Authors: Laura Z. Hobson
That was when he got the idea of writing only to her. Even so it was fierce. He didn’t know how to say it, he didn’t even know how to begin. He couldn’t just blast out with “Dear Mama, I guess I’m queer.” He must have started ten different letters before he got the one he actually mailed. And the moment it slid into the mailbox, the doubts began again. He had to hand it to her, about the telegram. Now she wanted him to call her, and he couldn’t think of anything that would be all right to say; he never would be able to find any words that would sound right. Couldn’t she see that for herself, see that was why he had written the letter? She could be infuriating about the things she asked, but she never seemed to think they were infuriating at all.
Maybe anybody would ask you to call. Something seemed to collapse in his mind as he thought it. Maybe this was part of her being okay, and he was glad she was being okay. It made him feel kind of good and sort of sad about having to tell her. He felt in his pocket for a dime; that was all you needed to put in a collect call, and you even got your dime back. Then he went down to the end of the hall to the telephone booth. It was empty and his spirits fell. Doggedly he put in his call. The line was busy and he hung up with alacrity and went back to his room. It was as if God had intervened to give him a breather.
HE SLEPT HEAVILY AND
then woke suddenly, all at once. Memory whipped at her, of Jeff, of the letter, of
She sat up in the dark room, looking toward the thin oblong of dawn where the shades lifted slightly from the window frames.
The dial of her bedside clock told her it was just past two. She had taken the Nembutal at midnight. Then it was not dawn edging the windows, but moonlight, bright and beautiful. She doubled up her pillows and leaned back against them; upon her lay melancholy, heavy, almost palpable, as if it were rigid. She remembered the plaster cast she had worn through half her freshman year at college, the white inflexibility of it from knuckles to elbow, and inexplicably the white rigidity changed to a vision of two tense white bodies, seeking, entwined, stricken with a horror but seeking. O Absalom, my son, my son—
Grief for him poured through her, grief at what he was suffering, grief for his need to cry for help, he who until now had known only achievement and pride. He had not telephoned; all evening the silence of the room had been a positive presence, to be endured. Ken had taken her at her word and said nothing further about Jeff or analysis; he had been busy in his room except for a brief appearance at the dinner table, where they had talked publishing and politics and had been rather lackadaisical even about those.
Jeff was probably waiting, she had thought then, for a time to call when his father wouldn’t be there to pick up the phone. Ken left half an hour earlier than she did every morning and Jeff knew that very well. Now she thought, It’s more than that. Jeff is too wracked himself to want to risk speech at all; that’s why he wrote in the first place. Perhaps he needed time. Perhaps some instinct told him she might need time as well.
She reached upward and turned on the light and opened a book, not the manuscript on the bed beside her, but a book already published, which she had been wanting to read whenever she had a few spare hours for what she called “my own reading.” She read a page, then another, knew nothing of what the words meant to tell her, what mood they meant to create in her, and finally turned the book face down on the bed. My son, my son—she was not sure where the words came from. A title of a play? A line from a poem? From the Bible? It was part of something familiar and suddenly dear, and she lay there searching her mind, looking toward the thin strips of moonlight Outside the night was calm and free. Those words too were familiar and dear. Other words could destroy you.
“You see, I am a homosexual.” There was such vulnerability in it, it was so young, so bewildered and young. How long had he known it? How long since the first suspicion had risen up in him, to be repulsed in anger, in horror, only to return and strike at him again? It could not be a recent thing. Jeff was not the boy to write such a letter at the first moment of this appalling possibility. “I have fought it off,” he had said, “for months and maybe years, but it just grows truer.”
My son, my son. She got out of bed, impelled by an obsessed need to know what the full phrase was and whence it came, from what poem, what play, what chapter and verse in the Bible. She went quietly toward the living room in the dark, not turning on any switches to light her way.
She really ought to get to know the Bible better. How often had she thought that across the years, how often had she determined to read all the greatest passages, as a literary experience if nothing else, as an extension of her education and of her preparation for being better equipped as an editor. Her vagueness about the Bible was one of the few bad things about growing up in an agnostic household, with the parents agnostic long before she was born. Otherwise her agnostic training had always seemed an escape by natural right from all the adolescent soul searchings and all-night arguing about religion that everybody she knew had gone through during their college years.
But her escape was subtly different in any case, since her parents were what was called “Jewish intellectuals” as well as agnostics, and thus had skepticism bred in the bone, as it were, along with their supposedly heightened capacity for emotion. Heightened? How different were her own feelings now from what they would be if she had been born Anglo-Saxon Protestant like Ken?
She never had gone along with the stereotypic clichés about Jewish mothers; she was a mother, not a “Jewish mother” in accord with all the Jewish-mother jokes and the Jewish-mother books and the Jewish-mother plays. She had known other mothers, young mothers and middle-aged mothers and mothers in old age, and the differences between them came not in the framework of their religion or their religious background, but in the framework of inner structure and character, some mothers clutching at their children, others setting them free, some eternally looping them in the hard knots of demanding love, others attached to them only by the easy optional strands of love and returned love. Would this about Jeff seem like a nothing if she were a Protestant mother or a Catholic mother? Could she be any more anxious about what Ken would feel if Ken had been Ken Sachs instead of Ken Lynn?
In the living room, the light switch made a sharp dry click, and she hoped Ken would not hear it, would not come out and ask why she couldn’t sleep, what she was doing out there, looking something up in the middle of the night. After a moment she opened her
Oxford Dictionary of Quotations
and looked at the index. There, under “Son,” the first reference was “Absalom, My Son,” and as she turned back to the proper page she found her heart racing with an expectation.
“Would God I had died for thee, O Absalom, my son, my son.”
Grief tore through her with the words, this time not even in small part an admixture of pain for herself as well as for him. This time, solely, solely, she felt knifed through with grief for him, off there alone, wondering, unsure in his cry for help.
She read the words again and again, convulsed with their pain and their love. She reached for the Bible, for the full chapter in Samuel, but all at once she did not need to read it, could do without the full context of the quoted words. She did not care, except in some distant intellectual way which could wait for another time to be satisfied. The words now had only this meaning of Jeff and this context of Jeff, and she knew that for all the rest of her life, they would for her mean only this first day and night of knowing.
She awoke to full morning light and silence. It was already past nine; Ken had been gone for a full hour. Before she had finally taken the second Nembutal at five in the morning, she had left him a note. “Had a restless night and took a pill late. Don’t worry if I oversleep.”
He would worry a little but then the business of the day would take over. She did not take sleeping pills often, and he would pause briefly over the word “late,” which would mean to his excellent editorial mind that she had been awake for hours before giving in and taking it. He would wonder even more if he knew that this late sleeping pill was a follow-up one, a repeater, and that she had hesitated about the side effects of a second one, not wanting to risk sluggishness or stupor at a time when she needed all her wits and control. But then she remembered that years ago in the hospital, after her only illness, an appendectomy, there was always the follow-up sedation if the first wore off and the surgical pain returned, and there never had been any side effects but her own gratitude for a few more hours of sleep.
This time she awoke with the same gratitude. She would need help for many another night now, and she would not fight it off; she would take any help she could get until natural sleep was possible again. She knew that one day it would be, but she also knew that it would not be soon. She knew herself too well to have fantasies: a brave stolidity over this was not possible. Intensity was part of her; it was part of living; the bad times were hideous because of the intensity, but then the good times were ten-times-good because of it.
She eyed the telephone. If Jeff had called her in the half hour he knew he could count on finding her alone, no sleeping pill would have muffled the ring enough for her not to hear, which meant that he was again putting off the thing she had asked him to do. He would never call her at the office on this; he knew all about the red light on Gail’s desk when the phone was in use. Perhaps he would wait until this evening, and then he doubtless would be put off again for the same reason as last night, that his father might answer or overhear. Should she call Jeff? Phoning sons or daughters at school was one of the taboo things; now it was more taboo than usual. She would sound overanxious; she would sound upset. She might even sound greedy for his praise about the wire.
She had a cup of coffee and tried to absorb the front page of the
The phone rang and it was Jeff.
“I can’t talk much,” he started abruptly. “It’s just before French. But you said to call you.”
“So you did get my wire. I began to worry that maybe Western Union had messed up delivering it”
“I was in Klingy’s class yesterday when it came. He let me read it right off.”
“I sent it instead of writing because I wanted you to know as fast as possible that I—”
“Does Dad know?”
“No. I decided that for now, until he—no, I didn’t show him your letter or say anything, except about analysis.”
“That’s great. He’d drop dead. I mean, oh God, I didn’t mean that.”
“That’s all right, Jeff. It’s just an expression. I saw Mark Waldo yesterday and he’s finding out who’s best up in New Haven, and the minute he tells me, you’ll know.”
“Yeah, sure. Well, I have to knock it off for now. Class starts in half a minute. You better write me the doctor’s name and not phone it. Okay?”
“Okay.” She gazed down at the receiver as he rang off. There was a silence to it, remote, uncommitted, and then the dial tone came on, insistent as a tugged sleeve. Vaguely, a dismay filtered through her mood as she put up the receiver. She had wanted something more than this, wanted something not so laconic. She had wanted him to say one small thing, nothing more than “Gee, thanks for being okay about it.” Something.
But she had no business wanting that something, whatever it was. If she began to imagine that he would be grateful for any understanding she gave him, she would launch herself on the long stony road of disappointment. As Ken had said, it was a cardinal sin to be grateful to parents. Jeff would expect her help as his right. And of course it was, as much as being fed and clothed and educated and sheltered until he was grown.
Granted, granted, but still she felt scooped out and empty. Suddenly she was seeing herself again as she stooped yesterday morning to pick up the mail at the front door, just at the instant before she saw the letter in Jeff’s young bold handwriting, and longing swept through her, to return to that moment, the moment before she knew.
There she stood, casually picking up the morning’s letters, never dreaming that before another ten seconds had ticked off on the clock of her lifetime, that lifetime was to be irremediably altered. So a man might stand on a battlefield in the instant before a bullet exploded within some bone or nerve to cripple him for life; so a woman might stand in a doctor’s office in the last seconds before he read from a laboratory report the word “malignant”; so Ken had stood by the telephone a year ago in the instant before receiver and clarity had slipped from him in the first moment of his stroke.
And Jeff? Had there been one specific moment for him just before he discovered this about himself, a moment that he would always look back to longingly as the last moment before he knew?
My son, my son.
She forced herself to stop thinking. She would go to the office and do the office kind of thinking, but no more of this kind. It’s like holding one’s breath under water, she thought as she dressed, like a kid holding his breath to make his face go blue. But the artifice worked; she was disciplined enough to do this non-thinking for short stretches, during the daytime at least. She had done it in other crises of her life; at times it was the only way to manage.
The telephone rang again and she picked it up, expecting it to be Gail. It was Mark Waldo. “There’s an analyst named Dudley, James Dudley, who has been specializing in cases like Jeff’s for about twenty years,” he said. “He’s supposedly very good; two of my colleagues know of him and said so.”
“In New Haven?”
“On the outskirts, the more convenient outskirts for Jeff. He won’t have to go through the heart of the city. It’s in a suburb called Ripley.”
“I know Ripley. Jeff could get there by bus or on his bike. Oh, Mark, thank you. Can he take Jeff soon, do you know?”
“He can. I’ve already called him and asked him. I didn’t use Jeff’s name. Or yours.”