I’m just starting to make caramel in my parents’ kitchen in New Jersey when my mother pulls a great big hamper of laundry up to the counter across from me and starts folding it. I measure some sugar and some water into a pot with high sides and turn on the flame, a real flame here, no glass stovetop. My mother tells me that somebody in the family has jacked up the joint Netflix account by watching every gay movie they could find, Every gay thing imaginable she says. Can you believe that? she asks, tossing a shirt she’d started to fold into a crumpled heap on the counter, and I tell her Yes, I can really believe that. She picks up the shirt again. I think it was Michael. Your father and I think he may be gay. This shirt she is holding is going through the ringer, picked up and plopped down again like a prop in a poorly acted play. Oh, I say. I’ve never thought much about that, I say. And it’s true; after me, it never occurred to me that a second queer child would matter. My wife is at home in Michigan with our kids. I drove over a thousand miles to visit the East Coast, to feel like myself again, to be with my five younger brothers and sisters and other people who’ve known me more than a few months. In my mother’s beautiful kitchen I scrape a spatula around the sides of the sugar and water mixture so the caramel doesn’t stick to the sides of the pan and burn black. In the car for sixteen hours, through all of Michigan and Ohio and Pennsylvania, I thought a lot about what my mother would see when she looked at me for the first time since testosterone really took hold inside me. When I got my first tattoo, a gift to myself a few weeks before my wedding, she was devastated. In the months since I moved to Michigan my seventeen-year-old sister has gotten a tattoo on her foot – her friend hand-poked it – and as far as I can tell no one is all that surprised. She says it’s a shark fin, one of our brothers told me, over beers in the backyard, but it just looks like a triangle. They have all learned that there are worse things than tattoos. My mother is still messing with this same shirt and I step away from my caramel and pick up another shirt and fold it neatly, perfectly, like in a store in the mall. Then I head back to the stove and swirl the pot of boiling candy gently. In college, I took an acting course, mostly to impress my girlfriend. In the scene I performed as my final exam, I had to be a woman arguing with her husband while peeling a cucumber with a paring knife. As I talked to this husband – who, in the play, is secretly gay – I slid the cucumber’s waxy skin down into one curled strand hanging by my knees. Your lines are good, the instructor said as I practiced, But don’t you think your character would be a lot less skilled peeling that cucumber? The caramel starts to smell burnt, burnt in the right way, the just past cooked way, and I pour butter and cream in. I stir as it bubbles up; it always bubbles way up, so you have to use a pot with high sides. A lot of people watch movies about gay people, I say to my mother. It’s Netflix, not a porn site. When I told my college girlfriend about the acting class I called the boy in the scene The Statue because of how hard it was to get a read on his face. We had to kiss, in the scene. He had soft lips but nothing in his eyes, nothing. I think of a man I saw on the 2nd Ave. Subway yesterday. Can you believe there is a 2nd Ave. Subway, after all those years talking about making one? The man was pulling long, black hair into a messy bun, like all the girls at Catholic school wore. I did, too. He was sitting right across from me; he was cute, and his jeans fit so flawlessly, and I tried to catch his eyes. In the small town where I live now everyone looks you dead in the face all the time. Everyone says hello. The beautiful man on the subway wouldn’t look up, because you’re really not supposed to. I remember that much. I’ve known my wife for over ten years, and it wasn’t easy, in the beginning, with my parents. I was their first daughter. That was a long time ago. And yet, back at home for the first time in a year, I want this man on the subway, the man with the bun who will not look into my face. And so what if he is? I ask my mother as I flake sea salt into the pot. So nothing, she says. I was just saying. She gets back to folding. The caramel is done. It is perfect, darker than anything you can buy in a jar, salty and bitter and achingly sweet.
KRYS MALCOLM BELC’s collection of flash essays, IN TRANSIT, is forthcoming from The Cupboard Pamphlet. He has essays in or forthcoming in Granta, Black Warrior Review, Brevity, The Adroit Journal, and elsewhere. Krys lives in snowy Marquette, Michigan with his partner and three children and is a student in the MFA program at Northern Michigan University.