I’ve always been drawn to the things we’re not supposed to talk about. I remember the night when, toward the end of writing A Homemade Life, I got into bed, switched off the light, and suddenly was hit with a very bad idea, an almost electric impulse to write about my father’s death. I wanted to take it out of my head and put it somewhere else: the color of his skin, the strange percussion of his breath, the nurse calling up the stairs in the middle of the night. I wasn’t writing a book about my dad, and I wasn’t writing a book about death; I was writing a food memoir, tra la la, with fifty recipes and a cheery seafoam-green cover. But I got up the next morning and wrote the scene, because I couldn’t figure out how to avoid it. I felt the same way when I started to write Delancey, realizing that I couldn’t tell our story, or not in any way that felt complete, without exploring us from our most unflattering angles – and particularly me, as I bumbled and flailed, learning to trust and love someone whose dreams are much grander and riskier than my own. I felt the same draw again after June was born, when I was diagnosed with postpartum depression. If anything, I wish I’d written more about that, been less afraid. I was afraid.
I read The Argonauts last month, and Maggie Nelson puts it best:
Most of my writing usually feels to me like a bad idea, which makes it hard for me to know which ideas feel bad because they have merit, and which ones feel bad because they don’t. Often I watch myself gravitating toward the bad idea, as if the final girl in a horror movie (…). But somewhere along the line, from my heroes, whose souls were forged in fires infinitely hotter than mine, I gained an outsized faith in articulation itself as its own form of protection.
One night this past September, I was sitting in the bathroom with June (“Mommy, I have to go potty, and I need company”), and she asked, out of the ether, the way four-year-olds do, what happens when we die. I panicked a little and tried to hide it. I thought hard. I don’t know exactly, I said. Maybe anything we want can happen? We won’t have our bodies anymore, so we could do whatever we want: maybe fly like birds, or maybe swim like fish. “I want to be a fish!” June said. “I’ll be a pink fish. And you be a pink fish. And Daddy will be a purple fish, and we’ll all swim around together.” I sat on the wooden step stool that my second cousin gave us when June was born, with her name and birthdate spelled out in puzzle letters, my eyes full to the brim, not sure if I was happy or sad or some third thing. I want her always to think of her family with easy love and confidence, the way she does now.
Brandon and I separated over the summer. I live in the house that we bought almost six years ago, not far from Delancey, and he lives in an apartment near Dino’s. June calls our homes “the Delancey house” and “Dino’s house.” She lives with each of us for half of each week. Our lives have a lot of overlap: Brandon and I work together, text every day, and see each other many days of the week. We meet up for soup dumplings at Din Tai Fung most weekends. When June is with Brandon, he texts me funny things she says, and when she’s with me, I do the same. We hug when we see each other. We spent Thanksgiving together in New Jersey, with Brandon’s family and extended family around the long table, and when it came my turn to say what I was thankful for, I mostly cried into June’s hair. The shape of our family has changed, gotten weirder and more complicated and harder to define, but we are still a family. We’re just a family that doesn’t live in one house anymore, and that, sometime in 2017, won’t be married anymore.
Sometimes I see pictures of married couples, especially married couples with children, and I feel heavy. I don’t have particularly eloquent words for it – just loss, grief. It feels like a death. I never imagined June as a child of divorced parents. Sometimes it feels like we failed, like there’s something everyone else knows that we don’t, something everyone else is doing right. But then, other times, it doesn’t feel that way at all. We never stopped loving each other. Our marriage never failed. We never broke it. In some ways, it feels like we’ve actually had a huge success, like we’re actually succeeding right now – just in a way I didn’t predict, and a way that’s hard to explain.
About a year and a half ago, in June of 2015, I experienced something that I didn’t know could happen in adulthood. I found that my sexual orientation had changed. I wasn’t straight anymore. If you’d told me two years ago that this could happen to a person – that “sexual fluidity” was a thing, that the search term “late-blooming lesbian” is a real gold mine in Google – I would have nodded politely and privately, internally, rolled my eyes. Ha, riiiiight. Explain it however you want. Clearly she was closeted, and now she’s just coming out. I might have added, THAT’s one midlife crisis I’ve never heard of before. I’ve caught myself doing exactly that, thinking exactly that, when I’ve heard about people who’ve lived for years in the straight world – friends-of-friends, celebrities, strangers – coming out as gay, lesbian, or queer.
I remember learning, as a young kid, that my uncle Jerry was gay. As my family saw it and explained it to me, he was born that way. It’s who he was. These were the early days of the AIDS epidemic, “the gay plague,” as some brashly called it, and I remember debating with other kids in my conservative Oklahoma hometown, laboring to explain what I knew to be true: that gay people are born gay, the same way I was born with white skin and blue eyes. I thought then, and for a long time after, that each of us has some kind of essential self, a core or foundation, and that foundation is sturdy, dependable, unchangeable. There would be things that we could always count on, a sense of me that would be constant over a lifetime. Sexual orientation, of course, would be part of this. It is not a choice: no one chooses which genders they’re attracted to. But a year and a half ago – after 36 years of loving only men, and a decade of loving a particularly good one – something in me shifted without my permission, and it wouldn’t go back to the way it had been, no matter how hard I wished it would.
I could interrogate myself, park myself under fluorescent lights in a cinderblock room and go after myself like Vincent d’Onofrio in Law & Order. (No one can resist Vincent circa 2001, especially not me.) For most of last winter, I tried. For a good part of this past spring, I tried. I wound up with nothing but a quarantine-worthy case of hives, a month of spectacular anxiety, and my first-ever panic attack, which ultimately led to my coming out to my mother in a hospital emergency room at two o’clock in the morning, which I do not recommend. I wound up with nothing to show for it, except the realization that I haven’t always been, and won’t always be, the same me.
I’ve been slow on the uptake. My friend Konrad, who has known me since I was 22, says that my story has always been about self-discovery. “You’ve always been searching,” he says. “You thought you were finished, but you’re not.” I’m learning who I am, and I can’t stop.
I think the shift started, millimeter by millimeter, when June was born. Having a baby, having her, softened me. It broke me a little. It gave me first-hand knowledge of the fullness of joy and the emptiness of clinical depression. It made me appreciate my body, and femaleness, in a new way. It committed me to becoming the kind of person I want June to know and remember and be proud of. It committed me to being a person I want to parent her. It made me brave.
It also bound me to Brandon in a way that isn’t marriage, but something just as deep. There are many reasons, too many to name, why he has been my partner in life for almost a dozen years. Neither of us wants to toss that all away. He’s my best friend, and I’m his, and we’re willing to work hard so that we can always say that. I will tell him when his fly is unzipped, and he’ll be genuinely disgusted when I play Justin Bieber in the car. We will be parents together, and we’ll own restaurants together. We’ll share friends and colleagues, a wide community that has stunned and moved me with its unconditional support over the past seven months, since I began coming out.
Marriage is complicated. Not being married will be complicated. We’re choosing to keep what is good about us, us as an us – and to also have entirely new lives, other families, other loves. It’s horrible, and it’s nothing I would have chosen, and it’s also better than I could have ever imagined. I don’t know what word to call myself – gay, lesbian, bi, queer – and I don’t really care. I’ve known great love, and I feel lucky to still know it. I feel lucky to get to show it to June. I believe that Brandon and I will both know it again, with other people.
It’s terrifying to say this aloud. But not saying anything has made me feel disconnected from this place, and from this community. It started to feel like hiding, and I don’t want to hide, especially not from something that is so important to me. This site is a home I made before I knew Brandon, before June. It’s been the root of my community, both real and virtual, for more than twelve years. It’s been everything. It is everything.
Our friend David told me the other day that he’d recently reread the end of Delancey, and he suggested that I go take a look at it. “Just go look,” he said.
Brandon was 27 years old when we opened Delancey. I was thirty. I was married to him, but in a sense, I hardly knew him. I didn’t know that he had a head for business, or that he could lead people, or that, after going through the multi-year rigmarole of opening a restaurant, he would even still be interested in it. And I didn’t know that he would be right: that it would, in fact, realize everything that matters to us. I only learned that by letting him do it – “letting” in the very loosest interpretation, through clenched teeth and with a certain amount of screaming.
In return, I got to discover something in myself, albeit also with some screaming. I have never been good at change. But I thought somehow that, by throwing myself into Delancey, I could trick my system, beat change at its own game. I couldn’t. But Delancey did change me. I saw my own limits, walked right up to the edge and even over it once or twice, and I saw that I could be alright again. I could be more than alright: I could be happy. I learned that my life could reshape itself completely, and that, maybe if I stopped trying to fight it, or to hurriedly reshape myself before anything else did, I could instead let it slowly guide me, bend me, and bring me along. Brandon saw that before I did, I think; that’s why he helped get me out of the kitchen at Delancey. He let me go, so that I could let go.
We got to have a small victory in the end: a successful business. Of course, the story of that business is not finished. I don’t know what’s coming next, not really. But I hope that we can always do this: that I can let him go, that he can let me go, and that, wherever it takes us, we find the way back.