Published on June 27th, 2018 | by Cheryl Klein0
Everything Is Rent: On Chosen Family and Wanting It All
I can’t tell you about my child’s godfather without first telling you about seeing Rent fourteen times. When the 1996 Tonys aired, I was a college freshman who was not out even to myself, although I had been making mental lists of Things That Prove I’m Not Gay since middle school. (Exhibit A: I studied the backs of girls’ legs closely because I wanted to have great legs!) My parents weren’t particularly religious, and we had one gay family friend—a confirmed-bachelor type who quoted Auntie Mame and British sitcoms—so I never worried that I’d be ostracized if I turned out to be a lesbian. But a lack of complete rejection is a far cry from being able to envision any kind of desirable life, and so suicide was an idea I kept in my back pocket, in case my defenses eroded.
That summer I bought the Rent soundtrack on CD, using my employee discount at The Wherehouse.
Over the course of my sophomore year at UCLA, I memorized every word, painting my nails blue in my dorm room with the CD on repeat. Rent, which I finally saw when I drove to San Diego for the West Coast debut with my friend Kristi, became my religion. Its tenants: Friends are family. Relationships, and life itself, are fleeting but sacred. You can’t buy love, but you can rent it. What did I know? My mom was still alive. I’d barely kissed anyone, male or female. My cafeteria card filled like magic at the beginning of every quarter.
And yet the ideology and the rainbow-hued staging—twenty-somethings in rave pants, pink fur, and vinyl boots pumping their fists and leaping from scaffolding—clung to my bones. They taught me about love, loss, queerness, art, and the radical notion that there was a world outside the cul de sac of my childhood.
It was a silly Broadway show that arguably appropriated more marginalized voices; I discovered as much when I stumbled across Sarah Schulman’s Stagetruck: Theater, AIDS, and the Marketing of Gay America—in which she accuses Rent creator Jonathan Larson of stealing from her novel People in Trouble, which I subsequently read and loved while working at an indie bookstore in West Hollywood another year into college.
But if not for Rent, I might never have worked at an indie bookstore in West Hollywood in the first place.
I am 41 now, six years old than Jonathan Larson was when he died. I don’t romanticize poverty or AIDS the way I did at twenty. But I like to think that Rent emboldened me to make a life in the arts, to be here and queer, and to forge a family out of friendships.
When my partner, C.C., and I drove home from the Central Coast with our newborn, soon-to-be-adopted son in 2015, the people waiting for us beneath a Congratulations! It’s a boy! sign included our parents, sisters, and Alberto.
Alberto was C.C.’s Craigslist roommate before she and I moved in together, a former poetry major who’d meandered into a career in health care administration. He was tall and charming, quick to grin. He grew up in our Northeast L.A. neighborhood before it gentrified, but fit in seamlessly among its hipster migrants. After our female friends met him, they sometimes asked Is he gay? No, just well dressed, we said. Their next question was usually: Is he single?
Alberto was a serial monogamist, dating and living with a string of driven, charismatic women, then stalling out because something just wasn’t quite right. Like me, Alberto seemed to have a powerful superego, a voice that loudly narrated what he should be accomplishing at any given moment. It tripped him up in work and romance.
In our lives, though, he was an unshakeable presence. As moms to a little boy, we wanted Dash to have male role models. Our dads were a good start, but they lived at least an hour away and, as men who’d grown up in the 1950s, they didn’t quite know what to do with a baby. Alberto, however, scooped up Dash in his big hands and smothered him with kisses, cooing “Hello, baby boy!”
Alberto was the kind of straight guy who would canvas against anti-gay legislation, sitting on the porch of elderly neighbors, chatting in Spanish for hours about why queer people deserved rights. If Dash turned out to be straight, Alberto’s size-12 footsteps seemed like good ones to follow, and if Dash was gay, there was no question of deep, genuine acceptance.
And so it was set: We asked Alberto to be Dash’s godfather. Padrino in Spanish, Nino for short.
“So, were you thinking of baptizing him?” Alberto asked, after saying yes.
Honestly, it hadn’t occurred to me. The three of us occasionally attended the same progressive Episcopal church. It would be lovely to see Dash sprinkled with water in the name of God’s infinite, unconditional love. But what I really wanted for Dash was a human man’s infinite, unconditional love.
Alberto installed a window air conditioning unit at our old duplex. He made a personal project out of helping Dash conquer the deep end of the pool. He brought Dash gifts from his travels—a stuffed dromedary from Jordan, a wooden paddle game from Mexico, a kangaroo rat we named Funny Bunny from the American Southwest. He lifted Dash high in the air and swung him in circles.
Watching the two of them together was a window into whatever is the opposite of toxic masculinity. It was rough-and-tumble. Mud and hills. Hugs and raspberries. Neither was related to me by blood, but both were my family. Jonathan Larson would be proud.
I had learned, during a difficult infertility and adoption process, not to take motherhood for granted. Yet I took for granted that Alberto would always live a mile away from us, and always be on hand to babysit when C.C. and I needed a night out.
But then Alberto fell in love. Most of the women he had dated were a little bit younger than him; they wanted kids, but had time to put up with his indecision. His most recent girlfriend had been in her early forties and resolute about her decision not to have kids, bouncing the question back to Alberto. He’d realized then that he did want to be a father.
Lexie was the next woman he dated, an old friend now living in New York, and she was on the same page. They made plans fast and hard, Alberto daring himself to lean into commitments he’d once sidestepped.
He said he was pitching California as a long-term home for the two (or eventually three or four) of them. But the thing was, Lexie’s career as an event planner was going strong in New York, and Alberto could do his work from anywhere, so….
“California?” C.C. said to me later. “That’s not close enough. I don’t even want him to move to West L.A.”
I projected my own sibling issues onto Alberto’s fatherhood plans. My sister had come along when I was three and stolen my parents’ hearts. Now this new baby—this twinkle in Alberto’s eye—was going to steal all the love that was rightfully Dash’s (i.e. mine).
Lexie flew out to visit Alberto in L.A. She was predictably lovely, an ex-ballerina with a free-spirit vibe. She ate the leftover ramen out of Alberto’s bowl and listened earnestly as Dash presented every trash truck and fire truck in his fleet. I would have been happy to welcome her to our little family, but I didn’t want her to take mine.
“Is this what it all comes down to?” I asked my friend Michelle. “As a queer person, you want to believe in chosen family, and then stuff like this happens and it makes me cynical. Like my family of friends isn’t real after all.”
“I know,” Michelle sighed. She was currently trying to navigate a poly triad, and it wasn’t going well. The couple she was dating seemed headed for a breakup, and she was caught in the middle, hoping she would end up with the woman and feeling guilty for screwing over the guy.
I want it both ways: I want my rock-solid nuclear family—the marriage certificate and the adoption papers—and I want a shimmering network of people who will reflect my queerness back at me (and be free to babysit).
I feel as if I’m a Democrat in the streets and a Trump supporter in the sheets. As if what I want for Alberto is for him to be an accessory in my life, at the expense of living his own.
After Dash came along, C.C. and I intentionally didn’t declare our family finished or unfinished. I’ve never been good with question marks. To put it in Myers-Briggs terms, I am such a J. But I’d wanted a child for so long, and so loudly, that to imagine wanting another triggered a kind of envy exhaustion. I owed it to C.C. and Dash and myself to just be fucking happy for a minute.
That minute has turned into three years. There are many things I like about being mom to one kid. But one Saturday last month, as Dash was hurling himself down a giant inflatable slide at his friend Emiliano’s birthday party, C.C. turned to me and said, over the din and frosting, “Let’s do it. Let’s have another.”
Wanting feels as dangerous and as exhilarating as a two-story slide. I don’t know if I can ride the adoption roller coaster again without losing myself in the addictive cycle of hope and heartbreak. My baby obsession nearly broke C.C., and I don’t want to do that to Dash. He’s more breakable.
And yet I only know how to want something—whether it’s a kid or a job or an apartment—with my whole heart and my obsessive-compulsive head. And I have to claw and cry until I beat out the competition.
I remember obsessing over expectant moms like potential suitors, and I imagine again throwing myself on the floor in anguish every time a pregnant teenager ghosts me, as they will.
I catch myself imagining kid number two being so intensely needy that they will tear C.C., Dash, and me to shreds. So far, Dash has proven to be physically healthy, neurotypical, cheery, and charming. What if that’s the only kind of kid I can handle? What if our luck—in avoiding SIDS and heart defects and tantrums that last longer than ten minutes—runs out?
Maybe my job isn’t to be content as the mom of an only child, as I thought. Maybe it’s to try to wrangle my desire without burying it.
I need to pop the movie version of Rent (which is pretty bad) in the DVD player, so it can tell me what it keeps trying to. You can’t buy love, but you can rent it. My sadness isn’t that Alberto’s presence in our lives is precarious. It’s that C.C. and Dash aren’t promised to me either.
Best case scenario, a new child will change the shape and rhythms of our family. Best case scenario, Dash and his hypothetical sibling will grow up and move out. Best case scenario, C.C. and I will have to rediscover ourselves as a family of two in a world that has, miraculously, not ended in nuclear meltdown. Best case scenario, we will die old and in love, with all its complications.
It’s hard to anchor my desires in something real, because desire is defined by fantasy. Permanency is the fantasy. Hold it lightly, I tell myself, imagining a bird sitting in my palm. Hope is the thing with feathers, Emily Dickinson wrote. It never asked a crumb of me. But I think it asks plenty.