One day last month I was lucky enough not only to have dinner with both of my sons, who now live far away from me and each other, but also to hideously embarrass both of them, as is family tradition.
Our meeting was truly fortuitous. My younger son had flown up to meet the older one and his wife so that the three could drive together to the boys’ grandmother’s 80th birthday party/family reunion in Pennsylvania. I was not invited to this gathering, as my relationship with my late first husband’s mother is rocky. Readers may remember the great New Orleans fleur-de-lis debacle of 2012, in which I explained that our high point came immediately after the death of the boys’ father in 1994–a time when each of us appreciated the other’s role in her life more powerfully than ever before or since.
She said–in so many words–that she thought Tony might have been dead of AIDS in the French Quarter 10 years earlier if I hadn’t come along and lured him into my heteronormative web, in the process providing her with darling grandchildren she thought she would never have.
The 25th anniversary of Tony’s death was just a few days before the evening in question. His mother texted me that day to say she was thinking of me. I was thinking of her as well. Our exchange was warm. Though I didn’t say so, I understood why she would not want me at this party. We really do not bring out the best in each other.
Like the British troops in 1774, I arrived in Boston by sea. I was on the way home after two weeks teaching at the Provincetown Fine Arts Work Center. In between the ferry and the plane to Baltimore the next morning, there was time to go to dinner with my family. Hooray! My older son, who lives in Boston, chose the venue–an old-school, high-end steakhouse. An “adults only, speakeasy-style space offering select steaks & old-fashioned libations in a reservation-only room,” as the ad copy would have it.
The thick carpet, the cushioned booth, the dim lighting, the murmur of conversation, the bizarre Tom Waits-ian covers of top-40 songs–everything was pretty much as you would expect. Except the waiter. The waiter was a slim, boyish person in a pressed button-down and pants, lipstick and a high ponytail. They introduced themselves as Camille. (I’m guessing on the pronoun; this was not announced.)
Camille was a jazzy server, vigorously engaging in and directing our decisions about what to order, not shying away from a bit of the old upsell, parrying questions and soothing doubts with a wide smile and dramatic gestures. They encouraged us to try the Absinthe Fountain, which is served tableside in an antique glass vessel with brass fittings and spout.
“Is there really absinthe in it?” I asked. “Are we going to be tripping?”
Yes to the first, but to the second, probably not, Camille told us. They seemed to relish the elaborate performance involved in the service of the beverage. I interpreted their manner as a slightly campy combination of irony and professionalism, and by the time we’d followed the Fountain drinks with a delicious bottle of red wine, I was feeling chummy with Camille.
“I’ve just come back from Provincetown,” I announced. “It’s carnival over there this week. Have you ever been to carnival?”
Camille seemed confused. Carnival? They wondered if I meant the Haitian carnival which was going on this week in another sector of the city.
“No!” I said. “It’s in Provincetown.”
Camille said they’d never been there.
What? They hadn’t!?! I went on to effuse about a great place Provincetown was for LGBTQ people and to describe the revelry and parades. I couldn’t believe they had never heard of it!
Camille shrugged. Their smile seemed increasingly forced.
Dinner concluded shortly after that. It was very expensive and we left a giant tip. We wrapped up leftovers for the dog, including one bite of what was probably the best twice-baked potato I’ve ever had, and went on our way.
Back at my older son’s apartment, I said. “What about that Camille? Could you believe they never heard of Provincetown? They’re a they, right? Haitian carnival? I don’t get it.”
“Oh, Mom,” said my older son. “Why would you even assume that Camille was gay? Or trans? Or anything? You can’t just make all these assumptions about people! And why would you not stop once it was clear he was fending off your questions?”
I spluttered a bit. “Well,” I replied, “I didn’t actually assume they were gay, per se – I just figured from their androgynous style and feminine name that they were somewhere in gender-fluid-land. I mean … Camille? Lipstick? That hairdo?”
“They were not wearing lipstick, Mom,” my son told me.
“What? Yes, they were!”
On the other hand, my vision is not what it used to be. And my very macho driver’s ed teacher in high school was an Italian guy named Camille Magnotta.
“Even if they were, you can’t just jump in and start talking to people that way,” my son contended.
At this point I began to pout. “But I just came back from Provincetown!” I cried. “World capital of ‘okay to talk about it!’ Why are you always so critical of me?”
The conversation eventually petered out and we all fell asleep watching “Inglourious Basterds.”
Back in Baltimore the next day, I was still worrying about this blemish on our perfect evening. I decided to talk to my younger son about it when he stopped in town to see me on his way from Grandma’s birthday party to North Carolina.
“Ah, yes,” he sighed. “We talked about this quite a bit in the car yesterday. And to be honest, I don’t give a shit. I didn’t give a shit at the time and I still don’t now. You and my brother are both obsessed with relating to strangers, and with what other people think of you, but you have completely different ideas about how it’s done. He has this elaborate code of courtesy and you think everyone is your best friend.”
This stopped me in my tracks. “Well, I don’t think everyone is my best friend, but I guess I do feel this kinship with gay men.”
“Maybe the world is a little more complicated than it used to be,” my son suggested. “Camille apparently wasn’t the person you assumed.”
Hmmm. Unless Camille was the one queer person in the Northeastern United States who never heard of Provincetown, he had a point. Furthermore, it’s not like my bull-in-a-china-shop approach to identity politics has really been working out for me lately. “I don’t know if I’m going to be able to change,” I said. “My low boundaries are the defining element of my whole personality.”
My son snorted.
But then I had a stroke of insight, a face-saving end-run around their seemingly unbeatable offense. Dude–these boys’ father was a gay man I met at a carnival! So if I didn’t have this annoying, embarrassing personality trait, they would never have been born.
Hell, yeah. Now if only I could tell Camille!