Please Come Home for Christmas
Vincent’s bar was mostly dead when Troy walked in. A cold, snowy Tuesday night during finals didn’t bring out the crowds, but Troy had expected at least one server. Vincent was the only person there besides the cook and Danny the barback who was doubling as a busboy.
“Hey, Mr. D., need some help? You look shorthanded.” Troy pulled off his gloves and shoved them into the pockets of his coat.
Vincent slid a hamburger across the bar to a young guy drinking a beer and reading through what looked like a chemistry textbook. “No. I’m good. I’ve cut the menu down to burgers and grilled cheese for the vegetarians and the bar down to beer, wine, and soft drinks.”
As the owner, Vincent had the right to do that. After all, he didn’t really need the income from the place. His husband Kenny had made a fortune about fifteen years ago in some tech thing and invested it well. Vincent kept the bar because he liked having something to do and somewhere to go. He claimed it kept the magic alive for him and Kenny to have something separate. Troy wasn’t one to complain. He liked the job; Vincent paid him well, and it was as close as Red Deer had to an official gay bar. It also hadn’t been upgraded in ten years or more. Troy couldn’t help but make notes on improvements to the space and the menu while he worked there. Oh well. He was grateful Vincent didn’t need to turn a profit and was willing to accommodate a broken down vet that had panic attacks every now and then and let him keep Sweetie in the office while he worked.
“Hey, Danny, let me know if anyone needs anything. I’ll be in my office. Okay?”
Danny flipped the bar rag at him. “You got it, boss. Hey, Troy.”
Troy waved to Danny. The kid had helped him fix up the farmhouse Dmitri lived in. It had passed from Dmitri’s grandparents to his parents, and now to Dmitri. None of the Greenman family were good with home repairs. Troy was finding he was, and more importantly, he liked it.
Danny’s boyfriend Ravi liked to hang out with them, but he and Dmitri mostly helped by handing things, making store runs with very explicating listings and pictures, and ordering food. Come to think of it, maybe Ravi would help Troy with algebra. He was an engineering student. Maybe it would work. He’d ask Danny after he talked to Vincent.
Vincent closed the door to his office. Pictures of Vincent and Kenny and friends and family through the years covered the walls. Troy pulled his favorite, a picture of a young Vincent in uniform with a Vietnam-era M16 around his neck and his arms around his buddy. Vincent made it out of Vietnam. His buddy hadn’t. “Was it hard for you to come out to your parents?”
Vincent settled into the worn loveseat pressed against one wall. A laptop computer and loose papers covered the desk. He may not have to turn a profit, but Vincent kept meticulous records. Troy suspected he was feeding a lot more people free meals than anyone who didn’t work there knew. “Well, I can’t actually say the coming out was hard. It was the repercussions that were tough,” he said. “My mom was old school New York Italian, y’know? Mass three times a week capital-C Catholic. She thought I was going to burn in hell. I screamed, she cried. My dad yelled. It was a massive battle. I think the neighbors heard.”
“How old were you when you told them?”
“Oh, I was pretty young. Not too long after I got back from the war, so I was barely twenty-one?”
“Why did you do it?” Troy paced around the room, looking at the pictures, touching various knickknacks.
Vincent spread his hands and shrugs. “What else was I gonna do? I didn’t get killed in the war like I’d thought I would, like so many of my buddies did. Half the kids in my neighborhood didn’t come back. And it wasn’t that long after Stonewall, y’know?”
Troy stopped at turned to Vincent. “Really? I thought that was like –“ He did the mental math. “Oh.”
“Yeah. Oh. I was nineteen in 1969. This isn’t ancient history. You don’t know much about gay and lesbian history, do you? Not much about us old guys and girls who made it possible for me and Kenny to get married and for you to not have to worry about being kicked out of the Army for alleged homosexual activity?”
Troy shook his head, looked down. “No, sir.”
Vincent stood up and walked over to Troy. “Don’t feel bad. It’s not like they teach it in schools. You just barely admitted you were gay before Dmitri, right?” He dropped a hand on Troy’s shoulder.
Troy shifted under the weight and looked away.
“Still feels a little weird, right? Not quite sure it fits?”
“Part of you wants to be all out, and proud like Dmitri and part of you wants to just…stay in your bubble, surrounded by the friends here who know and don’t care. Why do we have to put labels on everything, et cetera, et cetera? Why tell the parents?”
Vincent pulled his coat off the hook on the back of the door. “Come on. I’ll drive.” He walked into the bar and yelled into the kitchen. “Cesar, I’m leaving for an hour. You and Danny are in charge. You good with that?”
“No problem boss.” Cesar, a short, middle-aged man who had been with Vincent for ten years, could, and had, run the kitchen solo during busier nights that this.
“Good. Danny, tell the customers no alcohol until I get back. You’re underage. If they don’t like, send them to that hippie place down the street.”
Outside, the temperature had dropped, and the snow fell harder. Troy settled into the passenger’s seat of Vincent’s Pathfinder.
“So what brought this all up?” Vincent asked, starting the engine.
“My family wants me to come home for Christmas.” Troy held on as Vincent sped backward out of the parking lot.
“Oh yeah, that will do it. You gonna go?”
“I don’t know. I should. I kind of told my sister I would.”
Troy’s sister had called him a week ago. She’d been adamant on the phone.
“You’d better come home, Detroit. Or Mom is going to disown you.” Mary sounded like she would disown him, too, if you could disown a sibling.
“I know, Mare. It’s just hard.”
Her snort buzzed in his ear through the phone. “What’s hard? It’s been six months, Troy. I checked the calendar. Your finals will be over. School’s closed. If it’s work, I’ll talk to your boss. Do you need money? I’ll buy you a plane ticket.”
“No. It’s not that.” He wracked his brain for some excuse she would buy. “I, uh, I have a dog now. I can’t leave her.”
“You haven’t made any friends there yet?” Mary’s tone went from mad big sister to protective big sister instantly.
“No! I have friends. Really. I’m not lying.”
“So ask them to watch her.”
The awful thing was he really wanted to go home. He missed his family desperately. He hadn’t been home for Christmas in years, and he had fantasized about this first Christmas home for the last two years. Christmas Eve church service, the food, the way his mom went all out decorating. He’d see his sister and remember it this time. Those first few weeks out of the army were a blur. He barely remembered moving to Colorado, let alone the homecoming in West Virginia. But going home would raise so many questions, there’s so much he’d have to answer for and explain. Starting with Sweetie. Might as well get that out of the way.
“I can’t leave Sweetie –“
“Oh, what a cute name!” Mary interrupted.
Troy took a deep breath. “I can’t leave Sweetie because she’s not just a pet. She’s my service dog.”
“What? Oh. Oh!” There was the sound of breathing and shuffling as Mary moved to a quieter place. “Troy, are you okay?”
He laughed harshly. How do you answer that? It’s a minute-by-minute thing. “Sometimes. Yeah. I will be. I am. Sometimes I’m not so much.”
“Oh.” They listened to each other breathe for a minute. “You know, you can always talk to me. I won’t know the right things to say, but I’ll always listen. I’m always here for you.”
“I know you are, sis.” And she would be. She always had been. Mary was ten years older than Troy and had raised him as much as their mom had. God, he missed her.
“Come home, Troy. Please? I miss you. I’ve missed you so much.”
The catch in her voice was all it took to make the tears fall from Troy’s eyes. “I miss you, too, Mare.” His voice cracked, and he could hear her sob once. “Okay. I’ll come home. I’ll drive; don’t worry about the plane ticket.”
“Yeah?” she sniffled. “You still driving Rusty?”
“Yeah. She’s still going strong. We’ll see how she does in the Colorado winters.”
They talked a little more on less emotional subjects and the conversation wound down with a promise that Troy would be there for Christmas.
It was a promise he wasn’t sure he could keep.
Vincent pulled into the parking lot of the church where the Veterans support groups met. Snow swirled and flashed in the headlight, sticking to the dead grass and gathering in powdery swirls against the curbs. “Are you going to bring Dmitri home to meet your family?”
Troy sighed, breath fogging up the windshield. “I don’t know. That’s the question, isn’t it?”
“Yeah, it is.”
Troy braced for the cold and opened the door for Sweetie to jump out. It was the last meeting until after the New Year and Troy needed it. The holidays were a hard time for a lot of people.