I remember when Alex came out to me

High school was a long time ago, but even though next year will mark thirty years since my class graduated, I am frequently struck by the lessons I learned there. One such lesson came from my classmate, Alex.

I should back up a little to set the stage for the younger crowd. I’m from Halifax. In the 1980’s, Halifax still had skinheads, many of whom actively quoted Hitler and laughed when they did. People were horrified, but not because of the hate the skinheads espoused. People didn’t like skinhead violence. Halifax preferred its intolerance to be nicely dressed. Laced up black boots and jeans hung with suspenders did not fit that model.

We comforted them when their mothers turned their backs and their fathers told them to leave. We were fifteen years old…

Aryan supremacy wasn’t even remotely limited to the skinheads who so proudly wore their racism and bigotry out loud and proud for all to see. Most of Halifax was preparing for the race riots that were yet to come around the time of my graduation. In a city that had bulldozed its black population’s homes in the middle of the night, where the only freestanding abortion clinic had been burned down (twice, if I recall) before I graduated, and the law defied progress on women’s rights, in a time where the mass murder at l’École Polytechnique, which would later synchronize to our first year at university, was still in the making, the stage had not been set for acceptance of gay or lesbian citizens. Yes, we had a “gay bar” in Halifax, but it was whispered about in shocked, hushed tones.

That was the late ’80’s. I was in high school. As you can expect from my political views today, I gravitated towards the political crowd even then. We were the safe house for Halifax’s fringe groups who had yet to make a space for themselves: Gay and Lesbian; Pink Triangle; Two Spirit; LGBTQ. None of that existed yet. We knew the art teacher was gay and we were fine with it. (It was even a badge of honour to have been told to you by the man himself.) Slowly, in ones and twos, a few of our maverick friends came out. We learned about how their parents reacted. We comforted them when their mothers turned their backs and their fathers told them to leave. We were fifteen years old, then sixteen, then seventeen. Halifax was an boiling pot against “diversity.”

And then one night, my phone rang. It was my classmate, Alex. “I heard you were a lesbian,” he said. “No, I replied carefully. “I am not. Why?”

There was a long pause. Many heartbeats later, the most lonely voice I have ever heard said, “I’m gay.”

Alex was not one of my friends. If my friends tended to be political, Alex’s friends tended to be clean cut and upstanding. You just knew after graduation, they’d go work for the government in various functionary jobs. (My friends would be picketing outside, a fact that still holds true thirty years later.) I don’t know why Alex thought I was a lesbian, but I did know why he called. My social group wouldn’t judge him, yet on the streets of Halifax, the skinheads who roamed the streets when the bars closed might actually harm him. He was looking for a lifeline – someone who knew what he was going through on a visceral level. Alex wasn’t just coming out. Alex was putting his life on the line.

In his moment of coming out, he threw my name down like a safety net.

And he had called me to do it.

We spoke for a while, but the moment of opening had vanished when I told him in my single sentence that I did not share his experience. He was glad to talk, but the conversation had no depth. I tried to keep him talking as long as I could. At seventeen, I had seen a kid come to class with his face – his FACE – full of stitches from the beating he took when skinheads thought he was a peacenik. Lord only knew what they would do to a clean-cut boy who liked other boys. I wanted to hold out a lifeline to Alex, but in the end, that phone call was my first, and my last, from him.

I saw him around school for the rest of the school year, then again in our final year. He remained darkly wedged into the closet, our conversation a secret between us, until one day I got a call from his furious girlfriend. Alex had dumped her because he was gay – and I apparently knew all about it. Although I wasn’t happy about being held accountable for this situation, like somehow I had caused his gayness or not fixed him or outed him or whatever it was I was supposed to do that would have prevented her broken heart, I was a teeny bit proud. Whatever I had said meant something to him. In his moment of coming out, he threw my name down like a safety net.

It’s been a lot of years since then. Like I said, it will be thirty years since I graduated next year. A lot has changed. And a lot has not. There is still a coming out process that is felt out gently with friends and family. But it’s a lot more accepted today than it was thirty years ago. And yet, even as I write this, I think of Orlando.

Times have changed, and then they haven’t.

I don’t have a brilliant piece of wisdom to help move our society forward. But I think of Alex and his attempt to reach out. I wonder who he became. Did he have the courage to find a life partner or did he break more women’s hearts? And why did he need courage to be himself?

I sincerely hope that Alex, and all the Alexes who came after him, and all the Alexes who come next, find their passion and their lifeline. I hope for a future where they don’t need to rely on my hope. If there is a lesson I learned there, above all other lessons, it was to value all human life. My classmate gave me the gift of seeing the world through eyes that feared judgement and disgrace. And then he gave me the gift of trust. It is my job to be trustworthy.

Dear Alex, if you are reading, I hope you found yourself. Thank you for your trust that night.

I flushed the toilet just for you!

“I even flushed the toilet just for you!”

When I was little, we had a house designed with the kitchen and living space downstairs on the main floor and upstairs, on the top floor, we had the bedrooms and the bathroom. It was a standard 70’s house: square, functional, unimaginative, home. The only problem with this design was that, for a little one like me, that meant glasses of water were far, far away. To resolve this, I was given a small stainless steel cup that I perched on the side of the bathroom sink. That way if I were upstairs and thirsty, I could just have my needed glass of water and get on with my world.

My mother had given me one helpful tip that I used in warm weather: if you want a colder glass of water, flush the toilet first. It made sense so when I wanted a cool glass of water to wet my whistle, I flushed the toilet.

(My world, by the way, will not surprise you. It’s entirely unrelated to this post, but entirely related to this blog. My sister’s old typewriter had been left upstairs and I had found it, dragged it from obscurity, and spent most of my summers from the age of eight years old on perched on the edge of my bed with the typewriter balanced dangerously on the sewing table in my room. I typed up a storm, writing plays that I fully envisioned being acted out by my friends, and stories with little girls cast as the central character. My love of writing blossomed young.)

One day, I came home from school to find my mother and my big sister in my room. My sister was twenty years older than I was, so her visits were significant as I was so young. My mom and sister had taken it upon themselves to clean my room while I was at school. It was a nice touch. I hated cleaning and preferred to read or sit at the typewriter. (Guess some things never change.) With both of them seated on a bench beneath my window, my sister asked me if I could bring her a glass of water.

I absolutely could. I rushed off to the bathroom to get my little metal cup. I flushed the toilet – an extra touch just for my sister to ensure she got the coldest water possible – and filled the cup from the tap after letting it run for a moment. Back to the bedroom I went, carrying the cold glass of water with me. I handed it over and as she drank deeply, I proudly announced:

“I even flushed the toilet just for you!”

My sister paused, the water poised in mid-air, and she had an appalled look on her face. I was dismayed and, frankly, a little offended. I had flushed the toilet for her, a caring gesture on my part, and here she was, completely lacking in gratitude. I stood there a little miffed and wondering why this declaration had failed to elicit the anticipated response.

My mother, on the other hand, was in stitches, laughing so hard she couldn’t speak. Her sides shook as she tried her best to make words of explanation come out of her throat, but all she was able to splutter out was choked laughter. My sister was still frozen with eyes wide, and I was wooden with the duel offence of my sister’s lack of appreciation and my mother’s choking laughter.

Finally, my mother was able to shed some light on the situation. “Charlotte flushes the toilet to make the water in the tap run colder,” Mom said.

My sister sighed with relief. “Oh thank God,” she said, finally enlightening me to the situation. “I thought she had dipped it out of the toilet.”

Well, honest to goodness. If the missing “thank you” had offended me, this moved me to absolute shock. She thought I had dipped a cup in the toilet? The nerve! I left the room in a huff, the sound of my mother bursting into gales of laughter again ringing in my bedroom.

Forty years later, I can still hear my mother laughing until her sides hurt. And forty years later, I still flush the toilet to make the water in the bathroom colder.

And you can get your own water if you’re in my house. I don’t flush for anyone’s water any more.

 

When you wish upon a star

I remember the very clear feeling of standing in the front yard with my mother looking at at the stars. “There’s the first star!” she would cry. “Make a wish!” Those nights were cool and crisp and invariably winter because I had an early bedtime, but I can still hear her voice.

That was an incredible gift from my mother. She taught me to think of what I wanted and then ask the universe for it. It was the gift of clarity unhindered by the adult constraints of being realistic. She didn’t say, “Make a wish, but make sure it’s achievable.” I didn’t have to worry that cost, gender, ability, or any of those other grown up concepts would limit my dreams and wishes. All I had to do was formulate a wish and without taking my eyes off the star – that’s the trick right there: you can’t even blink – I had to whisper my wish.

Some of my wishes I remember. I remember I wished to live to be 105 years old. I’m not sure how I landed on that particular number, but hey, Past Charlotte, if you’re listening, so far so good. Other wishes were all about finding the loophole. Yes, my wish was for more wishes. I’m still good at finding the loophole and I got my wish. I have had unlimited wishes in this lifetime. (See, Past Charlotte, you made stuff happen.)

With my mother’s skill for defining and stating my wishes honed from an early age, I later added to this skill by adding an addendum: now go make it happen. Interestingly, the addendum has been really effective. For example, when I was twenty-five, I wished for a printer/photocopier combo. Now, this may seem a bit odd, so let me explain. I was a single mother on welfare. We regularly skated into the end of the month with less than a dollar in the bank. Those were scary times. Buying a printer was out of the question. Buying anything was out of the question and I had a very strong understanding of needs and wants and how to prioritize.

Here is how that particular wish played out. I wrote my wish on a sheet of paper and pinned it above my bed. I saw it every day for about a year. Sometimes it depressed me. It was just a symbol of the things I couldn’t have. After a while, it became part of the scenery and I stopped seeing it until the day I moved. I took it off the wall, threw it into the trash, and left for my new home.

Eventually I got a printer. The photocopier piece eluded me but it wasn’t a big deal. Off welfare, in a decent job, anything I needed to photocopy could be done at the office supply store. No big deal. But here is the ending of that. The only thing I focussed my wish on was a printer/photocopier combo machine. I have one now. It’s in the next room. That’s cool and officey and does what I want, but I put a lot of mental wishing into this device, so much so that the universe found a way to permanently fulfill that wish.

How?

My husband is a photocopier technician.

Yes, I committed so much energy to making sure this wish happened, I married a man who will forever keep me in printer/photocopier machines. Neat trick, right? I can’t say that I planned this. It’s not like I was hanging around office supply stores hunting for a fella. But it happened and I can’t help but notice it.

My whole life has been like this. I figure out what I want, I define it into something short and succinct (if you have to stare unblinking at a star, you can’t get too wordy), and then I go out and make it happen. My mother gave me many gifts, but this one was likely her finest. It has given me the world of opportunity in the palm of my hand.

And in case you’re wondering, yes, I still wish upon the first star in the evening sky. I have a massive wish list of untapped dreams I’m still working on.

Thankfully, I have more time. I’m not 105 yet.