely, denying it completely.
“No! I never did that!” I had just made it all up. “You’re exaggerating again, Eric.”
My sisters and mother were witness. They corroborate my story. It happened.
I pursued Scott for a bit longer, visiting him later that summer down in LA where he really lived. He was gracious, but I deduced that this wasn’t the love of my life after all. It was never as strong as that one moment.
Many years later, after I had moved away, had relationships, an independent life and distance between my parents, did I learn an amazing, startling truth: That the real reason my dad had reacted so violently and had turned from supporter and mentor into crazy person; that the fire I’d sensed coming from somewhere unknown, was still smoldering (and was never to be extinguished), was the fact that my very own dad was gay. Both of my parents were gay!
Uniting as friends, then later as lovers and finally into a married couple, my parents had been living unfulfilled lives with partners, struggling with all the same demons I faced, but were actually punished and scorned by the society of the late nineteen fifties. They needed to find solace and to survive in a hostile environment, making a pact to be friends first and create a ‘normal’ life…to create a family.
‘Concerned’ for my well being, dad had been trying to protect and shield me from the horrors that he perceived would come from being an outcast, from being ostracized, marginalized, discriminated against and punished for being yourself. He was reacting to the ugly past, come back to haunt him and here I had blithely, if innocently shoved it all in his face again. His son…gay!? Inconceivable. Indeed, the worst offense possible.
It was inconceivable, that my new found truth, was his as well. He had been through a similar torturous path and had made so many hard choices, had sacrificed so much. I didn’t know! It was the last thing I expected. How could it be possible!?
The awful history of his dishonorable discharge from the Air Force was revealed. The great love affair shattered…the love of his life, never to be seen again. The lasting shame and damage done, the self hatred and festering guilt. The spirit crushing evil of being disowned by your own family, cast out by authority, dismissed by society. Wrong, wrong, wrong! All wrong. All of the demons I wrestled with: the confusion and doubt in your own sanity…the terrible belief that perhaps what was ‘normal’, what society labeled me as: a freak, were all true. A defining moment for my father and me. A peace making moment. We are now closer than ever. He is my best friend. We are brothers, we are happy…and we’re gay.
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