Saeed Jones on Finding a Sense of Self in New York City
"The rest of my life was waiting for me."
When I was ten or eleven years old, my mother had decided that we should take a family vacation to New York City with my grandmother and cousins. I can only remember a few stray moments of the visit, but the city was already wrapping me in its neon grip.
I remember the hotel valet with a maroon hat and suit trimmed with gold, just like in the movies, asking my cousin Alex where we were from. Alex blushed and said, “America.” I remember a pink neon “OPEN 24 Hours” sign throbbing across the street from our room’s window. I kept waking up throughout the night to check on it, skeptical that a diner could really be open for all twenty-four hours. I remember how shocked I felt when I realized that it had stayed open. Did people sleep here? What were they doing when I was asleep in Lewisville? I remember struggling to make our way down a crowded sidewalk near Penn Station. My entire focus was on not getting swept away, but Mom squeezed my hand and said, “Did you see that?” She was looking back behind us. I turned but only saw the watercolor blur of the crowd. “Those two men were holding hands,” she said. She smiled. I smiled, I hoped at the same thing. But before we had even made it to the end of the block, she squeezed my hand again. “Saeed! There was a man dressed as a woman!”
She smiled brightly but now I felt panicked. I worried that my mother was making fun of me, figuring it had to be some kind of joke or a test. Pretend to see gay men, point them out to Saeed, see if he is happy—maybe a bit too happy. My mother had never said anything homophobic, but I’d still never even heard her say the word “gay.” In the absence of clarity, my worst anxieties reigned. What could have been a moment of possibility—a glimpse of another way of living, far away from Lewisville—instead felt like a sting.
I didn’t realize it at the time but we happened to be in the city during Pride Month. The drag queen, I would think later on, might have been on the way to a gig after leaving the parade. And, somehow, the fact that I hadn’t seen her became all the more alluring. This place so coursing and vibrant that wonders would flash past whether you were watching or not. The city’s electric hum would stay with me. I knew I had to return to those streets and sidewalks, crowded with people who had found a way to be themselves.
Almost a decade later, I walked through our apartment’s front door to find my mother holding a large envelope in her hand. New York University, it shouted in purple block text. Mom’s eyes were shining. She followed me into the kitchen with Kingsley at her heels as I rushed to rip it open. I locked eyes with her, then pulled out the letter.
I screamed. She screamed. Kingsley barked and pawed at our legs. She started crying what she would call “the ugly cry,” the kind that turns makeup into an inkblot test. I started crying too, surprised at just how relieved I felt. Kingsley got so excited he peed right there on the kitchen tiles. I grabbed paper towels to clean up, as my mother picked the letter off the counter and started reading it herself.
I pretended not to notice that the expression on my mother’s face had changed from ecstasy to something far more familiar: quiet, consistent concern.
My financial aid package, the letter said, would be determined separately. It was as important as anything. When the follow-up letter arrived a week later, I got to it first and tore it open. NYU was offering me a loan package that would pay for less than a third of the school’s $50,000 a year tuition. I left it open on the kitchen counter beside the pile of bills; I didn’t know the numbers on Mom’s paychecks, but I knew enough to worry.The rest of my life was waiting for me. Acceptance. I just had to get there.
I was at her Buddhist altar, chanting, when she got home from work. She watched me from the doorway in her Delta uniform, holding her two purses with her sunglasses in her hand. When she walked over to the counter, I watched her read the letter then walk on into her bedroom without another word or glance toward me. A few minutes later, wearing her housedress now, she walked back into the living room and pulled up a chair alongside me in front of the altar. We didn’t know what else to do, and praying alongside each other felt better than crying separately in our rooms.
In the days that followed, my mother and I slipped into a silence in which we were both well versed. It was the same silence that swirled around us whenever she found gay porn in my bedroom. She would rip it up and leave the shreds in a plastic grocery store bag on the kitchen counter for me to find. I would take the plastic bag out to the trash bin in the parking lot while I took Kingsley for a walk. We wouldn’t talk about it.
It was the same silence that rolled into the house like fog when, fed up with her smoking habit, I would throw away her pack of cigarettes or leave a handwritten note on the counter next to her lighter begging her to stop.
In the midst of this particular silence, more packets and forms were arriving from NYU week after week. I was frantically emailing a department head, explaining my “financial situation” and begging for help. In those emails, my own desperation was laid bare. The professor promised to help but eventually hit a brick wall with the financial aid department. She encouraged me to keep trying. Frustrated, I simply stopped responding to her emails.
My mother and I, meanwhile, reviewed every glossy brochure together, cheerily deciding on residence halls and meal plans as if everything was going according to plan. We went on this way as long as we could and when it was no longer tenable, we went on anyway.
Weeks passed, until I walked into the apartment to find Mom sitting in front of the altar, chanting while she sobbed. She turned toward me as I put my backpack down.
“I can’t pay for you to go to NYU, Saeed,” she said, running her fingers over her jade-colored prayer beads. Just as I had privately been working with that professor to devise a plan, she had been visiting banks about loans, meeting one rejection after another.
“We will figure it out,” I said.
Just before the sentence left my mouth, I thought it would sound mature, even comforting. I’d known in some way this conversation was coming. But now, when I finally spoke the words I’d been saying to myself for weeks, they came out as a hollow, dismissive command. The “we” was really “you.” My mother’s eyes fell to the dirty beige carpet and I retreated to my room.
I thought about all these years we had spent in Lewisville, just me and Mom. When we had first moved to Texas— from Memphis to Dallas—we had driven through Lewisville along the way. It was the summer before I started the second grade, and I remember the matching neon green sunglasses she bought us at a gas station just outside of Memphis. By the time we made it onto I-35, the highway that would take us to our new apartment in Dallas, I’d managed to break my sunglasses. Without a second thought, I grabbed her sunglasses off the dashboard and put them on. She looked at me, in mock disgust, then turned her gaze back toward the road, smiling wryly. The ride felt magical, more like two longtime friends on a road trip than mother and son in search of a new home.
Lewisville has a large water tower next to I-35, emblazoned with the town’s high school mascot, Farmer John, and his donkey. Farmer John has on overalls and a maroon shirt. The donkey has steam billowing from its nostrils like dragon smoke. As we drove through on that first trip to Texas, I pointed out the water tower to her—“Home of the Fighting Farmers” in bold maroon letters—and we laughed out loud.
We laughed again, this time at ourselves, three or four years later when we moved out of Dallas and into Lewisville. The joke we’d once passed on the highway had become home. My mother had heard the schools were better here in the suburbs, and her suspicions were quickly proven right. I’d been an honor roll student in the Dallas public school system, bringing home blue ribbons every semester with my report cards. A few weeks into the new school year in Lewisville, my teachers started keeping me after school for tutoring in every subject but English. My mother had moved us to a suburb we could barely afford to live in so I could receive a better education. That hope of eventual acceptance was the entire point of us being here. We’d done it—she’d done it. And now?
All these years later, Lewisville remained a great suburb for driving through. It didn’t have much, but it did have that. There were fields guarded by sunflowers so tall their petals tapped my forehead whenever I stood in front of them. Bluebonnets, the state flower, dotted the meadows farther away from the road, along with Indian paintbrushes, which looked like the stray feathers of some mythic bloodied bird. Racing by in Mom’s Ford Escort, AC blasting, radio on full volume, I scream out the lyrics of pop songs I was only brave enough to sing when I was alone.
I would speed down Main Street, which turned into Highway 407 if I drove far enough, and I always drove far enough. I’d head out to where the fields of flowers gave way to empty lots waiting to become construction sites, razed squares of dirt boasting of future homes “starting in the low $200s.” I’d drive past subdivisions with names like Mission Oaks, Lantana Estates, and Avalon, where foxes and coyotes wandered the pavement at night, where all the houses still smelled like fresh paint on the inside and were too young to have ghosts of their own. I’d zigzag through neighborhoods that looked nothing like the apartment complex where we lived, homes of red bricks and flagstone that looked happy and normal—not by fact but by contrast—and I hated them and the happy and normal people inside them.
I sped through those subdivisions and down country back roads as fast as the car could handle, then a bit faster. I imagined that I was on my way out of Lewisville, zipping toward a future life, in New York City or anywhere far enough away. In that future, my boyfriend and I could hold hands on the street. We’d stroll through Washington Square Park and smile when a little boy pointed us out to his mother. “Look! Those boys are holding hands,” the little boy would say. My boyfriend and I would find a spot in the grass, use our backpacks or each other’s bodies as pillows, and read entire paragraphs out loud from worn and yellowed paperbacks.
The rest of my life was waiting for me. Acceptance. I just had to get there.
A few weeks later, I got my first sense of what that life might look like. Mom flew to Memphis to visit my grandmother and while she was away, some Buddhist friends of my mother agreed to take me to my first drag show. I can’t remember how exactly I brought it up, though two of the women were a couple; I must have felt comfortable enough with them to ask. As we sat down at one of the tables in the small club, waiting for the show to start, one of the women asked, “When did you come out to Carol?”
She read the panic in my eyes and answered her own question. “Oh, she doesn’t know?” She giggled, smiling at the other women at the table, and patted my hand. “I just assumed, baby. But don’t worry; I’ll keep my mouth shut.” The other women nodded too and I eased back into my chair.
The only drag queen I’d ever seen was RuPaul, on MTV and VH1. I would stay in my room and dance to “Supermodel (You Better Work),” lip-synching before I knew there was a word to describe what I was doing.
I had no idea how an actual drag show worked. There wasn’t a stage, just a clearing in the middle of the tables. The drag queen came out dressed and made up as a carbon copy of Janet Jackson.
My jaw dropped; my eyes went wide. I kept looking at her, then back at my mom’s friends, then back at Janet again. Her choreography and bravado were so certain she was almost scary, in the way that being in the same room with someone who is overconfident can make you feel shy. In the middle of one of her numbers, a man walked through the clearing, probably toward the bar. She didn’t pause and danced right up to him, pressing her face into his and flipping her hair back and forth so that it slapped his cheeks. He scuttled away. The women at my table howled and then gave me some dollar bills so I could tip my first drag queen. I meekly handed out the dollars and she swooped in, winked at me, and then flew away like a bird of paradise.
Other drag queens performed in the show but they were nothing compared with this Janet Jackson. I thought of them as bland intermissions between the black drag queen’s sets. When I said I needed to go to the restroom, one of the women walked me to the door to keep an eye on me. “Just keeping you safe, baby,” she added. And I did feel safe. For those women, it may well have just been another night out, but for me it was something more.
That night was the first time in my life I felt like the words “gay” and “alone” weren’t synonyms for each other.
From How We Fight for Our Lives by Saeed Jones. Used with the permission of Simon & Schuster. Copyright © 2019 by Saeed Jones.