When my cousin invited me to her wedding, I couldn’t bring myself to repeat any of the auto-responses I’d stocked up over the years to get out of going home. Instead, I blurted out: “I’m super happy for you, but sick of pretending like I’m Single in the City — like the love of my life doesn’t exist — for the sake of other people’s feelings.”
“So…” she said, “who is he?”
“She,” I choked out. “Her name is Melinda.”
Then, to my shock, my cousin exclaimed, “Bring her! I can’t wait to meet her. Seriously, it’d mean so much to us if you both—” She cut herself off. “Wait. Do your parents know?”
No. That was the problem. I hadn’t yet figured out how to break it to my conservative, Christian parents and older brother that they were related to a homosexual.
My parents knew of Melinda as a girl I’d met in college. They thought we were girlfriends, as in the kind Grandma envisioned when she asked how many I’d invited over for potluck. Melinda and I had been friends for ten years and a couple for three. I was touched by my cousin’s response, but wasn’t sure I was ready to make my lesbian relationship a family affair.
When the formal wedding invitation arrived, addressed to both Melinda and me, I had a change of heart and resolved to attend. I was nearly thirty. I was in love with the kind of girl you take home. And according to the hand-jotted note beneath the calligraphy, my aunt would be pleased as punch to meet Melinda, if we both decided to come. “The colors are black and white!”
“We’ll be fine,” Melinda reassured me over drinks at one of our favorite East Village bars. She often quoted, “The personal is political!” from her Women’s Studies undergraduate days, but I feared that her first encounter with familial homophobia might be because of me. While Melinda’s younger brother thought it was pretty awesome—Yeah, high-five, dude!—that his sister was a lesbian, my brother had recently completed a Master’s in Divinity and was committed to carrying on our fundamentalist upbringing to the next generation.
Most of my relatives were neither here nor there about religion, but I wasn’t thinking about them the following day when I walked to the corner and dropped three letters, including the R.S.V.P. for two, into the mailbox. Gathering my courage, I shuffled the remaining letters. One was addressed to my parents, the other to my brother and sister-in-law. Similar to the options offered on a R.S.V.P. card, their world was sharply divided between those who were and those who were not going to heaven. And when Armageddon came, there wouldn’t be any of those save-the-date notices.
In my coming-out notes, I’d written:
Dear Dad and Mom,
I would like to share my life with you. And part of my life is that Melinda—who you know as my best friend—is also my beloved. We have been together happily for three years, but being a lesbian is something that I have understood about myself for a very long time. I recognize this news will hurt you, but hope you may reconcile the continuance of us in your life. Please reach out when you feel able to do so.
Love your daughter,
I’d let them know we were coming to the wedding another time.
After opening and closing the mailbox’s graffiti-covered lid a few times, I finally let go of the letters. They fluttered and landed, irretrievable.
A few months later, on a lovely August afternoon, I turned up to my first family function in years—after decades of my dad declaring, “As for me and my household, we will serve the Lord!”—as a lesbian in a little black dress. An old favorite that suddenly seemed a lot littler in the church on the outskirts of Des Moines than it normally did at home in Manhattan.
A curious gaze followed me and Melinda from the sanctuary pews to the receiving line, from the roast beef buffet to the family pictures, watching our every move, gesture, expression, and touch. My cheeks took on a permanent blush and my chest flushed a shade of scarlet only slightly brighter than my nails painted “Devilish Diva” red. I cinched the chiffon straps of my halter dress tighter and tighter until the friction burned the flesh on my clavicles and the back of my neck, like an eraser rubbing too forcibly through paper.
“Breathe,” Melinda whispered to me, repeatedly, as she straightened her stiff collar and smoothed the lines of her snappy summer suit. We both tensed into our best suburban smiles whenever anyone approached — even if it was the bride, swinging by for the umpteenth time to say how much it meant to her that we had both come and to ask, under the baby’s breath in her bouquet, if any of these folks were making us feel uncomfortable.
No, no, we reassured her, everyone was being just fine. Sure, some had politely inquired what kind of business we were “partners” in together. A few presumed we were sisters. But other than the one guy who couldn’t keep his forehead from breaking out in sweat over the realization that Lord have mercy, those two girls have sex with each other, most were fine. Really. Some even struck up conversation.
“Can you believe Iowa of all places has gay marriage?” asked one couple, who apparently knew me when I knee-high to a grasshopper.
“Way ahead of New York!” we cheered with our bottles of Bud Light.
“And Dick Cheney has a lesbian daughter, too,” my dad’s college roommate chuckled, slapping his slacks.
Someone came out to us over cake. “I’ve got a girlfriend, too,” she whispered under her pin curls. “Met her on the Internet.”
Most of the guests made no reference to my relationship with Melinda, or what one person referred to with a self-conscious mumble as “our preference.” They treated us as though we were just another couple there to celebrate the nuptials of another wonderful couple.
“So wonderful,” we agreed, making smalltalk with strangers and my brother alike. His brief email response to my note had acknowledged the bravery of my lifestyle choice and was as clipped and cursory as the few words we exchanged before he and his wife decided to hit the road early.
All in all, these folks were fine. My folks, however, were a different story.
The day before the wedding, my parents had met us at the airport. I hadn’t told them our flight times. Who knew how long they had been standing there, watching the arrival escalator at Des Moines International?
“Are those your parents?” Melinda asked, letting go of my hand. At first I hadn’t recognized them. Squinting, I noticed they suddenly looked old. Their skin appeared papery, like the raised texture of antique stationery. Mom started crying, while Dad continued to stare at the top of the escalator as if the daughter he was looking for hadn’t yet arrived.
My dad is a retired lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army and a Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell kind of man—even if that was a Clinton policy. For as long as I could remember I hadn’t told him about my being a lesbian, because underneath the obvious camouflage of embarrassment, martyrdom, and divided camps, I knew this news would deeply grieve him. I felt responsible to protect him from me.
After sending my coming-out note to my parents, I had nearly called to warn them, to tell them to disregard that little evergreen card from me. I envisioned my dad returning home from a jog and being caught off-guard “with news from your daughter” that, judging from the state of my mother, pacing around in her nylons and pointing to the kitchen table — where we always put stuff that concerned the entire family — couldn’t be good.
I nearly called to warn them, but didn’t. I couldn’t. Sharing my love wasn’t a sin. Showing up for my cousin’s wedding wasn’t contingent on their comfort. My note was a courtesy, allowing them hear it from me.
The escalator deposited us at their feet.
“What a surprise,” I said.
My parents greeted me and nodded in Melinda’s general direction. Mom explained they were hoping to have a quiet moment before the hubbub of the wedding.
“Did you get my letter?” Dad asked.
His letter had arrived weeks ago. I’d skimmed the three pages of yellow, legal-size notebook paper, preparing myself to read some biblical reference to how he and my mother were washing their hands of me. I’d spent my entire twenties fortifying myself against the day on which I wholeheartedly believed they would disown me. Dad wrote six ways to Sunday that he disliked my current lifestyle choice and that he was deeply saddened by how far away I had wandered; yet, to my astonishment, he hoped to repair our father-daughter relationship. What the first step towards reconciliation might be, he wasn’t sure.
“Perhaps if you write back?”
My tears had dropped onto the paper, blurring the ink into large ellipsis-like dots. But I didn’t write back to him. I couldn’t conceive of anything more for me to say or to do expect show up. I saw attending my cousin’s wedding as my choice to make as an equal member of our family — a role I had abstained from for long enough. Humiliating them wasn’t my intention, nor was it for others to use me as a case-in-point to poke holes in my parents’ piety. I simply could not continue to shoulder the cross of their beliefs any longer. If they hadn’t made the lifestyle choice to become born-again, they wouldn’t be having such a hard time accepting mine—if sexuality, unlike Jesus, was a choice to follow.
Rather than saying anything of the sort now that we were together, I danced around the topic of our letters by chattering about the uneventful plane connections, the deal we’d scored on our hotel, and how fortunate we felt to arrive just in time for some Iowa sweet corn.
“Wanna get a cup of coffee?” I offered.
“A piece of pie?” Melinda’s midwest upbringing kicked in.
“No,” they said.
We all stood in silence until Melinda jangled the rental keys.
“I guess we’ll see you tomorrow,” I said.
Our interactions throughout the day of the wedding were no less fragmented. Most of the reception passed by with my parents and me orbiting the room like planets under different gravitational pulls. Mom and Dad stayed in their corner with God on their side and I stayed in mine with the world, while Melinda won over everyone else on the dance floor with her awesome moves.
After doing the Y-M-C-A and the line-dance to that awful Strokin’ song, the party started to wind down. One by one, guests wished my cousin and her groom well and headed off to find their Ford or Chevy amongst the other Fords and Chevys in the golf club parking lot. Melinda and I sat on the edge of the parquet dance floor, tapping the seconds in time with the music until we might make a graceful exit. I ached to wrap my arms around her for the first time all evening.
“All right, all right, last slow song of the night,” the D.J. announced. He dimmed the disco lights shooting red, white and blue lasers across the empty dance floor. The familiar wah, wah, wah, wahhaa of an electric guitar wound up. Cymbals crashed, and the soulful ’70s singer cried, “I’ve been really tryin’, baby!”
“Oh yeah,” Melinda made a subtle grind against my shoulder and whispered, “Let’s go get it—”
A shadow darkened my peripheral vision. I heard the sound of a familiar throat being cleared.
“Um, excuse me,” Dad said, standing over us. The strobe lights behind him made his halo of wiry hair appear even grayer, his wrinkles, deeper. “Pardon me. May I have this dance?” he asked me — and then continued, with sincere, gentlemanly etiquette, “That is, with your permission, Melinda.”
“Uh, sure,” she said, casting a sideways look of disbelief in my direction.
Dad held out his right hand to me. And waited. I flushed an even deeper blush. Did he honest-to-god not recognize the song? Of course, he didn’t. He was Dad. He no longer listened to “contemporary” music; he enjoyed instrumental hymns and AM talk radio. Stunned, I slowly turned from Melinda to my father, as “Tryin’ to hold back this feelin’ for so long” crooned in the background, enflaming my conundrum.
I understood Dad’s invitation to dance was an olive branch, a genuine gesture toward reconciliation. He was declaring to everyone that despite our differences, I was still his daughter. I recognized this, but he didn’t seem to recognize that he was asking me to dance to one of the most overtly sexual songs of the century. Accepting my dad’s hand meant I had to overlook the sad, fucked-up reality that we’d be twirling around, father-daughter style, to Marvin Gaye’s “Let’s Get it On.”
Dad shifted his weight, self-consciously aware that the entire family was watching. All the tension of the evening had mounted to this: whether or not I chose to accept this dance.
“Oh! Come on,” Marvin coaxed.
I was horrified, but could not reject him. If I said no, Dad would only remember that I’d denied him—not that I had saved us the embarrassment of shaking a leg to a hit-single infamous for foreplay. And the simple truth was that I wanted to dance with him and was pleased that he had asked. Sometimes, I reasoned with myself, being part of a family simply means showing up and doing the goddamn dance.
With as much dignity as I could muster, I stood and took my father’s hand. He led us to the center of the vacant floor. The disco ball flashed spotlights across Melinda’s wide-eyed disbelief, my cousin’s slack-jawed shock, and Mom coming out of a dark corner, wailing silent sobs.
My mom listened to the Delilah After Dark program on Lite FM. How did she not recognize this song? Even if she had, she wouldn’t have cut in. My parents believed in transcendent meaning. The song was irrelevant compared to the point — and the point, I assumed, was that this dance might bring us one step closer to my prodigal return. Mom slumped down into the chair I’d vacated next to Melinda, openly grieving the child she must have felt she had lost, to some extent, here on earth — but ultimately where it truly mattered, in heaven.
Dad and I danced the few verses in rigid silence with averted focal points. We held one another at arm’s length because we both believed we were right and the other one wrong. I suspect we both felt judged for whom we loved. Both of us felt like outsiders in our own families. Both held the other responsible for the pain we were suffering and had no idea what to say.
“I’ve been meaning to dance with you all night,” Dad finally announced, over a background of loud, lyrical moaning. “Glad I didn’t miss my chance.”
Beyond the last slow dance of the night, he believed that once our lives on earth came to an end, we would be separated for eternity. He anguished over the vision of my burning forever and hoped to save me from a fate that I no longer thought was real or—contrary to what he raised me to believe—felt I deserved.
Marvin gently reminded us: “We’re all sensitive people.”
“Thanks Dad,” I said. “That means the world to me.”
He twirled me. I peeked out of the corner of my eye to see his face wearing the same stoic pride he always had when I was a child and we shuffled across our old shag carpeting while I balanced atop his feet. Tonight, Dad held himself with the same upright, principled posture he had when he escorted me to father-daughter banquets at our church, starting at age six, and taught me how a gentleman ought to treat a lady. Emotion welled in his words this evening as much as it did on the night of my thirteenth birthday, when over candlelight, he and my mom presented me with a purity ring. Dad said then how much he looked forward to the day when—God willing—he would escort me down the straight and narrow aisle to a white wedding day altar. Dad seemed to loom as large as the Heavenly Father then. Now, in my four-inch heels, we danced at eye-level with one another.
“I do miss you, ya know,” Dad said, cutting himself off before adding, and I want you to come back to the faith.
“Miss you too, Dad,” I said, without saying but you have to love me for who I am and not who you want to convert me to be.
These unspoken sentiments—the words that still divided us—hung in the air, like the lyrics to another tragic song.
If there was any hope of having a relationship, we were going to have to find a place in the here-and-now to meet on equal footing — preferably a blank, quiet, unwritten place where we could figure things out as we went along. Where might that be?
After seven forever minutes, Dad and I were still alone on the dance floor. I would have tipped the D.J. all the cash in my purse if he flipped on The Temptations’ My Girl or something, anything, but no. I swore. He must have turned it up, because the lyrics “Stop beatin’ ’round the bush” blasted out of the speakers.
“What’d he say?” Dad asked, stopping dead in his circular shuffle.
Marvin was amping up for his final panting chorus.
“Don’t listen, Dad. It doesn’t matter.”
“Did he just say what I think he said?” Dad’s eyes widened behind his bifocals; he blushed from his ears to the mustache that was still army-regulation trim.
“Really, Dad. LET’S JUST TALK OVER IT,” I shouted. “Everyone seemed really happy. I’m so glad we could ALL be here and share today!”
I couldn’t think of anything more to add. Nor could he. So together, in silent resignation, we spiraled around the dance floor, waiting for the howling Gaye to be sanctified. Once the song finally petered out, Dad walked me gallantly back to Melinda, who looked as pale as a sheet of loose-leaf.
“Thank you both for this dance,” Dad said, exchanging my arm for my mother’s hand. As he led her off, she was still sniffling.
“That was sick,” Melinda said.
I nodded, mouthing: Marvin-effing-Gaye with my dad!
“And they think we’re pervs?” Melinda shout-whispered, shaking her head.
Following the spectacle of our father-daughter dance, there wasn’t much to do except leave. Rather than watch the indecency of their son/brother/uncle slow dance with their granddaughter/niece/cousin to baby-making music, the rest of our family had busied themselves, dismantling the decorations and cleaning up centerpieces. Melinda and I said our goodbyes, thanked my cousin and new cousin-in-law, and made sure the grandparents were in somebody’s car. My parents were nowhere to be found. Thinking they had slipped out before us, Melinda and I headed into the muggy midnight. We found our rental car, and once the doors were locked behind us, Melinda turned toward me with a flirty smile, loosening her top button. “Can’t wait to get you outta that—”
Knuckles rapped on my window. We screamed. My dad peered in.
“JUST WANTED TO MAKE SURE I SAID GOODNIGHT!” he shouted through the pane of glass that held both of our reflections.
Melinda started the car engine with a peeved “Jesus.”
I cracked the window. “See you tomorrow at the bridal brunch, Dad.”
“Oh, yeah, that’s right.” Dad nodded as if this were the first he was hearing of such a meal, let alone one of the bridal variety, but was nonetheless glad to give me a see-ya-later wave as opposed to a goodbye.
Pulling away in the darkness, I watched his shadow recede. The blank space between us opened, and the words to write him back finally started to come.
[Image via Flickr]
Amy Deneson is a writer in New York. Her essays have appeared in The New York Times, Salon, Huffington Post, Brooklyn Rail, and Curve magazine, amongst others. She is currently writing a memoir about growing up in the Christian purity culture.