Dr. Henry Earl Adams was a renowned clinical psychologist who never graduated from high school. Tall and lanky, he lied his way into the Air Force at 16 before he was found out and kicked out. After some civilian escapades led a judge to offer him an alternative plan, his parents signed the consent to allow him to legally enter the Air Force again at 17. While stationed in London, he called his sweetheart June Vandiver in Georgia to say a girl claimed she was pregnant with his baby, so he wanted her to hop a plane across the Atlantic because he would rather be married to her. Despite never having been very far out of her little hometown of Helen, Georgia in her life, June did not hesitate to get on a train and a plane and fly to England. In fact, her drive motivated Henry to get his GED and enter college on the G.I. Bill when he mustered out. He started calling her Godzilla but, by his own admission, wouldn’t have had a pot to piss in or a window to throw it out of had it not been for her. He found an interest in and a knack for psychology–an uncanny ability to hear what people were choosing not to tell him see right inside them and know what they were feeling. June swore up and down that he was psychic and he swore up and down that she was insane. He became a strict behaviorist who disdained couch therapy and looked for actions that led to solutions. His diagnosis often began with the rhetorical question, “You know what your Goddamn problem is?” One patient was afraid of elevators–Henry handcuffed him inside an elevator for the day and was done. While testifying in the case of a man accused of child molestation, Henry told the jury,
“He doesn’t like to touch little boys, he’s just an asshole.”
Every year, I got a new suit for Easter Sunday. As a family, we had never gone to church for anything other than a funeral or a wedding, but Easter was a long tradition in the family and the community. It made sure every boy had a good suit that more or less fit for those two occasions when they arose throughout the year. Since a boy grows a lot during that year, you always got a suit too big for you in the beginning, which became too small by the next Easter.
When I was eight, I visited Uncle Henry and Aunt June on Easter weekend of 1985 with my parents. At that time, Henry was riding a wave of fame. He had taken a large amount of the Moral Majority’s money to fund research proving that homosexuality was a chosen behavior. Instead, the evidence led him in the opposite direction and he published a landmark study proving that being gay is genetic and, additionally, that homophobia had a distinct correlation with latent homosexual desire. This led the Moral Majority to sue him, so he began his press conference by saying, “I have scientifically proven that Jerry Falwell is an asshole.”
He told Connie Chung that he had only followed the evidence where it led. “My job is to stamp out ignorance. All the hand jobs I get in San Francisco are just a bonus.”
On the way to dinner, we stopped at the mall. Dad went off to pick up something at Radio Shack, June went somewhere else and Henry came with mom and I to pick out a suit. Previously, all my suits were grey and from Sears; solid, plain, reasonably priced. But not today.
“Oh, to hell with Sears. Let’s go to Macy’s,” Uncle Henry said.
“I can’t afford to get him a suit at Macy’s that he’ll grow out of in six months.”
“No worries. I don’t want my nephew looking like an asshole.” Mom gave me the ‘don’t repeat that’ look and off we went.
Henry picked it out. Plain black, single-breasted, two buttons. It was the most magnificent piece of clothing I had ever seen.
“Get the boy a shirt. Plain white, no buttons on the collar. And a tie. One of those burgundy numbers that looks like Victorian wallpaper.” A middle-aged lady crawled around the floor, sliding needles into my pants. “Make sure you put cuffs in those pants.”
Henry showed me how to knot my tie and checked to see that the proper amount of shirt cuff was showing. He instructed the lady and she slid pins into the jacket sleeve. I stood in the middle of convex of mirrors and admired myself. Even in my tennis shoes, I felt like J.R. Ewing.
“Looking sharp. You’re gonna have to beat ‘em off with a stick.” That is the very first time I can remember feeling handsome.
“I can have it for you by Wednesday.” Henry pulled the lady to the side and slipped her a twenty. “They’re leaving today, so if you could have it done in a couple of hours, I’ll come back and give you a big kiss. Tongue, no tongue, your choice.” He cackled, she blushed and nodded. We went to the checkout. Henry nudged Mom out of the way and pulled cash out of his wallet. “Just don’t tell Godzilla.”
I wore the suit on Sunday and got a compliment from every female relative. Men in my family didn’t give compliments about clothes. They sometimes whispered to each other when another man walked in wearing something different or loud, or they laughed, but never anything out loud. I was on cloud nine all day. I had never been so careful when eating. When I got home, I carefully hung my suit and shirt up on hangers. My cheeks hurt from smiling as I laid my head on the pillow.
The next morning, I put my suit on to go to school. I can see the concern in my mother’s eyes now, but I was too obliviously gleeful to have noticed anything. My dad had a briefcase that he never used in the closet. I always wondered when my dad had a job that required a briefcase, but I lived too much in the moment then to ever remember to ask. I emptied it and put the contents of my backup inside.
“Are you sure you want to wear that to school?”
“I’ll be real careful and not get it dirty.” She wasn’t worried about me getting dirty. “Please?!”
I see now the look on her face; her lips drawn tight as she nodded and thought. The crossroad you come to so often as a parent where you see them about to touch the stove. You want so badly to stop them and so badly to give them the freedom to touch it and learn. Neither choice is ever a victory. But she said it many times and I didn’t know what it meant for years. Everybody has to kill their own snakes.
I hoped out of the car and strutted under the awning and through the double metal doors of White County Elementary School. The briefcase was too large for me and I struggled to carry it in one hand and appear casual. I smiled like a lottery winner in a whorehouse. I saw one of the other boys in my grade walking towards me. Robby Robertson. I threw my shoulders back.
“Good morning, Robby!”
He looked at me and chuckled. “Nice suit, faggot.”
My mother picked me up at the end of the day, as she always did. She was waiting in the line of cars when I walked out the door. I got in the passenger seat and put the briefcase between my knees. I didn’t speak and neither did she. We pulled out the parking lot and headed home.
About ten minutes down the road, I could hold it back no longer. I burst into tears. Sobs. I had been holding it in all day. Robby was the first, but not the last. Kids get bored very easily, especially by school, and will latch on to any new or unusual thing. And today, I was the freak. By second period, I was taking incoming fire. By lunch, I was under full assault. Someone threw a ketchup-covered French fry onto my lapel. I cleaned it off and all I could think about was how I had promised Mom that I wouldn’t get my new suit dirty. At recess, I tried to stay inside, but nothing doing. I took the tack of refusal to engage. I stayed quiet all day. I don’t believe I spoke a single word until I was in the car.
“They made fun of me. All of them, all day.”
“I’m sorry, son, but what did you expect?”
I didn’t know what I expected. The truth is, I didn’t expect. I had not thought for a moment what anyone else would feel.
I went inside and hung my suit up just like the day before. I changed and went out to my sandbox and pretended to play. Dad and my brothers came home. I went in for dinner. After dinner, I watched TV until Mom said it was time for bed. I washed up and put on my pajamas.
Once I was under the covers, Mom came in and sat down on the bed. She brushed my hair away from my forehead and I wept again. My mother was an incredibly reserved woman. She didn’t hug me or hold me while I cried, but I cried because I felt safe in her total presence with me. She held back her own tears. I can see how watery her eyes were. I saw my mother cry on only a few occasions during my life and this was not one of them.
“What did you expect them to do, son?”
“I didn’t do anything.”
“Of course you did. Do you know what you did?”
“What did I do?!”
“You challenged them. You did something different. How do you feel when you run into something new?” “I don’t know. Scared.”
“And what do you do when you’re scared?”
“That’s what they did. They hid behind each other. They didn’t know what to think, they didn’t know why you looked so much different and they were afraid it meant you were better than them, so they brought you down to their size. Or tried to. And that’s what people do when they come up on something new.”
This was not a satisfactory explanation for how I felt. My mother’s explanations were never satisfying and they weren’t designed to be. She gave me a kiss and got up to leave. I turned over with my back to her.
“So what now?”
“What are you going to do about it? It seems to me you have two choices. You can do what other people want you to do and they will leave you alone. That is the easy choice now but it has a very high cost in the long run. Or you can do what you want to do and to hell with other people. That is a very expensive choice in the short term, but like as not, it pays a good dividend later on. It’s up to you.”
And she was gone down the hallway to bed. And I lay there and tried to understand what she meant. There were equal parts fun and frustration with being my mother’s son. She spoke in riddles because figuring out how to break the riddle was more important than the answer.
The next morning, I got up and put my suit back on and picked up the briefcase. When I walked into the kitchen, Mom nodded. Then she grinned. She knew what my choice was and she was proud. I thought at the time it was because I solved the riddle and learned the right lesson. I know now what I saw in her face was not pride in having taught me something. It was relief. Once a child is born, a parent begins to worry and wonder if their child will ever be able to get along without them. And that’s what I saw in my mother’s eyes now. Relief. He’s going to be just fine.
I wore that suit every day until the end of the week. Then we went to the second hand store and got another suit, and then another. I would not leave my house without a coat and tie for the next three years. Even in the height of the humid Georgia summers, I would not loosen my tie or take of my coat, even at recess. And I never once let anyone see me cry about it. Never, no matter what.
And the reason was very simple. Because fuck you. Life is binary. You win and I lose. And I don’t have the ability to choose losing. If you get on the treadmill with me, either you get off or you stay on until I die. The choice is binary.
Teachers called me stubborn. Later, I would come to know my choices as defiant. I didn’t have the foggiest notion of who Drew was at the time and but I was damn well not going to be what you wanted me to be.
DREW VANDIVER is an actor and writer. He lives in Los Angeles with a Ukrainian dog named Commodore.