“Happy Father’s Day!”
“Thank you,” I say, picking up the bag of groceries and smiling at the checker.
It’s not until we’re in the car that I stop and think about what’s just happened. I look at New Guy. “Did she just—?”
“Yep,” he says, clearly trying not to laugh.
The woman in question is my favorite checker at the store. Or was. I always get in her line, even if other ones are shorter. We’ve had numerous discussions about everything from the horrors of shoppers who want their groceries sorted according to some arcane rules only they know and refuse to divulge, to the ongoing problems her daughter is having with her husband. She’s seen me with my boyfriend multiple times.
“Does she think I’m your—?”
“Yep,” New Guy says.
I shouldn’t be surprised by this. There is a 19-year age difference. And we’ve joked about people thinking this very thing. But I don’t think I look quite that much older than New Guy. And I certainly don’t feel that much older.
“Maybe she’s saying it to every guy who comes through,” I suggest. “Because it’s Father’s Day and all.”
“Mmm hmm,” New Guy says.
He grins. “She didn’t say it to me.”
I let it go. Well, I pretend to. But I keep thinking about it as we drive home. For years there’s been an ongoing joke with my friend Bob about the time he and his then-boyfriend, who was significantly younger, went into a store. After an exchange with the women working there, Bob overheard one of them say to the other, “That boy’s dad is so nice.” I’ve always found this story hysterical, and “That boy’s dad is so nice” has become a recurring punchline amongst our group of friends.
I may have to rethink that.
When I started seeing my now ex-partner, I was 32 and he was 44. The first time I went to his place, I saw a photo of an adorable little girl on his bookshelf. When I asked who she was, he told me she was the daughter of some friends. I later discovered she was actually his granddaughter, and that he’d been afraid that learning he not only had children, but was a grandfather, would scare me off.
At the time, I thought he was being ridiculous. Why would I care how old he was, or that he had grandchildren? I thought the same thing when he started dyeing his hair, and when he flinched when a coworker running into us on the street asked how his “other kids” were doing.
In the gay world, being a daddy is nothing new to me. As soon as my hair began going silver, I started getting attention from guys who are into the look. I’ve had almost a decade to get used to it. But being mistaken for my boyfriend’s father is not exactly the same thing.
I’m not bothered by it, but it does make me think about how people perceive one another, and specifically how people perceive two men who obviously have some kind of relationship that they can’t quite figure out.
That night, New Guy and I go to a restaurant we’ve frequented a couple of times. By chance, we get the same server we’ve had both previous times. “Hey,” she says. “Nice to see you guys again. Can I get you some margaritas?”
“Absolutely,” New Guy says. “We’re celebrating my divorce being finalized.”
“Congratulations,” she says, giving him a high five. Then she looks at me and lifts an eyebrow. I get the implication. She’s asking if I’m going to marry him now. Unlike the grocery store checker, she figured out our relationship the first time she saw us together, jokingly asking New Guy if I’d ended our date early when she came back to the table and found me gone. (I was in the bathroom).
She’s the only server we’ve ever had who didn’t ask us if we wanted separate checks. That she automatically gave the bill to me is another story, but I was so pleased that she recognized us as a couple that I didn’t mind one bit.
In general, people see what they want to see, or see what they’re used to seeing. Gay couples are maybe not what people in rural Ohio expect to see, so when they see New Guy and me together, they default to friends or brothers or a familial relationship. It might be different in a larger city, where such pairings are more visible. Or maybe not.
As I said, I don’t really give a lot of thought to this until we experience moments like the one at the grocery. But if anyone gives me a Father’s Day card, there’s going to be trouble. ▼
Michael Thomas Ford is a much-published Lambda Literary award-winning author.