Authors: Laura Z. Hobson
He had sounded different, not in accent or manner, but in the content of what he said. He talked of “surfing yesterday,” dismissed Hollywood and Beverly Hills as “that old-line glam-oor,” paying out phrases that seemed to please him, “this lemon tree in my back yard,” “a date ranch,” “the desert on an August afternoon.” He took evident delight in the sound of new place names and street names, “off Sepulveda,” “down to La Jolla,” “out at San Berdoo,” which he later translated into San Bernardino.
He sounded mature, very much grown-up. A stranger from an unfamiliar region, friendly enough, and yet somehow self-contained, far away. A remoteness grew within her, an echo of the vague sense she got while reading his letters. It might have been a longing for a note of, well, not of love, one could not use words like “love” even to oneself without seeming like a demanding parent, anathema of anathemas. But a note of warmth, affection.
The warmth came when Jeff called them for the first time. They had given him carte blanche to call collect any time he wanted to, but he had never done so until the end of his first set of exams. Then he called one evening to tell them his first official grades: he was in the top five in three of his courses and in the top ten in the others. This time there was excitement and pleasure in his voice, he sounded close again, a member of the family bearing good news. She remembered his call about getting his job at St Luke’s; her voice must have sounded the same to Jeff, proud of him, delighted with his news, even happy. Ken took the phone and he sounded happy and proud too.
“Maybe he can handle it all more easily out there,” she said to Ken as they finally hung up.
“When he has the room he needs. Yes.”
The familiar phrase touched her. God knows, three thousand miles of continent between them had at last given him enough room. Perhaps Jeff should have made that discovery years ago, when he had gone across the park to live with Margie and Nate— perhaps if he had chosen U.C.L.A. back then instead of C.C.N.Y., he might have found what he needed so much earlier, a psychic distance from them merged into the physical distance.
Yet for her the three thousand miles of continent was also a barrier, and when, during the winter, Ken suddenly suggested that she take a few days’ holiday in March, while he was out on his annual business trip, and meet him in Los Angeles so that they might have a few visits with Jeff, she had accepted with alacrity.
The visit was a success, for Jeff as well as for them. They took him to dinner each evening at good restaurants, they saw the small four-family house “on the wrong side of Sunset” where he had a sunny studio flat and porch, they let him drive their rented car whenever he was through for the day. Only once was the visit marred. It was on the last day, and she never told Ken about it. It had been the only time she was alone with Jeff; so often in the past the setting for flare-ups had been some situation where she and Jeff were alone. This time they had driven with Ken out to Malibu, where one of his firm’s authors lived, and after introductions and some polite nothings, she and Jeff had gone down to the wide beach to wait for Ken to rejoin them.
It was late in the March afternoon; the sunlight seemed amber over the crashing waves of the Pacific, the hills behind them were dry and buff-colored, the wind high and free. They both sat watching the climbing, curling and crashing of the waves and she said idly, “It’s like watching a fire in the fireplace. You can’t take your eyes off it.”
“Sounds cozy. The one thing this ocean
“Anything but, I can see that. Does it ever get calm?”
“Occasionally. I like it this way, though. It makes you feel good, slamming around in it.”
“You feel good in general, out here. I can tell.”
“Yeah, it’s okay.”
“That means you’re happy. I’m glad.”
“Happy enough.” He threw a handful of sand with sudden vigor.
“Apart from medical school, I meant. I hope so much that—”
“Christ,” he exploded. “Digging. Still at it? Still digging?”
“I wasn’t digging. I just hoped you—”
“You never see it as digging, never did, never will. But damn it, that’s just what it is, just what it always was, and I still can’t stand it.”
He leaped to his feet then and tore down the beach, striding off with the fine effortless ease of youth. For a moment she thought only of the sand. She had felt the drag of the sand today, and it was the first time she had ever been conscious of it on any beach, had found herself tiring a little from their walking about in it, looking for a proper place to settle down. All she could think of now was how easily Jeff strode through it, as if it had no substance. Then it hit her; the old familiar clutch at her throat, the anger at his roughness, the debasing feeling that it was all her fault, then the defense, that she had merely been talking as anybody would talk. He could hurt, with apparent impunity, he could let you have it and let you stay with it. He would forget it before the day was out. She would not.
But by the time they had reached New York again, she had reached the point she had come to know so well, the “absorb-it point,” as she had once dubbed it. The only thing to do with the pain life dishes out is absorb it. You may not forget it; you may only partially forgive it. But you could ultimately absorb it, accommodate it, merge it with other emotions.
Even the primary pain about Jeff was no longer the unique single pain it had been at the start. In the seven years that had passed, that primary pain had merged with other emotions, had thinned down, had taken on new facets from what she had read, from what Mark Waldo had told her, from her own “consciousness raising” about an injustice she had never really considered before, from her own anger at employers, at hospitals, at government agencies. They are wrong, she would think, not pausing to define the “they.” It was the same
who were so often wrong about people outside other prescribed patterns, people with black skins, people with Puerto Rican names, girls, women, foreigners, Catholics in some communities, Protestants in others, Jews everywhere, though anti-Semitism had become fairly unfashionable by now except among the true-blue bigots.
And yet the very people who would dislike snide remarks about Jews or blacks or Puerto Ricans, the very people who held themselves superior to all bigotry, so often were perfectly easy with jokes about queers and fruit and gays. The last time they had been at Don and Jenny’s, they had actually had an ugly showdown, started by Ken when Don started a story “about these two fags on motorcycles, and a cop waved them down for speeding—”
“Cut the story,” Ken had said brusquely.
“What the—?” Don had looked at his father in amazement It actually was amazement: they were there because of Don’s birthday; he was thirty-three and here was his father ordering him to shut up in the middle of a sentence.
“You have the hide of an elephant,” Ken had said. “To tell stories about fags when—”
“I forgot I just plain forgot.” Don suddenly wilted. Nate and Margie looked at each other. Ken walked away, went to the window, stared down at the street It was Margie who changed the subject, something about Lynnie’s school, and the moment was over.
Still, after all this time, Tessa thought, looking at her older son. If it were anything else, Don would never be so insensitive, he would never forget Long ago she had thought If only it were about something else, something not connected with sex, not tangled with the idea of sexual aberration. Obviously Don still wished that it were something else, wished it so much that he denied it by forgetting.
Damn sex anyway, she thought. Sex was one of the great instincts, yes, but it was one of many. At times it seemed to be the only one, the most powerful one, shoving aside all other drives, all other values. When you were young, it
all-powerful, the master; nature had artfully arranged that hierarchy of power, and only as the race itself was assured its renewal with the passing of years, only then did the drive slacken and the appetite grow more manageable and become once more one drive among many drives.
But people everywhere, when they considered sex patterns not their own—to such people, sex was all. A lifetime’s training came leaping forward to make judgments, to avert the eye, perhaps to pry—
She still went hot with dismay whenever she remembered the second Christmas that Jeff had spent in California, again finding himself too pressed with work to manage the trip home. Once again she had allowed enough time for the three-hour difference, had waited indeed until afternoon in New York, remembering his ability to sleep till noon on holidays. Her call went through in seconds.
“And Merry Christmas to you,” a male voice greeted her before she could speak. A male voice that was not Jeff’s.
“Merry Christmas,” she answered. “Is Jeff there?”
“Yes, he is. Just a minute.”
She heard his call, “Hey, Jeff, it’s for you,” heard Jeff reply, “Be right there, Roy,” and she was left waiting. In the background was music, familiar music. It took a moment to place it; it was not the inevitable “Silent Night” or “White Christmas” of the public airwaves on Christmas morning, but—why yes, it was Beethoven’s Sixth, the Pastoral. Jeff himself had never been particularly fond of music; this had been chosen by somebody else. A record chosen and put on a stereo turntable, placed there earlier by this unknown Roy who had answered the phone. Probably the owner of the stereo and the record. Beethoven on Christmas morning. A tranquil scene.
It had never happened before that she had been answered by anybody but Jeff himself. In his one-room place in New York, he had never had a phone of his own. His cab driving didn’t permit such luxuries, he had said, especially since there was a pay phone in the lower hall. To call him there meant that he would be summoned by the janitor or his wife; she remembered the raucous shout up the stairwell, “Phone, Jeff,” and the muttered complaints about students who took their own sweet time about getting down the stairs.
That there might have been, even then, another reason for the lack of a telephone in his own room had never occurred to her. Now, listening to the Beethoven, she thought, But it would never have mattered if somebody else had picked up the phone; I haven’t thought all these years that he never had a roomie.
The word “roomie” now was suddenly farcical. The voice that had summoned Jeff was not the voice of a schoolboy roomie but that of a man. The man who had put the record on the turntable, Roy, the man with whom Jeff lived.
The once frequent vision was suddenly there again, the two young bodies entwined, the vision that had sprung at her with such ferocity that very first night so long ago, that vision she had, a hundred times since, banished, only to have it leap out at her on unpredictable occasions, as savage as ever.
And here it was again, this time against the soaring sweetness of music she loved, and for that reason perhaps more intolerable than ever. Long after that Christmas call to Jeff had ended, the torment remained until she had begun to wonder at the torment itself, to ask herself why it should be so biting this time, so tenacious. Something eluded her, she had felt, something more than the recurring image, something to do with
not with Jeff. She had to find out what it was, had to track it down, as if it were an enemy existing somewhere, able to attack at will and herself helpless against it.
She had failed. For the rest of that day and night she had found nothing to account for this extraordinary sensation that there was something new this time, something within
that added itself to the horror of that flashing vision, that gave it extra substance, an added dimension that had never been there before.
And then, in her tossing sleep, as she turned restlessly under her sliding blankets, then out of nowhere came the words “Peeping Tom.” Came with an impact that shook her, came with a familiarity she did not pause to question, with a rightness unarguable. It meant something special right now, something that was hers, that had been hers for a long time but that now had taken on an extra substance.
Moments later she had remembered back to that night years before when she had been admitting that she was repelled by “specificity” in writing of sex, heterosexual or homosexual, when she had gone to the bookcase to find
in some need to prove to herself that one could write of love and passion without acting the Peeping Tom as so many modern authors were doing, making Peeping Toms of their readers as well. She had copied out a whole paragraph of the Tolstoy, had read and reread it and taken it to the office, had used it several times since, in discussions with young authors about today’s “clinical obsessions with erotic specifics.”
That had been at the beginning of her own self-education about homosexuals, when she was finding out about Sir John Wolfenden and his now famous phrase, “between consenting adults in private,” and she had begun her first faltering steps toward wider knowledge and toward erecting a platform she herself could stand on. Privacy was one of the foundations.
Privacy. She had always respected other people’s rights of privacy about everything, their mail, their phones, their thoughts, certainly their sex. But this flashing vision of Jeff and another boy … it had been boy then, and across the years it had changed to another young man—
She drew back in disavowal. It was impossible. It was something else. But an inexorable voice seemed to ask her: Did you ever have any flashing vision of Margie and Nate in the intimacy of sex? Of Don and Jenny in the intimacy of sex? Of your brother Will and his wife Amy? Of anybody in the whole world?
The question struck like a rod of steel, pinning her, transfixing her so that she could not move to some other subject. Never, never with anyone else in the world. Apart from a few half-loving, half-bawdy remarks to Ken on the first evening after Don’s wedding or Margie’s, apart from that filmy powdery awareness that they were making love, she had never visualized, never really considered the details of what they did, what they said, how they sought, touched, embraced, reached …