The Coming Out Table
by William Christy Smith
Bella was about to leave her perch at the hostess stand to go to the kitchen. She wanted to “gently request” that the staff turn down the radio that had been playing the hits of the past year, but she hadn’t thought 1987 was such a special time, all things considered.
Before she could get there, the restaurant door opened, held ajar by a young man looking like an animal caught in a trap. He was followed by an older couple, probably from out of town, who entered and gave Skylark the once-over.
She sized up the situation immediately. She gave the eye to Beston, behind the bar. He nodded to Bella and cleared his throat to catch the attention of Anthony, busing dishes from one of his tables. Anthony glanced at the newcomers, greeted the young man by name, then nodded to Beston and Bella. Bella raised her eyebrows, indicating the plan should proceed.
Throughout the restaurant, the other waiters picked up on the cues. Soon the kitchen staff knew what was afoot, which meant they would have turned down the radio without being told, eager to stay on top of what was going to happen. Without a word spoken, the employees at Skylark knew that a young man had brought his parents to the restaurant to break the news he was gay.
Henry Dufour was the man who’d entered the restaurant with his parents. He was a semi-regular, perhaps twenty-five years old, no longer a boy but certainly not yet a man. He had a full head of russet-colored hair, a creamy complexion, and a few splotches of acne on a face more arresting than handsome. He wore a tattered sweatshirt with University of New Orleans emblazoned across the front, and beige corduroy slacks. He couldn’t have been out of school more than a year or two.
The father was short and balding with a gap-toothed smile. He reminded Bella of a round Botero sculpture she’d seen in an art history textbook. The mother had a friendly face but wore too much makeup. She had teased, bottle blonde hair, large ears, and a close-fitting string of pearls around her neck.
Bella led the family to their table, gave them menus, and offered them drinks on the house. The young man accepted eagerly. Halfway through their meal, the mother finally noticed her son’s mood.
“Is something bothering you?” she asked.
“I have something to tell you,” he said. His face was warily hopeful.
The parents straightened the napkins on their laps. Henry cleared his throat.
“I need to tell you I’m gay,” he said, quietly but firmly, his expression pitying, as if he was resigned to the chaos he was about to create.
The father’s face froze. The mother’s eyes flickered, darted around the half-full restaurant. Her shoulders quivered. She tried to regain her composure, fingering the pearls at her throat as if they were a noose.
Bella suspected the mother’s head must be overwhelmed with questions. Weren’t we just celebrating his twelfth birthday last week? How did this happen? Why is our son ruining our lives?
She went to the table, helped the mother up, and escorted her to the restroom as Anthony delivered another tray of drinks.
“Sazerac, sir?” Anthony asked the father, whose face had turned bright red.
Receiving no answer, he placed the drink in front of him.
The young man remained planted in his chair.
“I love you, Dad. I just wanted to be honest,” he whispered, and burst into tears.
Beston waited to see what the father would do. When it became clear he would do nothing, Beston grasped the young man by the elbow, led him to the courtyard, and held him in his arms as he sobbed into the humid New Orleans air, wondering why the father wasn’t performing this task.
* * *
It was a familiar occurrence at Skylark. Every three months or so, a young man or woman came into Skylark with parents in tow, and Bella always seated them at the table in the middle of the room, close enough to monitor from the hostess stand where she could overhear conversations if the restaurant wasn’t too noisy. The staff called it “the coming-out table.”
Skylark had twenty-one tables, numbered in order from the front door to the back, where the writers group met. The coming-out table was number thirteen, and was unlike all the others—made of soft, honey-brown maple, rather than the darker old oak; its legs curved out more, and it was four inches higher off the floor.
At first, Bella and Ruby balked at keeping the number. Why burden a table with bad luck? Then they thought of their friends born on the thirteenth, including Beston, and decided to keep the number in their honor, instead of letting superstition rule them.
Bella was the table’s biggest champion, explaining to the ever-changing wait staff and any patron who’d listen how important it was for people to come out in a safe place, how they brought their parents to Skylark because it was public and parents were unlikely to make a scene in a room full of strangers.
“Most gay children have straight parents, which means they’re different from those closest to them from birth, and their sense of otherness deepens as they grow up,” she’d say. “Families can be horrible when you’re gay. We all know that. We spend the first part of our lives hiding. We have to invent ourselves from scratch. And lately there hasn’t been much in the way of gay mentorship because we’ve lost so many of our men to AIDS. At Skylark, people can show their families there’s a safe and nurturing community that welcomes them.”
Table thirteen was also the place for people to announce events such as breakups or a death in the family. Bella was unfailingly accurate in spotting them, and the ritual was always the same: extra concern, additional care, more alcohol, free dessert, an extra amount of love imparted. It was a big deal for Bella and Ruby. In addition to providing for their patrons’ stomachs, they took a keen interest in the welfare of their souls.
* * *
How many of these exchanges had Bella witnessed over the years? She’d lost count. She was flattered patrons felt they could bring their loved ones to Skylark for such an important event. She did what she could to make it easier for them.
She recalled a young woman she hadn’t seen before whose name she learned was Alison, with a set of parents from suburban Kenner. The mother was trim with short black hair, and lots of ostentatious gold accessories: large, dangling gold earrings; gold necklace and bracelets; and numerous gold rings on her fingers. The father had sparkling blue eyes, a full head of hair, and wore too much cologne. Alison was taller than both parents, a sturdy, solid girl who must have been an athlete in school but trembled like a little bird when she told them she was gay.
They hit her with everything in God’s cupboard. The daughter, obviously ready for this, asserted that she too was made in God’s image. They accused her of attacking their Baptist faith.
Bella had little use for religion, especially fundamentalists like Baptists who never did anything in moderation. Everything is black and white to them. Why weren’t they smart enough to understand that “God” was created by cavemen as a way to explain thunder?
They ordered their daughter to move back to Kenner with them, go to church, and get married. Alison sat rigid, her jaw set until they finished, then told them none of that was going to happen. They told her she was no longer welcome at their house. She shrugged. Bella couldn’t help noting the irony in the parents banishing their daughter from someplace she didn’t want to be. They got up in the huff to leave. Bella had to remind them to pay the bill.
Before Alison there was Ray, a Skylark regular. Ray was a handsome blond in his early thirties, with a broad smile featuring teeth as even as kernels in a corn cob. He was raffish, irreverent, unkempt. Bella pictured him as the older kid on the school bus, teaching the other kids to smoke and explaining sex—a babe in the woods who’d been around the block a few times.
Ray’s mother had shaved her eyebrows and painted on new, higher ones that gave her a look of perpetual surprise. Still, she recoiled when her son blurted out that he preferred sleeping with men.
“Maybe you’re not my son,” she hissed. “Maybe you were switched at birth.”
Don’t do it, Bella thought, hoping Ray’s mother would catch her glance. Don’t talk. Now is the time to listen. That’s your first duty to someone you love.
But she didn’t. She stormed out into the night, leaving Ray behind.
The hardest ones were the men who had to reveal two things—unless they just explained directly why they looked so bad, that they were dying, and the parents were smart enough to reach the logical conclusion.
Once in a while, a parent or two surprised Bella and stayed with their son or daughter. Some parents seemed shocked their child had bothered to announce something they’d known for years. The children always ended up at the bar after their parents left, for what Bella described as “emergency drinking.” She consoled them all.
* * *
Bella looked up from her perch to find a familiar face before her.
“Artie!” she exclaimed. “We haven’t seen you in ages. How are you?”
“I’m just fine,” he said. He had one of those smiles that radiated more from his eyes than his mouth.
“Didn’t you move to Houston?”
“I did but that didn’t work out, so now I’m back,” he said.
Artie Compeaux had been another regular. If Bella remembered correctly, he was a big fan of Ruby’s mac and cheese for dinner and crawfish omelets for breakfast. He resembled Frank Zappa or a missing Doobie Brother, with fox brown hair and bushy eyebrows that looked like they might jump off his forehead to search for a cocoon. He favored oversized plaid shirts, ragged jeans, and Topsiders.
A tiny, older woman with a big smile appeared from behind Artie. Bella guessed her to be in her sixties.
“I’m Artie’s mother,” she said. “Marlena Compeaux.”
“Pleased to meet you, Marlena. I’m Bella. How are you tonight?”
“Fine, thank you. I’m so happy to be here. I’ve heard so much about this place.”
“Bella is one of the owners,” Artie interjected.
Bella couldn’t decipher his mood.
“Are you from out of town, Marlena?” she asked.
“Yes. I’m here to visit my son.”
Alarms triggered in Bella’s head. In the corner of her eye she saw a party of three vacating table thirteen.
“I have the perfect table for you and Artie,” she said, “if you’d just give me a moment to clear it.”
Bella turned toward the bar, signaling Beston with her eyes. Moments later he delivered a couple of Sazeracs to the table and cheerfully explained they were on the house, a welcome-home gesture now that Artie had freed himself from whatever he’d gotten himself into in Texas.
Marlena put down her menu and scanned the room, taking in the tin ceiling, floor-to-ceiling windows, the gigantic bar with its many mirrors, and the black-and-white tile floor. She sipped her Sazerac and swooned.
“This is strong!” she exclaimed. “And delicious.”
Artie took a swig of his drink.
“Thank you for bringing me here, son,” she said. “It might be the most charming restaurant I’ve ever been in. What’s the name, again?”
“Skylark,” Artie said flatly. “I’ve eaten quite a few meals here.”
“I’m jealous,” Marlena said, flashing an I-wasn’t-born-yesterday smile. “This looks like one of those places where the Bohemian crowd hangs out. Artists, musicians, writers—people of all persuasions. You’re lucky to be able to rub shoulders with folks who think differently and live as they see fit.”
Artie nodded, staring into the distance.
That was the perfect lead-in, Bella thought at her perch. Leap, Artie, and the net will appear.
Marlena tried again.
“You were such a free thinker yourself when you were a kid. I used to admire that. I hoped you got the trait from me. You painted your toenails once and didn’t care what anybody thought.”
Artie smiled at the memory.
“I can’t believe I did that,” he said. “I wonder what I was thinking.”
You weren’t thinking then and you aren’t thinking now, Bella inwardly screamed. That’s the second time she’s provided you the perfect opportunity to tell her. Leap, Artie.
The entrees—catfish po’boy and fries for Artie, crawfish etouffee for Marlena—were served and the parts not eaten deposited into doggie bags. Both declined desserts but stayed at the table, nursing coffees. Artie maintained his frigidity; his mother remained a flirtatious five-foot one cube of amiability.
“Are you seeing someone, son?” Marlena asked.
“Not really,” Artie replied. “I don’t have much time.”
“You’d tell me if you were, wouldn’t you? I wouldn’t harass you. I’m not one of those mothers desperate to have a married son and grandchildren. I just want you to be happy, whatever you choose. It’s important that people be who they are.”
They exchanged solemn looks.
Bella thought her head would explode. She practically stomped over to the bar where Beston stood with a smirk on his face. He’d witnessed the whole thing.
“That poor woman wants a gay son in the worst way, and he’s not cooperating,” she whispered. “I’ve seen a lot of young men come out at that table, but never one smothered from the inside.”
“He needs some help,” Beston agreed, “or we’ll be here all night.”
Bella reached into her blouse and pulled out a ten-dollar bill. Her bra snapped when she tugged it loose.
“This is yours if you go over there and plant a big kiss on Artie’s lips,” she said, having succumbed to the belief – like many gay men – that bartenders have special powers. “Go over and redeem that poor boy.”
“Ten million Green Stamp books couldn’t redeem that boy.”
Bella placed the bill in Beston’s palm. She watched as Beston went to the table, pulled out one of the unused chairs, moved it close to Artie, put his right arm around Artie’s shoulder and his left hand on Artie’s left hand.
“It’s okay, Artie,” he said. “You can tell her.”
“What are you talking about?” Artie said, retracting his hand from Beston’s grasp.
“It’s okay to tell your mother you’re gay.”
Artie’s look of disbelief quickly turned into a smile, as he waited for the joke to be revealed.
Silence. No punch line came.
“I’m not gay,” he finally said.
A huge smile spread across her Marlena’s face.
“I’m the one who’s gay,” she said. “That’s what I came to tell Artie.”
* * *
Ruby almost fell out of her chair laughing when Bella related the story to her later that night.
“I was close, but I missed the mark a little,” Bella said.
“How did Artie take it?” Ruby asked.
“He certainly wasn’t expecting a conversation like that. But I think everything will be fine.”
“Our little maple table might be the most honest spot in the whole restaurant,” Ruby said.
“And the one with the most humanity,” Bella added. “Come as you are. Leave as you want to be.”
It dawned on Bella that she and Ruby had never sat down and had a meal at that table. She suggested they do so one day.
“What would we talk about?” Ruby asked.
“I don’t know,” Bella said. “We’d come up with something.”
She knew. They’d sit and reminisce about all the young men and women who’d come out to their parents there, in the same way fishermen exaggerate the size of their catches.
William Christy Smith is a museum and library professional living in New Orleans. He holds a bachelor of arts degree in English from Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri, a master of liberal arts degree from the University of Chicago and a master of arts administration degree from the University of New Orleans.