Some boys grow up hearing myths of muscular, courageous heroes. My father was a historian. He told us truths.
Dad’s favorite truth was that of the Amber Room. The Russians built it in the 1700s, a room constructed of gold and amber, shining and gorgeous. It changed hands a few times, until World War II, when the Germans obtained it. After that, no one knows the location. Some say the Allies destroyed the Room, packed in wood cartons, by accident, bombing the submarine carrying it along. Some say it was dismantled by the Nazis to add to their stolen, spoiled trophies of war. Some say it was hidden, still tucked away and waiting to be discovered by those intrepid enough to seek it.
I think my dad had this dream that someday he would discover the Amber Room. Someday, he would have one thing of his own that he could call perfect.
The phone rings late at night, even before the faintest sign of dawn began to tread through the blinds. The trilling interrupts Michael’s snoring, causing one final hack and then quiet. I fumble on my nightstand for the phone. The sound I make is only something akin to a greeting, no doubt barely intelligible.
The crackling words jolt me awake. My responses after the news is delivered afterwards are short.
The phone slips from my fingers to the sheets. Michael stirs slightly. “Whozat?”
“Hospital.” My voice is coming from far across the Universe, through clouds of gas and black holes scattered across the cosmos.
“We give ‘nuff cash for ‘em not to call late. Early. One of those.”
“Not the local one. The one from my hometown.”
Michael’s head pokes from underneath his pillow, my tone finally penetrating his sleepiness.“Why?”
“They were calling about my dad.” The sheets are soft in my curled fingers. “He has cancer. He’s dying.”
Michael sits up and knows better than to offer condolences. Instead he wraps his arms around me to better press his forehead to my temple. I stare at the wall, mesmerized by its blankness.
“What are you gonna do?” His breath is muggy on my neck.
“I don’t know.”
My dad scowls at the news report as my sister scrawls markers all over large pieces of lined paper on our coffee table.There is a photograph on the television of a man dead, wasted away, while a voiceover drones on about safe sex and AIDS prevention as his family sobbed around him, his mother clutching his body like somehow her desperate hug will revive her long since gone son.
“It’s their own fucking fault.” Dad’s loud voice rings through the den. “Fucking queers. Should call it the faggot disease.”
I say nothing, reading my history textbook. I am twelve years old.
I have to call Emily. It’s the first thing I do after a night spent staring at the wall, after The Phone Call. Her cell phone reception is poor, but I know the rush of static is a sigh.
“I can come and deal with it.”
I shake my head. “No, Em. I can do it.”
“You…” I know her lip is worrying between her teeth. “You shouldn’t have to.”
“What does Michael think?”
“Michael thinks whatever I need.”
A huff of static this time, to signal a chuckle. “You don’t deserve Michael, bro.”
The world does not deserve Michael. “Dad would want you to keep studying.”
“Dad thinks archaeologist is a slightly dubious profession.”
“He said he’d support you anyway. He’ll support you no matter what you choose.” I long ago learned to keep my voice neutral on the subject of my father and his choices. “He’d rather you stay in England.”
“You’ll ask him? If he wants me?”
“I’m so sorry, Richard.”
There is a boy named Harry in my high school. He avoids the various sports teams, wears designer clothes, and talks about how fabulous things are. The football team bullies him mercilessly, our large frames towering over his slender one. When my dad sees the quarterback and a few teammates throwing Harry into a dumpster, he laughs until he cries and gives them a ride home.
When I am fourteen, I am at a party and we are all drunk out of our minds. Harry and I spend a good amount of the party in the bedroom upstairs together and it is the first time I have had sex. In the morning, Harry remembers nothing and I don’t say a word about the previous evening. Three weeks later, Harry hangs himself with his favorite scarf in his bedroom.
I haven’t seen my father in two and a half years, across my mother’s grave. When I come to pick him up in the car, he is waiting outside with a suitcase and five boxes of books that he is sitting next to. Normal people would sit on the books. My father believes that’s a desecration of a good history book.
“Dad, you can’t take all of those,” I say as I step out of my car in lieu of a hello. “They’re going to be heavy.”
Dad waves aside my protest. “Those doctors at your fancy-ass city hospital better be worth the move,” he tells me. “I mean, for Chrissakes.”
“They’re the best in the state, Dad.”
“Hmph. Help me carry the books into the trunk.”
“Your sister still in England?” he asks during the drive.
“Good. She should continue her studies. Smart girl.”
We say nothing for the rest of the drive.
“I don’t want to be in the Army,” I blurt out at the dinner table, smashing my father’s lifelong dream for me with a single sentence. Mom’s hand stills halfway between her mouth and her soup, then continues its normal path. Emily openly gapes at me. Dad sets his spoon down and looks at me calmly.
I fidget. “It doesn’t interest me.”
Dad nods slowly, then shrugs and returns to his dinner. “Just don’t become an artist. That’s fucking queer.”
“This is my roommate, Michael.”
The words slip from my tongue easily after rehearsing so often. Michael smiles and shakes my father’s hand. “It’s a pleasure to meet you, sir.”
My father, I can tell, likes Michael’s lack of concerned words and apologies. “You too, son. Helping my boy out while he looks for a steady job?”
“Yes, sir. Don’t worry, he pays the rent on time.”
I shoot Michael a sardonic look behind my father’s back and he smiles serenely. My boyfriend somehow has perfected the art of easily walking the tightrope of being both perfect and an asshole at the same time.
“Damn right he does. If you’ll excuse me, I gotta take a leak.”
Michael points to the bathroom and Dad saunters off.
After the door closes, Michael murmurs to me.
“Before you start apologizing or thanking me, my mother is the same way and I would do the same in your position.”
I smile and my hand brushes his. “I still don’t know how I got so lucky.”
“Probably when you sold your soul to the Devil in exchange for a perfect boyfriend.”
“Mmm, that was probably it.”
I shudder in my room, rocking back and forth, hugging myself, gripping my arms so tightly that I am leaving claw marks in my arms.Today was Harry’s funeral, my father is downstairs with a beer saying he was an abomination, and I am having a panic attack. I can’t handle it, can’t handle that little voice in my head, taunting me and mocking me, telling me how worthless I am and how much he would hate me if he knew.
“Get out,” I whisper through gasps. “Get out, I don’t want you, get out, stop, please.”
Eventually my anxiety subsides and my sobs cease. I play my Dire Straits tape, close my eyes, calm down my breathing.
There is a knock on the door and Emily tiptoes in, her face all red. “Papa won’t stop shouting,” she whispers. “Talking about how Harry was a freak.” She wipes her nose with the back of her hand. “Harry was nice to me. I liked him.”
I hold my arms out and Emily quickly climbs onto the bed and into my arms. I hold her tight as she cries. We fall asleep to the Dire Straits tape. Enchante, what can I say, I don’t care at all…
Dana from LGBT group at college pretends to be my girlfriend, saying it’s not the first time she’s had to be someone’s beard. Michael claims not to mind, but he leaps at a chance to fly to San Francisco to survey a building going up for six months. I wonder how changed we’ll both be when he returns. My anger at him not being there for me abates soon because I too am wearying of this, but I am sure it will flare up once more when I see him again.
One time, several months after my father started receiving treatment, I return from getting groceries to see my father telling Dana about the Amber Room. Dad is starting to look sick, lacking hair, body skinnier, bags under his eyes. My father is beginning to look like he’s dying.
Dana is sitting, patiently listening, eyes wide and giving all the appearances of being interested. Bless you, Dana, for being on the list of wonderful people I do not deserve.
“And no one’s seen it since it was put on the train,” my father concludes.
“That’s so crazy,” Dana answers, voice layered with astonishment.
“Someday they’ll find it. The Nazis, they hid everything, the paranoid bastards. They’ll find it, I promise you.”
“I don’t doubt it.”
Dad coughs. “Not in my lifetime, though.”
“Dad,” I ask faux-casually when we’re watching football one day. “What if instead of me you’d had a son who was gay?”
My father raises an eyebrow. “If I had a queer for a son?”
Dad snorts. “Wouldn’t be a son of mine. Who’d want a fag for a kid? Kick him out on the street, see how long his queer ass would last before he decided he wanted to be a real man again.”
I swallow. “Okay.”
I make it five minutes before I excuse myself to the bathroom. I muffle my crying with the rattling bathroom fan.
My dad has to be in the hospital now. Dana and I come to visit him and he looks at me with drug-addled eyes, his body tangled in tubes.
“Richie,” he mumbles drowsily. “Hey, Richie.”
“Such a good boy. You grew up into such a good boy, Richie.”
“I was-” He licks his lips and slurs onwards. “I was the best. I was the best father, you know? I was the best father you could’ve had. Best dad ever.”
My stomach drops and my throat dries up. I swallow, suddenly terrified, angry, and miserable all at once.
“Yeah,” I manage to whisper. “Yeah, Dad. You were the best father. Perfect.”
Dad grins dazedly. “Damn right.”
“Excuse me.” As soon as I am out of the room I run to the bathroom and vomit. A moment to breathe, and then again.
Dana’s arms wrap around me, cool hand on my forehead. “I’m sorry,” she murmurs gently. “It’s okay. I know. I’m so sorry.”
My father and mother dropped me off one day ago and I am staring at the sign up sheet for the LGBT group. Two girls have just walked away from it hand in hand, leaving the scrawl of “Dana and Louise”. My stomach is churning and my palms are sweaty.
A boy dashes his name across the paper and grins at me. “You should give it a go. If nothing else, it’s probably a great way to pick up guys.”
He leaves. I take a deep breath and under the name “Michael” my pencil stumbles out in shaky letters. “Richard”.
I sit next to my dad’s bedside. I have not slept in close to 24 hours.
“Amber Room,” my dad mumbles. I lean in.
“Amber Room. We’re in the Amber Room.”
I look at the walls. There is a faint golden hue to them, and I assume this is what prompted him to see what he had been chasing almost all his life.
“Yeah.” My voice is raspy with disuse. “You found it, Dad. You found the Amber Room.”
Dad smiles faintly and closes his eyes.
Two hours later, my father is dead.
Emily has graduated from high school. Michael is back at his parents’s house, visiting with his family during the summer break. Mom and Dad are driving my grandparents to a steakhouse for a celebratory dinner. I am driving Emily, who looks tired but happy in her blue robes.
“Em,” I say uncertainly. “Can I tell you something?”
“Sure.” Emily fidgets with the golden tassel on her cap.
I take a deep breath, preparing myself for never turning back. “I’m gay.”
Emily doesn’t stop playing with the tassel. She doesn’t even look up. “Yeah, I know.”
“I’m your little sister, dumbass.” She brushes some dust off the cap and tries to rub a dirt stain off it with a frown. “Of course I know.”
Emily and I stand over my father’s grave with family members we don’t know. The dirt hits my father’s coffin and Emily leans her head on my shoulder. I wrap my arm around her and press my lips to her forehead. The mild thud of the dirt hitting the coffin cracks like a car backfire in the silence.
Slowly the grave is filled and people leave one by one until it is just Emily and I, standing by the mound of earth that seems too small to hide my father.
“I hated him for the way he was,” Emily whispered.
“It’s not fair.”
We are quiet until she sighs and says “Okay, let’s go home.”
I squeeze my arm a little tighter around her and look at the grave. “Goodbye, Dad.”
And we leave.
Emily and I stand over my mother’s grave with family members we don’t know. The dirt hits my mother’s coffin and we avoid my father’s eyes. Everyone believes it to be because of grief.
After the funeral, my father walks up to me.
“Heard you’re living in the city.”
“I have a roommate.”
“Paying your rent on time?”
There is silence.
“Michael’s waiting to pick me up.”
“All right. Bye, son.”
And we leave.