Authors: Laura Z. Hobson
Her face went hot. “How awful. Not to be able to say his name.”
“You’ll say it yourself. Dr. Dudley expects a call from you. I said you’d introduce yourself as my patient.”
“I’ll call right away. Will he want to see me first?”
“Jeff is a minor, so perhaps he will. I told him you’d probably call this morning.”
“Oh, I will. And thanks again, Mark. Really thanks. If Dr. Dudley can possibly cure Jeff, I’d never stop being grateful—”
“Don’t think ahead. Don’t jump any guns. Agreed?”
She put through her call to Dr. Dudley on the heels of her thanks. A minute later she had an appointment with Dr. Dudley for six the next afternoon. She would drive up, she said, and be free of train schedules, and she listened to his road directions as if within the texture of their words and numbers she might detect some omen of the future success or failure of his treatment of Jeff. He sounded young on the telephone and yet Mark Waldo had said he had been in practice for twenty years. That was safer, she thought, and then paused. What had that vagrant thought meant? Was she going to begin looking at every man or boy Jeff knew with eyes that questioned and surmised?
At the office, she went through all the familiar routines, spoke all the familiar sentences of greeting, went to an editorial meeting about the firm’s big book on the spring list, and functioned well, as far as she could judge. Yet never once did she feel usual and ordinary, never once did she become absorbed in her work, never could she free herself from the tight skein of memory. As the afternoon began, she thought ahead to the evening with Ken and panic pinked her; if only she need not tell him for a while longer. After she had seen Dr. Dudley, with definite things to report, it surely would be easier for her, easier too for Ken.
He had always taken difficulty well, always been strong and kind when things had gone badly for them. That time her parents had died, first her mother and two months later her father, he had been a rock of strength, a rock with warmth, if such a metaphor could be allowed. He had said little, as he always said little, but when she had lain there weeping like a child, he had held her as if she were a child, stroking her hair, saying only, “I know, I know.” And he had been wise about her sudden disorientation, without parents somewhere off in the background as they had always been, for when she had thought of staying away from the office for one more day, he had said, “I’d go in if I were you. You’re glad to be back at a job, don’t derail yourself.”
Ten years ago that had been, of course, during the first month of her return to work. All three children were still at home; life was full indeed, their family intact and Ken still at the peak of his powers and she at the start of a new chapter, her emergence out of the home-and-wife-and-mother world she had known since marriage at twenty. She had gone to the office that day and found out at once how right Ken had been.
But never before had they had this kind of unhappiness. Ken had never been able to take anything lightly about any of the children and this news about Jeff was coming at him when he was just back in stride. In her own nerves and veins there was still the tingle of first shock—how then would it be in his? Some instinct, some unspoken directive told her, Give him as much time as you can.
She called her son Don at his office and to her own embarrassment lied about having “a great roast of beef and wondering if you and Jenny are free tonight.” They weren’t, Don said, sounding polite, but with that faint tinge of remoteness that had begun to characterize his relationship with the family some time before. She called her daughter Margie and repeated the lie about the roast of beef. Margie said, “We’d love it, let’s make it early so we can catch up on everything,” and her heart rose as she suggested, “Six-thirty, and I can finally make Nate tell us about his new job.” Daughters stay daughters, she thought, proving the old saw, which came from the experience of the race. She called the butcher and then Betty, their three-times-a-week maid who was an excellent cook.
I’m artistically arranging a delay, she thought, I’m shoving it aside a while longer. There were already so many subjects in life that she shoved aside, unwanted intruders she unceremoniously ordered to depart. Ken’s stroke, of course, and the ever-present watchfulness for signs that might threaten another stroke. There was the other also, and that had begun long before the stroke, five years before, maybe seven or eight years. There was a vagueness about time in regard to it, perhaps a saving vagueness, about the first slow realization that he had begun—that they had begun—to have difficulty about, difficulty when, they tried to make love.
She never actually phrased it. It was easier without the hard boundaries language could give. To make love had always been so natural and complete for them both, a varying intensity, of course, the insistence of their first years shifting by infinitely small degrees to the lovely shared closeness that later took its place. But never had there been any constraint or problem between them about their sexuality. Even after some years of marriage, after Donald’s birth and Margie’s, when flare-ups had become possible between them, they knew the quarrel was not fully over until they could approach each other in bed again to make love. Sex, the great solvent, the great amalgam and uniter—afterward they were always whole again, no longer sealed off in the sacks of their two individualities.
Then it began. Another if, she thought now, a something she did not label, a something Ken did not label. It happened so often with men in middle age; analysts’ offices were full of men seeking help because they found themselves inadequate, decreasing, wanting as lovers. It had begun so cunningly with Ken, it had crept up so stealthily, first as a lengthened time elapsing, that neither of them had taken particular note of it. She thought it was happening to her as well as to him, felt that here too they were keeping pace with each other, and she had accepted the lessening as one of the great naturals, not to be dreaded or concerned about.
And then had begun the times when they had apparently been in the mood again, equally in the right key, but instead of the easy steady achieving—she hated to remember—then had begun the effort, the experimenting, the new need to “try” this or that, the conscious efforts, the stubborn seeking, rather than giving in and saying that something was wrong.
And then it was that she realized that it was Ken alone who was having the new problems, that she was as she had been all along, but that the changing had been happening to Ken himself. It had saddened her, more than if it had indeed been a mutual and shared new stage of living, of growing older. Would he resent the still-high energy and drive of her sexuality as compared to his? As their tacit agreement became more evident, not to “try” because failure was so punitive for him, he did begin to resent, not her, but her freedom from his deepening burden. Often he made her feel that he resented sex for anybody; he was impatient and fretful over the new frankness in books and on the stage and in movies. She considered telling him of this change creeping into his personality but there was no way she could put it into words without hurting him.
And now this about Jeff would hurt him in a different way. That must be in part why she wanted to delay telling him, why she was so glad Margie and Nate were coming, why Margie’s quick assent had given her a sense of escape.
They arrived promptly at six-thirty, Margie still slender and graceful despite the reticent bulging of her body, and Nate, who was the same age, looking more than ever like a college student, nowhere near his twenty-three, nowhere near the fatherhood that was less than three months distant. They at least were happy.
“You should hear them, down at Kennedy headquarters,” Margie said, catching at her full attention. “About the first television debate. Everybody says it killed Nixon off for sure. Are you getting that kind of reaction too?”
“Don’t answer that,” Nate said, “or you’ll have Margie talking about the election for the next four hours.”
“That’s all right with me,” Tessa said. She glanced over at Ken, smiling. He looked as pleased to have Margie and Nate there as she did. “What do you think
talk about these days? Politics and publishing, and that’s it.”
It sailed over like a kite, free and high, with no thought of dissembling as she said it. For the moment it became true; suddenly she was tranquil and sure again. Her daughter was going to have her first baby before the year was out, her daughter was discovering the huge gratification of working along with others at an objective that she found more important than anything she had ever attempted before, her daughter was happy with this young husband of hers. It was all so good to see. Calming and good and normal.
“How’s the job, Nate?” Ken asked. “Before these women get on to their dear Senator Kennedy, let’s hear about the paper.”
“Your dear Senator Kennedy,” Margie retorted. “You don’t think we’ve got you down as a Nixon man?”
“No, no, don’t get your hackles up.” He laughed and looked approvingly at his daughter. Her brown hair was cut in a new way and it swung in loose dark waves as she moved her head. In her pregnancy her good looks, so much like Tessa’s, were clarified and intensified, and it gave him an odd proprietary pleasure, though he knew full well, that modem parents were not permitted a single possessive moment Nobody could call her marriage to Nate a good marriage in the worldly sense, a marriage to a young man without a dime to his name except for his weekly paycheck, but the evidence was pretty clear that it was good in other ways. They enjoyed each other, they thought the same things desirable, so that the eroded old phrase about liking each other as well as loving each other regained some freshness in relation to the pair of them. Once he and Tessa had been like that. It was the summit of life while it lasted and perhaps for Margie and Nate Jacobs it would go on lasting.
Just the same he wished that Nate was more like—was less like—was not quite so … He searched for the right word and was surprised that he was in need of one. He was a man without prejudice, and had earned the right to that overworked assertion throughout his life. Yet he wished that Nate were a little more like Margie and Don and Jeff. Not quite so Brooklyn. There, that was the right word. It was not Nate’s being Jewish that was faintly bothering; Tessa was Jewish and he had scarcely given it a thought, either when they had been young and getting married, or across all the years since. But Tessa wasn’t Brooklyn. She wasn’t Bronx. Nate was different from Tessa.
A funny thing, assimilation. He believed in it, Tessa believed in it, Tessa’s parents had believed in it, though his own had not. (“I know her parents were born here, and her grandparents, but you’d be happier with a girl of your own background.” “She is my own background.” “She seems it, but there’s always a difference.”) They had been polite and cordial with Tessa; they were too well bred to be anything else. They were of course both Vermonters, third-generation Manchester Vermonters, churchgoing and puritan, his mother a bit much on her D.A.R. heritage, his father, a banker, a bit much on rectitude and tradition. Considering all that, they really had been admirable in their acceptance of his college-bred agnosticism and then in their acceptance of Tessa Sachs, yet the reservation had always been there, obvious to him, their only son.
Now here he was feeling a twinge of a related reluctance about Nate, perhaps because Margie was his only daughter, but his reluctance was the opposite number to his parents’ reluctance about Tessa. If Nate’s family had been like Tessa’s, if Nate had grown up among assimilated Jews instead of Jewish Jews, he, Ken, Nate’s father-in-law, would now be feeling no twinge of reluctance at all. Yet it was shocking that he did, he supposed, even understanding it as he did. What the devil did intonations and gestures, a hard g in “Long Island” or “singing”—what did any of that have to do with the price of beans? Especially to him, whose gut heaved at prejudice in others?
He supposed he should cry
and own up to a buried and vestigial prejudice, but he’d be damned if he’d be that much of a hypocrite. There was something here to be thought about, to be analyzed, maybe to be erased for good. It was nonsense to think that you had no choice about prejudice, that if you had any you were eternally stuck with it. You could, slowly maybe, reprogram yourself, re-educate yourself, rid yourself of it. Especially when you were a man basically free of prejudice, as he so demonstrably was. His own wife was Jewish, his children half Jewish, half the people at his office were Jewish, many of his authors were Jewish. Living in New York, how could it be anything else? So the twinge of reluctance was laced through not with being Jewish but with the concept of assimilation. That was mighty different, easier to accept. When he and Tessa were young, assimilation was highly approved of, but later on the word had been tinged with accusation. It turned into a dirty twelve-letter word (he counted on his fingers). Was that because of Hitler or was it later, when Israel became a state? He rather thought it was later, in the Forties and Fifties, when many Jews felt a heightened awareness of being Jews, of having a Jewish heritage, of a duty to keep their Jewishness unimpaired.
“What did you count that came up to twelve?” Nate asked.
“Up to twelve?”
“You asked me about my job at the paper, then you got thinking about something else, I could see your mind tick over with whatever it was, and then you counted on your fingers, the way Margie did at the start of her pregnancy. Only you didn’t stop at nine. You made it all the way up to twelve.”
Ken burst out laughing. He looked at Nate, sprawled on the sofa, and thought again that he was glad he and Margie were there for the evening. This afternoon when Tessa called him at the office to say the kids were coming over for an early dinner, he was relieved, about what he didn’t know. He didn’t like it when Tessa and he disagreed, even about something like analysis for Jeff, but life with Tessa had its built-in tensions and he had given up fretting about whose fault it was when the bad times came, who had started it, who had said what or who ought to say what. Just the same his mood now was higher than it would have been without the young ones there.