***J. T.’s home in the Woodlands, after 9 p.m.***
J. T. gripped the steering wheel of his Tesla as he waited for the garage door to open fully. Almost every light was on in their two-story brick palace. That could not be good, especially after Priscilla’s frantic and slurred phone call. ‘You better get home. Right now,’ was all his wife of fifteen years had said. He had made the almost hour-long commute from downtown to their gated community in only a bit more than half an hour as he pulled the car into the garage.
He knew this house and neighborhood were status symbols for his wife and mother. But the twenty-four-hour guard and closed-circuit television were his primary concern. Diego Garcia might be in the mental ward of a federal prison and his cartel in shambles, but another would take his place. And J. T. would go after that person too. It was his job. And that was all he had.
He had been sleeping on the sofabed in his study since their daughter was born over two years ago. He remembered the conversation well. After a rough pregnancy and birth, Priscilla had informed him that she did not want any more children. Lots of couples got to that point. But rather than vasectomies or tubal ligations or any other birth control method, his wife had informed him that she no longer wanted to share their bed with him. That sex was not her thing.
Not that sex with Priscilla had ever done anything for J. T. He should have accepted that he was gay when the only way he could… With his wife… Was to think about…
He blew out the air he had been holding in his lungs since that call. This was not the first time his wife had done this. But her drinking was becoming more of a problem. Especially since Laura had been born. Honestly, if it weren’t for their live-in nanny Josefina, he would not be able to concentrate on work for worrying about his children. The older woman he had helped with her naturalization case back in law school was more a mother to him and a grandmother to his children than…
“Time to face the music,” he heard the garage door click into place. He stepped out and locked the car. The mini-van and his wife’s Lexus were both parked in the garage. J. T. opened the door into the utility room. “Hola, Josefina,” he kissed the woman’s cheek. But her lack of a smile told him all he needed to know. “Are the children asleep?”
“Little Laura, si. George should be as well. But Jeb… Jamie, that woman…” The woman lifted the corner of her apron and wiped tears from her eyes.
Things with his oldest son had been more difficult since his brother’s wedding a few weeks ago. Jon was still recovering from surgery. J. T. had only spoken with his younger brother a couple of times, but he and Alicia, Jon’s new wife, texted or talked every day. Their wedding might have been a disaster, thanks to his family, but their marriage and love seemed to anything but. He envied his little brother that. Even if he would not have wanted that type of family.
But that was it. For the first time in Jeb’s life, his son had seen loving relationships that were not heterosexual or monogamous. Being a teen, that kind of freedom from societal norms must have appealed to his son. Hell, it had to him, too. But Jeb was braver than his father. J. T. swore that his son’s fingernails had clear polish on them at church yesterday.
“Is he in his bedroom?” The woman nodded her head. For a moment, J. T. thought Josefina was going to say something more, but then she dropped her head and went back to folding laundry.
J. T. loosened his tie as he walked through the kitchen. He hated the damned things. But he had been wearing them every day, except Saturday, since his mother sent him to that prep academy when he was five. He looked around the family room, but there was no sign of trouble there. Not that there would be Josefina trailed behind his children and wife cleaning and tiding all their messes. He paid the woman well, more than a living wage, but he knew that she did not do her job for the money. She genuinely cared for him and his family.
She had been with them since Jeb was just a toddler. He had just passed the bar and gotten his first job with the U. S. Attorney’s office here in Houston. Her youngest daughter had just gotten married. She had invited him to the girl’s wedding, of course. Her naturalization case hadn’t been that difficult, though J. T. knew it would be a different story now. But the woman had stayed in touch, expressing her gratitude in small ways. There was still nothing in this world like that woman’s tamales. Except maybe the way she cared for his children.
J. T. took off his jacket and left it over the banisters before climbing the stairs to the bedrooms. Josefina had the small one on the first floor that was right off the family room. The other four were on the second floor. A huge master with en suite including a whirlpool tub. And three others, one for each child. Which left J. T. sleeping on that couch in his study for the past two years.
He opened the first door on his right. Laura’s room was pink with fairies stenciled on the walls as well as on her blankets and curtains. His daughter slept soundly in her toddler bed. He thought about sneaking in and stealing a kiss, but that might disturb her. He crossed the hall to the blue and red bedroom of his middle child, George. It did not have any theme per se. Not since his seven-year-old had outgrown dinosaurs. George, too, was sound asleep in his bed.
His son looked so peaceful and innocent in sleep. But that little mouth mimicked and spewed every hateful word his mother and grandmother said. J. T. knew how easy it was for them to manipulate a child. Hell, he might never be able to reconcile with Jon. Thanks to the way his mother had pitted them against one another. But that wasn’t fair to the woman. At some point, he had been old enough to understand, to know what ‘That’ woman was doing and that it was wrong. But he had played along anyway. Trying to win her love and approval.
But he never quite had. Even as his career soared. When he married the woman, she had chosen for him. When he gave her three grandchildren of ‘impeccable birth.’ He had never measured up. Was that because of that one time? When she had found him and Steve together. Or did Marianne Buford Walker Tyler believe that withholding love and approval was the way to motivate her children to ever more remarkable accomplishments? No matter the cost.
It wasn’t George that he was most worried about at the moment, though. J. T. took a deep breath as he pulled that door closed. He took several more of them as he stood outside the one next door. But not even the crazy breathing exercises that his shrink had taught him would calm the unrest that was eating at his soul right now. He lifted his hand and knocked. He waited for several long moments, hoping that his oldest would answer. When Jeb did not, he knocked again, a bit louder this time. His hand was on the doorknob; he hated invading the teen’s privacy. He understood better than anyone how that felt.
But right now, he had serious concerns about his child. He was just about to break his own rules, not that trespassing his moral code of ethics was anything new to him. He had probably been doing it since he was younger than George. But definitely, since he was not much older than Jeb. His whole life since that moment was nothing but a lie.
“Come in,” his son’s voice was weak. Was that just teenage angst? Resentment? J. T. did not want to believe it was fear, but he had to accept that possibility.
Jeb was sitting up in his bed. The whole room was shades of grey. There was not a single sign of color or life to be found. The room was the perfect reflection of his life, and perhaps his son’s as well. “How you doing?”
“She called you, didn’t she?”
J. T. nodded his head. As a prosecutor, he had learned that sometimes the best thing to do was let them talk. Not that his child was a suspect. And he sure as hell did not want to apply those same standards to parenting that his mother had. “Want to tell me about it?”
“No. What does it matter? Adults always win. They always get their way.”
Jeb’s words were an arrow straight to his heart. A broken heart that had been bleeding quietly for a quarter of a century. He crossed the room and sat on the end of the bed. “That doesn’t make it right. Or fair. Adults don’t always get it right, you know.”
His son turned his head. J. T.’s breath caught in his throat; was that pink tint on Jeb’s cheek what he thought it was? “What happened, Jeb?”
“She’ll tell you anyway.” The boy shifted on the bed, but his son still would not look him in the eye, keeping them firmly planted on that dark grey duvet. “I was just playing around. Experimenting.”
J. T. was not sure he could breathe as the weight of those words, almost the exact same ones he had said a quarter of a century ago when he denied who he was and shunned the only person he had ever loved or that had loved him. But he forced his mind back to what Jeb was saying. This was not about his mistakes. This was about his child’s life. He would call tomorrow and schedule an emergency session with his shrink to deal with his own shit.
“It’s no big deal. She’s thrown the stuff away. I just took it out of the garbage to try on. I mean, Sarah looks so stunning… I just thought. Who does it hurt if I try on her old make-up?”
Okay, it was not the admission that J. T. had been expecting. Jeb’s ‘secret’ was not the same as his. But what did it matter? And how did he deal with this? Obviously, Priscilla had not done a very good job of things. Especially if that pink on Jeb’s cheek was not residual blush. Oh, please let it be.
“So, your mother caught you wearing make-up?” Jeb nodded, still staring at that blanket. J. T. looked for the right words. Was there such a thing in this situation? But he did not want to sound judgmental or make the situation any worse, and he sure as hell did not want to cause the scene ‘That’ woman had. “Okay, I can understand experimenting. But help me to understand why, Jeb? I mean, do you believe that you might be trans like Sarah? Do you want to dress like a girl? I mean transexual or cross-dressing.”
The boy just shook his head silently. “Please, I’m not judging you. Honestly, I just want to understand where you’re coming from. Why you did it. I know I’m not around that much. I may not be the best father, but I do love you, son. Or should I not use that word. Help me, Jeb. I want to do right by you, but I don’t know how or what to say.”
When his son looked up, there were tears in those blue eyes that were so much like his own and Jon’s. And ‘That’ woman’s. “Thanks, dad. I don’t know either. Not just what it is I want or need you to say but the answer to your question. I don’t know exactly what or why. No, I don’t have gender dysphoria. I don’t feel like a woman. And yeah, a couple of my friends at school have put me in skirts. And I liked it.”
Jeb blushed, and that cheek darkened even more. “I sort of like them too. So, I don’t think I’m gay. Heteroflexible or bi, maybe. But only if the guy is uber hot. Or I really like him. The thing is… Why? Who says I shouldn’t wear make-up or skirts? Those things are way more comfortable than pants, by the way. And why can’t I use cosmetics to express who I am or how I feel? Or grow my hair long? Who am I hurting by doing any of that?”
J. T. lifted his brow as he nodded, “Absolutely no one, Jeb. And those societal rules are changing. I think you saw that at your Uncle Jon’s wedding. But that was California, and this is Texas…”
“And I’m a Tyler…”
“And none of that makes any difference. You’re right. On every last point. I’ll talk with your mother. Maybe we can find some sort of compromise. At least for now, Jeb? You shouldn’t have to ever hide who you are. And you should be able, like you say, to experiment and discover all this stuff for yourself.”
“It sounds like you have been doing some research. I don’t know half the terms you used. Heteroflexible? I think I get your meaning, but that’s a new one to me. What is it you want, Jeb? And I know you’re going to hate me sounding like some damned lawyer negotiating a plea deal, but what will you settle for?”
“I don’t know, dad. Honest.” His son dropped his eyes again. Silence hung like those grey curtains, blacking out the progress they might have made.
“Okay, let me go talk to her now. But promise me you’ll think about it, Jeb. I’ll do a bit of research of my own, and maybe we can talk again this weekend. Until then, just don’t let her catch you, okay?” He tried to break the tension with a joke as he leaned in to kiss his son’s cheek. But Jeb flinched. Was that because he had crossed some teenage boundary? Or…
“Goodnight, Jeb.” He stood, looking back at his oldest child one more time, trying to figure out the answer to his question without asking. Because he could not do that. As an officer of the court, he had a legal obligation to report abuse. Even suspected abuse. He closed the door and leaned his head against it.
He had felt like a failure and a fraud for most of his life. As he told his son, he never expected to win a father of the year award. He had left way too much of those responsibilities to a woman he did not like or respect. And to the mother who had fucked, yes, fucked up three children of her own.
He had not yet prosecuted a capital case. At the federal level, those were relatively rare. But he could imagine those few feet between Jeb’s bedroom and the master suite at the end of the hallway must be what condemned men felt like as they walked to the death chamber.
J. T. raised his hand to knock on that door as well. But then he thought better of it. Why give Priscilla that kind of power over him? He might not sleep in this room or her bed anymore, but it was still his house. His clothes still hung in that closet, though usually, Josefina brought out a fresh change for him every day.
“What are you doing in my room?” J. T. did not have to guess what was in the crystal glass on the nightstand.
“You called me, Priscilla. Or don’t you remember?”
She lifted the glass to her lips. The red stains of her lipstick were smeared, and there were streaks down her cheeks too. At least, she had never taken up the nasty habit of smoking. Though his mother had quit years ago, J. T.’s earliest memories were of that smell. And his father’s booze. Was he that much like ‘That’ woman? Had marriage to him driven this woman to drink as his parent’s had with his father? Or was there some other explanation?
“You need to deal with your son.”
“Did George get into another fight at school then?” He was not going to play into her hand this time. He began to unbutton his shirt and walked to the dresser for a pair of briefs. Perhaps he should avail himself of that whirlpool tub while he was in his room. He could use the stress relief.
Why had Priscilla been the one to get this room anyway? While his salary was not enough to provide for their lavish lifestyle, it was his family trust that footed the bills for the woman’s luxuries. Marianne Buford Walker Tyler might have cut Jon off, but she never batted a false eyelash at anything he or Clarice submitted for payment each month. After all, they were Tylers…and Walkers…and Bufords. They had certain standards they must live up to.
“George is not the problem. That child is perfect. It’s that school that’s a problem. But your mother said…”
J. T. could guess the things his mother said. But he was not in the mood for more games. Hers or Priscilla’s. “Then why the fuck did you call me?”
Was it his raised voice or ‘that’ word that elicited the stunned silence from the drunk in his bed? Their marriage was over. It had been for two years, at least. But despite everything, they never fought. They never argued or yelled. Never raised their voice. They were Tylers, after all.
At that moment, J. T. also understood how easy it was for some people to commit murder. That offended look on her face. As she killed the two brain cells she had left with more vodka, or was it gin this time? Tylers don’t raise their voices or cuss but backhanding your child or making them feel like some freak was another matter? But J. T. knew it was not this woman that angered him most. That honor did not even go to Marianne Buford Walker Tyler. No, that prize was reserved for the liar that looked back at him in the mirror.
Priscilla finally found that whiny voice that had grated on his nerves since his mother introduced him to her. “It’s Jeb. You need to straighten your son out.” There was something about her tone this time. Something he had not noticed before.
“Straighten MY son out? What are you saying, Priscilla?”
“Your mother told me, J. T. She told me the truth about that man. That queer freak with two wives, except one of them ain’t a real woman and the other he ain’t even married to. Do you think that’s the kind of people to have around our children? Now, Jeb is…”
“Yes, yes, Priscilla, I would rather have my children around Steve Saunders and his family than around the alcoholic they have for a mother. And don’t ever let me hear those disgusting words from your mouth again.” J. T. was past the point of caring. He was screaming. Probably for the first time since he was a baby. And damn, did it feel good.
His wife stumbled to her feet, “Queer! Freak! Pervert! Abomination! Deviant! Get out! Get the hell out of my house, J. T.”
He shook his head, “That’s where you’re wrong, Priscilla. This is my house. It’s the Tyler money and the Tyler name that have been paying for your extravagant lifestyle all these years.”
“And it’ll go on paying for it too. Or I’ll tell everyone what you are. Gay! You think your mother’s gonna want me telling the world that her precious golden boy, the future President of these United States, is QUEER…” She screamed her slurred words.
J. T. kept his hands firmly gripped next to his side. Some rules, some lines, you did not cross. He would never hit a woman. Ever. “I’m leaving, Priscilla. For now. Not because you’re throwing me out. But because you disgust me so much, I can’t stand to be in the same house with you any longer. But hear me now. If you touch that child again, if you raise your hand to any of them, I swear I will turn you in to social services myself.”
His heart sank at the guilty look that crossed her once pretty face before she turned her back and fled to the bathroom. He quickly gathered some clothes. He wasn’t sure what or even if he had the right things. But he could buy what he needed or, at some point, make arrangements to have his things cleared out.
J. T. was a mass of conflicting emotions, but the two that bubbled to the surface were relief and pure joy. Relief to be out of this farce of a marriage and away from ‘that’ woman. And the utter joy of saying things that he had kept bottled inside of him for a lifetime. Of fucking screaming them, even. It was amazingly cathartic. Perhaps he needed to find a new shrink. Cause all those fucking deep breathing and relaxation techniques did not even come close to this.
He came crashing down from that high when he stepped back into the hall. J. T. was not sure which bothered him more, the smug and self-righteous expression on his seven-year-old’s face before he lifted that little nose, turned his back, and said, “Queer freak,” before George disappeared back into his bedroom.
But the forlorn and frightened look on Jeb’s tore at his heart, especially when his son mumbled, “I’m sorry, dad,” through tears.
J. T. lifted his child’s chin and met his son’s gaze full-on. “Don’t you ever be sorry for who you are, Jeb. Or blame yourself for things you did not do. Trust me, they’ll be enough things you did do to feel guilty about. But this is not one of them. This is not your fault. Do you hear me?”
His son nodded his head but dropped those blue eyes back to the carpet. “I promise you, I’ll make this right. I don’t know how yet. But I’m asking you to hang in there. I’d take you with me now, but that might cause more problems for both of us. Will you promise me that, Jeb?”
“Whatever,” were his oldest son’s parting words as he too turned back and slunk into that gray world.
J. T. stood for a long moment debating this course of action. But he had to face some hard truths. Priscilla was right. His mother would support his wife in the divorce proceedings. And as he had told Jeb earlier, the sad reality was this was Texas. Hell, even in California, the LGBT community had to keep fighting for rights that heterosexuals took for granted. No, this world was far from perfect.
He would call Jaycee tomorrow. Of all the attorneys he knew, even those that specialized in family law or gay rights, she was the one he trusted. And that was not about his ‘secret,’ attorney-client privilege assured that was safe, for as long as he wanted to keep it anyway. And for the first time since he was sixteen years old, James Travis Tyler wasn’t so confident he wanted to deny who he was to this world.
But right now, he was more worried about his children. Not just Jeb, though his oldest was perhaps most pressing. But hate was learned. And his children were getting some powerful lessons in the subject.
The door to Laura’s room cracked just a bit as he passed. Josefina stuck her head out but brought her finger to her lip. “Silenca, senor. I just got the baby back to sleep.”
J. T. nodded and, like his eldest, dropped his head to the floor. He was well aware of how the woman’s church and culture viewed these issues. And for the first time in over fifteen years, he did not know what to say to her.
An arthritic hand gripped his arm that held the assortment of clothes, “J. T., you are my friend. Almost like another of my bebes. Nothing changes that.”
His vision was blurred as he found the courage to look at his surrogate mother. He saw the truth of those words in her face. “Promise me, you’ll look after them. After them all, Josefina.”
“¡Por supuesto! I will call you if…”
He nodded and lifted his other hand to squeeze the one on his arm. But that was not enough for the woman; she gathered him into her arms. And though he towered over her, J. T. felt like a little boy, safe in her mother’s loving arms. It was a new feeling to him. And one he hated to leave.
But it was getting late. He needed to find a hotel. Make a list of things to do now. And try to get at least a couple of hours sleep before he went into the office tomorrow at seven. How early was too early to call a woman that just had a baby? If he remembered correctly, six a.m. feedings should be about right. But maybe he should text Jaycee then and leave it up to her when to call back.
J. T. reluctantly pulled back from Josefina’s embrace and smiled at her before walking down the hall and stairs, retracing his steps. As he sat in his vehicle waiting for the garage door to close once more, J. T. was a bit shocked at how much had changed in less than an hour. But it was probably just the beginning of the changes to come.
Yeah, he needed a new shrink. Maybe he would ask Alicia about that foundation her friend ran. Jon? He needed to talk to his brother. He did not want him to find about any of it from ‘That’ woman. That to-do list was going to be long. Maybe while he was doing that internet search on those terms Jeb had used, he should check if someone had written a ‘coming out to-do list.’