What Do Gay People Eat?
A short story by Brian Gomez. Illustration by Jun Kit.
What to do-what to do?
Five hours only you know till Prasad comes home. With Him. Everything is still here-and-there-all-over-the-place. Are we ready or not, I also don’t know. Parames is of no help, as usual. She comes barging into my study with the brilliant idea that for The Dinner, she’ll cook mutton varuval.
Don’t be so stupid lah, I tell her. Gay people don’t eat Indian food.
But it’s Prasad’s favourite, she says. (Parames can be so simple sometimes, I tell you.)
That was before he met Him, I explain patiently. Things have changed, Parames. Can’t you see that, oh never mind lah. You don’t know anything about this new world. What can you know? You don’t go Out There into the world everyday like me. You don’t see how people have, aiyo never mind la Parames.
I turn away from her and press the switch-on button on the computer. I’m being mean to her, I know. She’s under a lot of stress, yes-yes I know. But come on lah. I’m under a lot of stress too. And it’s not like she hasn’t been snappish with me the last few weeks, isn’it? Maybe I should remind her that just yesterday, she created such a bloody fuss when I-
Shit, she’s still there. No doubt staring-daggers into the back of my head. I should say something to try and diffuse the situation. We don’t need another fight. We don’t have the time, dammit. Five hours only you know till Prasad comes home. Everything is still-
So Mr. Out-There-In-The-World-Everyday, she says.
Please-please can you tell a know-nothing like me what gay people eat? Ah, Mr. Out-There-In-The-World?
Look, Parames. I-
What? What is it, Mr. Out-There-In-The-World? Please tell me. What is it you’ve discovered while hanging out with all the gay people Out There in the World and researching what-all they eat?
This is the way women argue. Their only weapon is Repetition. They take the one stupid thing you say in the entire argument and they repeat it and repeat it and repeat it until you’re worn-out and only too ready to admit defeat and beg forgiveness for what exactly, I also don’t know.
Come on-come on, Mr. Out-There-In-The World, she continues. Pleeeaasee tell me. What? What? Don’t sigh. That’s not an answer. Do gay people eat sighs? Is that what you’re trying to say, Mr.-Out-There-In-The-
Okay-okay, that’s enough Parames, I say. Someone needs to be calm and collected in these kinds of situations.
This is the way Men argue. Cool-like. With reason. And with Cold Hard Facts. Unfortunately, I haven’t yet collected the facts to support my case. So I do what any man would do when faced with this situation: I make up my own facts. Temporarily, you understand. Just so I can get her and her bloody repetition off my case for a while.
Cheese, I say.
Cheese? she says. Gay people eat cheese? Really? Cheese?
They eat those little tiny food-things with cheese on them, I say. I make a small ring-shape with my thumb and index-finger to visually describe to her what I mean.
You know? The one with, aiyo what’s it called? I point helplessly to the ring. I close my eyes and frown thoughtfully, as though the name for my made-up cheese-thing is at the edge of my brain, just waiting to be coaxed into audibly revealing itself.
Parames rolls her eyes. Cheese, she mutters as she walks out and slams the door. Some respite. For now, at least.
I click the button on the computer that opens up The Google that Priya showed me how to use. In the search-box I type “what do gay people eat?” and wait for the results. Surprisingly, The Google doesn’t give me any satisfactory answers except one website that gives horrible answers like “each other!” among other things that I will not repeat here.
I pick up the phone and dial Priya’s number. It rings and rings and rings and then stops. I try again. Same thing. I try again. It rings and rings and rings and –
What is it, Appa? Priya says.
She’s short with us these days, our Priya. But who can blame her? She’s very very busy, you know. She’s got a top-top job as a copywriter with an advertising agency, writing the slogans and all-that for the advertisements, sometimes the ones on TV even. I try not to call her during work-time. Parames of course, calls her all the bloody time, forever asking her some nonsense questions that irritate her. But you can’t blame her, our Priya you know? She’s very very busy all the time. I try to get straight to the point:
Priya, very quick question-very quick question, I say. Do gay people eat cheese?
What? she says. God Appa, what kind of question is that? Look, I have a meeti-
Amma wants to cook mutton varuval tonight, can you imagine that? But I said where got gay people eat Indian food, am I right or not? Surely they eat western food, like, you know, I mean something not so fattening. I mean, they’re all so thin, right or not? I was thinking-
Appa, she says, in a tone that tells me she’s trying, very hard, to be patient with me. Mutton’s fine. It’s Prasad’s favourite. He’ll want home-cooked food. His boyfriend eats Indian food all the time over there, okay? Look Appa, I really need to go, okay? Mutton’s fine.
Are you sure? Because-
His Boyfriend, she said.
Until now we’ve only referred to him as, well…Him. What a strange combination of words: His and Boyfriend. His boyfriend. Prasad’s boyfr-
Okay mutton varuval it is then.
I go to the bedroom and open the door. Parames is looking through her wardrobe.
Mutton varuval is fine, I tell her, by way of apology. She ignores me, takes out the blue saree, the one I bought her for her birthday, makes a big show of deciding whether-or-not she should wear it tonight, and then puts it back on the rack. Apology not accepted. Okay, fine then.
Prasad’s boyfriend eats Indian food all the time over there, I say, surprising both her and myself. I feel irrationally triumphant for being the first between us to say the two-word-combination out loud. She turns to look at me.
I’m going to Mohan’s, I say, and close the door.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
The sign painted on the shop window says Mohan Barber. And those-days the sign accurately described what awaited you when you went inside, namely a barber named Mohan.
Now-days what awaits you is a Bangladeshi bugger named Hameed, who is, I suspect, one of them. Most Bangladeshi workers here are, you know. But you can’t really blame them also lah, come on. Thirty-forty of them crammed into one shophouse, all men some more. One-two lucky ones might find an Indonesian maid to fiddle around with. But the others all, I mean if I also, well maybe not me but other men, you know? I mean who knows what-all circumstances would cause a man to change to gay? One fellow on The Google said it could be genetics.
And if at all it is ever conclusively proven that gayness is indeed caused by genes, I think it is only fair that people know it’s not my genes. Surely Prasad got it from Parames what. I mean, come on. Think about it in a scientific manner:
If a boy turns out to be gay, scientifically-speaking it must be because of excessive female genes that can only come from where? The mother, am I right or not? I mean, don’t get me wrong. I’m not blaming Parames or anything. Not like she could have deliberately transferred excessive female genes to Prasad, isn’it? But, okaylah put it this way: If Priya had turned out to be a tomboy, I guarantee you I would be man enough to take responsibility. You know?
Semua kasi potong, I say to Hameed. Machine number dua.
Hameed feigns shock at my asking him to give me a crew-cut suddenly after all these years. He conveys this by arching his eyebrows, opening his mouth wide-wide and placing his palm soft-wristedly on his chest.
I wonder how Mohan could have trusted a man without a strong wrist to use all kinds of sharp-sharp instruments on his customers’ heads, but nevermind. Hameed has been cutting my hair for what, three-four years now? What matters is I trust him, despite his twisty-turny wrist. Because not trusting him would make me a bigot, right or not?
And speaking of bigots, as if on cue, the bell on the barbershop door ting-tings and in walks Titus. I can’t help thinking that the small ting-ting bell doesn’t quite aptly announce the arrival of a man like Titus. For him, there should be one of those big-big bells, like the one the hunchback always rings in that story. Or maybe a siren like in the prison-escape movies. So that everybody can stop what they’re doing and run for cover.
He sits his fatty-self down on the chair next to mine and makes a big drama-only sigh.
Titus, I say, by way of greeting.
Tsk tsk, he says, by way of letting me know that Something is Wrong and By God he’s going to tell me what it is.
You should get Mohan to do your haircut, he says. If you call him and make an appointment, he’ll come in specially.
I tried last time already, I say. He told me he doesn’t do that anymore. Concentrating on the trading business and all.
Titus knows this, of course.
Funny, he says. He always comes in for me. Specially.
What I want to say is “that’s because you’re Datuk Hashim’s ball-licker (excuse my language) and Mohan needs you to do all the under-table wheeling and dealing and what-not. Your special haircut all got nothing to do with who you are. In fact, Mohan probably thinks that you’re a fucker (again, excuse my language) like the rest of us do”.
Instead, I just say Oh.
Titus sighs again.
You shouldn’t let this fellow cut your hair, you know, he says.
He’s been cutting it since Mohan left, I say. That’s what, three-four years? So far, nothing to complain about. In fact, better than Mohan, I think. Other people also agree.
Titus leans over to whisper to me, as though Hameed can understand what he’s talking.
You know what he is, or not? he says.
Yes, I say. Hameed is a Bangladeshi.
Yes, Hameed says, glad I suppose that he finally understands something and can contribute to the conversation. I am Bangladesh.
Another sigh from Titus. He leans closer.
No-no-no, he says. He is a g-a-y.
I wonder whether Titus thinks it is gay people or Bangladeshis who can’t spell. Hameed, I can tell from his expression in the mirror, understands perfectly what has been said but, probably out of fear of being fired and sent back to Bangladesh, meekly goes about his business.
That’s it, I think. I will not stand for this bigotry. Worse still, poor Hameed probably thinks I’m also talking badly about his gayness. And you don’t want someone who has scissors at your scalp thinking that. I decide that, since Hameed can’t defend himself, I will speak up for him.
Listen Titus, I say. That’s not his fault. Scientifically-speaking, this kind of thing happens when excessive female genes are transferred from the mother to the son while the baby is in the womb. It happens more often than you think. Nothing to be ashamed about. Hameed.is.gay? That.is.okay.
These last two sentences I say slowly directly to Hameed’s reflection in the mirror. Hameed looks as if he wants to curl up and die, but he still manages a weak smile at me, acknowledging my sticking up for him, I think.
I give him the thumbs-up sign but my hands are between my legs under the big white barber-cloth and I realise that Hameed might misunderstand and think I’m having an erection, so I quickly move my hand away to my side.
Titus leans back into his chair. Realising I suppose that he can’t challenge scientific facts, all he can think to say is Where the hell is Mohan? as he looks at his watch for much-much longer than it usually takes a person to tell the time.
Hameed takes off the white barber-cloth and I get up from the chair before he can even reach for the razors.
No-no, no need shave today, Hameed, tak payah-tak payah, I say. I’m in a rush.
I take out my wallet and, instead of the usual ten, press a fifty-ringgit note into his hand.
Here’s fifty, I say, loud enough for Titus to hear. Keep the change-keep the change.
Hameed looks thoroughly confused, says no-no-no, but I’m having none of it.
I wave off his protests and to Titus I say The only reason Mohan cuts your hair is because you’re Datuk Hashim’s ball-licker and he needs you to do all the under-table wheeling and dealing and what-not. Your special haircut all got nothing to do with who you are. In fact, Mohan probably thinks that you’re a fucker like the rest of us do.
I do not excuse my language. As I walk out the door, the bell ting-tings and I feel like a boxer who’s won a fight. But then just outside the door, I stop.
Because somehow my victory doesn’t feel complete. Because I know that there’s another fight I have to win. A bigger fight. A fight not with Titus or Parames or Priya or Prasad or Prasad’s boyfriend or anyone. No, this fight has been going on for awhile now. Since the last few weeks, in fact. This fight is between me and myself. And I have to lose. I mean I have to win. I mean I have to defeat me. No wait hang-on. I mean, in this fight, it is me against me and nevermind-nevermind.
I go back into Mohan’s.
I walk to Titus’ chair and swivel it around so that he faces me. I look him straight in the eye.
By the way, you know my son Prasad? I say. He’s g-a-y.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Parames accosts me as soon as I enter the door. She doesn’t even notice my haircut. Or if she does, she has more pressing matters to attend to.
What happened-what happened? she says. You told Titus? His wife called Millicent who told Mahes who told Puvanes Akka who called me I didn’t know what to say.
Just say yes, Prasad’s gay lah, I say. What’s so difficult?
You should have told me you’re going to tell Titus, of all people Titus! What did he say-what did he say?
Mutton smells damn nice, I say.
She looks like she’s going to hit me.
Don’t worry lah Parames, I say. Everything’s fine. Everything will be okay, okay? I’ll tell you later. Priya’s already picked them from the airport. Better faster get ready. I’m going to shower.
As I close the bathroom door, I hear her say What did you do to your hair?
I take a shower and look in the mirror. With my brand new crew-cut, I can say that I’m sufficiently manly-looking. Unlike those men models in the new-new hair magazines at Mohan’s, what with their long hair all fashioned-up with moose and blonde-colour stripes. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, of course. Nothing wrong-nothing wrong but I think this look suits me more lah, you know? Leave all these new stylo-mylo type things to the youngsters, I always say.
I decide not to shave and leave my three-day beard on but I put on some Old Spice (Musky) aftershave anyway. I get dressed quickly in the room. Should be anytime now Prasad will be-
I hear the honk outside. Through the curtain I peek out:
Prasad gets out first from the passenger side. He goes to the back and starts to unload the bags. Priya gets out and walks with some urgency to the house. Then Prasad’s boyfriend comes out. Quite a normal looking fellow, I must say. Quite muscular also for a gay. And-
Fuck (excuse my language). He has a crew cut and a three-day beard!
I open the bedroom door slightly. Parames (wearing the blue saree – apology finally accepted) is there in the hallway talking to Priya.
Your Appa looks so handsome with his new hairc-
Priya-Priya-Priya!, I say. Quickly-quickly tell me. Does Prasad’s boyfriend wear Old Spice?
What? Priya says. Appa, what…why are you hiding behind the door?
Quickly-quickly Priya, I say. Old Spice. Musky.
How the hell should I, oh for God’s sake, Appa.
She pushes the door open and pulls me by the hand to the hallway.
Look, she tells Parames and me. Just please act normally, okay? No wait. Don’t act like you do normally. Just…look, it’s just a normal dinner with-
Prasad is in the door and Parames rushes to hug him.
Prasad! Prasad! she says as she starts wailing away. Amma’s boy-boy! Amma’s laddoo!
You see? This is why he’s gay.
Parames goes on and on and then she says Amma and Appa love you no matter what!
Oh God, Priya says, and looks at me as if to say Please Appa. Please do something. Or please don’t do anything. I can’t tell. I’m not even exactly sure what Parames has said wrong to begin with. I walk up to Prasad’s boyfriend and give him a firm manly handshake.
Come in-come in, welcome-welcome, I say. I hear you eat Indian food all the time. Please-please come in don’t be shy.
Parames takes notice of this and finally releases Prasad.
Oh yes-oh yes, she says, as she wipes away tears with the back of her hand. Sorry sorry how rude of me ha ha! Welcome-welcome. Please come in. You must be tired. Come-come sit down.
Priya, in damage-control mode, vigilantly follows them into the living room.
I turn to Prasad. And I welcome my son home.
This short story first appeared in Body 2 Body: A Malaysian Queer Anthology, edited by Jerome Kugan & Pang Khee Teik, published by Matahari Books, 2009.
The illustration by Jun Kit was commissioned for ‘The B-Side’, an interactive magazine published by BFM Media.