Coming Out Of The Cupboard
IN HONOR OF NATIONAL COMING OUT DAY
OCT. 11, 2018 #ARGOTCOMINGOUT
Heading back home is always fraught. Coming out even more so. The sleepy suburban town where I grew up, caressed with redevelopment efforts and white families, would feel like a constant splinter in the side of who I wanted to be as I made my way from elementary to high school. Yet today is different. This homecoming is goal oriented, as today is the day I’ve decided to come out to my parents. It’s July 31st, 2009 and it’s Harry Potter’s birthday. It feels relevant that I’m coming out on a day when the boy wizard was fictionally born. There’s a virtual cheering section for me in my online LiveJournal world of fanfiction friends. Yet I have no precedent for how Iranians handle queer coming out, as this is not “something we do in our culture.” I can do this and somehow not be disowned, right?
Fiddling with my earphones as I ride on BART, shooting through the tunneled hills into the valley, I contemplate how I’ve gotten here. In the past 12 months, I changed my major, pierced my septum, and cut off all my hair after breaking up with my boyfriend of three years and eight months. I wish there was a way to keep both him and dating girls, but that’s not how our experimental break went. He decided that it was time for us to part ways and I didn’t want to let go of this last safety net, the vestiges of who I was and not step into this scary new world fragile and shaking.
This navigating bisexuality thing is tricky, sluicing through the queer community in San Francisco with what feels like a veneer of imitation. Because I’m bisexual, I’m deemed as flighty, mercurial, and inauthentic. I’m not oppressed enough to be queer. Lesbians don’t believe me when I state my orientation. I’ve had women tell me to my face they won’t date me when I tell them I’m bisexual and that I’m fresh off a break-up from my boyfriend. The straight people who knew me when I was with my boyfriend are confused by what seems like a sudden 180. But it’s always been there, this desire for everything and anything that I couldn’t seem to put into words until finally the crush on a mutual female friend was the catalyst to our relationship’s demise.
After my Maman picks me up from the train station, the smell of spices and cedar envelopes my senses as I walk over the threshold of my childhood home. The Hessam Abrishami abstract painting my parents were gifted for their wedding still hangs in the hallway and there is a Persian rug under the dining table, the legs of the table raised with cork coasters to prevent indentations in the threading. However, Maman sits me at the bar in our kitchen, serving hot plates of thick stew she’s labored for hours to produce. Baba, my father, scoops cucumber mint yogurt into a bowl.
“I’m going to play poker with the boys,” he tells me, the ritual Friday night poker game with my uncles and tangentially related by circumstance relatives always taking precedence over my mother and me.
I nod, feeling numb inside. I’m here because I want to tell my parents in person. Something that I couldn’t keep inside any longer as the year of transformation behind me brought me to a threshold of realization of who I am. “But I wanted to tell you and Maman something important,” I reply, fiddling with a dried edge of pita bread that’s probably left over from Baba’s breakfast.
“You can tell us tomorrow,” he says gently.
Deflated, I agree. Both my parents look into my face as I eat my khoresht sabzi, the thick green based stew accompanied by sabzi khordan, sweet fragrant herbs to break up the thick lamb and rice. There’s something I can’t decipher on their faces; anticipation? Fear? I know I’m scared that they can read on my face that I am bisexual.
I like girls more than boys now and have grown weary of lying to my mom every time she calls me practically every day, asking, interrogating my activities in San Francisco. Prop 8 has passed. I’ve canvassed the streets of San Francisco and have witnessed the hate on people’s faces out here in the valley as they support Obama over Hillary. I’ve stood outside in the pouring rain, while people have thrown slurs at me from the safety of their cars, as we protested against the Yes on 8 campaign. I’ve fallen into a clique of very drunk, very dramatic, and very young lesbians who all live, fuck, and love together. The subterfuge is tiresome - my septum ring flipped up every time I come home, hiding the undercuts in my hair with the long hair falling over and my nails trimmed short short short. I’m tired of waiting to tell them.
The big build up to my coming out moment has peaked and now, as I scoop up yogurt with the florally adorned spoons from my childhood, I don't know if I can recover the confidence I had built up on BART. As my Baba leaves, mustache combed and reeking of Aramis aftershave, I finish my dinner.
“Why don’t we go on a walk?” Maman recommends. “Near the creek by our house.”
I acquiesce, bring my dishes to the sink and leave them there as we embark down the road. As we round the bend of our backyard, there it is bubbling up in my throat.
“I want to go to grad school,” I tell my mom. This is news, because before I didn’t want to pursue anything other than nursing. However, discovering a new world of literature and a quiet pursuit of knowledge has fueled me in ways that I am only beginning to understand.
“What does that mean?” she asks. My mother doesn’t quite grasp the intricacies of academia, what’s the difference between a Bachelors of Fine Arts and a Bachelors, much less a Masters of the Arts. Frankly, I don’t learn the difference myself until I’m done and dusted with grad school.
“It means more school,” I reply. “Maybe even a Ph.D.”
This she understands - her eyes light up at the possibility of an elite daughter. If not a nurse, why not a professor? Her petite frame flanks my right side as we cross the street to the trailhead by the creek.
The water is low this season, a harbinger of the drought to befall California in later years, the mud and weeds thick on the banks. A runner in his trainers passes us as we start on the path.
“It’s something that I didn’t realize that I wanted and I know that it will ultimately be good for me,” I say, wringing my hands. Right there, I feel the news forcing to spill from my mouth, the way of my heart thinking that it’s better to keep things in the open, rather than a secret, right? After all, my parents are always asking me to be honest and telling me that they don’t really know who I am because I don’t let them in. It’s a mode of self-preservation, not knowing how much is safe to reveal and the slips of the tongue that will ultimately spell my demise.
My mother always says she wants to be my best friend, yet any time I’ve opened up to her, it’s never gone well. She can’t help but be the conservative Iranian women she is, a product of her upbringing and the compromises she’s made for survival. Yet before logic and reason, there’s a part of me that wants to let her in on this secret. The words threaten to bubble forth and I can’t wait until tomorrow, no matter how much I want both my parents to be there for this.
“And that’s I guess, part of what I want to tell you...I’m bisexual, it’s taken me a long time to realize that this is part of who I am and this past year has really clarified that for me.” I look into her face, my fingertips skimming on the hem of my shorts, the hot summer air blowing by both of us, my mother’s hair fluttering in the breeze.
She looks deep into my eyes and says “But it’s not okay.”
We keep walking. My stomach drops. My vision darkens. The temperature between us solidifies.
“How can you say that?” I reply, shaking. “How can you say that after everything I’ve just told you? How dare you!” I blow up, I see red. I rant at her on the trailhead. At that moment, my mother has become all the people who voted Yes on Proposition 8, my queer future decided by outside funds funneled into a political campaign that dampened the excitement over President Obama.
My mother’s face is blank, her eyes wide with something I cannot discern. Her hands are tight around her wallet and phone as her go-to defense mechanism, passivity is engaged and she refuses to further speak with me as someone reasonable to discourse with. All the pent-up emotion has crystallized into glass shards that I throw at her with force. There are people watching as they walk their dogs on the peaceful Saturday evening with the sun setting, it’s rays casting everything in a gold hue.
Looking back at this moment, I realize that I’ve committed the cardinal sin in Iranian culture. I let strangers see the messiness we hold inside our family. To the white neighbors, we are the bickering, volatile brown immigrants who can’t be trusted. Here I go again proving them right.
“I don’t need you. I will go to grad school, I will get my Masters, and there’s nothing that you can do about it,” I scream, tears falling down on my face. I turn away from the trailhead, running back down the street, away from my Maman. I knew I couldn’t trust her. My flip-flops clacking on the concrete sound muffled against my sobs and my arms wrap around me for comfort. Inadequately dressed for the oncoming evening chill, I find myself sitting in the parking lot to the garden supply store down the street. It’s been closed for hours already and there are no cars sitting between the white painted lines of the lot. There’s an emptiness in my abdomen where my stomach dropped what feels like hours earlier despite it being full of my parent’s cooking.
Somehow I remember my phone is in my pocket and flip it open to call Courtney, one of my oldest friends from elementary school. Sobbing into the receiver, I hear Courtney’s tentative “hello?” She’s rehearsing for her flute recital across town at her mom’s house but I need someone to take me away from this neighborhood. I can’t stay here, vulnerable and isolated.
“I told them.”
“Ooh no,” Courtney says, groaning. I just cry in response. “Oh no, oh no, okay, where are you?”
With astonishing clarity, I say “The Navelet’s down the street from my house.”
“Don’t go anywhere. I’m on my way.”
There’s no dial tone after we hang up. As I’m sitting there, visions of what my potential future could be race through my head. Any help with college tuition cut off. My cell phone line disconnected from the family plan. All my stuff tossed out of the house. Never hearing from my mom or dad again. Why did I come out? The stakes were too damn high.
Courtney’s burgundy Subaru station wagon finally comes peeling out from Contra Costa Boulevard. Her long blonde hair hangs over her shoulders and her blue eyes crease with concern as I walk shakily from the curb to her car. A fresh wave of tears crest over my face and leak from my eyes. The tenderness of coming to my rescue gets me overly sentimental.
As I slide into the car and buckle the seatbelt over my hips, Courtney begins to pepper me with questions. “What happened? Did they kick you out? Are you okay? What can I do?”
“I have no idea what happened, I just told my mom. She told me it wasn’t okay and I - just” I say, sobbing. “Lost it.”
“Lost it how?” Courtney asks, turning the car onto the freeway on-ramp to get to her house.
“Started yelling at her that she was wrong and that I don’t need her and a bunch of other stuff,” I mumble, ashamed. We’ve never had the best relationship. This isn’t the first time I’ve yelled at her in the heat of emotion but it may be the last.
I wonder what waits for me at the end of this car ride. “Did you tell your mom where you were going?” I ask, looking curiously at Courtney as her hands grip the steering wheel. Courtney is staying at her mom’s house while preparing for her big recital. Her grandma flew into California from Arizona for this event and - oh God, Courtney’s grandmother. Did she know? All of a sudden, more panic creeps around the corner of my senses and I feel like I’ve been shoved out of the cupboard to everyone I’m going to meet.
“Yeah, she knows, but don’t worry. It’ll be good to get away from your parents,” Courtney says, as we wind out of the freeway back onto suburban streets. We sweep through the town, parks, and trees passing by the car windows. I look out and see the town that I grew up under a cloud of disgust. It feels like every leaf has betrayed me personally and I hate all the botanicals for having the nerve of growing in a place that I unaffectionately call “Pleasant Hell.”
I know Courtney doesn’t have much time to spare on my personal drama due to preparing for her recital, but the love expressed by her coming to pick me up isn’t lost on me. She got me out of there. I find myself still wanting her to fix this situation with coming out to my parents but the decision was ultimately mine. Now it’s time for me to take care of myself, somehow.
As we come into the house, Courtney’s mom, April, is there waiting with a hug in the foyer. Courtney’s grandmother is sitting on the couch against the windows. There are sheets of music, annotated with pencil marks on the music stand. Courtney’s flute rests on its tripod, standing at attention, just waiting to be played again. I picture the flute growing arms like this was Fantasia and tapping the watch it must have on its magical wrist as if to say, Hurry Up. Practice and performance await.
“Do you want some tea?” April asks, her kind blue eyes searching my face. Her short hair is reminiscent of my Maman’s haircut and I wish this is how my mom had reacted to me telling her my big queer news. With a big hug and an offer of tea. Nothing would be more Persian. But as April pours boiling water over a chamomile tea bag, I’m devastated by the difference in what I want and what is the reality I’m currently embodying. She brings the mug to me and I sit in the wingback chair next to the sleek, shiny piano that is April’s. This is a family of classically trained musicians, disciplined and precise.
But I know Courtney’s family is far from perfect; no one’s family is the ideal we think of in our heads. My phone rings and I see that it’s my Baba. The news must have finally traveled, most likely in the form of my mother screaming at the phone, the words she couldn’t say in response to my angry barbs finally spilling forth. I abandon my tea on the side table and Courtney lets me into the backyard so I confront what is my verdict.
“Allo,” I say, Persian slang falling casually from my lips. It’s a game my Baba and I play, swapping overly familiar Persian pleasantries of tarouf until the other one gives up. He always wins.
“Where are you? Why did you just yell and leave your mother like that?” he asks furiously. We’re not playing any games right now. I wonder if he had to leave his precious poker game to calm my mom down.
“She said that it wasn’t okay! That I’m bisexual!” I retort. Suddenly, I feel fifteen again, not twenty, and arguing with my dad about how another fight went down between me and my mom.
“I don’t give a damn if you’re bisexual,” he says. And there it is. My verdict. “I care about your behavior and you respecting your mother.”
I sigh. In Persian culture, the worst thing you could possibly do is not respect your elders. In fact, when you serve tea, you are supposed to pour it in cups from eldest to youngest and it’s seen as a major insult if served out of order. As a child of two cultures, my American teenage rebellion of slamming doors and arguments was seen as incredibly uncouth by my Iranian parents. The fact that my lack of respect for elders is the issue seems so typical that I’m almost upset at myself for not anticipating this direction. Add in the public outburst on the trailhead, this is nearly more of an unforgivable incident than the bisexuality. As far as my dad is concerned.
“I’m at Courtney’s house now. I’ll talk to you later,” I say. There’s no point in continuing this conversation.
“Are you coming back tonight?”
I didn’t even think this would be an option. Coming back to my parent’s house? “I mean if you want me there.”
“Dena, as I said,” he replies, sounding exasperated and weary. “I don’t care if you’re bisexual, gay, straight, whatever. The fact of the matter is, you need to treat your mother better. This is unacceptable. We’ll talk more when you get home. Bye.” His tone is clipped and curt. Final. He always gets the last word.
The call disconnects. I head back into the living room where Courtney is playing one of the pieces she will be performing tomorrow at April’s church. She’s wearing the new heels she bought for the occasion and her grandmother looks at them questioningly from the couch. I don’t see why. The shoes quite modest, matte black leather with a kitten heel, and a slightly rounded toe. I’ve seen Courtney’s black and white dress that she’ll be wearing for the recital and it looks like they’ll match perfectly.
As soon as Courtney finishes playing, the last notes fade and she looks at her grandmother expectantly. “Well what do you think?” she inquires.
“How high is the stage you’re playing on? Those shoes are too tall!”
Courtney rolls her eyes. “It’s like where the pulpit is. Just a few raised steps. Barely anything above the pews.”
“You’re going to fall off the stage,” Courtney’s grandma warned. Her white hair halos her face and her eyes widen behind her glasses. I’m surprised, as Courtney’s grandma doesn’t seem to be the policing wardrobe type. But hey, what do I know? I’m the terrible Iranian daughter who yells at her mom.
Courtney laughs, putting one hand on her hip as she holds her flute in the other. “No, I’m not, that’s why I’m practicing while I’m wearing the shoes. Plus it’s like carpet not hardwood. That’s a rookie mistake.”
Clearly, Courtney’s grandma disagrees by the look on her face but drops it as Courtney puts her flute back up to her lips. She’s determined to do well at this performance, despite Grandma’s opinion and my personal dramas. By the end of the evening, my tea is drunk and the anxiety is only growing about what awaits me back at my parent’s house. I can’t stay here. This isn’t my family, as much as I wish that I had roots in this country that go back to World War II as Courtney does. But I’m the first sapling planted here in American soil and it’s up to me to determine which direction I grow.
By 10 pm, I’m ready to face my fate. Courtney’s mom and grandmother have gone to bed and I’m tired of running away. We get back into the burgundy Subaru and drive back across town. As my key notches into the deadbolt of the front door of my house, I take a deep breath. Once again, I walk across the threshold and the smells of spices and cedar welcome me. The house is dark except for the moonlight shining through the clear sliding glass door to the backyard. My Baba is sitting on the worn couch in the living room, under the dusty chandelier my mom hasn’t had the chance to clean yet. I assume she’s asleep in the other room.
“I’m tired,” he says. “Tired of this nonsense and how you treat us.”
Of course. Classic. This is all my fault. I rub my face, exhausted. I don’t need this. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have yelled. But honestly, she told me it wasn’t okay and how am I supposed to maintain a relationship with her when she can’t even tolerate me?”
He gestures with his hands to me. “Can’t you see that we’re trying to understand? She doesn’t have the capacity to handle this. You should have waited until I was there. She’s your mom,” he says, as if this is the final say in this matter. To him, her bearing me into this world makes me owe her my obedience.
Again, all my fault. “I’m tired too. Of trying to get her to understand me and then her getting mad when it’s not what she wants.”
We speak in low voices, about the past, my mental health issues spiraling throughout my adolescence, going away to college, and how hard the past year has been with breaking up with my high school boyfriend. How I still loved him but it wasn’t possible anymore. How learning that this state could grant the “privilege” of marriage then take it away only within months pushed me to this point. How I built Maman up into all those people who voted, funded, and campaigned against this community that I’ve always been a part of. I wanted them to know that they had a personal stake in this fight, that it wasn’t just some abstract news item. It was my life. And my friends’ lives, too.
“We’re in this country now. It’s something we have to accept,” he concludes.
I sidestep the circumstantial possibility that they don’t accept me. “Once again, I’m sorry for yelling at Maman.”
“It’s okay, khers a-kuchack,” Baba says, grinning, the old pet name for little wild bear resurfacing showing that we’ve made it over this hump. Now it can just be another chapter in my life as I move forward. With both of them. He squeezes me too hard before I go to brush my teeth and douse my eye area in hydrating cream. “Go drink a glass of water. It helps, promise.”
The next day, my Maman and I go to Courtney’s recital at April’s church. We pick out her celebratory floral bouquet together. All is forgiven but not forgotten. We tread carefully around each other. There’s a reception afterward that we’ll be attending and I feel a sense of relief I haven’t in weeks. As we sit next to each other in the pew, we watch Courtney perform her well-rehearsed music, dazzling our senses as her fingers float effortlessly over the pads of her flute. A pianist accompanies her and she’s stable on her feet, kitten heels performing as promised. There are a few classmates from our high school as well, mutual friends of Courtney’s who barely recognize me with my hair cut from afar.
Halfway through the performance, my ex-boyfriend shows up. I saw him on Facebook as a ‘maybe” RSVP but didn’t want to dwell on it further since I had the bigger issue of coming out to deal with. Of course, he showed up. Why wouldn’t he? Biting the bullet at intermission, I walk over to his pew and make small talk. We briefly hug.
“I’m glad I made it out here,” he comments. “There aren’t many flautists that are as good as Courtney.” He has a point: she’s potentially ranked in the top twenty in the state and at least top 100 in the country by our amateur estimates. “I even think I’ve seen that accompanist before. He’s super good.”
“Still doing the music thing?” I retort, jokingly, knowing full well that he would never give up playing percussion in five different bands over three counties while he was pursuing an engineering degree.
He chuckles, stroking his newly grown goatee. “You know it. How’s it going with your parents?” he asks, motioning over to the pew my mom is waiting expectantly in. He knows that I’ve had a tumultuous relationship with both of my parents. After all, we dated for over three years, practically a lifetime in high school and college.
I start chuckling myself. “You know, it’s actually okay.” I came out to them last night.”
He looks shocked, gazing back and forth between me and my mom. “Like seriously?”
“I mean, it’s not perfect, but we’re working on it.” And that’s all I say about it.
Looking at his watch, he says “I have to go right now - I just wanted to catch a bit of the recital, but did you want to grab coffee later? It sounds like we have a lot to catch up on.”
I agree and we make plans to meet at the Starbucks back on Contra Costa Boulevard, the one we would go to after chomping on grilled cheese sandwiches and burgers at Nation’s next door. Frothy milkshakes didn’t compare to his need for a hot chocolate fix and my love of the tart hibiscus lemonade Starbucks served. How American. As I head back to the pew, my mom asks for the full report. I laugh and tell her that I’m meeting him later, but just as friends. After all, I don’t want to get her hopes up.
Dena Rod is an Iranian American writer, editor, and poet. They're a graduate of San Francisco State University, where they received a Master’s Degree in English Literature. You can find more of their work in CCSF’s Forum Literary Magazine, Endangered Species, Enduring Values: An Anthology of San Francisco Area Writers and Artists of Color, and the upcoming anthology Iran Musings: Stories and Memories from the Iranian Diaspora (Release Date: 2019).