Gay dad Chris Lacroix writes about his bumpy childhood, fast road to fatherhood, and Hollywood moms from hell. Check out an excerpt from his forthcoming book, Sandwiched, below.
Chris Lacroix loved his television marketing job, but after adopting a baby and trying to "have it all", he jumped off the career fast track and into the domestic slow lane, only to learn that life gets more challenging. So he wrote what he hopes will become his debut novel: Sandwiched, a fictionalized account of his experience as a husband, new father, and son to rapidly aging parents. Funny, dark, and timely, Sandwiched takes a biting look at work/life balance through a new lens – a gay man who chooses family over career.
Chris and his husband Rollin have been together for 25 years and adopted their daughter, Ellie, at birth.They live in Hollywood, California. Sandwiched is represented by Erin Niumata at Folio Literary Management and is currently on submission to multiple publishers. See an exclusive excerpt below.
I've always wondered what my parents' first meeting was like. Now that Dad is dead and Mom's brain is permanently pickled with Canadian Club and prescription drugs, I'll never know. But this is how I imagine it went down. And like most of life's memorable moments, I think back on this epic event in screenplay format. A splash of Hollywood makes every marriage on the rocks more entertaining.
INTERIOR. B. ALTMAN DEPARTMENT STORE EMPLOYEE CAFETERIA. NEW YORK, NEW YORK. 1960 – DAY
BETSY, 21, enters the cigarette-smoke-filled dining room holding a cup of coffee and looks for a place to sit. She spots HANK reading a magazine and smoking alone at a table for two. With her free hand, Betsy fluffs her brunette pixie haircut and brushes the lint off her uniform – a pleated black skirt and white blouse with a Peter Pan collar. Hank, 31, sits legs crossed in a blue-and-white-striped seersucker suit. He notices Betsy approaching, uncrosses his legs, sits up "straight," and wipes tiny beads of sweat off of his clean-shaven head.
Can I sit here? I'm so lonely and I need someone to talk at.
Well, of course. I might be a gay man, but sitting with a woman will make me look like a heterosexual.
Betsy takes one of Hank's unfiltered Winston cigarettes from the pack on the table, puts it in her mouth, and leans forward. Hank fumbles for a lighter in the breast pocket of his suit jacket and lights it. Betsy takes a long drag, smiles, and exhales in his face. Hank winces.
I don't know what you're talking about and I'm not really interested. But you are attractive and I need a boyfriend so I can show my disapproving mother that I am worthy of love. Do you play bridge? She plays bridge and would like me to date someone who does.
Yes, I play bridge. But I'm not sure we should date. I have been living with the same man for ten years and might be in love.
Actually, that's perfect. You see I have borderline personality disorder. It hasn't been diagnosed because I refuse to seek professional help, but there is a hole in my heart that can't be filled. If I marry a gay man, there is no way you can satisfy me. It's like we were meant to be!
Do you want children? I want three children and a house in an affluent suburb we can't afford. I don't plan on making much money, but I enjoy resenting people who do.
Of course I want kids! I need someone to take care of me in my old age. And it sounds like you won't amount to much. Three kids will be perfect. One of them is bound to be responsible and successful enough to meet my needs.
Gosh, Betsy, this sounds like it might work. That is if you can handle a sexless marriage filled with unspoken rage. If I have sex with other men, I promise to be discreet. You'll never know.
Do what you must. But can we get married soon? I feel so empty and I need something to look forward to.
Betsy and Hank actually did meet at B. Altman's flagship store on Fifth Avenue and 34th Street in Manhattan. Hank was a design associate in the furniture department. Betsy was in the store's training program and floated from department to department. After meeting in the cafeteria and discovering a common interest in Bridge, they started dating. Six months later, on August 27th, 1960, they got married at the Madison Country Club in Madison, Connecticut – Betsy's hometown. The black-and-white photos in the wedding album I often looked at as a kid revealed a good-looking, waspy couple. Betsy's dark brown hair, cut in a short pixie to this day, framed her fair Irish complexion. Hank, a couple of inches shorter than his bride, sported a clean-shaven head partly because he'd already lost the bulk of his hair but mostly because wanted to look like his stage and film crush, Yul Brynner. In June 1961, Hank and Betsy had their first child: my oldest brother Charlie. Jim, the middle brother, arrived in November 1962. I came into the picture in May 1965. By the time Betsy was 25 she had three boys. At 35, Hank was suppressing his sexual orientation and barely making enough money to pay their $125 a month rent. (Betsy doesn't remember much, but the part about the rent she knows for a fact.)
This is how it went back then. People got married to total strangers and cranked out kids. When Warren and I decided to adopt, we had been together eleven years, owned a house, and talked about having kids all the time. Warren had even started a college fund for our imaginary child.
"Why do you want to have kids?" our friend Steve asked at dinner one night. A bunch of us, all gay men, were out for Mexican and getting buzzed on margaritas. Steve, anchorman handsome with a perfect tan and bleached teeth, continued. "You have it all. Good jobs, a great house, you can travel anywhere. Why mess it up?"
I liked Steve, but bristled at his superficial version of the good life. Steve's only lasting commitment was to his personal trainer. And his Prada sandals cost more than most families made in a month.
"Mess it up? Are you serious?" I asked. "What were gay men put on this planet for? To move into bad neighborhoods, make them nice, and increase property values for straight people? I can't say exactly why I want to have kids, but I know I want the experience. Life is a classroom. And having a child is like going to grad school."
Steve refilled his margarita glass. "I guess it all depends on what you want to learn. I'll watch you guys have kids and learn from that. In the meantime, I'm going to buy a shitty house, turn it into a palace, and flip it for a fortune." Everyone laughed and Steve turned to Warren. "Why do you want to have kids?"
"Because Paul does and I am a slave to his every desire," he said.
"No, why?" I asked. "Really."
Warren paused. I couldn't tell if he was coming up with a witty comeback or if he was
really thinking it through. "Because I had a nice childhood," Warren said. "My parents did a great job. It wasn't perfect, but they worked really hard to make sure we went to the best schools and were set up to succeed. I want to do this for another child. I want to set them up for success."
The table groaned at his response. Of course, I already knew Warren would be a great co-parent. He was a man of his word. When he decided to stop smoking he simply stopped. When he decides to get fit, he obsessively counts calories and drops fifteen pounds. When he has an overwhelming amount of work on the weekend, he locks himself in the office and does it. Raising a child with him would be a well-thought-out and well-executed experience – unlike the haphazard family plan concocted by Betsy and Hank.
But Betsy and Hank lived in a different time. "Conscious parenting" was not in the cultural conversation. Having kids was expected. Betsy wanted to prove to her mother that she was lovable and responsible. And Hank wanted to fit in. Society did not give him permission to live the life he wanted. Like me, he probably couldn't articulate why he wanted kids. But the only way for him to do it was to deny his long-term relationship with Don and marry a woman.
Don did not disappear when Betsy came along. He was the best man at Betsy and Hank's wedding. He was my brother Charlie's godfather. To me he was Uncle Don, Dad's former roommate whom we visited whenever we went into Manhattan. The smallest apartment I had ever seen was on 60th Street between Park and Lexington. It's the apartment Don and Hank shared for ten years. When I was as young as six I remember wondering how two grown-ups could live there. There is only room for one bed. Dad claimed that he slept on the couch. I loved going to Don's. Whenever we visited, there was a fresh box of Pepperidge Farm cookies. And there was music. Don worked for the New York Philharmonic and wrote about music for magazines. Record companies sent him albums to review so we always left with freebies, including the soundtracks for Man of La Mancha and West Side Story. I like to think the show tunes were meant for me.
Now, I don't know for sure that my dad was gay, but my inner Nancy Drew always smelled a mystery. Here were the big clues:
- Hank was a 31-year-old interior decorator that lived with the same man in a teeny one- bedroom apartment for 10 years before marrying my mother.
- Don went on to live as an openly gay man.
- Hank frequented happy hour at The Menemsha Bar on 57th Street, popular with gay men. An older cousin and self-proclaimed "fag hag" told me she'd seen my dad there on numerous occasions – including days before his wedding when he was quite drunk.
- In a scotch-fueled, candid moment about a year before he died, Hank told me that he understood the idea of gay oral sex, but did not understand the appeal of anal sex. I'll never forget it. Sitting with him on my patio on a summer night, this little nugget just popped out of his mouth with no prompting. (The apple didn't fall far from the tree, by the way.)
When I came out to my parents in college, their initial reaction was nothing but politically correct. "As long as you're happy, we're happy." But as time went on it became clear that Hank was not pleased. This surprised me. As an interior decorator, he knew lots of gay men. I assumed he was cool with it. But eventually it dawned on me. Could he be jealous? Was I living the life he always wanted? After college, I got good jobs, had plenty of money, and nice places to live. I was "out" personally and professionally – and successful. Hank rarely had anything nice to say about any of it. Rather, he would come into my house and search for evidence of what he thought was an excessive, indulgent, gay lifestyle. One day while inspecting my fridge, he pulled out a jar of raspberry jam. "Smucker's," he said. "Must be nice."
When Warren and I came home from the hospital with Ellie, Betsy and Hank were waiting in our kitchen. I'd asked them to take care of our dog and cat while we were away. Hank acted happy for us but seemed bothered. When Warren and Betsy were in the other room, he looked at Ellie then turned to me and shook his head. "I hope you guys know what you're doing," he said. And that was it. He went out the sliding glass door, sat at the patio table, and lit a cigarette.
Six months later, Hank got pneumonia complicated by emphysema and spent his last week on a respirator at Cedars-Sinai Hospital. Hank was a lifelong, two-pack-a-day smoker. After successful lung cancer surgery at age 74, he tried to quit, but couldn't. Smoking was the only thing that made him even close to happy. When it became clear he was dying, I asked the nurse if I could bring Ellie for one last visit. The hospital wouldn't let a baby in the intensive care unit, so I placed her picture by his bed instead. Hank was intubated and unable to talk. Visits were excruciating. Betsy talked and talked about her aches and pains while Hank and I just looked at each other. His eyes were wild and cried out for help. I'm pretty sure he wanted me to bring him a cigarette. But I could only squeeze his hand and tell him it would be okay.
On Hank's last day, he lost consciousness. The doctor said this was it. So, Betsy, with the blessing of her sons, directed the hospital staff to turn off the respirator. In seconds, Hank stopped breathing. His chest deflated like a balloon. The monitors that had been blinking and beeping for the last week grew still. I looked at the picture in the pink plaid frame next to his bed. Ellie, my baby girl, was holding her head up for the first time. Do I know what I'm doing? No. But I picked up her picture, kissed Hank's forehead, and went home to figure it out.
Ellie's baby photo