Another Way

This day had always seemed so distant. It wasn’t that she thought it would never come. She likes to think of herself as a realist. She knows that time continues to march on heedless of her desires and reservations. Still, within the confines of her mind, it seems like it was only last week that she was changing his diaper; like just a few days ago that she was sending him off to his first day of kindergarten; and like only yesterday that he started his first day of high school.

She knows that, in a way, she is lucky. He waited till his sophomore year. Some of his friends have been going on dates since middle school. He’s been talking since the fifth grade about kids who are “dating” one another. She has a hard time conceiving of that. When she was in the fifth grade, nobody was thinking about boyfriends and girlfriends. Were they? If they were, she didn’t even notice.

They picked out his outfit together. Well, he picked it out, and she gave him some input and then paid for him. It was important to him that he had a new outfit. He’d picked out a pale blue button-down shirt and khaki shorts that ended just above his knee, higher than would have been acceptable for a boy to wear a few years ago. He had also picked out a bow tie with a blue-and-violet paisley pattern.

“Mom, is this right?” he asked, fidgeting with his bow tie in the mirror.

She smiled. It wasn’t. He’d tied it slightly lopsided. “Here, undo it. Let me fix it.”

He unknotted it, flipped his collar up, and let the tie drape down onto his chest. He looked so nervous. It made her smile again, if sadly, this time. She remembered how nervous she had been on her first date in high school, and on every first date thereafter, including that which she had with his father. She hadn’t had nearly as much to be nervous about as her son.

She’s proud of him. She thinks he’s brave, for being so fearless, despite his anxiety. He’s the one who asked for the date, even though he can’t drive yet. His date is picking him up. When he sat her down and told her he was going on a date, she had to hold back her tears, and it wasn’t just because he was growing up faster than she could follow.

He scheduled his date while his father would be at work. His father, her husband, was not an unkind man, she thought, but he did have strong opinions about how men were supposed to behave, and what sort of clothes real men wore, and, most importantly, who they’re supposed to date.

She hadn’t seen it, when he was a baby. He looked like every other baby. He laughed and cried like every other baby. He’d like the princesses in the movies they watched, but he said they were pretty. That seemed like the normal response to her, and her husband had accepted it, after grumbling about him watching the movies at all.

In elementary, he’d always wanted his clothes to be clean. He cared about whether he looked nice or not, far more than any other child she’d seen, but she hadn’t taken that as an indication of anything in particular. Now she wondered whether she’d been missing clues, or that, now that she knew, she was misattributing aspects of his personality to stereotypes society had constructed.

When he’d sat down with her and asked her if she could go on a date, she said yes. Then he’d said, “Well, it’s while Dad is at work.” She hadn’t understood why that was a problem. She was too focused on the sort of light-headed sense of surprise and loss that came along with her baby saying he had a date. Then he’d explained: his date was with another boy.

She had tried so, so hard to hide the fact that she was disappointed. She felt horrible about it. She knew he had seen it in her face, even though she’d said yes — even though she’d stepped forward and hugged him and told him, “Of course that’s okay. I want you to be happy.”

She did want him to be happy, but that didn’t change the fact that she was afraid for him. She kept thinking, I wish he hadn’t chosen this, even though he’d explained to her time and again, and she’d read up about it and had the same thing laid out for her, that it wasn’t a choice.

It just seemed so much harder for him than dating a girl. She was worried that someone would see them and say mean things to them. Or worse, that someone would see them together and want to hurt them. Or, worse still, that her husband would find out about it. He’d wanted to hide the date from his father. It made her uncomfortable, but she had agreed.

She was scared for him, but most of all she was frustrated with herself. She’d never thought she’d have a gay child, so she had never thought about how she would be a good mother to him. She kept thinking things, bad things, about gay people. They usually played in her mind in her husband’s voice. She quashed them down, down, down, but it felt like it didn’t matter because they were still there and she still thought them.

She tied his bow tie for him. She was surprised she remembered how to do it. She didn’t think she’d tied one since high school. No, her wedding. She’d tied her husband’s bow tie at their wedding, even though it had meant him seeing her in her dress. That hadn’t mattered to her. What had mattered was his happiness, their happiness, tradition be damned.

“Thanks, Mom,” he said, when he turned back to the mirror. She’d done it right. It looked perfect.

“Of course.” She reached out, putting a hand on his shoulder. He still seemed so small to her. Small, and precious, though his height was now equal to her own.

“Not just for the tie,” he said. “Thanks for… this. For tonight.”

She squeezed his shoulder. “I love you. I want you to be happy.”

“I am,” he said.

He hugged her, then, and she thought maybe it didn’t matter that she kept slipping and thinking thoughts that weren’t quite right. Maybe it only mattered that she was making an effort to be another way.

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