Practical Knowledge

When I’m on my way to meet Marco’s father for the first time, I can’t help but remember all the things I know about the guy. I know he flew into a rage when Marco was seven because he found him playing happily with his sister’s dolls. Afterwards, he discarded Marco’s own toys as a punishment. He boxed Marco’s ears at ten when a visiting relative made a comment about the boy’s limp-wristed handshake. When Marco was a teenager and got caught messing around with a lacrosse teammate, his dad tossed him right out of the house, his possessions strewn across the lawn for all the neighbors to see. Marco had to move in with a great aunt on the other side of town until he finished high school. His father wouldn’t go to his graduation or contribute a penny afterwards to his higher education or anything else. Marco’s mother and sister had to make appointments to see him, at the aunt’s or at certain restaurants, a shuffling around that made him feel like he was in the witness protection program.

When Marco tells me all this he insists it only made him stronger. It was the fuel that got him through college and medical school too. His father’s rejection was something he thought about during his all-night shifts as a resident and when he used to run marathons and when he’d go winter camping in sub-zero temperatures for a week. And when he says this, I say, “Wow” or “No kidding,” because it sounds so crazy and tragic to me and also because I’m not sure what else I’m supposed to say.

We’ve only been together five months.

Marco’s mother was a sweet and timid creature. That’s how Marco describes her to me at least, leaving out the words emotionally abused and complicit. She died several years ago after a brief illness. Marco’s sister, a marine biologist, fled for college and grad school in California long before the mother’s death, and then took a job at an aquarium in Hawaii. It seems to me that Marco’s dad suddenly started reaching out again by default—the consequence of his wife’s passing and his daughter’s abandonment.

I mean, who else did he have to talk to?

Marco is thirty-three and his father has never met any of his boyfriends before.

Anyway. The two of them have apparently been in contact for almost a year now. Marco phones his dad once a week and he visits the guy on major holidays. Marco says his dad likes it when he tells him about his sports medicine practice and the famous athletes he treats there. He says his dad listens closely when Marco explains Tommy John surgery; that he likes to hear about the harvesting of tendons and ulnar nerve transplants and the best rehab techniques available. I can only assume if Marco had gone into hair design, the estrangement would have lasted a little longer, but I don’t say this. Marco is too encouraged by this fragile detente to take him down that road.

Marco is thirty-three and his father has never met any of his boyfriends before. So this is a big night, an invitation for us to come to dinner, a chance for his dad to meet me. I assume the get-together has been brokered like a Middle East ceasefire. Marco and I meet at Penn Station and take a train to New Jersey, walk a couple blocks from the local station in the June twilight, to the childhood home Marco was bounced from at the age of sixteen. It is a leafy, suburban neighborhood. There is a smell of mown grass, gas grills, and the nearby train tracks. The maple trees stretch like dancers across the road making a canopy effect. The house is a small Cape Cod on a corner lot with a conspicuously healthy lawn and trimmed hedges, a garden hose perfectly coiled next to the flagstone walkway. A classic Pontiac convertible sits enduringly in the driveway.

Marco doesn’t seem too anxious as we climb the stairs of the front porch, which is perhaps his medical training at work, the same poker face he uses to deliver dismal news. His father comes to the door before Marco even rings the bell. He raises a hand in greeting, but it’s a wan gesture. He looks sulky and annoyed. There is an awkward hug between these two, as his dad looks at me over Marco’s shoulder with an expression of supreme resignation, as if he’s just realized he’ll be sitting in the middle coach seat for an entire transatlantic flight.

We cross into the home and Marco introduces us. Not wanting to get my ears boxed I make sure my handshake is strong and masculine, but what I really think I should do is lean in and kiss him on the cheek and see what happens next. He’s not quite what I expected. I guess I’m as prone to stereotypical thinking as anyone else. Given the ugly stories of the past and how he works as a construction foreman, I suppose I’ve pictured a big, bloated figure with no neck and a buzz cut.

But the guy standing in front of me is of average height and is rather slender, almost distinguished looking. With a sportscoat and loafers he could pass for one of the history professors from my PhD program. He tells us to follow him to the kitchen, motioning us down a long hallway, but before we get there Marco gets a call, some type of emergency at the clinic. He stands there on his phone, listening to the details and giving commands. I’ve heard this crisis management voice of his before—the brisk competence, the casual authority. It’s sexy as hell and has been known to get me hot, but I don’t share this fact with his father.

Marco’s dad and I walk to the kitchen together. I can smell some garlicy spaghetti sauce on the stove as we come through the door. The kitchen is clean, but outdated. There’s a preserved, almost shrink-wrapped feel to the whole room. Marco’s dad watches me warily and unlike the rest of him, the look I see in his eyes is exactly what I expect, a sort of gloomy resentment. Perhaps he is sizing me up, ranking my homo-quotient. I probably fall short of the acceptable range he has worked out in his head—not a screaming queen, but not one of the jocks Marco deals with at the clinic either. I can also tell he has no intention of making polite conversation with me, not until his son gets off the phone and comes in here. Not until it is absolutely necessary.

So. I swing my backpack off my shoulder. I can see he takes this in too, that the backpack’s existence perhaps signals me as someone too young for his son, still a student, unprofessional, negligible, maybe out for his money. I unzip the bag and pull out the wine I’ve brought to the dinner and the cookies for dessert. Marco told me not to bother with anything, but I figure he’ll be happy with my surprise. He’ll be pleased I’ve made an effort, considering we’ve been arguing about this evening ever since I first heard about it. I can’t forget the fact that apparently in no time during the past year has there been an apology from his father, no acknowledgment of the past, no whiff of regret.

When I discovered this and pressed Marco about it, he responded by saying, “Maybe that’s what this dinner will be all about.”

He’d said this with such heart-tugging optimism that it was only then that I realized it was Marco who must have arranged this whole evening, lobbied hard for it. The sneer on his father’s face, as we stand in the retro kitchen, is all the proof I need. I hand over the wine and the bag of cookies. It’s a solemn, wordless exchange, like a drug deal on a dark street.

Marco’s dad peeks into the bag and says, “Nuts in these?”

These are the first words he’s uttered to me since I’ve arrived.

“Excuse me?” I say.

“Nuts,” he says. “Did Marco tell you I can’t have nuts?”

I want to tell him that his dietary restrictions didn’t come up because we were too busy discussing his hateful alienation, the way he banished his son to the moon, but all I say is, “Nope, he didn’t.”

“Well, I can’t. So these have nuts or what?” he says, irritated now.

“They’re chocolate chip,” I answer. “No nuts.”

And so he reaches into the bag, grabs one and takes a bite.

The reaction is almost immediate, the sweating and the hives. Within a minute Marco’s dad has fallen to his knees and is clutching his chest, gasping for air. It’s not until Marco is aware of the commotion that he comes barreling through the kitchen door. He assesses everything instantly and then takes control of the situation. He finds the Epi-Pen in the downstairs bathroom, administers the shot. We grab his dad’s car keys and carry him to the Pontiac, racing to the ER a couple of miles away.

Within a minute Marco’s dad has fallen to his knees and is clutching his chest, gasping for air.

Professional courtesy allows Marco to go with his dad as the other doctors work on him, but he comes out to the waiting room periodically to ask me some questions and give me updates. His dad will be all right. He’s stabilized. I’ve been apologizing profusely since we loaded the man in the car. I apologize to the intake nurse too—when Marco and his dad are nowhere in sight. Marco comes out again and tells me they will keep his father overnight. They need to monitor him because sometimes there is a second anaphylaxis attack a few hours after the first.

I apologize some more.

“I swear, Marco, I didn’t realize those cookies had any nuts in them. He asked me. I said no. I didn’t even know he had an allergy. I thought it was a diverticulitis thing he was talking about.”

“Look, how could you know?” he says, squeezing my shoulder.

This is when Marco tells me people can have such severe nut allergies that if a particular product is prepared on the same equipment or in the same kitchen as a nut product it can trigger a reaction. This is apparently what has happened to Marco’s dad, though he’s never had an attack this severe or sudden before.

At this point, Marco could also remind me that he told me not to bring anything with me tonight, and if only I had listened to him, none of this would have happened. He chooses not to say that. I can tell he wants to forgive me, move on from the whole incident. Maybe this quiet largesse is something he’s learned in medical school too, along with masking his feelings and that chilly professionalism of his.

“And I’m sorry I froze,” I tell him now. “I just stood there.”

“That’s common. It was a shocking set of circumstances.”

“I thought I’d be better in a crisis.”

“People don’t know how they’ll react,” Marco says, ruffling my hair.

I don’t tell Marco that I’m actually quite good in a crisis. He doesn’t know that I once gave CPR to a stranger who collapsed in front of me outside of Grand Central, kept him breathing until the EMTs arrived; or how one summer I packed a coworker’s finger in ice and took it to the ER after it was cut off in a mishap at the bakery where we worked. And I certainly don’t tell him I’ve witnessed anaphylaxis before. My cousin had an allergic reaction to a bee sting when we were teenagers and I called 911 immediately, stretched him out, elevated his legs and calmed him down as we waited for the ambulance.

Marco would be surprised by my practical knowledge, how I knew what was happening with his dad as soon as it started, as his skin began to break out, as he began to perspire and gasp for breath. I wasn’t overwhelmed by the circumstances. I just didn’t do anything. I didn’t even call out for help, as his dad slid to the floor of the kitchen. This was the same kitchen where Marco told me he’d wept when confronted about the lacrosse player. His father had thrown plates and silverware at him that night and smashed a window too, while ordering his only son out of the house for good. That’s what I was thinking about before Marco finally charged in, as I watched his dad thrash around on the linoleum floor, as that expression of strangled fear on the man’s face was giving me a sure and blazing satisfaction.


Bill Gaythwaite is on the staff of the Committee on Asia and the Middle East at Columbia University. His short stories have appeared or will soon appear in Grist, Alligator Juniper, Superstition Review, The Summerset Review, Streetlight, Word Riot, and elsewhere. His short play, Assistance, was performed at Circle Rep in New York City, and he has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. His work can also be found in the anthologies Mudville Diaries: A Book of Baseball Memories, and Hashtag: Queer: LGBTQ + Creative Anthology, Vol. 1.

Photo by Tom Westburgh