There was so much distance in my mother's eyes that I feared she may never come close to me again. Circling her stare were wrinkles of pain, betrayal, even, and in her hand she held the watch.
It was December of my senior year of high school, and things had calmed down considerably since my having burst forth from the closet that fall, wearing go-go boots to school dances and openly flaunting my 20-something boyfriend. But these were all healthy choices, I told myself. If there was nothing wrong with being gay, then there should be nothing defiant about letting my family know about it. And my friends. And my teachers. And people at church. Never mind that we lived in Bossier City, La. Or that it was 1977.
But there was something about that look in my mother's eyes, in that moment. It took all my arrogance to protect myself from it, to seek refuge from the shocked stare, the battle in her face between heartbreak and fury. She was squeezing tightly to the silver watchband, and her hand shook imperceptibly.
The boyfriend had been my downfall, of course. He was both too old and too immature for me, and Mom knew it. She also knew that spending so much time with him that previous summer wasn't usual for a 16-year-old. So when she spotted a letter I'd written to him, she figured it would tell her what she wanted to know. She opened it.
It never occurred to me to place blame for that indiscretion. I was relieved when my parents found out, actually, and once that suspense was over, I could get on with the business of scandalizing my high school.
There were brief exchanges between us following my big gay reveal, tense moments crowded with frustration and unfocused love. "What's your problem with it?" I would ask, adorned with multiple puka-shell necklaces or sporting a man-made hickey without shame, "What's your problem with me being gay?" I possessed more self-righteousness than an HRC dinner.
She would sigh with resignation, hand leaning on the kitchen counter. "Mark, it's just that I know this won't be easy. It's your whole life, and this will just make it difficult." There were no scripture readings or ignorant signs of homophobia, just a mother's perfectly legitimate concern that her child's life might be tougher.
I didn't appreciate her enlightenment. I would reply with a teenage shrug, just before some eye rolling and a saunter out of the room that must have made her want to strangle my pretty little gay neck.
As Christmas approached that year, I made it known that there was a gift that would be just swell for a certain high school senior. Something sophisticated, to show his increased maturity.
But then, on my birthday two days before Christmas, I walked through the front door prancing like the Queen of Sheba -- meaning more prancing than usual -- and on my wrist was a glimmering gold watch, a shiny new gift from my boyfriend. It was not a quality timepiece, not that I knew it, and the gold was destined to fade faster than the relationship. But it looked quite fabulous as I strutted and posed like I had just discovered that I could vogue.
Mother didn't betray her emotions. She waited. And two days later, wearing a robe and a gold wrist, I opened a Christmas present from Mom and Dad that had been hidden behind the tree and saved for last.
It was a Timex, and it was beautiful. Silver.
There was more than the standard holiday tension as I slipped off my gold watch to try on the Timex. True to form, Mom kept her own counsel, but something told me that I wasn't simply being presented with an additional watch but with a choice. And I didn't want to make it.
All that year I had been trying on a confident young gay identity for size -- and that included a boyfriend who had given me what I wanted for Christmas. I valued him, and I valued his gift. But family emotions were fairly clear: His gift was a bit much. After all, Mom and Dad could have had the man arrested for taking up with their 16-year-old. Seeing him shower me with jewelry had to push the limits of their patience.
But such concerns were beyond a self-centered teen like me. I was convinced that flaunting his gift was about my newfound gay pride, and about respect for my sexuality and all sorts of other lofty, misdirected ideals.
Later that day, after the mountains of wrapping paper had been cleared, Mom and I sat near the tree. "So, this is a bit strange," she began, as casually as she could muster, "having two watches. What will you do?" She had never had to compete with another gift giver for my gratitude. Let alone someone outside the family. And a man.
"What do you mean by that?" I asked, knowing.
"Maybe you should talk to your friend, and..."
"And what, Mother?" I snapped back, propelled with a little too much righteous indignation. "Look, Mom, I have an idea." I slipped off the Timex and handed it to her. "I think you and Dad should return this. Silver isn't really my color. You should know that."
It is that moment that continues to replay in my mental catalogue of regret. I wanted to collect the words from the air and gobble them up, but of course it was too late.
Her face was blank at first, and then a stunned, hurt expression flashed across it that was as heartbreaking to me as it was utterly foreign. She looked like she was the target of some cruel joke. And then, suddenly, her vulnerability was abolished for her usual calm. Her face made the whole journey in an instant.
I moved to say something more but thought better of it. Instead, I reached for the watch in her hands and took it back, my face a silent promise never to give it up again. Mother withdrew without further words.
It was a milestone, a snap of the apron strings, a selfish or brave gesture of independence, depending on your point of view. I can consider whether it was an important step for a gay teen or simply the self-indulgent act of a child, but the debate doesn't interest me. My mind's eye only remembers her face.
Even now, more than 30 years later, I want to take it all back.