TW: Drugs mention, verbal abuse.
Breathe in. Pause. Breathe out. Pause.
Conscientiously, I guide the rhythmic release of air. I seize this sensation of control by timing out each respiration. I cannot, however, control today’s atmospheric temperature.
Summer heat bears down on my body. Don’t get me wrong, I relish the opportunity to be outdoors and away from the personal stressors of my indoor life. Yet, I also enjoy the occasional breeze breaking the intense, solar rays beating down on my exposed skin.
It is late August, the final days of summer vacation coming quickly to a close. As I prepare to leave for college, I find that I am more ready by the minute. I breathe in, now with distracted glances cast toward shouting form indoors. I breathe out. The verbal melees of my mismatched parents are a norm that no longer instill a sense of angst. I know how to find retreat from the tension as I hide outside.
Another round of cursing reaches my ears. Looking up, I spy a cumulus clump moving by, morphing in its motions eastward. From a crocodilian head, I enjoy its shift to a swordfish with tail beating brilliantly against the deep blue sky. Metamorphosis, beautiful to behold. Instead of eavesdropping on the newest list of complaints, I lose myself in the shapes of passing clouds. It was an escape tactic adapted from the summers I spent with my father’s sister. You see when your parents have full time jobs that requiring constant attention, your presence quickly becomes a nuisance in the way of their career goals. And when school isn’t an option, alternatives are needed.
Enter my aunt. Dee never had a complaint when my parents requested her assistance. My mother and father would probably have allowed me to take the role of latchkey child, staying home alone to fend for myself. But their concerns about my impact on the house while away at work ruined this option. As a five-year-old boy still struggling to master the microwave, I’m sure they feared the worst when considering what demise I might bring to their coveted home.
The months I spent with my aunt from the age of eight to thirteen were, simply put, magic. Upon arrival for summer stays, my aunt embraced my presence with a love and ease not yet met in my early age. She lived as an empty nester who had, in ways I would later understand, lost the love of many around her. Yet my innocent eyes cast no judgement as I instead sought out her solace. Together, we were a match made by fate to fill the empty voids created from life’s tumult. She had weathered years of grief, and I was positioned at the brink of an emerging march through difficulty.
She had a tendency to launch into soliloquies during her daily activities. I often wonder if these orations were a subconscious knee-jerk amid her routine. That, or she enjoyed having me there to blissfully nod along. My ears remained open and felt enticed to listen wholeheartedly.
Launching into monologues that helped her pass the time, I learned of her own trials. There was the husband who abused her as he slept around. There were the daughters who grew up and found ways to blame her for a failed marriage. There was a cascading spiral into drugs that helped her escape from reality’s constant beat down between attempts to make things right.
I watched as tears flowed, clinging to her pant legs and trying to instill what love I could provide. She simply looked down and smiled amid her reminiscences, scorned by memory’s anguish. Even then, I knew I was completing a necessary task through those small embraces. I listened and extended a blissfully ignorant yet sympathetic hand. There never came a time in which I attempted to know the full truth of her past. I was pleased just having her as my aunt.
We spent many evenings together on the patio, enjoying the humid summer air. Looking out beyond the oak trees of the front yard, I would watch as the sun descended closer to the horizon line. She would entertain my childish banter about the most obscure topics, including elements read in my library books. Knights and dragons, captains and krakens, explorers and beasts. And in her humoring of my run-on sentences, she began to teach me the art of cloud-gazing.
“You see, the stories you read can be found dancing in the sky!” In amazement, I looked onward as she drew through verbal descriptions the natural portrayals of my tales. They appeared before me, illustrated upon the skyline. Menageries bloomed and receded, sometimes set upon peaceful canvases while others tore to life upon chaotic approaching squalls. A beauty out of reach, yet we sat in amazement in our times together to appreciate the intangible.
“Can I drift away too?” I asked her once in my early adolescence. By this time, years had passed from the inaugural imagination sessions on the porch. The summers had amassed many memories while I grew in maturity and self-realization.
“And why would you want to do something so silly? Don’t you know how much I would miss you?”
“But what if you didn’t like me anymore? What if I was…what if I was a monster? Then you’d want me to disappear, right?”
She looked deeply into my eyes as we met in a moment of stillness. “What’s wrong Tommy John?”
I fell back to a moment weeks prior, an eruption of anger from my parents as they attacked each other in another argument. This one more heated than any I had witnessed.
“This is your fault! The early coddling made him a queer. Look at him now. The boy hates sports and dances around in his imagination like a fucking fag. Can you blame him for this?” My dad’s assault met a quick retort as my mother turned to her own arsenal of scorn.
“You think I’m the one who made him kiss that other boy? He hardly got the idea of kissing another person from me or our marriage. For all we know, he probably caught some glimpse of your fucking porn collection or maybe one of the sluts you message.”
And so I wept in the memory of my parents hatred for my actions, something I had begun to attribute to my personal presence in the lives. Yes, I had been caught at my prep school kissing another boy. In a parochial, Catholic school setting this meant consultation with the student’s parents and a rigorous round of faithful “cleansing”. It had been decided that the best alternative would be a new, distant boarding school where I would remain until college.
As I broke this news to my aunt, as I looked on for a glimpse of disgust, I instead saw a calm set of loving eyes. She reaching out both arms, and drew me close for a hug. “Do you remember the book I used to read to you years ago? I meant every word as I read that refrain. ‘I’ll like you forever, I’ll love you for always, as long as I’m living my nephew you’ll be’. Still mean it now!”
Sure, she had changed the wording a touch, but each night I heard those words I found peace in my slumbers. Now, she again new just what to say to calm my sobs.
“Look back to the sky and tell me, are all shapes kept a constant form?”
“No”, I answered. To which she quickly beamed with satisfaction.
“Exactly, Tommy! We are always changing just like a cloud’s shape. Each moment, winds of change will push a bit here or pull a tad there. Even if we for but a moment look frightening or feel ugly, there is a reminder in the natural way of things to tell us that nothing is set in stone. Even the most horrifying of things can change, becoming beautiful. It is only a matter of how we perceive things. That is the awesome power of the imagination’s lens.”
She paused, glanced out to the sky, and let out a sigh. “I look at you and I see nothing but the lovely memories we’ve made and how they’ve helped me. I am a better person now, after walking through years of trial and error. You look at me and, as I hope is the case, see a loving aunt. We may make choices that leave us appearing different to others. But you and I still see each other in a lighter fashion because we share something magical. We share love. And if you grieve in the days, months, and years ahead…if your heart pangs for what we’ve enjoyed together then remember this: grief is love in a persisting state. I WILL like you forever, I WILL love you for always, and as long as I’m living my spectacular gay nephew you WILL be.”
And so lying outdoors years later and in the present and trying to turn an ear away from my parent’s quarrels, I grieve. I yearn for those summers. I wish to have my aunt back after her passing in the years after my coming-out. But I know this is my love persisting.
My years in the boarding school had not, as my parent’s hope, made an impact on my sexual orientation. I continued to be myself, undaunted by the realization that this was my life and I could make it something beautiful. For four years, I learned as best I could and now found myself ready for an escape to college. My applications to novel, faraway locations had blessed me with a hope of sanctity and a path of enlightenment through a liberal arts education. This last blow to the cloistered hope of modeling a son out of poor-parenting and willed interests had broken my parents. Now, they would be left to tackle the true issue underlying their squabbles…themselves.
I glanced again, up into the heavens watching an etherial butterfly with flowing wings now turn itself into soaring eagle beating majestic wings. Here, I lost myself in the moment and felt the calm she instilled. Stress and concerns for unknown elements of my future fell to the wayside. Instead, I cherished my momentary grief and the love it held in secrecy.
“Thank you, Dee”, I audibly exclaimed as the eagle in sight took flight and changed, morphing into something unrecognizable yet new. Beauty or not, the evolving form would march on as I recognized I could too.
Breath in. Pause. Breath out. Pause.