TERF Wars - Bonus Content

Waffle Shoe Wake

Author's Note: When I was in college, my father suffered a brain aneurysm. The experience inspired this short story.

The red, orange and brown paper garlands, festooned with cardboard cutouts of pumpkins, turkeys, and Pilgrims, seemed out of place on the ICU nurses’ station. The first week of November was too early to set out Thanksgiving decorations in a place like this. What in God’s name was there to be grateful for in a ward full of dying people?

“He just collapsed during our daily walk around the neighborhood,” my mother told my brother and me when I arrived at the hospital. Her face was pale and streaked with tears. “No warning. He just collapsed like someone flipped a switch.”

“What’s the doctor saying?” My insides trembled as if made of gelatin.

“The doctor called it a cerebral aneurysm. He’s bleeding into his brain.”

I didn’t want to believe it. My dad was the Great Irish Bear, big and brawny and indestructible.

“When’s he gonna wake up?” My brother Colin, who was three years my senior, rubbed his hipster-style beard.

My mother’s brief attempt at composure crumpled. “He might not,” she sobbed. “They say his chances of surviving the night are less than five percent.”

Five percent. As if God would be rolling one of Colin’s Dungeons & Dragons dice to decide my father’s fate like he was an imaginary character. Ooh, so sorry, you only rolled a two. You needed a natural twenty. He’s dead.

Meanwhile, my dad drifted somewhere between sleep and death.

I crept into the dark hospital room. In the dim light, my dad’s face appeared so swollen and pale as to be unrecognizable. His curly, red hair had been shaved off and replaced with an angry incision held closed by black staples. The Great Irish Bear had been reduced to Frankenstein’s monster, restrained with a bed sheet—a precaution, the nurse said, against seizures common with head trauma.

I held his hand, warm but unresponsive, and anointed it with my tears. “Where are you, Daddy? It’s me, Kari.”

My head rested on his arm, and I slipped into a stream of memories—my dad’s nervousness giving me the “facts of life” speech when I was twelve (in defiance of my mother’s “abstinence-only” dictate), him escorting me to my senior prom after I caught my date making out with another girl a week before, and the day I introduced my parents to my girlfriend, Denise.

I had come out to my folks six months earlier during one of my occasional visits home from Central Arizona University. Ironwood was a small city in Arizona’s high desert, but it was still a college town at heart. Most people there, especially my fellow students, didn’t care if I was gay.

So not the case in my parent’s conservative Scottsdale neighborhood where it may as well have been the 1950s.

“After all I’ve done for you, and this is how you repay me?” asked my mother when I came out.

“Mom, my being gay doesn’t have anything to do with you.”

“It has everything to do with me. What are the neighbors going to think when they find my daughter is a pervert?” 

I crossed my arms and glared at her. “I’m not a pervert. I don’t molest children. I’m just attracted to other girls . . . women, I mean.”

“Who did this to you?”

“No one did anything to me. I’ve always been this way.”

“Well, you’re going to hell. You know that right? That’s where God sends homos. It’s why he created AIDS.”

“That’s bullshit.”

“Don’t you swear in this house.”

“Whatever. Innocent children get AIDS. It has nothing to do with being gay.”

“Doesn’t mean you won’t catch it.”

“I promise to practice safe sex, Mom.”

She winced at my response. “You just better watch yourself. There are a lot of people in Arizona, especially up in Cortes County that don’t care for people of your . . . persuasion.”

Sadly, she was right. A man had been brutally killed the previous year just outside a gay bar. Not that it changed who I was or how I was going to live my life.

Unlike my mother, my father didn’t care who I dated, so long as I didn’t get knocked up, catch an STD, or get involved with someone who was abusive. I’ve always been a Daddy’s girl.

As I drove toward their house with Denise beside me, a brave smile plastered over my face, I hoped my mother wouldn’t be a bitch, and my dad wouldn’t be passed out on the floor.

Denise looked worse than I felt. Her hands alternately squeezed the Civic’s oh-shit handles and tapped the top of the door. I had the A/C in my Civic cranked, but still spied an occasional drop of sweat trickling down from her close-cropped chestnut hair. This from a girl who had nearly broken a frat boy’s arm at the Trip-Hop Lounge for getting too friendly with me.

“Not nervous, are you?” I feigned calm.

“Uh, a little,” she muttered through gritted teeth.

“Relax. My mom may be homophobic, but she was raised to be the perfect hostess to guests, no matter how much she hates them.”

“Gee, Kari, that makes me feel so much better.”

“Don’t worry. My dad’s cool with everything. He won’t let things get out of hand.”

“You know, I counted thirty-two confederate flag bumper stickers since we got off the highway.”

“Really? Only thirty-two. Things are really getting progressive out here.”

I parked the car on the street and led Denise up my folks’ driveway, past mini-gardens of bougainvilleas and lantana, to the front door. Before I opened it, I turned to her. “You ready?”

Her face was sullen. “I suppose.”

In the entryway, framed family photos cascaded across the wall beside the staircase that led up to the bedrooms. There was a bright square on the wall where a photo of me had been, now replaced with the silver crucifix that had been given to me on my confirmation. Real subtle, Mom. 

“There they are,” sounded my dad. He walked from the family room, the ever-present glass of Bushmill’s in hand. His red hair had the classic Irish wave to it, with a touch of gray at his temples. His gray-green eyes glistened from the whiskey. “Come on in and watch the game with us. Can I get y’all something to drink?”

“No, we’re good.” The sounds of a football game played on the TV drifted in from the family room. I knew without seeing it that it was the CAU Sentinels playing Arizona State Sun Devils. “Dad, this is my girlfriend, Denise.”

“Well, hey there, Denise,” he said giving her hand a vigorous shake. “Happy to finally meet you.”

“You, too,” she replied with rare timidity.

My father led us into the family room. My mother rose from a wicker chair in the corner, looking like the cultured senior editor of Phoenix Living magazine she was. Not a hair was out of place. All wrinkles had been paralyzed and spackled out of existence.  Her Ann Taylor dress cost more than I spent on books that semester.

“Denise, is it?” she asked. “Maggie Sullivan. Please have a seat.” You’d have thought Denise was here for a job interview by the way she talked.

I led Denise to the loveseat on the other side of an antique wash table from where my mother was sitting. I didn’t want to give my mom the impression that we were intimidated, even if we were.

“Mike, please turn off the television so I can have a civilized conversation with Kari’s little friend.”

“C’mon, Maggie. There’s only five minutes left, and the Sentinels are about to score.”

She gave him a withering look. He complied with a huff and sat on the other side of the room nursing his whiskey. Welcome to life in the Sullivan compound.

“So, Denise, in what are you majoring at school?” asked my mother.


“Anthropology? Really? And what do you intend to do with such a degree?”

Denise gave me a look as if to ask, is she for real? “I intend to be an anthropologist. I’d love to work on the team in Ethiopia that just discovered a hominid skeleton that predates Lucy by a million years.” I could tell by her voice that Denise had reclaimed her power. You go, girl, I thought.

My mother backed off her interrogation tactics and remembered a last-minute problem at work she needed to handle before Monday. Her absence brought new life to my dad.

“How’d you two meet?” he asked.

Denise smiled. “Kari and I were waiting for a bus on the south end of campus. She pulled out her guitar and started playing. Her talent floored me.”

“She’s got the gift.”

Embarrassed, I nudged her shoulder. “Shut up.”

“So I invited her up to my room where she serenaded me. And then, well. . .”

My face felt warm. “I think he gets the picture.”

“Denise,” he said, “I want you to know I have no problems with the two of you dating.”

“Thank you, Mr. Sullivan. That means a lot.”

“Don’t break her heart, all right? Otherwise, I might have to send her mother after you.” We laughed.

A hand on my shoulder brought me out of the memory. “I’m sorry, miss, but your brother and mother would like to come in.” It was one of the ICU nurses. I nodded.

I kissed his forehead and hugged him as best I could, careful of his IV and the tangle of lead wires from the heart monitor.

“I love you, Daddy,” I said as a new torrent of misery swept through me. I turned and left the room, feeling my life blowing out the torn veins of my soul. I paid no attention to my mother and brother who passed with faces of stone on their way into the room.

In the ICU waiting room, Denise rose from her chair as I walked in. “Oh, baby,” she said, “there’s still a chance he might make it.”

I fell into her arms. “I know. I just wish I knew where he was.”

Denise knitted her brow. “What do you mean?”

“Nothing,” I said, shaking my head. I couldn’t explain my confusion and sense of loss. Hell, I couldn’t comprehend it myself. “I have to pick up some stuff at my folks’ house and then I’ll meet you.”

An hour after I left the hospital, I was sitting on the bed that had once been mine, staring out from the second-floor window into the night. The soft patter of a desert rainstorm drove my thoughts further inward. I was long past exhausted. I was a gaping hole in the universe, a dead sun that lacked the energy to collapse into a black hole—quiet, dark and still.

My body stiffened as I heard my mother’s footsteps on the wooden staircase. After twenty years, I could identify everyone’s unique signature of squeaks and creaks.

“Kari, I want you to know how inappropriate it was that you brought her into the ICU waiting room. There was no call for it.”

I remained seated with my back to her. I’d long since given up being surprised at her callousness, and now had little interest in playing her passive-aggressive mind games where the rules were always shifting.

“Look at me when I’m talking to you!”

I stood and faced her. What little emotion remained now solidified in my icy gaze at the forty-five-year-old woman standing before me.

“Do you not understand how embarrassing it is to tell friends that the person sitting on the other side of the waiting room is your daughter’s lesbian lover? How could you be so insensitive as to bring her into a family emergency like this? She’s not wanted. She is not to be there tomorrow. And if . . .” Her voice choked with tears. “And if, God forbid, he dies, she is not to be at the wake or the funeral. Do you understand me?”

I picked up the small suitcase I had brought from Ironwood and walked out of the room past my mother.

“Where do you think you’re going?”

I ignored her and kept walking to the head of the staircase.

“Answer me!”

I paused. “I’m staying with Denise.”

“Where? At your apartment in Ironwood? Y’all are driving a hundred miles back to school in the middle of the night? What about your father? Do you even care that he’s dying? You’re just going to forget about him?”

“No. Denise got a motel room here in Scottsdale. I’m staying with her.”

“You will do no such thing. This is a family crisis. You and Michael are staying right here. Do you understand me? This family sticks together.”

As I continued down the stairs, her voice ramped beyond a command to a full-banshee shriek. “Kari Leigh Sullivan, if you step one foot out of this house, I will kill myself. Do you hear me?”

On the stairway, I turned and faced her. “Assuming you’re really that crazy and vindictive, then you would be the one going to hell. That’s where God sends suicides, isn’t it?” I walked out into the night.

Maybe she was bluffing. Maybe not. I’d seen her go to great lengths to prove a point, no matter whom it hurt. Call me heartless, but I honestly didn’t care at that point. I wasn’t going to stick around and be her whipping girl.

“Kari, you come back here this instant!”

Outside, the darkness and drizzle enveloped me in a comforting blanket of wet night. I tossed my suitcase in the back of my Civic, turned the ignition and headed out on rain-slick streets to the one person who would welcome me.

“Dad, please don’t hate me for not staying with Mom,” I whispered, wondering if maybe, somehow, he could hear me. “I just couldn’t. You know how she is. Please don’t hate me if she does something stupid.”

I wiped my face. “Daddy, if it was her in the hospital and you at home, I wouldn’t leave. Daddy, please come back, wherever you are. Please let me know you understand.”

As I waited at a red light, I noticed a familiar landmark. The Waffle Shoppe glowed warmly, filled with people clearly having a better time than I was. I could almost smell the sticky sweet aroma of maple syrup.

I’d been there once with my dad, and he’d told me about the pranks he pulled in college back east. Ex-Lax cookies at a party. Flooding the ROTC building. Sending a hooker to the dean’s sixtieth birthday party. I laughed so hard vanilla milkshake squirted out of my nose.

The Waffle Shoppe itself hadn’t changed much over the years, except that two of the letters in the lighted sign had burned out. It now read “Waffle Shoe.” I couldn’t help but think that wherever my Dad was in his coma-neverworld, he was somehow responsible.

“That’s a good one, Dad.”

The light turned green, and I continued until I reached the Oasis Palm Motel a few miles down the road.

My knock on the motel room door was followed by a commotion from inside.

“Hold on,” Denise called. A moment later, she opened the door with a peculiar grin.

“What’s going on?” I scanned the room for something to explain her odd expression.

“I have something to cheer you up.” Denise sat me down on the nearest of two queen-size beds, then dashed alone to the bathroom.

“Hon, I’m not in the mood for surprises. I just had a fight with my mom and need sleep. Maybe a beer.”

Denise emerged from the bathroom holding a tiny ball of black fur that was mewing loudly. “Kari Sullivan, meet your new baby, Trinity.”

She handed the kitten to me, and my heart melted. I wrapped the kitten in my arms. The poor thing mewed louder as she scrambled to find a comfortable fit on my chest.

“Oh, baby,” I said to both kitten and girlfriend. The kitten’s warmth drew me in like a magnet. I could feel the vibration of a purr despite her frantic crying. I kissed her head and stroked her back. “It’s OK, Trinity. It’s OK. Mama’s gotcha.”

“I take it you like?” asked Denise.

I nodded as emotion tightened my throat.

“Some lady was giving them away in front of Fry’s Foods. Trinity was the runt. Her litter box is in the bathroom, and she’s already used it twice.”

A few minutes later, the kitten stopped crying. Her purr became more audible, as she and I curled up together on the bed and fell asleep.

The next six weeks were a blur of agonizing vigils at my dad’s bedside, silent glares from my mother, and angry prayers to a God whose existence I seriously doubted. My professors let classmates record their lectures and bring me the assignments. I only showed up in Ironwood for the occasional exam. A month and a half later, my dad passed on without regaining consciousness.

Throughout St. Agnes Catholic Church, garlands of cheap plastic greenery contrasted with the opulence of royal purple banners, heralding the approaching Christmas celebration. Besides the seasonal décor, little had changed in the years since I last visited.

The morbid depictions of the tortured Christ mixed with the rich dark wood and gold accents still gave me the feeling that this was less the house of a loving god and more the abode of a wealthy sadomasochist. It wasn’t where I wanted to celebrate the life of my father.

Downstairs, in the church’s reception hall, my father’s portrait stood on an easel, encircled with flowers and wreaths. The Great Irish Bear was dead.

I sat alone on a padded folding chair in the corner, clinging to a Styrofoam cup half-filled with bitter coffee. I gazed across the room at the entourage of half-forgotten parishioners and acquaintances buzzing around my mother in consolation. In such company, I preferred to be invisible.

“Hey there, little Kari. How are you?” said a deep voice so distant it seemed to emanate from one of Jupiter’s moons. I glanced up to see Jerold Gallagher, a middle-aged friend of the family who always seemed a bit too fond of young girls. I steeled my gaze, letting him know he had asked the stupidest question ever posed. He mumbled an apology and vanished back into the swirling mass of mourners.

If nothing else, the coffee fended off the chill that always seemed to fill the place. As a child, I imagined the dead, who lay buried in the neighboring cemetery, haunting the hall at night, sucking out all warmth and joy. It felt as real now as it had when I was taking my first communion class.

“Sorry, I’m late. You wouldn’t believe how hard it is to find a cat sitter over winter break.”

I looked up to see Denise standing in front of me, wearing a dark blue dress and a slapdash attempt at makeup. It was the first time I had ever seen her in anything but jeans. The effect was comical enough to draw the sun out from the clouds of my mood.

“Oh my God!” I said as we embraced. “I didn’t think you owned a dress. It’s like you’re in drag or something.” Our foreheads touched.

“Sorry, it’s not black. It’s all I had. It’s from high school graduation. I’m amazed it still fits. And I had to use your makeup.”

I chuckled through my tears. “If nothing else, it’s giving me a much-needed laugh.”

“You tell anyone at school about this, I will never talk to you again.”

“Your secret’s safe with me.”

I could breathe for the first time in days. I wanted to kiss her and let passion pull me away from this dreary place. But to let down my guard under my mother’s malevolent gaze was asking for trouble I didn’t need. I settled for hugging Denise, allowing her compassion to warm me in that cold basement.

Someone grabbed my arm, pulling me off balance. I turned to see my mother, her face flush, eyes glassy. She’d had a few.

“What’s she doing here?” My mom pointed at Denise with a glass of something I was sure wasn’t apple juice.

“I invited her here. Deal with it.”

“How dare you disgrace me at my husband’s wake! This is for family and close friends only! Not perverts like her!”

My brother Michael stepped between us. In the debate over my sexuality, Michael had sided with our mother, accusing me of coming out for the sole purpose of embarrassing the family. He was always her lapdog and perhaps more than that. Now he tried to steer her back to her seat. “C’mon, Mom. Forget about her and her little friend.”

She pulled away from him. “No! I am not gonna allow these homos to ruin my husband’s wake!”

My sadness hardened into rage. “You are such a bitch. You never think of anyone but yourself.”

Had she been sober, her slap would have connected. As it was, I dodged the blow. She tumbled to the floor. Her glass exploded on the cold tile.

“Mom!” Michael lifted her out of the needle-like shards glinting in the dreary fluorescent light.

She pushed him away and stared up at me. “God is punishing our family because of you! Your father—my best friend—is dead. And it’s all your fault!”

Despite the idiocy of the remark, it still stung. “If anyone killed Dad, it was you with your constant manipulating and nagging. You make life miserable for everyone around you, you fucking bitch!”

“Kari,” said Michael, “I think it’s time you left.”

“Me? She’s the one who started it!”

Michael guided our mother into a nearby chair. She wiped a bleeding hand across her face. “Oh, Mom. Sit right there. I’ll get you a towel.” He turned back to me. “If you don’t leave, I’m calling the cops. Now get lost!”

“Come on, sweetie,” Denise said, pulling me away. “You don’t need this shit. Let’s leave.”

“No! This is my Dad’s wake!”

Denise put her arm on my shoulder and kissed my cheek. “I know, baby, but you don’t want to be around these people. They’re assholes. They’ll just make you more miserable. Let’s go upstairs and light a candle for your dad. Then we can grab a motel room and watch TV or something.”

I nodded and buried my head into Denise’s shoulder, sobbing as we walked out under critical eyes. She led me up the stairs to the sanctuary.

On an oak votive stand, an array of prayer candles flickered in the dark, cavernous room. I approached and stopped. This wasn’t how I wanted to honor my father’s memory. He couldn’t have cared less about this place and its religiosity. His spirit wasn’t here. I turned to Denise. “Let’s go.”

“You sure?”

I nodded and opened the sanctuary door to find my mother standing there. In front of the church office, Father Ryan was putting a bandage over the cut on her arm.

At the sound of the sanctuary door shutting behind me, she looked up. I saw in her eyes not the heartless banshee, but a little girl, frightened and alone. She turned away without a word, locking away her fears and vulnerability from the eyes of the world.

As I drove behind Denise on the way to the motel, I gazed absently out the window as signs announcing holiday sales whizzed past. The winter chill crept down my spine into the emptiness of my heart. Then something caught my eye.

I honked and swerved into a parking lot, and slipped into a space near the front door of the Waffle Shoe. Denise popped a U-ey, clipped the curb and pulled in next to me. I got out and shivered against the cold.

“In there?” she asked. “Baby, if you’re hungry, I’d be happy to take you someplace nice.”

I shook my head, pulling my coat tight around my body. “This is where I need to be.”

The hostess, a woman with bottle-blond hair and more makeup than a stage actor, seated us with a tired smile. Denise ordered coffees for us.

“Actually, could you make mine a vanilla shake?”

“Sure, honey.” She made an addendum to the order and disappeared into the kitchen.

When the drinks arrived, I told Denise stories about my father until coffee came out her nose. I told her of the time he found a snake that died coiled up and how he gift-wrapped it and put it on Jerold Gallagher’s porch. And the time he burned off an eyebrow attempting to light a campfire with a match and a can of bug spray.

By the time we left an hour later, my brain was buzzing with endorphins. My sides hurt from laughter. The waitress ringing up our receipt asked us if we were all right. Probably thought we were drunk. We assured her we were fine.

“Ready to go back to the motel?” Denise asked as she fumbled the keys out of her pocket.

“Got a better idea,” I said. “There’s nothing left for me in this crappy town. Let’s forget about the motel and just drive back to Ironwood. I want to spend tonight in my real home with my real family—you and Trinity.”

“What about the funeral?”

“Fuck the funeral. I prefer honoring my dad my own way.”

As I followed Denise’s taillights past darkened hills on the I-17 north, something in me shifted. The sadness was still there and would be for a long time. But I no longer wondered where my father was. I could hear him every time I laughed.

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