My essay Father-Daughter Dance: A Note on Coming Out and Going Home is now live on The Toast, tagged “Dads.”

 

When my cousin invited me to her wedding, I couldn’t bring myself to repeat any of the auto-responses I’d stocked up over the years to get out of going home.

Instead, I blurted out: “I’m super happy for you, but sick of pretending like I’m Single in the City, like the love of my life doesn’t exist for the sake of other people’s feelings.”

My words surprised me. I’d suppressed them for so long that once released they seemed to reverberate off the marble walls of Washington D.C.’s Union Station, like a departing train announcement. My cousin was in town for a conference; I had just arrived from my home in Manhattan—happy to keep our visits on the East Coast, if it meant I could avoid going home, home to Iowa.

“So…” she asked, “who is he?”

She,” I choked out. “Her name is Melinda.”

My cousin dropped onto a nearby bench. I sank down beside her. After a forever-long second, I glanced sideways and was relieved to see that she didn’t appear to be plotting her escape by checking the train times, as the schedule updated—ticking and flipping—in sync with my heart.

Slowly, she turned toward me and, to my surprise, exclaimed with mounting enthusiasm: “Bring her! I can’t wait to meet her. Seriously. It’d mean so much to us if you both—” She cut herself off. “Wait. Do your parents know?”

No. That was the problem. I hadn’t yet figured out how to break it to my conservative, Christian parents and older brother that they were related to a homosexual. My parents knew of Melinda as a girl I’d met in college. They thought we were girlfriends, as in the kind Grandma envisioned, when she asked how many I’d invited over for potluck. Melinda and I had been friends for ten years, a couple, for two. I was touched by my cousin’s response, but wasn’t sure I was ready to make my lesbian relationship a family affair.

“The wedding isn’t till August.” She brightened. “You’ve got eight months.”

I was touched by her response, but…“We’ll see,” I said without much conviction.

 

The formal wedding invitation arrived addressed to both Melinda and me, and I resolved to attend. I was nearly thirty. I was in love with the kind of girl you take home. And according to the hand-jotted note beneath the calligraphy, my aunt would be pleased as punch to meet Melinda, if we both decided to come.

The colors are black and white!”

“We’ll be fine,” Melinda reassured me over drinks at one of our favorite East Village bars. She often quoted, “The personal is political!” from her Women’s Studies undergraduate days, but I feared her first encounter with familial homophobia might be because of me. Melinda’s younger brother thought it was pretty awesome—Yeah, high-five, dude!—that his sister was a lesbian; whereas my brother had recently completed a Masters in Divinity and was committed to carrying on our fundamentalist upbringing to the next generation.

Most of my relatives were neither here nor there about religion, but I wasn’t thinking about them the following day, when I walked to the corner mailbox with three post-marked envelopes. I dropped the R.S.V.P. for two inside. Gathering my courage, I shuffled the remaining letters. One was addressed to my parents, the other to my brother and sister-in-law. Similar to a R.S.V.P. card, their world was sharply divided between those who were and those who were not going to heaven. And when Armageddon came there wouldn’t be any those save-the-date notices.

Nervously, I shuffled coming-out notes, in which I’d written:

Dear Dad and Mom,

 I would like to share my life with you. And part of my life is that Melinda—who you know as my best friend—is also my beloved. We have been together happily for two years but being a lesbian is something that I have understood about myself for a very long time. I recognize this news will hurt you but hope you may reconcile the continuance of us in your life. Please reach out when you feel able to do so.

Love your daughter,

Amy

 

I’d let them know we were coming to the wedding another time.

After opening and closing the mailbox’s graffiti-covered lid a few times, I finally let go of the letters. They fluttered and landed irretrievably inside.

 

A few months later, I turned up to the first family function in years—after decades of my dad declaring, “As for me and my household, we will serve the Lord!” to most of the dearly beloved gathering together—as a lesbian in a little black dress. An old favorite that suddenly seemed a lot littler in the wedding chapel on the outskirts of Des Moines than it did at home in Manhattan.

A curious gaze followed me and Melinda from the sanctuary pews to the receiving line, from the roast beef buffet to the family pictures, watching our every move, gesture, expression, and touch. My cheeks took on a permanent blush and my chest flushed a shade of scarlet only slightly brighter than my nails painted “Devilish Diva” red. I cinched the chiffon straps of my halter dress tighter and tighter until the friction burned the flesh on my clavicles and the back of my neck, like an eraser rubbing too forcibly through paper.

“Breathe,” Melinda whispered to me, repeatedly, as she straightened her stiff collar and smoothed the lines of her snappy summer suit. We both tensed into our best suburban smiles whenever anyone approached; even if it was the bride, swinging by for the umpteenth time to say with tear-filled eyes how much it meant to her that we had both come and to ask, under the baby breath in her bouquet, if any of these folks were making us feel uncomfortable.

No, no, we reassured her. Everyone was being just fine. Sure, some had politely inquired what kind of business we were “partners” in together. A few presumed we were sisters. But other than the one guy, who couldn’t keep his forehead from breaking out in sweat over the realization that Lord have mercy, those two girls have sex with each other, most were fine. Really. Some even made conversation.

“Can you believe Iowa of all places has gay marriage?” asked one couple who apparently knew me when I was knee-high to a grasshopper.

“Way ahead of New York!” we cheered with our bottles of Bud Light.

“And, I’ll be, Dick Cheney has a lesbian daughter, too.” My dad’s college roommate chuckled, slapping his slacks.

Someone came out to us over the cake.

“I’ve gotta girlfriend, too,” she whispered under her pin curls. “Met her on the Internet.”

Most made no reference to Melinda’s and my relationship or—what one distant relative referred to with a self-conscious mumble as—“our preference.” They treated us as though we were just another couple there to celebrate the nuptials of another wonderful couple.

“So wonderful,” we agreed, making small talk with strangers and my brother, alike. His brief email response to my note acknowledged the bravery of my lifestyle choice and was as clipped and cursory as the few words we exchanged before he and his wife decided to hit the road early.

All in all, these folks were fine. My folks, however, were a different story.

 

The day before, my parents had surprised us at the airport. I hadn’t told them our flight times. Who knew how long they had been standing there, watching the arrival escalator at Des Moines International?

“Are those your parents?” Melinda asked, letting go of my hand. At first I hadn’t recognized them. Squinting, I noticed they suddenly looked old. Their skin appeared papery, like the raised texture of antique stationary.

Mom started crying while Dad continued to stare at the top of the descending escalator as if the daughter he was looking for hadn’t yet arrived.

My dad was a retired lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army and was a Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell kind of man—even if it was a Clinton policy. For as long as I could remember I hadn’t told him about my being a lesbian, because underneath the obvious camouflage of embarrassment, martyrdom, and divided camps, I knew this news would deeply grieve him. I felt responsible to protect him from me.

After sending my coming-out note, I had nearly called to tell them to disregard that little evergreen card from me. I envisioned my dad, returning home from a jog and being caught off guard “with news from your daughter” that judging from the state of my mother, pacing around in her nylons, pointing to the kitchen table, where we always put stuff that concerned the entire family, it couldn’t be good.

I nearly called, but didn’t. I couldn’t. Sharing my love wasn’t a sin. Showing up for my cousin’s wedding wasn’t contingent on their comfort. My note was a courtesy to let them hear the news from me.

The escalator deposited us at their feet.

“What a surprise,” I said.

My parents greeted me and nodded in Melinda’s general direction.

Mom explained they were hoping to have a quiet moment before the hubbub of the wedding.

“Did you get my letter?” Dad asked.

“I did.”

His letter had arrived weeks ago. I’d skimmed the three pages of yellow, legal-size notebook paper, preparing myself to read some biblical reference to how he and my mother were washing their hands of me. I’d spent my entire twenties fortifying myself against the day I wholeheartedly believed they would disown me. Dad wrote six ways to Sunday that he disliked my current lifestyle choice and that he was deeply saddened by how far away I had wandered; yet, then to my astonishment, he wrote that he hoped to repair our father-daughter relationship, but what the first step towards reconciliation might be, he wasn’t sure.

Perhaps if you write back?

My tears dropped onto the paper, blurring the ink into large ellipsis-like dots. But I didn’t write him. I couldn’t conceive of anything more for me to say or to do other than simply show up. I saw attending my cousin’s wedding as my choice to make, as an equal member of our family. One I had abstained from for long enough. Humiliating them wasn’t my intention nor was it that others would use me as a case-in-point to poke holes in their piety. I simply could not continue to shoulder the cross of their beliefs any longer. If they hadn’t made the lifestyle choice to become born-again, they might not have struggled to accept mine—if sexuality, unlike Jesus, was a choice to follow.

Rather than saying anything of the sort, I danced around the issue of our letters by chattering about the uneventful plane connections, the deal we’d scored on our hotel, and how fortunate we felt to arrive just in time for some Iowa sweet corn.

“Wanna get a cup of coffee?” I offered.

“A piece of pie?” Melinda’s mid-west upbringing kicked in.

“No,” they said.

“Come with us to Hertz?”

We stood in silence until Melinda jangled the rental keys.

“I guess, we’ll see you tomorrow.” I said, “Unless, you wanna…”

“Nope. We’re off to…” Dad turned toward the exit.

Mom patted my forearm and then quickened her step to catch up with my dad who was already halfway through the sliding glass doors.

“What was that all about?” Melinda asked.

“I’m not sure.”

 

Our interactions throughout the wedding day were no less fragmented. Most of the reception passed by with my parents and I orbiting the room, like planets under different gravitational pulls. Mom and Dad stayed in their corner with God on their side, as I stayed in mine with the World, while Melinda won over everyone else on the dance floor with her awesome moves.

After doing the Y-M-C-A and the line-dance to that awful Strokin’ song, the party started to wind down. One by one, guests wished my cousin and her groom well and headed off to find their Ford or Chevy amongst the other Fords and Chevys in the golf club parking lot. Melinda and I sat on the edge of the parquet dance floor, tapping the seconds in time with the music until we might make a graceful exit. I ached to wrap my arms around her for the first time all evening.

“All right, all right, last slow song of the night,” the D.J. announced. He dimmed the disco lights shooting red, white and blue lasers across the empty dance floor. The familiar wah, wah, wah, wahhaa of an electric guitar wound up. Cymbals crashed, and the soulful, Seventies singer cried, “I’ve been really tryin’, baby!

“Oh yeah,” Melinda made a subtle grind against my shoulder and whispered, “Let’s go get it—”

A shadow darkened my peripheral vision. I heard the sound of a familiar throat being cleared.

“Um, excuse me,” Dad said, standing over us. The strobe lights behind him made his halo of wiry hair appear even grayer, his wrinkles, deeper. “Pardon me. May I have this dance?” he asked me and then continued, with sincere, gentlemanly etiquette, “That is, with your permission, Melinda.”

“Uh, sure,” she said, casting a sideways look of disbelief in my direction.

Dad held out his right hand to me. And waited. I flushed an even deeper blush. Did he honest-to-god not recognize the song? Of course, he didn’t. He was Dad. He no longer listened to “contemporary” music; he enjoyed instrumental hymns and AM talk radio. Stunned, I slowly turned from Melinda to my father, as “Tryin’ to hold back this feelin’ for so long,” crooned in the background, enflaming my conundrum.

I understood Dad’s invitation to dance was an olive branch, a genuine gesture toward reconciliation. He was declaring to everyone that despite our differences I was still his daughter. I recognized this, but he didn’t seem to recognize that he was asking me to dance to one of the most overtly sexual songs of the century. Accepting my dad’s hand meant I had to overlook the sad, fucked-up reality that we’d be twirling around, father-daughter style, to Marvin Gaye’s Let’s Get It On.

Dad shifted his weight, self-consciously aware that the entire family was watching. The tension of the evening had mounted to a climax over whether I accepted this dance.

            “Oh! Come on,” Marvin coaxed.

I was horrified, but could not reject him. If I said no, Dad would only remember that I’d denied him—not that I had saved us the embarrassment of shaking a leg to a hit-single infamous for foreplay. The simple truth was: I wanted to dance with him and was pleased that he had asked. Sometimes, I reasoned with myself, being part of a family simply means showing up and doing the goddamn dance.

With as much dignity as I could muster, I stood and took my father’s hand. He led us to the center of the vacant floor. The disco ball flashed spotlights across Melinda’s wide-eyed disbelief, my cousin’s slack-jawed shock, and Mom coming out of a dark corner, wailing silent sobs.

My mom listened to the Delilah After Dark program on Lite FM. How did she not recognize this song? Even if she had, she wouldn’t have cut in. My parents believed in transcendent meanings. The song was irrelevant compared to the point; and, the point (I presumed) was that this dance might bring them one step closer to my prodigal return. Mom slumped down into the chair I’d vacated next to Melinda. In a reverie, she grieved openly the child she must’ve felt she had lost to some extent here on earth but ultimately where it truly mattered, in heaven.

Dad and I danced for a few verses in rigid silence with averted focal points. We held one another at arm’s length, because we both believed we were right and the other was wrong. I suspected we both felt judged for whom we loved and dedicated our lives to. Both felt like outsiders in our own families. Both held the other responsible for the pain we were suffering. Both of us had no idea what to say.

“I’ve been meaning to dance with you all night,” Dad finally announced, over a background of loud, lyrical moaning. “Glad I didn’t miss my chance.”

Beyond the last slow dance of the night, he believed that once our life on earth came to an end, we would be separated for eternity. He anguished over the vision of my burning forever in hell and hoped to save me from a fate that I no longer thought was real or—contrary to what he raised me to believe—felt I deserved.

Marvin gently reminded us: “We’re all sensitive people.”

“Thanks Dad,” I said. “That means the world to me.”

He twirled me. I peeked out of the corner of my eye to see his face bearing the same stoic pride he had back in the days when we shuffled across our old shag carpeting, while I balanced atop his feet as a child. Tonight, Dad held himself with the same upright, principled posture, as he did when he escorted me to father-daughter banquets at our church, starting at age six, and taught me how a gentleman ought to treat a lady. Emotion welled in his words this evening as much as it did on the night of my thirteenth birthday, when over candlelight, he and my mom presented me with a purity ring. Dad said then how much he looked forward to the day—God-willing—when he would escort me down the straight and narrow aisle to a white wedding day altar. Dad seemed to loom as large as the Heavenly Father then. Now, in my four-inch heels, we danced at eye-level with one another.

“I do miss you, ya know,” Dad said, obviously cutting himself off before adding and I want you to come back to the faith.

“Miss you too, Dad,” I said, without predicating but you have to love me for who I am and not who you want to convert me to be.

These unspoken sentiments—the words that divided us—hung in the air, like the lyrics to another tragic song.

If there was any hope of having a relationship, we were going to have to find a place in the here-and-now to meet on equal footing, preferably a blank, quiet, unwritten place, where we could figure things out as we went along.

Where might that be…?

After seven eternal minutes, Dad and I were still alone on the dance floor. I would have tipped the D.J. all the cash in my purse if he flipped on The Temptations’ My Girl or something, anything, but no. I swear he turned it up, because the lyrics, “Stop beatin’ ‘round the bush,” blasted out of the speakers.

“What’d he say?” Dad asked, stopping dead in his circular shuffle.

Marvin was amping up for his final panting chorus.

“Don’t listen, Dad. It doesn’t matter.”

“Did he just say what I think he said?” Dad’s eyes widened behind his bifocals; he blushed from his ears to his moustache that was still army-regulation trim.

“Really Dad. LET’S JUST TALK OVER IT,” I shouted. “Everyone seemed really happy. I’m so glad we could ALL be here and share today.”

“Sure! RIGHT!”

I couldn’t think of anything more to add. Nor could he. So together, in silent resignation, we spiraled around the dance floor, waiting for the howling Gaye to be sanctified. Once the song finally petered out, Dad walked me gallantly back to Melinda, who looked as pale as a sheet of loose leaf.

“Thank you both for this dance,” Dad said, exchanging my arm for my mother’s hand, and lead her off, still sniffling.

“That was sick.”

I nodded, mouthing: Marvin-effing-Gaye with my dad!

“And they think we’re pervs?” Melinda shout-whispered, shaking her head.

Following the spectacle of our father-daughter dance, there wasn’t much to do except leave. Rather than watch the indecency of their son/brother/uncle slow dance with their granddaughter/niece/cousin to baby-making music, the rest of our family had busied themselves, dismantling the decorations and cleaning up centerpieces. Melinda and I said our goodbyes, thanked my cousin and welcomed my new cousin-in-law to the family, and made sure the grandparents were in somebody’s car. My parents were nowhere to be found. Thinking they had slipped out before us, Melinda and I headed into the muggy midnight.

We found our rental car, and once the doors were locked behind us, Melinda turned toward me with a flirty smile, loosening her top button.

“Can’t wait to get you outta that—”

Knuckles rapped on my window. My dad peered in. We screamed.

“JUST WANTED TO MAKE SURE I SAID GOODNIGHT!” he shouted through the pane of glass that held both of our reflections.

“NIGHT, DAD!”

Melinda started car engine with a peeved, “Jesus.”

I cracked the window. “See you tomorrow at the bridal brunch.”

“Oh, yeah, that’s right.” Dad nodded as if this were the first he was hearing of such a meal called “brunch,” let alone one of the bridal variety, but was, nonetheless, glad to give me a see-ya-later kind of wave as opposed to making this our goodbye.

Pulling away, I watched his shadow recede. The blank space between us opened, and the words to write him back finally started to come.