On her 71st birthday, my grandma married a strapping, 6-foot-2 guy with a shaved head nearly 40 years her junior. My Floridian grandma, who I call Gramel, faced an October audience of about 50 people in a dark movie theater. Her knee had recently been replaced, so she stood with her back close to a wall. From where I sat, with the other guests, I could see her weight shift, trying to find stability.
“Who brought their grandmother to Rocky Horror for her birthday?” shouted Tor, a short man who had threatened the audience if we didn’t participate he would torture us “with a chainsaw.”
When I came out about seven years earlier, I could never have imagined attending a show with my grandmother that even hinted gay people existed, never mind celebrated them. A Southern Baptist grandmother, Gramel had responded to my sexuality more Ten Commandments than TheRocky Horror Picture Show. Now, standing in front of a crowd ready to do the Time Warp, she was about as far away from her initial response as the tides during Moses’s parting of the Red Sea.
In response to Tor’s question, I threw up devil’s horns, the only thing I could think to do. I couldn’t take all the credit for Gramel’s Rocky Horror birthday, though. For years, she had wanted to see the show starring Tim Curry as Dr. Frank N. Furter and Susan Sarandon as Janet but thought none of her friends would be up for it. As any good grandson who abides by you-get-what-you-want-on-your-birthday rules, I took her to the midnight shadow cast showing.
A spotlight shined on the shaved-head man who flashed a smile, bold and toothpaste commercial brilliant. It also shined on Gramel’s red hair, often more orange-ish when dyed, framed silver glasses with transition lenses, which sometimes didn’t transition in movie theaters.
I hope she can’t see the audience, I thought. I don’t want her getting embarrassed.
At Tor’s prompting, Gramel took a step forward from the lineup. She had been chosen for the wedding. After staying with my grandfather for over 50 years, Gramel had told me marriage wasn’t for her. “Old men are gross,” she had said. But, there she was, Janet to the shaved-head man’s Brad.
I watched her grab onto the man’s arm as she did mine when we walked together. My head itched and I wanted to take off my wig, but I knew Gramel would give me pursed-lips, her version of shade-eye, if I broke character. The wig completed my look.
Before we left the house that night for the show, I asked Gramel about my outfit. When one attends Rocky Horror with his grandma, one must choose the perfect costume. I wore a nearly floor-length black cape Gramel had bought me earlier in the week at Super Thrift, a warehouse full of mildew-laced clothes and aisles full of tchotchkes (a word my uncle Thom used to say when referring to “dust-collecting crap.”) The cape was something I could see Liza Minnelli wearing to brunch, so naturally Gramel thought I needed to own it.
“Is this wig too much?” I asked Gramel standing in front of her hallway mirror. “I’m not going for drag queen.”
“It’s just dressing up,” she said. “Have fun with it and keep the wig on.”
We took a picture next to my adolescent bedroom filled with shelves of Raisin Men figurines and 1992 Olympic basketball Dream Team memorabilia. We snapped several more pictures, and in the one we chose as best, she diva-whipped her hair.
As I looked at the pictures, I felt my outfit came off as incomplete. I shared my concerns with Gramel, and she told me to go into her room and find an accessory.
Filled with pale pink pillows and country trinkets, her most recent development of interior design, Gramel’s bedroom felt smaller than it did in my childhood. All the pink made me think of a teenager, not a 71 year old. Ever since I could remember, Gramel kept a shiny armoire filled with costume jewelry rivaling any good high school theater department. The dark-wood armoire looked luxurious in the cramped space. I opened the top compartment with hopes of finding a brooch for my cape, as I surmised brooches the next season’s big accessory. Inside I found rings, big and gaudy. At Thanksgiving when I was a teenager she had used one of these rings to punch – remembers it as a “slap” – me in the face after I said something “slick.” In her room, I picked through necklaces, long and fat. Small pins placed in rows. The box contained endless opportunities for costumes and characters and imagined stories at our disposal.
My eyes landed on a silver pendant. The pendant encased a small photo of me, about age seven or eight, sitting in a white wicker chair. My tow-head and fluffy hair took up most of frame. The pendant’s fragility made me think I would break it if I wore it. A feeling of destruction flashed in my body, and I thought about hiding the pendant. Destroying it.
I usually didn’t think about the year Gramel and I stopped talking, but it was shiny and heavy in the palm of my hand.
At around 19 or 20, Gramel learned about my “deviance,” as the Baptists called it. I think some gray-headed woman. My grandparents had taken me to the same Southern Baptist megachurch my whole life, and I attended the church-sponsored school attached to it. Every year, the school made students sign a handbook saying they wouldn’t commit any “secular activities.” Secular meant gay, and gay meant do-not-pass-go straight to hell.
In my early twenties I could not have cared less what my old-school grandmother thought of me. Gramel and I had been very close in the lazy Florida days of my childhood when she’d time me doing an “obstacle course,” over the stump and around the tree in my grandparent’s backyard. We watched Designing Women marathons and female gymnastics during the Olympics, most notably the Magnificent 7 and Kerri Strug’s iconic “You Can Do It” winning vault. We bonded over NBA basketball; both of us obsessed over Karl Malone and John Stockton of the Utah Jazz. We even took a photo once at NBA City in front of a green screen that made us look like we were standing next to Stockton.
By the time I came out, our Olympic glory days had run their course. No more Designing Women. My religious grandmother and I were pitted against each other – the family version of the 90s epic rivalry between the Jazz and Bulls.
Gramel wouldn’t understand me being gay. She just couldn’t.
“I don’t think I’m going to watch John anymore,” I remember her saying to me soon after I came out. “I turned two boys gay, and I don’t want to do the same to him.”
From the time my brother John was born, Gramel had taken on the role of babysitter. Mom worked long hours as a waitress, and Gramel helped out with John nearly every day of the week.
Why would she punish my mom and John for my sexuality?
The other boy Gramel had “turned gay” was her son, my uncle Thom.
My uncle’s raspy voice envelops my childhood. He always told me to keep my head up, it’ll be all right. Uncle Thom had left Florida for a while to become a business man who wore fancy suits with cufflinks and cologne that smelled expensive because it was. He drove a Mercedes and had lived all around the country, Virginia, Colorado, North Carolina – mom and I visited him in those places, where I caught fireflies and felt snow for the first time.
I don’t remember the first time I understood he was gay. But, I never knew a time he didn’t live with his partner, who most people referred to as “his friend.” When I was a child, someone called them “fudge-packers,” but I didn’t know what that meant and was too afraid to ask because, deep down, I thought I might be one as well. If I couldn’t name the feeling deep down in the pit of my stomach then it wasn’t real.
At midnight showings of Rocky Horror there was a shadow cast acting out the scenes and the audience throwing rice and toast at the movie screen.
Gramel and I very very very briefly considered taking John with us to Rocky Horror, because we thought he’d like all the excitement. And, he had already watched three other movies, a “triple dip,” with us at the theater, so we wanted to include him. I imagine if anyone from child services ever found out we thought about taking him to such a show, I’d get banned from adulthood. But, I would tell Child Service Agent Joe, the idea popped in my head for the simple fact I didn’t want him to feel left out. The thought slipped from my brain as quickly as money through my fingers because BAD WORDS.
After Gramel got married she sat down next to me and the large soda we were splitting. We settled in for the Sweet Transvestite crooning courtesy of Dr. Frank N Furter.
My uncle didn’t want a funeral, but my family needed the pilgrimage. My mom, John, stepdad, Gramel and I packed up my family’s 6-in-the-evening-blue minivan and made the trip from Florida to Missouri where Uncle Thom was living with his partner.
We drove about 17 hours in our minivan, but Gramel just needed a few minutes in Uncle Thom’s bedroom. If there wasn’t a funeral it wasn’t real. As she took a step off Uncle Thom’s doorstep into the furious sunlight, she lost her balance. He had battled cancer, but was healthy, from what I knew; he had more time. Fell to the ground and unforgiving reality hit her. The weight of his house, memories: the realization I lost my best friend. She cried and cried and cried her cheeks flushed with grapefruit-sized tears.
In an opening Rocky Horror scene, Janet and Brad, lost and wet, wander around the mansion. After my uncle’s death, the same could be said about my family and me. He had always been the grounded one, the person everyone turned to for advice. We had nowhere to go. We had lost our directions.
Rocky Horror was campy and messy and brilliant. But, mostly campy. Red lipstick and time warps and black fishnets.
Gramel gripped my arm to get steadied as the theater’s lights came back on. The woman who had played Janet came up to us and told us we were really cool for coming. Gramel smiled and told her how much fun she had. There was one other older person in the audience – a woman who told me she saw the show every Friday night. At 71, Gramel may have been the oldest person to ever see it at the theater.
Step by step, we fell into a joint gait we had solidified after walking together so often. I had since moved out of her house, but we had lived together Grey Gardens-style for over a year. We watched a lot of TV together and didn’t talk much about our year-long cold-shouldering of each other. But when my boyfriend came to visit, she told me he could stay in the house, but not my room, because we weren’t married.
As we walked to the car my cape nearly dragged on the ground; I had taken off my wig but not my Liza-brunch getup. After her fall at Uncle Thom’s doorstep and a subsequent fall years later on her own doorstep, Gramel decided on knee surgery. I worried about her and the times I wasn’t there to hold onto her, which was so much more often than not. She held on tight, and I gripped the prop bag we had bought for a dollar. We didn’t know when we were supposed to throw the props, toast and rice, up and over our shoulder, so the bag was still full. Mom had told me when she was a teenager Uncle Thom had taken her to see Rocky Horror. I imagined the two of them together, both with teased 80s hair and some sort of spandex ensemble. I bet they knew all the right things to do during the show. Gramel and I kept ours as a souvenir.
“This was one of my most fun birthdays,” Gramel said unlocking the car.
When I came out, I worried my grandmother would Bible-thump me. The Southern Baptists had taught me well. But, now, I wore her brooch and wig and looked like the inside of her armoire. Rocky Horror made me realize how lucky I was Gramel wanted me to be myself around her. We were finally able to come inside from the rain.
“None of my friends would have gone to see this with me,” she said at nearly 2 o’clock in the morning. “I’m glad you were home so we could do it together.”