The screen door slammed behind him. Ray watched through the smudged glass as Gordon stomped across the back porch and the patchy yard. The grass they had spent so much of the spring planting and watering had yet to reveal itself. Gordon disappeared inside the rust-colored barn seated at the lip of the yard. Ray swore he could hear the door slam from the kitchen inside the house, if only for a split second.
He’d traversed the cliff edges of Gordon’s anger many times before, but seated from afar like this, Ray didn’t have time to suppress the laughter that bubbled up inside him. He’d always seen his husband as the more mature and sensible one, but from this far away it was like Ray had been given new insight. He saw Gordon acting like a child, a teenager disgruntled after having not gotten his way. He couldn’t help but laugh at Gordon and out of relief, all at once. His husband was not some strange new person he wouldn’t be able to stand.
Ray turned from the door and returned to the kitchen sink to finish washing the cutting board, mixing bowl, and dinner plates from the day before—what Gordon and his ridiculous suggestion had interrupted. Ray scalded his knuckles in the steaming water as he scrubbed, but he paid it no mind. He was thinking again, thinking and watching, his hands working idly as he stared out the kitchen window. He peered through the sill-seated magnolias that were stretching upwards, past the ends of green onions coming back to life in a cup of shallow water.
Past the plants and across the yard, Ray watched the barn for signs of movement and wondered how Gordon was occupying himself. Was he pacing and retracing his steps of thought? Was he preparing his next lines of argument, oiling them like links in a chain of logic, which he would soon tangle Ray up in? Ray smirked at the thought. He wouldn’t mind Gordon putting some chains on him, though not in this capacity. Ray wondered what project Gordon might choose to distract himself with. He thought of the slew of half-finished projects that Gordon believed were well-hidden enough so that he wouldn’t find them, packed beneath the staircase to the loft where they stored the foods Ray foraged and prepared for the coming winter. He ventured to guess—if Gordon was putting his hands to work—he’d start something new and forget about it. His passions often petered out before the project reached fruition. Ray admired Gordon’s perseverance, though.
Ray set out the dishes to dry on an unfolded beach towel draped over the linoleum counter. His mind returned to the catalyst of Gordon’s fuming departure, his stomping across the deck that shook the dahlias so in their troughs. It was a disagreement, simple as that, and one they could find a way through. The thought did not occur to Ray that they might not. The ten years they’d spent with each other had been a blissful ride. They had shared many quarrels, indeed, but nothing detrimental. Nothing that had driven them against each other, and yet, there was this, now.
Instead of a level head and an even tone, Gordon’s usual accompaniments through their past arguments, Ray’s husband was regressing back to a younger self, one less knowledgeable and guarded against the world around them. One more liable to use anger, voice-raising, and other weak-minded tactics to bend another to one’s will. Gordon had known for years that Ray refused to respond to this aggressive approach and had mitigated his behavior until he learned how to come to Ray in a way that facilitated communication. Ray had grown accustomed to Gordon arguing productively, so, it took him by surprise when Gordon sunk back to his younger self. Ray had not expected this glimpse of the past. He laughed it off out of love for Gordon and out of hope that things had not changed as he now feared they may have.
No, Ray brushed away his apprehension, his suspicions. This was Gordon. His Gordon, the loveliest man to waltz into his life. Gordon had learned and grown and become a better self for Ray, after all. He had left behind the small-minded views that had shaped him into the mess he’d been when they had found one another. Ray had been his own mess, but he managed to keep his self-contained and never stepped into the circle of another’s. Ray waited for Gordon to come back to his senses. Ray knew, in a few hours or days, whatever it took, Gordon would soon come to understand and join Ray on his side of this supposed rift.
It was not as big of an argument as had often led to an outburst of Gordon’s in the past. Gordon had come home from a long day of teaching eighth graders algebra and wore his exhaustion openly on his face. Ray saw him coming up the drive and put on the kettle. Coffee had never been their thing: an afternoon cuppa was something they were more attuned to. Ray himself had had an early start to a long day of pruning trees in his apple orchard. Twigs and leaves were caught in his salt-and-pepper hair, maybe an inchworm or two, but he hadn’t noticed.
Gordon let the front door slam behind him into the pine frame. Ray winced—he still hadn’t stained this new one. With the door singing in its frame, he guessed Gordon’s day had not gone well. Ray didn’t waste his breath about something he could plainly see. Instead, he turned the water off and paused his washing of the last few days’ dishes. Ray wiped his hands on the plaid terry cloth and placed it over his shoulder. If Gordon had not been caught up in his anger, this gesture of Ray’s may have reminded him of Ray working in the Mexican restaurant where they had met. Ray rubbed lotion into his knuckles and joined his husband in the hall where Gordon struggled out of his boots. He had failed to untie the laces properly and was flinging his ankle around to send his shoe off the end without untying the knot that was wringing itself tighter and tighter with each swing of his leg.
“Hey now, why don’t you take it easy? Let’s have a look-see.”
Ray spoke lightly and tried to give Gordon an “it’ll be okay” smile as he approached and sank slowly to his knee in front of him. Ray tapped his thigh and gestured to Gordon to place his foot there, but he was too busy huffing and sending spit flying from his mouth. The brown had gone black in his eyes.
“I’ll just fucking wear it inside if it doesn’t come off.”
Gordon spit his words out quickly and flashed his dark eyes around the room. Ray stood, knowing Gordon wouldn’t slow down any time soon. His knee ached, and he suppressed a groan. Gordon ducked out of the strap of his briefcase. Ray waited and ran his tongue around his teeth: his go-to distraction. The broken edge of his right incisor had chipped cleanly a month or so prior when he’d slipped off the wooden ladder and busted his chin on the rungs on his way down. Since then, he’d messed with the remains of his tooth and learned how to navigate the sharp edges enough to prevent snagging his tongue every time he distracted himself.
While Ray worked his tongue around his jagged tooth and ignored his aching knee, Gordon peeled his blazer off. He threw the fraying blue jacket and his faded brown briefcase on the bench, where the metal edge of Gordon’s discarded umbrella caught the briefcase and tore a rip in the pleather straight down the middle of the briefcase’s side as it slid down the bench and settled with a thud on the floor. Gordon stared at the cheap fabric pulling open like a wound and seethed.
Ray watched a shadow move over Gordon’s face like a storm rolling in ready to unravel. Gordon turned to face Ray.
“I’ve got the kettle on, and frittata’s still warm in the oven. Tea and tell me what happened today?”
Gordon snorted and rolled his shoulders back, standing a full four inches taller than Ray. They faced one another. Gordon took a ragged breath and spit out a string of words.
“What happened today? I’ll tell you what happened. I’ve said it once, I’ll say it again. Dumbass teenagers are going to ruin things for us around here.”
Ray swallowed and removed his glasses. He pressed his eyes deep into their sockets with his knuckles before putting his glasses back on. He scratched the back of his neck. Ray should have known it would be a rekindling of a recent spitfire from the world all around them.
“Tell me what happened, please, so I can understand?”
Ray looked at Gordon with what he hoped were pleading eyes. He tried to remember how he’d placated Gordon in the past when it came to the illogic Gordon would spew any minute now, but Ray’s mind billowed like a sheet in the wind.
“It’s nothing I haven’t said already, and you won’t listen! Those damn LGBTQX—whatever-it-is-now—kids that keep asking for more and more. Pronouns on everything and a million new words for the same kinds of love people have always had. It’s nonsense.”
Ray tried to keep his face neutral and let Gordon empty the hot air and everything else that had stirred up from his head while he was out there, holding it all in, and trudging home with his lungs folded away to make room for all the anger he must keep inside. Ray imagined Gordon as a balloon that started empty each day and near to bursting by the time he returned home. The queer body must contain itself in public—society has long taught this. To invite attention is to invite attack.
Ray had seen how Gordon accordion-folded inside himself around others, but at home, he let out whatever howl had been building in his chest. But this howl—Ray couldn’t unhear the blood curdling behind it. This time, it was his own. Ray had kept current with the ever-evolving language of the LGBTQIA+ community and had found solace in some terms that Gordon rejected. Ray kept this to himself for fear of Gordon’s reaction.
Ray interjected. “Gordon, you must remember. All their words mean different things. The kids are just trying to be inclusive and honor their true selves. Remember how much better Jonay felt after they learned the word for how they’d been living for decades?”
Ray paused to swallow. The words clung thick and heavy to the walls of his throat like a stubborn clot of mucus. Ray swallowed again, straining to get the saliva down. Gordon stared back blankly, his hands perched on his hips so that he looked like the teacher he was during the day. Ray hated when Gordon treated him like a student. It made him feel small, stripped back to a shell of himself at fourteen. He already felt like that enough. Ray continued.
“New words are coming up all the time. It’s harmless. Actually, it’s helpful.” Ray’s voice cracked as his sentence ended, betraying his personal stake in the matter, but Gordon didn’t seem to notice.
Gordon barreled into the next room, bumping past Ray and thundering flat-footed into the kitchen. Ray followed closely behind. He caught a whiff of cedar, eucalyptus, cinnamon—remnants of Gordon’s morning shower or shave and whatever sweet he’d indulged in at lunch.
“Harmless?” Gordon yelled, “That’s what I was afraid of Ray, darling. You don’t even realize. The more and more these kids demand, the less and less space the rest of the country—hell, the world—is willing to make for us. It’s starting now, at school. There was a walk-out today for trans kids to use the restrooms.”
Gordon paused for effect.
Ray kept his face neutral, waiting. He refused to supply ammunition.
“I have nothing against trans people, but why can’t they just be quiet about it? In our day, trans people went to the bathroom at home, or they used whatever room they wanted and didn’t make a fuss about it. Or whatever, I don’t know. But these kids—”
Ray interrupted Gordon, a flame suddenly brought to life inside him.
“Bullshit, Gordon. The kids today need to stand tall and shout their demands out loud. Space for the likes of us has never been easy or guaranteed. The legislation coming to a head all around us—that’s been building for years and years. The kids are realizing, this is just another rekindling of a much older fire. One our queer ancestors have had to tame again and again before us.”
Gordon scowled at Ray’s use of the word “queer.”
Ray didn’t stop—“A fire queer people everywhere live every day in opposition of. I can’t believe you, Gordon. Turning your back on our people as they fight the very fight we always have.”
“Our people? Our fight? Trans people and gay people are not the same. This is exactly what I’m talking about. We aren’t trans. We’re gay. You and everyone else need to stop lumping us in together.”
“Can’t you see that’s where you’re wrong? Like so many of them out there? We are part of the same community, a community that has been beaten and outlawed and brutalized and discriminated against and plenty more for pretty much forever. Gays, lesbians, bisexuals, trans people, and all the others that fall under our umbrella. These new identities the kids are making, these new words for things people have been feeling, the concepts they name—this has all been around forever. Queer and trans people have existed since the beginning of time, in all their glorious possibilities of sexuality, gender identity, and anatomical makeup. The full spectrum of sexuality and gender expression has been explored for millennia and only repressed and outlawed for centuries.”
Gordon looked at Ray, stupefied. Gordon scrambled for the next sword to wield, whatever he could say next.
“The laws they’re passing are inhumane. I might lose my job, Ray.”
So now they were getting down to it. Ray closed his eyes and relaxed his muscles, coaxing his hands out of fists. This was less about Gordon’s views than Ray thought, and it was something he’d felt coming for some time. He knew they’d be able to ignore it for only so long. The legislation was finally circling in close enough to bite.
“What do you mean? What can they do?”
Gordon glossed over the details, explaining the new bill—HB-67C—that was hitting the South Dakota State Senate the following week. A new conservative-backed proposed ban that would censor content and materials found in, taught in, or spoken of in K-12 school classrooms around the entire state. Ray’s mind flashed to the classroom that he had helped Gordon prepare months prior, before the school year had started. The bulletin-board-sized pride flag that spanned almost his full arms-length on one wall would have to go, even if it was covered with the students’ artwork and writings. The reading corner full of books featuring diverse characters and authors. How many of them would survive the censoring? How many of the students would survive such a representation-deprived learning environment? Nausea gripped Ray. He knew Gordon’s classroom would not pass the new censored standards. He’d spent months finding the books he’d slipped in along with the ones Gordon had chosen.
Gordon sensed the weight of the day hitting Ray and softened. He took Ray’s hands, stepping closer.
“The bill is going to Senate next week, you said. House already passed it?”
Gordon nodded grimly and traced circles on the top of Ray’s hand with the end of his own thumb. Ray blinked furiously to chase away the hot tears pricking his eyes.
Ray said, “It might not pass.”
Gordon sighed and folded himself around Ray, holding him against his chest. Ray leaned into his husband and started to fade from the room, thinking too hard and too fast about too many different things. Ray’s head filled with static. He forgot the words he wanted to share with Gordon, the shadow he’d kept inside for too long. Gordon spoke softly.
“We need to talk about what’s next. Where we’ll go.”
Suddenly, Gordon revealed his fear. Ray had not seen Gordon’s fear in a long time—that wet and runny look in his eyes—so long now that he’d hardly recognized it. Gordon’s fear, however sweet it was when he ran to Ray for help, had an ugly side that was already rearing its nasty face. Ray pulled his hands from Gordon’s grip and stepped back. Ray had grown to hate Gordon’s fear; he was always running away instead of standing strong against the forces that confronted them. Ray was the one who had stood against the rocks that their waves had encountered over the years, Gordon cowering and shivering behind him. He’d grown tired and weary of sustaining damage enough for two. Now, Ray snapped to attention as Gordon’s words landed hard. Ray had learned what he feared: Gordon was preparing for another flight.
Ray had worked hard to establish roots in the third town they’d moved to since the start of their ten years together. Now, Ray was tired. He was ready to stay put. When Gordon revealed his intentions to run once more, Ray stood tall like one of his Gravenstein trees against the gusting wind, refusing to bend.
“Go? This is our home. We aren’t going anywhere.”
Gordon stared at Ray, silent. His eyes narrowed and hardened at once, like the sudden uncoiling of a snake about to strike its prey. The brown of those eyes that Ray so loved, especially under the sun, remained nowhere to be found. The fire reignited inside Ray, melting the layer of wax anxiety had hardened around his heart.
Ray refused to run from whoever had said he was less of a man for loving a man or for sometimes not feeling like a man at all—not a woman or a man, but something in-between, some unknown he had yet to confront. He now feared he would never be able to share this, his shadow, with Gordon. He refused to leave his home in response to whoever tried to take it away or the rights of his community. Middle age had softened him in some ways, but Ray remained the kind of guy to hold up a wall of bricks until it toppled down on top of him. He waited. Still, Gordon said nothing. Ray relented.
“Gordon. What about the orchard? What about this house? The garden?”
Gordon looked away and rubbed the back of his head with the palm of his hand.
“I just don’t see a future for us here. First, they’re censoring books and materials. As soon as that happens, you know the people on the streets won’t hold back. The government is validating their hate. So, we can’t even go out together to run errands safely. Next thing you know, I’m being fired or arrested for being gay and teaching minors. Someone’s calling me a groomer. A closeted kid speaks up with his homophobic dad’s voice instead of his own, claiming something about lingering looks. Waiting after class in an empty room. Another kid starts saying they noticed, too. Someone else whose daddy can’t stand a fruity patsy spending the day around their kid, teaching them how to be gay and hide it.”
Ray gripped Gordon’s hand and squeezed, trying to pull him out of the spiral.
“None of that is real.”
“I know, but it’s coming. I can see it and feel it. Every time I’m walking down the halls at school, I’m just waiting for someone or their parent to say something that brings trouble. I can’t take it anymore. I don’t wear my ring to parent-teacher conferences because I don’t want to lie about being married to a woman, but I don’t want to tell the truth either and risk my job or our livelihoods.”
Ray listened and thought of the thousands of LGBTQIA+ people who must have had conversations like the one he was having now. He could hardly reconcile the idea of leaving this town, severing the shallow three-year roots they’d cultivated so painstakingly. His orchard. Their house. The garden and the barn full of projects he and Gordon had yet to start or finish. All these things he’d worked so hard to cultivate, and through that work, he’d grown to cherish and love.
“We can’t leave, Gordon. Then, they win. We have to stop running at some point. We have to stand up and say ‘We’re here. We aren’t going anywhere.’”
Gordon’s hand went limp before he wrenched it away and moved to lean against the kitchen sink, staring out the window. Ray moved behind him, looking at what Gordon saw: the wind moving through the maple in the yard ruffling the corn in the fields beyond. The clouds moving across the expanse of sky. Ray ached to reach out and knead the nape of Gordon’s neck, like he knew he loved, but Gordon was shaking his head.
“Don’t you see? If we don’t go now, it’s only a matter of time before they make us.”
Ray couldn’t deny the defeat in Gordon’s voice. Another younger Gordon, even younger and more insecure than before. Ray shook his head, defiant. Ray was unwilling to accept defeat as easily as Gordon, or perhaps he was unwilling to let go of the fight he’d cultivated inside himself so long. The weariness ate away at Ray, but he stood steadfast against Gordon’s fear, or whatever it was now lapping up to drag him down. Ray cleared his throat and spoke in a strong, unwavering voice.
“They can’t make us do anything, Gordon.”
Ray stepped closer to Gordon, turning him around by the hip, and took his hand. Ray smiled before continuing, more gently.
“You must first refuse them the power of your fear.”
Ray squeezed Gordon’s hand, channeling support and love through his own. Gordon slipped out of Ray’s grip and ripped his hand back. Gordon glared at Ray.
“You can’t seriously say they only have power over me if I let them.”
“I’m saying stop acting out of fear. I’m saying, stop running. Aren’t you tired? Just stand here with me, goddammit.”
Gordon sighed. “It’s like you don’t even hear me.”
Ray said, “Now come on—” but Gordon was already on his way across the room, storming out the door.
The screen door slammed behind him. Ray giggled and watched through the smudged glass as Gordon stomped across the back porch and the patchy yard, disappearing inside the barn. Ray turned from the door and returned to the kitchen sink to finish washing the cutting board, mixing bowl, and dinner plates from the day before—what Gordon and his ridiculous suggestion had interrupted.
Ray scalded his knuckles in the steaming water as he scrubbed, but he paid it no mind. His laughter died down quickly. Ray lost himself in thought. He knew Gordon would not easily come to see his side of things, if at all. The sky darkened, a timely reflection of his mind. Clouds heavy with rain gathered in the corners of the horizon. Ray continued scrubbing, thinking, chewing on the inside of his lip with that jagged tooth. If the Senate came to the wrong agreement, in less than a week, Ray’s whole world could come crumbling down. He tasted blood and probed the torn skin of his lip with his tongue. He ached to think of the others out there that were more affected by the laws waiting across the country on tables to be or not to be passed. He tried not to think of the words he had intended to share with Gordon over dinner, even as they gnawed at him from the inside.
Ray dried his hands briefly to pop on a Fleetwood Mac record. The music settled over him like an embrace. He hummed along in an attempt to quiet his mind as he finished the dishes and set them out to dry on an unfolded beach towel draped over the linoleum counter. The rough fabric brushed against Ray’s wrist, taking him back. The warmth of the sand hot on his back and the panting of Gordon beside him flashed briefly in his mind. He ached to go back. Instead, he took the frittata from the oven and crunched through it with a fork, eating straight from the cast iron pan.
Ray sat at the table and watched the raindrops race down the window pane as he ate, waiting for Gordon to come trudging inside, sit across from him, and take up the second fork Ray had left out on the table. He’d smile up at Ray over the food, and the smoke inside Ray would start to dissipate. An itch sat in the middle of his back, one he couldn’t reach. He wiped the corners of his mouth and glanced at the little melting Dali novelty clock ticking on the wall beside the sink. The second hand ticked by, seemingly independent of the rest. Ray watched the circles it spun, waiting. He started on the second half of the frittata. If only Gordon would come back inside.