A family of strangers story by Rich Paschall
Russell was home from the university, perhaps for the last time. He finally graduated after four and a half years and a double major from the School of Business. He lived at school each year and came home for the summers. Now his plan was to get a job, save a little money and move out. His college roommate would soon become his roommate again if they could arrange it.
Russell’s parents, now in their 50’s, never seemed to change. To Russell, they always looked the same and acted the same. Russell’s father was a hard-working, quiet guy whom everyone liked. His mother was also hard-working and dependable. They seemed to naturally know which household chores to perform without ever talking about it. Russell sometimes thought they held secret meetings to plan out the details of their lives, Russell’s included.
After a few days at home, Russell decided it was time to have a talk with his father. He felt they had both reached an appropriate age for this sort of father and son talk. So he went into the kitchen where his mother was creating something that smelled good.
“Where’s dad?” Russell asked.
“Your father is in the basement fixing something,” his mother said as if Russell should automatically know that.
“OK,” Russell said and headed toward the kitchen door that led to the basement steps.
When he got to the bottom of the stairs, he saw his father at the familiar workbench. He was re-assembling the vacuum cleaner which had sucked up something it should not have. Dad never looked up so Russell just began.
“Russell, grab those pliers on the table there … bring them here, son” There was no point in trying to start a conversation while dad was working. He still spoke to Russell as he had spoken to him his entire life, like a boy who needed instruction.
On one hand, it was a bit comforting that his father always treated Russell in a polite, helpful dad-like manner. On the other hand, it was a bit frustrating because Russell wanted to be considered an adult.
“Now, stand over here, so you’re not in my light. OK, grab that bolt. Hold it real tight and don’t let go,” his dad said. Visions of helping dad when he was a little kid came rushing into Russell’s brain. Everything about his childhood grabbed him and held on tight, just as tight as Russell held the bolt for his father. When the project was done, Russell gave it another try.
“Dad, I came down because I wanted to tell you something.”
His father looked at him as if to say, “Go ahead and tell me what you want to say.” Dad did not actually say a word, it was just that Russell knew his father’s looks. He did not expect to get much talk, so he had to read the expressions. Neither man was good at expressing emotions, so Russell swallowed hard and started talking.
“I wanted you to know how much I appreciate everything you’ve done, the sacrifices you made to send me to school. When I get a good job, I will pay it back to you.”
“Now son, you don’t owe us a thing so don’t worry about it,” was the fatherly reply, as if the conversation had concluded. Dialogues with dad didn’t last long.
“But Dad, there’s something else I want to say,” Russell interjected before his dad could put away his tools and leave. So his father gave him another “go ahead” look and Russell said, “I’m gay.” At that, his father said nothing. His expression did not change for a minute or possibly two. Then he looked a little sick like he had a bad case of indigestion. He stumbled back a few steps and sat on the bench.
“Dad, are you alright? Can I get you something? Water, or something?”
Russell felt a little panic until dad said quietly, “No, I’m fine.” Nothing more was said, Dad put away the tools and Russell stood there like a boy who did something wrong and his father was just going to act like nothing had happened.
As the week went on, it was apparent that Russell’s father had not said anything to his mother. If he had, he knew she would have had a comment before very long. Everything was fine with mom, but dad looked at him every day since his announcement like he was a stranger in his home. He gave Russell puzzled looks about everything and responded to everything with one-word answers. As Russell’s dad was a quiet guy anyway, no one else seemed to notice, but Russell felt odd. He wished his father would say something, anything, but there was no reaction.
When the week was finally over and Russell’s friend came to pick him up to go out for the evening, Russell declared, “I am going out for a while. I’ll be back late.”
“OK, have fun, Russell. Be good,” his mother responded. Dad looked up but did not say a word.
When he got in Joel’s car, his boyfriend said, “Well Russ, how did it go with the parents?” Russell shook his head.
“Mom doesn’t know and dad looks at me like I am some sort of stranger in his house.”
“You are,” Joel told him a matter-of-fact-like.
“Huh?” Russell said, quite surprised.
So Joel explained, “For twenty-two years your father thought you were one person, and you just told him you are really someone else.”