First published January 8, 2014
From the earliest time I can recall, I hated my father. He was a mean drunk who sometimes got physically abusive. I remember him hitting my mother from time to time when I was very young, but soon my older brother put himself between the two of them and voluntarily took the brunt of the blows upon himself. I watched that sick theater from the sidelines, rarely finding myself in the middle of it, but hating him all the same.
When I was in my mid-teens, I quit school and started working as a ranch hand on local farms. Whenever possible, I’d sleep in the bunk house to avoid going home.
There were all sorts of men in there, mostly itinerant, rootless farmhands. Some were good men – kind, generous, funny; some were as miserable and ornery as my father. Many were from far away; some from other countries. It was the kind of life which made having a stable romantic relationship or family life impractical, unsustainable. And so, a subculture of homosexuality arose. These men were “homosexuals of convenience” not because of any innate proclivity. They wanted sexual satisfaction, and other men happened to be most proximate. Man-on-man sexual trysts were not discussed openly, but they were alluded to; joked about, judged as nonchalantly as masturbation. This might have been what they did but it wasn’t who they were, or how they defined themselves.
For a young man my age, with few heterosexual outlets, this kind of easy sexual satisfaction had its appeal. I felt no shame about it. I had no reason to. Within the limited micro-culture in which I existed, it was perfectly acceptable behavior.
Normalcy is always relative. What feels normal to us is simply what is familiar. Whether one grows up in a family of straight-laced missionaries or a tribe of flesh-eating zombies, with little outside reference, this is going to seem perfectly normal. And so, touching men and having them touch me felt completely natural.
My brother remained at home, standing guard over my mother. By the time he was 22, however, he’d had enough. He joined the army. It was a time of relative national peace and it provided an easy and expedient remedy for his unhappy and stifling situation. Before he left, he sat me down and told me that I would now have to sleep at home every night and take over the responsibility for my mother’s protection.
I did this with mixed feelings. Certainly, I wanted my mother protected from my father’s drunken furies. Since she refused to leave him, the duty fell to me. By then, I was big and strong; my physical presence was enough of a deterrent. He knew he raised his hand to me at his own peril. I wasn’t worried that I’d ever have to fight him. I just didn’t want to live under the same roof as him; didn’t want to breath the same air; didn’t want to be subject to his angry tirades or sullen moods.
I’d been living at home for a year or so, hating every minute, when we got the news. My brother had been killed in a training exercise. We didn’t get many details but it didn’t much matter. He was gone and never coming back.
My mother was inconsolable. She blamed herself for not standing up to my father, thus forcing my brother to take the only option he felt he had available to him. She blamed herself for not having chosen a better father for her children. She was consumed with grief and guilt and pain until it literally ate her up inside. She died of cancer within the year.
I stuck around until after the funeral, but had little reason to remain anywhere near my home town. I drifted for a while, working on ranches, here and there. It was a comfortable way of life for me. I was good at what I did and I enjoyed the work and the camaraderie.
Eventually, however, the smallness of my world became claustrophobic. The wide open spaces closed in. I became fascinated with the notion of getting lost in a crowd; of becoming anonymous in a human crush; of leaving my baggage behind and reinventing myself.
I took a bus to the big city, ready to start a new life.
I hadn’t considered that I had no idea how to survive in this alien environment, nor did I know anyone there who could teach me. I was such an outsider, it was impossible for me to blend in, to vanish inconspicuously into a crowd. I didn’t understand the pace, the lingo, the urban mentality. I had a limited education and no practical business skills. I was a naïf in a place that chewed up people like me and spit them out.
I had only one marketable skill: I knew how to give a man sexual pleasure.
Fortunately (so it seemed at the time), there were plenty of men who were willing to pay for this and I quickly I learned where to find them. For many, an authentic cowboy held a certain appeal. My skill with a rope was in demand and offered an introduction to a more discriminating and higher- paying crowd.
I had arrived just in time for the heyday of gay nightlife. Discos and bathhouses were teeming with horny men. There was a never-ending supply of drugs which kept us up all night or melted our muscles or enhanced our orgasms or cured the diseases we passed back and forth to each other.
I cultivated some wealthy men friends who were happy to pay for my skill set but I never deluded myself into thinking I was anything more than a toy to them. They were educated and refined. They read books, went to the theater, discussed politics, understood the nuances of business. They felt comfortable in expensive restaurants and knew how to order fine wine. They knew where to shop and how to dress. I did pick up some refinement from them but mostly, these things remained foreign to me.
I didn’t care. I was in it for the fun. For the freedom. For the money. I was grateful to be half a continent away from my father, and having a great time of it, too!
Although I traveled with that crowd, I never thought of myself as gay. I didn’t love men. I didn’t have any feelings for them. I never looked at a man with sexual desire. To me, they were merely a means of making a living. If a woman wanted to have sex with me, I was OK with that too. They would suffice if I were drunk or stoned enough, but women never wanted to pay for sex (at least not the ones I met) so ultimately, they were of no use to me. The few times I did sleep with a woman, things always got complicated in ways I didn’t understand. They weren’t like men. I could have sex with ten men in a night without knowing any of their names, never see any of them again, and none of them would care. I preferred it that way.
I suppose eventually I would have found emptiness in this lifestyle too but before then, the sickness came. At first, it was mysterious, disturbing. But soon it became terrifying in the way it spread, in its quickness and mercilessness. Friends and acquaintances became ill and died. If I didn’t run into someone for a while, I always suspected the worst and was often right. There was a pall on the scene. The bathhouses were closed. We were shunned. People said horrible things about us and perhaps some of them were even a bit true. For the older men, this was far worse than the early years when they had to live in secret.
And then it was my turn. When the night sweats started, I knew what was coming. I’d seen it all too often.
I had no one. Those older rich men — the ones who were still healthy — wanted no part of someone like me. I had never been their friend and now I was a pariah. The sick ones, rich and poor, had their own problems. I had nobody, no place to go, no money, no way to make a living.
And so, because I didn’t want to die on the street, I did the only thing I could.
I went home.
In the years since I’d left, my father had found God. He’d stopped drinking and, to his credit, had developed compassion. He wanted to make amends, to pay penance for the deaths of my brother and mother. He accepted responsibility for the broken mess my family had become. He felt it was his duty to take care of me during my final months.
The irony wasn’t lost on me. I’d come full circle. In the end, the most significant relationship I had, the only person I’d ever shown any vulnerability to, was the one person I spent my whole life avoiding. I couldn’t get far enough away from and yet, in the end, I traveled halfway across a continent to die in his arms.