Image: “Emerging from Entanglement,” by Perrin Duncan, acrylic on board, 8x8in., 2019
What Does a Nine Year-Old Know?
By Carley Gomez
“I’m a lesbian,” Tim’s nine-year-old daughter Sammy told him. She had a ponytail and a loose tooth that she flicked over her lip with her tongue as they stood in the aquarium in front of a tank of seahorses. Two floated in the blue-green reeds, tails loosely tangled, dorsal fins unmoving—so still, the water could have been resin.
He couldn’t move, he realized. He was like those seahorses. There was no forward, no backward. And the air he was trying to suck down was thicker than water.
“Daddy, what are you doing with your mouth?” Sammy asked, staring at him.
An awareness of his lips came back to him. “I’m pretending to breathe like a fish.”
“Don’t do that. It’s weird,” she said.
She walked off to a stick fish tank a few feet over, and his breathing became easier when he realized she wasn’t expecting a response. He was relieved. He couldn’t really think of what to say during the class trip he was currently chaperoning.
Throughout the rest of the afternoon, he found himself distracted. In the jellyfish exhibit, the lights dim and purple, tentacles swirling like spongy rope in seven-foot-high tanks, he thought of his gay brother who had committed suicide just before going off to college. Steve, with his obsession with geodes. Steve, with his mohawk and then buzzcut and then long ponytail. Steve, who hummed even during the hymns he didn’t know in church. Steve, always offering to help Tim with his math homework and then purposely giving him the wrong answers because he thought it was a hilarious joke. Steve, who told Tim that college would be freedom, college was the way out of a tiny, nosy farming town where neighbors three miles away knew the shape of your shit. Steve, who promised Tim that everything in life was more interesting when you started looking outside your own problems. Steve, who killed himself a week before moving away.
When Tim and Sammy, and the several other students in his group, got to the poison dart frogs, he thought about the certainty he had heard in his daughter’s voice. The children pushed their faces up to the glass, fogging up their eyeline in hopes of seeing the toxic blue, and he thought about how difficult life became when you concretely discovered something about yourself.
When he was his daughter’s age, he never discovered anything good about himself. He discovered that he needed glasses and that grass wasn’t supposed to look like green, cottony fuzz. When Jimmy punched him in the stomach for taking the last milk carton and he didn’t fight back, Tim realized he was a coward. His mom claimed he didn’t fight back because fighting was beneath him. But Tim knew that was bullshit; he was scared of pain. One second of pain, and he’d dropped the milk into the boy’s other hand.
Sammy stepped back from the glass and looked back at Tim, who stared intently at a lizard that was not poisonous.
“Find it?” he asked.
She nodded. “If you eat something that has already eaten something else that’s poisonous, do you get poisoned too?”
He swallowed. Already at age nine, she was asking so many questions to which he didn’t know the answer. “That’s a great question for your science teacher.”
While Sammy got ready for bed that night in their two-bedroom apartment, Tim called his older sister, Alice. She had three kids, all teenagers, so he was hopeful that she would know how to handle Sammy’s abrupt proclamation.
When she answered, he wasn’t sure what to ask. Was a nine-year-old declaring her sexuality normal? Should he be thinking about finding children’s chapter books with lesbian characters? Could a nine-year-old really know their sexuality?
In the impatient silence, Tim finally said that Sammy told him she was a lesbian.
“Is she sure?” Alice asked. Muffled yelling sounded over the telephone. He ignored the momentary distraction of Alice’s sons.
“Can she be? I don’t know. I didn’t think asking that would go over well.”
“Hmm. You may be right. You don’t want to raise a self-doubting daughter. But I’m not sure that a nine-year-old’s sexuality is fully formed,” she said.
He blew out a sigh. This conversation was going nowhere. He wished he still had a wife to call, but Amber’s partial custody included only Christmas and Easter, as did her interest.
“When did Steve know?” he asked; the name sounded strange to his own ears. As if he’d been repeating it again and again all afternoon.
Tim could see Alice’s face in his mind. Her deep-set brown eyes and square mouth as unexpressive, as flat, as her iron-even hair. He waited to see if she would answer, knowing there was nothing he could do to change her mind.
Finally, she spoke. “I have no idea.”
“None?” he asked, the end of the conversation in sight.
“There was a boy, though. A boy right before middle school that Steve spent all his time with.”
“Oh?” Tim tried to think back, but he couldn’t remember some nameless, faceless boy. He would’ve been four at the time, anyway.
“But that could’ve just been a friend,” she said.
Tim listened for the faucet at the end of the hall. The apartment was quiet. Sammy must’ve finished brushing her teeth.
“You could just ask her how she knows. That way, it seems supportive, and you can figure out if this is just a phase,” Alice said.
He needed to hang up the phone and read to Sammy before bed. He needed to stop thinking about his brother. This was completely different. Sammy was social and kind. Sammy was smart and inquisitive. An image of Steve popped into Tim’s head: Steve hammering rocks of all sorts until the hammer broke, just to figure out what was inside.
“Sure. That’s a good idea,” he said before hanging up the phone.
Tim didn’t know that Steve was gay until long after he died. For years, their parents spoke of Steve’s depression when Tim brought up his brother. Steve’s room became a quiet place of remembrance—not only of Steve but to remind them that depression looked like posters on the wall, and school books with broken spines and earmarked pages, and yearbooks signed with inside jokes. Depression looked happy, even when it wasn’t.
The mention of Steve reminded his mom to donate to suicide prevention lines. His name reminded their father of important long-distance phone calls he had to make at the moment. He could not stay in a room where there were tears. One of Tim’s only memories of his brother’s funeral was looking to the back of the room and seeing his father draped in sunlight against the window on his way out the door, his face blank—a look Alice learned from him.
His father died with the same look on his face. Cancer tore down his body—made him lean and knobby. But when he died, his eyes were the clear blue windows they’d been the moment before.
Three months later, Tim had helped his mother clean out their closet so she didn’t have to face her husband’s things alone. In stacks of shoeboxes, he found loose change and candy, stamps and opened, empty envelopes, and a ripped sheet of paper. It was incomplete, it was a fragment, and in Steve’s handwriting, it read: ‘I love him. Not even death can change me, but it’s the only option left. Forgive me.’
Tim’s feet went numb, and he took the note to his grieving mother. She sat at the kitchen table, wearing black. There was an open shoebox in front of her, but she stared out the window.
“Was Steve gay?” he asked.
Her eyes shut for a second, the skin around them shriveling. She did not answer, but he could see the truth in her eyes when she opened them.
“Were you ashamed of him?” he asked, pointing the note at her as if it were a weapon.
She glanced at the note and then out the window again.
“Were you ashamed?” he shouted this time, and she flinched.
“Tim.” She looked at the table.
“Tim.” She looked at the shoebox.
“I didn’t even know. My brother—” His voice cracked, and he let the note slide to the table.
“I need to… to go make a phone call,” his mother said. She stood and left the room.
At breakfast, Sammy chewed her eggs and ketchup loudly across the table. He couldn’t tell if the sound was amplified because she had a loose tooth and was maneuvering the eggs around it, or if it was because his heart hammered in time with her bites. He wanted to shout, “Slow down!” but he wasn’t sure who he’d say it to.
Every morning, he asked her something about her day. He knew that good fathers put down their newspaper and showed an interest in their kid. He knew that a good parent asked questions rather than talking about themselves. Amber liked to make lists in the morning. She liked to tell her daughter how busy she was. He’d watched Sammy grow bored as her mother talked about research and appointments.
But today, Tim wanted white noise like lists. Sammy stared at him, and he knew he needed to say something, because breakfast time was running out. Then she would be brushing her teeth and he would be walking her to the bus stop and then he would be at work, unable to ask her anything. He took a deep breath.
“How did you figure out that you’re a lesbian?” No doubt there that would diminish her confidence. Open-ended enough that she would be able to answer anyway she chose. It seemed like a reasonable question.
Sammy swallowed. “Because I’m in love.”
Again, his feet were stuck to the ground, and there was no space in which to move forward or backward. He was in a tube, in resin. He couldn’t move or breathe. His daughter, his nine-year-old daughter, said she was in love. Shouldn’t that come later? Didn’t hormones or puberty come first?
She cocked her head at him and smeared her eggs with more ketchup. “Daddy?”
The space around him came rushing back, and his skin was hot, as if he’d been wind-burned. “I see. You don’t want to be late.”
“Especially not for Mrs. Niles,” she said, nodding solemnly, her cheeks shiny with tomato-orange.
Tim’s fork fell out of his hand and onto the plate. “Because she’s the one you love?”
Sammy laughed and took her plate to the kitchen counter. “No way. Because she’s so strict.”
He tried to think of another thing to say, but she was already down the hall.
Tim had his first panic attack when he was fourteen years old. His friend Jerry wanted to go fishing in the fall. Tim thought it sounded boring, but his father insisted he go. He said that Tim was starting to look pale and thin. “You need to get outdoors.”
Steve had fished. Steve had done everything. Would try anything at least once on a dare. His friends loved him for it, and so did their dad. Drank a full bottle of ketchup and vomited red. Rode down the rock-filled hill at the end of the neighborhood inside a suitcase. He got a laugh and a belting for his pains.
He went fishing in the summer with a red-line of a nose—not willing to return without a catch. Went ice fishing until his toenails turned purple. None of it sounded like fun to Tim.
When Tim finally gave in to his father’s admonishment, he and Jerry sat on the lake for hours, the clouds moving as slow as the sun. The shade and wet air gave Tim a chill within the first hour that never went away. And there was nothing to look at but the water rippling in the same pattern and trees that looked the same on every bank.
Tim’s fingers numbed after a while. He wedged his pole between his knees so the pole wouldn’t disappear with a fish. But it wasn’t worth worrying about, because nothing bit. By late afternoon, Tim hadn’t caught a thing, but Jerry had caught two.
One each was good enough for Jerry, so they took them to shore and started a fire. Tim sat with his hands up in surrender a foot from the flames. As Tim’s thumbpads tingled from the warmth, Jerry brought out a filet knife. The knife slide into the fish, and suddenly, Steve popped into his mind—Steve with a knife on the fleshy part of his wrist; Steve as pale as he was in the casket.
Tim couldn’t move. The air pressed in on him; his feet were leaden. Oxygen was down his throat but not his lungs. Dark spots floated in the blood of the fish, and he passed out. When he woke, the fish and knife were out of sight. But Tim couldn’t understand what had happened. Steve hadn’t committed suicide with a knife.
“She says she’s in love,” Tim told his sister over the phone on his lunch break.
“In love. With who?” Alice asked.
Loud music suddenly poured through the phone. “Is now a bad time?”
“Sorry. Danny, turn the music down!”
Tim glanced past his pastrami sandwich to the clock on his desk. “Shouldn’t Danny be in school?”
“He’s sick. Or at least, that’s what the thermometer tells us,” she said.
Tim thought back to some childhood tricks Steve had taught him to do with a thermometer and smiled. “Hopefully he’ll feel better soon.”
“Yeah. Who’s she in love with?”
“She didn’t say.” His food tasted bland. He couldn’t tell if it was the conversation or if the bread was plain. He wished he’d gotten extra mustard.
“I guess it doesn’t matter. She’s only nine. She won’t be walking down the aisle with this girl.”
Maybe he was naive, but he thought it probably did matter who his daughter thought she was in love with. What if she was mean? What if she was snobby? “Yeah. You’re probably right.”
“You’re worried, aren’t you?” Alice asked.
Tim tried to chew, but the food tasted gummy and wrong. He forced himself to swallow.
“It’s not like back then. People won’t give her a hard time the same way,” she said quietly.
Tim thought back to what he could remember of Steve’s high school years. Had people noticed? Had they given him a hard time? He remembered Steve taking a girl to prom. He remembered him riding a bike around the neighborhood with a group of boys everyone seemed to think were popular enough. “Did people make fun of him? Did they know?”
“I don’t know,” Alice said.
Tim covered the phone and sighed. He’d only been seven when his brother went to high school, but the idea of not knowing what other people could plainly see formed a knot in his stomach.
“But I assumed someone did,” she said.
Bread stuck in the swells of his cheeks. “Why?”
“Well, because he disappeared for a few weeks before he died.”
Tim could feel his pulse in his hands. He didn’t remember that. He didn’t remember his brother ever being gone for more than a couple nights camping. “What are you talking about?”
“You don’t remember?”
“No,” he said. He wanted to believe she might’ve been the one to have a lapse in memory, but she’d been older. She would remember.
“He was gone for six weeks right after graduation. Mom and Dad wouldn’t say anything about it. Just that they knew where he was and that he was fine.”
“I guess he wasn’t, though,” she said.
Tim heard Danny call for her through the phone. She told Tim she had to go and would call again later. He nodded before remembering that they were on the phone.
He tried to picture where his brother could have gone. A friend’s place, maybe. They had no extended relatives to send him off to. Their father wouldn’t have sent him anywhere, anyway. He would have called it cowardly. He would have said blood was worth the fight. It was hard to imagine that Steve would run away, either. The boy who would face anything. The boy who rode his bike straight into a tree on a dare. His friends called him brave for it, but Tim knew better. A split chin probably wasn’t any more painful than a belt buckle.
Sammy and Tim sat on the ground, gluing pictures of seahorses to poster board after dinner. Each student had to do a presentation on an animal they had seen in the aquarium. Sammy picked seahorses because they were a mix of two animals.
“They’re fish, and they’re horses,” she said, pulling a blue-glitter glue stick from the pack.
“I don’t think that’s quite right, sweetheart. They just look like horses. They’re not part horse,” Tim said.
She shrugged and outlined a picture with blue and then drew waves along the bottom. “They look like it, though.”
“Leave room for the report. Remember, you have to write down facts about seahorses.”
“Okay,” she said, dropping the glue and the cap on the tile and pulling out a black sharpie. She paused when she pulled off the cap. “Mrs. Williams wanted me to tell you thanks for chaperoning. She said you did a very good job.”
“That’s nice of her.”
“She said one of the other parents let Nicky eat a peanut and her face swelled up like a balloon.”
“That’s not good,” Tim said, cutting out another picture.
“Nope.” She wrote ‘Facts’ in big letters at the top of the poster. “I’d like to do something nice for her.”
“For Nicky? Because she’s sick?” he asked. His fingers slipped with the scissors, and a seahorse lost a head. Was this the girl?
“Daddy!” she yelled.
“Sorry. I’ll cut another.”
She nodded and went back to drawing an elaborate ‘one’ on the board. “Not Nicky. I don’t love Nicky. Valentine’s day is coming. I want to do something for Valentine’s day.”
He stared at his daughter. Her head bent over the board so her ponytail fell over her shoulder, and her eyes were narrowed in concentration. She had Steve’s eyes, he realized—the squint lines of determination running parallel to the striations of brown in her irises.
By the end of the week, Tim realized he needed to see his mother. He needed to know where his brother had gone before his death. Saturday afternoon, he left Sammy with Alice and the boys, then drove to his mother’s retirement community.
When she let him into the apartment, she told him it wasn’t Tuesday.
“I know,” he said and closed the door behind him.
“You always come help me buy groceries on Tuesday,” she said and brushed past him and the entryway table, picking at her pink sweater.
“I know, Mom,” he said and followed her to the small living room with a loveseat and two armchairs.
She sat down in one armchair, and he sat in the other. “And we have dinner with Sammy, Alice, and the boys every other Thursday.”
“I just needed to talk to you about something.”
“Is something wrong?” she asked and brushed her fingers over the flower embroidery on the armchair.
He bit down on the words that would put her at ease. “Where did Steve go?”
Her gray eyelashes fluttered, but she wouldn’t look up. “What do you mean?”
“Before he died. Where did he go?”
“Just vacation, dear. With some friends,” she said and stood quickly. Still, she would not look at him.
“You’re lying,” he said. The accusation made his stomach balloon; it made him feel like a child again.
“Tim,” she said and swayed where she stood, as if she couldn’t decide what to do.
“Just tell me, Mom. Please,” he said, motioning to the chair she’d just left.
She sat back down and slouched forward, her shoulders small. The sun from the window behind her shadowed her form. “We just had no idea. We didn’t know what to do.”
He sat quietly, waiting, watching his mother shrink into knotted limbs.
“Your father saw Steve… kissing another man in the back yard. We couldn’t allow that to continue. We couldn’t watch him lose opportunities to this mistake.”
This Steve was not one that Tim could picture. The boy in the back yard was splashing water at him in the kiddy pool. The boy in the back yard was growing and chucking baseballs against branches to see how many leaves would fall.
“Your father talked to the minister, and they found a place to help people like Steve,” she said.
“Help?” he asked, still picturing Steve in the back yard. Now he was grilling burgers, and Tim was handing him slices of cheese.
“To help men learn how to become straight again,” she whispered.
Her words clicked in his head. “Conversion therapy.” He wondered if Steve had tried to deny the kiss first. Or if he’d looked between the minister and his father, thought of the man he’d kissed, and wondered if he could learn how to say no. Had their father realized there wasn’t a belt big enough to stop them?
“Your father just wanted him to have a bright future. You know how the ministers were. You know how people were. They didn’t force him. It was a choice,” she pleaded.
The boy willing to try anything once might’ve tried this too, but choices didn’t exist in his father’s house. “He didn’t care about Steve’s future. He cared about what people would say. For Christ’s sake, I didn’t even know Steve was gay until after Dad died!”
There was wetness on his mother’s cheeks that he couldn’t stand. “You can’t hate a dead man.”
“I wouldn’t be so sure about that.”
When Tim turned eighteen, his father gave him a gun. He said that men needed to know how to defend themselves and their families. Tim nodded as his father spoke, staring absently at the metal in the box he held. He wanted to drop it in the trash, to cover it with the wrapping paper he’d torn off of it, to return it to his father. He didn’t dare do any of those things. Instead, he spread his lips and listened to himself tell his father how grateful he was, how right his father was.
He buried it in the closet of his first apartment. He wanted it to disappear, so he covered it in winter clothes he’d never wear, like long underwear and itchy scarves. And most nights, he forgot it was there. Until he heard an intruder one night after he graduated college.
There was a click at the door, the sound of wood splintering. Tim jolted upright in bed, his heart pounding, and he listened in the dense darkness. Scuffling sounded near the front of the apartment, and Tim padded quietly to his closet. It was terror; in a surprising reaction, he suddenly knew he would need a gun. He quickly cleared the clothes off the floor and pulled out the weapon.
The metal felt awkward in his palm, and his hands shook as he held it. But he stood by the bed facing the door and waited. Seconds passed, and blood pulsed in his throat and ears. Then the door creaked open, light from the living room pouring into the bedroom. A man holding a knife stepped inside the room.
Tim raised the gun, and the other man froze. “Don’t move,” Tim said.
“All right, all right,” the man said. He didn’t step forward, but he slowly raised his knife.
“I’ll shoot. I swear I’ll do it.” Tim’s voice was calm and even, but he was lying. Already, bile rose in his throat.
The man smiled, knowingly, as if he could see Tim’s fear. He took a step forward.
“Stop!” Tim yelled. He felt his finger on the trigger, and he suddenly realized how little movement it would take for him to shoot another man. How little effort there was in the ending of a life. He pictured his brother Steve’s pink-blue lips in the casket. Tim’s body became as cold as the metal in his fingers, and the man in front of him appeared fuzzy.
He felt the arm holding the gun grow weak and waver, and the other man ran forward. Tim tried to lift the gun again, but the man grabbed it, pulling it from him, and aimed it at Tim.
Tim looked at the barrel of the gun and imagined it pressed against his brother’s head. Before he could think about the way a bullet settled into a body, he felt a sharp pain in his head and passed out.
When he woke up, Tim touched the side of his head to find blood and realized the thief must’ve knocked him unconscious. His TV and his wallet were gone, along with some other electronics. The gun was gone too. He was relieved that the thief had taken the gun, not because he was a coward and couldn’t use it—although he was—but because all he could think of was the death of his brother. Which was strange, because his brother didn’t kill himself with a gun.
On the way to pick up Sammy from Alice’s house, he got a call on his cell phone from his mother. He didn’t want to answer but was afraid that she might be calling to share more about what happened to Steve. Reluctantly, he accepted the call.
“I couldn’t leave it like that. I just need you to try to understand. Things were different then,” she said.
Tim flexed his fingers over the steering wheel. “First you let me believe it was just depression.”
“He was depressed. That was never a lie. He suffered from depression,” she said.
He ignored her. “Then you let me believe it was because he was gay. That he couldn’t deal with living in this world and being gay.”
“It did make it hard for him,” she said, her voice angry static.
“He didn’t die because he loved someone. Or because he only knew how to love one type of person,” Tim said. His foot felt heavy on the gas. His fingers twitched on the steering wheel.
“He didn’t die because of your father, either!”
A red light appeared in front of Tim, and he slammed on the brakes. The car skidded and stopped in the crosswalk. His heart pounded, and he took a deep breath. “Maybe not, but it certainly didn’t help.”
“It was the way things were done, then.”
He sat for a moment, waiting for the light to turn green. “That’s not good enough.”
“Well, it’s the truth.”
He wanted to tell her that it was just the truth for their father. That other parents who cared less about discipline or about the way the world saw their kids might’ve defied convention. Some fathers pretended they’d seen nothing. Some fathers loved their children anyway. But nothing he said would make her feel any differently.
“I should go. I’m in Alice’s neighborhood. I might lose service in the hills,” he said.
“The minister told us stories. About boys who weren’t cured. The beatings and harassment they endured. Buddy Miller was fired for it. Lost his apartment. He was homeless when he died,” she said. The volume of her voice seemed to ebb as she spoke about a man Tim had never heard of before in his life. He couldn’t figure out who she was talking to anymore.
He turned a corner and passed the manicured lawns and townhouses lining the street to Alice’s cul-de-sac. His phone cut out, and he let it fall into a cup holder.
Tim and Alice sat on her porch, the screen door rattling occasionally as the wind blew. The shouts of her children and his daughter sounded from the yard, along with the crack of a ball against a bat or its thud on the ground. As they sat there, Tim told his sister what he’d found out from his mother. He told her that Steve had been sent to conversion therapy. He asked her if she knew.
“No, of course not,” she said.
“They shouldn’t have kept this from us,” he said.
“You’re right.” She stared down the street.
There was little movement in the cul-de-sac. Ribbons of clouds spread slowly across the sky. Sprinklers went off in the setting sun. Trucks were parked curbside, and small cars lined driveways. One reminded Tim of his father’s car in the early ‘80s—an old blue Chevrolet.
“Do you think that’s why he did it?” he asked.
She didn’t respond.
“Because of conversion therapy?” he pressed.
She sighed and finally faced him, her face as smooth as the clouds overhead. “Tim, I don’t think we’ll ever be able to know for sure why our brother killed himself. I don’t think we can ever really be that sure of anything.”
He turned away and looked out at the parked Chevrolet. He wanted an answer; he wanted to know why his brother died. He wanted to know who to blame.
Tim could make out the gray leather in the car across the street. He pictured his father’s car. The wood panels on the dashboard. The thin steering wheel. The shadows it made on the garage floor at night when the moon was bright through the windows.
That’s where his brother had killed himself. In his father’s car. Exhaust in a locked garage. But God only knew every single reason why.
When Sammy got in his car, Tim fiddled with the volume of the music. He rolled down the windows, and Sammy laughed as the wind whipped her ponytail in her face. She told him how she and Alice had baked cookies, then she’d played baseball with the boys outside.
“Who won?” he asked.
“My team,” she said smugly.
“That’s my girl,” Tim said.
“Danny says I’ve got a good arm,” she said.
“I bet you do.” Tim steered them through the neighborhood and turned on some music. Sammy hummed along.
“Valentine’s day is next week,” she said.
Metal seemed to fill his bones, but only up to his knees. He took a deep breath. “Yes, it is.”
“Will you help me make a Valentine for Ms. Libby?” she asked.
Tim glanced at Sammy from the corner of his eye, trying to place the name and watching his daughter push her loose tooth in and out of her gums. “The librarian?”
“She’s the one you love,” he said, picturing the young woman with a gap-toothed smile and freckles on her forehead.
“I’m gonna marry her someday,” Sammy said, gazing wistfully out the window. Her irises speckled and widened as clouds swept away from the sun. There was an unnerving openness in her smile, and he hoped to God it would hold.
“Well then, I definitely better help.”