My son, Grease, is 22. We have to get his name out of the way. It’s Gregory Glen Thorndale, named after my old man and me. G.G. Thorndale, for a while when he was very little. Grease could never get his tongue around the two Gs, so it came out in various combinations, the most common being something like “gee-geese.” It became Grease when he was 3 and has remained.
Grease, like me, was a huge disappointment as a child.
When he was first born, I suffered through the early days, knowing that I could outlast the growing pains of any normal tyke. I knew that once his brain caught up with his huge head, that I’d be ready for him. We’d read. We’d fish in cool mountain streams. We’d unlock the secrets of womanhood, car repair, and cooking with fire.
I put him into too much too soon, it’s clear now. I hovered over him when he was 5, scaring the little one into a kind of paralysis that eventually resulted in crying whoops whenever he saw me coming to pick him up. A party at my wife’s sister’s house, and a soccer ball knocked right into the young tyke’s belly. An outrush of air. The screaming and crying. The looks of disappointment at dad – and his beer can – and is inability to play at the appropriate pitch, the right level. Even the young cousins wondering who the sweaty man was who had ruined the glinty afternoon.
With Judith, Grease was always an angel. She cooed to him as an infant. Let him make his own way. She waited for him to grow. She wasn’t in a fired rush to make him a senator or skateboard champ.
I, on the other hand, did not take disappointment well. I was the one who put his fist through a wall when Grease came in last in the egg toss. I’m the one who sat up weeping all night after he flubbed his one and only goddamned line in the school play. “Constable, the vicar is here to see you.” How hard is that?
My wife always was kind to Grease. She mothered him, nurtured him. And I scowled from behind my bowl of Special K, wondering, why, oh God, why, did I get stuck with a dud of a kid.
I would see fathers and sons in parks, flying kites, wrestling, bouncing tennis balls on tennis rackets. They all looked Sears models, laughing, heads tilted back. Father and son making their way through the wicked world together, solving great unsolvable problems together.
Grease and I were unable to negotiate a single Saturday afternoon without some sort of breakdown. He would rush into the house, hands still caked with motor oil, and collapse in Judith’s arms. I’d still be on the porch, looking in through the screen, flummoxed. My shoulders in an endless shrug. Judith would shake her head, pull the child in, and I’d go back to the driveway.
But my boy Grease came around. He made his own path. He hasn’t become the kind of son I dreamed of, but I’ve long gotten over that. The truth is – only in his early 20s – he’s far advanced over me at the same age. I see him reading a book in the large corner chair in our home. He writes something in the margin. He drinks tea in a ceramic mug and twirls a pencil, turns a page. What is inside that, I can’t imagine.
He’s a poet, a songwriter. He has delicate fingers that he uses to play guitar in a band with his buddies. He has a thin face and a wispy goatee, and Judith tells me that he’s just perfect as he is. We had some problems in his late teens with marijuana. I don’t judge that too harshly. After all, I was a kid of the 60s and 70s, and was as familiar with a bong as I was the shifter on my Chevy Nova.
But when I got to be 18, I put the pipe down and got on with more important matters. But Grease got busted with an ounce in his school locker and then two years later in his car with several blunts. Nothing came of it. There was no spiral of any kind. He was released to us. We talked it over each time, and it was never an issue that divided us. Sometimes when I go out into the back yard I smell something sweet in the air. He comes around from where he’s been sitting. He says, “Hey, Pop,” and goes inside the house again.
On Grease’s graduation day, Judith and I took him out to dinner after the ceremony and before he went to a friend’s party. We talked over the future and the past and we reminisced over the first 18 years of his journey. I had thought about this event all day, had even practiced in the car the things I would say. Some sort of passing of information and love and hope to my only child, my son. But when the three of us were together, my advice seemed wooden. It seemed to me then that he was aiming at goals that were beyond my own understanding. His brown eyes looked sad to me, open and vulnerable. We ate our prime rib and took him out to the parking lot. I walked him up to a used blue Buick Century and handed him the keys. Earlier in the day Judith and I brought the Century up from where I had bought it and left it in the restaurant parking lot.
When Grease saw the keys and realized the car was for him, he put his arms around me and hugged me tightly. He kissed Judith and hugged her. He got in the car and backed out, smiling, his long hair flipping in the breeze of the open window. The brake lights flashed at the entrance to the street and in an instant he wheeled it right and headed out.
At work, I have three photos on my desk. One is of Judith and me on our honeymoon in Portland, Maine, standing alongside a big fishing boat. One is of Grease as a boy, hurling a Frisbee at his old man on the beach in North Carolina. The third is a picture of me and Grease under that Century, changing the oil, smiling up at Judith who took most of the pictures we’ve ever had.
Grease told us he was gay a year ago. My wife held his hand as he spoke, and I sat across from him, drinking a beer that he had brought with him for the event. He went on at some length about him always knowing, even when he was dating girls. I remembered one in particular and had asked him about her during his speech. I asked him how he could do that to such a nice girl. He and Judith just looked at me open mouthed and Grease started up his speech again.
About halfway through, during the time Grease was telling us about Simon, his boyfriend, the singer in his band, I put my bottle down, nodded at them to continue, and went to the downstairs bathroom where I closed the door and lit the light.
I looked in the mirror at myself and wondered about my old man.
It’s safest to say that my father always hated me. I was not the kind of son he wanted. I didn’t know what that was, or how I failed to measure up, but that overriding sense of things was a part of every exchange I’d had with him from the time I was five years old. I looked in the mirror and thought about what he’d do in this situation. I know he wouldn’t stand for it. I know he’d take his meaty fists and pound the shit out of me had I done the same thing. I know he’d call me a faggot and a queer and I know that I’d pay for it with the beating of my life.
Upstairs, Judith had wrapped our son in an embrace. She had made him a sandwich, talked easily about having Simon come to dinner. And I stayed in the downstairs bathroom until I heard the front door open and close.
When Judith came down and knocked on the door, I was sitting on the closed seat of the toilet, reading an old copy of Photography magazine. She told me I’d have to come out sometime, that I’d have to find a way to get over whatever mood I was in about it all. I heard her through the door but didn’t say a word.
“You’ve always known, haven’t you,” she said. “You knew he was different. Why couldn’t you have just told him you loved him and accepted it?”
I heard her footsteps go upstairs and when I did I opened the bathroom door and came out.
Judith was on the couch watching TV. She looked at me, then back to the TV, giving a small shake of her head. Disappointed in me, is what I read.
I looked at the TV screen for a second or two, got another of the beer bottles and went out back into the yard. Bugs were everywhere, and I spent as much time swatting them away as I did drinking. Grease would be home by now, at his apartment. I remember that I kept thinking of his boyfriend, and that the word made me feel like poison was in my mouth. I kept thinking “faggot boyfriend” over and over again.
I tried to feel the things my father would feel, tried to be inspired to do something dramatic, to find closure. I wanted the uneasiness and the confusion I felt to manifest into something else that I could act from, act beyond. I wanted to smack something hard with my fist.
What happened with all of that is that the next time Grease came by, I didn’t mention it. He didn’t mention Simon around me, and after awhile, it became something I know he shared with his mother, but not with me.