The Custody Visit (1987)
by Andrea Laiacona Dooley
Seventh grade ended, and it was time to visit my father in Indiana. We’d last seen him at his parents’ house for Easter, but it had been a year since we visited him. He had moved in with his boyfriend, Steven, a quiet, nervous man whom my sister Lorin and I ignored. My father had become so disconnected from our lives that I don’t think he’d ever seen the house where we lived or where we went to school. I avoided thinking about what my father was doing without us and blocked him from my mind between visits.
My mother did not block him out. His cohabitation with Steven heightened her anxiety and renewed her fears that we’d be infected with AIDS when we visited them. My mother packed us our own towels and silverware and plastic glasses and told me that Lorin and I should just use our own things when we ate and bathed. She told us to put toilet paper on the seat when we went to the bathroom and to wash our hands with soap after we touched anything in the bathroom or the kitchen. These were new precautionary measures, taken because we’d be visiting two gay men instead of one.
My father was not yet HIV-positive, and neither was Steven, as far as I knew. My mother either remained unfamiliar with the paths of transmission or did not believe what she had been told. She had been apart from my father long enough to be certain that she was not infected, but she needed a way to reach into our interaction with him to protect us when she could not be there. All the precautions scared me. I did not know what she was protecting us from. She never told us about AIDS, but I could tell from conversations I overheard between her and my grandfather, and the fact of our extra utensils, that she was afraid of us getting sick from something terrible, and I feared that, too. I was more scared that Lorin would get sick than I would. Since my parents’ divorce, she’d had unexplained bloody noses, and I was worried she was already sick and nobody knew why.
When we arrived at my father’s house, he was hurt and angry when I took out the towels my mother had packed, so I kept the silverware and cups hidden. He caught me washing his silverware before setting the table and asked me what I was doing. I said they looked smudged. After that, I just used his but was very attentive to unloading the dishwasher so that I was the only one who touched the clean dishes. The bathroom was the only place I could stay loyal to my mother, putting paper on the seat and washing my hands vigorously with soap almost constantly. I also found a good excuse to use my mother’s towels. My father’s towels smelled very funky. The linen closet in the bathroom was damp; the towels retained a mustiness no matter how much they were washed. We were using the less used towels that had sat at the bottom of the pile for months, and the smell made me a little nauseous. My father conceded that they smelled, and I felt relieved to comply with my mother’s wishes from afar.
It was clear that my father’s small publishing business was not successful. There were a few book orders to fill every day, but not enough to cover costs, much less pay my father. Steven worked at the bookstore and their housing costs were low, but my father was very poor. His failure to pay child support was now based on real poverty, not retaliation against my mother for leaving. Every activity we did had to be free. We went to festivals and the library and visited my father’s friends.
There were a surprising number of gay men in Fort Wayne. Surprising to me, that is. I did not have any sense where gay people lived, but since we hadn’t known any in Huntington, and I didn’t know of any in New Jersey, I assumed they lived “elsewhere.” A place called “The Village,” for example. I didn’t know anything about gay people, and even though there I was staying at the house of a gay couple, I did not have the nerve to ask. To ask was to make it real.
Although my father was not infected, many of his friends were. On the Fourth of July, we went to the home of a friend whom my father wanted us to meet. The man looked very old. His skin was gray, and he had yellow and grey bruises on his arms and neck. His hair was very thin, and he had lost much of it. He had a comb over of sorts that looked like it had been brushed with his skeletal hands, and he couldn’t close his mouth very well. He licked his lips with a stiff tongue.
It was hot and muggy, but he stayed wrapped in a quilt. He didn’t talk. Dad and Steven talked to him, and there was another man there who was his caregiver. We sat on a screened in porch, and the caregiver gave us lemonade that I was afraid to drink in case it made me sick too. Dad suggested we all take the man to his garden, which Dad had helped him plant. Lorin and I ran outside and stood in a very lush garden where none of the vegetables had been picked. Fat red tomatoes and huge cucumbers sagged from their vines, crowding out the weeds.
We waited a long time for my dad and the caregiver to bring the man out to a folding chair that Steven had carried out. This trip outdoors would be the main event of his day. Once he was in the garden, there was nothing left to say, and the caregiver suggested we go, saying that the man was tired, and the girls, they are clearly bored. I liked him for noticing. My father started to object and then saw my sister and me, standing there forlorn and scared, and agreed.
When we got home from that trip, my mother left our suitcases on the front lawn and unpacked our clothes into black trash bags to take down to the laundry room. She swore she had seen a roach. Before she could bring the suitcases into the house, she was determined to prevent the spread of bugs into our house. I was uncertain about whether I’d seen a bug or not, and watched her hose out the luggage, waiting to see roaches jump ship. I thought I might have seen one but also knew, even then, that a roach was as much a symbol as it was a real thing. My gut roiled with anger and sympathy for both of my parents. Finally, I went into my room and closed the door, trying to quell the nausea I was feeling.
Andrea Laiacona Dooley is a writer and labor arbitrator who lives in Oakland, California, with her husband and two sons. Andrea writes fiction and memoir. This story is excerpted from her to-be-published memoir, Better This Way, about growing up in a religious middle-class family while having a gay father who came out just as the AIDS crisis was beginning. Andrea blogs on Medium.com and on her website, www.andrea-dooley.com.
Winner of the Christopher Hewitt Award for Creative Nonfiction, 2018