He hugged his son, the requisite A-frame hug, shoulders and just a little upper chest touching, arms stiffly around the back, a quick, brusque, tough-guy squeeze. He never thought what he was teaching his son through his hugs. He never thought about what his son was feeling, what his son was missing. He protected himself with the hug. It was automatic, second nature, reflex camouflage. He didn't think about it. By the time his son finished puberty is was firmly in place. He was a man, and his son was almost a man. And men didn't show that kind of affection. It was just unmanly.
He loved his son, he loved him fiercely, but he really didn't know how to show it. Oh he could initiate him into the manly arts, manly culture. He could teach him to hunt, he could introduce him to beer and football, he could even take him to a porn flick. But he couldn't really hug him, he couldn't kiss him, he couldn’t say, "I love you." It wasn't manly.
Over the years, they'd grown apart, the physical chasm of the A-frame morphing somehow into a communication chasm, a psychological canyon dividing the two of them ever more deeply as the years went on. He'd spent so many years hiding from himself and others, that he didn't know if he'd ever find his way out. The closet got deeper and darker and more stuffed with skeletons every year.
But still he hugged his son, fiercely, desperately trying to build a bridge across that chasm. His son was graduating from college. It was a major rite of passage. He would leave at the end of the summer for grad school, a new city, new relationships. He was terrified about the coming separation with his son and the physical distance that might never be bridged again.
"I love you, son. I'm so proud of you."
"I know, dad. Thanks."
They stood around, awkwardly, not quite knowing what to do or say. His son's roommate wandered over, trailing his own parents and siblings, academic gown over one arm, cap askew on his head. His son's face lit up, smiling at his friend. "We did it!" he yelled, throwing his arm around his friend. They hugged, too, but no A-frame here. They hugged with total abandon. An unfocused ache throbbed deep in his chest.
The parents all shook hands, congratulating each other. He supposed it was for signing the tuition checks; after all, it was the boys who’d done all the work. He noticed the boys chatting with other families, other friends who came up. They laughed, occasionally bumping into each other, smiling with each other. A thought suddenly blossomed in his head fading almost as fast; the ache throbbed harder.
"Dad, want to go for a quick bite? We thought we'd have a hamburger and a beer before heading off to the parties."
They waved at the retreating families and friends. His son and his roommate herded him towards the car. He thought quickly about how proud his wife would have been. She'd loved their son so much. She'd been so worried at the end about what would happen to the two of them. He whispered a quick prayer to her, "Don't worry. We're fine. He's graduated and his whole life is in front of him. It's OK. I love you." He still prayed to her in the dark of night.
The boys piled into the car and took him to their favorite local diner. They ordered, got the pitcher of beer and poured. It had been hot in the sun. "Boys, a toast to the two of you. You've both done me proud. Congratulations." He saluted them with his mug, and drank. They looked at each other, smiled and drank with him. The food arrived and they busied themselves with ketchup, mustard, relish, salt, and pepper.
"Dad, we want to say something you. You know we both got into the same grad school. And you know we're going to share an apartment?"
"Dad, we're ... uh ... we're going to be living together."
"I know that. That's what it usually means when you share an apartment."
"No, dad. It's more than that. Damn, this isn't as easy as I'd hoped. Dad, we're gay and we're going to live together ... as a couple."
The ache burst open, tears began to slide down his face quietly. His son looked horrified, both of them did. His son reached over the table, "Dad?" He pulled his hand back and covered his face; years of hurt and loneliness poured out with the tears. "Dad?" The two boys looked at each other, surprised, shocked by this public display of emotion from a man known for his stoicism. What was going on? Should they stay, go? Was he mad at them? "Dad. Are you OK?" His son reached out and touched his hand again. He grabbed his son's hand and held on, wiping his face with the other hand. He reached out and took the other boy's had, too, stretching across the table to both his boys.
"I'm OK, guys, really. I'm just really, really happy for both of you." He smiled at both of them, trying to reassure them with his voice, his smile, his eyes. He got up quickly, pulling them to their feet. And there in the middle of the restaurant, he hugged them both fiercely, one at a time, with his whole body, pulling them in as tightly as possible. No more A-frame; his own healing had begun.