[cw: use of gay slur]

Good One 

by Will McMillan

“Was there anything you ever wished you could tell me?” my mother asked, because she’d finally decided her son’s an adult, and it was time, at last, for mother and son to have adult conversations. Straight away I thought of the single joke she repeated throughout the life of my childhood, to my friends, to our family, to anybody who would listen.

“So, this little fag walks into a bar, and as soon as the bartender sees him the bartender goes, ‘Nope, get out of here, faggot. We don’t serve people like you.’ So, the fag goes, ‘Oh, but thir, I’m tho thirthty, it’s tho hot, could I pleeth just have a cold thathparilla?’ And so, the bartender gives the faggot his drink, tells him to go sit in a corner, to drink his drink fast and get the hell out, and about ten minutes later this big cowboy stumbles in, all hot and sweaty, covered in dirt, and he goes up to the bartender and says, ‘God damn it, I’m so thirsty I could lick the sweat off a cows’ balls!’ And from the corner of the bar the fag goes, ‘Moo moo-ooo!’”

She could barely get through the joke without cracking up, because to her this was the be all, end all, joke of all jokes. She never noticed the quick, awkward laughter. The throats as they cleared, the eyes fumbling for anything other than her to be looking at. And certainly, she’d never seen me as I sat silent and listened, hands wedged under my lap. Never noticed how hard I tried to collapse into nothing, how badly I wanted to fold in on myself, some pale, dying star, and from everything, from her, explode into darkness.

“Was there anything you ever wished you could tell me?” she asked. And there was.

“So, I was taking a test one day, a sophomore in high school, and this stupid girl sitting in front of me turned around in her desk, took out her pen, and wrote “FAGGOT” at the top of my paper. She laughed out loud as she wrote it. I tried to scratch it out, but you could still see it. Which meant when I turned the test in, the teacher would see it. And every day of my life for the next 25 years I tried, holy fuck how I tried, to scratch that word out. But you know what? That girl had been right. I was a faggot. And no matter how hard I scratched at that part of myself, no matter how hard I tried to ignore it, I could still see it.” 

But I couldn’t tell her that. I didn’t even know if I wished that I could, because telling myself had been hard enough. How would I tell her that I’d been the secret butt of her joke? That her words had teeth, that they’d chewed through my skin and set sail through my blood, getting stuck like a bramble so deep in my heart I couldn’t even begin to know how to reach them. Yet we were both adults now as she said, no longer just mother and child, and I was hoping that meant she was asking on purpose. That all these years later she suspects what I am. Now she wished she could take it all back, because one time, at the end of her joke, she actually noticed my eyes. She saw just how badly they hurt. And all these years later, just maybe, she’s hurting, too. So instead, I asked her.

“Was there anything you ever wished I would tell you?”

Her smile was a bright, easy flash, her eyes stay focused on mine. “No. But haven’t I always made it easy for you to tell me your secrets?”

“Okay,” I replied. And all these years later the feeling roared back, the inkling to become something transparent, to drift away from that moment, from her. And suddenly I realized that actually yes, I did. I had something to tell her. Words that sound like a bad joke in my head but become deadly serious when they rip their way through my mouth.

“Mom? Do you know that cows don’t have balls? Do you know that I’ve never liked thathparilla?

Will McMillan is queer writer born and raised just outside of Portland, Oregon, where he still lives today. His work has appeared in The Sun, Atticus Review, Redivider, and Into the Void literary journals, among others. He has also appeared on the national radio show This American Life, discussing his experience as former Jehovha’s Witness who was disfellowshipped after his homosexuality was discovered. You can see more of his work at willjmcmillan.com and on twitter @willmcmn.