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Authors: Laura Z. Hobson

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BOOK: Consenting Adult
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“I was thinking large thoughts,” he said to Nate. “Large thoughts often come in round dozens.”

“In rounded periods, maybe, but not in round dozens.”

“The large thought was a twelve-letter word, ‘assimilation,’ a word I gather we all approve of.”

Nate sat up; instantly the lounging boyish sprawl was gone, in a kind of leap to attention. “It’s become a hot word,” he said. Tike ‘integration.’”

That’s what I was thinking, though I didn’t put it as neatly.”

“A hot word among liberals,” Nate went on, emphasizing the point, “not just among Orthodox Jews, where assimilation is as big a crime as intermarriage, but a hot word among liberals and radicals too.”

“I wasn’t thinking of Orthodox Jews either,” Ken said.

“Look at my own family. Reform Jews, right? You’ve met them, you know they’re not Orthodox, but get them going on somebody who’s Jewish but sounds goyish, or looks like a goy or acts like a goy, and they decide he’s a rat who’s trying to pass.” He laughed. “They believe in something you could call ‘Jewishness Intacta.’”

This time Tessa and Margie joined in the laughter. Tessa looked at Nate with affection. He was a good boy and he would make Margie happy. He seemed to enjoy visiting them, and if he was shy at being with his in-laws, he gave no sign of it. There was a readiness in him, as if he were signaling that he wanted to be “family” in a real sense, not an outsider who had technically become one of them but who privately meant to remain aloof.

Suddenly she felt a surge of kinship with Nate and thought, He’s the one I’ll tell first when Jeff says it’s all right.

She turned toward the bar table, fished for another ice cube, wondering, Why Nate? What made me so sure? Why my son-in-law instead of my son? Why Nate instead of Margie, and as a matter of fact, why Nate instead of Ken? That’s what I really mean, that I wish I could talk it out first with Nate, to help me about how to tell Ken.

It startled her. She let the conversation of the others drift off into the space beyond her attention while she pondered that. It’s because Don and Margie will each tell me not to take it too hard, and Ken will take it too hard himself, though he’ll not really show it, probably not want to talk it out or need to talk it out the way I will.

But Nate will understand the way I take it, he’ll know that if you suffer maybe you should show it. Nate and I—we know something. Maybe there’s some sort of kinship bred in the mores of one’s ancestors that gets handed down through environment if not through genes and DNA and such. Jews at the wailing wall, Irish Catholics moaning and keening at a wake, Russians and their melancholy, there’s a world of difference in all of it, compared to the Anglo-Saxon puritan control of Ken and all the other Kenneth Baird Lynns of the earth. Ken never could be really free about showing what he felt. He bottled it up—maybe that’s why, in the end, he blew an aneurism and had a stroke.

She drew back from the thought. It was distressing, as if she had blamed Ken for being Ken, separating herself from him, elevating herself above him in this matter of emotion. How complex everything was when you were unhappy. What labyrinths and mazes there were to frustrate and bewilder you before you came anywhere near certainty.

She glanced from Ken to Nate. He was telling of his first assignment as a reporter, down at police headquarters, a routine and lowly assignment, classic for beginners on big-city dailies, but to Nate a marvel of passion and drama.

“When you’re right there in Night Court,” he was saying, “you can’t escape the fact. Out of every ten people arrested, nine are Negroes. All minor offenses, drunks, vagrants, muggers, street pushers of pot, but nine out of every ten are Negroes. It gets to you, unchanging, night after night. You’ve always known it, but when you see it for yourself—wham.”

“I went down one night,” Margie put in, “just to see, and I couldn’t stop wondering if it isn’t partly rigged by the police attitude. You know, more on the lookout up in Harlem than anywhere else.”

Tessa nodded at her daughter but she was still preoccupied with Nate and the silent sense of kinship pulsing through her.

After the evening was over and she was alone, getting ready for bed, it was Nate who stayed in her mind. He had been a catalyst that had brought into being a high longing that she could again feel that strong sureness with Ken, feel it now when it was so essential. Long ago it had been there, just as warm, just as strong, as this new feeling about Nate, but it had slipped away somehow, down the long stream of time, or else she would not be so anxious now. If Ken were still the long-ago Ken, she would not be having fantasies about talking it all out first with Nate.

During the entire evening she had been more and more drawn to a certain simplicity in Nate’s warmth, a kind of easy quality in it, arousing a corresponding warmth and ease in her, and along with it a sadness that it was this very ease and simplicity that had once been Ken’s and hers, one of the basic elements for their life together.

That time he was taking her for her first weekend with his family—suddenly she was back there on the warm leather seat of his old Buick, a girl of nineteen needing his reassurance about what lay ahead. How funny and dear he was, how direct and simple.

“Ken, will they mind, about me being Jewish?”

“Sure they’ll mind, a little, but they’ll never be mean or small about it. Let’s give them the room they need.”

The room they need. It had become one of her own phrases whenever a disturbing situation arose between them, whenever she felt that patience and insight were needed. Always it had worked with Ken, as if the very phrase could touch off some hidden spring in his own personality, loosening him and returning him to the easier ways he had had when they were first starting out.

But people changed, she thought now. Life stiffened the joints and sinews of character as well as of hips and knees and muscles. She too must have changed in the quarter century of their marriage, despite the charge that she didn’t change enough. That was the family accusation, jokingly put for the most part, but with plenty of evidence behind it, as she well knew. She dealt with the same grocer she had dealt with for the past twenty years, and the same butcher and the same laundry. She liked the big old-fashioned apartment they had moved into when Margie was born and had never considered changing it while all their friends kept moving from this place to that, moving to the suburbs, moving to cooperatives or more modern buildings.

She was the one to stay put. It was true enough. And when it came to matters larger than grocers and butchers and apartments, it remained true. She grew irked and angry at public things, enraged at injustice, at poverty and prejudice, but within the sphere of her own life with her own family, she rarely had any impulse toward change or upheaval. She marveled at the increasing number of breakups in the marriages of their friends, marveled at the number of divorces as the anniversaries mounted. Here at least Ken and she remained as close as ever they had been, both feeling that there was an immaturity in this search for new beginnings. Not too long ago, when he had told her that his partner Ted Brannick was ending a marriage of thirty years, he was impatient as well as amused.

The chump,” he had said. “What he’s really doing is trying to be twenty-five again. A great idea. Except when you’re over fifty.”

“Do you ever wish you were twenty-five again?”

“Not before last year, never. But that stroke—”

“I didn’t mean that way.”

A remorse swept through her and she sat down on the edge of her bed, feeling it as a physical sensation. She must not forget the stroke, even though she was ordered not to remember it. It was there now in their lives, in both their lives, sat there with them every time they faced anything difficult. Stress was the enemy; she knew that, as did Ken, and fantasies about talking things out first with Nate proved she could be a chump too. It was Ken she would be telling about Jeff, Ken and whatever went with Ken.

CHAPTER FOUR

D
R.
J
AMES
D
UDLEY WAS
standing as she was shown into his office, and she answered his greeting by saying, “Oh, Doctor, if only you can help my son Jeff, I—” Her voice thickened and darkened, and she halted abruptly.

“Dr. Waldo told me a good deal about him and your family,” he said as he indicated the chair she was to take. “Perhaps it will be easier for you now, just talking about him in general, since I know the specific problem.”

But she talked as if Dr. Waldo had told him nothing, compelled to begin with Jeff’s letter, compelled to tell him of her telegram, compelled to talk of her pride in Jeff’s forthrightness and of her own shock and horror about the thing he had told her. “I’m getting this all out of the way now,” she ended, “so you won’t need to wonder about how I feel toward him.”

“That is, of course, a vital element in Jeff’s future,” he said. His voice was kind, but there was a blandness mixed with the kindness. He’s schooled himself, she thought, to sound a little remote with distraught parents, as if we also are patients. Maybe we are. In a way we must be. Instead of making it easier for her to go on, the professionalism of the doctor’s voice and manner was an unexpected hurdle. Would he sound this way with Jeff? For a moment she sat mute, staring at the doctor. He was in his early fifties, quite good-looking though he was overweight, even a little stout. That surprised her. Did he have a compulsion to eat? Did he have his own set of problems?

“Does Jeff’s father feel this same pride in Jeff’s ability to approach you for help?”

“I haven’t told my husband, not yet.” She spoke briefly about her reasons for delay. “And I won’t tell Jeff about my own honor.”

“Why, Mrs. Lynn?”

“Why? It would only add to his guilt. And that would make him resent me, wouldn’t it?”

“But Jeff’s letter shows that he knew this would be a shock to you and that you would suffer about it He was facing up to that. Actually that is a good sign in itself.”

“A good sign? Do you mean that there is a reasonable chance that you might help him?”

“It is impossible to make predictions. I am sure you understand that. You are, of course, anxious to have any kind of promise, but you would recognize the fallibility of it, if I made even the most tentative one at this time.”

“How soon might you be able to tell whether he can be helped?”

“Not for a considerable period. Even after I began to see Jeff, it would be some time before I could arrive at any judgment. I might say, however, provided that you will not leap to any conclusions—”

He hesitated and she said quickly, “I won’t leap. Please say it.”

“Numerous authorities do report a successful outcome in a significant percentage of such cases.”

“Significant?”

“Somewhere in the neighborhood of twenty-five percent.”

“Oh, if the percentage were only half that big! You mean that they were cured?”

He looked at her almost glacially, as if to emphasize the danger of emotional responses to what he was telling her. “These past twenty years, that same percentage has applied to my own patients as well. About twenty-five percent did turn exclusively to heterosexuality.”

“Oh, Dr. Dudley, I—”

“These patients, of course, were highly motivated young people who really wished to surmount their homosexuality and who remained in therapy a sufficient time.”

“Jeff will remain as long as it’s necessary. I know he will. He never gives up easily on anything, never did even as a little boy.”

“This is a most complex problem, as you surely realize, Mrs. Lynn. Suppose you tell me now of your son when he
was
a little boy, his relationship to you and to his father, friends, school, anything you can.”

She didn’t want to talk about Jeff’s childhood; he would be telling that himself. But obediently she began to talk of him as a baby, as a toddler, a first-grader. A difficult time, she said, yet wonderful too. “He was six years younger than his sister, and eight younger than his brother, so it was marvelous to have a baby again—perhaps I enjoyed him too much, spoiled him, though I can’t really believe in words like ‘spoiling’ a child. And he was so bright, so alive to everything, it was always such a joy to come home at night from the office—”

“You are in publishing, I understand.”

“Yes, an editor.”

“Did you go to the office when the other children were small?”

“No, I didn’t. I was thinking about going back to work when Margie was about five and Don seven, but then I got pregnant again, with Jeff, and I didn’t actually go back for years. He was seven when I did. Could that explain—?”

“Try not to draw inferences,” he said. “My questions have no judgmental load. I am simply interested in whatever you can tell me of Jeff and yourself and the family.”

“I was being defensive,” she said quickly. “It’s true. One of the awful things these past two days is wondering what we did wrong. To be honest, what I myself did wrong, because it’s always the mother somehow, isn’t it?” Her voice did break and she put her hands to her face, sliding the fingers upward swiftly, closing them together to make a shield over each eye. Behind the closed fingers, the tears were hot, and she was embarrassed and helpless before the stranger across the desk.

“I would suggest that we skirt the field of causation for the time being,” Dr. Dudley said firmly. “Our interest now is not primarily in developmental history or theory, but in the possibility of heading off a true inversion.”

“True? Could this be
not
true?”

“If Jeff actually has had no physical experience as yet—”

“He wouldn’t lie. He always told the truth, even when he was a child.”

“My point is that patients who have been practicing homosexuals for years, patients much older than Jeff of course, are the ones whom it is very difficult to treat But even then, one cannot always rule out a successful outcome.”

“And at Jeff’s age, a seventeen-year-old?” She waited, but there was no answer. He again responded by waiting himself. He had a folder open in front of him, but beyond Jeff’s name and address and the telephone number at school, nothing was written there. He was staring down at the nearly empty page now, and once more she felt an obscure wish that he was not quite so controlled. She finally said, “Well, about Jeff at school—” and talked almost uninterruptedly for the rest of the fifty minutes, talked only of Jeff as a boy in kindergarten, in the first grade, starting at Placquette, his prowess at sports, talked without faltering for a word. It all came back with the clarity of safeguarded memory, fresh again, happening again. She looked only occasionally at Dr. Dudley. He continued to look down at his desk, his face blanked of expression, of promise or commiseration. A clock struck and he stood up.

BOOK: Consenting Adult
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