Authors: Laura Z. Hobson
“But, Jeff, I told you—”
“It could be after dinner. Please, Mama. You know.”
She knew indeed. The anger subsided. He was tense under all the jokes and laughter. He didn’t want to spend a whole evening with his father, and didn’t relish spending it with her either. An immense feeling for his situation filled her, and an immense love. He was so young. She was suddenly aware of that still-forming mouth and jaw, that rawboned stretch of body.
“I guess we can manage,” she said. “What time’s the movie?”
“I can,” he shouted at the phone. “Meet you there for the nine-o’clock show. You better get on line first, in case I’m held up. My father’s not here yet.”
Another few minutes of talk ensued, to recheck the time and the location of the theater. At last Jeff hung up, set the empty bottle aside, and headed for his room.
He turned, unwilling, refusing to look at her directly, gazing instead at some vague point in the vicinity of her collarbone. He picked up his airplane bag, swinging it as if it were a bag of laundry he was about to pitch down a chute. He waited.
“Did you like Dr. Dudley?” she said at last.
“Is he—did you feel—do you think he can help you?”
He stood, rigid as a column, silent. Then suddenly he flung his bag to the chair again, faced her, his eyes hot with injury and his voice raw. “I’m not supposed to talk about my visits,” he said. “Dr. Dudley says he told you that. He says you understood that.”
“I do. I didn’t mean ‘talk about your visits,’ just whether you thought he was a person you could relate to, somebody you would like.”
“Then don’t talk about the visits,” he said roughly. “I’m not supposed to report back and I won’t.”
“You needn’t. But after all this means a lot to me too.”
“I can’t talk about it, that’s all.”
He tore his bag off the chair and strode down the hall to his room. In a moment she heard the transistor radio, blaring, and resentment gushed up in her. He saw this only as his own, as if it were a possession, his and only his, by title his, his own unhappiness, his own fear, his own life. She stood quiet, in the hall, waiting for the resentment to pass. It would pass, she could count on it passing. But it would leave a residue of something for which there was no label, an ashen and gritty residue of pain, no matter how forbearing and wise she might try to be. Why didn’t children ever see that they could damage and harm their parents as much as parents could damage and harm children?
She went back to the living room. Ken was in a late meeting with Joel Massovic, one of their major authors. That had surprised her, for though Massovic always had to be seen after hours, since he refused to interrupt his writing schedule during the day, it was equally true that Ken usually refused any kind of business appointment over the weekend. Poor Ken, he didn’t want to be there tonight when Jeff came in. In the two weeks since the night she had told him, he had been like a man stunned and bereaved, silent for the most part, in a kind of strangulated silence as if his vocal cords had been damaged in some surgery, so that he spoke hoarsely and with effort when he did speak. Then it was usually not about Jeff.
“Ken, would you like a Nembutal for tonight?” she had asked him on that first night.
“I’ll leave one in your room, in case you decide you do want it.”
“Thanks, that will be fine.”
“Darling, I know how hard—”
“I’m sure you do, but please let’s not talk it out for now?”
It was an entreaty, and her own ambivalences pulled at her. She felt for him but she also resented his ability to say nothing. He was doing the same thing Jeff was doing, seeing it as possession too, his possession. And she, was she doing that too?
Each one of us, she thought, is always and forever at the core of our own pain; each one looks outward to others as if they were indeed outside the core. Each wants help, but to offer help is another matter. How do you offer help in any case? Arranging about doctors and analysts and fees and hours—that’s the logistics of treatment, but it’s not, in any deep sense, help. Nor could you offer real help if every tender of it was thrust aside.
The telephone rang. “I’m held up with Joel,” Ken began. “He’s upset about the progress he’s making, and this may go on quite a bit longer. You better go out to dinner without me.”
“Oh, Ken. He’ll guess that you don’t want to see him. Jeff, I mean.”
“I don’t think he will. Tell him about Joel.”
“But we’re just at the beginning of this, and I think we both have to try—”
“Of course we do, but for now anyway, I think this is a lot better way. I’ll see you later on. If he wants to go out tonight, that would be better yet.”
“He’s going to a movie at nine.”
“Then I’ll get home about nine. Goodbye for now.”
She sat, dejected, her hand still on the telephone. That old notion about sharing your sorrows with your husband probably was outworn and threadbare by the time two or three decades had passed. Had his stroke added its own attrition, or would it be the same if he had not been sick? Perhaps he too felt that he had to bear this alone; perhaps he was dejected too. She set aside the telephone and went down the hall.
“Time to go, Jeff.”
He came out instantly, looking past her. “Where’s Dad? Are we meeting him in the restaurant?”
“He got held up. He won’t be home until nine or later.”
“So it’s just us? Great.” The wary look was gone. He began to talk of the movie he and Pete were to see, relief sounding in his big voice, and through their dinner at a small restaurant nearby, he talked of school, of football, of his new set of teachers. She sat listening; he would ignore what she most wanted to hear. It was as if she had no existence for him just now except the tangible biological body he saw. Underneath the fast persistent talking, she could see his hidden life in his tight features, could see his boyhood going away, leaving him troubled and old at seventeen.
“Isn’t that right?” Jeff demanded.
“Isn’t what right? I’m sorry, I must have lost a sentence.”
“You keep looking up at the wall, at the clock.”
“I didn’t know I was.”
“Are you going to meet Dad after I go?”
“I’m going home. He’ll be home when he’s through with that Joel Massovic.” Again she glanced at the prodigiously large clock over the cashier’s desk, seeing the jerk which the minute hand gave as it left its position of the preceding sixty seconds and lurched forward to the one it would hold for the next sixty. She had never before longed to get away from any of her three children, but suddenly she could scarcely wait for this meal to be over. Falseness lay embedded in each word by either of them; they talked of trivia while the core went unmentioned. “I must have lost the thread of what you were saying,” she said, “so tell me again.”
“Skip it. I’d better go meet Pete anyway.” He rose, and she said again, “I’m sorry, Jeff. My mind kept wandering.”
He sat down again. His color had risen. “Look, if you’re going to keep harping on things—”
“I’m not harping.”
“I can feel it. I can practically hear the questions and the digging. If it’s going to be like that, maybe I’d better ask at school if I can stay up there without any weekends at all. At least to Christmas.”
“That’s nasty, Jeff, threatening me. I’m not harping and I’m not digging at you.”
“I tell you, I can feel it.”
“It’s perfectly natural for me to think about your first sessions with Dr. Dudley—”
“Think as much as you want. Only let me alone.”
“If you turn on me that way, I can’t talk to you at all.”
“Then don’t.” He shoved back from the table, muttered good night and left the restaurant.
She sat on, half sick under the assault. Agitation stirred within her, the same agitation that had so often wracked her during their fearful quarrels of summer. Quarrels whose ferocity she could for the first time begin to understand on a new level. In theory new insight brought surcease but this new insight seemed to bring only a heightened apprehension.
She walked home. The city was at its best in October, swept by winds that seemed brisk and clean, and usually she enjoyed these cool tart evenings, but tonight she walked heavily, as if she were plodding along under a stifling heat wave, sapped of energy. She tried to forgive Jeff his attack, but it was too soon. She could not make herself into a fatuous mother who accepted any mistreatment from a child; all the children knew that there were limits beyond which they could not go, and limits beyond which she would not go. If there was soundness in her relationship with them, it was rooted in that double knowing. But what if Jeff’s own anguish were to make him oblivious to the anguish he might cause in others who loved him?
When she got home, Ken was still absent. If only they could talk about this as they used to talk. It might come, but that too would take time. The strangulated hoarseness would go and he would be Ken again, but for now she felt as alone as if she were widowed and bringing up Jeff by herself. There was constant constraint in Ken now, as if he were holding himself immobile.
When at last he arrived, it was past ten. He had had something to eat, yes, he wasn’t hungry. But he was feeling pretty bushed and he might go straight to bed. She said nothing to dissuade him, watching him go in a sort of defeat she rarely knew. In a few minutes he returned, already in his pajamas.
“Tessa, don’t be annoyed, but I’ve decided to go out early tomorrow.”
“Oh, don’t do that, dear. You can’t keep avoiding him.”
“I can’t manage it yet. I’ve been thinking about that, and so far I simply can’t manage it.”
“But you’ve got to give the analysis time. You’ve got to give
“I know. I agree with you.”
“It might turn out not to be true, or it may be temporary, or curable.”
“It’s true,” he said, his voice inert. “He knows it’s true or he never would have written that letter.”
“Even if it is, it could change. And even if it didn’t change, you can’t be out every time he comes home. Oh, Ken, that would be like throwing him out of your life.”
“Don’t think too far ahead. I’m trying to manage this for now, only for now, and for now I just can’t face him.”
“You’d face him if it were anything else. You’d want to help him.”
“But it isn’t anything else.”
“Even if it were incurable, if it were leukemia or cancer—”
“There’s no disgrace to cancer.”
She flinched. “That’s a brutal thing to say. You sound as if you’d rather he had cancer.”
“I shouldn’t have said that,” he conceded. “Of course I didn’t mean it. But you can’t imagine what it’s like for a man to think his son might be a queer.”
“I can’t imagine.”
“I shouldn’t have said that either.” He put his hand out as if he would touch her arm, and then let it fall. He looked exhausted and her heart softened. The old saying about women being able to stand physical pain better than men—perhaps it was true about other kinds of pain. She did not have that beaten look of exhaustion, she was sure. A surface comment only, but sympathy for him surged in her for his white face, for the way he sank back into his chair, closing his eyes.
Behind his lowered lids Ken wondered again why this was so unbearable. He had perhaps loved Jeff with too much of a vested interest in the future he would be sure to have, and now felt too much apprehension that there might be no future at all. He had never believed that anything about the young and their sex life could trouble him; he knew perfectly well that youth had to experiment and would experiment with all sorts of sexual activity. He suddenly remembered that hot summer night long ago in Vermont, when Jimmy Neidham had stayed overnight because Mrs. Neidham was having a baby. They had slept in the same bed and they had embarked on a whole tangled exploration of “dirty things” and it had been fiercely exciting and wicked and he had been sure that all the damnation of hellfire would descend on him, but he had gone ahead anyhow. Of course, he had been only ten or so, and Jimmy about the same. By the time he was Jeff’s age that had been long forgotten, with life’s concentration transferred to girls, in the mawkish way of the other boys in Manchester, prurient in thought and prim in actuality, as if they were their own puritan ancestors.
They had all changed, and yet here he was so certain that his own son would not change. Why that certainty? Families were different when he was growing up in Vermont—perhaps that was why. Tessa and he never had believed in “being strict,” the way his own mother and father had believed in it, strict about what was right, what was wrong, what God frowned on, what was sinful.
No, he thought, don’t take that phony line of blaming yourself and Tessa. There is so much of it these days, blaming yourself for anything that goes wrong with children. It’s always the broken home or the permissive home or poverty or society. Don’t some things simply happen, like an earthquake, a hurricane, any natural catastrophe?
Another kind of phoniness would be his putting on an act with Jeff. It wasn’t in him. He could not put on a show of naturalness, not yet in any case, and it was better to recognize that inability than to ignore it and then—God knows what. If he were ever once to let loose to Jeff about how he actually did feel, he would only make things worse. Worse for Jeff, worse for Tessa, and as for him, he would be painting himself into a corner forever, the corner of a man who professed never to judge lest he be judged, but who was in fact shaken by revulsion that anybody of his blood and bone might have sexual connection with somebody of the same sex.
Tessa awoke early next morning, but Ken had already left. It was noon before Jeff appeared, offering his usual “Hi,” but managing to give it an overlay of apology. She never failed to recognize his contrition, however unexpressed, after a bad time between them. It was hard for anybody, even the fully mature, to find words that said, “I am filled with remorse, forgive me,” and for anybody of seventeen doubly hard. This time Jeff added, “Olivier was terrific, you’ve got to go see the movie,” and in the private code of his relationship to her, this translated into a rueful acknowledgment that he wished he could undo what had happened, that he asked her not to hold it against him.