My close-knit family began an unexpected journey of discovery when my older sister finally came out—and we were just getting started.
After volleys of applause at my grandmother’s book talk, my twin brother, sister, mother and I pile into the car and lock the doors.
“What a dyke!” my sister yells.
We burst out laughing. We had, of course, all been thinking it.
The book she wrote is a biography of her Holocaust Literature professor — a Zionist thinker and poet who first captivated my grandmother in the classroom, then later in private quarters. As any good disciple would do for a teacher at the end of life, my grandmother wrote a book to preserve her memory.
“Did you hear her speech?” my mother chimes in. “About how she lived with her for a couple of months, but of course, grandma slept on the couch. And she threw her hands up when she said it like, ‘for the record, world, I slept on the couch!’ She just had to include that detail for fear that anyone would possibly suspect her of sleeping anywhere else in the house.”
“And oh, she was just so lost in life that she had to crawl back to her professor”— this one comes from me. “And oh, did she get that emotional support she craved.”
“Does she realize how obvious she is?” my brother asks.
“She’s fooled her way to a husband, at least,” I respond.
“Two,” my mom corrects.
“But it is, like, still pretty cool that she wrote a book,” my sister says.
“Yeah, yeah, of course, like, yeah.” We all agree that, lesbian or not, it’s pretty sweet that our grandmother wrote a book. A book we should all probably skim.
I mean, of course we’re proud of her. We don’t have to read the book to be proud. After all, she wrote hundreds of pages of text, and she bound them, and she dedicated them to us on the title page, meaning we could do with the book what we pleased. So we smiled and clapped for her and stowed the various copies in bathrooms around the house. For later. Out of pride.
But there were larger concerns. A love affair with her professor would be the last in a lineup of evidence in favor of my grandmother’s lesbianism. She’s generally gruff and unromantic, as my mother would point out. She spent her childhood playing stoop-ball with the neighborhood boys, and she went on to champion field hockey at Union College. Later in life, her husband would complain that their relationship resembled that of close friends. The claim is only bolstered by the fact that, prior to meeting the professor of her dreams and obtaining a PhD in literature, she had ambitions of becoming a gym teacher.
And then there was that time when, while discussing my sister’s sexuality with my mother on the phone, my grandmother said that everyone was little bit bisexual as if it were nothing short of fact.
It would really explain a few things.
* * *
My sister started her coming-out process in eighth grade; my brother and I were in seventh. She entered her final year of middle school feeling alienated and afraid, so when the girl next to her in homeroom showed up with a print-out of Sid Vicious taped to her binder, Kat seized the opportunity to make a friend. Her name was Anna. She was thirteen, wore rainbow-banded tights and sometimes smelled like cigarettes. Her screen name was “kind-o-kinky.” She was the first bisexual any of us had ever known.
Three weeks later, my sister and Anna fell hopelessly in love.
“I think I’m bi,” Kat said to me as she lay one bed over from mine. Nighttime made her anxious, so she had taken to sleeping in the spare bed in my room. It would be a full year before I’d come to view the bedroom at night as something private: the personal laboratory of adolescence. So I meant it when I said I didn’t mind.
“Oh, okay,” I said, failing to appreciate the milestone.
“I’m pretty sure, at least,” she said. “I started dating Anna. I told Mom, and you I guess, but I still don’t know how to tell Daniel.” She rolled onto her other side, turning her back to me so that her good ear faced upward. She punctured her eardrum when she was six; rolling over was an invitation to speak.
But instead of offering support or encouragement, I just said, “Good thinking. You probably shouldn’t tell Daniel.”
No matter how many times I imagined and re-imagined my brother’s reaction to the news, the conversation never turned out well. Either he wouldn’t believe her at all, and he’d probably mock her liquid self-identity, or he would believe her, in which case he’d most likely remain silent. Maybe for a few days. His silence would be the greater danger.
At twelve, my brother’s attitude towards homosexuality was one of total resistance. He believed that if he built a strong enough shell of intolerance, all things queer would bead up on his skin and roll off like rain on a car window. He maintained a similar stubbornness towards his own puberty. An early developer, he was burly and gruff in a way he only ever half-embraced. A full six inches taller than me, he’d bully me off the GameCube controller only to later bend at the knees to appear shorter in pictures with our friends. Voice cracks were the result of a long, lingering cold. He never made mention of sex. He had been shaving since the sixth grade, but rather than ask our mom to buy a razor, he stole my sister’s Venus and shaved in the shower, leaving little black hairs between the blades. Embarrassed of his stubble, he would rub copper-colored concealer over his neck and chin to hide the regrowth. We pretended we never noticed.
Something deeply uncomfortable was at play, but the motivations never added up for me until years later, when I first scraped razor to blonde mustache. Suppressing puberty was merely an attempt to stunt the onslaught of homosexuality — the invisible, irreversible side of hormonal development. His fearful love of men had turned him into a homophobe.
I didn’t dare ask if Kat had observed these things. Hard to tell your sister what’s happening to her brother, or her razor. All that mattered in the moment was that she was bisexual and he wouldn’t like it. If she had suspected a thing, she never said.
Kat kicked the sheets loose from the bed. “I know,” she said, flailing her legs. “But I don’t want him to feel left out.” I turned over my pillow to the cold side. She was right. Either way — whether we told or we didn’t — we ran the risk of upsetting our brother.
“How’d mom react?” I asked.
“Good. She told me that if I was dating a girl at least I wouldn’t get myself pregnant.”
“True,” I said.
“I asked her if I had to tell the psychiatrist. She said yes.”
“It’s not like I’m going to. So you don’t hate me?”
“Not at all.”
“Good.” She let out her final breath of anxiety before rolling onto her bad ear and falling asleep.
The next day, we woke up to the sound of my alarm. My sister, brother, and I took turns brushing our teeth over one sink and hopping in and out of the shower. We went to school without mention of the night before. We asked each other about our dreams, but none of us had any.
The following evening my sister told Daniel, and that Thursday — when my mom drove my brother and me home from Hebrew school — we took turns making bets on how long my sister’s girlward bent would last.
“Give it two months,” my mom said, stepping on the brakes and feeling around the cup-holder for a bag of trail mix. “It’s a phase lots of girls have.”
“Really?” I asked, leaning into my seatbelt. “I was going to say two weeks.”
“My guess is four weeks,” my brother said, and just like that, we welcomed in our sister’s new sexuality.
Over the next few years, Katherine’s lesbianism grew on the family consciousness like a moss. There was never a sharp shift in her identity, nor in our understanding of it, but instead it was as quiet and anticlimactic as losing a bet you never wanted to admit you even made. She took great pains to habituate us to the change in preference, expressing her shifting orientation as an ever-growing lesbian percentage value — a number she calibrated and recalibrated to match extensive empirical data regarding her dirty thoughts. In a year’s time, symmetric bisexuality collapsed into sixty percent lesbianism, and once the even halves were broken it took little time to push the numbers further. Nonetheless, she held a boyfriend through tenth grade, a guy whom even through the mid sixty and seventy percents she had resolved to keep.
“Sexuality is imperfect,” she said, elbowing the numbers up to seventy-nine. But this was no reason to dump him. Every lesbian has exceptions, she reasoned, and she was lucky enough to have found hers at fifteen.
But one day, after waking up a distraught and flabbergasted ninety-two percent lesbian, she decided the relationship was too much and she finally dumped her boyfriend. In swooped a skittish senior girl, and since then it’s been one hundred percent and no looking back.
As it was, my sister’s numerical approach to lesbianism seemed something of a pioneering effort. With every percentage point, she had wormed her way into an otherwise heterosexual household, increasing family tolerance on a smooth curve. She was the queer child — an avant-garde, spike-studded, chain-wearing, misunderstood delegate of homosexuality. She was to embody a lesbian. But what she didn’t know was that her battle with numbers coincided with another, less quantifiable war: the fight between my brother and his hormones. In his own way, requesting a razor was his silent surrender to manhood, and as punishment he had to succumb to all of testosterone’s whims: tallness, a veritable mustache, thickening eyebrows and a dark, quivering lust for too many of the boys at school. He admitted to himself he was gay just as my sister geared up to announce her new girlfriend, and something about the timing of it all seemed like it betrayed some sort of plan. It was all wrong; two gay kids don’t just pop up in one family like that.
Of course not. Like all well-delivered jokes, gay children come in threes.
But Daniel didn’t know that yet. The way he saw it, and the way he lived through middle and high school, he was the second and final homosexual offspring. Assuming me straight, he watched with interest as I scrambled to quilt an age-appropriate love life. I had first found a girlfriend back in sixth grade. We dated for seven months and made out three times, once in the small wooden compartment of a playground set with mulch in our shoes, next to Daniel and another preteen pair. I told him about the tongues, the way they felt warm and aimless in our mouths, and I followed it up by saying “I think I love her.” She dumped me.
I abandoned monogamy. The following year I resolved to learn to grind, and school functions became a panicked race to grind a normal amount of times with the normal amount of girls. Numbers under three were scornful. It was the ultimate gesture of passion — an uncontrollable lust that could strike preteen boys anywhere, leading them to grab girls by the hips and press themselves together inside decorated but still-sunlit middle school gymnasiums, with parents manning snack tables and teacher/chaperones standing by. Daniel would watch. There I’d be, hips out and ruling. A king. If only then he had known what it felt like — that jerky, frightened attention to the rhythm and the artless rubbing taking place — it would have been so laughable to watch from nearby, right then and in years to come. He would have found misplaced comic pleasure in my mishaps, had I ever once thought to let him know.
In high school, my stamina slowed. Sexual interactions with girls became fewer and more selfish. I dated one freshman year; she loved me, and I loved her just enough to tell her how I really felt. She sat on my bed and we both cried while my brother watched television in the adjacent room, perhaps pressing his ear to the wall. I told Daniel we went to second.
Years would go by before I realized there were always ears on the wall: in my bedroom, in high school classrooms, in the school cafeteria. Gossip churned like the icy blue slush in the Slurpee machine. In junior year, a boy contacted me on Facebook, said he had loved me from afar. We met, and he turned up in a black trench coat — a bit chubbier than imagined — but he swore me to secrecy so I shrugged and snuck him into my house. He sat on my pillow as he preached the case for atheism: No God of his would stand for the persecution of gays. His hands were damp. I hated him from the welcome mat. After he left, I washed my mouth out with soap. I ducked my head under the sink and let the water run hot, the taste of Palmolive stinging my throat. For the next half hour I stood by the faucet, crying and spitting into the disposal, too repulsed to swallow the germs inside my mouth. When I thought I had flushed myself of it all, whatever it was, I went to school to pass kids in the hallways, people I had had never met whose looks brought back the corrosion still in my throat. There were rumors of forwarded Facebook chats, locked text-message strings. I made eye-contact with no one. Trips to the bathroom just to spit. So by the time my senior year came along, I became so anxious I did the only thing a kid in my place could do: I changed my wardrobe. I became the brother-who-wore-skinny jeans, the brother-who-bought-vibrant-pants-as-a-form-of-self-expression. Rebellion with an inseam. And Daniel would have found it all so raucously funny, had he only been told the punchline — had only someone clued him into the joke.
It would be another six months until either of us came out to the other. Daniel first, on the living room sofa, after two girlfriendless sons came home from their first college semesters. My mother, wrapped in blankets, cried “You’re not gay, are you?” a question which she directed at both of us, but Daniel picked up the tab. Then me, a full month later, while drunk with him on the streets of Montreal, so as to prove that not everything we did must be synchronized. He was elated. We hugged and smiled, knowing we’d never again feel alone and stumbled down the street to share pizza.
* * *
One winter later, while on break from college, my brother and I spend the night at my grandmother’s Manhattan apartment. She takes us to a show, we laugh, we discuss coursework and her dead friends and the caricaturized state of modern political correctness, and we realize again how and why we are related. The familiar shock: It is fun.
The following afternoon the three of us walk to the theater. Our eyes squint as we face the cold. My grandmother has small legs and a thick, unified torso. Her heavy black coat and scarf make her appear to be all torso. The conversation shifts to education: our college lives, with an undertone of grandparental pride.
“The one grandchild whose college decision I do not support is Katie,” she says.
Neither my brother nor I inquire. There are some things we assume my grandmother knows but chooses to ignore — like the fact that “Katie” is a name my sister has never once used to refer to herself. My sister’s visceral and largely un-researched commitment to Mount Holyoke edges close to one of these things.
“It’s the best place for her academically,” I say. “The best place she could have been.”
“Yes.” My grandmother continues. “But it is a hotbed of radical, militant feminist social politics.” She walks in short, quick steps and the wind has fluffed her hair circular. “A certain type of radical, militant feminist social politics.”
“But it’s good for her art,” I offer, nestling my mouth into my coat-neck to hide from the cold air and any possibility of defending the claim.
“It may be,” she says. “I just wish she had went to a school that introduced her to a more mainstream — a straighter — intellectual atmosphere.”
My brother and I nod and offer comfort. “There’s life after graduation,” we assure her, painting her entrance into the larger, straighter world as inevitable. Over her short head, the two of us make eye contact. Does she know about us — what a straighter collegiate experience has done, or failed to do? In our heads, we calculate the time it will take before she learns the truth about her grandkids. It feels like setting a time bomb: shattering an old woman’s delusions for sport. There’s no way the knowledge could help her. Perhaps she’ll tell her friends, but most likely it would only be another secret to bear. No one to confide in at synagogue; the congregation at the Reconstructionist temple couldn’t possibly know how to relate, or what to say. We calculate the years until she’ll start to demand children, an expectation we balance alongside life expectancy. With luck, we can fend off the issue until her death. But she’s active and nosy, and it is uncertain how long before suspicions become inflamed.
When we get inside the theater, my brother and I each grab one of our grandmother’s hands and rub the warmth back into her pinkish palms.
The next day, Grandma drops us off at Port Authority, and we say our goodbyes before heading on the bus to Boston. Our mom picks us up and we hug, and we know our sister’s waiting for us at home. Once we’ve unpacked, surveyed the fridge and vented about the essays we still have to write, the family resumes its usual routine. We sit in our pajamas with open laptops in what is perhaps the most indolent academic panic. We eat frequent snacks but few meals, usually just things to which hummus can be applied: corn chips, apples, pretzels, sliced turkey from a vacuum-pack. Around dinnertime, our mother puts on dark jeans and a scoop-necked shirt and drives out to have drinks with friends. A whole tennis team of friends. We go out rarely. When she comes home, we ask her how things went. Things went great, and we wonder whether the scorn of coming home tipsy to three unwashed kids in pajamas is just in our heads. Later we pick out a movie that we don’t watch. Mom brings out her vaporizer from the bedroom. After putting up a fuss that ten pages of philosophy won’t write themselves and no, it’s not that I’m opposed to working stoned I just can’t, the kids take turns supplying the weed. We smoke, and between hits we talk about how okay it is because we’re all just so glad to be together and we all have so much potential.
At some point during the high, Grandma calls.
Kat, sitting in a fortress of five faux-fur pillows: “Holy shit, mom’s talking to Grandma stoned on the phone!”
I sink my neck into my head and flap my arms around to make my mother laugh. She smiles.
“Look, we just sat down to watch a movie — of course I remember Eileen. She got her knee replaced? Two years ago? By the doctor that did yours? Well that’s great that she feels great, you’ll be walking to the opera in no time — look, can I call you tomorrow? Yes, I’ll change my answering machine to something less strident. Alrighty, love you, bye-bye.”
Mom rolls her eyes and plops beside the vaporizer on the couch. “Is there any left?” she asks, grabbing the hose.
“How was Grandma?” Kat asks.
“You mean The Toad?” My brother says. Grandma looks like a toad when you’re stoned. Especially in her author picture.
“She’s fine,” my mom says, but my sister is already in the kitchen. She’s slicing a pear and salting it. She cracks some pepper.
“This is dank!” She holds out a slice for me to try. It’s better than I imagine.
“I would have put Worcestershire on it,” I say.
“I almost just ate capers from the jar,” she says. “You know I would.”
Katherine crunches her pear with the look of a genius. Daniel sprawls out on the sofa with one eye closed and the other resisting. My mother yawns loudly and hollow, her fists crunched into little balls.
“Shit! I need to preheat the toaster,” Kat says.
“Did the doll parts come in from eBay?” I ask.
“Like, a month ago.”
Kat started this art project over the summer that involves melting plastic doll parts and photographing them in a heap. Only she didn’t want to get toxic chemicals in the family toaster, so she bought a used one off a girl on Craigslist. Tonight she had promised herself to get some work done.
“Want to watch me melt dolls tonight?” she asks.
“You’re so twisted,” I say. “Twisted sister.” She takes that as a yes.
Daniel fights to stay awake.
A look of mischief emerges on my mom’s face. “Kat knows how to make the girls melt,” she says.
Kat bites her lip.
“Was that inappropriate? I’m just so high.”
We tell her it wasn’t inappropriate, because it wasn’t, though somehow making the gay-joke to either me or Daniel would seem more off-limits. Maybe it’s a function of time: Kat’s been out to all of us longer. Or maybe be she’s just a better sport. Either way, comfortable is something I know I should feel. Now that we smoke together, we’re all adults, meaning we should find small sexual jabs nothing but loving.
Daniel’s second eye shuts, and I drape a blanket over his body. Kat washes the pear juice off her hands and runs to preheat the toaster. Mom lets out another wooden yawn.
I go to my sister’s room to watch her melt doll parts. She places little arms and torsos on a metal tray to bake. The plastic looks glossy in the heat. We remove the parts just as they begin to distort.
My sister holds up a mangled leg. It looks like a ham with a foot. “The composition of this is so cool,” she says. She appreciates the art at all angles.
“I’m Katherine Gordon, and I cook ladies,” I say. She gives me a light push.
“If you give a lesbian an easy-bake,” I say.
She prepares a second batch — this one with harder plastic, which she says will take at least fifteen minutes to cook. In the meantime, my sister and I head downstairs to wake up my brother. He rises, and we light cigarettes on the porch.
The three of us arrange ourselves on two chaise lounges. We wear each other’s coats. In the winter, it is hard to tell what is smoke and what is our breath.
“I wonder if mom feels left out, now that we’re all gay,” Kat says.
“Probably a bit.”
“I’m sure it’s weird for her.” I say.
“Not like she can do anything about it.”
“I mean, what can be done?”
We ash our cigarettes into a ceramic bowl one of us made in pottery class as a kid. It’s greying now. There is a mark on the bottom, probably with a name, but there is no telling which one.
“Do you ever think she blames herself? Or, you know, not that she blames herself but, wonders what could have gone wrong?” I ask.
“Maybe if she hadn’t raised us on her own.” Daniel says.
“Or been so open about her dating history. Her past boyfriends.”
The smoke feels familiar and warm.
“How’d the dolls turn out?” Daniel asks.
“This all must be so weird for her.” I say.
Kat tucks her free hand in between her legs for warmth. She nods. “To all of a sudden, in your mid-fifties, have three gay kids just thrust into your life.”
“To learn how to relate to them.”
“To the whole social issue it brings.”
Daniel rubs his eyes. “I’m sure she doesn’t think about it.”
We take another drag. If she is sitting in her room as we speak, thinking about it, none of us wants to know. Smoke rings float out into the dark.
“And then there’s Grandma,” Kat says. We nod. There is her.
“Maybe whatever gene she has, she passed on.”
“If she has it at all.”
“Oh, come on. Don’t honestly tell me you think Grandma is straight.”
I consider it for a while — Grandma lying next to my grandfather at bedtime. A younger version of Grandma asleep on some sofa, cold at night in her professor’s apartment, rising and walking to the bedroom, where she paws her way under the sheets for a kiss, and the chance to hold another body like her own.
“You’re right,” Daniel says, nodding his head once.
“You’re right,” I say, snubbing out my cigarette, because I’ll never know whether she’s right, but it’s the only explanation I can hold.