Call Me Daddy: Playing Son to My Fatherless Boyfriend
I fell in love with a man 20 years my senior. Then, I became his "son."
I meet Tim* on Grindr when I'm 21 and he's 47. It's May of 2013. He lives in the Haight, in San Francisco. I'm at Stanford, an hour away by train. He looks like the man on Brawny paper towel rolls; he also looks like Santa Claus. He's bald and bearded. His nose is big and distinct, his eyes always searching for something I'm too young to understand. I think he's handsome.
We're on day two of date number one when he tells me he wants to be my daddy.
It's the middle of the day. I'm doing homework on his couch while he's playing around on his phone, and I ask him if I'm the youngest guy he's ever hooked up with.
"Well, yeah," he says. "In terms of age difference, this is probably the most significant. But I've gotten used to being a daddy these days."
Daddy. A guy who, at 47, has never settled down with anyone, has never had any kids. He fancies himself a "father."
"Honestly," he continues, "I like it when guys call me daddy."
"I never really had a father. He left our family when I was still very young." He speaks softly.
"It's nice to be that. To act like the daddy I never had. That's why I look like this."
He gestures at his muscles and large chest. I get it now. While his dad was away, Tim sculpted himself into a vision of fatherhood he never saw firsthand: a sturdy Schwarzenegger frame with the heart of Dustin Hoffman.
"I'd like it if you called me daddy," he says. He is ravenous. I am anxious. He starts massaging my ears.
"Call me daddy. I'd like to take care of you."
My emotional constitution is made of straw; I can't say no. Besides, it sounds sort of fun. I nod and, silently, agree. I will be his son.
Tim is unlike other "daddies" I've met in the ecosystem of gay dating apps. He doesn't belong to a subculture of men who think they're silver foxes. Those men are different. For them, being a "daddy" isn't rooted in a pain as obvious as never having a father. I find that they often want, desperately, to feel sexy even when their bodies—graying, sagging, failing—tell them not to. They may have daddy issues; I usually have no idea.
For Tim, it's more clear-cut: He never really had a dad. Now, he wanted to play one.
Tim was three years old when his dad left the family. He grew up on a farm near Bakersfield, a city in Southern California. I don't know the exact details of why his dad left, because Tim never told me. I can only imagine the reasons why: another woman. Pathological wanderlust. An irresponsibly-timed crisis of manhood. A revelation that being a dad just wasn't for him.
Tim's mother, a housewife, forced herself to get a secretary job to support Tim and his siblings. She is now decaying in a nursing home, steps away from where she raised two children on her own.
Tim went on to study music at UCLA in the mid-1980s, back when Shelley Long was still on Cheers. He designs theater sets now. His hair is red, but it was blonde when he was young. I know this because, shortly after we start dating, he shows me a picture of himself aged 11 or 12. He's beaming, surrounded by balloons that look like penises.
"I knew right then and there that I was gay," he smirks. "My dad would've freaked the fuck out."
Every year, Tim splits his time between San Francisco and Prague. He may work in theater, but he doesn't dress like a theater guy, thank God. He has dinosaur-sized gauges—one black, the other green—that fall off when he's asleep. Most often, he wears a dull orange flannel. He's barely 5'9".
Tim drives stick and makes it look like a fucking dance. On our first date, he drives us to a Thai restaurant a few blocks from his apartment. We have a lot to talk about. I am drawn to his storied gay life; he is amused by the charmed pleasantries of my famous school. Tim grew up in the era when all my favorite movies were made, so we have conversations that I've never had with guys my age. About how Liza Minnelli really was a gifted actress before she mutated into a gay icon. How Mickey Rourke had real talent before his face started falling off. Afterward, we go to his apartment. We share a bottle of wine, and he asks if he can kiss me. I say yes.
It's a tempting skin to slip into—to pretend I'm just some uncultured gay kid. He assumes I am basically devoid of taste.
I wake up with him the next morning and we spend the day together. We grab coffee nearby. He drives to Rainbow and we get groceries. He buys me some new earrings; I just pierced my ears a few months ago and now they're infected. He makes some home remedy for me to medicate my lobes with. He's taking care of me.
We see each other most weekends, and our dates proceed like clockwork. He treats me to dinner. When we get back to his apartment, he makes me listen to his favorite operas or audiobooks of Renata Adler essays. I play dumb. I pretend that I haven't heard of them before.
"I mean, the name is obviously familiar," I tell him whenever he name drops like this. "But I've never actually read anything by her. I just know she's smart."
"Renata is essential!" he boasts. "I listen to this in the car whenever I drive to Half Moon Bay. I bet you'll really love this."
It's a tempting skin to slip into—to pretend I'm just some uncultured gay kid. On campus, I'm constantly trying to prove my intellect to the people around me. I fear that everyone's smarter than me, that I'm just fronting. But I have nothing to prove to Tim. He assumes I am basically devoid of taste. To him, I'm just another kid of immigrant parents who did well on his SATs. Perhaps, he thinks, I'll morph into someone with a refined palate one day. He likes to think he's found this potential in me, and he's the one who will bring it out. I play along. It's a well-earned vacation from the electric stress of school.
To him, I'm the prettiest twink in the world. When he calls me beautiful, it's impossible not to believe. His feelings seem unconditional, just as any father's love should be.
We fall asleep together. We wake up. He cooks something for me as I do my homework. He takes me on errands: more groceries from Rainbow, some produce from the farmer's market. He orders me around. He gets fake-mad when I can't do simple things like find the aisle where the soap is. When I do something right, like help him bag the groceries or tell him I'm game to let his gay neighbor be "our third" tonight, he tells me I'm a good boy.
For a few weeks, it's cozy and surreal to play the son of a man who's not my real father, especially when my real one lives across the country. It's actually a lot of fun to play pretend when you're 21. I throw myself into a distraction from the stressful rhythms of life in college. This whole thing is a ruse. He can't really be my dad. My skin is brown; his isn't. It's like Halloween. He's the daddy, I'm the son. It's our private game.
But when I'm back on campus with my friends, I speak about Tim with stupid glee. I tell them how special he makes me feel. He's the first man to shower me with full, unadulterated attention since my balls dropped. Other guys make me feel like shit, telling me I'm cute enough but nothing like the gorgeous white gay Adonises on campus.
Not Tim. To him, I'm the prettiest twink in the world. When he calls me beautiful, he infuses it with a sincerity that's impossible not to believe. His feelings seem unconditional, just as any father's love should be.
We spend that summer apart. I'm doing an internship in DC; he's in San Francisco working his big boy job. With time and distance, I let Tim become something like a boyfriend in my mind. He entertains it. He treats me like a pet.
We see other guys, too. Tim calls me a bad boy for seeing other men, but I know he's joking. We tell each other about the dates we go on. Some are OK; most are awful. None of the guys I'm seeing are as old as he is. None of the guys he's seeing look like me. They're all white and at least 30 years old. We'll have each other when I get back West.
Over that summer, we ripen into concepts, not people. I'm the son, he's the daddy; our correspondences are limited to half-sentences where that tumor of fantasy metastasizes. Our dynamic is convenient and logical in ways romantic relationships rarely are.
"I went on a terrible date last night," I tell him one night on the phone. I'm talking about some Zionist, a senior at Berkeley. He's my age, and I find his personality repulsive: nervous and fluttering, like Diane Keaton minus the charm.
"You'll go on many bad dates in your life," Tim reassures me. "You'll also have a lot of bad sex. It's OK. You'll learn soon enough."
It's always like this. Tim is waiting for me to emerge from the tunnel of emotional puberty, assuming that I haven't lived through it yet. I let him do that. Our power play is fucked-up only in principle. When we're talking to each other, we morph into tidy parodies of ourselves, divorced from our experiences. We never dig into our true messes, the dangerous parts of ourselves that we only expose to the people we love.
But when I get back to the Bay Area that September, he's my first priority after I get off my flight.
He picks me up from the train station and we go to an Indian restaurant near his apartment. We sit next to a large Indian family. I imagine that they're all judging me, and it stings. They probably came here from India to make better lives for their children. And look what they ended up sitting next to: some nightmare vision of what America can do to your kids, no matter how hard they study. When your boys come to America, they'll turn into dimpled twinks who will escape their ivory towers to go on dates with sugar daddies twice their age.
Tim is waiting for me to emerge from the tunnel of emotional puberty, assuming that I haven't lived through it yet.
That night is the first time I see his faculties start to fail him. After dinner, Tim wants to watch Punch-Drunk Love. I tell him I'm too jet-lagged to stay awake, but he insists and I concede. He shuffles around his living room looking for the DVD, slamming discs on his glass table, his hands trembling so violently that the table breaks into shards. I hear it from the bedroom, and he yells at me, blaming me for the table slicing his hand open. I bandage him up until he stops bleeding.
My make-believe daddy is irritable and humiliated the whole next day. For the first time, this whole jig starts to feel like a real father-son relationship. I'm taking care of him now, asking if he's OK, periodically unwrapping his palm to see if the wound has healed. He drops me off at the Caltrain station and I wonder if we'll see each other again.
A few weeks later, he breaks things off via email.
"I don't really see myself as a sexual being anymore," he writes. "I felt like you were fetishizing me. I'm just the daddy with the nice chest. It doesn't feel nice."
I expect my initial reaction to be one of righteous, youthful indignation—I've been orphaned, damn it!—but I feel fine. He doesn't know me well enough to strike me where it hurts, which is the kind of wound a real breakup hinges on. It was sure to fail, anyway, this cozy ballet of two people who didn't understand one another's pain. After it's over, I swear to myself that I'll never do anything that weird ever again.
A few months later, I migrate to a boyfriend who's older than me by a few days, not a few decades. He's as immature as I am. In hindsight, I like that about him. It makes our fights more charged, more bitter, more meaningful. His insults are exacting; he knows precisely what to say to make me feel like I shouldn't be alive. I don't want it any other way.
Tim and I, meanwhile, start out by staying in sporadic touch. Every few months, I email him asking how he's doing. I get curt responses. "Fine. Life is good. Hope you're well." The intervals between our emails stretch to become longer, and longer, until we fall out of touch completely.
I meet so many guys who look like Tim where I live now. They have his "look": a crisp, bald head that bluntly gives way to a full beard. Ears decorated with gauges. A laboriously sculpted face. These guys drive me nuts. They're never younger than 37. They've got everything I hate about Tim. Those cloying eyes that search for meaning when it isn't there, trying to perform Chekhov on a Grindr date. These are the eyes of man-children: desperate to take care of someone else as a distraction from taking care of themselves.
Tim rarely updates his Facebook these days. I think he's in Prague now. He may be due back to come to San Francisco soon. Who knows if he's seeing anyone, or if he's graduated to the life of abstinence he swore by? Maybe he's still searching for a son to love, with a kind of affection he never received firsthand. He's probably just given up.
But I wonder about Tim's father more often than I wonder about Tim. My many guesses at the image of Tim's father have started to crystallize into a monolithic daddy.
In my mind, he is muscular. He acts "macho," like Tim, not effete. His voice is more full-throated than Tim's, which is gentle and concerned. Maybe he has red hair like Tim. Maybe it's blonde. I don't know how the genetics of red hair work. He doesn't have piercings like Tim. Maybe he's still alive, dating much younger women like his son once dated much younger men. Maybe someone's taking care of him, or maybe he's learned how to take care of himself. Maybe he's died. Maybe he died alone.
Over time, Tim realized he wasn't cut out for fatherhood. His visions of being a dad were naïve: small gifts of unconditional love without the hard, exhausting work. At some point, we all become like our fathers.
*Names have been changed.
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