It was a combination of moments, really, that got me writing right now. Moments, layered one on top of the other, that brought to mind the line from Virginia Woolf, “Life is not a series of gig lamps symmetrically arranged; life is a luminous halo, a semi-transparent envelope surrounding us from the beginning of consciousness to the end.” Today, one semi-transparent envelope wafted delicately to settle one on top of the next so that, when gazed through all together, they became a single lens. A telescope, a microscope maybe, that brought into focus — for just another moment — an entire world. An entire gay world.
Let me explain.
Later tonight I am flying to see, for a brief 20 hours, one of my closest friends, the kind of friend who makes you, sometimes breaks you, and always, for whatever reason, lives permanently inside of you. After being out of touch for far too long, years now, all it took for me to book an immediate flight were the weighted words, “Please come see me.”
Before I fly out tonight, my mom decided this afternoon to take me to lunch at her favorite chain restaurant lunch spot. We munched on enormous salads and tentatively slurped oddly flavored soup, and we chatted about the never-ending family gossip that I had missed out on living across the country, gossip that I was quickly catching up now that I was back home for an extended visit. Talk turned to my 12-year-old nephew Travis, who is obviously gay, but certainly not out. I hadn’t yet had the chance to talk to my mom (or my sister, for that matter) about Travis being gay, so I haltingly explained to my mom that Travis had reached out to me a number of times since I’d been back, telling me often that he knew he and I were a lot alike on the inside, that he just knew he was going to grow up to be like me, things like that. I’ve been wanting to respond to him, especially as he prepares to enter seventh grade, where life is too often dotted with anti-gay landmines. But I’ve waited to reach back out to Travis so that I could be sure I was doing it right, and as importantly, that his parents approved.
As I spoke, my mother sipped slowly from her Diet Coke, nodding to herself as she thought about having a gay grandson in addition to her gay son, before finally (and rather loudly) stating, “Well, I’ve thought he was gay since he was two years old! I think you should help him! That’s what I think! Talk to him!” She went on to say that Travis had already been called all the usual gay slurs at school and that he’d even stopped playing baseball not because he didn’t like it but because the other boys teased him so much. In between bites of clam chowder my mom told me that I needed to let Travis know that being gay is just fine and he needs to be proud of who he is. She carefully placed her spoon on the table and added, “He needs your help, Andrew.”
On the way out of the restaurant, my younger sister (Travis’s mother) called to see if we were still on for tennis. I’d forgotten for a moment that we’d made plans earlier in the week to play this afternoon. We grew up playing together, and it’d been at least a decade since we last played each other, what with her being married and having four kids and going to school and me living thousands of miles away . . . . I hurried back to my mother’s house to change and gather my gear.
When my sister picked me up, I was surprised, and pleased, to see that she’d brought her four kids, including Travis. We drove to the nearby tennis courts, unloaded ourselves and the kids, and started playing tennis on a gorgeous summer day. My sister and I hit for a while, with her kids acting as ballboys, and her wicked forehand left me flat-footed more than once. As we played and settled into a soothing pattern of forehands and backhands, I drifted into memories of us playing as kids, just the two of us hitting the tennis ball back and forth for hours and hours on whatever tennis court we could sneak on to, using outdated equipment and flat tennis balls, until our hands blistered or we were too hungry to continue. We weren’t entirely sure what we were doing on the court then, but we knew we loved playing.
After an hour, I noticed Travis poking through my tennis bag and slowly withdrawing one of my spare racquets. After a few stretched out seconds, he moved shyly to the side of the court where his mom was playing, swinging the racquet nonchalantly behind him while not looking anywhere in particular. Instinctively, his mom moved to make room for him. He wants to play, I thought. Mom was right — he does want to play sports. At least this one. At least right now. And there’s no one here to make him feel bad.
I hit the ball slowly to him a few times. And he swung and missed almost every ball, and the times he did connect with the ball it flew behind him or over to the next court. It became evident in a hurry that he needed a whole lot of instruction. I held my racquet and free hand in the air, calling for a time out. Travis’s shoulders slumped, thinking I was going to tell him to stop playing, but I shook my head and waved him over. He perked up instantly and smiled and hurried over to my side of the court. My sister smiled (mostly to herself) and nodded to me and moved off the court to play with her other kids, who, having quickly tired of the “ballboy” game had created a kind of volleyball/tennis hybrid using a beachball on the court next to us.
Twirling my spare racquet behind him with his lips pressed together, Travis stood gingerly next to me.
I tilted my head at him. “Hey, you want me to teach you a little bit about how to play tennis? Like, a quick lesson right now?”
He brushed the hair out of his eyes and nodded enthusiastically.
“Okay, this is how you hold the racquet on the forehand side . . . .” And I started explaining how to use his shoulders, how to hold his free arm, how to adjust his body in relation to the tennis ball, how to follow through. Travis nodded sharply at each point, understanding.
“Uncle Andy, like this?”
“Uncle Andy, like this?”
“No, try it like this. Yes, like that. Very good.”
“Uncle Andy, like this?”
He took a few tentative swings using the information I’d given him, and he squinted up at me with his huge root beer-colored eyes and Justin Bieber haircut. And he just stared. And as his eyes searched mine I saw that his were overflowing with questions, and none of them were about tennis. I saw that with each day my gay nephew was feeling more and more different, more and more afraid, falling further and further into himself. His world was changing daily, morphing into a place where he wasn’t quite as welcome as he was the previous day. And he didn’t know what to do. This little gay boy, my gay nephew, didn’t know what to do. Travis smiled sadly and said, “Uncle Andy, I don’t want to do it wrong.”
I hugged him against me with one arm. “You know what Travis? You won’t. I’m right here.” And, in an internal nova, my big gay heart flashed and expanded to fill my entire body.
Our tennis lesson ended, and Travis ran to put my racquet back in my tennis bag. He started skipping happily around the court (what my seventh grade teacher used to call “faggoty prancing” when I used to do it). Travis skipped and danced, hands in the air, singing to himself, until he slipped on one of the white court lines, fell awkwardly, and skinned his knee. Tears sprang immediately to his eyes, and he rocked back and forth with his chin resting on the injured knee. Wincing, he looked at his mom, looked at me, then back down. He slowly got up, bent to rub his knee for a moment, and then with a quick flick of his head he flung his hair out of his eyes and resumed his celebratory skipping.
This, this, is what I am taking with me tonight as I fly to see a brilliant friend who has certainly taught me thing or two.