I tell my grandmother I’m gay, and she tells me I’ll live a lonely life if I don’t get out of town. I tell her I’m going to Lexington, and at least that’s something, even if Lexington is only 15 minutes away and still full of men with jeans so tight you can see all their prospects. Some of those men are gay. Have to be.
My grandmother says, “But all that loneliness, Casey. You find you a church so at least you’ll have somebody.”
I know she’s talking about her best friend, Brett, the only out gay man in our small town, and how he’s lived with his mother all his life in that little house on Maple Street with the sliding front door. How all they have is each other. I’ve never seen them at church, but maybe they used to go because the pastor once said to my grandmother, “Is Brett still…?”
And my grandmother smile-frowned, but she didn’t say one thing or the other. She kind of shook her body and the pastor said something else, like how good my grandmother did on the organ that week. The pastor winked at me after, like, “Women, right? God’s mystery,” and he put a hand on my shoulder and squeezed like my shoulder was a little orange. I heard something crack, but I think it was the pastor’s fingers after they’d been folded so long in prayer.
When my grandmother and I were in the car, she said it wasn’t a pastor’s place to judge, and then she took out three cigarettes. She made me hold two of them while she smoked the first. I held them between my thumb and forefinger. I’d seen other kids smoke behind school. They all held cigarettes like joints.
My grandmother said, “Don’t hold my cigarettes like that,” so I held them like flowers instead, and my grandmother said, “No, that’s even worse. Like two little wieners in your fist. Here.” She put the cigarettes behind my ears and said, “That’s cool, right?”
I didn’t feel cool. I felt like a teacher with pencils in her hair. But my grandmother was smiling, so I let it go.
My grandmother and I would sometimes visit Brett’s mother after church. Brett was never there. His mother always said he was with friends. I said, “Wow, he must have a lot of friends,” and his mother said, “Ha. He knows a lot of people, but I’m his only friend.”
I thought about my mother and how we were best friends when we were sewing, but no other time. My father would go out to smoke and my mother would snap her fingers at me and say, “Now you promise me you’ll never smoke and you’ll never marry anyone who smokes.” She said the last bit like I couldn’t marry anyway, like she knew she was raising a sissy, but that was fine with her. She needed somebody. My father worked all night. My mother slept alone.
I told my mother I would never smoke, but by virtue of having so many family members who smoked, I’d already snuck enough cigarettes to punish my voice into a premature gravel. One day before class, my teacher said I had “a sexy growl,” and then he covered his mouth. I promised I wouldn’t tell anyone, but he decided to head off any future trouble by telling the principal. My mother made me switch classes. She said, “You’re still just a boy.”
I said, “I guess my teacher likes boys.”
My mother said, “You don’t know what you’re saying.”
When we would visit Brett’s mother, she and my grandmother would smoke cigarettes and watch TV. Brett’s mother would tell me to go in Brett’s room and play so the smoke didn’t bother me. I always did what adults said because you can’t say anything to an adult they don’t want to hear. The smoke never bothered me, though. I didn’t want to let on that I’d been smoking for years, so I would cough on the way to Brett’s room. My grandmother would say, “Oh, stop it.”
Brett’s walls had lots of pictures of half-naked men. All the pictures were signed and all the men had weird bikini bottoms that looked like they were stuffed with rotten fruit. There was only one picture of a woman. She looked kind of like Brett’s mother, but with bigger eyes and bigger teeth and bigger hair. She was pinching one of those old-style cigarette holders like it was a gym whistle. This was the most glamorous woman I’d ever seen.
I took the picture from the wall and went out in the living room and held it up over my face.
Brett’s mother said, “What?”
I said, “Who is it?” and I pointed a finger right on the glass so the glass shifted in the frame and made a scratchy noise.
My grandmother said, “Oh, Casey, be careful.”
I moved the picture down to my chest and held it there like a piece of identification. I said, “Who is this beautiful woman?”
My grandmother and Brett’s mother laughed until they were coughing up their cigarettes.
Brett’s mother said, “Honey, that’s Brett in a dress.”
I looked at the picture again. I saw chest hair coming out over the dress like treetops over a fence. I saw the overlap of pink falsies against darker skin. I saw the apple in Brett’s throat like he’d swallowed a kitten. I saw the imperfect technique of his sewing. I saw how I would do it differently when I was old enough to make my outside look like my inside. I saw my grandmother working it out.
I tell my grandmother I’m gay, and she hands me a cigarette and asks me if I remember Brett in that dress. She says Brett has shows in Lexington.
She says, “You’d think it was really Judy up there singing. Like she never died.”
My grandmother lights my cigarette like she’s giving me sage advice. She leans in and cocks her head. She has one of those big old lighters that looks like a flask. She flicks and nods. I breathe in. My grandmother gives me all she’s got and then she lets go.