In Between Worlds
A Letter to the Unaccompanied Minor
My father's sexuality has only had indirect effects on me. Which is not to say that these effects are small. The biggest of the bunch was, literally, as long as the longest highway in the country. My parents divorced when my dad came out, and in moving apart, for a while, each of my parents lived within five miles of one of the termini of I-90.
I plugged the two addresses into Google maps for a giggle, once. The route had fewer directions than just driving across Boston. For one brief, conceptual moment, they were so close to each other. But then there was that ~3000 mile leg in the middle.
The biggest thing about my dad being gay was never that he's gay; it's that I found myself caught between worlds and lives. My letter isn't about my gay dad. My letter is to every kid who lives between two worlds so far apart that they have to fly.
Dear Unaccompanied Minor,
Hey kid. How's it going? Are the flight attendants slipping you extra snacks? Did you bring any good games?
I'm sure you don't need me telling you that distraction is absolutely necessary for an unaccompanied minor. There are a lot of thoughts trying to force their way in, loneliness and fear topping the list. If you are anything like me, you started saying you're fifteen when you were actually twelve, because it really sucks to have to wait for the entire plane to disembark so that a stranger can escort you through an airport you've been through a hundred times. You get to pretend you're an adult, and in many ways, you are. But you know you're not. You know you're a mostly still a kid, and something deep inside is telling you it's just wrong for a kid to be alone. Alone for thousands of miles.
Distance makes divorce even harder for us unaccompanied minors. When your parents break up and move across town, or maybe to the next town over, you get that drive with one of them to see the other. There's this huge rift in your world, but it's still one world. When your parents live on opposite coasts, or at least far enough away to necessitate a plane, you have two worlds. And when you've left one and not yet arrived at the other, you're between worlds, and it doesn't help that the view at 35,000 feet feels a lot like being suspended in neverspace.
I grew up between Seattle and New England. I don't remember the divorce because I was only two. As my mom moved us to the east coast when I was four, my earliest memories are still of being bicoastal. My two worlds are all I knew growing up.
In New England, I went to school and played hockey. My mom slathered me with love at every opportunity, went to every game, and stuffed me silly at every meal. Though, she did make me go to church every Sunday, which I loathed. We ultimately settled around Boston, where I went to Boston College High School, an all-male Catholic school that is regularly featured in lists of top high schools, nationwide, for sports. I met two guys on the first day who have now been my best friends for over half of my life.
Seattle and Boston are similar in a lot of ways. The most northern major cities in the continental US, bastions of seafood, similar in size, generally liberal: if you like one, you'll like the other. But then they have a lot of differences. Seattle feels excitingly new while Boston feels austerely old. Seattle is laid back while Boston is loud and busy.
But none of that is what made my world in Seattle so different. That would be on account of my dad being gay. I grew up with my step-dad, too. I didn't have to go to church, and since I could only visit for vacations, there was no homework, either. Instead of my friends, I had my cousins.
It took me a long time to tell my friends about my dad. It never came up until I brought it up, and that life was entirely separate. At times, in Boston, Seattle didn't feel real. I would walk through my dad's house in my head, smelling the basement, feeling my finger run along the edge of the slate counter, surprised at the detail in my memory until I remembered the house was real. Of course I knew every detail; it was my home!
It never felt strange to be in Seattle, never felt like visiting. As much as I knew that most ten-year-olds don't have dinner with six gay guys, and no one else, I never felt out of place if my dads had friends over. It was, however, amusing to imagine my friends from Boston in the same situation. Never underestimate the awkwardness of straight boys feel around gay men.
I was in a place to make those sorts of observations. Having feet in two places meant I could always shift my weight to one side in order to get a better view of the other. I could speak both languages. I could put on either face. But I never felt completely home. In Boston, I went about with the knowledge that I had this whole other life, that I could never commit to Boston teams in the same way as my buddies who had been raised on Red Sox stories. In Seattle, comfortable as I always was, I was always aware that I was the straight one. The son. The boy who would grow up to have a very different social life.
Christmas was always weird. I would always split the break between homes. In those few days between Christmas and New Year's, when most kids were thoroughly entrenched in the comforts of home, I would be shifting gears. In the midst of those days when we are supposed to be most surrounded by family, I'd spend six hours alone. In a period when we have a chance to remind ourselves where we come from and why we do it all, I was avoiding awkward conversation with strangers in the next seat.
I didn't know who I was for those six hours. I was quiet. I was blank, and I sort of knew it. I wasn't the open-minded, conversationalist son of a gay guy, nor was I the good Catholic hockey playing mamma's boy. I knew that my lives were interchangeable masks, and that without the masks I was just a kid with a book and a GameBoy. I was a wanderer, an observer who didn't need anything but a window seat.
I don't have any siblings, and I realized young that that made me the only overlap between my worlds. I had no true compatriot. I was in a world of one, and how can you define yourself if not for the people around you? How can you define yourself if your whole thing is that you float around between definitions?
The funny part is that, in not answering those questions, I began to define myself. I grew to like those lonely hours, reveling in the freedom of anonymity. I lived abroad after college, far away from both families. Far from most things, really, in my tiny Japanese port city. I learned there that even an obsessively independent soul can still be lonely. I backpacked after Japan for six months, alone, from Beijing to Lisbon. I was technically homeless. I learned then that even a wily wanderer can long for a place just to call home.
Looking out train windows across Eurasia, even further from my parents than I had ever been on a cross-country flight, I rediscovered that quiet, blank unaccompanied minor. What's more is that I realized that that is who I am. I am a wanderer and a wearer of many masks. None of them are fake; it's just what it means to be a multifaceted being.
My childhood of bouncing between homes and worlds impelled me to versatility and turned me into someone who can adapt, someone who gets bored with just one world.
Not much has changed. I was with my mom for this last Thanksgiving. We went up to Boston for a BC football game with my buddies from high school. The pre-gaming made for a rather different experience, but it was nostalgic nonetheless. Mom, sports, bros: everything Boston has ever meant to me.
Along her drive back home to DC, my mom dropped me off at the Newark airport to catch a flight to the west coast to see my dad, just like old times. Of course, I was flying to Mexico instead of Seattle, but when you consider that half the gringos who live in Sayulita are wealthy, semi-retired gays from Seattle, it felt very much the same.
The last time I saw my parents on the same day was grad school graduation. Before that, undergrad graduation. Before that, I was eighteen. It had been eleven years since my parents played inter-coastal catch with me like that.
When she dropped my off, my mom was giving off that Marge Simpson, motherly growl of disapproval. I really outdid myself with my packing job, stuffing a few days of clothes into my wee computer/notebook/pen bag (AIRism by Uniqlo really comes in handy, here). I was wearing shorts and sandals, and there was no room for pants or even a long sleeve shirt. She did not like the idea of me walking home from the subway in sandals and forty degree weather. I kissed her goodbye, and when I got to the curb turned and ducked to wave goodbye one last time as she craned her neck to watch me as long as possible.
You know how moms get when they send you off into the world.
Mexico was a blast. D&D and their friends spent the days draped over their rental house’s patio, laughing and loitering like a pod of seals that has taken over a small outcropping of rocks. I still feel like the odd man out, not just because I’m straight, but because I’m me, an individual, and to be an individual means standing out. I stayed up late every night, until the town was asleep and the beach was empty, listening to the ocean in my own moonlit world. Every bit of it felt right. D&D, vacation, extended [gay] family: everything the west coast has ever meant to me.
My flight home was earlier than the rest, but my dad came in my cab to keep me company. We talked girls, discussed the balance of state and federal powers, ripped on Texas a bit: a pretty stereotypical dad conversation, at least in my world. When it came time for me to go through security, we hugged goodbye and I walked away without looking back. Pretty sure that, if I had, I'd just see him sitting back down at the bar.
You know how dads get when they send you off into the world.
And here I am, writing this letter on my return flight.
To my young Odysseuses, alone on the plane right now, aching to be home, I get it. You feel torn between two worlds. The thing is, it's the people that make places feel different. It's not where you are, it's who you are. Growing up between two completely different families used to make me think that some day I'd have to make a choice, not between them, but in which of them I was going to be more like. It took me a long time to realize I had already become something else, a person made by his experiences, by being a child of two worlds. I mixed and matched my worlds into my world, and all those unaccompanied hours were my lab.
One last bit of bad news is that you never really do figure out who you are; it's just the adventure of life to find out. But the good news is that you are one of the few people who is going to understand that, and you're learning at a young enough age that you will be so much stronger for it. You, a child of two worlds, are not stuck between them. You are in both of your worlds, right now, because you bring them with you wherever you go. You were never taught there's only one way to do things, and that is a hard lesson for most people to unlearn.
You have a unique opportunity, kid. You get to choose who and what you want to be. This lonely plane ride is not for wallowing; it's when you get to meditate on yourself. It's when you've got the most potential.
Go forth. Be brave. Enjoy your two Christmases.