I’m From Brighton, IL.

by Michael Wense

State Satellite overhead image from Google Earth 2022

In the morning gridlock, next to me, a young man in his early twenties sat in a shiny new SUV. I couldn’t help but watch him sit there, head bobbing slightly to the beat of some song I couldn’t place, his hair perfectly mussed up, and tanned as if he’d just emerged from an oven like a golden-brown cookie. I wanted to bite into him, and if he’d looked over to notice the sweating nineteen-year-old in the next car, he couldn’t have helped but see the slack-jawed expression on my face, the little line of drool slipping out.

I considered what it might be like to finally have a boyfriend, and the thought filled me with a desperate excitement to counterweight the growing fear of starting college. Back home, my options in the department of love were limited to a couple of younger high school classmates and, if I were really desperate, a late-night party line telling me to “call now” if I wanted to…chat. Looking at this boy next to me, the rising sun catching on the gold sides of his Aviator sunglasses, I thought maybe now would be my time to live; I was finally getting away from the closed-off rural community of my youth and heading off towards what, to me, might as well have been a rainbow-streaked St. Louis skyline.

The boy in the SUV scratched his head, then readjusted a few errant strands of hair in his rearview mirror. I imagined him, his entire history, as a flat, smooth stretch of road. No bumps. No sudden curves. Nothing keeping him from his future. Even though we were both sitting here on the highway, I was the one who was stuck.

I searched the car radio for something upbeat and admittedly faggy, something I could turn up loud and let surge through the open windows. I tried to imagine catching the boy’s attention, but anything after him turning to meet my gaze was hazy, like looking for coins in a pool of murky water, and so I stopped. Besides, the morning radio was light on the dance beats of Madonna or Kylie Minogue, and I ended up settling for a soft rock station playing Harry Chapin’s “Cat’s In The Cradle.” Not exactly something one might dance to under the disco ball at JJ’s Clubhouse or Magnolia’s.

As I sat there listening to the words, softly tapping along with my hands on my jeans, I thought about my father; the lyrics didn’t exactly correlate, but the feeling was in the ballpark. If coming out had never seemed a viable option for me back home, the reason was the reaction I feared he would have. One of the few times I’d ever seen my father enraged was when he found me, thirteen years old, online and looking at pictures of naked men posing in any number of positions. Though it didn’t work, I tried explaining that these were “tastelessly candid” photos, “bare expressionism” or something, but I imagine anyone can tell porn when they see it. Before I knew what was happening, my father was standing before me, his finger pointed like a dagger in my face.

“Are you gay?” he asked me. “Because if you are…” He paused, as if searching for words heavy enough to hurt and frighten. “I will disown you,” he said slowly. “You will not be my son.”

Sure enough, those did the trick.

Admittedly, what did I expect in viewing the pictures right there on our den computer with my father right there in the next room? I had to ask myself, later: did I want him to see? Was it easier to set myself up for discovery than to work up the courage to reveal the real me? The answer didn’t seem to matter then, as denial can be a wonderful thing for a parent unwilling to accept what he doesn’t want to acknowledge; and so it was a few years later when he mistook one of my lesbian pals for my girlfriend. I told him no, that wasn’t quite right, but I simply left it at that. No further explanation. Coming out could be a relief, I heard, but the issue of homosexuality lit such a short fuse with him. It left a bitter taste in my mouth to think about telling him, or anyone in my family for fear that the news might spread. Instead, I liked the sound of a new beginning: one without denials or having to husband my desires in the shadows. And so the idea of going to college became going away to college. Call it necessity or good old-fashioned cowardice, but at nineteen years old, getting out was all I could manage to hope for. The rest could come later, when I was stable, secure, and ready.

Suddenly, sitting there, the growing wish I’d had to just go back home wasn’t so appealing. I was afraid of the newness, true; yes, the drive was long; and the anxiety was rising, but in the end, I told myself, maybe this would be good for me.

As the gridlock broke up and the cars around me began to move, it took me a second to go. I felt stuck, and I wondered if, perhaps, my engine had chosen this moment to die. But, looking in the rearview mirror at the sky over the distant place that was my home, I realized it was only me — my complacence, my fear — holding myself back. I imagined sitting one day in the passenger seat of a boy’s shiny SUV, windows down and ears throbbing with the pulse of the music, carefree. And pressing my foot against the accelerator I listened to the sounds of my struggling engine as I began, desperately, to drive.

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