“Would you stand still?” My mother admonished me as she attempted to straighten my tie. We were in a room backstage waiting for my father to conclude his speech before the convention. He had been speaking for twenty minutes before a packed arena. He was frequently interrupted with standing ovations.
“My tie is fine,” I insisted as I walked over to a mirror and pulled it tighter to my neck. I wanted to dress more casual, but Leo had insisted that it would look more appropriate if I was dressed in a dark blue suit, pale blue shirt with a red tie. Looking at my father on the big screen television, I was dressed almost exactly as he was. Leo had mentioned that I perhaps should cut my long hair, but I refused. I told him I wouldn’t attend the convention if I had to do that.
I don’t know why I let Seth, Sydney and Jade talk me into coming. I didn’t want to, but they persisted until I finally relented. They knew that my father and I didn’t get along, and they thought it might be a way for us to finally reconcile.
“Maybe it won’t be so bad,” Jade had said. “He knows you’re gay, and he wants you to be with him when he’s nominated.”
“It’s all political,” I replied. “He just doesn’t want to have to explain why his only child wasn’t on stage with him.”
“Well,” insisted Sydney. “I think it’s a great idea. This could be a new beginning for you. Besides,” she giggled as she stepped forward and brushed the hair from my eyes, “the world will see how cute a son Senator Gale has.”
“More likely they’ll see he has a gay son,” I replied somberly.
“Maybe that’s a good thing,” Seth volunteered. “Things are changing. It could be a step forward for gay rights.”
“Gay rights,” I remarked sarcastically. “They only bring up the issue during an election. Afterwards, it will be put in mothballs for four years until they drag it back out again.”
“I think it’s wonderful,” added Jade, “that you’re having a coming out before the whole nation.” She walked over and gripped my hand. “You’ll be a role model for a lot of young men. Besides,” she grinned, “it could get you a boyfriend.”
“Yeah, right,” I replied as I pulled my hand away. “Leo has given me strict instructions I’m not to mention my sexuality to anyone. If someone from the media asks, I’m supposed to say ‘no comment.’”
“I called Adam,” Seth said cheerfully. “He’s going to be watching. He thinks I’m really lucky to have you as a roommate.” He started grinning. “He wants to meet you someday.”
“Oh, no,” I moaned as I looked over at Jade. “Not you too!”
“He has a boyfriend,” responded Seth. “He just wants to meet you.”
“Damn,” muttered Jade.
I was now backstage waiting for my father to finish his speech. I kept pacing around the room while my mother sat watching my father on the television. She asked, “Isn’t he wonderful?”
I looked over at the monitor. Wonderful wasn’t the adjective I would use to describe him. However, I had to admit he was doing a good job. The convention audience was cheering wildly to almost every statement he made. I also felt a little remorse because he was everything I was not. He was tall, handsome and self-assured. His countenance demanded dignity and authority.
I glanced over at my mother. I didn’t even resemble her. She was taller than I was, and her build was rather stocky. I think I inherited my grandmother’s looks. She was small like me. She and my grandfather were seated in the dignitary section of the convention hall. My grandfather was wealthy, but I don’t think he had the money my father did. He had formed an import company after the Vietnam War, and he made his money importing goods from Asia. In the mid-80’s, my father took over the company and began importing and exporting goods to other parts of the world, especially South America and the Middle East. He still owned the company. However, when he became a member of Congress, he placed it in a blind trust. For a brief time, I think my father and grandfather expected me to someday take over the family business, but I never had a desire to do so. My dad’s youngest brother, Carl, who was sitting in the audience beside my grandparents, was an executive vice president of the company. He was being groomed to take over the business someday.
Suddenly, the door opened and a young woman peered in. “You have ten minutes until you go onstage.” My mother politely thanked her, and she closed the door.
Mother rose from the sofa and walked over to me. I stepped back when she reached up and pushed a strand of stray hair from my forehead. “You’ve grown up so fast,” she said as tears misted her eyes. “It just seems like only yesterday you were learning to walk.”
“I guess all children do,” I remarked sharply as I turned and looked at myself in the mirror. I looked at her when she stepped up beside me and looked at my reflection.
“I know you’re not happy, Dorian,” she said tearfully. I started to agree, but a lump suddenly formed in my throat, and I had to choke back my own tears. “Perhaps, I haven’t been the best mother in the world,” she started to cry, “but God knows I did the best I could.” She reached out for me, but I stepped away. She looked up at my father who was beginning to conclude his speech. The audience was cheering wildly. “It wasn’t easy at times.” I fought back tears as she walked over to a box of tissue on a table, took one out and wiped her eyes dry.
She turned to me and said sadly, “Maybe someday you’ll understand and forgive me.”
I was blinking away tears when she took another tissue from the box, walked over and handed it to me. “I didn’t mean to upset you before we go onstage. Perhaps, we can talk later.” I wiped my eyes dry and nodded. I wanted her to put her arms around me and hold me, but she didn’t. She walked back over to the television and watched as my father concluded his speech.
The door opened and the young woman announced, “It’s time for you to go on stage. Follow me, please.” She led us down a narrow hallway until we were standing just a few feet from where my father was extending his arms and waving to the cheering crowd. When he turned to look for us, the young woman gently pushed on my back and told us to go join him on the stage.
I squinted as I crossed the stage holding my mother’s hand. She had grabbed it just as we went out. I think she knew that if she had done it backstage, I would have pulled away. My father had probably suggested that she do it in order to show that we were a happy family. He turned and smiled as we approached. He kissed my mother on the cheek, and then he lightly embraced me. “Smile, Dorian,” he ordered in my ear as he pulled away, grabbed my hand and enthusiastically extended it into the air. The crowd roared their approval for the devoted family standing before them on the stage.
I wasn’t quite sure how he would react to seeing me. I had arrived the night before, but he was on a different floor than the one my mother and I were assigned. We were told his room was more secure, and the secret service had it sealed off from visitors. My mother said he was also up most of the night meeting party dignitaries and working on his speech. We probably wouldn’t have gotten any sleep.
I looked out onto the crowd who were standing, shouting his name and waving signs that read Gale for Vice President. It seemed so surreal to me. I despised him so much; however, thousands of people were cheering loudly for him. I looked over and watched as he soaked in the adulation. It was obvious that our presence on the stage had been scripted because he was aware of where everyone was. My mother stood beside him with her arm around his waist. His father and mother were standing beside her. My Uncle Carl was next in line, and I was delegated to a place at the end. I guess he wanted me to be far away from him so that I wouldn’t appear in any close-up shots.
As I stood motionless, I wondered if my friends back at school were watching me. Seth had told me before I left to hold up two thumbs so he would know that gesture was intended for him, Sydney and Jade. When I noticed a CNN camera pan towards me, I did it. I could just imagine everyone laughing wildly back at my dorm room.
After about ten minutes, a loud roar erupted from the convention hall. I turned to see Governor Caswell enter from the side of the stage. He approached me and gripped my hand. “Thank you for being here tonight, Dorian,” he said as he moved on to my uncle and began chatting briefly with him. It surprised me because I had never met Caswell before, and I wasn’t aware that he knew who I was. But then I remembered Leo’s conversation earlier in which he said I had been the subject of much debate. So I assumed he knew I was Senator Gale’s gay son. It still surprised me how genuinely glad he was to see me.
I watched as he approached my father and they embraced. He and my father then joined hands and dramatically held them up to a roaring audience. It appeared that the conventioneers had been prepared for his arrival, because soon red, white and blue Caswell/Gale signs began to fill the convention hall. Shivers ran down my back, and goose bumps appeared on my arms as I wondered if I was looking at the future president and vice president of the United States. The crowd certainly seemed to think they were. I wasn’t sure if I was pleased with the idea. My life had already been miserable as a senator’s son. I could only imagine how unbearable it would be if he did become vice president.
My father and Governor Caswell paraded across the stage, waving at members in the audience. At one point, my mother and Mrs. Caswell were motioned forward to join them. I expected my father to motion for me to join them, but he didn’t. In fact, neither he nor my mother looked back at me. Even though I hated being in the limelight, it still disappointed me. Disappointment was soon replaced by regret and hatred. My father had used me to make it appear before the world that he was a loving father. I was no more than a prop on the stage. He could have had a staff member create a cardboard image of me and placed it on the stage. No one would have known the difference.
When the cheering crowd began to die down, aides directed us off stage. Governor Caswell and my father led the way toward the back. I was last, and no one seemed to even notice that I was part of the group on the stage. Secret service surrounded the governor, his wife and my parents. I was pushed further toward the back. Not once did they turn to see if I was with them.
I stopped and watched them exit through a side door. I waited a few minutes until I was sure their limousines had pulled away. I then exited the building, went outside and hailed a cab. I had her take me to the airport. I then booked a flight back to school.
It was after four in the morning when I finally arrived at my room. I couldn’t book a direct flight, so I had a two-hour stopover in Atlanta. Then after arriving at the airport, it took over a half hour before I could get a cab to bring me back to school. I unlocked the door and dropped my luggage to the floor.
Seth emerged from the bedroom in his boxers as he wiped sleep from his eyes. “What are you doing here?” he asked. “I wasn’t expecting you until Sunday.”
“My plans changed,” I replied sharply as I took off my blue suit jacket and tossed it across the arm of the sofa. I then kicked off my shoes, unbuckled my pants and let them fall to the floor. I picked them up and folded them before laying them atop my jacket.
Seth stepped toward me and asked with concern, “What happened, Dorian?”
I pulled out the sofa bed, drew back the sheet and climbed wearily into bed. “Can we talk about this in the morning?” Seth watched as I pulled the sheet over my head to avoid him seeing me cry. A minute later, he turned out the light and went back to his bedroom.
I might as well have stayed up because I got little sleep. My mind kept playing over and over the image of my mother and father standing together on the podium while I remained silently in the background. I always knew that I was just someone who lived in the same house with them. I was a stranger that they avoided. However, reality hit me on that stage. It didn’t matter what I did in my life, I would never be anything more than a stranger to them.
An intense feeling of hatred consumed me. I had always hated my father, even at a young age I never felt any love for him. I had never been a part of his life. While other boys played baseball with their fathers, my father was never at home. He was either in Washington, or away on congressional junkets. The rare times he was at home, he never showed any interest or compassion toward me.
However, backstage at the convention center alone with my mother, I began to understand that she, too, was no different than my father. We had shared very few words together. I’m sure she was aware of the trouble I was having at school. She must have heard about the incident in the dorm. However, not once did she ask me if I was all right. In fact, she seemed to avoid asking me anything at all about school. Her apology to me for not being a good mother was more for her own absolution than it was a means of trying to explain her actions. Before, I had always loved my mother. Now she was no better than him. My love for her had been replaced with the same hatred I felt for my father.
By morning, I was a changed person. I finally faced reality. I had never been, nor would ever be, a part of my parents’ lives. Just as they had ignored me on the stage, they had ignored me since I was a small child. If I had to make it through life, then I would have to do it without them. I arose in the morning from my bed with a new sense of freedom.
I left the room early before Seth got out of bed. It was Friday, but since I had been excused from attending my classes, I decided to take my first step toward my new life. I made my way to a Panera Bread cafe located on the campus and ordered a cup of coffee. When the girl behind the counter handed it to me, I asked her if I could have a job application. She called over the manager, a small, older woman. She gave me a scrutinizing look as she asked me if I had experience working in a restaurant. I told her I hadn’t, but I was a quick learner. She reached under the counter and handed me an application and a pen. When I returned it to her fifteen minutes later, she asked me to join her at a booth.
“Why do you want to work at Panera Bread?” she asked as she sat staring across the table at me.
I nervously replied, “I need the money.”
“Are you a student?” I nodded my head. She then asked, “Don’t you think working here will affect your grades?”
“I’m a good student,” I assured her. “I’m willing to work any hours you can assign me. If the job becomes a problem, then you can cut back my hours.” I looked pleadingly at her.
She let a smile form in the corner of her mouth. “Okay,” she said. “I’ll give you a try.”
“Thank you,” I responded excitedly. “You won’t regret it.”
“I hope not,” she replied. “Can you begin tonight? I need someone to work the night shift.”
“Sure,” I said happily. “What time?”
She rose from her seat. “Be here at six sharp. Not a minute later.” I got up and whistled a tune as I happily strolled back to my room.
“You did what?” shrieked Jade when I told her I had a job. She had called earlier to ask me to join her, Seth and Sydney for lunch. “But why?”
“I need the money,” I insisted.
“You need the money!” she replied excitedly. “Your father is wealthier than some countries. Why do you need money?”
“That’s just it, Jade,” I said. “It’s his wealth, not mine.”
“But still...” I interrupted her before she tried to convince me not to work.
“I cut up my credit card this morning,” I informed her. “Now I need a job.”
“What! Why did you do that?”
“I know you don’t understand,” I replied, “but I’ve got to make it on my own someday. Now is as good a time as any.”
She sat back and stared at me. “What happened yesterday? Seth said you came in about four o’clock and went straight to bed.”
I turned my head and muttered, “I don’t want to talk about it.”
“Dorian, please,” she begged as she grabbed my hand and squeezed it. “You’re doing it again. You’re shutting people out.”
“Look,” I replied as I blinked tears from my eyes. “I’m not shutting you out. I just think it’s time I started living my own life.”
“You’re supposed to do that after you graduate,” she said worriedly. “Are you sure you can work and keep up your grades in school?”
“If I can’t,” I informed her, “then I’ll drop out of school.”
“And work at Panera Bread the rest of your life!”
“Shift managers make almost fifteen dollars an hour,” I replied.
“Jesus, Dorian,” she sighed. “Your father is a millionaire, and you’re going to work a minimum wage job?”
“Yep,” I replied proudly as I sat back and smiled. “I am.”
Seth and Sydney soon joined us, and they spent the rest of lunch trying to talk me out of my crazy idea, as Jade called it. However, I knew that if I ever wanted to start living my own life, then I would have to give up my former one. Weighing my options, that seemed like a no brainer. I hated who I was, and I was looking forward to a new me- no matter if I did have to work to achieve it.
After lunch, I decided to go back to the room and sleep while the others headed off to class. If I was going to work all night, then I needed to get some rest. Seth came in later and again tried to talk me out of working.
“Everyone has held a job except me,” I said. “Even you said you worked as a caddy on the golf course before you came here.”
“My dad isn’t your dad,” he remarked.
“My dad isn’t your dad, either,” I replied sadly. “Besides, I don’t want his money. As far as I’m concerned, he isn’t my father anymore.”
Seth asked, “What brought all this on? Last night you looked like the perfect family on television.”
“Exactly what he wanted us to look like,” I snapped back. “When the cameras weren’t on, he didn’t even know I existed. He never even spoke to me, except to tell me to smile for the camera.”
“Maybe he had a lot on his mind,” suggested Seth. “He did have a speech to give.” He started smiling. “And you looked really great up there.” He laughed when I rolled my eyes. “I’m serious,” he insisted. “Me, Jade, Sydney and Amanda all said how cute you were.” His face started to redden. “Well, they said cute. I didn’t.”
“I know,” I replied with a smile.
“Oh, yeah,” he added. “Adam thought you were cute, too.” Now it was my time to blush.
“I better get ready,” I said as I headed for the bathroom to shower. “I’ll try not to wake you when I come in tonight.”
“No,” he stated. “It’s okay. If you need someone to talk to, just wake me up. Okay?” I nodded and headed to the bathroom. He was gone by the time I came back out. I guess he had left to join the others for dinner. In a way, it was something I would miss. However, I needed to work so I could be free. It was a sacrifice I was willing to make.
As I was getting ready to walk out the door, my cell phone rang. It was my mother. I refused to answer it. A moment later, she called back, so I took the call. I didn’t want her calling me at work and interrupting my first night on the job. “Hello, Mother,” I said dryly into the phone.
She asked excitedly, “Where are you? I’ve been worried sick.”
I looked at my watch. It was a little past five. I had been gone for more than a day and a half, and she was just now calling to find out where I was. “I’m in my room at school.”
“Why on earth would you be there?” she asked. “You’re supposed to be with your father and me. We’re getting ready to have dinner with the Governor and Janice.”
“And you just now wonder where I am?”
“Well, no,” she hesitated before continuing. “I did wonder why you never came back to the room last night. Why did you leave?”
“Really, Mother?” I asked sarcastically. “You didn’t even know I was gone, and you wonder why I came back here?”
“Dorian,” she began to apologize, “We really did have a busy schedule, and...” I hung up, turned off the phone and placed it on the coffee table when I left the room.
My body was trembling when I opened the door to the restaurant and entered. Jill, the manager who interviewed me, stepped around the counter and smiled. “There you are,” she said warmly. “Most students who interview for a job have second thoughts and never return. I figured you to be one of those.”
“No, Ma’am,” I replied nervously. “I’m ready to work.”
She smiled and said, “Excellent.” I followed her behind the counter as she introduced me to some of the other workers. Most appeared to be students much older than me. Two of the girls looked at each other and giggled when I was introduced to them. I followed Jill to her office. “Here,” she said as she handed me a baseball cap with Panera Bread embroidered on it, and an apron with the same emblem. “I’m not going to have you doing too much for a couple of days. I just want you to watch the girls prepare the sandwiches and learn. I’ll train you on a register next week.” She looked at me and smiled. “Ready?”
I nodded and replied, “Ready.” I then followed her out into the kitchen area. She informed me I’d be working with Anita for the first night. Anita was a tall girl, and she appeared to be a junior or senior. She wasn’t friendly at first, but as the night wore on, we began to talk more.
“You learn fast, Sweetie,” she said after I had helped her prepare a Cuban Chicken Panini for an elderly woman. She looked like she might have been a professor.
“Thanks,” I replied proudly. Even though I was beginning to get tired, I was happy my first night was going well. She then reached past me to get a slice of Swiss cheese. When she did, her breast rubbed against my arm, and I immediately pulled it away.
“Just what I thought,” she remarked as she continued to make an Italian combo.
“What?” I asked as I continued to watch her.
“The cute ones are always gay.”
“It’s okay, Sweetie,” she laughed as she handed me the sandwich to give to the boy who was eagerly awaiting it. “We always make a bet when we get a new hire.” She laughed and pointed to a red haired girl a few feet away scooping out a ladle of broccoli cheddar soup. Her arm was adorned with various tattoos. “Scooter won ten dollars.” She laughed again. “She always wins because she’s a dyke, and she claims to have gaydar.”
I didn’t know what to say. Other than my friends at school, I had never openly discussed my sexuality. Anita’s comments were making me feel uncomfortable.
She began preparing a chopped chicken cobb salad with avocado. She suddenly stopped and we exchanged places. “You’re a smart guy, so you might as well learn,” she remarked as she explained to me what to do. “Too much avocado,” she warned me after I placed what I thought was a generous portion into the salad. She laughed when I started to remove some. “Leave it,” she said. “but next time don’t add so much.”
We continued to work together for several more hours. She didn’t question me about being gay, but I felt a sense of freedom knowing that the staff was aware of it, and no one seemed to mind. After all the years I had fretted about someone finding out I was gay, and now when they did, no one seemed to care. I also didn’t feel I had to hide it when a couple of guys seemed to flirt with me when I gave them their order. One really cute guy even gave me a quick wink when I handed him his salad. I was so surprised that I didn’t react fast enough to wink back.
It was close to midnight, and the café was beginning to empty. I was told that we usually stay open until one, but sometimes on the weekend we might stay open longer if a crowd appeared late. Anita had asked me to wipe the counter clean. Suddenly, a flash appeared in front of me. I looked up and saw Jerry standing before me with his cell phone pointed toward me. After another flash, he turned and fled the restaurant.