Over the weekend, while his brother Max preferred playing for hours with his Wii in the refurbished basement, Marc sat in the attic for just as long piecing together the make-believe flag from their mother’s discarded fabric ends and old clothes.
The boys’ mother was a fashion designer discovered during Caribbean Fashion Week, migrating to New York with her two sons just over a year later when the Trinidad market got too small for her. “Too many crabs in a bucket,” she’d said and left her husband behind while he was still scratching his head and thinking of the plans Winzie had told him she was going to execute only a month before she hopped on the American Airlines plane. She’d texted him as she exited through the door of the house he’d built for his family in Chaguanas and which he thought was a happy home he returned to every night from work. The text read: “When u make up ur mind, u know where 2 find us.” He was supervising the beginning of a project on a construction site in downtown Port-of-Spain when he felt his iPhone vibrating, and the architect had to wait for five minutes before the glaze passed over Benson’s eyes as he stammered repeatedly, “But…but…” By the time he arrived at Piarco Airport and made enquiries the flight had long gone, carrying away his only children and a woman he thought he knew.
Benson never joined her and the children on a permanent basis, travelling to New York infrequently for brief visits over the years and keeping contact mainly via Skype. He refused to uproot his way of life and his career. He sent money each month for the boys not because she needed it, but to preserve his manhood and dignity in her eyes and theirs. Once he could maintain some form of relationship with his sons he was content with the arrangement, never totally overcoming the humiliation and bewilderment of her manner of departure. He knew he could never thenceforth be happy living with her, and felt his stance to remain in Trinidad was his way of defying her wish to dictate and control his decisions.
“As you boys get older you’ll understand,” Benson said to his sons on one of those New York visits as the three strolled along Brooklyn Bridge Park on a warm summer’s afternoon. The last time he was there visiting for Christmas months before, he’d sat with them in a pizzeria overlooking the sprawling city on a wintry December evening trying to thaw the ice. Max had been cold and distant, but Marc, with his blank expression, was harder for Benson to read as always. Eighteen-year-old Marc was always more introverted and sensitive than Max who was just fifteen months older. So here he was trying again to respond to Max’s pointed questions which he’d been broaching more. “Father, when are you finally coming to stay?” “Are you and Mother eventually going to get a divorce?” “Do you have anybody else in Trinidad?” Benson cleared his throat with a half-cough and pretended not to hear the last question.
“You’ll understand the kind of woman your mother is and why I can’t stay here with you. As for a divorce, she hasn’t yet asked for one and neither have I.”
On his previous visit, Winzie had cornered Benson as he’d said farewell to the boys in the foyer of their brownstone and was about to step outside to take the taxi which had just arrived to take him back to the hotel. “Make up your mind yet?” she hissed sotto voce while eying the boys’ backs as they neared the top of the stairs en route to their bedrooms. “This back and forth, either you stay for good or you send me the papers to sign.”
“I send you the papers?” Benson retorted, matching the timbre of her voice and glaring at her with narrowed eyes. “Who’s the one that walked out without a word before that and with my children? You wanted out, so you send the papers.”
Another quick glance assured her the boys had gone out of view and earshot. “And alimony? I’m no fool,” Winzie snapped, dropping her whisper with a wry laugh. The figure in her bank account, a tangible outcome of her U.S. success, loomed large in her mind and she wasn’t inclined on her estranged husband sharing in the bounty.
“Neither am I,” Benson clapped back and turning on his heels headed to the door.
He paused and turned, maintaining the distance between them.
“He’s gay, you know. At least, I know.”
“What has that got to do with—?”
“I don’t want another panty man to deal with. You were one sort, and now I have to deal with this kind that he’s becoming.”
“What the fuck are you saying to me?!”
“Don’t you dare raise your voice and talk to me that way! If you were man enough all along I wouldn’t have had to leave and bring them with me to be both mother and father!”
“And don’t you fucking dare try to make me be the one responsible for who or what Marc is! This was all about you and what you wanted for yourself. It had nothing to do with me or the boys. So don’t put any blame on me. Don’t you fucking suggest because I am not around that Marc is now gay or that if I stay here he won’t be. Fucking shit you’re telling me!”
Both their chests were heaving but their voices had not been raised loud enough, they thought, to attract the boys’ or the maid Carlota’s attention. Benson then closed the distance between them in what to Winzie felt like a second, as he rushed up to her with two long strides. He motioned to tell her something, but then turned and walked away.
Winzie noticed the spittle on the corners of Benson’s mouth that was a sign of his immense rage and it gave her pause. He slammed the door with a mighty force when he exited. It was this, she saw, that brought Carlota to the foyer from the kitchen, drying her hands with a towel, and both Max and Marc to the stair landing, leaning over inquisitively.
“Ma’am. Is everything alright?” Carlota said, looking worriedly at Winzie whose eyes were now brimming with tears.
“Is everything okay, Mother?” asked Max when she didn’t reply. Marc was there, too, silent.
“Your father, as usual,” Winzie finally responded. “It’s alright—go back to what you were doing.”
Marc was contemplating how he was almost ready with the flag he had sewn together from Winzie’s discarded fabrics. He’d be proud to wave it during the city’s gay pride parade, which he intended to take part in for the first time, without his mother’s or brother’s knowledge. The multi-coloured cloth laid spread on the attic floor as he admired it and wondered what James would think about it.
James. He smiled. James Oomen, so good inside and out. With his brown hair and green eyes like his American mother, and tall like his Dutch father. With a gym-conditioned body, James was not only the oldest but also the most handsome lover Marc had been with so far. He was even more dashing than Royce, a previous crush from his class; he’d invited him home and to one of his mother’s fashion shows (“He’s my study partner, Mother”), but Winzie looked at Royce suspiciously with an unsmiling face. So, no introductions for her regarding James—his secret. James, also so more skilful in bed than any other lover he’d had—teaching him techniques and positions he never imagined existed. And most importantly, James, so kind, understanding, faithful and loyal to him, with a listening ear to all Marc confided about his family problems and his aspirations. James meant so much to him that Marc had stitched in an image of the bugle horn which features on the Dutch royal flag. James was his prince. No, more than that—the king of my heart, Marc thought, smiling to himself again.
He had shown James the design on paper and couldn’t wait for him to see the actual outcome. As he began to fold the flag to hide it in the wooden chest where he kept his school memorabilia and other knicks and knacks, he sensed a presence. He spun around to face the inquisitive look of his brother. He hadn’t heard Max climbing his way to the attic moments before.
“Don’t be an asshole. I saw it.”
“Then why ask me?”
“You know if mother saw that she’d get in a fit.”
“It’s none of her business. Nor yours.”
Marc continued folding the flag and turned his back on Max as he locked the chest, placing the key in his trouser pocket. He then turned and faced his older brother. For several seconds their heavy breathing was all that passed between them before Marc shoved passed Max and descended the attic stairs.
The next morning, Max’s eyes casually fell upon the sites ‘Most Visited’ on his brother’s iPad as they were having breakfast with their mother while Marc had suddenly stepped away in a hurry to take an important private call. He simply sucked in his breath for five seconds, exhaled slowly and continued chewing his Eggos.
“What’s wrong?” asked Winzie, eyeing him suspiciously.
“Nothing,” replied Max, his eyes flicking only briefly at her face and then averting once more to his plate.
“Are you sure?”
Winzie’s right hand stretched towards Marc’s iPad while her left gripped the tablecloth with expectation—although expecting what, she couldn’t say.
“Leave it alone, Mother,” warned Max below his breath, his eyes still downcast as he raised another forkful to his mouth.
Her hand paused as her fingers barely touched the gadget.
“What are you doing?” Marc stood still at the kitchen door, his eyes not on his mother’s face but on her outstretched arm. “Mother?”
“Sit down and finish your breakfast,” she commanded, without looking at either son as the hand retreated and lifted her teacup.
“I thought we didn’t touch each other’s things,” said Marc accusingly as he stiffly took his seat, snatched up and closed his iPad, and stuck it in his satchel among his textbooks.
Silence completed the remainder of breakfast until Max stood up with his wares and cutlery, saying as he placed them in the kitchen sink, “What time are we expected to be at your fashion show tonight, Mother?”
“I’ll be there half an hour late.”
And with that, Max left the house for school, leaving Marc and his mother in a lingering silence. He was determined not to break it, still fuming that she was spying on him. This, the second time he’d caught her within this month alone.
“Yesterday I found that book about flags you were looking for. The one your father bought for you when you were still in Trinidad. It was in the study tucked away behind some of my books on design. Strange how it got there.”
Mother and son looked at each other deeply and long.
“Why are you only now telling me?” Another accusatory tone.
Winzie shrugged. “I only just remembered.”
“I’d like you to stop by on your way from school and buy the kuchela and chutney from the West Indian store. Not the one we usually go to; it doesn’t have the brand I want. Another one someone told me about,” she said.
Marc grunted and picked up his satchel, heading out the kitchen. He turned back and stared at his mother long and hard. A stare she returned.
“What’s the name of the store?”
Winzie opened her handbag and lifted a business card towards him without responding.
“Thank you,” said Marc as he approached and took it from her.
Before she let go, she commanded in a low tone, “Don’t bring that boy from school to the show tonight like the last time. That young model who likes you a lot will be there and I’ll be formally introducing her to you. She’s very interested, and you should be too.”
He tugged at the card without responding, but Winzie was unyielding.
She let go and Marc turned away and left.
Carlota came in, crossing paths with Marc who almost bumped into her with his haste and vexation, and began clearing the breakfast table. “Are you okay, Ma’am?”
“Yes, Carlota. Make sure the hors d’oeuvres are prepared in time for my pre-show gathering here tonight.”
“Yes, Ma’am. Everything’s being arranged as planned.”
Winzie stood up and looked down from the window at her younger son speeding off on foot in the direction that would take him not to school, but to James’ apartment on the next block.
James squinted through the peephole and then opened the door with a broad smile on his face. “Ah, you’ve come. I thought you wouldn’t.”
“Why?” asked Marc, as he dropped his satchel on the floor and, beginning to undress, walked past James who followed him into the bedroom as he, too, stripped away his dressing gown.
“Your mother…” he began.
“Let’s not talk about her for once,” Marc interrupted as they embraced. He inhaled the musky, woody scent of James’ cologne and moaned deeply. He felt James’ excitement hardening as their naked bodies ground closer and in an instant they were kissing passionately and fell together on the unmade bed.
Afterwards, Marc showered and dressed as James sat naked and glistening with sweat on the bed while he checked his e-mails.
Marc ruffled his lover’s sandy hair and taking a quick glance at his wristwatch turned to leave, when James grabbed his arm to keep him longer. His green eyes stared long into Marc’s brown. “What is it?”
“You and I have something else in common, Marc.”
“I am a flag collector.”
“What! Really? You never told me you are a vexillologist too!”
“No, not that kind of flag collector. Here, look. This is what it says in the Urban Dictionary. That’s who I am.”
Marc peered over James’s shoulder at the computer screen. He read silently with first an amused and then a concerned look on his face:
Engaging in sexual activities with people from different nationalities. Instead of ‘notches’ on the bedpost you are collecting different ‘flags’. For example: I slept with an Irish lad on Tuesday and last this morning I woke up beside an Israeli man. I collected two new flags this week, so after last weeks Scottish bloke I really am turning into a flag collector!
“What are you trying to tell me, James?”
“I’m telling you that besides you being a virile eighteen-year-old, I love the fact that you’re Caribbean-American. It turns me on. I like my men to be from different countries and cultures than me. That kind of thing has always fascinated me. Like I told you, I’m American with a Dutch parent.”
“No,” said Marc, unconvinced, shaking his head slowly. “You were trying to tell me I’m not the only guy you’ve been doing this with.”
James slipped off the bed and Marc backed away.
“Look, Marc. Chill. There’s nothing to worry about. Yes, I’ve been with many guys from around the world. But, not now. You’re the only one right now. I was just trying to tell you…Look, I was wrong to show that to you. It’s not…Just believe me, okay?”
Marc felt confused and hung his head to try to think. If he looked into James’s eyes he couldn’t think straight.
Raising his head he said, “I believe you.” They exchanged lopsided smiles and Marc left the apartment without another word. He wondered if he would ever see James again.
Benson called the boys in early June to say he was to attend a convention in Pennsylvania and would stop off for a day in New York on his way back to Trinidad to see them.
“Just the three of us. Let’s meet at our favourite restaurant.”
“Are you going to meet with Mother?” Max asked during his call from his father.
“Ah…not this time…perhaps…perhaps on another occasion,” Benson stammered.
“Ask her for the divorce, Father. Put an end to it because she never will,” said Max. Benson responded with an uncomfortable laugh, saying nothing but knowing his older son was correct.
Marc asked the very same question when he got his call, but did not await a response. “I’d like to meet with you alone if you have the time while you’re here. Not with Mother. Nor even with Max. Just you and me.”
Again, Benson found himself stammering. “Ahm…can you…can you…ahm…can you say what it’s about? At least can your old man prepare himself?” he chuckled uncomfortably.
“I heard what Mother said to you that day and what you then said to her…the last time you were here,” Marc replied matter-of-factly.
Benson paused and then feigned surprise. “Said what? About what?” He was in awe and admiration at his sons’ candour. They’re young men, not boys anymore, he thought to himself.
“The argument in the foyer. You know what I am talking about, Father, don’t pretend.”
“I was heading back downstairs to get something I’d forgot. I was on the landing before Max and Carlota got there.”
“Do you think I’m a panty man of that sort, Father? How come you didn’t…”
“Marc…please…stop that talk…”
“How come you didn’t reach out to me…ask me yourself…”
“Are you ashamed of me…?”
“Do you despise me, like Mother does?”
“Come now, Marc…”
Both voices of father and son had begun to break, and there was a lengthy pause.
“You told Mother how you felt about yourself when she told you she knows I’m gay, but you didn’t say what you felt about me: you both mostly talked about yourselves regarding that,” Marc continued and Benson realised that the broken voice carried through the phone line was really his son’s broken heart.
“Son…And so what if you’re gay? You’re still our son—my son,” Benson said as firmly as he could muster and he was glad that Marc could not see the tears flowing down his bearded cheeks. But that was only momentarily because Marc converted the conversation to a video call. He could not decline it, not in the emotional state his son was in.
As their images appeared, Marc caught Benson wiping away the last of his tears and giving a quick sniffle. It was the first time he’d ever seen his father cry.
“You really don’t mind that I’m gay, Father? Because I am. Mother was right. I really am. I am your son, no matter what? Or did you just say that to make me feel better?”
“I spoke the truth.”
“Honest?” Marc, with flowing tears, looked directly into Benson’s now bloodshot eyes. Across the iPhone screen, across the New York-Trinidad distance, and across the years since Winzie took his sons away, Benson found a resolve that unbroke his own voice and its tone left Marc with no doubt.
“Honest. I love you, Marc. I always have and I always will. It’s the truth.”
They stared at each other in silence across the screen with wet, warm smiles.
“Let’s talk more, Father. Let’s talk about it all right now. I’m ready.”
Marc had torn out the orange-coloured strip of cloth with the bugle horn from his Pride flag. What an irony, what a joke, he’d mused with a bitter but wry smile; I certainly got ‘horned’, as his people back home in Trinidad described it. Had he been a cuckold or a cuckquean? he asked himself with a sardonic laugh. It was the day of the parade and he slipped out of Winzie’s brownstone apartment on his way to the subway station, full of excitement for what lay ahead. He wasn’t to meet James as he’d planned when he first started stitching his flag together. At the corner of the crowded street of their designated meeting place in Greenwich Village, Marc spotted Benson waiting as they’d planned. Benson had a patient demeanour but watchful look in his eyes, his hands resting leisurely in his trouser pockets. When he saw Marc he gave a wide grin, pulling his right hand out and waving enthusiastically. He had wanted to ensure he walked with his son past the Stonewall National Monument, the next major site on the parade route.
“Hey!” they said simultaneously as they gave each other a tight hug.
“So, that’s your bespoke flag?” asked Benson, eying the multi-coloured flag with keen curiosity. “Hmm. Rainbow colours, Trinidad and Tobago colours…what do these other colours represent?”
“Let’s do the fashion critique later on, okay?” beamed Marc, with a loud chuckle. “I’ll explain then.”
Benson shook his head in agreement, matching Marc’s buoyant mood and throwing an arm across his son’s shoulders. “Okay, let’s go. Come on, wave yuh flag!”
Geraldine Skeete is a lecturer in Literatures in English at the University of the West Indies (UWI), St. Augustine, Trinidad. She co-edited The Child and the Caribbean Imagination (UWI Press, 2012).