I Swear to God I'm Not Gay

I forget why my coworker began on the photo negatives. Anything could have prompted him, as his mouth ran at the slightest provocation: a customer requesting a special book, an old song playing on the classic rock station the radio was frequently tuned to, an offhand remark made by the mailman. Whatever the occasion was, it gave him something like the mental bends, for the topic rose to his mind with violent buoyancy and twisted his mouth and tongue, forcing him to talk about the negatives for days afterward.

In my memory, I found out about the negatives piecemeal: first, I knew there were three of them; then, I knew they were from the 70’s; finally, I learned they were of his first love. However, rather than dole it out like so, Jude was more likely to have released this torrent of information all at once, leaving me dumb and stupefied, with the coherent narrative being my own construction, a reflection of my inability to think so many things at once.

One moment I am sure of is when he first approached me for help. I was sitting on a small African carved stool (our boss was a collector), organizing the store’s religious section. There was one shelf devoted to ‘Western,’ one to ‘Eastern,’ and another to ‘New Age.’ I was putting sale stickers on the books souls no longer cried for when I sensed Jude’s long, beanpole frame behind me.

“Ben,” he said, “do you have any idea how I can digitize these negatives?”

I told him I did not, but one of the convenience stores with a photo kiosk might. The following day, he came in with his head hung low. I was not surprised—I had sent him on a snipe hunt, knowing stores like CVS did not do those things anymore, but at the time, it felt better than lying to him by saying I had no idea what he should do with those negatives.

In truth, I could scan the negatives myself. Or, more accurately, my wife could. She was a photographer and invested a sizeable chunk of her money into an expensive scanner meant for photo negatives. The scanner made her proud and she loved using it, unwieldy though it was. I often came home to her sprawled out across the floor (the scanner did not fit on our desk), little boxes and strips of film arrayed around her with a white electronic hum emitting from the scanner.

I was not then ready to extend such a kindness to Jude, so when he said no one at the Walgreens near his home knew how to scan a negative and, even if they had, he would not have trusted them, so inept they were at answering his simple questions, “you might need to buy a scanner” was all I chose to say. Did I say this to distance myself from him? To get him to stop thinking about those damn negatives? Because I was afraid? I don’t know. But I think Jude had an idea. He paused before answering me, motioning to step back if he could (there was no room between the two bookcases in the aisle he found me in).

“Yeah,” he said. “You might be right.” And if I were a dog, I would have slinked away in shame.

He didn’t mention the negatives or much else for the rest of that day. It was still early spring then in Detroit, which meant cold and chill. It began to snow before we left and Jude changed his sneakers for thick rubber boots and put his bright red wool coat on. He took the bus to work and the nearest stop was a two-mile walk. He normally took the trouble to ask me for a ride to the bus stop, though it was our standard practice and I had made it clear there was no need to ask, but as we closed up that day, he left without a word and I saw the bright red coat plowing through sleet and slush as I drove by.

I did not suffer him one more humiliation before I offered my wife’s assistance in scanning his negatives the next morning, somehow keeping a straight face while pretending it hadn’t occurred to me before, Jude somehow pretending to believe me without visibly losing his dignity. He was so happy to have something done about the negatives, I think, he allowed himself to look past it. The negatives were at home, of course, so he could not bring them in until the next day (only looking back on this now am I able to see how much waiting we both had to endure—one day here, the next day there, one more sleep, one more wake), but he told me what the photos were like, as all I knew at that point were the most basic details.

They were taken on a Friday evening in late July of 1970. The summer was hot that year, but not as hot as the year before or three years before that, when the riots happened and Jude saw choppers fly by in his backyard with gunners in the open doors. His parents just started loosening his chain, allowing him to go to movies, to stay out a little bit later, to get dinner on his own if he wanted. As he told me this, we pulled up chairs behind the front desk. The boss was still in Europe and no one was coming in. He slowly sank into what he was telling me, his eyes looking through me, his voice addressing no one.

The movie was King Kong, the theater had a special showing that week on account of an anniversary or maybe it was the manager’s favorite movie. Somehow they had gotten hold of or made a large cardboard stand of the monkey outside the theater, tied down with rope so it wouldn’t blow away in the summer wind or be knocked down by mischievous teenagers. The cardboard ape was between the marquee and those glass portals you used to buy your movie tickets from. This was not Jude’s first night out with the camera, but he was finally seeing it as something useful in a creative way beyond documentation. His father gave it to him for getting good marks—he thought Jude floated too much in the summer and needed a hobby to keep himself busy.

One of the photos was of the boy near King Kong, another of him leaning against the ledge of the ticket window, and the last was the boy by the snack bar He paused for a long time after saying ‘snack bar’ and his eyes dropped to the floor. Like him, I did not know what to say, if that was indeed the reason for his silence, so I motioned to get up to change the radio station.

“I don’t remember his name,” Jude said, as I stopped. “I don’t know why and I don’t know how I forgot, but it pains me. Maybe I’m getting too old, Ben.” I couldn’t help him there.


The negatives were wrapped in an old handkerchief tucked inside an old Kodak box. He firmly grasped my shoulder when he thanked me and it took much of me to resist squirming. He only touched me once before that, when my neck hurt and he reached out to massage it. I raised my voice when he did that, making it perhaps more embarrassing for me than it was for him.

It was not exactly his homosexuality that bothered me, but his professed interest in young men, men barely ahead of puberty, men more properly called boys. And to say it bothered me was an understatement—it disturbed me. It was an aspect of his self that I struggled to explain to others, people like my wife. In any attempt, I would always hasten to stress that it was merely the way his mind worked and he was not predatory—he had said so to me and I believed him, but that belief was never strong enough to overcome my disturbance, my nausea.

He admired Oscar Wilde and the ancient Greeks and Romans. He was non-ironically involved in NAMBLA at some point. He was always quick to point out which boys were cute. He bought children’s underwear online from eBay. I don’t believe in his adult life he had ever acted upon his impulses, but I think he would have were the opportunity to ever had arise and he

deemed it mutual. I always felt the inverse happened to him when he was younger—he joked about his high school English teacher’s marriage being an open one and how he talked too much for a certain priest at his school.

This made him a difficult person to summate. Sexuality wasn’t all of him, of course (he read a great deal, built canoes, and was handy), but it was enormous on his topography. Despite my trepidation I’ve described and my other innumerable and subtle acts of bigotry, he was incredibly kind to me, as he was to every person I’d seen him encounter, but I could never fully embrace him as a person. In a word, he felt too icky to me. In another word, he felt too foreign. All of it was made doubly perplexing by his devotion to the Catholic Church of Rome.

It so happened the day he gave me the negatives was Ash Wednesday. I offered to take him to church, knowing he wouldn’t be able to make it otherwise. I was still moving off the momentum of my pathetic excuse for goodwill. We closed the store early, once again taking advantage of the boss’s vacation and left together for an evening service after he looked online and saw there was a bus stop near the church. He brought a copy of T.S. Eliot’s Collected Poems with him, intending to read Ash Wednesday during the mass like a missal. It was odd and a bit pompous, but most things with him that at first seemed like an affectation later turned out to be unspeakably genuine.

Gesu Catholic Church was one of the older churches in Detroit. It was in an area once populated, now hardly so. As we drove there, Jude pointed to each liquor store, each Fish and Chicken Restaurant and told me what used to be there: a laundromat, a bank, a bicycle store—the contempt in his voice while he spoke silenced me. Questions about his faith and his place in the church remained unasked.

The ceiling of Gesu was steeped like an inverted ziggurat, painted with soft blues, reds, and yellows that were ancient and naive. Byzantine and temple-like, the space was more welcoming and calm than the High Gothic churches toward the city center that aimed to inspire profundity and awe. Massive stained glass windows behind the altar at Gesu were awesome enough. They depicted the Passion, but the scenes were swallowed by the deep blue shards that surrounded them. On Sunday mornings, the windows were gorgeous—brilliant; light and rich at the same time, like what I imagine Giotto’s frescos looked like immediately after he painted them.

The evening of Ash Wednesday, though, with the sun setting outside and the red candles burning inside, the windows looked purple, matching the priest’s vestments. Me and Jude sat in the pews while we waiting for Mass to start and he quietly prayed the rosary. I looked around the church and wondered in what sense people would think we were together.

Mass was quiet (most people at Gesu go in the morning). Each time the priest brushed someone’s forehead and commanded them to repent, which he said in a whisper, I could hear him from where I sat. Repent is a powerful word, but one I didn’t understand fully and understood even less each consecutive time I heard it. I turned to ask Jude what he thought, and saw tears streaming down his face. He did not look sad or remorseful, but as at peace as one could be while crying.


After Jude assured me the bus would be safe to ride at night, I drove home to find my wife taking up the entire couch, having fell asleep while reading. I gently rocked her and when she peered a single eye, I asked if she would mind scanning some negatives for my coworker. She made a huff and turned around, scaring me slightly. I went to the small office set up for these types of
things, we kept the scanner there and many of our books. Instead of moving to the scanner to the ground, like she would have done, I balanced it on the edge of the desk. This alone was disrespectful enough, so I downloaded the scanning program on my laptop instead of simply using hers as a way of preserving some sense of her privacy.

While I waited for the program to download, I debated looking up what the Catechism of the Church said about homosexuality, but eventually abandoned the idea. I knew what it said. Were I to have read it over, it would only have been to invoke a pale imitation of what I thought Jude felt when he received the Eucharist or stepped into a church. In addition, and this is likely the real reason I did not read it, I would have felt helpless and evil.

I did not agree with everything the church said, but as a practicing Catholic, I was obliged to. I felt no other contradiction in my life as a 21st century American. I felt no allegiance toward my country, in fact only a vague, limp hate for the doom it constantly wrought upon the world (this feeling was commonplace, especially amongst those my age). The institutions I passed through—be they work, school, or club—aroused more ambivalent feelings in me. Taking what I could from them, I said damn all to any lessons or worldly views they had to share. Political stances I could change at a whim.

But the faith was different, it was private and foundational. No one in church asked me where I differed from dogma. They assumed I swallowed it wholesale (after all, I was supposed to). My friends and my wife had no reference point to judge me from (none of them believed and I would be very picky with what I told them about doctrine), but I assume they described me as “not like most religious people.” The closest they got to seeing the tear I had inside me is when they asked me if they thought they would go to hell and I told them I didn’t know.

The only other Catholic I was close to was my father. Like Jude, he was old enough to remember when the mass was said in Latin, when they still used incense regularly, when things were mysterious, ornate, and a little bit spooky. It was more powerful when they were children, it had more suction amongst it’s flock—people like Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton were household names and we didn’t yet know about the horrible things priests did to children and how the church handled it.

My father always held his faith at arm’s length. One story he liked to tell is when he was an altar boy and he stole the unconsecrated host. The priest caught him passing it out to his friends on the playground in a mock communion and forbid my father from further serving the altar. Once, I explained how if it had been consecrated host, his mortal soul would have been in danger and my father looked at me with the annoyance of a corrected pronunciation.

Later, when my father was in High School (Catholic), he and some of his friends stripped another student naked in the locker room, “taped his ass cheeks open,” hogtied him, and threw him into the girl’s locker room. I don’t know what that has to do with faith, but the way my father still laughs when he tells the story speaks to something, I think. When I asked why they chose that particular poor man, he mumbled something about him being gay.

Still, my father believed for most of his life, maybe even now to some degree. He was the reason I went to Catholic school when I was younger, before the Archdiocese closed the school because of how empty and poor it was. In his later years, he got into Buddhism in a middling way, the kind of spirituality that exists in suburban gardens as a statue or a quote, maybe in something posted online. I did not fault him for reaching outside Catholicism, for I only wanted him to be happy.

When the scanner program finally downloaded and I managed to correctly place the negatives into the scanner tray, I was completely shocked to see the boy in Jude’s photos was my father. He was posed exactly as Jude said he would be—leaning against the outside wall, the neon red and the underbelly gold of the marquee colored him like the heart of Tokyo. He stood next to the cardboard King Kong, his arms raised and powerful (he played football then), his mouth open in a faked scream for the silent photograph. Then, there was my father at the snack bar, a photo more candid than the others, taken from maybe 15 feet away and a little blurry. It’s dark, but still possible to see my father reaching into or out of his back pocket, the clerk handing him a single bag of popcorn. Maybe him and Jude were sharing that night.

I woke my wife up to show her. Not quite knowing what was going on, she first remarked on how old the photos looked before she realized who she was looking at. She shrieked which was what I felt like doing. All we could do was hang our jaws and shake our heads, unable to comprehend what we were seeing, like an apparition of God.

Would it have been best to talk to my father first? Or confront Jude? I didn’t know. I emailed them to Jude with a quick note (I hoped the quality was sufficient, etc.), but I had no clue about what to do next, if anything at all. Did I dream that night? I do not remember.

Jude was not at work the next day. He called off with a cold, a believable excuse given the weather, but still a rare move for him. I tried not to think about it. The boss was still in Europe (at that point it did not seem they would even return) and I had the store to myself. This usually made me happy—I could read, slack off, listen to whatever I wanted on the radio, tell customers to leave—but that day I was incredibly anxious. I kept picking books up and setting them down scarcely after the first page: The Inferno, The Second Sex, Dare We Hope All Men Be Saved?, Notes from the Underground, Pnin, The Stranger. Do you notice a pattern?

Business was not slow enough to justify closing for a second time that week, but I did anyway and drove to my parent’s house, about an hour north of the city.

My father was home when I got there. My mother was out at the grocery store or maybe at the tanning salon, a place she loved to go when the weather was poor. He was happy to see me—he was smoking weed in his office when I walked through the front door, so the first thing I saw was a personal little cloud covering his face. Coughing while he walked, he grabbed me in a big bear hug, his eyes red and watery with a stupid grin on his face that made me embarrassed, but more comfortable than the fragile, temperamental mood he wore when he was sober.

We sat at the kitchen table while he attempted to make us cups of coffee using his new Keurig machine. It was already broken so our cups were only half full. He asked me how work was going, how my wife was, things I was working on outside of work—he was closer to me than my mother was in this way, by knowing what I did, if not necessarily how I felt about it. His life was always the same. He went to the gym sometimes. He read the news to make himself angry. Twice a year, he would take my mother somewhere with a beach. He would order signature items from restaurants across the country that came delivered frozen which he would reheat and eat alone.

At the first permissible silence, I asked him if he knew a Jude Kucway. He looked down and paused before his eyes widened. “Yeah,” he said. “He lived down the block from me when we were kids and we went to school together.” He didn’t ask why I brought him up, so I quickly said he was a customer at my store who went to the same school my father did. Still sitting at the table, I asked him if they were friends. Not really, he said, outside of playing the games together than young children who live near each other sometimes do. We both agreed it was a funny

coincidence that Jude came into the store, but he didn’t give me a message to deliver if I saw him again and he didn’t ask how he seemed to be doing.

By not telling him Jude was my coworker, I lied, trying to avoid becoming a potential messenger between the two. Not telling him about the photos was a lie by omission, but I didn’t want to contradict my father’s story or force him into confession. He was older than a boy in those photographs and he looked too happy, too loose for it to be an awkward meeting between former friends. But I believed what he told me at the kitchen table. Or, to put it more correctly, I don’t think he was purposefully lying to me. It might have been the way he said the little he did—he didn’t trample over anything, but allowed the subject to naturally expire. Since he was older, maybe being a kid meant something different to him than it did to me—he had more to look back on and discard as innocent and low-stakes.

He offered to make me dinner if I stayed, but I refused—I had things to attend to at home, I told him, using more or less words. Understanding, but confused as to why I would drive such a long way for such a short visit, he hugged me goodbye. In my guilty and dumbfound state, I invited him to Easter Vigil with me at Gesu to which he agreed.


I told my wife the little my dad had said and in reply she said even less. After all, what was there to say? It was weird? I wonder if they kissed? Didn’t your dad call people ‘faggot’ a lot?

As we ate dinner, we talked about mundane things, but each ‘pass the—,’ each time she wiped food off my beard, each laugh and smile brought the photos to mind with a lingering friction, like an intended dinner guest who couldn’t come on account of death. Or at least they came to my mind—I think she noticed each time the conversation would die and I would look to

the side or my smile would drop a second too fast. Or maybe this is how I normally appeared to her: suspicious, paranoid, and inward.

After dinner, we got into bed for the night and turned on a movie, but it was no use for me—my possibly gay father dominated my mind.

Outside of the photographs, I had no obvious evidence of homosexuality, only incidents that could just as easily been performances of his heterosexuality (or nothing at all): loudly mentioning the size of women’s breasts in public, crying face down on the floor after he hit me, having an affair, drinking too much, getting an earing and his hair dyed at age 51, never teaching me how to shave, joking about being married to my grandfather to a pizza delivery guy, never having another son.

When my wife and I tried making love that night, I couldn’t bring myself to and we went to bed unsatisfied and frustrated.


A breakfast sandwich and a coffee were waiting for me on the counter the next time I worked with Jude. “I wish I had more to offer you,” he said, “but I’ll have to cook you dinner sometime.” A coffee was too much thanks for the work involved, I explained to him, but he did not relent. Part of me was afraid his gratitude was heightened by my initial deferment.

We both sat by the front door unpacking the boxes that came in that day. He was working on the fat new bestsellers in hardback with slick covers and beveled lettering. Art and design magazines were in my box, the kind my store chose to carry over more popular newsstand fare. After briefly inspecting the corners and the dust jacket for dents and rips, he would plop each book down with a thud atop the pile near his feet, the only noise punctuating his speech, for he did not even pause for breath as he talked. He wished, more than anything, that he remembered

the boy’s name so he could look him up. It came closer to him than ever once he saw his face in the photographs, but in the end his memory was still a void. They met at school that year, he said, and over the summer they saw each other constantly, sometimes seeing a movie, sometimes getting an ice cream, sometimes driving around for hours. They both listened to the same music and the boy’s parents were very nice.

I was prepared to see my sweat fall like drops of blood upon the magazines in the box. They were the newest Artforum, the cover was a painting of a man’s torso. I tossed one over to Jude with a laugh and a stupid joke I can’t remember (one of my ways of dealing with an aversion to his sexuality was joking about an amplified version of it). He thanked me, surprisingly serious, and said he could use it for a painting he was working on—an imagined nude portrait of my father.

I felt like dying.

“I always wondered what he would look like underneath his clothes,” Jude said. “So badly did I want to see this, so badly did I want to experience this. So, so badly. When you sent me those photos, everything I felt then rushed back into me like I was shot. I wanted it more than anything then and I want it even more now. I’ll never be able to have it so I need to create it and my way of doing so is painting. I loved that boy, Ben.”

Jude’s voice warbled toward the end and his lip quivered but relief washed over me and my spirit lifted. They had not had sex. I didn’t know what I was celebrating, other than a pillar in my life remaining unchanged.

I asked whatever happened to the boy (nearly calling him Peter, my father’s name). Jude said they drifted, with a renewed vigor in his work. They drifted and never saw each other after high school, he said. He did not mention the photos or my father again that day.

My father showed up at the Easter Vigil, which I admit surprised me. It was held at night and Gesu was in an area he did not normally go, but he still came, coming in just before it started, sliding next to me in the pew. Decorated, the church was beautiful. What looked like hundreds of peace lilies surrounded the altar like their delicate white flowers surrounded the spiky center called a spadix. The crucifix behind the altar was turned around so the body of Jesus couldn’t be seen, but a white sash was draped around the cross, and the rood screen was covered in a white tapestry, as well. If you can believe it, the priest wore white, too.

All lights were turned off for the Exsultet and everyone was given tiny white candles to hold while we stood and listened (in reverence). My father and I were there in the darkness in the together, with the tiny flames under our faces, exposing strange tones and contours in our skin. The cantors were haunting and shaking, somehow giving the impression of silence as they sang. In a moment of tenderness, my father reached over and squeezed my shoulder as if massaging it. In a similar way, I reached out and grabbed his arm.

However, he was not prepared for the length of the mass. By the time the Baptisms began, my father was tapping his feet. By the time of the first Communions, any sentimentality or grace he had had washed away into annoyance. I smelled weed on him when he first came into the church and his high must had been wearing off.

When we went up for Communion, I by chance had made it back to the pew long before him and, though my head was supposed to be down and I was supposed to be praying, I watched him stumble down the aisle in his ocean blue shirt like an oaf and I felt nothing but anger and the wish for him to leave. I felt disgusted at the vague protection I had granted his honor, his sexuality. I considered him for the first time as a cruel man who may have damaged Jude because

he was afraid. I saw him as I used to see him when I was a teenager, a broken man who could not commit to any sort of devotion that did not serve himself first. I tried, but failed to pray for peace.

After Mass, we talked in the parking lot but only briefly because of the late hour. Even had it been early, we didn’t have much to say to each other. I thought of the Ash Wednesday Mass I went to with Jude, when we stayed so late after talking theology that he needed to wait an extra 45 minutes for his bus. Next to that, my father seemed shallow, blind to beauty, dumber than a dog.


The next time I thought of my father during mass was at Pentecost, the day we remember the Holy Ghost entering the apostles and they spoke in tongues. The priest sent out a bulletin the week prior asking everyone to wear red, but all I could find was a rusty orange sweater with a tear in the sleeve (much like what Thomas is wearing in the Caravaggio painting when Jesus asks him to stick his hand into his wounded slit in his side and Thomas does). Inside, the church looked like a meeting of the Communist Party.

After Communion, back at the pew I saw a father and son in front of me, just like my father and I had been at Easter Mass. The father was deep in prayer and his son, probably 10 years old, stared at him. It was exactly what I did when I was younger and my father brought me to church. The colorful and cartoonish bible study books they give you at that age attempt to teach you how to pray, but they do a poor job at explaining why—it is hard to impress the meaning of suffering upon a young person who has not experienced any, such as myself.

After Communion, everyone in the church prays with an intensity unknown to you. Separated from this, I would quickly get bored and lift my head, only to see my father with his

face buried in his hands, his eyes tightly closed, more solemn than any statue I had seen. I knew better than to ask what he prayed about, I knew it was his alone, more private than a birthday wish.

A man who I knew only as outgoing, funny, and explosive suddenly becoming withdrawn and interior was more of a religious experience for me than any sacrament I had received. But when I grew older and saw my father in that same state, I assumed he was miserable, brooding over some insignificance, no longer looking at him with the reverence or weight as a child. I do not know how that spirit left me, if it was my father’s doing or some other reckoning.

It wasn’t until I brought my head to my hands after staring at the family in front of me that I realized I was only aping the memory of my father.


By then, nearly two months after Easter, most thoughts of the negatives faded from my mind and my father and I resumed our normal distant relationship. My forgetfulness was aided by the new job I found in that time, a records keeper at a local office—I worked alone and never talked to Jude again after I left the bookstore. I would think of him from time to time (whenever the weather took a downturn, for example). Whenever I did, though, questions would enter my mind that I am still too afraid to answer.

How did Jude not remember my father’s name? He knew Walt Whitman’s birthday, key dates in the Civil War, memorized passages of Yeates, and the publication history of Ulysses. Surely, the name of his first love would have a carved out space in his cavernous mind, even if it was only awoken after seeing the photos of my father in high-resolution for the first time. And I never knew Jude to be a liar or a faker, but how could he have not noticed my resemblance to my father? I looked as if I came from his spit. Was he waiting for me to bring it up? Maybe. But I

was afraid to be my father’s proxy to him in that way, a fear I am ashamed to admit, even if it could be considered grounded.

I wondered what happened, too. The most likely scenario is my father and Jude kissed, a kiss initiated by Jude. My father, scared and confused, did something either incredibly cruel to Jude or ran away. Or both. Maybe Jude was the kid he threw in the locker room.

Alternatively, they never kissed at all, but passion and inaction boiled over to staleness and ineffability. I can’t say I would prefer one situation over the other, but I do want both to be true. If my faith points towards anything, maybe both situations can be.

I hesitate to speculate on whether this incident led to Jude’s fascination with young men, as if he became locked in a state of desire for my father at that age by whatever happened. It might have something to do with it, but I do not know enough about the sexual mind to guess and, frankly, I don’t care to. In the months that followed first seeing those photos of my father, I came to appreciate mystery and knowledge that lay outside my view. I became happily myopic.

If I were to see Jude again, I would tell him when I was a child, I was afraid of being gay and I prayed that I wasn’t because I thought I would go to hell. I would ask him to forgive me for this. I would ask him how he stayed so patient as he “waited for a 2000-year old boat to turn.” I would tell him about my father and offer to get them in touch. I can be sure I would do these things only because I am confident I won’t see him again.

Were I reckless enough to ever bring the subject up with my father, I would ask him what happened, then ask him again. I would love him in the way a son is supposed to and maybe I would tell him what I used to pray for, too. Maybe we could laugh about that or maybe he would have something to tell me. Time is running out to talk to my father about this, though, for we are not young men anymore.