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Authors: Laura Z. Hobson

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BOOK: Consenting Adult
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She hoped the announcement of Pete’s marriage would not disturb him, as it had her. He would be going to the wedding, though not with her and Ken, and in any case, they would be skipping the reception afterward. She visualized Jeff there, congratulating Pete, kissing the bride, joking with the other guests, perhaps hearing of other weddings soon to take place.

“And what about you, Jeff? Any wedding bells on tap for you, old buddy?”

Outside her window, from the church on Madison Avenue, bells rang out in the gray light of the January morning and she flinched. Again she tried to “delete” the sound of the chimes, irked at herself. A sentimentality again. Doubtless the talk of wedding bells would arouse no pang of denial in Jeff, the happy aura around bride and groom cause no laceration. She had thought she had given up forever the old trick of transposing her feelings onto Jeff’s emotive state, yet here it was again.

Guilt threaded its way along her nerves. He senses it, she thought. He still can’t feel easy with us because his instinct tells him. Just as my instinct tells me I’m further ahead than Ken is, no matter how Ken has been trying, and succeeding too. But even so, down underneath, those hidden fragments and roots, how deep they are, what tenacity they have.

And in me? The same probably, but not in just the same sense. Something keeps shifting. Unevenly, in lurches, at unexpected times, over unexpected things. It’s as if I were in a lab too, with a half-finished experiment, waiting to find out whether it will blow the place up or, in the end, finally work out.

Nate said, “I’ve got a copy of Freud’s famous letter for you,” and handed her a sheet of yellow copy paper. “I copied it myself, and then I made this copy for you.”

“Where did you locate it?” Tessa asked. “Whenever I’ve tried, the librarian didn’t even know what letter I meant, and none of the catalogue cards listed it.” She began to read the page, but Nate said, “Don’t read it now. Better wait till we get started.” She accepted his direction and folded the page over.

She was staying with the children for the afternoon while Nate and Margie went off on some project involving major repairs on the ancient electrical wiring in their house. At one end of the large living room Lynnie, now nearly five, was lording it over the baby, Jeffie, but their sounds were still good-natured and peaceful. Usually Nate’s days off were given over to plans that included the children, but this time the call had come for her to baby-sit, and as always, she had responded as if she had been offered a treat.

“Where
did
you uncover it?” she repeated, nodding down at the page in her hand. “Even Mark Waldo flopped on getting it; I asked him a couple of times.”

“Up at the Academy of Medicine,” Nate said. “I was up there on another story and I thought, It’s bound to be here, and dug around and finally got it. It was in the
American Journal of Psychiatry,
about fifteen years ago. That’s why Dr. Waldo never found it, probably.”

“I should have thought of the Academy.”

“Freud wrote it,” Nate went on, “to an American woman, a stranger, who wrote him about her son. That was back thirty years ago, before the Nazis made him leave Vienna.”

“It’s so touching,” Margie said. “This woman kept his answer for about fifteen years, and then, after the Kinsey Report, she sent it to Kinsey, saying, ‘Here’s a letter from a great and good man,’ and then Kinsey published it in the
Journal.”

Tessa fingered the folded page. “Do you suppose Jeff has read it?”

“I made him a copy too. But you know Jeff. Mr. ‘No Comment’ on things like this.”

“Even with us,” Margie said. “So it’s not just you and Dad. At least Dr. Isaacs told him, a while back, he could take off the blindfolds on reading whatever he wants, Freud or anybody else.”

“I never could see that about not reading,” Tessa said. “Like an Index Expurgatorius.”

“Most analysts,” Nate said, “won’t let patients bone up on their own cases. Sort of convenient, maybe.”

“Come off,” Margie protested. “Regular M.D.s don’t want their patients to diagnose their own cases either, looking up symptoms and treatment.”

“Well, run along, you two,” Tessa said, half opening the sheet in her hand.

Nate rose but Margie said, “I wonder why the
Times
doesn’t print this old letter of Freud’s sometime. Millions of people must never have seen it.”

Before Nate could reply, Tessa said, “Isn’t it funny, the way we can talk about this and talk about the woman who wrote about her son, and not one of us says the word ‘homosexual’ right out? Have you noticed? Even us.”

“As if the word itself were an embarrassment,” Margie agreed. “Aren’t you the bright one, to catch that?”

“It’s partly the word that’s at fault,” Nate said. “The fancy Latinizing of it, or is it as if to make it more genteel. Heterosexual sounds just as phony-genteel to my ear.”

“I don’t think I ever once thought of myself as a heterosexual,” Margie said, “before people began writing and talking so much about homosexuals.”

Nate laughed. “Gay sounds more natural to me now,” he said. “And straight.”

“I never think of myself as ‘straight’ either, and there’s something all wrong with the idea of it. Like when they used to say non-white for blacks. What’s the opposite of straight—crooked?”

“Come on, Miss Semantics,” Nate said, “or we’ll never get there.”

As the door closed on them, Tessa opened Freud’s letter. It started so simply:

“Dear Mrs.

I gather from your letter that your son is a homosexual. I am impressed by the fact that you do not mention this term yourself in your information about him. May I question you, why do you avoid it? Homosexuality is assuredly no advantage but it is nothing to be ashamed of, no vice, no degradation, it cannot be classified as an illness; we consider it to be a variation of the sexual function produced by a certain arrest of the sexual development. Many highly respectable individuals. …”

There followed the familiar litany of the immortal names, Plato, Michelangelo, Leonardo, but she paused over it, as if she needed a moment to recover herself. This was indeed a great and good man writing to an unknown mother in despair; the kindness in the words sent her back to the time, six long years before, when she had been in such a stupor of despair. Might it have been easier for her then if she had received some such letter? She returned to her reading, noticing that at the end Nate had written, “Freud wrote it longhand, in English.” She paused once more over that small personal addition, of Freud writing in an unfamiliar language in simple terms that a layman could be expected to understand.

“By asking me if I can help you,” Freud went on, a few lines later, “you mean, I suppose, if I can abolish homosexuality and make normal heterosexuality take its place. The answer is, in a general way, we cannot promise to achieve it. In a certain number of cases we succeed in developing the blighted germs of heterosexual tendencies which are present in every homosexual, in the majority of cases it is no more possible. It is a question of the quality and of the age of the individual. The result of treatment cannot be predicted.

“What analysis can do for your son runs in a different line. If he is unhappy, neurotic, torn by conflicts, inhibited in his social life, analysis may bring him harmony, peace of mind, full efficiency, whether he remains a homosexual or gets changed. …”

She read to the end, but like a persistent counterpoint, the phrase repeated itself: We cannot promise to achieve it, and she kept visualizing that unknown mother who had written that letter to the illustrious doctor in Vienna, wanting an answer she could never have, an answer free of hesitation, an answer with a resounding promise: Of course we can make your beloved son what you want him to be.

Once she too had wanted such promises, had given them to herself in her own fantasies of golden, grasping hope. Looking back, it seemed so forlorn, so childlike, and in some new way, so immoderate. How could any mature person demand of the future so large a promise on behalf of another human being, who alone had the right to make the demand or refuse to make it?

She wondered what Jeff felt about Freud’s letter, but this was another one of the things she would never know. Even after all this time, when there was anything about homosexuals in the paper or in a magazine, she could not ask what he thought of it, not even whether he had seen it. That first big story on the front page of the
Times
about three years ago—then she had asked him, in all eagerness if he, too, had read it. One of their ugly flare-ups had been the instant result.

“I saw it. I don’t want to get into a big thing about it”

“I didn’t mean any big thing.”

“You never mean it. It gets to be a big thing just the same.”

There was a sudden howl from the far side of the room. The baby must have stepped firmly on a large tufted cotton ball, which was still rolling away from him, and he was asprawl on the floor. Lynnie was bending over him. “Don’t be mad, Jeffie,” she said. The ball didn’t mean it.”

“No, darling,” Tessa said, scooping him up in a hug. “Nobody ever means it”

The telephone rang and Gail called from the outer office, “Your son Jeff, Mrs. Lynn.”

Tessa picked up the receiver and said, “Hello there.” A leap in her pulse meant only that it was rare indeed for him to call the office. She heard the click that said Gail had hung up at her extension. Jeff heard it too.

“What do you know,” he started. “You’re talking to a member of the Employed. Not the
un
but the employed.”

“Congratulations. Good for you.”

“Three guesses, employed at what?”

“I give up. I can’t guess.”

“Three million guesses.”

“I can’t imagine. Tell me.”

He laughed. He sounded happy, excited, pleased with himself, and it was immense to hear him this way. “Go on, Jeff, whatever it is, I’m delighted. Tell me.”

“A job at St. Luke’s Hospital.”

“St. Luke’s! Doing what?”

“As an orderly.”

“An orderly at St. Luke’s—how in the world?”

“There’s this friend of mine told me about it His brother works there and they’re short on help, nurses’ aides and orderlies, and I was interviewed this morning and wham, I’m an orderly.”

“Congratulations again. I’m not positive what an orderly does, but it’s grand. You sound so happy and I am too.”

“I’m not positive either—it’s so miscellaneous. I gather he helps prep people for surgery, he gets assigned to the emergency room, he helps monitor equipment in a heart case, he gives a hand transferring a patient from bed to that rolling table for surgery. And he makes sixty-seven bucks a week to start with, and a raise every three months so it’s seventy-eight by the end of a year.”

“It's wonderful.”

“It’s another temporary gig, like the cab, but the sizing-things-up can keep on unabated. This sort of appeals to me.”

“I can see why.”

“My shift is midnight to eight
A.M.
How does that grab you?”

“It kills me. You sound so good, Jeff.”

“I have to beat it now to go—guess where?”

“To start your night shift at eleven in the morning.”

“Nope. This pal who clued me in on the job—he teaches Spanish at Columbia. About a third of the orderlies and nurses’ aides
habla·español,
so I’m in for a cram course on a kind of hospital-Berlitz basis.”

“Oh, Jeff, that sounds good too. It’s all lovely news.”

She hung up, excited in a strange way. To have him turn to her with news was something she had almost forgotten, to have him pick up a phone just to impart something that would please her was a new sensation, a rebirth of long-dead sensations. How long it had been since he had walked into a phone booth somewhere, impelled to reach her, to talk to her, to share some unexpected good news with her.

She called Ken at his office and told him. “Well, that’s right out of left field, isn’t it?” Ken said. “I’ve always been a fan of left field.”

“You sound happy too.”

“Happy and surprised and a lot of things.”

“We’ll talk tonight—oh, wait, we’re having dinner with the Wisters tonight. I kind of wish we weren’t.”

“Nonsense. You like them and so do I.”

“I like everybody right now. It’s nice when one of the kids gets a new job.”

“The next one, I gather, will be Margie. This whole woman’s movement is picking up steam, and about time.”

“That’s lovely too. Don’t be late tonight We’re due there at seven.”

Within minutes of arriving at the Wisters’, Tessa’s high mood of the day began to fail her. She should have known that Sue might be there, should have known too that seeing her again might set off a train of associations with other times. Indeed she had known; what she had not known was that her mood would shift so unpredictably and that the sight of Sue, a more mature Sue, no longer a schoolgirl but a self-possessed young woman, even prettier than she had been before—that the sight of this Sue could be so troubling to her.

The other guests were three couples, all book people, one pair young enough to be just starting out in publishing, the others her own contemporaries and already known to herself and Ken. Conversation was lively, the easy exchanges of shop talk, except when it turned to Sue and her job at the brokerage house in Wall Street. There was an underlying incredulity, Tessa noticed, in the comments made by the two older couples; only the young pair, still in their twenties, took it for granted that a girl who had majored in economics at college should now have a promising position as an economist with one of the big houses on the Street. Sue herself chided one of the older women, who thought it “so extraordinary, a girl down there with all those Wall Streeters.”

“Girls aren’t extraordinary anywhere any more,” Sue said mildly. “Women, rather. You’ll find them in every job or profession there is.”

“I didn’t mean it that way. They should be, of course.”

“And they are—mostly for lower pay than the men,” Sue answered, maintaining her good humor, “but they’re making their move on equal pay too.”

BOOK: Consenting Adult
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