My mother broke the awkward silence.
"I want to ask you a personal question, and I hope you don't mind."
"Sure, why would I mind?" I replied. I'd just hoped that no one else in the cafeteria would care.
She leaned forward and put her hand on mine. "Are you gay?"
"Mom, we dealt with this 20 years ago!" I reflexively looked over my shoulder, just in case anyone around us might have overheard. "You were cool with it, don't you remember?"
She pushed her tray aside and patted the crumbs off her chest as if she were freshening up an old pillow.
"Well, I just wanted you to know, I'm your mother and you're my son and I'll love you until the day I'm gone, but please — let's not tell your father. I just want to enjoy a quiet meal for once, without a lot of yelling and gnashing of teeth around the dinner table."
My father had passed away years earlier.
"Don't worry, Mom," I reassured her, "I won't, but why don't you tell me a few good stories about Dad, instead?"
While my mother reminisced about my father, a dormant, vaguely unsettling memory of my own slowly reawakened and rudely elbowed its way to the forefront of my mind.
"Faggot!" the old man hissed. "You look like a faggot!"
Back when I was a teenager in the late '70s, my father had dragged me out of bed one morning so that I could help him with the yard work. I'd reported for duty freshly showered and shaved, and my hair perfectly parted down the middle and feathered. I was sporting a salmon-colored velour shirt, skintight Britannia jeans, and simply stunning virgin white Converse high-tops.
"Take off that crap and get into some work clothes!" my father exclaimed as he waved me away in mock disgust. "Good God!"
"John?" My mother hadn't realized I was daydreaming.
"I'm so sorry," I replied. I felt like the most vile person on the planet.
"Anyway," my mother cleared her throat. "I want to ask you a personal question and I hope you don't mind."
She clutched my hand again: "Are you gay?"
"Um … Mom, really?" I pulled away, as if her senility was contagious. "You just asked me that five minutes ago, don't you remember?"
"Oh, I did?" she replied with heartbreaking apathy, "Well, I just wanted you to know that I'm your mother and you're my son and I'll love you till the day I'm gone. But please — let's not tell your brother. I just want to enjoy a quiet meal for once, without a lot of yelling and gnashing of teeth around the dinner table."
My brother Ray, who was sitting outside in the car during my visit, had known that I was gay since he was 7. His neighborhood friends had told him so while they were playing a game of Wiffle ball down the street.
Like any typical 14-year-old, I was in the middle of my "mad scientist" phase and I'd camp out in my bedroom experimenting for days on end. I had received a Radio Shack do-it-yourself crystal radio kit for Christmas and after weeks of trial and error, I'd just gotten it to work — the radio had actually begun to emit static from its little speaker! I grasped the dial. I couldn't wait to connect with the outside world.
As I searched for a station, Ray burst through the front door in tears.
"What the hell is wrong?" the old man asked. My brother heaved and stuttered: "Philip and Brian s-s-said John's a f-f-fag."
Panic-stricken, I quietly closed my bedroom door, and pressed my ear up against it.
"Oh, Ray!" my mother consoled him. "They're lying. John's not like that. He's a good boy, a decent boy. Why would they say something so horrible? So untrue?"
Anonymous footsteps approached my bedroom door, paused for a moment — but then gingerly retreated. In the end, nothing ever came of the incident, though I was met with a cold silence for the rest of the afternoon.
"John?" my mother fidgeted with her pillbox. "I want to ask you a personal question but I need you to look me directly in the eye and tell me the God's honest truth: are you gay?"
"Oh my god, Mom, again?? You can't be serious!" I was exasperated at this point.
"Well, I just want you to know that I'm your mother and ... "
"Yeah, I get it, I'm gay but you love me anyway."
A nearby custodial care worker shot me a dirty look, but the young woman was quick to follow up with a warm, knowing smile.
"Mom, I'm sorry," I whispered, "it's just that all the group hugs lately have been making me feel a little bit uncomfortable."
Before I could go on, my brother approached the table, but he didn't sit down. His eyes were still red. Ray's lunch break was coming to an end and he signaled that it was time to go.
We hugged and kissed Mom goodbye and made our way out to the parking lot. Off-white magnolia petals from an overhanging tree blanketed the car.
As I drove my brother back to work, I turned on the windshield wipers to clear away the last of the spent blossoms.
"Talk to me, Ray," I implored. "It's too quiet in here."
"Hey, um ... thanks for goin' it alone in there with Mom. Sometimes I can't handle ... "
"Oh man, don't worry about it," I reassured him, "I told her you got stuck in traffic."
"Thanks." he replied, shaking his head. "I love you, man, I really do."
"I love you too, Ray," I sighed, "I love you too."
JOHN DANIEL lives in Sacramento. He blogs at Confessions of an 80's Gaybro.