I WAS BORN A SHOWMAN. For years, even my birth played out in my head as a grand entrance. I assumed my mother’s giant stomach had exploded in some public place, followed by a balloon drop, confetti cannons, and people celebrating in the streets. It would have been a mess, a gory birthday party, with a lot of cleanup involved, not to mention my poor mother would have had to have been put back together.
I haunted all corners of my house, like a jazzy poltergeist with swinging hips and splayed hands. I terrorized my sister’s unsuspecting girlfriends. My favorite catchphrase, ironically, was “I looooooove women!” I was desperate for their revulsion. Ew, your brother is like . . . so gross. But then I would ratchet up the charm, a perfect little gentleman. Aw, he’s so sweet. Where’d you get those blue eyes, huh?
In kindergarten, I told flat-out lies. I confessed that I was very sick, bathing in the concern of my classmates—and especially that of their mothers. God, sympathy was satisfying. One afternoon, my mom picked me up from school and my teacher said she hoped I would get better soon. My jig was up. “You can’t try to make people believe things that aren’t true,” my mom said afterward.
But human pity was preferable to the distant regard my stuffed animals offered. They lined my bedroom shelves and did not bother to applaud my one-man shows, which I performed against the wooden footboard of my bed. No matter how loud I sang they just stared back. Tough crowd.
My imagination was wild and irrational. The first time my mom took me to the doctor for my blood to be drawn, for some unknown reason I thought everyone would be wearing Victorian garb, that I’d be auctioned off to the highest bidder in some antiquated display. I was so sad, thumbing through a booger-ridden Mr. Happy book in the waiting room, thinking it would be the last time I saw my mother. I was relieved that there ended up being no auction, but the drab gray room into which they led me, where two ladies told me I’d feel something like a beesting, still wasn’t half as cool as the Dickensian scenario I had imagined. Unsurprisingly, I cried.
My sisters would get their hair done at a beauty parlor that had a huge painting on its front window of a woman with giant, Medusa-like locks. “Is that what you’re gonna look like?” I remember asking just before they shut the backseat car door in my face. I was disappointed when they finally emerged from the salon, not with giant, freaky hairdos that could barely fit into the car but with simple, feathered blowouts. If only it had been my salon, they would have looked like super-vixens with ashen bushfires encircling their painted faces.
Maybe that was why when I was asked what I wanted to be when I grew up, the first thing I could think of was a “hairdresser.” I loved going to the barber with my dad, feeling like a big boy riding in the front seat. My first haircuts were from a vampy woman outside the Phoenix suburbs by way of sleepy desert side roads. She had long black hair and smoked as she cut, a cigarette clamped between her lips while I sucked on my binky.
Later, my regular barber spot was in the entryway of a Smitty’s grocery store. When I sat in the chair, a very tan, wrinkled man would ask me if I wanted “the G.I. Joe or the Mr. T?” Duh, the Mr. T: He had a Mohawk. My dad, as if he believed the barber were serious, tapped his shoulder and said, “Just a regular cut is fine.” I was crestfallen when we left. My hair looked like it always did.
One day in a Stride Rite shoe store, an older, masculine woman wearing a polyester pantsuit found out I couldn’t tie my own shoes. She showed me the bunny-rabbit-ear method, making two loops and twisting them around each other. Suddenly I could tie them myself. I walked out of the store with a pair of lace-up Hot Wheels sneakers that she swore would make me run faster. On the playground, when I put them to test, it was total baloney. I ran no faster than I had in my old Velcro-fastened shoes.
It seemed that everywhere I went, someone was up-selling a total dud. Whether it was some toy slime creature that didn’t secrete like it had in the commercial, or Michael Jackson not actually performing in Captain EO at Disneyland—it was just a 3-D movie of him that played all day long—the world was full of exaggerations. I felt gullible, and often embarrassed at my expectations of real magic. Sometimes I thought people could read my overeager thoughts, and it humiliated me.
I didn’t understand that what I saw on TV wasn’t real. I stood paralyzed one Saturday afternoon, a dirty Cabbage Patch Kid dangling from my hand, as Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert reviewed Pink Floyd’s The Wall. They showed a clip of schoolkids walking into a meat grinder and getting turned into sausage. Where was that grinder, and what would cause me to fall into it? The image was now branded on my psyche, but so was that song. I needed to hear it again. I found my mom in her bedroom and did the best rendition I could, hoping she’d be familiar with it. What did “We don’t need no education” mean?
Soon after, she took me to a plush multiplex to see the musical Annie. I’d been singing “Tomorrow” to the secretary in my dad’s office, to my friend’s mom, to anyone who would listen. The movie theater had gigantic glass windows in the front, and inside, red and orange velvet curtains and patterned carpets that stank of butter. Every theater door was a mystery; each one marked a new universe. But I was certain we would walk into the wrong theater and see something just as horrible as those kids falling into the meat grinder.
Another time, my mother took me and my sisters to see Ghostbusters. As soon as the first specter popped out at the five-minute mark, the fabric of my reality unraveled even further. I dragged my mom into the theater lobby and, of course, cried. We went shopping in the adjoining mall while my sisters finished the film, and I watched as my mom flicked through a rack of leggings, the thin material in her fingers just like the scrim between our world and dimensions unknown. I was so scared that some hideous creature from hell would burst from behind the ruffle-neck maroon blouses and create total chaos.
One single detail could now send me into an obsessive state of fear. There was a shot of someone’s hand in a bottling plant at the beginning of Silkwood: It seemed a harbinger of doom. The video for “Don’t Come Around Here No More” played behind my eyelids when they closed, Tom Petty scooping up Alice in Wonderland’s insides as if they were a cake. I couldn’t sleep alone. I’d wake up in the middle of the night, pad into the hallway, and just stand there. The house was alive and breathing. I crept into my parents’ bed on my mom’s side. With a gentle hand she’d lead me back to my room and wait until I fell asleep. But sometimes she’d just give up and let me sleep next to her. That habit continued almost through high school.
Still, I couldn’t leave well enough alone and was fascinated by what scared me. I would make my sisters give a play-by-play of Aliens or Gremlins. They were patient and skilled at breaking down the movies into acts, turning blockbuster thrillers into bedtime stories. I could browse forever in our video store. The VHS boxes were graphic and scary, and I hovered near their lewd cardboard cases until I was made to retreat to the children’s section, where I supposedly belonged. How I resented the woman at the counter. She always suggested I take home boring animal movies, or family westerns. I felt obligated and rented them to be polite, not wanting to hurt her feelings. At home, Phar Lap or The Golden Seal played while I sat alone and watched, bored. I hated the movies she recommended; there was never anything even resembling a Muppet, and the horses always died at the end. ￼
My nightmares were tempered by dreams of men. I thought of them holding me kindly. I wanted to fall asleep in their arms. While watching The Muppet Show with my sisters one evening, I turned to them and said that I was going to marry the episode’s guest host, Christopher Reeve. I imagined he would make a perfect husband, and wouldn’t it be great to be able to wrap my arms around his shoulders? My sisters were gentle but firm: Boys didn’t marry boys. My face flushed. It was the first time I remember feeling ashamed.
At the cusp of the ’80s, Mesa, Arizona, was where the suburbs of Phoenix slowly transitioned into desert. It was a haven of RV parks, a simmering mass of gravel lawns and parking lots, pockmarked with newly constructed strip malls and chain grocery stores. New businesses seemed exciting only until the last of the grand-opening balloons popped, the dust wearing the sheen of the signs to scratched plastic.
My family lived in a ranch-style house that my father had built in the ’60s. It sat on a square piece of land surrounded by orange groves and a cotton field, which was sometimes also a watermelon patch. The house was as Spielbergian middle-class as they came: yellow-patterned linoleum in the kitchen and foamy-looking olive-green shag carpeting in the bedrooms. Any hint of ostentation resided in the antiques my father had bought from an estate sale of some wealthy old-maid aunts of his. The Oriental rugs and oil paintings in their ornate frames made no sense next to our ’70s wallpaper and corduroy bedspreads, but from my low height, they were treasures from some other world, far from the baking desert.
The popped top of my dad’s first Coors punctuated his days of hard work. My mom passed me the silver can, which I would deliver to him just in time for the CBS Evening News with Dan Rather. I’d lie at my dad’s side, content in the shadow of his satisfaction. He had done well for us, and if there were any stresses of not having enough money, I wasn’t aware of it. I would play with friends down the road, families with way too many kids in run-down houses sprinkled with cat pee. I never considered us rich, but to my friends nearby, my family probably seemed it.
Both of my parents came from modest means, so there was very little extravagance other than Dad’s love for transportation and machinery. His main passion was planes, and he built boats and rejiggered old cars with his bare hands. Whatever money was spent on our leisure, it was accompanied by his own elbow grease and ambitious imagination.
￼ He was born Archibald Borders Sellards all the way back in 1928, just before the Depression, in California, just outside Los Angeles, which he remembered as a swath of orange groves divided by dirt roads. He did his best in school, but no matter how hard he tried, he couldn’t learn to read. Turns out this was because he and his uncle had painted a whole house with lead paint when my dad was eight. Every day he’d be covered, colors running down his arms. No one realized at the time how badly it impaired vital learning skills. I always wondered growing up why my dad couldn’t spell very well.
He dropped out of school in the seventh grade, opting instead to try and make money for his family’s survival. He took work filing down horseshoes. For a dime apiece, the cook at his old school’s cafeteria bought dead rabbits he’d shot. When he was twelve, he left with a circus, touring around California, his main task running the generator that powered all the lights in the tent. The circus traveled with one elephant, a chimpanzee, ring horses, and dancing girls. My dad drove trucks between gigs, having no license. It made him a careful driver for the rest of his life.
It was all grueling, endless work—hard on a grown man, much less a thirteen-year-old with only the clothes on his back. One night, spilled battery acid ate through his pants, which he had to keep wearing until he found another pair. Eventually he graduated to spraying insecticide on lemon trees, riding on top of trucks, his head floating above the groves as he showered them in chemicals. He persevered month after month, and waited for any free afternoon that he could go observe the sky. He’d loiter at the airport, just to be in proximity to his real passion: airplanes.
In 1943, the Rosemead airport, east of Los Angeles, was the perfect spot to get a job, small but active enough where he could be close to the planes and begin learning how to fly. The fifteen dollars a week he made gassing planes and starting propellers wasn’t half as valuable as the thirty minutes of flying lessons he’d get every Sunday. He then moved on to the tiny Palm Springs airport, where all of Hollywood came through, arriving to their desert getaways. Dad served and observed the famous and the rich, most of them friendly, but they must have seemed as if they came from another planet. Howard Hughes would land his four-engine with his entourage. My father would unload their luggage, exchange pleasantries, and watch them take off in a fleet of limos or in Hughes’s ’37 Packard.
My father flew solo for the first time on his sixteenth birthday, the earliest he could get a pilot’s license. He then moved to Phoenix, which at the time had a population of only forty thousand. The government was unloading airplanes for real cheap from the war. My father teamed up with some buddies and they pooled together enough capital to start buying the planes that the government was dumping. Engines were inexpensive, so he used everything he’d learned and rebuilt the planes himself. From 1963 to 1986 they ran Globe Air with a fleet of bombers and brave pilots, fighting fires and crop-dusting with DDT. It was dangerous and sad work. They lost upward of fifteen men over the years, all friends working for my father.
One of those guys, Bill Clark, had done a job up in Alaska, and his plane disappeared there months before he was to be married to Freida Jean Rector. She was a bubbly and hip young thing with a thick North Carolina drawl who had driven cross-country to Arizona from the Smoky Mountains to be with him. She wore miniskirts, smoked slender cigarettes, and sparkled with Southern charm. Now, her fiancé gone with no explanation. I imagine her for weeks after, smoking, her eyes dull, making pots of coffee, crying into the phone with her hope wilting. There wasn’t much closure; Bill’s family never had a funeral for him. Grieving, with her future uncertain, Freida got a job with Globe Air as a secretary.
There, she met my handsome father, twenty years her senior, with two small girls and a teenage boy from previous marriages to women that he’s told me were a disaster. Being the first in Arizona to attempt firefighting by air had led to financial problems and a reliance on alcohol as self-medication that weren’t conducive to good marriages. He’s said to me, grinning: “You can’t blame those ladies for everything, just most of it.”
Hoping that the third time would be the charm, Archibald and Freida eloped to the Little White Chapel in Vegas, no one else there but themselves. In the photograph, my mom sported a graceful updo, my father overgrown muttonchops, both of them with huge smiles on their faces. They’ve been happily married ever since.
I’ve never liked the saying “Everything happens for a reason.” But what if that reason is yourself? Is it wrong that I’m thankful that my mom’s fiancé, the first love of her life, never returned from that fateful flight? I sometimes think of this alternate person that would have existed instead of me, a dream brother. I picture someone with my flaws and oddities ironed out, striding with ease through his normal, quiet life.
￼ Windi and Sheryl, my sisters from my dad’s second marriage, were nine and ten years older than I was, respectively, so by the time I was in kindergarten, their braces had come off to display sets of blinding white teeth. They were beautiful girls, with faces framed by coiffed brown hair out of a Nagel painting. I’d watch them get ready for a school dance, tucking and untucking the fronts of their shirts, trying their best to mimic the styles they saw on MTV, which was beamed into our home courtesy of the new miracle of cable.
They knew I would believe anything and filled my head with false stories designed to fuel the flames of my anxiety. For example, they’d tell me I’d been found on the side of the road as a baby because some woman was trying to give me away. Or Windi told me that if I got hair spray in my face, my eyes would turn blue and I’d die in a matter of minutes. Once I got some in my eyes and my screams ricocheted around the house; I thought I had mere moments left to live. Meanwhile, it never occurred to me that my eyes were already blue.
My brother, Avery, was out of the house by then. He was twenty years older and got married as soon as he returned from a Mormon mission he had taken to the Philippines. My friends all had complex and brutal relationships with their brothers. Maybe because my father was older, I felt jealous and sad that I didn’t have a brother closer to my age.
My father was fifty when I was born and I became conscious of his age when I was six. There was a Wednesday-evening church group that I attended, and one night everyone brought their fathers. I was initially excited, but when we arrived, all the other dads were so much younger. No one else had a father near as old as mine. I tried to send him home.
We rode to and from his work on the airstrip, me in the back of his blue Datsun 280Z, crouched behind him in a kind of trunk with no seats, much less a seat belt. I had to lie flat, with my face propped up in my hands as he explained to me concepts that seemed abstract, like how an instrument wasn’t just something that made music. “See that phone booth?” He pointed as we drove by. “A telephone is an instrument too.” He thought about the world in a way that I had a hard time finding interesting. I didn’t share his fascination with machines and cars and boats.
His face was serious. The lines of his rugged complexion, the result of years in the desert without sunscreen, pointed to a perpetual scowl. His observations came across in few words, but he had a big laugh on the occasions when it appeared. You could spot his distinct loping gait from across an airfield, hands greasy, the tattoos on his arms from boyhood blurred beyond recognition. All the same, we were buddies, and I loved spending time around his workshops and playing inside the old parked bombers.
He must have been perplexed when I suddenly vanished on weekend afternoons, choosing to be inside the house reading rather than tinkering with him on projects. I wonder if my aversion to dirt and disinterest was disappointing, as it slowly dawned on him that his son wasn’t forming in his image?
When he dragged me to my first day of Little League, I blubbered and begged not to play. His face was stony as he pulled me out of the car, and kicking and crying onto the field. In the end, I knew it would hurt his pride too much if I didn’t even give it a try. Yet no one had even thought to teach me the basic rules of the game. What could anyone do but laugh at my ineptitude in the outfield? I stared at the sky and ran from the ball. It always plunked on the ground yards away from me, like a dead shooting star, its flame long extinguished. ￼
I was obsessed with books and got the hang of reading from Laura Ingalls Wilder’s innocuous prairie tales, the Wizard of Oz books, and Raggedy Ann and Andy’s psychedelic journeys. To challenge me, my first-grade teacher gave me a copy of A Wrinkle in Time, and I attacked it with a puzzled vigor. I couldn’t figure out what the hell was going on, but I was determined to read it anyway. I wanted to read everything.
I’d lurk around the stacks in the public library for as long as my mom would let me. The peaty smell of books and their filmy, lacquered library covers incited a Pavlovian response, to browse and thumb, inspect and comb through bookshelves I’d already looked through many times. I parked myself at the desk of any librarian who was working, adamant that we would be friends.
While I was learning to read, I realized I could also tell myself more intricate stories with my toys. I was frequently on the floor of my room, flat on my stomach, surrounded by countless He-Man figures and castles. I amassed the little bulging chunks of plastic as if they were tender prophecies: steroid-fueled bodybuilders I could hold in my hands, just as I might one day hold the real thing in the flesh. The dramas that unfolded weren’t those of action cartoons but of relationships and tragedy, backstabbing and sacrifices. While I should have moved on to BB guns and remote control cars, I remained in my room talking to myself with misproportioned male dolls.
I simply loved a good story, and found I was able to write my own. My first one was written on a small spiral notepad, and it was about Garfield in a haunted house. We started getting our first creative writing assignments in school. Other kids would scrawl out a couple mangled sentences and I would keep adding on to mine, stretching the narrative into something much longer than I had even expected. I always ended up asking for extra paper.
By the time I was in second grade, I’d been placed in a separate advanced reading class taught by the school librarian. She wore long prairie skirts, had an air of sophistication, and seemed interested in what I had to say. I liked the way she didn’t talk to me like I was a little kid.
My second-grade teacher, Ms. Brown, was in her late twenties, attractive, with a bob haircut and black-framed glasses. When my parents went out of town on a business trip to Taiwan, they asked Ms. Brown to watch me for some extra cash. Our usual babysitter, Dorothy Reed, a shrill, prune-like woman with gray straw hair and polyester housecoats (my sisters hated her, and hated me for loving her), wasn’t available, and my parents thought there was nothing strange at all about asking my teacher to watch me at my own house. My sisters at that point could take care of themselves, so it was Ms. Brown’s duty to make sure I was fed, wearing my pajamas, and in bed by nine.
The household took on a more magical, conspiratorial atmosphere when Ms. Brown was there. I don’t recall telling anyone at school what was happening; it was like a strange, glamorous secret. The two whole weeks we lived together were like breaking a favorite toy to inspect its insides and see how it worked. Here was Ms. Brown making me oatmeal for breakfast. Here was Ms. Brown blow-drying her hair in a black nightshirt. It was like living with a celebrity.
At night we’d lie in our pajamas on my parents’ king-size bed in front of the TV, me on my back with a stack of pillows under my head. She’d be propped up on her elbows grading papers with a red marker while we watched Moonlighting. We had our own private life, an invisible rope that tied us together, and it filled me with a subtle superior coolness.
How strange it was to be in class, watching Ms. Brown teach us cursive, when just the night before I had snuck out of my room when I was supposed to be sleeping. Silent, I crouched on all fours and crept down the hall. Her boyfriend, Sheldon, had stopped by, with his thick dark hair, wearing a coat and tie, wielding a coconut cream pie from Marie Callender’s. “Oh, Sheldon,” she said, staring into his eyes, just before he kissed her lips. This was pretty juicy stuff.
My parents came back, scholastic life returned to normal, and I felt dejected: Ms. Brown acted like nothing had ever happened between us. I would angle for any kind of private aside when I could, desperate to see the friend with whom I had shared those nights in my house. She was liberal with her praise of my school performance, but I never again got to see that side of her. I was now on the lookout for adult women to connect with, mostly just friends’ moms in their kitchens, who were amused that I wanted to talk to them rather than play with their kid. It was a specific kind of attention that I wanted from them, an informed validation of my idiosyncratic self. It was the beginning of a pattern that would have a tremendous effect on my life.
We took a vacation the following summer. Instead of my dad piloting the family in his little Cessna airplane (which he did occasionally), we decided to drive our motor home to Canada for Expo ’86—but the behemoth broke down just north of Seattle and we never made it. Out of commission for a whole week, we unloaded the Nissan Maxima that my dad had had the foresight to stick on a trailer behind us, on the off chance we felt like cruising «around in a smaller car. It was the kind of ingenuity that never escaped him. He was a man who believed in inconvenient convenience.
That was how we found San Juan Island, a tranquil, tucked-away rock in Washington State about five miles across the water from Vancouver. The island’s town, Friday Harbor, was idyllic, affordable, and charming to a family that had been living in a desert sprawl all their lives. We were smitten with the landscape of forests, beaches, and moss-covered rocks. Taking the two-hour ferry ride from the mainland, gliding over the calm ocean, was like being in a placid purgatory.
The island was isolated but active enough not to feel sleepy, especially in the summer, when the tourists on their bicycles poured out of the ferry like spilled club soda on a fancy rug: The vacationers were a temporary wet spot, but one that was cleaned up and had disappeared completely by fall. Friday Harbor had just one main street with two grocery stores, a courthouse, a diner, a movie theater, and some tacky souvenir shops. In the off season, only about three thousand people lived there. It seemed like everyone knew each other.
We found twenty acres on the water. The first time we saw the house, the beauty appeared staged: Deer leaped, pods of orcas puffed by, a lighthouse foghorn gently boomed in the distance. By the time we made it back to our repaired motor home, we had decided that we were leaving Arizona. Dad was in his late fifties and about to retire anyway.
As we packed up to move, I leafed through a pile of books in my parents’ bedroom and came across one called something like The Joy of a Gifted Child. I skimmed some of it and came to the conclusion that “gifted” meant “special.” But didn’t every parent think they had a special kid? Now I realize “gifted” meant “gay.” A code word invented to let parents down easy.
When I was seven, I had no idea I was gay, but I was effeminate, sensitive, and demanding of people’s focus. My mom knew very early, as most mothers do. She lived in a state of loving preoccupation about my sexuality, trying to figure out in secret if there was anything that could be done—and if there wasn’t, how to make things easier on me. She refrained from harping on my obsession with her Jane Fonda workout videos and my daily screenings of Nine to Five, both bastions of comfort for me. They were the opposite of my father’s strange, oily world of machinery.
My mom’s personality always complemented my dad’s stoicism. She’s like a feel-good radio station that never turns off, always able to talk to anybody, anywhere, about anything. Her mastery of breezily filling complicated silences with folksy conversation has to be seen to be believed. When she laughs she often punches you on the shoulder. Her energy and devotion to my upbringing was unflagging. She packed my lunches, cleaned my room, and always made me feel loved. To this day I’ve never seen my parents get in a fight.
I was spoiled, a total mama’s boy. My rages when I didn’t get my way could be jaw-droppers to adults. A friend of the family even nicknamed me “The Little Dictator.” Since my sisters were so much older than I was, it sometimes felt as if I were an only child. And I was treated like one, getting what I wanted most of the time, whether it was toys, books, or attention. Perhaps my mom was scared I would break, so she tiptoed around me, trying to figure out how exactly to parent this “gifted” child.
She was just trying to protect me, using her instincts to cushion me from any potential pain. In line at the grocery store, I remember seeing Rock Hudson dying on the cover of the National Enquirer, a baroque photo of Liberace next to him with the words AIDS headlined in dead-end red letters. I asked my mom what AIDS meant, but she couldn’t seem to come up with a solid answer. I have a memory of Jane Pauley on the Today show introducing a segment about how some scientists thought it was possible that you could get AIDS from a toilet seat. The fear of this unknown threat was palpable, even to a child. I could read between the lines of an adult’s cursory glance or nervous pause when it was mentioned.
One day I asked my mom what gay meant. She looked at me in the rearview mirror and thankfully just said, “They’re very nice people.”
– from Boys Keep Swinging by Jake Shears, Atria Books, 2018