Listen to a reading of “Martin” by Seth Fischer.
I don’t remember his name, just that he was my mom’s graduate student when I was little. My mom doesn’t remember him at all. She says she didn’t even have graduate students that long ago. Then she says, wait, I can write about her, but I’m not allowed to write about her graduate students.
But I’ve got two memories, I say. And they’ve been with me a long time.
In the first, he’s standing in my mom’s office on a humid Pennsylvania day, wearing those 1980s acid wash cutoff short-shorts and a too-small belly shirt, Mom’s roll-top secretary desk behind him. He makes helicopter noises at me while answering my mom’s questions. I laugh and run into his arms. Mom watches off to the side, her arms crossed. He catches me and twirls me around. His voice sings when he speaks. He has so much energy. His whole body smiles. He doesn’t care about the way my mom looks at him, the way her eyes seem to be willing him to stop touching me. In fact, he seems to be playing with me more enthusiastically because of it.
I want her student to come over all the time, I say, after he leaves. I’ve met no one like him before.
He’s difficult, my mom says.
Why? I ask.
Because he has too much energy, she says. And he has syphilis.
She blanches. She hadn’t meant to say the last part out loud.
I am eight, maybe, couldn’t say my s’s yet. Thypilith.
It’s what happens when men who are a certain way aren’t careful, she says. There are worse diseases now, too. Men are dying.
Even at this age, I am an avid reader of newspapers. Around this time, the American Medical Association has to issue a statement telling doctors they cannot ignore their dying patients. A gay man in Britain causes everyone in the courtroom to stampede out the room, including the judge, just by saying he is sick. A driver in Chicago runs over a gay man and calls a medical clinic to see how he can disinfect his car.
In the memory, my mom is afraid, but she accepts this man as her graduate student. She lets him play with me, but it makes her nervous. Should I be proud of her tolerance or angry for her disquiet? Especially when she insists none of this ever happened? If I did make it all up, what does that say about me? About us?
In the second memory, maybe a year later, he is again at my house, his blond hair still full, but his face is grey and blank, I can see too many of his bones, and his clothes and skin hang off him.
I run to him, but he puts his hands up.
“I’m tired,” he says. “I’m sorry.”
He walks out of the room, and I never see him again. I remember that he drops out of school, but I don’t know why I know this.
My mother’s graduate student is the only queer adult man I will meet—at least that I’m aware of—until I go to college a decade later. All the men who like men are dead, sick, or shell-shocked.
At thirty-four, the same age my mom was in my memories, I’m tired of feeling orphaned by all the queer men, and I want to be angry. But there is no one to be angry with. You cannot be angry with a generation of men who lived through a plague.
So, in the car on my way to teach a class, I call my mom.
I tell her that as part of my memoir, I’ll be writing about her grad student. As expected, she’s not pleased. She takes her student’s confidentiality seriously, she says. She changes the subject. She wants me to look through the boxes full of letters everyone in my family wrote me when I was little. She’s been reading them and crying at how much love there was then.
Maybe it’s because she’s a psychologist, she says, but she thinks it’s irresponsible that I’m writing without all the data, especially because I’m a depressive.
You’d think I’d get angry then, and I do, but it passes before I can think of what to say. I watch the taillights in front of me and lose myself in them, letting the dead air linger on the phone. She is afraid; she doesn’t know what I’ll write. I’d be afraid too. She doesn’t want me to be angry with her for whatever mistakes she made and for a plague she didn’t create.
She apologizes, and I change the subject back. I ask her, if this graduate student didn’t exist, whose memory has been living inside me for so many decades? She has no idea. Back then she didn’t know anyone like him, she says. Men like him didn’t exist in her world.
She is a horrible liar, which is how I know she’s telling the truth, or at least her truth. Maybe Martin was a babysitter, I say, or an undergraduate? She asks if this is the reason it took me so long to come out.
Fuck this. He deserves a name. I’ll call him Martin.
For years, every time I think of a boy, I think of Martin’s skin hanging off his frame. I think of the fear on my mom’s face when Martin twirls me. I think of the girls I have crushes on, and I focus on those as hard as I can. I don’t date a boy until I’m 25.
I answer my mom, One reason.
Maybe, she says, he did exist. When she says the last bit, her voice gets therapeutic, deeper, flatter; she’s saying what she thinks I need to hear.
I want to ask her the questions that have been bothering me for so long. She is my parent, a psychologist, the person who is supposed to take care of me. I want her to tell me what happens to children who come of age after an apocalypse. What happens to people when all the grownups like them disappear. When there is no one to tell them there are others like them.
I want her to make it better, but I’m asking the wrong person. Mom won’t be able to answers these questions. Besides, I already know the answer: I have a Martin in my head, and Martin will never leave.
About the author:
Seth Fischer’s writing has appeared in PANK, Guernica, Best Sex Writing, The Rumpus, and elsewhere, and his work was was listed as a notable essay in The Best American Essays 2013. He was a 2014 Lambda Emerging Voices Fellow, and he teaches at Antioch University Los Angeles and Writing Workshops Los Angeles.