He was the first grown-up I ever met who liked Star Trek.
My parents had encouraged my interest in Star Trek as generally wholesome not-quite-primetime sci-fi, but they didn’t know the characters’ names, or the different kinds of aliens. They didn’t know TOS from TNG, or how bad I wanted it to be real.
Ross could talk episode titles and character backstories. Ross had a reproduction pewter TOS phaser, and a communicator with a delicate flip-top gold cage. Ross knew by imzadi, I meant Counselor Troi, and I didn’t really care if Riker had a beard.
I had lots of the action figures. “You two can talk about Star Track,” Dad said, either leaning into his accent or missing the point. Ross and I looked at each other nervously, but then we smiled. “Trek,” we said in unison, correcting my father and setting off our first shared wave of laughter. My father shook his head and turned back to the tomatoes he was chopping. “Look what I’ve done,” he said, “I’ve encouraged it!”
Ross was introduced to us as dad’s new housemate. He took the big room in the back that had been unoccupied since my sister Anna transitioned to the basement workout room. He put up posters of Xena and Melissa, and Chuck Norris for good measure. “He’s a great…athlete,” Ross said, turning his attention back to a row of cassette tapes. “Can I borrow this? I wanna dub it,” I asked, selecting a double live CD by the Indigo Girls. “Yeah, of course,” he said, “no problem.”
Dad and Ross worked at the hospital together. Dad was a nurse, and Ross worked security. “Ross was looking for a new place, and I decided he could stay with us,” Dad told us after the second or third time we had had him over for dinner. Ross was a good cook, and he could afford fancy food. I’m talking one steak per person. “Fine by us,” my sister and I reasoned, if we could have steak and a big record collection.
Ross was good with the animals and he could change a tire. Ross started killing the spiders, and my dad spent more time tending the vegetables. Mom didn’t contact us for months, and her parents grew further distant. For months, maybe a year, Dad and Ross kept the cat in the bag. Tight.
On the low brown shag carpeting of the living room, watching “The Corbomite Maneuver” after school, maybe a Tuesday. It’s an entrancing episode, one of the classics. Too bad about the updated CGI, but that wasn’t a problem yet.
“I love this, so good,” he says, coming into the room with a ratty old basket filled with clothes. All our clothes. The four of us.
I turn halfway and face him. It’s weird.
He sets the basket down and draws up a towel. He folds it like Dad taught him, not the way he folded them when he moved in. I get up.
“I don’t want you to have to-” I say, picking up two of Dad’s mismatched socks.
“It’s ok,” he says, bashfully, drawing his face down into his chest like he does. “It’s…we’re…it’s ok,” he says, catching a tear with a skillful sniff and upward glance.
“I remember seeing Balok on my grandparents’ old panel TV when I was just a little kid, maybe six. He was so strange and so…alluring…” I trailed off, trying I guess to reach him.
“And little baby Clint Howard!” he exclaims, easing one of Anna’s T-shirts onto a green plastic hanger.
“Adorable, right?” I say, turning back to the television.
“We’re like family.” Thatś what he was going to say. ¨We’re…” he said. “We’re like family.”
“We’re like family,” I say, keeping my head down, watching Clint Howard offer Bill Shatner some tranya. Which it turns out was pink grapefruit juice, which Clint Howard couldn’t stand.
“’d’you know tranya’s just pink grapefruit juice?” Ross asked, halting. When I looked back at him he was rubbing his tears into one of his polyester work shirts.
He’s probably the reason I don’t have horrible taste in music. Or at least not as bad as it could be. Sure, I got pointed in a direction, but it was a pretty good one.
I remember road trips. Ross’s mixes. Girls singing about girls.
“Why is this woman singing “Come on, Eileen”?” Anna asked one trip. Ross’s lips curled into a wry smile and he glanced back at Dad in the rear view mirror.
“Who else wants ice cream!?” my dad asked pointedly, the enthusiasm eking out through the fear.
Ross was a musician, too. He was a percussionist, had done marching band and really loved it. He still rooted for the teams with the best marching bands and had a Sparty tattoo on his right bicep.
He helped me read music sometimes. He laughed amiably at my misunderstandings of music theory. I’m glad he wasn’t there that time I asked Dad where the H note was. He also taught me how to say Don Quixote.
Anna got into percussion, too, and that was exciting for Ross. Somehow he had never really connected with her, and now they had something to share, a language they could speak together. Anna was still standoffish with Ross, but the distance shrank as he shared more and epic drum solos and marching band videos with her. It was part of her that Dad and I couldn’t understand for once, and the gentle thaw continued for some time.
I really did just happen to be studying that bit of Chopin when they told us. I wasn’t being dramatic. But maybe it was ill-timed.
“Oh, really?” I can still remember him hollering down the stairs. My back was to him, and I winced and drew my hands back from the old barely in-tune upright piano as his words crashed over me.
“I-” The air caught in my throat, and I drew inward.
I remember how the fluorescent overheads bounced too hard off the textured yellow linoleum. I remember sharp flashes of sick light bouncing into his eyes and mine as I followed him into the living room.
“I wasn’t… It doesn’t… I’m just studying, Chopin, Dad.” I didn’t know what else to say. I thought about how funny it was – no, not funny. I knew something was off about it, but I was really just studying Chopin. That Chopin. Piano Sonata No. 2, Mvmt III. Marche funèbre, aka The Funeral March. Bum bum ba-bum and all that.
“There’s a really lovely Db major interlude,” I said to the dust particles cutting through the sunlight.
“Get me piano lessons and I’ll play the fourth movement instead,” I muttered behind his back as he rounded a corner out of sight. Our cat Whizz-Bang leapt up onto the rough blue couch and bounded through the arch into the dining room and kitchen. The circular layout of our first floor made it easy to lose everyone in a second.
I didn’t cry ’cause Dad was queer now or whatever. I cried because they didn’t tell me.
Sooner, that is. Straight away, if you’ll pardon the pun. (Daddy’s girl never passes up an opportunity for wordplay.)
There they were the whole time being secretly gay for each other, while any fucking redneck fool could see I was a dyke. And I am a redneck, so don’t go off on me, you just try being a baby queer one in 1997 and get back to me.
Was this why Mom left? Not even close. How long? The whole time, really. Why didn’t they tell us sooner?
I remember Anna crying, and maybe storming off, but I honestly wasn’t thinking much about her. This was about me, this was mine. This somehow had more to do with me than it had to do with her.
This had to do with me ’cause I was queer too and I had just really figured that out. And then my dad went and stole my thunder.
There is a queer language of shared hurt glances and recognition out of time. I’m somehow not mad at Dad, I’m mad at Ross. Ross knew me. Ross knew what was up. Ross was the real deal, not some questioning late bloomer like my dad.
I cried because they implicitly told me that what they were doing was wrong.
That’s why the family was avoiding us. That’s why when they did see me they made sure to get in extra digs at queers. That’s why it seems like we had a family secret I didn’t know about.
And honestly they kept it good. Even after they broke the news, I don’t remember them being affectionate. We were young. Rumor had it some of the family were gunning for custody to get me and Anna out of the clutches of the homosexual menace.
Rumor had it somebody started a rumor that my dad was on coke. Pretty sure that was mom or her sister Theresa. It wouldn’t take much to whip up concern for the safety of these minors. Just the implication of sleeping under the same roof as two men who did it with each other…
I panicked. I marched right back in the closet I thought I was about to emerge from. Dad cried all the time because there was always some existential threat hounding us. One time Mom snuck in the house while we were still at school and she broke some dishes and kicked Ross in the balls.
And what of their love? They kept it well hidden away, save the HRC equal sign bumper sticker that didn’t mean anything yet to locals. I infer that they loved each other physically, but aside from the occasional pat on the back, Dad and Ross held our family together like two copacetic but not especially engaged brothers.
A couple of weeks after Dad came out, I remember ending up on a long walk through the woods with my Aunt Theresa. Aunt Theresa hated “faggots and queers.” Aunt Theresa’s heart broke for me and Anna. “I just don’t think children should have to face these kinds of dangers,” Aunt Theresa said.
We walked around the woods and fields behind mom’s parents’ big old farmhouse. We walked among the spent stubbly corn and tall trees and we talked all about how it wasn’t right of them to do this to us. Aunt Theresa really seemed like she was just busted up about the whole thing and was worried about us kids. And because I was so pliant, I nodded along while she dismissed out of hand everything from my father to RuPaul. It was very important for me to know that homosexuals were alluring and dangerous, and I could fall into their laps before I even knew it. It was important for me to be preemptively supplied with hate of the heart.
Who knows whose idea it is to cut down a 10-year-old girl like this. Who knows whose idea it is to make a little girl think her family is a pernicious trap. I can’t decide if these should be questions or statements. At the end of the walk, I felt like it would always be a frozen, barren day in March.
Space, the final frontier. These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise. Her ongoing mission: to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations; to boldly go where no one has gone before.
Security officer’s log, stardate 70724.8. We have entered into orbit around Romulus for the first in a series of proposed peace talks between the Empire and the Federation. The Enterprise stands by as the flagship of Starfleet, as well as serving as transport for Ambassador Tx’qlal’xq.
I admit to a certain sense of trepidation. Relations between the Federation and the Romulan Empire have been antagonistic for centuries, and recent turf battles along the neutral zone are an inauspicious sign for future events. At the risk of echoing Captain Kirk at the end of the Klingon War, I wonder if perhaps our two peoples are not somehow fundamentally incompatible.
It is strange to look out on the cloudtops of Romulus. I had not thought this place would look so similar to Earth. In my memory, the blue was paler, the green more…menacing. It’s foolish on its face as I say it, and yet this is what I had learned.
A knock at the door. “Whatcha workin’ on?”
I tossed my notebook to the side like a joint or a pornographic magazine. “Oh, nothin’.” Smooth.
Ross came in and sat on another edge of my bed. “Everything going ok?”
“Uh huh,” I said, already looking at the ceiling.
“Your dad said maybe you were feeling a little upset about things?”
“I was just studying Chopin,” I growled, obviously too defensively. Ross let my words settle around us before he continued.
“It’s ok if you’re not ok,” he said. “It’s ok if you need to talk.”
“I don’t think I’m the one with the problem talking,” I said, filled in an instant with pride and regret. It was an awfully clever thing to say, and that satisfied my teenage mind.
Ross looked crushed, but he held it in. Ross was a grown-up. More grown-up even than my parents, often.
“I’ll take that,” he said, and I flooded with red shame.
“I’m sorry…if we…somehow…hurt you,” Ross said, making an effort to say what he really meant. “We just…didn’t want things to get…too…complicated. For you. And Anna.”
I didn’t know what to say without blowing my cover. I didn’t want him to think I hated queers, but I wasn’t ready anymore to tell him that I was one.
“I know…you…think you were protecting us,” I managed to say, struggling to be just as exact. “I know that you weren’t…trying to hurt us. I know…well, I don’t know how hard this must have been.”
“Life isn’t always easy for people like us,” Ross said, turning more squarely toward my face.
“Like you and Dad?” I asked probingly, wondering if I had tipped my hand too far.
“Yeah,” Ross said, nodding after taking a beat. “The world isn’t always kind. It makes our business its own without even understanding it.”
“Would you rather be left alone?”
“I mean, yeah, honestly I would. There are a lot of times I wish I didn’t have to deal with straight people.” He stopped abruptly and looked me dead in the eye: “No offense.”
We both busted out laughing, and the room felt more safe.
“So what were you working on when I came in?”
I looked at my notebook in its heap on the shag carpeting. “Promise you won’t laugh?”
“Cross my heart and hope to turn straight,” he winked.
“It’s…Star Trek fan fiction,” I said, laughing inside at myself.
“Oh yeah? That’s cool! What’s it about?”
“It’s about…making peace between the Federation and the Romulan Empire.”
“Yeah. Why, is that silly?”
“No! The world needs dreams like that.”
I looked him in the face and it looked like he meant it.
“I’d really like to read it.”
“Maybe when it’s finished,” I said.