The Aaron Sarlo Tapes:“My Hero, My Gay Parents, and Vanilla Ice”

March 24, 2019

By AARON SARLO

When I was 11 years old, I lived in Gilman, Illinois, population 1300. It was a one stoplight town, one movie theatre, with a cobblestone Main Street about two blocks long, surrounded by a sea of corn. We used to walk to the edge of town, four blocks south, into the ocean of corn plants, and pick ears right off the stalks, and cook them for dinner that night. When freight trains would pull through “downtown,” which ran parallel with Main Street, me and my friends would hop them and ride to Danforth, or if we were feeling really daring, all the way to Watseka — 13 miles away. 

On July 7, 1983, I rode my bike home from swimming in Onarga, two miles away. It was a beautiful sunny day, and I remember feeling very happy to be alive. I got home, where I lived with my father, who was a public school teacher in Onarga, Gilman’s sorta sister city. I walked in the door, and after a few minutes, the phone rang. My dad answered it, and said, “Hello?… Hello?…” I asked him who it was, but he was focused on what the other person was saying. My dad said loudly, “Granny??… Oh no… Oh my god… Oh my god.” I remember clearly thinking that it was one of my dad’s parents on the phone, telling him that his grandmother had died. There was a sound of finality in his voice, and I attributed it to a death in the family, and figured it was his grandmother, by the way he kept saying, “Granny?” He hung up the phone, and turned to me, walking close. He looked shattered. He said, “Brian is dead.” 

I only ever wanted to be like one person in my life, and that was Brian Sarlo. Technically, he was my uncle, but because we were born only four years apart, and because my dad was very close with his parents, they decided to raise us as if we were brothers. We spent every summer together, and every weekend, every holiday. I looked up to him like no other person. He was into baseball and the Chicago Cubs, so so was I. He was a rough and tumble, all American kid, and so was I. As far as I was concerned, so long as Brian was around, I was loved and safe, and I belonged. 

When my father said the words, “Brian is dead,” it was intensely, instantly devastating. Immediately, I started crying. Uncontrollably. You couldn’t have chosen anything worse to tell me in the world. I’m pretty sure I went into some kind of shock because I don’t remember anything from the entire two hour drive from Gilman to Wheaton, where my grandparents lived — except I remember wearing his shiny green jacket and staring out the car window at the sun setting into the corn, saying to myself again and again, “He has to live on. I have to do something so he lives on.” We got to my grandparents house, where the entire family was sitting in silence in the kitchen in darkness. The only sound was my grandmother sobbing. Occasionally, one of us would break down. It’s indescribably hard to write this now, and I’m doing so through tears. 

One month later, my dad uprooted us from Illinois, the only place I had ever known, and moved us to Little Rock, Arkansas. He had gotten a job as an art teacher at Booker Arts Magnet, and we moved in with my great-grandmother on Ridgeway Drive. I felt utterly alone and lost. I tried to make friends, but I was pretty broken, and a yankee, to boot. I was desperate to make friends, and when I entered 6th grade, I was able to befriend a girl named Christina and a boy named Jonathan. The kid who sat behind me, Chris Skinner, who I mentioned, didn’t pan out after I inadvertently won a poetry contest that he clearly wanted to ace. 

One year later, driving 60 miles per hour down interstate 95, headed back to Little Rock from Gilman, my dad told me that he and my mother, whom he had divorced in 1976, were both gay. He said, after many long, uncomfortable minutes of him clearly dreading a future conversation, “You know I love Dan, Aaron.” I said, “Sure, I love Dan, too.” Dan was a friend of my dad’s who had moved from Gilman to Little Rock for a few months. We were driving from having moved Dan back to Gilman, which had broken my dad’s heart. My dad said, “No, Aaron, I… love… Dan.” I asked him, “So, you’re gay?” He said he was. He told me my mom was, too. I remember feeling so alone at that moment. My brother was gone, I was in a foreign city, away from all my friends and family, and now my dad, my sole remaining role model, was gay. I didn’t care that he was gay, really, but I knew that I wasn’t, and that his and my mom’s homosexuality was foreign to me. I felt very isolated and it was at that exact point that I knew I was on my own in this life. I told my dad, “It must have been very hard for you to tell me that. I love you no matter what. You’re my dad, and who you are is fine with me.” We shared a relived moment, both obviously glad to have that awkwardness out of the way. 

Not long after, we pulled over and ate lunch at a Stuckey’s. I ate Salisbury steak, and my dad had a chicken salad sandwich with a side of fruit. When the food arrived, and the waitress left, I pointed at his fruit bowl, and said, “Hey, look. Fruit for a fruit.” He glared at me instinctively, as a parent does when a child says something inappropriate, and then we both burst into laughter. 

. . .

I don’t know what you’re going to be able to do with any of these stores I am sending you. I am doing my best to tell you the stories who made me who I am. Arguing with Billy Gibbons, walking up to Vanilla Ice and mocking him to his face by jumping up and down and shrieking like a fan girl (he scowled and jutted his middle finger at me), or telling the story of how I learned about my gay parents, and how it affected me. All of this I hope gives you a clearer picture of who I am. And I thank you, genuinely, for letting me write all this stuff down and relive all these memories. 

P.s. If you want the Vanilla Ice story, I can tell it to you really quick:

Clay Bell worked at a fancy restaurant called Coy’s, which is no longer in business. In 1991, my phone rang, and I answered to Clay saying, “Aaron, come down here now. I’ll explain when you get here. Come now!” I hopped in my car, and sped over to Coy’s. Clay was outside in his street clothes, his busboy garb balled under his arm. He tossed it in his car, and walked me over to a big privacy hedge on the side of Coy’s. He said, “Vanilla Ice is right around the corner. Let’s go make fun of him!” So, we sneaked around the corner, and found Vanilla Ice sitting in a big picture window, eating dinner. We ran up to the window, and both began jumping up and down, clapping and shrieking like crazed fan girls, saying, “Oh, my god, it’s Vanilla Ice! EEEEEEEE!!!!” He scowled and flipped us the birth, and I heard him shout, “Fuck you, faggots!” in a loud growl that was muffled by the thick window. He yanked the venetian blinds down, and Clay and I laughed and laughed all the way back to our cars.


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