Mom died in a car accident on the way to pick me up from my last day of ninth grade. Or pick us up, really. I was with Tessa that day, my best friend since preschool. Mom was supposed to sign us out of school at noon so she could take us to some fancy lunch place in Brooklyn to celebrate. We even wore our nicest dresses to make it more of an occasion. Instead, we waited at a Baskin-Robbins until 6PM, when I got the call.
I don’t remember much of the week afterwards, but I do remember my father and aunt at the funeral telling me I’d be living with him.
“It’s just for the summer sweetheart, don’t worry,” Aunt Mary reassured, “You’ll still start school with all your friends in September. Don’t worry about that.” I think Aunt Mary could sense the dread peeling off of me. She was my mom’s sister. She always hated my father, too.
Whenever my father had me for the weekend, I never went to his place upstate. He’d come into the city and stay in a hotel room in Midtown, alone, while I slept at home. We always followed the same routine: A spy thriller movie, an arcade, and hot dogs.
The tradition was born when I was seven. I had an unhealthy addiction to any form of visual media, and I took it upon myself to memorize each movie poster on my route to and from school. The Bourne Ultimatum had an aggressive marketing campaign that year, and the action hero became as familiar to me as SpongeBob or Arthur. So when my father asked if there were any good movies out at the start of that fateful weekend, I gave the obvious answer.
“Like Jason Bourne? Isn’t that a bit old for you?”
“It has Matt Damon. He was Spirit in the horse movie.”
It was all my father needed to push aside the little good parenting that resided within him and indulge in a movie he actually wanted to see.
I ran to the bathroom when I saw a bullet go through someone’s shoulder and hid there for what felt like the rest of the movie, or at least until my father found me.
“Where were you?” he asked, with genuine concern in his voice, I must admit.
“I ate something bad for breakfast.” I didn’t know what that meant, but I heard Mom say it once to get out of work on my birthday. “I loved the movie, I’m sad I missed it.”
He really took that feigned sadness to heart, apparently, because after that, our weekends were born. Post-spy thriller movie, we went to an arcade, preferably Dave & Buster’s, but only played that two-person zombie shooter game.
“Now we can be just like ______!” He would exclaim, filling in the blank with whichever action hero we had watched that day.
And then after, we’d find a restaurant that served hot dogs. I don’t remember where the hot dog thing came from.
So, because of this routine that played out on the second weekend of every other month, I had never actually seen my father’s house until I moved in with him.
The street my father lived on was crowded with suburban mansions. Crowded is the wrong word, as these homes had yards that gave ample distance between the homeowners and any pedestrians. The street was itself beautiful. Trees flanked either side of it, arcing symmetrically towards one another. They created a canopy of rich, leafy green that was so awe-inspiring, you could barely notice how manicured the trees really were. All of this complemented the endless two-story, vaulted-ceiling, front-door-with-faux-grecian-pillar homes. It dawned on me, as I stepped out of his car into the driveway of his own mansion, that I had no idea what my father did for a living.
On the drive there, my father broke the news that he lived with two roommates: Kennon and Alex. He twisted his hands back and forth across the steering wheel as he told me this.
“They’re, uh, together. Like your Mom and I once were.” It was difficult to say why I suddenly felt so uncomfortable. Was it the mention of my deceased mom? Or the fact that my father was comparing their brief fling to the relationship of this presumably happy adult couple? “Do you get what I mean?” Or because he was trying to explain what being gay was to me?
“That they’re both dudes?”
“Uh, yes. Will that make you uncomfortable at all?”
“Are you checking to see if I’m homophobic?”
“Well, Gillian, I don’t–”
“Yeah, I think I’m good with gay people, thank you.”
“I have something to tell you,” I said to Mom, a week before she died. We were sitting at the dinner table, having just finished her famous chicken piccata, slowly eating away at a sleeve of Thin Mints for dessert. I was doing most of the eating, trying to extend this post-dinner period of conversation for long enough to get the courage to say what I needed to.
“What is it?”
“Is it okay if I write it down?”
“Of course, sweetheart.”
I pulled out my phone and willed my trembling fingers to enter my password, open the Notes app, and type the message out. When I was done, I placed my phone on the table, face up, and pushed it towards her. Tears had already formed in my eyes by the time she was done reading.
“Oh, baby,” She got out of her chair and wrapped her arms around my shoulders from behind. “Why are you crying? This is a good thing.”
“I was scared,” I choked out.
“That I wouldn’t be okay with it?”
“There is nothing you can do that will stop me from loving you, okay?”
I nodded again, and she buried her lips into my hair, leaving gentle kisses along my scalp. My breathing slowed. She dragged her chair alongside mine and held my hand in hers.
“Jesus Christ, Gill, you had me scared there for a second. I thought you killed someone or something.”
“What?” I laughed and wiped my snotty nose with the back of my hand.
“Maybe murder would be enough to stop me from loving you.”
“I’m kidding, sorry, sensitive moment.” She kissed the back of my hand. “So, do you have a crush on anyone?”
“Mom!” I said, again, whining this time.
“What! I’ll admit it, I’ve been fantasizing about you marrying Josh Shipton ever since he asked you out in second grade. Give me a lesbian fantasy to go with.”
“Bad wording, forgive me,” She paused long enough to sense my reluctance to answer, “But the question remains.”
“Um,”I pulled my hand from her grasp and tucked my hair behind my ear. “Tessa?”
“Tessa! Like, Tessa Tessa?”
She laughed hysterically. A full-belly, deep, laugh that left her slamming the palm of her hand on the table. “When you two were in third grade, I think? You were playing house, I can’t remember who was the mom and who was the dad, but you were adamant on getting naked for a shower after putting your ‘kids’ to bed.”
“Oh my god,” I could feel the blood rush through my cheeks as they flushed red.
“I always thought it was such a funny story. I think about it weirdly often. But it all makes sense now! You just knew what you wanted and went for it. My little lesbian firecracker.”
“Ok, that’s good. Glad you’re good with it. All done,” I dismissed her.
Mom was the only person I told. It did feel like a regression, in a way, when she died. I had all this emotional momentum. I felt ready to come out, eager even, but there was no room left for that after a FedEx truck t-boned my mom into the grave and me into the closet.
Kennon and Alex were waiting in tandem in the home’s entryway like a Queer Eye-d version of the twins from The Shining.
“Hi!” They chimed together, in a sing-songy tone meant to sound delicate enough for a grieving daughter. They fulfilled the age-old gay adage of boyfriends that could easily be brothers. Their only noticeable difference was their size. Though their bodies were proportionately the same, Alex looked slightly shrunk down, giving them the illusion of two different sized action figures of the same character.
As I stared at them, the generational gap in the room became apparent. Not between me and the adults, but between my father and his roommates. He was 43, and they had to be in their mid-fifties, at least. It only raised more questions before I was being whisked away on a house tour.
The house could have belonged to any number of Gen Xers with a knack for modern design. Though tasteful and elegant, it was devoid of all personality. The mantelpiece displayed a collection of small, generic glasswork. Any bookshelves seemed to be curated by Oprah’s Book Club. An unsettling amount of walls were left bare, leaving awkward blank spaces above couches and alongside the dining room table. There were even screws that I assumed held art of the past, left as a reminder of the potential the space had.
Me and my father’s rooms lay at the end of the same hallway on the second floor.
“Take your pick!” he said.
“Don’t you live in one of them? Shouldn’t I just take the other one?” I peered into both of the rooms. They were identical in their emptiness, each containing only a furnished bed and a nightstand.
“I’m not attached. You choose.” The gesture felt empty considering my subpar options.
“I’ll take the one on the right.”
Tessa’s family had a house in Northern Dutchess County, about 40 minutes from where my father was. It was my one saving grace, the fact that she was close enough for us to hang out on a regular basis. The first time we saw each other that summer, about three days after I moved in, a visit to Baskin-Robbins was in order. The ice cream chain had become the backdrop for the majority of our friendship, a tradition I was proud to take part in. We spent the afternoon on a strip mall bench, nursing cups of hard ice cream with hot fudge. Her mom parked directly across from said bench, sipping at her own milkshake as she stood on dead-mother-breakdown watch.
She gasped when I first told her about Kennon and Alex, “Your dad has gay roommates?! That’s, like, so cool. Also really nice! It’s nice to know he’s not homophobic.”
Tessa had committed herself to finding the silver lining in every aspect of my life since Mom died. It would have bugged me more if her mention of homosexuality didn’t make my stomach churn with nerves and excitement.
“You thought my father was homophobic?” I asked.
“I mean, not for any reason. But absent dad, homophobia. It makes sense.”
“He thought I was homophobic at first, actually.”
“Shut. UP! How do you know?”
“He straight-up asked me. He was telling me about Kennon and Alex and then was all like ‘Will you be uncomfortable with that?’”
“That’s so funny. You, of all people, homophobic.” She laughed.
I nervously laughed along with her. “What do you mean?”
“Just because you grew up in New York City and everything.”
“Oh yeah, totally.”
That afternoon I found something to keep myself busy: thinking about Tessa at every waking moment of the day. It was a fun way to preoccupy the mind, and gave me something to do while I sat in my bed for hours, avoiding conversation with my father and the forced kindness of the gay twin lovers.
In the week before Mom died, after I came out, she spent a lot of our time together brainstorming ways for me to confess my feelings to Tessa, or at least probe if Tessa had been giving signals that I hadn’t picked up on yet. It was why she was picking us up early from school that day, so that she could observe us spending a whole day together and report her thoughts back to me afterwards.
I never told anyone that at the time, the real reason behind Mom picking me up early. First, how could I, without coming out? And second, I knew that they would tell me to not blame myself, and that would be exhausting. There was no way I could have known that a FedEx truck’s brakes would fail at the exact moment it was approaching a red light on that Friday afternoon. It felt like a waste of energy to blame myself. But focusing on Tessa helped me feel closer to Mom. Like I was completing a mission that we started together.
At the end of June, I cried really hard in the middle of dinner. I was sitting as the lone head of the dining room table, which I liked. Kennon and Alex sat on my left, the bigger one in the seat next to mine, and my father sat on my right, which allowed me to avoid eye contact throughout the meal. My father decided it was a good idea that night to make Mom’s chicken piccata recipe, which didn’t directly upset me. If anything, it annoyed me that he thought he was making a grand gesture with all of it. What upset me was how good it was. Like, as good as Mom’s. I could not taste any difference in quality. Which sucked because it meant that it wasn’t really Mom that made it special or famous at all, it was just the chicken and the piccata.
It was bad, like shaking-can’t-breathe-crying, and I just kept staring at the eggshell white wall across from me. I could sense the three sets of eyes in my periphery staring at me in shock, uncertain how to proceed.
“This was a dumb idea.” My father shifted in his chair.
I pushed myself away from the table, hard, and propelled lemon-drenched capers across everyone’s placemats.
In the sanctuary of my bare room, I called Tessa. She said all the right things.
“He did not make chicken piccata. In what world would that be a cute idea?”
A knock on the door interrupted us. “Hey,” my father called softly, “Are you okay?”
“Yes. I’m talking to Tessa. I’m fine.”
“I left a frozen pizza outside the door if you get hungry.”
I pressed my phone tighter against my ear.
After Tessa went to bed, two hours later, I painted fantasies in my head. Tessa and I in my father’s mansion, alone, confessing our feelings for one another and then making out in every room of the house just because we could. Or of us having a picnic, wearing matching gingham dresses on a large gingham blanket. Or of Tessa, at the end of the summer, or no, a few weeks before then, of Tessa eating me out for the first time. It was a momentous occasion preceded by many sleepless nights spent confessing our fears of and mutual lack of experience with lesbian sex.
That night I knew I was in love with her.
One night in July, my father thought up Hot Dog Night, which just meant that he would grill us hot dogs for dinner in the backyard.
“I can’t believe you’ve never had toasted buns before,” The toasted buns were the magnum opus, “It’ll make the hot dogs so much better. The crunch!”
I felt very little excitement, especially considering that Hot Dog Night meant we needed to grill while it was still light outside, and Hot Dog Night was to be a “family event,” which felt extreme when we were living with a middle-aged gay couple unrelated to either of us. Regardless, this meant Tessa could not attend Hot Dog Night, and her mom had to pick her up early so she wouldn’t interfere with Hot Dog Night.
After saying goodbye to Tessa in the driveway, I walked around the side of the house towards the backyard. For some reason, my early arrival to the event was unexpected by all attending members of Hot Dog Night, because as I turned around the corner of the house, I saw my father, standing over the grill, flanked on either side by his two roommates, with his tongue down Kennon’s throat and his hand planted firmly on Alex’s ass. I spun around, walked back around the side of the house, and slammed the front door as loud as I could when I entered. By the time I reached the sliding glass doors to the backyard, Kennon and Alex were sitting side-by-side at the patio table while my father lifted hot dog buns off the grill.
“Look at that toast, Gillian!” He displayed a crisped bun in my direction. “This is gonna be great.”
“Hot Dog Night!” Kennon added, with jazz hands.
My father’s involvement with Kennon and Alex didn’t make me angry. I was already angry at him for leaving Mom, and for insisting on continuing a relationship with me that neither of us enjoyed. So learning that he left my mom to be in a gay situation-ship in Upstate New York with two men over a decade older than him was sort of exciting. At least I got some good entertainment out of him.
It added fuel to the Tessa fire as well, as the mystery of their relationship interested her just as much.
“Are we even certain your dad is gay?” We were lying on our backs on my bed, watching the blades of the ceiling fan swirl in the air above us. “Or even bi?”
“What do you mean?” I propped my body up with my elbows as I turned to face her. She did the same.
“Like, what if it’s sex work?”
“Like a mail order bride, but for gay couples to find a third.”
“Maybe, it all depends if it’s just sex or if there are feelings, too,” I added.
“Have you seen them do relationship-y things together? Like, besides the grill thing?”
“Not really, but I also don’t see them for much of the day anyways. I’m either hiding in here or out with you somewhere.”
“True.” Tessa flopped back onto the bed, and returned to watching the fan. I stayed where I was, watching her pupils run tiny laps around her eyeballs. Her eyes were so green. Like, really green. The kind of green of those trees on my father’s street. It was beautiful.
“You’re so strong, Gill,” Tessa added.
My throat closed up. Only my Mom ever called me Gill. Also, was this flirting?
“Right back atcha, Tess.” Stupid.
She smiled. “Sorry, just wanted to try and see how Gill sounded.” She was facing me now, green eyes and all. “And also, you really are just strong. I’m surprised you’re able to have fun despite this shit-show. But I’m glad you are. I love having fun with you.”
I swallowed and whispered out a “Thanks” so soft that I think I might have only imagined it.
One rainy Friday over breakfast, my father told me that he got tickets for all four residents of the house to see the latest generic spy thriller that afternoon.
“It got bad reviews, but tradition, you know? And there’s an arcade in the same mall so–”
“I can’t,” I cut him off, “Tessa’s coming over.” Tessa and I had no plans, but I was not about to pass up the opportunity for us to be alone in the house for the first time.
“Oh. Ok. Uhm, I think the three of us are still gonna go, but let us know if you change your mind.”
“Will do.” I stuffed the last forkful of scrambled egg into my mouth.
“You and Tessa are really close.”
I eyed him as I swallowed, waiting for him to finish the thought, but he just sat there, expectantly.
“Great talk.” I stood up from the table and began walking out of the room. “Have fun at your movie date.” I didn’t turn around, but I regret not seeing his reaction to that.
“Gill, holy shit,” Tessa said. “You gotta see this.”
I tiptoed from the master bedroom into the private bathroom that adjoined it. No one was home, but the stealth made it all the more exciting.
“No way,” I mumbled.
A triple-sink setup with a wall-to-wall mirror dominated the right side of the master bath. Each sink had its own toiletries. In total: three toothbrushes, three facial cleansers, three retainers, one tube of toothpaste.
“Too fucking good,” I remarked.
“Do you think they all sleep here?” She asked as we re-entered the bedroom.
“They have to, right?”
“I mean,” Tessa gestured to the side of the room opposite the king-sized bed. Three separate yet identical dressers lined the wall. “It’s kinda cool, in a way, to see a modern gay relationship like this working.”
“I don’t know if I’d look up to my father for any relationship advice.”
“No, of course. But if these old people can do it, just think of all the shit our generation will get up to.” She turned to me and grinned. My stomach did a somersault.
Our suspicions of throuplehood were only confirmed by an expedition to the attic a week later. Buried in the back corner of the room, we found all of the personality the house lacked.
“I mean, objectively, it’s really well-done.”
Tessa and I were staring at a four-by-five foot oil painting of a handsome young man, fully naked, sprawled out across a plush, velvet cushion.
“Do you think that’s real?” I pointed at the man’s penis, which stretched almost halfway down his thigh while still flaccid. “Like, whoever this guy is, do you think he actually has that?”
“I would hope it’s artistic expression. The thought of that much penis makes me feel ill.” We laughed, but I was doing victory laps in my head.
Among the larger, more erotic, works of art, we also found a box of smaller memorabilia. Things someone would put on a mantelpiece. Photos of the three of them together, some of them dating back almost 12 years, posing with dogs or holding each other in romantic positions. There were photoshoots of them wearing identical cable-knit sweaters in autumnal forests, painting such a quaint and loving picture of a modern gay relationship that it almost felt heterosexual.
I know I should have felt bad that he had hidden this – who he was – because of me. In a selfish way, though, it did feel good to know my father was t-boned into the closet, too.
It was August by then. We only had a month left before I would go back to the city, and I knew I wanted to tell Tessa before then.
We had planned for a sleepover on Tuesday night, and by 11PM, we had locked ourselves in my room. The lights were off, and we were turned towards each other, bodies and faces kept 13 inches apart by the laptop between us. One of the Narnia movies was playing, illuminating our faces in a blue glow. We weren’t watching, but we weren’t really talking either. Just staring. Her green eyes seemed almost brown in the dark. I envisioned it in my head: my right hand reaching across and combing through her hair. I hadn’t even gotten farther than that quite yet. Just rehearsing that movement over and over in my brain.
I didn’t register that my hand had moved until my fingers gently touched her temple. She shook her head side to side, shooing me away.
“Sorry,” she said, “Tickles.”
“Yeah, sorry.” My hand retracted.
“It’s ok. It was nice.” She continued to stare.
There was no point in lingering. I pushed my body towards hers, jutting my chin out and to the left slightly so our faces could puzzle together. The tip of my nose brushed past hers, and our lips touched. Softly at first, both of our mouths just open, but my body electrified as I felt her face press closer to mine. What started as soft pecks grew as our lips widened and our tongues explored mouths foreign to their own. Her hand pressed against the back of my head, trapping my face against hers. I rolled on top of her, my knees straddling her hips. We found our way upright, kneeling on my mattress briefly before she pressed me against the upholstered headboard.
We stopped kissing but our foreheads and noses remained touching. We were lying down now, alongside each other. “I really like this,” She whispered into my mouth. “Are you okay?”
I was crying.
“Yeah,” I said, “I’m just really happy.”
We didn’t say anything when we woke up. Tessa packed up her things while I made my bed, occasionally looking towards her to share a knowing glance.
Tessa broke the silence first by giggling.
I joined her. “What is it?” I asked, while swiping wrinkles out of the surface of my comforter.
“Just, like, best friends experimenting.” She looked at me, my face. Studying it. The smallest movement in my facial muscles could give me away. “It’s just funny, right?”
“Yeah,” I forced a laugh as I turned my attention back to the smoothness of my comforter. “Really funny.”
We still hung out every once in a while in the weeks after the “experimenting.” Neither of us had anything better to do. But everything felt stale. There was no more mystery surrounding my father’s relationship, and without that or any hopes of reciprocated feelings, it felt like work to talk to Tessa.
My father sensed the shift between us. It was the only time that summer that I think I ever would have been able to find solace in talking to him, and he tried. From time-to-time he would go, “Haven’t seen Tessa around much,” or “You two get sick of each other?” then sit in silence, waiting for me to contribute something to the conversation. Try as he might, these meager attempts at bonding would remind me of the weak connection we shared, and whatever desire I had to confide in him was washed away.
The day before I moved back to New York to live with Aunt Mary, I returned to the attic. I found one of the photos of my father with Kennon and Alex, one with them and the dogs, and put it on the mantelpiece. When I sat down for dinner that night I braced for confrontation, but none came. Instead we ate in silence, like usual. He didn’t acknowledge the photo until the next morning, moments before I stepped into Aunt Mary’s car to leave forever. He must have noticed it overnight. Or he was too much of a coward to bring it up before then.
“Did you put that photo out?” he asked, “Above the fireplace?”
“Yeah.” This time, I stared at him expectantly.
His eyes darted between my face and the mansion’s front door, where Aunt Mary was chit chatting politely with Kennon and Alex. I don’t know if he was more scared of my disapproval, or of the collision of worlds he had worked so desperately to keep separate. Either way, I pitied him.
“It’s okay,” I said, “I’m good with gay people, remember?”
He hugged me, awkwardly, and thanked me.
We don’t talk often nowadays. Even if he’s a shit father, I think it’s pretty iconic of him to be in a throuple with two guys a decade older than him.
A few days after I got back to New York, Tessa texted me.
We met at the Baskin-Robbins on 34th in Murray Hill, the second best in Manhattan. The title of best goes to the one by school, but that’s where I heard about Mom, so there was an unspoken agreement between us that we wouldn’t meet there. We sat at the countertop along the window facing the street, so I wouldn’t have to make eye contact while I talked.
“I’m gay,” I said. The people outside meandered around the bus stop. “What we did wasn’t an experiment for me. I’m sorry I didn’t tell you how I felt instead of doing all that, but these past weeks have just been–”
“I agree,” she whispered. We sat there in silence, both of us scared of touching our desserts and disturbing the peace.
“My mom knew I liked you,” I admitted, “It’s why she wanted to take us out that day, so she could watch us together.”
“Well that’s no surprise.” She laughed.
“What do you mean?” I turned to her for the first time.
“Do you remember how your Mom kept referring to it as a date? All week long, whenever she saw us, she’d be like, ‘Are you girls ready for your lunch date Friday!’ It was a whole thing.”
I was blushing. “I don’t remember her doing that.”
“Yeah. I thought it was funny.”
I turned back to my sundae.
“This is gonna sound awful,” Tessa started again, “But I don’t know how else to say it.”
“I was so sad when your Mom died, obviously because she died, but also because I was really excited for that date.”
“Yeah,” I stirred the half-melted ice cream in my cup, “It would have been fun.”
“No, Gill. Like a date. Like, I wanted to have a date with you.”
“What?” I turned to face her again.
“That morning after, I thought I’d test you, or whatever, to see if you really liked me.” I noticed the plastic white spoon was shaking in her grip. “I’m realizing now how dumb that was.”
I stared at her for a second, then carved a bite of my ice cream from its cup and held it before my face.
“Do you want a bite?” I asked.
I extended the spoonful of chocolate almond in her direction. She smiled, her hand relaxing, and took the spoon from my hand before placing it in her mouth. Then, with the handle poking out from between her lips, she took my hand in hers.
Gus Moody is a senior studying Radio/Television/Film and Earth & Planetary Sciences. The first place his writing was ever published was a fanfiction website, so this feels like a big step up.