“I’ll have another Mountain Dew, please.”
The waitress nods and smiles and then she hurries off to refill my glass.
My mouth is coated with the thick, tangy sauce from my sweet and sour chicken which sits, half-eaten, on the plate in front of me. Across the glass-covered table, my mother sits in silence, poking at her almond-boneless chicken with her fork. Her plate is still relatively full—an odd site because my mother usually devours her favorite Chinese dish. But, today, Tension stretches across the table from her dark brown eyes to mine.
My mother and I have opted for an early dinner after an appointment at the optometrist. Golden Wok, our favorite Chinese food restaurant in our hometown, is relatively slow for a Friday evening: only an elderly couple occupies the restaurant with us. The sounds of our chewing drown out the soft hum of the local easy-listening radio station being pumped into the dining room. The cheap paper lanterns hanging from the ceiling and the tacky ceramic statues of dragons and Buddha are louder than any noise that we can make.
My mother slouches on her side of the booth. Her short hair (which used to be black like mine, but is now a shade of auburn) sits well trimmed atop her head. Her skin—deeply tanned like mine—is beginning to wrinkle as she approaches middle age. Her lips are not nearly as large as mine, but are still tender and shimmering. Her face is round yet stern.
In between bites of my chicken and rice, I check my cell phone for the time. I remember saying that I would call at seven o’clock.
I look at my plate and pick up my fork.
“I’m surprised you don’t use chopsticks anymore,” my mother says quietly.
I, startled by the suddenness of her question, look up at her. “What do you mean?”
She smiles, looks down, and pokes at her food some more. “You always wanted to use chopsticks when you were little because the rest of us ate Chinese food with forks. You always had to be different back then.”
She is, of course, right.
As the only boy and the youngest of my parents’ three children, I had (and, frankly, still have) a deep-seeded desire to distinguish myself from my sisters and parents in any way possible: I purposely wore mismatching colors (dark browns with blacks, mostly) because my sisters took pride in their outfits every day. I took to reading long and complex novels (Moby-Dick was and still is my favorite) because my mother only read those cheap Harlequin-romance novels that she found while waiting in the checkout line at the grocery store. I ran cross-country because my father was an avid fan of more violent sports (football and wrestling) as they were, in his eyes, the ultimate expression of masculinity (I think it had something to do with the grunting and beating up smaller, weaker athletes). Although my mother knew that I had to be different, she simply conceded that it was her only son using rebellion as a means to gain attention—as the youngest child tends to do.
Little does my mother know that being different is sometimes not a choice.
“Well, it’s too hard for me to use chopsticks,” I reply (even after years of practice, I was never able to get the hang of them) after thanking the waitress who has set my refilled glass of Mountain Dew on the table. “Besides, I’m really hungry, and I don’t want to waste any time messing with them.”
“Really?” she asks in that tone that mothers often use when they are about to contradict what their children have just said. “Because you seem to have been doing a lot of time-wasting lately.”
I turn my head and take in the bright May weather—a shining yellow sun and a clear blue sky—on the other side of the window.
She speaks the truth. I have been wasting time on several important aspects of being a high-school senior: applying for college scholarships, writing a speech for my graduation ceremony, figuring out where I want to live once I get to the University of Michigan, and so on. Apathy is not, however, the cause; the cause is a certain distraction that has come about several months before, whom I am waiting to call when I get home from dinner.
I continue to look out the window, for I cannot bear to look at my mother. I know what she is about to bring up—she has been bringing it up for the last several weeks. I want to avoid the topic altogether, but she insists that I conform for once in my life.
“Who are you taking to prom?”
Her words combust in my eardrums. I am hoping that she will not say anything about prom even though I know it has to come up sometime. The tuxedo rental catalogue has arrived in the mail (the result of over-zealous tuxedo shops) a month ago and she has been using every chance possible to make sure that I go to prom as a normal high-school senior does. I have my reservations about going to prom: I despise the majority of the people in my class (too many years of ridicule which my mother will not understand until later); I despise dances (too many school dances standing awkwardly against the wall, wishing I had the audacity to ask the person whom I liked to dance); I despise my high school (too many reminders of the lower-middle-class-right-wing Christians who told me on a daily basis that I would be going to Hell). But, for the most part, these feelings refer back to that phone call that I am so desperate to make.
I turn my eyes back to my mother who is now sternly staring at me and awaiting an answer.
“Why do we have to talk about this now?” I ask, sighing in annoyance.
“Because,” she begins, “you are in high school, you are graduating soon, and, believe it or not, you are going to miss the people you grew up with. They mean more to you than you think, and I’m sick of you thinking that you’re too good to be like all of them.”
I shake my head briefly. “Mom, they don’t want anything to do with me.”
She stares me down, seemingly in disbelief to think that someone would have the nerve to dislike her little boy—her boy who is the valedictorian of the class (not a real accomplishment as one would think, as being a genius is easy among morons); he who has a full scholarship to a top school (perhaps the University’s attempt to “diversify” the campus); he who is the first in his family to go to college; he who is a pious Catholic (I cannot bring myself to tell her that I have abandoned of my faith in the Church—though she will soon understand why I feel the way I do); he who is (in her opinion) setting a standard for all young Mexican-American men by receiving an education and living with a high moral standing.
My mother is proud of my accomplishments (as she constantly tells her friends, coworkers, and family), yet my personality has been an area of contingence for her because of my “need” to be different.
“That’s ridiculous. Why the hell would you say that?”
My frustration finally reaches its boiling point and I cannot help myself. I simply blurt it out.
“Fine. You want to know whom I’m taking to prom? His name is Justin.”
My mother’s eyes grow wide in disbelief. She stares deeply at me while I continue to aggressively explain my case as a criminal in an interrogation explains his or her alibi.
“He has to get permission to go to the prom because he’s a sophomore, and his mom refuses to give it to him because she doesn’t approve of him being gay.”
My mother looks down at her half-empty plate and begins to shake her head slowly. I cannot tell if she is shaking in disbelief or disapproval, either of which may be expected at a time such as this. I look around nervously to see if anyone is listening, but our waitress is busy greeting a family that has just walked through the door, and the elderly couple is sitting too far away to hear my confession. After a minute, she finally looks up at me and takes a deep breath. I prepare for the worst.
“So, you’re saying you’re gay?” she asks in the most deadpan tone that I have ever heard from her.
The conversation becomes so much more awkward for me at this point, for I am not “gay.” I have feelings and desires for both men and women. Ever since age fourteen, I have always known that something isn’t “normal” about me because I have feelings for both sexes. One can probably imagine how astoundingly difficult this feeling is to tell someone about (especially one’s Mexican-Catholic mother) because it raises so many questions:
“So, which one do you like better?”
“Does this mean that you can love two people at the same time?”
“So, you’re a swinger?”
I sometimes think gays and lesbians have an easier time coming out than I do because their sexualities (to me, at least) are so black and white—I, on the other hand, am a shade of gray.
“Well, no,” I finally respond.
Her forehead crinkles, and she cocks her head to the side in confusion. “I don’t get it.”
I try to think of the easiest way to explain it to her without having to draw a diagram on the back of the Chinese zodiac placemats. Finally, I look at her and ask hurriedly, “Can’t I love both?”
I explain that Justin and I have been dating for a few months. I explain that I have not wanted to tell her because I didn’t know how she will react and where her usual understanding would give way to her devout Catholic faith. I explain that the only people outside of school who know of my relationship are my sisters who advise me to keep it secret because God knows how Mom will react. I explain that the real reason I despise most of my classmates is because I hear utterances (some more subtle than others) of “fag” as I walk down the halls at school.
I make sure to explain all of this in one giant rush so that my mother understands as much as she can about the whole situation and so that she may be a little less disappointed in her son.
While my gut cramps up, I wait for her response. I know right away that I will not be able to finish the rest of my dinner, and neither will my mother. Finally, she speaks, and I am floored.
“I guess I kind of always knew. I mean, let’s be honest: You’re not exactly an average guy. I knew you were different, but I couldn’t figure out why. But now it makes so much sense.”
We sit in silence for a little longer, picking at our food.
“Please don’t kill yourself, okay?”
I look up at her with utter shock. “What?”
“I know it’s hard with the kids you go to school with. But just don’t kill yourself. You’re better than that. You’re better than them.” My mother is a woman of few (yet deep) words.
I have nothing else to say. I am thrilled that my mother is taking the circumstance so well. I am thrilled that she appears to have no intention of disowning me. I am thrilled that I am not forced to go to therapy and condemned to Hell as I have seen in the media so many times. However, I am not thrilled for what comes out of my mother’s mouth next.
“But you’re still going to prom—no matter who you go with.”
We arrive home and I retreat to my room to call Justin.
“How was dinner?” he asks over the phone.
I smile. “Hold on. I have to get a Coke before I tell you.”
“Don’t you usually drink Mountain Dew?”
“Yeah, but today I just have to be different.”