I didn’t say, as they told me how they owned a boat and spent much of their summer cruising Maine’s coastline, that my mother’s biggest dream was to get out of West Virginia, that her biggest love was the ocean, that she hoped to die listening to the sounds of the waves.

By Jonathan Corcoran

The following is an excerpt from No Son of Mine: A Memoir by Jonathan Corcoran released by University Press of Kentucky. 

Where do I start? Perhaps, here, on my twentieth birthday, the day that everything changed.

It was October of 2004. It was the long Columbus Day weekend, and we had Monday off at school. I had traveled with Sam from our college campus in Rhode Island to his hometown of Portland, Maine. We had been dating on and off for six months. We were staying at his childhood home, and I had met his parents. I had never been so far north. The whole trip felt momentous.

Everything felt new then. There was the gilded campus of Brown University, the obscene wealth of my Ivy League classmates, the rugged New England coastline. Every experience was an education. Every day seemed to open my eyes to a world of possibility. It wasn’t that I had been entirely sheltered, but my home in West Virginia seemed such a small, protected place. I had spent a lifetime looking up at the peaks of the mountains, wondering what was on the other side. And there I was—crossing over into the unknown.

That trip was the first time that I would notice how different the skies were in Maine. The blue seemed bluer, deeper. It was like a postcard version of how a sky should look—strands of pale white light breaking across the ocean, that pale light against the washed-out clapboard of the sleepy houses. There was a dimness to Maine. It wasn’t bleak or dark. The light seemed to tilt and gesture; little golden halos of light would appear and draw your attention to a window or a metal street sign. You’d catch the dawning sun reflecting off the glass door of a café, and the people coming in and out seemed almost enchanted.

And maybe on my first visit to Portland Sam too was feeling that nostalgia—he drove me in his car and pointed out his old high school, the restaurants he’d frequented, the beaches and woods where the kids went to drink beers in the summer. There was the famous lighthouse, and there the famous diner where lobstermen still gathered at four in the morning before the tourists came in. A picture of a boy emerged: I was learning about him and also about his world, so different from mine. And he was beginning to learn about me.

Portland is not particularly large, I now realize, but then I didn’t have much with which to compare it. The population was some ten times that of my old hometown, but I could see the real expansiveness in the geography. In Portland, the ocean stretched out free and open from every odd vantage point; my town in West Virginia sat plumb in a tight valley, with the Allegheny Mountains rising up high on all sides. The sun set yellow to a sudden black in West Virginia. If we were cradled by the mountains, the Mainers seemed beckoned by the sea. I could see this difference between Sam and me.

His parents took me to a nice but casual dinner, and over conversation, I discovered they were ex-hippies of sorts. His father had attended Woodstock and the two of them had fled Brooklyn in the 1970s for the bucolic nature of Portland and Maine. Sam’s father found success as a contractor, and his mother taught art and spent her days making wire and wooden sculptures of fish and birds. They spoke in a loud and lively Jewish Brooklynese. They were versed in books and culture. They displayed interesting art on the walls of their home. They had traveled extensively across the United States and internationally. They had a particular fondness for national parks, and in between the interesting art, there were framed photos of Sam and his sister in front of mountains, in fields, against the backdrop of the wild Alaskan coast.

Pause for a moment and let me help you feel the whiplash I was experiencing. I had spent the bulk of my life in a small town in West Virginia, grown up in a church of evangelical holy rollers, kept a big, big secret out of fear for my safety and well-being. See my wide-open eyes, then, as I take in Maine and Sam’s family, watch me fiddle with my posture, control any vestiges of an Appalachian accent gone long into hibernation. Here is what I keep thinking but could not say aloud to Sam or anyone: They’d welcomed me, a young man dating their son, into their home. I’d been shell-shocked when they’d placed us in the attic suite of their old Victorian home, when I walked into the bathroom, and over the toilet was a crudely printed sign that looked like it had been typed up just for our arrival: “Don’t flush condoms down the toilet.”

(Sam will later clarify—the sign said “condoms or tampons.”)

They asked questions, and I told them some of my story but edited out certain details. Small town, small house, blue collar, simple life. The unredacted version was that my father was a construction worker with a cheating and gambling problem, and my mother, who cleaned houses for a living, was so distraught and hopeless that she was beginning to develop a gambling problem of her own. My parents were in an unhappy and unhealthy marriage and in tens of thousands of dollars of credit card debt. My mother had resorted to a reverse mortgage to try to consolidate some of her bills. She believed that all this suffering was a test from God.

I did not tell Sam’s parents that neither of my parents had attended college. I didn’t tell them that to this day I still can’t find a document or an alumni list indicating that my mother actually graduated high school, that I had stopped trusting what she stated as fact. I didn’t mention that we had rarely left our town, let alone the state, that we had gone on a grand total of three vacations during my childhood, all three to the beaches of Virginia and North Carolina. I didn’t say, as they told me how they owned a boat and spent much of their summer cruising Maine’s coastline, that my mother’s biggest dream was to get out of West Virginia, that her biggest love was the ocean, that she hoped to die listening to the sounds of the waves.

And it was often like that in my new milieu at college, with friends and their parents and our professors. I would spend much of my time disarming, making folks comfortable. Those friends and parents and professors would refer to my quaint house and my parents’ quaint lives and our quaint existence and oh wow! They must be so proud. It was no one’s fault, really, but I understood that the truth of my upbringing and the truth of my family back home was simply too much for most to digest.

It may have been during that weekend that Sam told me about how his parents found out that he was gay. He was in high school, and they’d found a link to a gay porn site on their family computer’s browser history, a link that Sam had forgotten to erase. His mother had cried, he said, but not because she didn’t approve. She worried about how the world would treat him. After a long, tearful talk, she and his father both reiterated that Sam was and always would be their son.

On the night of my birthday, Sam’s parents had gone to bed upstairs and left us to our own devices downstairs. It was a big, old Victorian house with wide-planked wooden floors that had been painted blue and white in a diamond pattern. The floors creaked just a little when you walked across them. There was a kitchen with an antique stove and big front porch and a little stoop on the side. It was a cozy home, despite its size, that had clearly been full of love and many wonderful memories. We’d rented a DVD—some horror movie, if I remember correctly—and Sam had opened a bottle of wine to celebrate.

As we sat down on the couch in the den with our glass of wine and a blanket pulled over our laps, I was some combination of giddy and anxious. There was the sheer roundness of it—turning twenty, saying good-bye to your teenage years. There was the overwhelming newness—Sam’s accepting parents, seeing how others could create a life and a family in such a different way than I’d known. And there was also the physicality of Sam himself, the warmth of his legs snug against mine on the couch, and the harder to define physicality of taking such a trip together, the pulse-attenuating quality of wondering if we would last, if he thought I was long-term relationship material.

I was waiting for her call.

That October trip was during my second year at college. For much of my time at college, I’d called her nearly daily. I would tell her about the friends I’d met, about the classes I’d taken, about how different everything was. I told her when I was overwhelmed, and I listened for signs that she was going to be okay without me, alone with my father. I missed her. I felt guilty for leaving her behind when I was entering this new phase of my life.

She didn’t always say much, but she’d tell me that she was so proud of me, and her voice would crack, and she said she wished I’d gone to the state university, that I’d stayed closer to home. At home, the creek in the backyard still flowed—I could hear it when she took the cordless phone to the wooden back porch with the tin roof that thundered when it rained, where I could always see her perfectly, chatting with me while she looked out across the gurgling creek into our little slice of woods, up at the birds and the squirrels, at the occasional deer and black bear. Not much had changed since I’d gone. My father still went out on the town on a Friday night, she said, and my sisters—well, they were getting by just fine. If I didn’t call her at least every few days, she’d call me to make sure everything was okay. She told me, “When I left you in Providence that summer day, I saw your face in the dorm window, and you looked so sad and lonely.” She said, “I didn’t want to leave you.”

I’d told her that I was going with “my friend Sam” to Maine. She’d actually met him. I’d been living back at home during my first summer break. Sam and I had only met during the spring semester, but I’d fallen hard for him. He’d taken a summer research position far away, doing community health research at a tribe in Oklahoma (I got a job at my hometown newspaper). During that summer, I called him nearly every evening, scared that he’d find someone new and move on. But as the season drew to a close and his position ended, we were still together. He caught a flight to Pittsburgh, the nearest airport to my hometown but still a three-hour drive, and I’d dragged him into the heart of West Virginia and showed him off to my family as my good friend from college. She’d said then that he was a nice young man.

And how do you describe the kind of knowing that travels across hundreds of miles? The buzz in your gut that says something isn’t right? I’m not spiritual enough to say that we were connected across state lines. But as Sam and I popped in the DVD and the evening turned to night, I knew she should have called. I had been waiting all day. It wasn’t just my birthday, but my twentieth birthday. I kept going over the number, the symbolism. I thought for a moment maybe she was sad that I’d grown up, that I was no longer in any sense a child. She’d had a history of untreated depression. I was the youngest, her last. Fourteen years separated me and my oldest sister. When I did the math I realized that she’d been raising children and had at least one child under her roof for thirty-two years straight.

It was my birthday, and there was no question that I had inherited her stubbornness. I couldn’t bring myself to call her. I waited and waited, and I said nothing to Sam, because here I was a guest in his lovely family’s home. How could I complain? This kind of thinking would be the beginning of a pattern—the best and happiest moments of my life punctuated by my mother’s cruel words, her curses both literal and figurative, her absence or, worse yet, her presence (even now, after her death, she hovers). My life would become a constant tug between hurting and marching forward.

And so I don’t remember the movie we began to watch. I remember how dim the lights were in the house. I remember those blue and white painted floors (with the kids moved out, the house would be sold not too long after our visit). I remember that it was cold in Maine in October and that night came earlier than I expected. We couldn’t have been more than a few scenes into the movie when my cell phone rang.

“I should take this,” I said.

I grabbed my wine and snuck out the side door to where there was a small staircase down to the driveway, right next to the two-story garage where Sam had played poker and pool and sometimes smoked joints with his friends in the upstairs room. I answered the phone and began to pace the driveway.

“Mom!” I said. “I’m in Maine.”

And then that buzz in my gut stopped buzzing, became weighted, sank me down. The giveaway was her breathing, the heavy static of the in and out.

“Mom?” I said.

And I could see her—in her favorite spot in the kitchen, at the table, smoking a cigarette in the dark. There would be an ashtray full of half-stubbed-out cigarette butts. It wasn’t yet midnight. It was a Sunday evening. My father had gone to bed or was out at the bars. She didn’t want him to hear this conversation.

“Mom?” I said.

I think I’d known it was coming. I’d known, somewhere deep inside, that she had to have understood. Somehow, some way. I’d known, and I was surprised that it hadn’t happened earlier.

She broke the silence. “You’re in Maine?” She sounded like a wolf.

“Yes,” I said.

“With Sam . . .”

“Yes,” I said.

“Your boyfriend Sam?”

Writing this now, my body still tenses up. With her words—this acknowledgment of a thing that had been hidden for twenty years—there was a great cracking. Everything I’d known that would one day happen was happening. I had tried to tell my friends in college that coming out was not an option. I had tried to explain to them how she would react, what would happen to me after. My friends would listen with kindness, but they could never seem to hide their incredulousness. Would she really do that?

I cannot remember the day or really even the weeks after that phone call, but I can feel that night—my body still knows that moment. I sit here typing and I feel both a great weight and then a great letting loose. If I close my eyes, I can picture the Maine night sky hovering over Sam’s garage; I don’t know why the detail matters, but I want to say the stars had to be out, that there were wisps of translucent clouds cutting across a waning crescent moon. I can feel the cold air on my skin. It was so much colder in Maine than in Rhode Island. And I can hear her still over the phone, her exact intonation.

She heaved and she growled. “Are you, are you,” she said, stopping just short of the truth of it.

And if you want to picture it you should imagine this: The heart of a boy as he faces turning into a man. You should picture the moment his skin grew taut and how his eyes flew open. You should picture his posture as he stands in defiance in a strange driveway, in a strange town, and see how he stiffens and angles as if to battle. Feel him holding his breath, preparing to say something he has never uttered to anyone of his blood.

And then you can hear her snap:

“Are you gay?”

And the way I remember it is as if everything lifted all at once. The weight lifted from my shoulders, and a shell that had been protecting my fragile insides broke off and flew up into those stars. And the tears I cried came with words.

“So what if I am?” I said. “So what if I’m gay?”

And then we listened to each other’s breathing for but one more moment, and then her breathing stopped, and then she said what she had to say.

“You are no longer my son.”

And the phone clicked off, and I slumped into the pavement of that driveway, and I remember the cold Maine air, and I remember Sam running out the door and picking me up off the ground, and I remember crying and crying and crying after all those years of hiding. And I remember, for the first time that I had the thought: “I’m alone now,” and I was not sure if that was a good or a bad thing, but a part of me also knew this other truth: that I was free.

Jonathan Corcoran is the author of The Rope Swing: Stories, which was long-listed for the Story Prize and a Lambda Literary Awards finalist. His essays and stories have been anthologized in Eyes Glowing at the Edge of the Woods: Fiction and Poetry from West Virginia and Best Gay Stories. Corcoran teaches writing at New York University and resides in Brooklyn, New York.