When I was a kid, we drove from Rock Island to Garrett, a small town in northeastern Indiana at least twice a year to visit my parents' family. But after I moved to West Hollywood, I devoted my trips back to the Midwest to Rock Island and Indianapolis. I haven't been to Garrett in 20 years.
Maybe I didn't want to come back to the country-western music, red pick up trucks, Republicans, rednecks, fundamentalists, casual racism, and incessant "wife and kids! wife and kids! wife and kids!" heterosexism. This is what I moved to West Hollywood to escape.
Last time I saw my Cousin Annie, she was ten years old. Now she's 30, a plump hausfrau in a Wal-Mart frock living down the road in Auburn, Indiana. She says "I haven't seen you for so long! Are you still a Nazarene?" and introduces her two sons, Paul, aged five (named after my Uncle Paul), and Phil, aged two (named to be alliterative, I guess). Paul shakes hands solemnly; Phil hides in his mother's arms.
Then her husband, whose name I don't catch: a scary redneck truck driver with an admittedly spectacular basket, a bulge to die for, but few other attractive traits: a long face, a scraggly beard, and lots of ugly tattoos.
"So, how do you like living in Florida?" Annie asks. "Do you spend all day at the beach, looking at all the gorgeous people in swimsuits?"
"Not really. It's like living anywhere else -- I get up, go to work, go to the gym, come home."
"Are you seeing anyone special?"
I'm not going to mention my new boyfriend, Wade the Beach Boy. I'm not going to come out to a small-town fundamentalist hausfrau married to a scary truck driver.
My brother's daughter is getting married, and relatives from all over descend upon Kankakee, including Cousin Annie. The truck driver is out of the picture: Annie is 36 years old, a single Mom, working as a middle-school teacher in Auburn, living with her mother, who helps her take care of Paul and Phil, aged 11 and 9.
This time they both shake hands solemnly.
"Aren't they getting handsome!" Cousin Annie exclaims, embarrassing her boys tremendously. "Any day now they'll be breaking the hearts of every girl at school!"
Heterosexist nonsense! Some of the girls in that school are lesbians, and how does she know her boys are straight? I shouldn't say anything -- I don't want to get screamed at -- but I can't help myself. "Not only girls -- I'll bet a few boys will get crushes on them, too."
She laughs. "I never thought of that, but you're probably right. How about you? Break any hearts lately?"
"Um...not recently." I am not coming out to a redneck fundamentalist relative who I only see once a decade!
Auburn, Indiana, April 2012
My mother's sister died a year ago, and her brother-in-law five months ago. I didn't go to either of the funerals. Now her brother, my Uncle Edd, has died, and she demands that I show up for the funeral. So I fly back to Indianapolis, and we all drive up to Auburn together.
Uncle Edd had no children, so Cousin Annie holds the funeral reception at her house. She's 40 years old, her red hair graying in spots, married to or living with a guy who's barely 30: a round-faced Southern boy with long hair, a short beard, and a basket that's just as impressive as that of Husband #1.
Obviously Cousin Annie is a size queen.
He refuses a handshake: "Where I come from, family hugs!" After we hug, bulges accidentally pressed together, he whistles. "Boys, get over here and say hello to your Cousin Boomer."
Paul is 15, a buffed, curly haired high school jock who smiles confidently as he draws me into a hug.
Phil is 13, short, quiet, eyeglassed, with dirty blond hair; he prefers to shake hands.
The boyfriend laughs. "Paul's the operator of the family. Phil's a bookworm."
"Nothing wrong with being a bookworm. I have over 1,000 books back home myself."
"Really? I'm surprised you have time to read, with your fast-paced lifestyle and all. I figured you'd be out at the discos every night, shaking your stuff."
"Shaking my stuff?" I repeat. "At age 51?"
Cousin Annie says "Come on, Boomer, you're as young as you feel. You're pretty buffed for 51 -- I'll bet the cute young things are lining up to ask you to dance!"
I am not coming out to Annie the Cougar and her Southern redneck Boy Toy. "Oh, I do ok," I say noncommittally.
Another funeral. Cousin Annie is 45 years old, with a new husband, a 50-ish chubby guy with a beard and square workman's hands, and, I assume, the supersized basket she finds attractive. They sit with her mother and sons.
Phil is 17, a head shorter than me, quiet, stern, mostly attached to his smartphone.
Paul is 19, a sophomore at Indiana University, taller than me, curly-haired, handsome, with a stunning smile and a big chest and shoulders obvious even in his blue dress shirt. I wonder if he inherited his father's super-sized basket.
Ok, he's my second cousin, but I can't help cruising him a little.
When he seats himself next to me at the dinner table, I think "Oh, boy! A hookup! First Lane's grandson, and now this!"
But he says "We're studying the 1970s in my history class, and I have to interview somebody that was there."
Way to make me feel old! "Sure, I'd be happy to help. I'm a child of the 1970s, a regular Disco Duck."
He doesn't catch the reference. "I want to go with the homophobia angle. Anita Bryant, Jerry Falwell, the Briggs Initiative. It must have been rough for you, growing up gay with all that homophobia in the air."
Growing up gay...Paul knows? That means Cousin Annie knows....has she known all along?
Break any hearts lately...
Cute young things lining up.
I don't get a hookup out of the deal, but I do get to see both Paul and his brother shirtless later on, when I friend him on Facebook.
And I get a whole family of straight allies.
See also: My Date with the Groom's Grandson