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Not the Phil Donahue Show


ISSUE:  Summer 1993

This is not the Phil Donahue show; this is my life. So why is my daughter, who is 20 years old and, to me, so heartbreakingly beautiful that I think that for the sake of the health of the entire world and probably universe she shouldn’t be allowed out of the house without a cardiologist at her side, why is my daughter standing in my doorway telling me she’s a lesbian?

She hangs in the doorway, her face rising in the warm air like a bloom in a hothouse. (I have been cooking.) She has chin-length blonde hair, straight as a pin, side-parted. Her skin is bare of makeup. Her blue eyes are like forget-me-nots in an open field. She has a superficial scratch on her cheek, a deep resentment that pulls her head down and away from me.

I’m standing here with a wooden spoon in my hand like a baton and I feel like there is some music that should be playing, some score that, if I only knew it, I ought to be conducting.

If I say it’s a phase, that she’ll outgrow it, she’ll peel herself from the wall like wallpaper and exit, perhaps permanently, before I can even discern the pattern.

If I say honey, that’s great, nonchalant and accepting as history, I could be consigning her to a life that I’m not sure she really wants—maybe she’s just testing me. Maybe this is just a phase.

I can’t help it, for just a moment I wish her father were here. I want him to be as shocked and stuck as I am, here in this blue-and-white room with steam rising from the stove, enough garlic in the air to keep a host of vampires at bay. But I remind myself: he would have been glad to be here. I am the one who walked out on him. As Isabel, in her posture, her sullen slouch, her impatient, tomboy gestures, never lets me forget. Daddy would know how to handle this, she seems to be saying, defiant as a rebel with a cause. I dare you to try.

It is five o’clock. It’s already been a long day, which I have spent as I spend most of my days—nursing patients to whom I have let myself get too close. And sometimes I feel a kind of foreclosure stealing into my heart, sometimes I feel like an S & L, sometimes I feel overextended. But I’m always home from my shift at the hospital by four-thirty, while lan stays late after school to devise lesson plans, tutor the sluggardly, confer with parents.

Now the front door swings open and it’s lan. He’s taller than I, who am tall, so tall his knees seem to be on hinges, and he unlatches them and drops into one of the dining-room chairs. I can watch him over the dividing counter that connects the dining room with the kitchen, one of the results of our renovation last summer. Isabel has not moved from her post in the doorway (there’s no door) between us.

“Hi, Shel,” lan says to me. “Hi, Belle,” he says to my daughter. “Nice to see you.”

He wants so much for her to let him enter her life. He has no children of his own—he wants to be, if not a second father, at least a good friend. “Shelley,” he says, “what are we drinking tonight?”

“Isabel has an announcement,” I say, waving my wooden wand. I turn around and start stirring, the steam pressing the curl out of my hair like a dry cleaner.

“I’m in love,” I hear her say behind my back.

“Hey, that’s great,” lan responds and I realize how unfair we have been to him, we have set him up for this.

“With a woman,” she says.

Girl, I want to correct her. With a girl.

Marlo Thomas would kill me.

“Oh,” lan says. “Well, why isn’t she here? When do we get to meet her?”

And I remember: this is why I married him. Because he puts people ahead of his expectations for them, even though his expectations can be annoyingly well defined. Because he doesn’t create a crisis where there isn’t one.

But this is a crisis. If she were his daughter, he’d realize that.

Entirely without meaning to, entirely illogically, I am suddenly angry with lan for not being the father of my daughter. Why wasn’t he around when I was 20—her age, I realize, startled—and looking for something to do with my life, which I had begun to understand stretched before me apparently endlessly like an unknown continent, one I was afraid to explore by myself? Why did I have to wait for most of my life before he showed up?

We are seated at the table from my first marriage, now located under the dining-room window overlooking the leafstrewn front lawn and Joss Court. It is September in Wisconsin, and the home fires have begun to burn, smoke lifting from the chimneys like an Ascension. The maple and walnut trees are a kaleidoscope of color; the bright orange-red berries of the mountain ash are living ornaments. Soon it will be Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas. Across the street, abutting Joss but facing Highland, is my friend Nina’s house, in which I lived for a year while making up my mind to divorce Isabel’s father. Directly across from me, behind Nina, lives Sophie, recently widowed. She pushes a hand mower, the last lawncut of the season before raking starts.

“You should go over and offer to rake for her sometime soon,” I say to lan.

“I will,” he agrees, drilling a corkscrew into the unopened wine.

Isabel says, “I think she likes doing things for herself.”

“I can still offer,” lan says. “She can say no.”

During this conversation, a fourth party has been silent: Judy, Isabel’s friend. As soon as Ian suggested we meet, Isabel raced out of the house and brought her back for supper.

Judy is not what I expected. For one thing, she’s pretty— almost as pretty as my daughter. She has long wavy honeyblonde hair so perfectly cut it falls with mathematical precision, like a sine-curve, around her glowing face. She has this generation’s white, even teeth, a kittenish face. It is easy to see why Isabel has fallen in love with her; in fact, I don’t see how anyone could not fall in love with either of them—so why shouldn’t they fall in love with each other?

Thinking these thoughts, I am swept by a sense of deja-vu. I have lived this scene before—but where? In another life?

Then I figure it out: not lived but read, in all the contemporary novels Nina lends me. Again and again, a mother is visited over the holidays by her college-going son, who arrives with a male lover in tow to explain that he is now out of the closet. Sometimes the father seizes this opportunity to declare that he, too, has all along been a homosexual. I glance at lan suspiciously. He is in his gracious mode, entertaining the two girls with tales from his life in the Peace Corps, following the fall of Camelot. These stories now have the lustre of legend about them; they are tales from far away and long ago. The girls listen to them, enthralled and cynically condescending at the same time, in both their lovely faces the question, But how could anyone have ever been so innocent and hopeful? And I am filled with the furious rush of my love for lan, my heart pumping, powerful as hydrology, and I want to say to them, That’s the kind of innocence you learn, it takes age and experience to be able to shake off your self-protective defenses and give yourself over to helping someone else. But I don’t say anything, I just look at lan, reminding myself that later the girls will be gone and we can indulge our heterosexual sexual preferences on the water bed, and he says, “Passez-moi le salt, s’il vous plait.”

lan teaches French at West High.

Two sky-blue tapers burn driplessly next to wildflowers I brought back from the farm a few weeks ago. The wildflowers have dried—it was a delicate transition from life to death, so shaded it would have been impossible to say exactly when death occurred: at what point did these flowers become what they are now?

The candlelight projects a silhouette of the wildflowers onto the wall; it polishes the real gold of Judy’s hoop earrings, casts a mantle of light over Isabel’s bent head.

I’m not losing a daughter, I tell myself, I’m gaining a daughter.

“They are children,” I say to lan in the kitchen, after they have vanished into the night.

I remember those college nights, full of adventure, philosophy, midnight desperation in the diner over coffee and cigarettes. I had two years of them before I decided to go to nursing school, where nihilism was not part of the curriculum.

I peer out the window as if the children, or my youth, might still be out there, in the dark.

Through the window, which we have opened slightly to cool off, comes an autumnal aroma of fallen apples, bitter herbs. Already, the birds have started south.

“Isabel’s almost 21,” he says. “You’ve got to start getting used to the idea that she’s grown up. She has her own life to live.”

When he says “life to live,” I of course think of one of my patients, only a few years older than Isabel and like her gay, who, however, has but a death to die.

Noting parallels and contrasts to patients’ lives in this way is, I discovered a long time ago, an occupational hazard of nursing, and I don’t allow myself to be sidetracked. I just say, “That’s easy for you to say.”

He slams the silverware drawer shut. “No, it isn’t, Shelley. As a matter of fact, it’s very hard for me to say, because I know you’re upset and you’re going to take it out on me. It would be much easier for me not to say anything, but someone has to keep you from making a big mistake here.”

He’s right, but I don’t have to be happy about that.

I’m elbow-deep in hot water—literally. I rinse the last dish and he hands me a dishtowel. When we remodeled this kitchen, we made it comfortable for both of us to work in at the same time. We both like to cook. When I think of lan, I naturally think of spices—”a young stag upon the mountains of spices.” Old deer, I have called him, teasing; old dear.

Sometimes he sits at the dining-room table, marking papers, while I make something that can be stored in the freezer for the following day, and as I scoop and measure, doing the Dance of the Cook, I look at him through the rectangular frame created by the counter and cabinets. He is a year younger than I am. His eyes are small, his cheeks ruddy. He would have made a great British colonel, except that he would have liberated all the colonials, at the same time forcing them at gunpoint to call in their pledges to public radio. He is a born and bred Wisconsinite, and I love every contradiction his un-French mind so blithely absorbs. For him, I left a husband who was equally good-hearted but incapable of such contradiction, paradox, surprise.

“Maybe I’m not the one to do that in this case,” he continues. “Call Nelson. Maybe he can keep you from going off the deep end.”

I look at lan; I pick up the phone; I dial. It rings. “Nel?” I say.

“Shel.”

God, we were young. We were young for so long—longer than we should have been. We were still so young even by the time our daughter was born that we thought, amazingly, that the family that rhymed together would stay together.

“I need to talk to you. Can you meet me at Porta Bella?”

“In 20 minutes,” he says. “Listen, I know what it’s about. Everything’s going to be all right.”

“She told you first?” I ask. I can’t help it, I’m hurt.

Nelson leans back in the booth, and the leather seat creaks. His white hair—it started turning white when he reached forty—looks pink in the red haze of the table lamp, a stubby candle in a netted hurricane shield.

At the bar, male and female lawyers and professors bump against one another, pushing, as if hoping to annoy someone into noticing them. When you are young, you’re a sex object because you’re sexy, but then you reach an age when you have to make someone aware of you as an object before it will occur to him or her that you just might possibly be a sex object. This is one of the few places near State Street that the students tend to leave to an older crowd.

Nelson’s pink beard looks like spun sugar, and for a moment, I remember being a child, wanting to go to the circus and buy cotton candy. My parents said no. It was the polio scare—people thought perhaps children contracted polio from being in crowds. No circus, no swimming lessons, no—

“It’s hard on her, our divorce,” he says. “I’m happy things have worked out for you with lan, but you must realize she senses a barrier there now. There’s not the same unimpeded access to you that she had.”

Unimpeded access. Do I detect smugness in his voice, the way he drapes one arm over the back of the booth like a long, sly, coat-sleeved cat?

“Do you think she’s doing this just to get back at me? Will she grow out of it?”

“I think it’s the real thing, Shelley,” he says. He smiles. “As real as Coke.” He means Coca-Cola, I know. We are not the kind of people who would ever mean anything else, I realize, wondering if this is insight, boast, or lament. It could be an elegy. “I think she’s in love.”

He has brought his arm down, shifted closer to the table. Whatever he wanted to say about my behavior, he feels he has said. Now we can talk about hers. “She’s still our little girl,” he says.

“She always will be,” I agree. “And she’s free to be herself.” I start to tell him that I’m quoting Marlo Thomas, then don’t. The guy has enough to deal with without his ex-wife quoting Marlo Thomas. “It’s just that, well, weren’t you counting on grandchildren someday?”

“I wouldn’t rule out the possibility yet,” he says. “A lot of lesbians have children, one way or another. I think she wants to have children someday.”

He leans back again, the thick, pink beard like a strawberry milkshake glued to his face. “That wasn’t the only thing I was counting on,” he says sadly.

We wake to FM. lan and I lightly touch our mouths together on the corner of Joss and Highland, walking in opposite directions to our respective places of work.

All day at the hospital, I dispense meds, take temps, rig I-V’s. I draw blood, turn or ambulate patients, record BP’s. It’s an unexceptional day—people are dying. September sunlight, that last hurrah of brightness already muted by the foreknowledge of winter, slips across the islanded rooms, making watery squares of shadow on the white sheets of so many, many single beds, in all of which people are dying. Some will go home first; some will have remissions; some will live long lives; all are dying.

In the hall, I pass Nelson, his white coat flapping behind him like a sail, a tail. If he hurried any more, he would lift off, airborne, a medical kite, a human Medflight. We nod to each other, the way we did before we were married, while we were married.

In the fluorescent glow of the hospital hallways, his beard no longer looks like peppermint. It is as white as surgical gauze.

Gloved and gowned, I duck into Reed’s room.

Reed has AIDS. He has been here before, during two other episodes of acute infection. This time he has pneumonia. This time, when he leaves here, he will go to a nursing home to die.

It seems to me that his single bed is like a little boat afloat in the sea of sunlight that fills the room. Reed lies there on his back, with his eyes shut, as if drifting farther and farther from shore.

“Reed,” I say to call him back.

He opens his eyes and it takes him a moment to process the fact that I am here, that it is I. I believe the dementia that occurs in 80 percent of AIDS patients has begun to manifest itself, but it’s hard to say. I don’t know what Reed was like before he became an AIDS patient.

I pull up a chair and sit beside him. The skinnier he gets, the more room his eyes take up in his face. He winks at me, a thin eyelid dropping over a big brown eye that seems, somehow, just a little less sharp than it did the last time he was here.

“Hello, Shelley,” he says.

“I thought for a minute you’d forgotten me.”

“I still have my mind, Shelley,” he says, too quick, I think, to assume I mean more than my surface statement. “It’s just my body that’s going.”

I don’t contradict him. He knows everything there is to know at this point about his disease. He knows more about it than I do—like many AIDS victims, he has read the research, questioned the doctors, exchanged information. At the limits of knowledge, the issue becomes belief, and I figure he has a right to choose his beliefs. Reed believes he will lick his illness.

I look at the body that’s going: He has lost more weight since his last hospitalization, despite a rigorous fitness plan. His cheekbones are as pointy as elbows. His brown eyes have lost some of their laughter. When I pick up his hand to hold it, it doesn’t squeeze back. There are sores on his arms—the giveaway lesions of Karposi’s Sarcoma. K. S. , we say around here. I take his pulse, the wrist between my fingers and thumb not much bigger than a sugar tube.

“Reed,” I ask him, “are you sorry you’re gay?” I almost say were. As in were gay. Or sorry you were gay.

“Because of this?” He withdraws his hand.

“No. Just—if there were no such thing as AIDS, if nobody ever died from it, would you be glad to be gay?”

“How can I answer that? How can I pretend Eddie never died?”

Eddie was his lover; he died of AIDS two years ago, in California. Reed came back home, but his parents, small dairy farmers in northern Wisconsin, have been unable, or perhaps unwilling, to look after him.

He’s not having trouble talking; his lungs are much better now, he is off oxygen, and he’ll surely leave us in a day or two. I’ll never see him again—this former social worker, still in his twenties, now dying more or less alone, whose gentleness is reflected in the sterling silver-framed photo portraits of Eddie and his parents and sister that he brings here with him each time and props on the night-table, next to the telephone and water tray.

In my imagination, I try to read—Reed!—the dinner scene from the story of his life: His parents are seated at either end of the old oak table that has been the heart of their family life for 25 years. Would they place Reed next to his sister, across from Eddie? Or would they put the two boys together, facing their only daughter? The former, I think; Eddie is an outsider in this scene.

I know what they look like, gathered around that table, because of the portraits. Reed’s sister is dark, a little overweight; she is the mediator, the one who tries to make all the emotional transactions among the family members run smoothly. His mother looks like a blueberry pie—dark and creamy-skinned, round-faced, plumply bursting out of her Sears slacks and top. His father is shy, turning away from the camera, turning away from Eddie not out of any dislike in particular for him but because he always turns, always has turned, away from even the merest implicative reference to sex, and Eddie’s presence is an implication. And Eddie— Eddie is healthy. Eddie is broad-faced and big-shouldered, Eddie is the one who looks like a farmhand, who looks like he could do chores all day under a midwestern sun and drink Stroh’s at night, fish for muskie and shingle the roof on Sunday. He does not look like he will be dead anytime soon.

I wonder how the family took it, how explicit Reed was or how much they guessed or refused to understand. Reed would have been sensitive about everyone’s feelings, wanting not to hurt either his parents or his lover, wanting his sister not to be disappointed in her big brother but eager for her to understand Eddie’s importance in his life. I wonder how Reed felt when, after dinner, they all rose from the table and said, not impolitely, good night, taking him and Eddie up on their offer to do the dishes, and retired to their rooms—not condemning him but also, not, not—what did he expect from them? he asked himself. Had he hoped they would embrace Eddie as their own, that they would feel, when they looked at Eddie, the warmth of emotion that sometimes suddenly welled up in him so intensely he could almost cry, a cup overflowing? When he turned the dial on the dishwasher, a red light came on like a point of reference.

While I am musing, Reed is busy fighting off an invisible force that wants to pull his mouth down, wants to yank tears out of his eyes. When he wins, his face falls into place again, at rest, the exhausted victor of yet another round in an intramural boxing match against grief.

“How are lan,” he asks me, “and Isabel?”

We are talking together in low voices, telling each other about our lives, when Dr. Feltskog stops in with a couple of residents following in his wake. They are all using universal precautions. This is a teaching hospital. He introduces them to Reed, explains Reed’s situation, the presenting pneumocystic pneumonia, our methodology for managing the disease.

Dr. Feltskog finishes his spiel, and I am looking at Reed, trying to measure its impact, when one of the young doctors steps forward. “Reed,” she says—even the youngest doctors no longer use patients’ last names—”how do you feel?”

Reed winks at me again, though so slowly I am not sure the others in the room recognize it as a wink. They may just think he is tired, fighting sleep.

“Okay,” he says.

The young doctor nods as if she understands exactly what he is doing: He has said that he feels okay because he doesn’t want to burden them with details about how he really feels. It doesn’t occur to her that maybe he just doesn’t want to burden himself with the attention he can tell she is dying to give him.

“Now, Reed,” she says, leaning over him so close it is as if he has no boundaries at all, leaning into his face, “we know you have feelings you want to talk about. It’s natural. If you like, we can ask a staff psychiatrist to stop in to see you.”

There is a silence in which I learn to feel sorry even for her—not just Reed, not just Isabel, not just lan and my ex, and not just myself but even this jejune, over-helpful (and unconsciously manipulative), too-well-intentioned doctor in pearls and Hush Puppies, the white coat, though she doesn’t know it, a symbol of all that she owes to women my age, who made it possible for her to do what she does, have what she has—as I watch Dr. Feltskog register, on his mental ledger sheet, her lack of sensitivity.

To Reed, the suggestion that he see a psychiatrist means he really is losing his mind. It means he will be defeated after all: if his mind is not on his side, how can he combat what is happening to his body? It means he really is going to die before he has had a chance to live.

“I don’t want a psychiatrist,” he says softly, the tears he had beaten back earlier now overtaking him.

They leap to his eyes, those tears, and others to mine, as he says, with as much exclamatory emphasis as he can command, a look on his face like that of a child who has been unfairly trapped into protesting his innocence even after he knows that everyone knows he is guilty, “Why are you interrogating me about my feelings like this? This is not the Phil Donahue show! This is my life!”

When he says this, I lose track of which one of us is me. It seems to be me in that bed, it is my body going, my mind that’s no longer to be trusted. This is the opposite of a near-death out-of-body experience, this experience of being in someone else’s body near someone else’s death. Those are my tears on his face, surely; surely, these are his tears on mine.

At first I think he has read my mind. As I begin to regain my ontological footing, I understand that, all over America, people are struggling to prove to themselves that their lives are more than television, that their lives are real, the real thing.

Assembled like this, we have all entered a world outside time, it is as if a collective catastrophe has carried us into a place of silence and immobility, we are a mass accident, a tragedy.

Thus: a moment of stasis, a moment like cardiac arrest, and then we all come to life again, a jumpstart, a fibrillation. And a fluttering, too, a fluttering is going on here: a fluttering of hands, of hearts, of eyelids too nervous to lift themselves all the way up. There is this swift, generalized occupation, and I have a sense as of tents being taken down and away quickly and quietly, a stealth of tents, and yes, now everyone has scattered and I am alone again with Reed. I think of all the things he might have said, the true profanity of his condition, and it seems to me that no words could ever be as shocking as “Phil” and “Donahue” and “Show,” words that have brought America into this hospital room, the dream of an essential empowerment so at odds with the insomniac knowledge of our own helplessness, our midnight desperation over coffee and cigarettes.

“Please,” I say to Reed, and I am intrigued to note how my voice supplicates, my voice, which is, really, pretty good at both giving and accepting orders and not accustomed to hovering in between like this, “get some rest now, Reed.”

He doesn’t answer. He turns his face away from me and I wait, but he still doesn’t answer or look at me. I am left staring at the back of his head, the bald spot that is the tonsure of early middle age and was once the fontanelle of an infant, and I think—what else could I think—that I don’t care what kind of life Isabel leads, so long as she gets to lead one.

I think of my beautiful daughter, her grumpy spirit caged by the circumstances of her own sexuality and her mother’s, and of how it will one day—soon, I think—be freed, free to be itself, and how, when it is, her sweetly curved profile will disclose the inner strength I know is there, how her blue, blue eyes, deep and true as columbine, will sparkle with the triumph that integrity is.

Not that I wouldn’t prefer things to be otherwise; not that I am exactly happy about my daughter’s choice. I wouldn’t go so far as that—not yet. But what I know, almost annoyed with myself for knowing it because I wish I could surprise myself, but then that is why I married lan, isn’t it, to be surprised, is that I’m going to. I love her too much not to know that the day will come when I will feel however I must feel in order to keep her in my life. This, I realize, was never in doubt, no matter how much I may have been in doubt. The issue always becomes belief.

But back out in the hallway I stop short, confused, almost dizzied, feeling I have lost my place in some book or other. They are paging Nelson—Dr. Lopate, Dr. Lopatel— and I remember how I used to call him that our first year together in Detroit. We were the same height, and I’d launch his newly earned title in a low whisper from the rim of his ear, a little raft afloat on the sea of ego. And he loved it, at least for that first year.

I find my way to the locker room and change out of my work shoes into Nikes. Walking home on Highland, I see that we are having what I secretly think of as a Code Blue sky— alarmingly bright, the kind of sky that can galvanize you. A sky like emergency medicine, needing to be attended to on the spot. So when I get home I call lan at the school. The secretary has to go get him, of course, because he’s in his classroom, grading papers. Nous aimons, vous aimez, Us aiment.

Elles aiment.

“Let’s spend the night at the farm,” I tell him. “I’ll swing by and pick you up.”

After supper we go for a walk and wind up down by Beaver Pond. The pond is as round as a smiling cheek, the setting sun a blush on it like rouge, and in the sky a thin crescent moon, the squinty eye of it, the shut eye of it, is already risen, as if it just can’t wait, it has things it wants to see, it won’t be kept in the dark any longer. lan and I straddle a log, and we’re glad, given the late-day chill, that we are wearing flannel shirts.

Let’s face it, things are not exactly quiet out here in the country. Things are going on even out here. We can hear the beavers working away in a scramble against winter. Every so often, there’s a crash or a cry, and no way of knowing whether the sound means life or death. There are so many creatures out here, deer and owls and just so many, and the prairie grass, and the abandoned orchard, and wildflowers.

Sometimes I think of the whole world as a kind of hospital, the earth itself as a patient.

There are days, now, when so much seems to be slipping away. Even the things one tends not to think of, like the walnuts. The walnuts are slipping away, going off to be stockpiled by squirrels. The green of summer is slipping away, hiding its light under a bush or a bushel of autumn leaves. There are dreams that slip away in the middle of the night, losing themselves forever in some dark corner of the subconscious. There are stars that are disappearing even as we look at them. There are mothers and fathers and children, all of them slipping away like the fish in the pond, going down deeper for winter. And you reach out to hold on to your child, and she is slipping away, going off into some life that is not your life, and you are afraid to see her go because you know, you know how far it is possible to go, how far it is possible for things to slip away.

“You’re thinking,” lan says. “What about?”

But I don’t know how to say what I’m thinking, because it seems to me I am thinking of everything there is to think of and of nothing at all, at the same time. “I don’t know how to put it into words,” I confess. “You have to remember, I had only two years of Liberal Arts.”

“I’ve often wondered,” lan says, “what the Conservative Arts would be. Anything Jesse Helms likes, I guess.”

We hear a noise like a senator. “Did you hear that?” I ask. “That must have been a frog.”

We listen to two or three frogs bandying croaks back and forth. They’re more subdued than they are during the spring, but they still have something to say. “There are throats in those frogs,” I say. “Those frogs are talking to one another.”

“In French,” lan says. “Frogs always talk in French.”

I let out a whoop and get up from the log, but when I do I trip and lan jumps up to catch me, and he holds me, and my face is buried against his right arm, and my left ear is over his heart, which is making its own happy racket through the walls of his chest, as loud as a neighbor living it up.

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