submitted by Sophie G.
“Psst, Sofe? Sofe?”
I looked up from the romance novel I had stolen from my aunt’s shelf and see my 18-year old brother’s head popping through the door.
“Are you bored? I am so bored.”
“Tell me about it!” I sighed back.
“Sssshhh I’m trying to sleep” snapped my sister who was lying on her stomach, a pillow on top of her brown curls, on the bed next to mine.
“You want to go for a walk?”
“Where do you want to go?”
“I don’t know. In town?”
My grandma lived in Sfax, a small town in the middle of Tunisia. Three PM was the very sacred siesta time and almost everyone in the house was taking a nap. The only thing I could hear was my father snoring and the kitchen clock ticking. I wasn’t sure about going into town: most stores would be closed and the streets would be empty. But I was bored out of my mind; there was nothing to watch on the Arabic TV- and I didn’t understand half the stuff anyway.
I got up as quietly as possible and the two of us tiptoed out of the house and into the narrow streets of the Medina, the old part of the city. In this part of town, the houses had no running hot water; no heat for the cold and damp winters and the streets were dirty and filled with trash and abandoned kittens someone did not have the heart to drown. Every time one of her cats died or ran away, my grandmother would adopt one from the street, and my grandfather would give him the name the previous one had.
We were alone in the street and walked in silence for 10 minutes before coming to the newly renovated plaza and the slightly busier road that separates the Medina from the rest of the town. We crossed and walked among empty shoe stores, closed ice cream parlors and almost-dead coffee houses. In some cafes, the waiters were getting busy, filling the water pipes with apple flavored tobacco, making sure there was sugar in the sugar bowls, wiping the dust off of the tables on the terrace. In an hour, the Imam will call out for the afternoon prayer and very quickly, the café will get swamped with men stopping in between the mosque and work.
My brother and I took a break at a Kebab stand to get something to drink; it was so hot, drops of sweat were drizzling down his tanned forehead, splashing on the ground.
Ismael frowned, watching me stick a straw in my can of Coca Light.
“Why do you still get diet? I thought you were done with that. You’re still very skinny!”
“I like the taste better- I lied, looking down at my knees and what I was sure was cellulite wiggling around them.
We continued to walk across the center of the town, past the one movie theater (which only shows old Bruce Lee and Jean-Claude Van Dam movies) and headed towards the sea and the boardwalk. I told Ismael about school, the new headshots I had done, and filled him in on my apartment, my crazy roommate and everything else that had changed since the last time I saw him. I had moved to New York in 1997 and only went back home twice a year.
“How’s the boyfriend?” he asked me.
“We’re done. Over!” I said.
“No, no… This time that’s it. He said his gut was telling him he didn’t love me and I am not Jewish blah blah blah…And he told me like, 2 days before I left to come here that deep down he would always be attracted to Asian women-who aren’t Jewish either but… whatever. Men are stupid.”
“I know”, Isma squeezed my hand in sympathy before letting out a burp.
“Roger” he yelled out and before I could even react, he smacked my forehead. “Roger” was a burping game my brother, sister and I played: Whoever burped had to say “Roger” and everyone had to say it back. If you failed, you got smacked in the forehead.
“Ouch. What the F***! You’re not supposed to put me in a coma with this!” I yelled out.
Ismael looked at me and my red forehead and started to laugh!
“See, just like I was saying. Men are stupid… So how about you, any new girlfriends?
“You don’t have a girlfriend?” I asked again
“Someone you have a crush on? A sugar mommy?”
“Boyfriend?” I said, laughing.
I stopped walking and turned around, expecting him to smile and say “Gotcha!” but instead he laughed again, “Man, you should see the look on your face right now Sofe, so funny.”
“You know, Isma, I have a lot of gay friends and it’s almost disrespectful of you to just, I don’t know...are you mocking gay people?”
He laughed for another few seconds, looked me straight in the eye and repeated:
“I have a boyfriend, his name is Mohammed. Ask Myriam. I told her at Easter; I wouldn’t joke about this.”
I didn’t say anything and that was the end of our conversation. We walked to the sea, sat on a bench, and every once in a while I glimpsed at my brother, trying to figure out if it was a joke or not; trying to decide if he looked gay or not…But he just looked like my brother. After 15 minutes of uncomfortable silence, we walked back to the house, Isma rushing to bathroom while I ran to wake up my sister.
“Hey! I think Isma just told me he was gay but he said it laughing and…and… and I don’t know if it’s true but he said that you knew and I should ask you. So? Is it true? Did he tell you he was gay?”
The words were flying out of my mouth so fast I wasn’t sure my sister actually understood me.
But she did: “I know. I’m so glad he finally told you. He told me and I so wanted to say something to you. But he made me promise not to say anything and, man I am so happy I can finally talk to someone about it…”
“S**t. He’s gay?”
“You know,” I lower my voice in case someone is walking by our room, “I used to wish he was gay. Just to teach Dad a lesson. Every time he would get drunk and start yelling and being mean, I kept thinking: wouldn’t it be fun if Isma was gay? Dad would get all mad and upset and hurt and it would serve him right. And now, I am so ashamed I ever thought that… Like his punishment for having a drunken father is that he turns out gay…S**t. I am such an a****le…”
My sister and I just sat in silence. I didn’t say anything else to my brother that day. And when it was time to go to bed—the three of us slept in the same room; my sister and I on two benches so narrow that my brother, who slept on a mattress on the floor, was constantly afraid one of us would fall right on top of him—I pretended nothing out of the ordinary had occurred that afternoon, asking the same questions I always asked right before turning the lights off.
“Did anyone check for roaches? I said patting the sheets on top of my bed.
“I did,” says Ismael.
He turned the lights off and I remember thinking: wow, my brother is gay!
And that was the only thing I thought of, every day, hour and minute during the rest of our vacation. Every time he spoke, every time he did something: buy yogurts for my grandpa, help clean the house, sneeze or snore, all I could think was: my brother is gay.
Because I didn’t see “it:” He was my brother, a tall, skinny, boney 18-year-old kid with a nose a little too big. He didn’t speak in a high pitch voice; he didn’t gesture or wear pink—the cliché that my uncles sometimes used to make fun of the “Queers.”
It never crossed my mind. Not when he wore tight tank tops, not even when I took him to the gay pride the summer he came to visit and all the men stared at him. He was my brother, just being my brother. The way he had always been. And yet, for the first time, he was different. He wasn’t a little boy anymore.
We never really talked about it again. I didn’t know what to say. I didn’t know how to tell him I was worried for him. He was going to come out, or someone would see it. His “gay-ness”. He would experience it all: the pain, the shame; some will make him feel abnormal; some would try to hurt him or shun him aside. There would be stares and hatred and fingers pointing. People would whisper behind his back. Some of his friends wouldn’t stay his friends… Some of his family would no longer consider him family but an<
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