“How Not to Break Your Mama’s Heart” by Rachel Sauls

When you grow up in rural West Tennessee knowing you’re gay and go off to college five hours east where you meet the perfect guy, don’t come out to your family members one by one. Go home on a long weekend and gather them up in the living room Sunday after lunch. Tell them all at once. That way if it goes badly, you can just go back to your own apartment in Chattanooga and pretend it didn’t happen.

If you don’t, you’ll meet your dad at Chili’s in Nashville one day after his business meeting, and he’ll trick you into telling him first.

“Don’t beat yourself up,” he says after you tell him. “I know that it’s just the way you are, and you can’t do anything about it. But not everyone feels that way.”

“Like Mama,” you say twirling the straw in your diet pepsi.

“Your mama will still love you, but she will probably always believe it’s wrong.” He says.

“I don’t want her to talk about me the way she talks about her hairdresser. I don’t want her to cry at night over me, because she thinks I’m going to hell.”

“You know your mama’s firm in her beliefs even when they step on other people’s toes, but I know she’ll come around eventually.”

“I want her to know, but I’m not sure I’m ready for it. Derek’s lease is up and he wants to get an apartment with me. I feel like I have to tell mama.”

“Move in with Derek, if that’s what you want. You can introduce him to mama as your roommate. If she already knows him it will be harder for her to have bad feelings towards him when she finds out.”

“Are you sure? How can you be so okay with this when you know she isn’t? I feel like I’m lying to her.”

“You’re not lying any more than you have been by not telling her.”

Your Sunday-school teaching Mama believes you when you say Derek is just your roommate, and your two brothers who probably know you’re gay play along, so you do it.

You tell yourself it will work. It will be different and you deserve her acceptance, because unlike the other couples your age, it wasn’t all about the clubs and sex. You took things slow, talking on skype almost every day, making sure there was an emotional comittment before things got physical.

Living together is great at first. You cook dinner together after school or work, and watch HGTV – making plans for the house you’ll have one day. He buys you a new comforter to replace the Monopoly themed one you had on your bed when you were the only one sleeping in it. He tells you to get used to it, because once he’s a lawyer, you’ll be a stay at home husband drinking mimosas in the pool. After things get settled, the two of you adopt a tabby cat named Frank and combine your last names with a hyphen on his papers at the vet. It will take a long time, maybe even a year for you to start feeling bad.

Don’t let it take the doctors finding a softball-sized cyst on your mama’s ovaries to make you remember how hard it’s going to be to tell her you’re gay and living with your boyfriend. Instead, you decide not to tell her until after she recovers from her surgery, because she doesn’t need any more stress. You come out to your older brother Matt though while the two of you are sitting alone in the hospital waiting room. You tell yourself it’s a small step towards telling your mama. He smiles and says he’s known for a long time. He says your purple sweatsuits in elementary school and the way your best friends in highschool were beautiful, but never your girlfriends outed you long before you ever thought about telling anyone. You wish everyone in your small town could be like him, the way seems redneck with dip can in hand and a farmer’s tan from years of managing his own landscaping business but he has a college degree and an open mind. Matt assures you it doesn’t make him or his wife think any differently of you. You try not to cry when he says this, because you’ve already fallen in love with their daughter Ansley and can’t imagine life without them. He doesn’t tell you when you should or shouldn’t tell your mama. He says he knows it’s your decision and he knows you’ll do the right thing.

The next time you go home it’s Thanksgiving break and Christmas after that. Everyone says it’s not right to come out on a holiday, so you keep putting it off and try to push it out of your mind. You tell yourself your dad is really the one at fault, because he told you to move in with Derek and isn’t telling his wife the truth about their son. But Derek’s the one that reminds you it’s your responsibility. He’s only a few months older, but came out to his parents in high school even though he knew they’d kick him out, if only for a few days. You’ve met his family, been to their house, and trick or treated with his little brothers. He doesn’t bring up your mama anymore. He says he’s tired of feeling like he’s not important, like you aren’t willing to sacrifice.

It surprises you when Derek suggests coming with you for the four days you’ll spend at home on spring break. You won’t know what to say when your dad calls you three days before spring break and tells you he thinks it’s time to tell your mama. When you ask why, he says she’s been reading this book explaining how Christians can believe in evolution and the bible. He calls it a small but substantial step, but you feel nervous and nauseated. Right before he hangs up, he says he thinks it’s best if Derek is there too.

When you meet your friend Anna for lunch the next day, you ask her what you should do. She says she thinks it’s great you want to come out to your mama, but she’s worried you’re letting your dad make this decision instead of making it for yourself. She tells you it’s important to take control of how you’ll come out. She also tell you about articles she read in her queer theory class and gives you the phone number of a particularly sweet lesbian she knows who just came out to her conservative christian parents. You tell yourself you’re going to tell mama this time, but it will still feel strange and unnatural. You wonder if you’ve been lying too long, and then you feel guilty. The night before you leave you’ll tell Derek you are going to try, but aren’t sure if you can do it, and he falls asleep on the couch instead of sleeping in the bed with you that night, even though you will be separate for the next four nights.

When you make a pit stop in Manchester, Tennessee on the way home, you use the stall instead of the urinal, because the bathroom is full. Standing there with your pants unbuttoned, you see the words “Fags will burn” on the stall wall and it makes you feel strangely uncomfortable, because you still haven’t decided how or if you are going to tell your mama. You wonder if this is how your mama will respond.

Derek spends the car trip studying his LSAT book and trying to make Frank eat skittles. When you start to get close to your exit, Derek blares your favorite song and suggests the two of you scream all the cuss words you can’t say around your parents, just to get them out of your system. He says he’s not nervous, but you know better. When he sees the double wide that serves as Albertville, Tennessee’s town hall, he begs you to pull over and insist the two of you get picture in front of it. While several people from inside stare out the curtained windows, he asks an elderly lady who is walking her dog to take the picture so you both can be in it. He tries to pull you close and you pull away, wishing you’d had enough since to sling your arm around him and throw up a peace sign like you’ve seen the frat boys do on campus. The kind of public displays of affection he is used to aren’t acceptable here.

On the forty five minute drive from Albertville to your house, you and Derek argue about what happened at the courthouse, but you still stop momentarily to kiss him quietly before pulling onto your family’s road, the one where your grandparents, aunts, and uncles live too.

Most of your visit is spent avoiding one-on-one situations with your mama. Her feelings are hurt when you tell her you’d rather work on homework than go to Wednesday night church with her and you refuse to even be on her team when the family plays spades. You don’t mean to hurt her and knowing that you are will make you nauseas. But you find yourself wondering if it will be vomit or a confession that comes gushing out. You still have not decided whether or not you’re going to tell her or how you’ll do it if you do. Even brief moments alone with her will make you feel like you need to throw up.

The second day you are there, you will go into the kitchen to get a diet pepsi. She is washing dishes with the lights off and stops to give you a hug. When she tells you how much she’s missed you, the words “I am gay,” almost slip out. After this, you start to wonder if you can trust yourself.

When Matt asks if you and Derek want to go to the Old Crow Medicine show concert with him in Memphis, you try not to agree before he can finish explaining. It looks suspicious. You force yourself to wait until he says a friend of his came across some tickets for cheap. At first, you act like you don’t want to go and make Derek convince you. He likes feeling like he is still able to expose you to new things.

The three of you leave Albertville early the next day, in time to get to Memphis for barbeque before the show. Matt drives and Derek sits in the front. They talk about the best barbecue places, duck hunting, and which law schools Derek is applying to. You don’t say much, because it makes you happy to see them get a long. You begin to imagine the two of them talking at family Christmas parties in the future and joking about how lucky they are to have such nice brother-in-laws.

Derek asks Matt if his baby on the way will be another girl.

“Yeah looks like it,” he says.

“Do you think you will try for another kid, maybe a boy?” Derek asks.

“I’d like to have a boy, but I was a womanizer too long. I guess I’m just cursed with girls,” he smiles. “But it’s not that bad.”

You try not to think about this too much, but you can’t stop to look out the window or send a text to Derek, and tell him that he’s cute. You linger too long on the thought, thinking about the way you not telling your mama feels like a curse too.

When you get to the concert, you try your best to loosen up and have a good time. Dance if you can and stand close to Derek. Hold his hand when Matt helps the four of you work your way closer to the front. No one will notice when everyone is that close together, and don’t pull away because it’s too sweaty. Try not to notice the woman next to you. She will be one of those first generation hippies with a tye dyed dress, long gray hair, and no shoes. Don’t make eye contact with her. If you do, move away from her when the slow song comes on. If you don’t, she will look too closely at you. She will pull out a lighter and hold it in the air, and you will notice she has wrapped in a peace sign scarf around her wrist. She will sway with the music and move her head with the beat, keeping her eyes locked with yours. You will get the impression she feels like the two of you are sharing a moment. Her eyes will fill with tears, and she will pull you into a hug that smells like pot and mothballs. She will rock with you while they sing about a wagon wheel. Be embarrassed and laugh like Derek. Don’t let the scratchy but earnest quality of her voice as she sings remind you of the way your mama sings in church. Don’t resign yourself to her embrace and wish it was your own mama,. Try not to wish there was any other way to break your mama’s heart.

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