Father Figure


By Shana Naomi Krochmal

How a gay man became a guardian and a mentor to a lost little girl -- my wife.

Photography courtesy Shana Naomi Krochmal

“I don’t have people,” my wife, Jessica, said.

We were watching Mad Men, and Don Draper was attempting yet again to escape an emotional entanglement by disappearing into a flashback. It’s a convenient strategy for a fictional character -- in the real world, we have to balance the weight of family history against a functional adulthood the hard way, picking what stories to share and which to shut away.

Jessica said it like a confession, like a warning, but by our third date, I knew she hadn’t seen her mother in years. Her father, a commercial fisherman, died when she was 5, his boat capsized during a nor’easter nearly identical to the one that, a decade later, was immortalized as The Perfect Storm. Her grandparents, with whom she lived in Virginia from age 11, saw her through a rebellious adolescence, but they, too, were gone well before we met.

And then there was Tommy, her mom’s best friend. During those half-dozen years between her dad’s death and her grandparents’ intervention, he was Jessica’s first line of defense, taking care of her when her mother wouldn’t -- or couldn’t -- rise out of the shocking, sudden grief of young widowhood, turning instead to a series of unsuitable boyfriends, alcohol, and drugs.

“Your life is like a novel,” I often tell her, and as a writer, my fingers have itched to sort her childhood chaos into a simpler narrative with a beginning (tragedy), middle (struggle), and end (our own happily ever after, I hope).

I don’t begrudge Jessica her need to keep her distance -- my own father and I are estranged -- but the idea that the closest thing my wife had to a stable parent during her childhood was a wildly flamboyant gay man explained, I thought, so much about the woman I loved. Tommy lived with them off and on, crashing on the couch or making himself scarce when Jessica’s mom had a boyfriend. (Once, when Jessica teased a bratty classmate, the girl snapped back, “At least my mom isn’t a slut who sleeps with gay men!”)

Tommy braided Jessica’s hair so she’d fit in with the other Catholic school girls, stayed up all night crafting an elf costume for her Christmas pageant, and, when she couldn’t sleep, microwaved a mug of milk with his special ingredients: a packet of Equal and a capful of imitation vanilla. If he wasn’t around, Jessica says, “My mom would just give me Kahlua.”

He brought home the kinds of presents that little girls hoarded in the ’80s: earrings and lace gloves from his job at the mall’s novelty gift store, George Michael cassette singles, and, once, a blind miniature poodle named Missy, who of course Tommy insisted they call “Miss Thing.” He’d watch Who’s That Girl as many times as Jessica wanted -- after all, someone had to teach her how to apply eyeliner like Madonna.

Tommy also went out, with or without Jessica’s mom, looking for whatever trouble could be found in their tiny southeast corner of Virginia. He was 6-foot-2, with blue eyes and sandy blond hair, tight jeans, and a denim jacket. (Jessica has no photos of them together; after she mentioned Tommy had done a stint in the Air Force, I decided he looked exactly like Val Kilmer in Top Gun and refused to be told otherwise.)

“Tommy liked rough trade,” Jessica says. He’d drive his over-the-top gold IROC-Z Camaro down to Norfolk to pick up sailors on shore leave or cruise for strangers in alleys, and he didn’t bother keeping his voice down when delivering the “I showed him mine and then he showed me his” play-by-play for Jessica’s mom.