Authors: Laura Z. Hobson
He already knew the telegram by heart, though he had only one flash of it. She was being okay about it. Or maybe she was only putting on an act, for starters. With parents you could never tell. She was all right, mostly, but sometimes she would seem okay and then you would find out after a while that it was all a put-on, and that the real honest thing came out later. He hated hypocrites, and people could be hypocrites while they seemed dead honest. But maybe this was one of the times when she sounded okay and stayed okay later. God, he hoped so.
He could see
PROUD OF YOU
as if the paper were open before him. She meant she was proud he had told her, not proud of
He felt the writhing begin, the writhing he hated, down deep in his gut somewhere, his viscera, his entrails, he didn’t know exactly where, just deep and hidden, at the core. Whenever he thought of it, that writhing and plunging downward began as if he had slipped off a cliff and were going down, down, in a kind of free fall that had no end.
She would get the best specialist. That meant she was pretty sure it was curable, or she wouldn’t be willing to spend the money, not after-Dad’s being so sick for so long. They had plenty of money for important things, he knew that, and this was important if anything was ever important. If only he could talk to somebody up here at Placquette about it, he might never have written her at all. But he didn’t dare, not to any master, not even to Pete, his best friend and roomie since sophomore year. Pete was always carrying on about some girl he was in love with, slobbering over what he had done to her and everything he was going to try next time. Jeff hated hearing it, but he half memorized Pete’s words, as if he might want to borrow them for his own use. The thing was, he never knew exactly what Pete meant, knew it in his head, sure, but not really
the way you knew things you actually did know. He listened to all that about kissing and feeling and trying to do this or that, but it was like being locked behind a wall of thick glass where you could see out but not get near anything yourself.
He didn’t know exactly when he had first realized that. He only knew that whenever he read a book with a big love scene or saw a movie with passion and breasts and open lips, he had that same dead lost feeling of being locked behind that wall of thick cold glass, watching but not being part of anything.
The first time the glass vanished was that time—God, not last winter at basketball practice, but the winter before that, when Hal Jarvis came off the court with him and slung his arm across his shoulders. Excitement had gone pumping through him then too, a different kind, a new kind, pumping through in big lazy waves, frightening but marvelous, all at the same time. Nothing like it had ever happened to him before, except in dreams. He couldn’t believe it and he couldn’t get it out of his head. Even hours after, days after, he couldn’t. If he so much as thought, Hal, or thought of that arm on his shoulder, it happened all over again, that strange pumping wave, spreading through him like a slow hot river. Even if he thought, Basketball, it would begin and it was always marvelous, but along with the marvelous there was something else.
The something else was being frightened and being ashamed. This kind of marvelous-was different from what Pete and the other guys meant. He had an absolute conviction about it. This was all wrong, miserable and wrong.
Yet he didn’t want it to end. One night he let himself think about Hal deliberately, as if to see if he could make it happen, and it did happen, just as strong, just as powerful. He knew what it meant. He didn’t want to do anything about it, but he did, and it was over in one second flat, wild and pounding.
Afterward he writhed in a shame he had never felt before. He knew that practically all boys did what he had just done, all the crap about going insane was a lot of Bible Belt shit, but he also knew that this was different. The other guys thought about a love scene, about a girl. He had felt that arm loose and easy on his shoulder, and that was not okay, not what anybody meant by okay. That was abnormal and it was a disgrace and he lay there in a desperation he had never known.
The bell clanged the end of the period. Jeff leaped from his seat and raced from class. He didn’t want any of the guys asking about the telegram, forcing him to make up explanations for it. He wanted to get to his own room, read it again, and then call her as she had said. He would be careful on the phone, the way she was in the telegram, so if anybody heard him, the words wouldn’t give him away. Once he started going to whatever analyst she found and started to put out words during the visits, he would have to be on watch for every word he said at school. Not that he hadn’t been plenty watchful all along. For a million years he’d watched every syllable, watched every gesture, measured every joke and every action, not even horsing around with Pete the way they used to. Pete didn’t have a clue, no doubt of that. If he did, Pete would simply have to tell one other guy, just one, tell even after promising not to say a word, the way people did with secrets, even good people like Pete. And then in five minutes it would be all over school and that would be the end.
Pete never guessed, when he bragged about some girl, that Jeff was listening the way you listened to a teacher in class, taking in the main points, filing them away for some old exam. Nor could Pete ever suspect that the single time the descriptions took on any real meaning was that day Pete was carrying on about touching and feeling and by accident Hal Jarvis called out to somebody outside their open window.
Then for a split second—
Split second was right. It was as if he, Jeff, had grabbed up a great ax, slicing through sharp and sure, the way a lumberman flashed his ax through a sapling tree. Never would he just give in to anything like that, he had thought then, never just let his mind wander along on Pete’s slobbery juicy words. Zap-axed. He could do that always. It gave him some comfort: he could zap it off at will. He could take a vow, the way priests and monks did, and put sex out of his life forever. At least until he had been to the analyst long enough to know if he could change around and be like everybody else.
Zap! But suppose sometime I can’t lift that ax fast enough? Suppose I can’t even find it? Like when I’m asleep?
Maybe this wasn’t something you could just zap out or take vows about. Maybe it didn’t just pass if you were analyzed. Maybe it didn’t disappear as you grew older. It was already over two years since that day coming off the basketball court. Hal had graduated and wasn’t even there any more, but nothing had changed for Jeff except it was ten times worse. At the start of this semester, he was the only one in the senior class without a girl. He had begun to make up things about dates he’d had with a girl named Joan during the summer, and that was smooth enough, but then he started calling her Jo, and talking about her a lot, and one of the fellows said, “She sounds like a good Joe,” and everybody laughed and he with them. “She’s that, all right, wait till you meet her,” he said, but he knew he had overdone it, and his gut burned as if he had swallowed a mixture of fire and acid and slime all mixed up.
He finally cooled out but he never called her Jo again. He said Joan or Joanie and then after a while Pete and some of the other guys who also lived in New York started asking him to double-date, expecting him to appear with Joanie. Once Pete asked why she wasn’t ever around. Soon Jeff began to drop a few cool remarks about it being all washed up with Joanie. It wasn’t her fault, he said, wasn’t anybody’s fault; they’d just had it and decided to pack it in.
But not too long after that, he’d biked into New Haven and when he got back he talked about picking up a blonde named Gloria. Pete was all ears and it was easy to spill out a lot of pretty smooth stuff. After the first “away” football game, they’d all gone on a tear, with lots of girls around, and later he told Pete all about a girl he called Connie, for Consuela.
“Come off it,” Pete finally said. “I don’t believe in any of these babes you tell about”
“Okay. So don’t.”
It was just right, not defensive, not combative, just natural and easy. Pete waited a moment and then said, “You always were the most secretive guy.” Jeff liked it, liked the feeling of success. He had put it across. By not trying he had put it across. He must remember that.
There were lots of things he must remember; he was learning them every day. If he slipped he would be found out That one thing he would never be able to stand. Having everybody know would kill him. He had heard them all laugh and snicker at just about any joke with the word “fag” in it, or “queer” or “fairy” or “queen,” and if ever any guy said, “Guess what, Jeff Lynn’s a fag,” he would kill him.
Or he would kill himself. But it wasn’t true, not really true, and it would never be true. He was being slow about girls, sure, being slow about adolescence, about having dreams about girls. The only dreams he ever had, the wet dreams, the wonderful ones, were about vague things mostly that somehow got all glistening or rounding or muscular until it happened—
It didn’t mean a thing. Most people were a little of both sexes; they had been told that in sex-education talks. The most masculine of males had a streak of the feminine in him, and the most feminine of females had a streak of the masculine, and it all worked together to produce a deeper, richer humanity in both sexes. He had to remember that too. He wanted to remember it; remembering it was another funny kind of comfort when it got too rotten to think about.
But the main thing to remember was not to lay it on too thick. “Okay, so don’t” had worked. If he had pulled out a couple of snapshots and said this was Gloria and that was Connie, smart old Pete would probably have given him that long look of his that said, “Something’s wrong.”
Actually he ought to quit laying it on too thick inside himself. He thought about it all too damn much, couldn’t keep it out of his head, couldn’t give it the old “Okay, so don’t” treatment at all. That time Pete dragooned him for his cousin Edey, he got so uptight beforehand he didn’t know what to say to her and never even began to like being with her. Then he did all the wrong things to prove he did like her, hurried about dating her again, and then on the second date he had just about crawled inside his own skin. Edey seemed to like him anyway, but all the time that damn glass built up until he felt that he was in a prison looking out at her, talking to her by prison telephone, false and phony as hell.
Also stupid. He was supposed to be a sure thing for
straight A’s if he even tried, which he didn’t, because B’s weren’t as square as A’s, but the minute he got near a girl, the good old stupidity would start. At other times, things came out funny and easy, but with a girl, just stupid sweat
He turned left, saw that he was already at the dormitory, and hurried to his room. At last he was where he could read the telegram slowly, dig its inner meaning,
PROUD OF YOU FOR LETTER,
she had said, not just plain
PROUD OF YOU,
which was how he had caught it on the fly. Natch. How could anybody, especially a mother, be proud of you because you were homosexual? All she meant was that it was better to come clean about it instead of hiding it the way everybody always did. He stared at the phrase and his throat went hot and hard to swallow, as if he were coming down with strep again.
people who were homosexual that you could be proud of, Leonardo and Michelangelo and Plato and Tchaikovsky and also plenty of living people, famous playwrights and composers and conductors and authors. The string of names came quickly because he had so often gone over them. Telling my beads, he had once thought, a sour smile down inside somewhere. Maybe someday he would do some research, call it “Great Homosexuals down the Ages,” like a thesis for a college award or advanced degree. Except you never could do a thesis like that; if you sounded interested in being homosexual, people knew right away about you.
How did he know that? How did he know all the things he already knew about what you had to do and what you could never do? Suddenly he wished he had never given in enough to write his mother. Right there, in writing his letter, he had broken his oath about never letting one human being on earth know about him. Right there in that letter he had done the one unthinkable thing. Admitted it.
But God, if there was any way out after all, didn’t he have to take it? He was suddenly hearing the news again about Mick Munson’s twin brother, Rex Munson, and his dog’s choke collar hanging him to that tree, that awful news flashing around the school like electricity, and feeling again the streak of fear that had raced through him. If there was any way out, of course he had to grab for it, and grab now. And to find out, he had to tell her. Or tell the two of them. Only telling Dad would be one step off the end of the world. Maybe he was yellow to wish his mother wouldn’t, but he couldn’t help it.
When he first imagined telling them, asking about psychoanalysis, he just iced up all over as if he had a fever. He put the idea out of his head, sliced it off with that ax. But it didn’t stay sliced off. It kept coming back at him, sly and cold, working on his nerves until he got that old feeling about going crazy.
“Listen, Dad, listen, Mama, I have something to tell you”—and right away he knew it would have to be done in some other way. At last he began to think, What other way? Instead of pushing the whole thing out of his head in a wild rush, he had begun to make up letters, starting, “Dear Dad and Mama.” That didn’t get anywhere either.
And then about a month ago, on one of those first days when you suddenly realize that summer’s really over and fall is here for sure and winter coming, and in June you graduate—something about all that really got to him, and a panic of hurry seized him like in the last five minutes of an exam, a frenzy springing alive, telling him he’d better speed up and get straightened out and not just wait around hoping everything would just go away by itself like some old aching muscle that gradually lets up.