It's a feeling I haven't had since I was 11, one that floods back the way a particular sound or smell sends you back in an instant — diesel exhaust, an ambulance in France, lemon Pledge, the sound of my cousin Pearl walking in leather pants, and the smell generated by that hot, taut leather after she's obviously used baby powder as a substitute for bathing. But lately, it's junior high that comes to mind: the strident squeaks of kids' sneakers and slamming lockers. And kids slamming me inside those lockers. It's an anxious feeling -- sadness and insecurity. Memories flood back. Like wrestling in gym. All those guys screaming 'Kill him!' across the mat. Those guys.
They walked with a swagger, one I tried to imitate but never seemed to perfect. A little bowlegged, carrying their books as though they could take them or leave them, like they were doing the books a favor by letting them rest against their thighs. 'Just walk,' I'd tell myself. But then my books would get knocked out of my arms. 'Faggot.' I'd pretend it was what I had intended to do: 'Oh good. Thank you, actually, I was literally about to lay my biology textbook in the mud. So, you saved me the trouble!' How did these kids know? Like police helicopters with their giant spotlights. Precocious in their ability to sniff out a homo.
Why is this haunting me again now? And in my own home? I see him down the hall. He walks toward me -- the bowlegged swagger, the confidence, the mischievous grin.
'Just walk,' I want to tell myself. Then, bam! He throws his arms around my leg as if to tackle me, but instead, looks up'huge grin, eyes twinkling'and says, 'Hi, Daddy!' I scoop him up and kiss his neck. That's right. No name-calling. No need to run. The new bully on the block is Jonah. My 2-year-old son.
Don and I went back and forth about wanting a boy or a girl. We knew what it was like to have a girl -- we already had one. So fun and familiar, and safe. A boy was scary. Unknown. All that energy. And of course, the sports. Don hoped, if we had a boy, he'd be just like him: a kid who's happy to stay indoors, reading Jane Austen, darning socks while composing fan mail to Julie Andrews in his head. But adoption doesn't work that way. You can't really count on any of your own genetic predispositions.
Fast-forward a few months and our birth mom's in L.A. for a structural ultrasound. We'd finally be able to tell the sex of the baby! The doctor scanned her belly and finally said, 'Aha! It's a boy.' Don and I looked at each other. 'Are you positive?' The doctor said, '95% sure. Otherwise it's a girl with an oversized labia.' I bristled. Eww... No. I mean how oversized? And what exactly would that involve? Is there special paneled underwear? It didn't matter to Don. He clung to that 5% chance and told everyone, 'We're having a girl!'
But I knew it was a boy, and I was getting excited about how the new little guy would complete our family. Since we already had Eliza from the same mother, we'd now have one of each. Isn't that what everyone wants? I just never really thought about what it meant to have one of each. To be the father of at least one son. I'm a son. And now a father. So it's the same thing. A boy. Just like me. Or maybe not. If I really thought about it, at some point in his life this boy could discover that he might be, you know, not gay. Obviously, it's a possibility. Just not one I'd ever entertained. Not because I had any prejudice or predisposition against straight guys. I don't. I just don't think about, you know, them that often. Because for me, them is who I avoided while walking in school hallways. Them wanted me dead in wrestling class. And that's how it's always been: There was me and there was them. Right? I don't mean any offense. Some of my best friends are straight. A few are gay, actually, but don't tell their wives.
Even growing up with my dad -- whom I loved and admired and respected -- we were close, but I always felt a disconnect. The year I put tap shoes on the top of my birthday list, I got a basketball hoop. Which wasn't even on the list. I know it never crossed his macho Argentinean mind that, when I was born, the little baby smiling up at him would one day turn out to be gay. So why did it occur to me now that our son may very well turn out to be straight?
And why does it even matter?
Because whether I cared to admit it or not, the whole thing just got a tiny bit scarier. Maybe because it made me question if I could do it. Would I be able to truly love him? Unconditionally? Having grown up as a boy, tortured by other little boys -- straight boys --how would I now rise to the occasion of being a man who might have to raise one of them and love him no matter what? How would it feel for, say, a Jew to love a Nazi baby? (Too far?)
What is 'unconditional love' anyway? Does it mean you don't question it, don't question its limits? Because I do. All the time.
And who said it has to be 'unconditional' in the first place? It wasn't always that way. I'm sorry. Back in the 17th century? Even Peter the Great tortured and murdered his own son after the kid plotted to overthrow him. And he was called 'Great.' No. Our little devils have a way of testing our love every single day. Whining alone'which has clearly survived the evolutionary test of time -- is a superior test, I think, of us, parents, to see if we're really up to the task. For me? Whining is almost enough to shut down the whole operation. And then there's the intimate relationship you're forced to have with every possible bodily function. You're expected to love, despite the vomit, the pee, the middle of the night bed-stripping after Jonah's blown mud through his diaper and, like spin art, onto every one of the 47 stuffed animals he insists live with him on his bed. And you know what? I look at that tiny, stunned face, wondering how the fuck did all that come out of me, staring up at me -- as if to make sure nothing has changed on my end, and I smile back at him: 'We're good, you and me, we're solid. You didn't shit me away.' He nuzzles his head on my shoulder. Heaven. It's not me versus them anymore. It's just us.
I had a girlfriend in college -- what? I did! I didn't say she was happy, but she was my girlfriend. And I'll never forget what she once said: 'Love is being able to have a guy puke on you or pee on you when he's drunk -- and not care.' You know what? I think she was onto something. Not that I wouldn't prefer a loved one who didn't pee or puke on me or ask me to smell their fingers or any other part of them, frankly. But when you somehow forget about what's happening because you care so much about who it's happening to... Yep. That feeling? That's it, isn't it?
At 2-and-a-half our little blue-eyed, towheaded baby is a happy, curious, loving, mischievous little boy. And, like I said before, he already walks with a swagger. As if to say, 'Don't fuck with me, faggot, I'll take you out.' And there's no question he'll be able to -- with just a look. I try to stay on his good side. But it's not easy. He can smell the needy. No matter how hard I try to get him to think I'm cool, Jonah is going to see me for who I am. And I him. He's tough. He's fearless. He's a tank. And the worst street fight I had when I was a kid was when I hit Eddie Wade with my clarinet case.
We turn on the music and Jonah starts to shake his groove thang. Banging his feet, arms in the air. The kid can dance. Don and I look at each other, a glimmer of hope in our eyes. Maybe' Nah. Probably not. And you think about the radical, right-wing half-wits who think the gays recruit young boys into the church of fabulous. As if. Jonah struts across the room, crawls across the table, spins around to find the CD player. Suddenly, he lifts it over his head. Just walk, I think to myself. But no. We got what we got, and a gay boy he's not.
Bucatinsky is an actor and cocreator of Showtime's Web Therapy. This piece is from his book Does This Baby Make Me Look Straight? (Touchstone, 2012).