Trigger warning: strong language; physical violence, gore, or abuse; suicide or self-harm.
I can make out a few vigilant silhouettes behind the neighbours' curtains, trailing me—a stranger—as I pull the keys out from my travel backpack. Some things never change in the suburbs. The lock resists for a second but then turns and, once again, I step onto the garden walk. After so many years, I’m finally home again.
They haven't bothered to change the locks. I imagine mother continually nagging father to change them or, at the very least, call someone to do it and him—being his typical indifferent self—brushing her off with an "I'll get to it tomorrow." But his tomorrows never came, not for the door lock, nor for the roof of the quaint gazebo in the garden, as I can now see. I remember when it broke like it was yesterday. One airless July afternoon, we were enduring my father's attempt to barbecue when, suddenly, the sun disappeared behind a wall of thick, dark clouds. An ominous thunderclap rent the air, almost immediately followed by an overwhelming downpour. The sudden squall ripped a branch out from our peach tree and it crashed onto the gazebo, puncturing its roof.
Everything else is exactly as I remember, almost eerily so. Unlike the gazebo, the rest of the house seems to be well-kept. I suppose my aunt—my father's younger sister—has sent a local handyman to tend to the house, for the grass has been mowed recently. Only the gazebo remains neglected. I remember her coming over every Sunday morning for breakfast. My father would make French toast and she would bring the jam and feta cheese. In that family, Saturdays were for crêpes and Sundays were for pain perdu and cinnamon. What happened to that family? Me. I happened. That's what.
The old peach tree with its budding blossoms, the honey bees buzzing contentedly about—I take it all in. I close my eyes for a bit and the essence of the moment transports me back in time. I'm a young boy again, running around, not a care in the world, playing with my favourite plastic dinosaur collection, without the slightest clue of what hardships life had in store for me—the places I would end up sleeping, the things I would have to do in order to eat, the pain and the stress I would endure for so many years.
"Oi! Ya need help with somethin' there, boy?" the hoarse voice of who must be a neighbour startles me back to the reality of the present moment. I turn around and I can feel his judgmental stare boring into me. Understandable. After all, I am an intruder as far as he knows.
I assure him he has nothing to worry about and introduce myself as the owner of the house. He lets out a knowing "Aha" and his eyes slowly inspect me from head to toe once more. Wills are not popular in this part of the country and my father didn’t leave one, not even after my mother had passed away.
"Ya be that son of theirs, then. Right?" Great! He has heard of me—the prodigal son, the perpetual disappointment, the son that brought only shame to the family name.
"Come to sell the house, I reckon?" What a nosy ass! But would I want to finally retire my nomadic lifestyle for a permanent roof over my head? Hell, that would be nice. I can start my life anew—reinvent myself, a whole new me. True, the neighbours must have heard inklings of my immoral ways, but they can't possibly know the details of what I have been doing during my twenty-three years away—banished! exiled! So, I tell him I don't have any intention of parting with the house. He finally takes his leave after I inform him there are things I need to tend to inside. The truth is, I just want to be free of him, but I don’t want to be rude, not to my new neighbour.
What I have just told him is the same thing I had told the real estate agent who had contacted me about my inheritance after my father's recent passing. That's right; I didn't find out from my aunt or a family friend even, but a complete stranger looking to profit off of my supposed loss. Come to think of it, I really need to deactivate my Facebook account or delete it all together for the peace of mind. Of course, the vulture didn't want to take no for an answer and kept circling, telling me to think about it, to sleep on it, not to make any rash decisions. That woman would not shut up. I bet my aunt had put her up to it. She wouldn't want one of my kind to settle down in her precious neighbourhood. There's no place for a vile sinner like me in this suburban slice of heaven.
I instinctively turn back. That's where it happened—right there, under the gazebo. That's where I became the son who dared to kiss somebody else's son. The faggot.
It all started during the quiet, lazy hours of a spring afternoon. My university classes were finished for the day and I had finally found the courage to approach the boy who, albeit reluctantly, agreed to be my study partner. I excitedly invited him over, and, although I initially hadn't been sure whether we were on the same page, it unfolded just like in the films—the cliched lovers' first kiss that had always made me roll my eyes before, but, in that moment, I could finally see the magic and charm behind those scenes. The thrill! The excitement! You just don't get that kind of adrenaline rush anymore in this digital age with the instant gratification of dating/hook-up apps. It's just a monotonous cycle of "hi, up to much?" texts, dick pics, and location stats. It's as simple as that. And, if you decide to meet up for a "date," the only thing he will ask for is a popper—and maybe a condom. Maybe.
Nobody was supposed to see us that day, but my aunt did. The busybody! My father, who should have been at work, furiously burst into the garden. We had heard his car pull up outside, so by that time, we were keeping our hands to ourselves and a respectable distance between us; however, he didn't hesitate even for a second, but pounced on us—a storm of cussing and spitting, fists and feet. Blow after blow. He left us in a pool of blood under the gazebo. That same night, he kicked me out of the house—he never wanted to see me again. And he never did.
There were nights when I would replay the events of that day in my mind before falling asleep alone in one of the many cheap apartments that I made my rounds through over the years. I would come up with different scenarios—more favourable outcomes. Sometimes, I still do. Despite the heartache these damned what-might-have-beens always bring me, I can't help but continue to dream of a better life.
At times I couldn't help but believe my father's words. Once his anathema got so far under my skin that I slit my wrists just to draw the venom out. To no avail. Fortunately.
What always hurt the most, though, was my mother's lack of intervention. She just stood there—mute, numb, apathetic. Just like every other time my father unjustly punished me for no apparent reason. She always took his side. My eyes tear up with memories.
I dig my phone out of my bag and call the real estate agent. Realtors always pick up after the first ring.
"I've changed my mind. I just need to fix one thing, but you can put the house up for sale," I think of my father once more, "No, not tomorrow—I want to get it done today."