When I was fifteen, my mom found my Playboys. Most mothers would’ve tossed them in the trash or left them hidden under the fake Christmas tree where I’d hidden them in the attic, but my mom lined them up and down the stairs, like a prosecutor might lay out 8x10s of a serial killer’s victims in court. All those pretty faces smiling up at me, each one taunting me with her breasts. Up until that moment, if you’d suggested there’d come a time when I’d want to burn my Playboys, I’d have punched you in the face. These weren’t just magazines, you see; they’d seen me masturbate. I don’t care if it’s crass. Ask any adult male, and he’ll tell you the first three years of self-gratification aren’t pretty. I’m not saying it gets better, but those first years of discovery are too violent and ferocious for human consumption. That’s why my Playboys were so special. They didn’t judge. They didn’t look away.
But my mom ruined that. She told me that touching my pecker was nothing to be ashamed of, even though she’d effectively loaded me with enough shame to fill every confession booth in Kansas City.
My mom said, “If you want to keep them, you can. But just know, that’s not what real women look like.”
I told her to throw them away, but a year later, when my mom asked me to go into her room to get her checkbook, I opened her dresser drawer. And there, buried beneath her socks and pantyhose, were my Playboys. She’d kept them.
People always ask if I knew my mom was gay, and the truth is, I didn’t, even after the Playboy incident. I’d just assumed she was planning on giving them back, but was too embarrassed to fork them over. Also, my mom didn’t…look gay. She wore lipstick and worked the cosmetics counter at Macy’s. She was always dyeing her long hair. She belonged to the P.T.A. and wore skirts. She baked cookies.
I’m not saying gay people don’t do those things; I’m just saying my mom wasn’t rebuilding a motorcycle engine in our driveway or sanding the deck or sitting an inch from the TV during a WNBA game. She was feminine. She drank wine coolers.
Sure, she’d been to every Mellissa Etheridge concert in Kansas City and bought a t-shirt from every show. She also lifted free weights for a while and went on trips to Bennet Springs, Missouri with a group of women for “art fairs.” And yes, whenever I brought home a girlfriend, my mom would gush about how pretty she was and sometimes casually massage the girl’s shoulders. But none of this made me think my mom was a lesbian. Not just because she was feminine and she was my mom and she’d been married to my dad for twenty-five years, but because we lived in a house with paper-thin walls, meaning I heard my parents having a lot of sex.