"How long have you been this way?" my mother asked. I was 18, and she'd just discovered that I'd been pretending to go out with my friend Courtney when in reality I was seeing a boy named Jason, whom I'd met in college.
"I've always been this way," I said, red-faced and sniffling.
"That's not true," she responded. She asked if there was somewhere else I could go.
Shocked, I asked, "Are you throwing me out?"
My dad stepped in and said, "We're not throwing you out."
But they proceeded to ban me from leaving the house except to go to school. I was allowed no contact with my friends. She took away my phone and my car keys. When Jason called a few days later, he was told to never call again.
"From now on you'll act normal," my mother said. "From now on you'll be normal."
For weeks afterward, my mother sat on the couch, wrapped in a quilt, and didn't say a word to me. Every night of my life until that point, she'd told me that she loved me before she went to bed. That night she didn't. A year passed before she told me that she loved me again, but by then I'd learned that a parent's love could be conditional.
As the years passed, our relationship fell into a routine. Twice a year I fly home and stay for a week. We sit in different rooms, watching different TV shows. When she drives me to the airport, she cries and says she wishes I would stay.
She and I speak on the phone three times a week so that she can be assured that I'm not "lying dead in a ditch somewhere." Three times a week we hash over repeated themes. Work. The weather. Our family. We've unconsciously agreed that these are the safe subjects. The comfortable ones.
As traumatic as coming out was, I thought that once I was out, there'd be no more evasions or duplicity. I could finally be myself. But the opposite was true. When I came out as a teenager, she made it clear that she didn't want to hear about that part of my life. So I grew accustomed to changing pronouns and omitting big chunks of my history when I related it. Romances. Relationships. Heartbreaks. Friendships. Dreams.
Even now, nearly 17 years later, I can say, "Carlos and I went out for breakfast." But I can't say, "Carlos is my boyfriend."
Last year I met Carlos' parents and was shocked by the contrast. They are warm and welcoming. He held my hand in front of them and called me "babe." They hugged me and took a family picture with me in it. The whole visit I was bewildered, because all I could do was imagine my own family, dour and rigid. It is impossible to imagine them meeting Carlos, much less accepting him with open arms.
His mother sends me Christmas presents and asks after me, and my own mother can't even acknowledge his existence.
He brings me so much happiness, and I want to share that with the people who raised me. But after years of silence, I didn't even know how to bring it up. So I sent my mom a picture book. Photos of how he and I met. Our friends. The vacations we've taken. The two of us hiking. Eating. Him waiting for me at the finish line when I ran the Seattle Marathon. Anniversaries. A photo of us smooching. Eyes closed. Smiling.
I sent the book with a handwritten inscription that said I hope one day we'll be able to talk about all of my life, and not just the part that she is comfortable with.
I found myself in the awkward position of coming out a second time. I thought that if the world could change so much in those 17 years, then surely my mother could, too. I thought if she could see what my life was like, the other half that we don't speak about, then maybe it wouldn't be so alien. Maybe we could actually have a real conversation about something meaningful. Maybe she could see me, all of me, and have the opportunity this time to accept me.
For weeks I waited for a response, but she didn't say anything.
"So I got your book," she says, finally, during one of our Sunday conversations.
"Isn't it cool?" I ask, happy that she finally brought it up. I hold my breath, nervous about how she's going to answer.
"Yes and no," she says. I can hear the miles between us. The pastures and farmland. The highways and dirt roads. The cities and skyscrapers. "You're an adult, and you can live your life any way you want, but I don't want to know about it."
"But I want to be able to share who I am with my family," I say, feeling as if I've been punched.
"I've got enough stress right now," she responds. "I just want things to keep going the way they are."
So that was that. I don't hold her narrow-minded ideals against her. I don't know how hard it must be for a parent in a small, rural Texas town to raise a gay son. What disappoints me is that her attachment to these ideals is more important to her than having a meaningful relationship with her only child.
This time, when we end our conversation, she says, "I'll call you Tuesday... I love you."
I say, "I love you, too," because even if she can't accept my sexuality, I can at least accept her limitations and love her anyway.