A couple of hours after my dad arrived Saturday for a holiday visit of several weeks, I asked him if he wanted to watch "the gay cowboy movie." HBO has been playing the hell out of "Brokeback Mountain" all month, I suppose to mark the one-year anniversary of its theatrical release.
My father quickly said no, and then added he wanted to watch "Sunset Boulevard," airing on another cable channel, also without commercial interruption. I'll leave it to others to decide which of us suggested the gayer movie.
Before he arrived, I decided I was going to push my father a bit on this visit, though I hadn't been thinking specifically in terms of a gay cowboy movie-that idea just came into my head as we tooled around the channels after dinner. I was mostly hoping to prod him out of the sadness and inertia that's settled pretty firmly over him in the two years since my mom passed away. They were married for 58 years, and while they were always companions in the true sense of that word, especially in later years my dad grew content to rely, ever more exclusively, on my mother's attentions, leaving most of the outside socializing to her.
My father is 85 now and I think healing is hard for him at this age.
My parents were always about as broad-minded in terms of film interests, conversation, and other cultural adventuring as I could have hoped, so I never felt as though I needed to do a lot of heavy lifting on that score. In fact, as the palette of hit movies turned increasingly junky in recent decades, as least for my tastes, and too many of my friends followed the trends, I often joked that I called my parents first to get recommendations for what to see. By paying the couple-of-bucks senior fare for the Friday afternoon matinee, they usually could beat me to the latest release, and I found their reactions just about uniformly reliable.
Still, it was clear that my mother usually led the way, and I recognized quickly that a lot of my father's curiosities evaporated with her passing. My ideas on spurring enthusiasm on his trip this month weren't all that specific-they mostly centered on taking him to a Christmas party two good friends threw Sunday evening in the East Village.
For someone who has often proven to be a live wire in social situations-he has a Bronx native's gift of gab-he was pretty subdued at the party. Post-gathering, his debriefing of me consisted entirely of asking whether this one or that one were gay-and if there were any lesbians there. My answers provided the latest clues in his unraveling of the profound mystery of just how gay people find each other, and how straights find us as well.
Monday evening, as we once again flipped channels, he noticed "Brokeback" was about to air again and said he'd like to see it, that he had only been "kidding" when he said no on Saturday.
Whenever I watch a movie I've already seen with someone who hasn't yet, I endure a horribly uncomfortable sense of ownership about its ability to please. Never have I experienced this feeling as strongly as while watching "Brokeback" with my dad.
More disquieting than that, however, was my unease when-precisely 30 minutes into the film-Ennis finally joined Jack in the tent. I hadn't remembered how long that scene lasted. I certainly don't recall that Mr. Del Mar spitting into his hand was the clear signal that he was entering Mr. Twist.
As my skull echoed with the question, "What the hell is wrong with you?" I reminded myself that I'd always been uncomfortable viewing fairly explicit sexual renderings on film and TV with my parents. This really wasn't any different. But that excuse became more threadbare when my breath grew shallower even at the sight of a passionate kiss or, less intense still, Jake Gyllenhaal's bare chest being stroked by Heath Ledger.
As the film progressed, I occasionally stole a glance at my father, hoping to read his reaction, but he remained largely impassive. His only overt reaction was to say he was having trouble understanding the cowboy dialogue, much of it, especially Ledger's, practically swallowed. The actors in the old movie he'd watched while I was at work that day apparently enunciated a whole lot better.
And then all of a sudden I flashed on a memory that I hadn't thought of in a long time, but has been with me for decades nonetheless. At some point in my early youth-I can say with certainty this happened no later than 1966, and probably a few years earlier-our family was traveling, and as it happened I was staying in a motel room with my parents, and my two older brothers must have been in an adjoining room. I was supposed to be sleeping, but as was usual for me at that age I wasn't but merely pretending to be. A television drama was on-at my mother's urging, perhaps even insistence. On the screen, a man and woman were at home and the doorbell rang. When the man opened the door to another man, the two, out of sight of the woman, shared a kiss on the lips. Just at that moment, my father cursed and slammed the TV off, throwing the room into darkness.
This memory must sound apocryphal-and improbable to say the least. I can find no Internet reference to any on-air homosexual kiss dating to that period, and a call to the Museum of Television and Radio this week seeking research assistance was not returned.
But the memory has always been with me, from well before the time that I could possibly have conceived of the scene that unfolded, the thrill it induced, or its social meaning. (Perhaps the show was a British production with a one-shot airing on public television-that's the best I can offer as an explanation.) Until this week, I never mentioned this incident to another soul, and for years afterward I was stupefied by its import. My strongest sense memory of what was going on inside me is that I was giddy with relief to be in the dark the moment after it happened lest my feelings be visible. Yet-at the same time-I was let down in a palpably physical manner at not learning what would happen next.
When I was young and thought about that moment and the longing it unleashed, I believed absolutely that my life would never change. But it did. And so did my father's. Even without my mother's help, or urging, never mind insistence, he sat through his Brokeback moment. And so did I.
And nobody slammed the TV off.