The first figure to greet anyone entering my father’s second-floor apartment was the Martini Lady. Printed on poster board, she stood with her hip jutted, strong-jawed and slouchy in a red strapless cocktail dress. Her hair was cut short and her raised hand exposed an unshaved armpit. I never knew if these spiky black tufts emphasized Martini’s dykiness or exposed her to be not a lady, but a delicate man.
Despite her vamping, Martini was a welcome sight. Whenever I went outside with my father, I wanted desperately to get back in. Seattle’s freeway was a direct shot to his apartment, but if he needed groceries, we’d detour along South Broadway, the gayest street in the second-gayest city in America. My father knew everyone on the avenue. As we passed men with hoops in their earlobes and Calvin Klein briefs peeking over their low-slung jeans, he’d greet them with a kiss on the lips and introduce me, hiking his voice into a higher register. I was never at ease with these men, and I didn’t feel myself loosen until we turned off Broadway and the streets took on the same calm feel of the sleepy neighborhood where I lived six days out of seven with my mom. When I finally met eyes with Martini, I was like a sprinter crossing the Capture the Flag line from deep in enemy territory, safe at last.
Unlike the house I lived in with my mother, my father’s apartment was furnished by selection, not accumulation, and each room looked torn from a catalogue on interior design. As early as elementary school, I perceived something threatening beneath the soft lighting and sleek Scandinavian furniture. A framed sketch of a cartoon king had pubic hair; a gridded poster in my father’s room depicted a finger indenting a nipple; in the kitchen, a black man licked melted ice cream off his partner’s balding head. Magazine racks displayed issues of Out and GQ, whose covers exhibited some variation on the words HOT HOT HOT superimposed over gleaming pectorals. What wasn’t on the walls, I uncovered myself. Once, I grabbed something in my father’s closet, and a cascade of birdseed scattered across the floor, leaving me gripping an empty leg of pantyhose. He explained that he had gone to a drag party that weekend and filled them to make breasts. Another time, I remember handling a familiar Christmas tree ornament and lifting its skirt to see two sewn-on jewel balls attached beneath a tiny beaded penis.
Every Friday, my father hung his coat on the rack beside Martini and closed the door to the apartment. We were home.
I result from one of the world’s most deliberate conceptions; my father was the accident. He’d agreed at twenty-eight to donate his sperm to my mother, Annette, a forty-year-old lesbian determined to have a biological baby before the last slow tick of her biological clock. Arranged by a third party, I was conceived through artificial insemination. My parents never met, nor did they plan to. But by the time I reached toddlerhood, my mom’s partner had split and I was down a parent, so she decided to invite my father over. He showed up with his then-boyfriend David, which caused some lingering confusion (“My dad is John and David!” I told people for weeks), but things went smoothly enough for my mom to issue a second invite. Gradually, Plan A was discarded. Three years and nine months after his initial contribution, John Leonard became my father.
Throughout my school years, neither of my parents had a partner, and the not so keen observers at parent potlucks were quick to read them as affable divorcees. Sexuality aside, I can’t think of an unlikelier union. At a time when my mother was routinely mistaken for my grandmother, my father could bring a bottle of wine to the checkout stand and still, from time to time, get carded. Annette Lund makes flight-option spreadsheets; John Leonard misses planes. Pop culture barely sneaks its way into my mother’s house. She pretty much only listens to Joni Mitchell; for years, we had no TV.
But perhaps most importantly, my mother is not that gay. She never came out to her parents; she didn’t send me to any two-mommy playgroups. With time, she came to identify more with heterosexual parents than the childless lesbians she had known. Given the Northwest penchant for comfort-conscious outerwear, Seattle streets are lined with women in fleece and orthopedic Keens, so my mom never stood out as unfeminine. But until I asked him not to, my dad would walk onto the Lowell Elementary playground wearing a hoodie advertising GAY CITY, the HIV prevention organization he had founded. I couldn’t make my father fade into the background.
Every Friday during middle school, I’d drop my coat at Martini’s feet, kick off shoes and socks, and sit cross-legged on the couch, waiting for the central ritual of my weekly visits to begin. My father would bring a blanket, and facing each other on opposite ends of the couch, I’d read aloud—to a man who averaged a book a year—a single chapter of Harry Potter. Our ritual was best on rainy days. My father would warm my pruny feet under the blanket while I sucked on cough drops to recover from the latest round of nasal British accents I affected to win his laughter. We made it through the first four volumes this way, ninety-four chapters, 1,824 pages overall.
Dad’s Day, as we came to call it, was an exercise in distilled parenting. Infused with the deliberateness of a family relationship pursued once weekly, Fridays with my father never failed to be quality time. This meant rituals. Before Harry Potter, we took turns reading from D’Aulaire’s Book of Greek Myths and covering the walls of my room with drawings of the goddesses. Before that, the heart of Dad’s Day lay in the weaving of five blindingly tiny rows on my authentic Native American miniature beading loom, snacking while we let our eyes rest, then squinting our way across five more rows. For years, I recycled any joke that earned its place within our father-daughter pantheon: the “easy-to-assemble lamp” that never got completed, the trendy uncomfortable furniture, the fact it took him three Junes to read Three Junes.
And so, surrounded by gay paraphernalia, I occupied my father’s space with a stubborn adherence to the culture of childhood. Our best joke and best ritual happened every Friday night. “Tuck me in!” I’d yell, and my father would leap up from wherever he was and run to my bedside, his hands stuffing the blankets under the mattress in a manic display of thoroughness. I’d kiss him on the cheek and he would say goodnight. But in the sliver of the door shutting behind him I could always see a slice of the Martini lady, cleavage spouting above her bandeau, and I’d feel my stomach tighten. Surrounded by signs but cushioned by assumed illiteracy, I feared a time when I might be called upon to understand the language.
The older I grew, the more the apartment—closed to the outside world—became the one place I could interact with my father on my own kiddish terms. His friends were kind to me, but they were just too edgy. One April, my father organized an egg hunt at one of his friend’s houses and I came home sulky, complaining that the last time I checked, the real Easter Bunny didn’t drink beer or smoke cigarette. At gatherings, he was constantly depositing me with some snarky dyke comedienne, only to find me alone in the garden ten minutes later, observing somebody’s terrier. I knew I should try harder. But I didn’t want to talk to these people on the plane of equivalence adolescence would provide. And I especially didn’t want to be a teenager around my father, who was too young, too current, claiming the cultural and sexual territory I wanted for my own.
When my father’s thirties came to a close, he threw a huge FUCK FORTY costume party in a rented space near Broadway. I showed up early with my mother to make an appearance before the party really started, wearing a bra for the first time. Only a handful of people had arrived, and I circulated from guest to guest, doing my best to make cute, exuberant conversation. At one point, my father sidled up to me and, indicating a man on the opposite side of the room, cracked a joke about his outfit: red body paint and a black leather thong. It was a real gay man joke told just for me—campy, blunt, the kind I’d hear him make to his friends when discussing something like Monica Lewinsky’s make-up.
I feigned confusion. What defense did I have except to act younger, remain a child who could still, in innocence, walk eyes open through a parent’s sexual world? But I felt a stab of shame at my own evasion. Now that I was thirteen, I was spending more and more time swatting aside my father’s offers of parity. I wasn’t ready for us to be equals. All I wanted was to return to the apartment, where I could close my doors to GQ, and from within the walls of a bedroom decked out in my own pastel renderings of Aphrodite, wait for my father’s hands to tuck me in.
Middle school marched forward into high school. The half-done lamp continued to serve as a mockable floor piece, but I was starting to worry. We needed new vocabulary, and the ice cream men and nudie king sketch bore down on me with accusation. Gayness was fair game if abstracted through art or politics— the crazies in the Bush Administration, The Laramie Project. But I knew I wasn’t asking more about my father’s AIDS work because I feared the sex content of his answers. Who else’s father emceed anti-barebacking forums called “The Greatest Hole on Earth?” There were whole parts of his history I only knew about in pieces: the former boyfriends, the plague years of the eighties, the fully-sketched story of his coming-out.
All those high school years in the apartment, I was haunted by who I might have been if raised entirely by my father. In a blue state, his brand of gayness was not a liability but an asset: what could be cooler than having a dad who was ex-besties with a nationally syndicated sex columnist? But I had fallen short of claiming my inheritance. Side-by-side, we looked like a fixer duo out of Queer Eye. I felt stung whenever he suggested I take my hair out of a messy bun and censoriously handed me a hairbrush.
And so my forays into teenagerdom and cultural literacy— prom! first peacoat! familiarity with the films of Wes Anderson!—were best concealed. I denied having crushes and never shared my tentatively emerging music taste, even as I eyed his cabinets full of albums. I was so intimidated by his style commentary that on Fridays, I dressed myself in T-shirts. Flipping through his DVD collection, my father would always joke that we should settle for my favorite, Finding Nemo.
“Don’t you want to update your room?” my father often asked when he stopped in to find me, his curiously studious child, bent over my desk. My room in the apartment had the same old things on the walls it always had: drawings of Demeter and Aphrodite from the Greek Myths phase, pictures from the Harry Potter movies. But I never could decide how to replace them. I came in one day to see a poster for the Seattle International Film Festival hung above my bed. He figured I needed something current.
My father moved to San Francisco the fall of my senior year of high school but didn’t sell the apartment until the nine months later, after I graduated. Busy putting my own belongings into boxes for the trek to college, I only showed up to help him the very last day. The apartment had been gutted and all that was left to do was move the remaining boxes out of the basement storage space. Lugging files and folders in the still heat of August exhausted us, so after an hour, we stopped to have a drink with some of my father’s friends who lived on the other side of Broadway. Sitting on the porch with three gay men, I felt the detachment of an anthropologist, involved yet marginal. I ate more chips and guacamole than the three of them put together because I didn’t have as much to say.
Back at the apartment, I was impatient to finish the last round of loading up. Carrying my father’s boxes to the curb, I thought of my own boxes getting shipped off to my dorm room at Yale, and how little attention I’d given to what I would put up on the walls. At first, I had planned on pursuing an aesthetic—my father had brought table runners and mood lighting and candle holders made of sea glass to college—but quickly discarded the idea as overcalculated. I settled for shoving a few travel postcards and a painting of the Cascade Mountains into the bottom of my suitcase and calling it a day.
Tired and sweaty, we trudged up to the second-floor apartment one last time. At the entrance, I kicked off my flip-flops to walk barefoot on the hardwood. Light flooded the open space. Our silence sounded without the mute of visual interference, and not knowing what else to do, I sat down in the center of the room. Even from where he stood by the window, my father loomed over me, enormous. This is it, I thought. This is what I’ve wanted, to be surrounded by bare walls. This is not something worth wanting. But here, with our accessories packed up in boxes, I felt an unfamiliar comfort. In the moment before my father stepped forward to kneel down beside me, our eyes locked across the width of the apartment, a tilted plane of contact in an empty room.