It’s a New Year already for some, and for others, it’s on the horizon. Want to ring in the New Year with some bonus materials? Here you go! This was originally Chapter 20 of Idlewild. We get to meet Asher’s parents and get some insight into Asher’s relationship with his faith. Laura Stone (who writes amazing books y’all) described Asher as “a roll-your-sleeves-up kind of you-can’t-tell-me-what-to do person” which is totally true. This chapter gives us a taste of those origins.
“Asher,” Tyler says, swinging through the door, “there’s a couple out in the restaurant asking for you.”
“Regulars?” Asher asks without looking at him.
“I don’t think so. I’ve never seen them before,” Tyler says he picks up and puts down a paperweight that’s on the desktop. He rifles through some papers and shuffles them around before putting them back down. Asher leans back in his chair and watches him. Tyler has seemed a little off ever since he went to his mother’s for dinner last week, and Asher can’t put his finger on what it is. He thinks that normally he’d ask, but with everything new between them and undefined, the ground between them is boggy and unstable. He waits for Tyler to look him in the eyes but he doesn’t.
“And they want me?” Asher asks
“That’s what they said,” Tyler says.
“Alrighty-then.” Asher stands brushes past him on his way out of the office. Asher would be the first to admit that he doesn’t understand what is going on between them. But he wants to. While that push and pull between them usually exciting, some days it’s confusing. When they’re together Asher feels more alive than he has in years. Tyler is addictive; no matter how many times Asher says he’s going to sit him down to talk and figure this thing out, Tyler touches him and what he’s told himself is right dissipates under those finger; Tyler seems the most right thing in these moments. But he hesitates to push Tyler emotionally, afraid that he might spook him or break some spell. Instead he waits quietly and watches.
Asher doesn’t spare a thought for who the couple may be, which he berates himself for as soon as gets to the front of house. Sitting in a booth tucked into the front corner by the window are his parents. His father is slowly sipping a mug of his usual straight up coffee; black, no sugar and no cream. His mother has her hands folded neatly on the table as she watches the thin crowd of Christmas sightseers stream past the window.
He wonders what it took for his father to convince her to come out here. What she’s thinking right now. If she feels safe, how threatened by her memories of Detroit, as well as the memories she’s been handed by her family throughout her life.
“Hey! What are you doing here?” he asks, infuse his tone with happiness. He must not do a very good job. His father’s mouth turns down a little bit; it’s part rueful and part displeased. Isaac Schenck’s face was always the most expressive Asher had ever seen – until he met Tyler. His father can appear both happy and sad. Confused. Angry…any number of things, and often all at once. He’s terrible about talking about his feelings however. Either he thinks his face does enough talking, or he can’t control it.
Still Asher slides into the booth next to his mother. He smiles when the familiar scent of her favorite perfume, floral and vanilla, wraps around him. They both look well; his father’s hair thins more and more every time he sees him, but his lean frame is healthy and fit. His mother, Julie, is still tiny and lovely with soft curves and rich brown hair it is shorter.
“We’ve come to give you a little belated Hanukah present,” his mother says. She rifles through her oversized purse until she finds two flat packages. They’re wrapped in blue and white paper; the corner of one has torn, a little damaged in transit. Asher’s smile is automatic; he hadn’t expected this. He had toyed with the idea of driving out to West Bloomfield to see his parents for a night or perhaps a meal but hadn’t pick up the phone to make those plans.
He picks up the package. “Thank you,” Asher says. He opens the present gently, lifting the tape with a careful finger and trying not to damage the paper. It’s a habit born of many years of his mother trying to save paper to reuse it. She always hated the idea of all that pretty paper going to waste. The care is useless — the paper is already torn — but still he does it. In his mother’s presence he becomes a little boy again.
Inside he finds a bag of Hanukah gelt and two CD’s. His parents have never caught up to the idea that CDs have mostly phased out, that now everybody stored their music on various kinds of technology. His computer doesn’t have a DVD drive. This is music he’ll never listen to either.
But that’s okay because it is the thought that counts. His parents have made the effort, his mom has come down into a city she’s terrified of. He could count on both hands the number of times his mother has been here as long as he remembers. She grew up in Detroit as a girl, and yet he has no stories of hers from that time.
Although he had not expected his parents and although he knew there was a slight chance – the slightest chance – that he would go to see them, he’s glad now that he decided to get them presents, even if he planned on mailing them.
“If you’ll give me a minute I’ll run upstairs and get your presents,” he says. This makes his father smile. Maybe it’s because Asher is extending a little bit of thoughtfulness and care. Asher has withheld himself and his own love from his parents. As a child – and if he admits as a teenager and young man – he always ached for his father’s unconditional love, but thought it wasn’t granted. He came to understand, especially with John’s guidance, that it wasn’t unconditional love he was searching for. It was a sense of family that he always longed for without understanding why, or what. Perhaps it was influence of television and media of stories told by his friends of what parenting and love and a home should feel like.
Asher was incredibly lucky to find this with John, and perhaps he should have been able to extend the kindness he found there to his parents. His coming out was very difficult for them and it had been a struggle for them to figure out how to put their faith together with who he was. Their own reconciliation between their Jewish faith and their desire to provide a community that would still welcome him took a long time; too long for a scared teenage boy. As an adult he can recognize the complexity of unconditional love because his parents chose to change everything about the way they understood the world in order to support him. But watching that struggle while in the middle of his own very painful fight was isolating for him as a teenager. Asher still practiced and believed then, but he recognizes that this was when he started to feel a rift with his faith.
Asher passes through the kitchen at a fast clip. He waves to Claudia when she starts to talk to him to stave her off. He thunders up the stairs and when he gets to his room he has to rifle through many things in order to find the presents. Apparently he had had them in the plastic set of drawers where he keeps his clothes. In his hurry he causes a few out to tumble out, messing up the rest. But he smiles. Just knowing that the clothes were folded means Tyler’s been through his laundry again, which warms him. He’s not sure if Tyler’s interference is a comment on his own housekeeping skills, but he recognizes Tyler’s innate desire to make people happy as well as to make order out of his world. Tyler told him recently how much he loves Asher’s smell. Imagining Tyler holding his shirt to catch the slightest lingering smell curls, lovely and welcome, in his stomach. It closeness that goes beyond quick fucks and fleeting touches.
The present he bought for his parents aren’t wrapped yet and Asher has no wrapping paper. He searches for some newspaper though he’s perfectly aware his mother won’t appreciate that. He doesn’t have much choice but to carry them down unwrapped.
Asher sits again and hands his father his gift – a Tigers baseball hat – and hands his mother the bottle of Joop! perfume. Whenever he catches that scent in the restaurant or in a store, he thinks of her with fondness. This year has made this nostalgia stronger than resentment.
“I’m sorry they’re not wrapped,” he says.
“That’s fine honey,” his mother says. “This is so thoughtful. I was almost out of it.”
“Thank you son,” his father says. He looks into Asher’s eyes and it’s clear it’s sincere.
There’s a moment of easiness after Asher give them the presents. They make comfortable small talk until Asher decides to ask if they want to stay to eat.
“Sure honey. That would be nice,” his mother says. His father wants to argue but he takes a breath and then nods.
From across the restaurant he can see Claudia and Tyler behind the bar chatting while Tyler wipes down the bottles and sets them back on the shelves. The restaurant isn’t too busy – only about a quarter full. When Tyler catches his eye, Asher nods him over. Tyler grabs two menus then threads through the tables toward them lightly and gracefully. Asher has watched his body for months; it’s a marvel – awkward and off with a rhythm when he dances, but still somehow eye-catching. In moments when he’s not over-thinking and when he’s completely unselfconscious there’s a fluid loveliness to the way he moves his limbs.
“Hello folks!” Tyler says brightly. “How are we all doing today?”
Oh, Asher is so smitten. He hates to use that word: he’s a 32 year old man — almost 10 years older than Tyler — and that’s not at all what this was meant to be. But Tyler’s charisma can’t be denied. He never speaks like this when he’s not on the floor. His body language is so different. Tyler’s changeability intrigues Asher more than he cares to admit. So many times he thinks that Tyler is a puzzle to be taken apart or to be put back together; Asher is never quite sure and that keeps him so interested.
Immediately he sees that his father has a reaction to Tyler. Asher is so comfortable with and used to the way that Tyler carries himself; the light lilting sweetness to his voice, the way he holds his hands and smiles when he talks. He can’t imagine anyone meeting Tyler and not assuming that he’s gay. For a man with so many facets, there are some Tyler rarely changes.
Asher loves that.
But it’s the sort of thing that his father has a terrible time hiding a reaction to. It had taken so much for him to accept Asher – so much more work for him that was for his mother. But Asher was in no way obvious. He never had to hide that about himself.
Before Asher can say anything though, Tyler sees it. Maybe it’s a slight stiffening and his father’s limbs or the face he almost disguises but quite catch. It’s fascinating how Tyler’s posture immediately changes. He hands out the menus and when he speaks again there’s a subtle difference, the light lisp is gone and the way he shapes his speech so that it has a completely different cadence. Perhaps it’s only obvious to Asher because he spends so much time with Tyler. He hopes his parents won’t catch the difference, but he does. It makes him sad and so resentful yet again. He resists the urge to confront his father
Asher holds his tongue and takes a deep breath. Gives his parents a moment to peruse the menu. Tyler asks if they need suggestions and points out his favorite. His mother smiles and orders that. His father does not. When Tyler walks away it’s as if he’s a different man. At the bar Claudia must have been watching them; Asher can tell by her eyebrows and her still hands are holding the damp rag Tyler has been using to wipe the bottles.
Asher tears his gaze away back to find his father examining him. Really looking, as if he can see what Asher’s been thinking. For one wild moment Asher wants to lay everything bare, to embarrass him. There’s knowing on paper that someone is gay and then knowing that a person actually does gay things. That he does them with men like Tyler, who he finds unbearably sexy, who he finds sweet and captivating and who draws him so often, a moth helpless to flame. When they’re together all Asher can think about is how beautiful Tyler is when he submits to his own pleasure.
Claudia brings their food out, for which Asher is glad. Asher hopes Tyler’s choice not to come back out and to put some distance between the perceptions others place on his body, the slightest violence that people’s judgement and dislike do when they land on his skin and worm their way into his heart. Asher remembers fighting that feeling in his own home; months and months of struggle with his identity with a knowledge that eventually he could longer hide who he was. But Asher’s had a whole hell of a lot of privilege in his natural presentation. Men like Tyler often suffer microaggressions from the moment of a first glance.
Asher does his best to wind up their lunch, impatient to leave the table. He does love his parents, but he has a limit. Seeing his father’s reaction to Tyler has not helped. He’s glad that his parents came and that they had a small moment to reconnect, but he wants them out of the bar now. Idlewild is safe space that he and John created. The pride sticker on the door and a staff that won’t compromise should indicate that. Asher is always mild mannered but he has asked patrons who make homophobic comments or behaved in particularly degrading or hurtful ways toward any member of his staff to leave immediately. He can’t be as harsh with his father as that, but he has to resist the strong urge to do so.
This year has been difficult in so many ways. But I’ve been lucky to start the year publishing a book I’m very proud of (What it Takes) and ending the year publishing this book. The support I get from my publisher (Interlude Press) and from readers and friends is priceless. Thank you all for coming on this ride with me!
Many thanks to Naomi Tajedler for double checking this passage.