December 18, 2010

Tommy's Tale, Part One

I had a younger, gay brother named Tommy whom I loved dearly. When he died about 25 years ago it tore a hole in my heart. He was 30. The official cause of death was flesh-eating bacteria but I recognized it for what it was: he died of AIDS. Other relatives would tell you this isn't true but I know this in my heart.

In a recent post I mentioned my Italian mother. I also grew up with an Italian stepfather named Fred who was a wonderful man. My biological father, on the other hand, was an irresponsible Irish drunk who ran off as soon as I was born. So I never really knew the guy although he showed up to take me swimming a few times when I was very young. I remember this vaguely. After the last visit he said, "I'll see you next week," and disappeared for good. Not a reliable character, dear old dad. So I grew up not knowing what he looked like or who he was. In my early teens I found myself wishing I knew him. I became determined to find my father and get to know him -- whether he wanted it or not.

The only thing I knew was that his name was Bill O'Connor. When that's all you have to work with, there's only one choice: I called every Bill O'Connor in the New York phone books. Do you know how many Bill O'Connors there are in New York? A ton! I felt I couldn't make the calls at home, though I'm not sure why; my quest was a secret for some reason. So one evening I took a ton of dimes to a phone booth and went through every damn phone book, calling them all. It took several nights.

I really did this. I called all the Bill O'Connors. Usually a woman would answer the phone, which made it particularly awkward. "Excuse me, but did your husband ever have a son named Keith before he married you?" That's pretty much how I phrased it.

Not one of those women was mean to me, not one, which is a testament to the times, I think. They were all kind and helpful but the answer was always the same: "No. I'm sure I would know if he had. I'm so sorry." And they were. For some reason these women felt my pain and empathized

And then one evening I finally tried that tiny City Island phone book, and lo and behold I found him. To tell the truth, I don't remember anything about that conversation except that he invited me to visit him on City Island. On the walk home I felt like I was flying. I was going to meet my dad!

It was a tumultuous thing when we met. I loved the time we spent together but it also felt very strange. My father was sitting across from me! It was a heady thing. Right away, I learned that he was a drunk. In fact, he and his wonderful wife Mary (she was great!) were both drunks. It was morning when I arrived at their house and they were having Tom Collinses -- and offered me one. Sure.

We had great fun that day and it felt so good to be with this man, drunk or not. But the greatest surprise was that I had two half-brothers, Tommy and Billy. Tommy was the younger child, maybe 14 months or so, and Billy was about four or five. I played with them on the sunny floor for hours. It was wonderful. I couldn't believe I had two more brothers.

It was a beautiful summer's day and my father suggested we go swimming. He handed me one of his bathing suits (he called them "trunks") and told me to change in his bedroom. I said, "I'll wait for you." Who knew? This might be the only chance I'd have to see my father's body. As a son, shouldn't I know what he looked like? I also had some idea that by doing this, I would see the future of my own body. That was an interesting prospect.

He asked again a couple of times but I always gave the same answer: I'll wait for you. Finally we did change together in his bedroom. It was no big deal but my curiosity was satisfied. The image of him naked filled a daddy knowledge-gap, and I wanted to fill all of them that day. I had the feeling this might not last.

The swim in the bay or river, or whatever it was, turned into a nightmare. He suggested that we paddle out to a float and we did -- but there were lots of dead white rats floating in the water. You literally had to push them aside to make your way to the float. Nice place, City Island. But what the heck, I was swimming with my father.

We went out drinking that evening and I danced with Mary as my father got drunker and drunker. They invited me to sleep over and I agreed but by the time we got back to the house, Bill could hardly stand. When it was time to head for bed he announced to Mary that he was sleeping with me.

So first I didn't know him at all and then we were sleeping together in boxer shorts. It felt warm and comforting to me. It was a good day. I remember staring at him after he was asleep. I  tried to memorize his features. My father. How strange.

The big headline that day seemed to be, "I met my dad". But the lasting headline was that I met my brother Tommy. Soon afterward, my relationship with my father fell apart when I told him I was gay. Of course an Archie Bunker like him couldn't handle the news. But I never hid it from everyone, so he had to know. End of knowing my father. I'm told he drank a lot over it afterward. Like he wouldn't have been drunk all the time if I hadn't told him. Uh-huh.

I didn't hear from Tommy again until he was older. But as soon as we were back in contact we became inseparable. We loved each other instantly and that would never change. Stay tuned for part two of Tommy's story.

Stay tuned for part two of Tommy's story. A new installment will appear here every Saturday until his tale is told.

UPDATE: Part Two of Tommy's Tale is here.

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