Photo by Jennifer Pallian on Unsplash

The Ice Cream Dinner

My wife’s therapist said she believed it was time for our little family, the five of us, to have an ice cream dinner. So we did.

The end.

I wish that was the end of the story. I love ice cream. And I love happy endings.

Ice cream dinners come with strings attached at our house. We couldn’t simply have ice cream for dinner. The caveat was that “real” dinner was to follow ice cream. My wife, a registered nurse, cited health concerns with only having ice cream for dinner. Stuffed peppers were staying warm in the oven once we were done with ice cream.

It was a bait and switch tactic used to lure our three teenagers to the table for a serious family discussion. Any honest advertisement regarding this event would have featured a man’s voice at the end, speaking in a hushed but hurried voice, stating that, “Ice cream is not a valid substitute for “real” dinner. Please consult your physician before participation. The ice cream served at this event will be followed by servings of proper nutritious food. Serious family discussion may follow.”

I was not in a great head-space for a serious family discussion that night. I thought I might be able to rally by taking a 30 minute stroll down the road beforehand. I let my wife know my plan, and set off down the road, snapping some pictures of the scenery with my phone and pondering just how few people in this world would be negatively impacted if a meteorite were to vaporize me in that moment.

As I was walking back towards home, I decided to come out to an old high school acquaintance over Messenger. He wasn’t openly gay in school, but he was ostracized and picked on for being our school’s only male cheerleader, and most people assumed he was gay. If there was ever a good time and place to be openly gay in high school, the rural Midwest in the late 1980’s was not that time and place. He came out later in life, in his mid-twenties.

I had always felt an affinity towards him, but I stayed silent and kept our relationship as mere acquaintances rather than friends. My mission in high school was very clear; fit in and appear normal at all costs. The Messenger coming out conversation went well, if not more than a little awkward, since it was over instant messaging between two people that haven’t corresponded in twenty years. Only later did it occur to me that I just casually came out to a near stranger with no prior planning. It was like a pressure relief valve had gone off. Strange.

Once home, I found that the four tubs of various flavors of ice cream were starting to melt on the table. My wife had set out all of the fixings, hot fudge, caramel, sprinkles, and cherries. So we each grabbed our bowls and spoons and proceeded to dig in.

My wife kicked off the conversation, “So, it has been quite a while since we’ve had a family discussion, and as you guys know, your dad and I have had a rough time of it over this past week due to his workplace making an issue of the length of his hair.”

This is a good place to pause; most of my life is still closeted. I’m well over a year into my transition and I’m not out to my workplace, nor within our community, and none of my wife’s family knows that I’m transgender. So I still present as a male during the vast majority of my waking hours, and at home I’m still he/him. I occasionally present authentically at home, and I rarely leave the house as a woman, and then only for therapy appointments and support group meetings.

I elaborated on the workplace situation for the kids a bit, letting them know that the hair issue seems to be deferred for now, and that my job seems stable for the moment. However, the issue caught my wife and I a bit flatfooted, and as a family we wanted to be in sync about not only the present situation, but also on the plans for the foreseeable future. “Situations are often stressful primarily because you don’t have a plan in place when things change. Hopefully we can chat a bit as a family and start to develop a plan. You kids have often complained that mom and I make decisions that impact the entire family without soliciting your input first, and tonight is our attempt to start to change that,” I explained.

My son was the first to react. He’s the most empathetic of our three children, and hearing more details regarding my workplace hair-assment and how it was affecting his mom and dad made him angry. He offered to go to my employer’s HQ and knock some sense into some people. I laughed and told him I appreciated the offer, and how much I was touched by his protectiveness.

My older two children, the girls, they were much more hesitant to speak. My wife tried to move the conversation along a bit, soliciting their input along the way. She explained that “our” coming out terrified her, and she found through this experience that she wasn’t emotionally ready to take that step yet. I was surprised a bit to hear her say this. I thought we were both getting closer as a couple to being out.

She asked the kids if they had any concerns about their dad coming out as transgender.

Dead air. No reaction. I think my oldest gave the faintest of shoulder shrugs. We knew my son had told a couple of his friends. It wasn’t a great experience for him. He hasn’t repeated it.

“What about with your friends. Have any of you talked about your dad being transgender with any of your friends?” my wife asked. “That is a big secret to have to carry around.”

My secondborn admitted that a couple of her friends knew. Her best friend had seen her diary left lying open and asked her what the entry she saw meant. It wasn’t malicious snooping, lying open as it was, her friend didn’t even know it was her diary. I hadn’t heard about this before.

She then said she was slowly trying to convince her other friends to abandon their bigoted opinions towards people in the LGBT community. They believed that people that choose that kind of lifestyle were bad people. She explained that her group of friends was split down the middle on issues like that, but she believed she had a couple of them showing some signs of growth. It terrified me to think that my child was likely to lose up to half of her friends once they learn that I’m transgender.

My wife then asked my firstborn, “Honey, have you told any of your friends about your dad?”

Let me take another pause to point out how discomforting it is to exist as such taboo subject matter in the lives of my own family. My mere existence is driving a wedge between my children and their friends; between my wife and her mom and sisters. As I finished my bowl of ice cream, I reflected on how I had never felt so acutely isolated and alone while quite literally surrounded by my favorite people in the world.

My oldest just shook her head no in response to my wife’s question. My wife pressed a bit more, “That is such a big burden to bear on your own. You don’t talk to us about it, and you don’t talk to any of your friends. You shouldn’t have to do this alone. Have you ever thought about telling a friend?”

Another head shake “no”. More dead air. Eventually, after too much pressure from her mom, she angrily admitted that she just wanted to finish high school without any more drama. A bad incident and ugly public breakup with her first and only boyfriend had cemented her plan of following a path of least drama. She didn’t want to tell anyone about me because she doesn’t want to deal with the fallout. She’s a sophomore. That means another two and a half years until graduation.

With that, my poor wife declared the ice cream dinner a failure and dismissed the table. My oldest took her stuffed pepper to her room to eat while she did homework. My secondborn went to her room to practice her music. My youngest gave me a hug before starting on the dishes, it was his turn to do chores.

I bagged up the tubs of mostly melted ice cream, and as I carried them out to the chest freezer in the garage, I wondered where I would find the strength to continue on for at least another two and a half years in the closet, trying to exist in two different worlds.

Ice cream dinners do not come with happy endings at our house.

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