Greenwood Baptist Church, the stone fortress with the welcome sign above its massive front door, had towered over the northwest corner of Seventh Avenue and Sixth Street for more than a century when Don was called to be its pastor in September 1975. White families with roots in the neighborhood and black families with roots in the Caribbean made up a congregation that no longer filled the splendid wood-domed sanctuary. Don and the janitor were the only employees and it was a lonely place for him at the beginning. Though we’d met in seminary, were 35 already and had been married for 11 years, I’d never been a conventional minister’s wife. I was having an affair with an old friend of ours, a woman named Simone.
The women’s movement gave me courage to grapple with my troubled past. Still in high school, I’d been introduced to sex too young by a seductive, manipulative woman who was my religious teacher. Sex with her had been better than it often was with Don. I loved Don, but did I belong with a woman?
Brooklyn was going to be a new beginning for Don and me. We rented an apartment on Twelfth Street and Eighth Avenue, and it helped us that we had so many things to do—find a baby sitter for two-year-old Alex, buy furniture for the dining room. In the living room, I hung Simone’s collage. I asked Don if he minded and he said no, it was a good piece. Three feet by two feet, it was fragments of cloth stitched like a color field painting, a layered abstract design with a broken path of white cordage running through it. I kept expecting Don to tell me to take it down.
He didn’t, but a month later he came home from work way too early. He was six-feet-three-inches tall, and barging into the apartment that afternoon, he grew another foot, morphed into a giant puppet, Big Bird in distress, wing-like arms flapping, long stilt-legs marching him back and forth between living and dining rooms, every inch of his body shrieking, “I can’t stand it anymore.”
His pacing slowed. Taking in that he had no one to turn to but me, he crossed to where I sat, sank down and wept in my arms.
“It feels terrible when you’re with her.”
It was what I’d been, not wanting, but waiting to hear. Ever since I told him that first day—we kept no secrets from each other—he had avoided anything that might have caused trouble between us. Consumed by his new job, he went about his business as if nothing unusual was going on, as if he didn’t care where I went or what I did.
I stroked his head, very close to crying myself.
He could hardly speak. “You’re all I have. You and Alex.” He’d taken his glasses off and looked up at me with naked, wounded eyes.
“We need help,” I said without hesitation. “Will you come with me to get help?”
He sat up and put his glasses on. “You mean Mila?”
“Yes.” He’d refused therapy for more than a year. I’d been seeing Mila alone.
“Will it make a difference with Simone?”
“It isn’t just Simone, what’s wrong between us.”
He struggled to his feet, left the room and I heard him close the bathroom door. Why did therapy frighten him so?
Instead of coming back to me on the couch, Don sat, pale and distraught, upright in the recliner and lit a cigarette, his hands trembling. His left ankle on his right knee, his foot enclosed in a shiny brown shoe, it twitched nervously.
“I know what I want,” he said. “I want you and Alex. What do I need therapy for?”
“You think it’s all my fault, everything that’s wrong between us?”
“You’re the one having the affair.”
“But why?” I wanted to scream at him to stop twitching his fucking foot. Only that would make it worse and I did not want, this time, to make it worse.
I went to the kitchen to calm down, took two cans of beer from the fridge. I heard Don as he came to join me, slow, heavy steps. He lowered himself into his chair.
“All right,” he said. “If you want me to. If it will help you. I’ll do it.”
It-doesn’t-matter-why-he’ll-do it-don’t-yell-at-him. “Good.” All-that-matters-is-that-he-agree. I kept talking to myself. Because I didn’t yell, he started to speak in his normal voice.
“It hurts me that you don’t come to church anymore.”
It was impossible to come home from Simone at one or two in the morning and then with too little sleep transform myself into a minister’s wife.
“People ask where you are. I keep telling them Alex doesn’t feel good.”
I laughed quietly. “That’s terrible, putting it on Alex.”
“What do you suggest I say?” But he smiled at me. For the first time, we could both see the impossibility of continuing as we were. We kept talking, as if we were afraid we wouldn’t know how to start again if we stopped.
We needn’t have worried about talking as we began what I came to think of as our therapy triathlon. We would do individual therapy and we’d do couple therapy and then sex therapy. Don would do group therapy. We did it all because, in the end, we wanted to stay together, whatever it took.
A year later, we moved a block away to Thirteenth Street, into a brownstone that had been willed to Greenwood Baptist Church. I had given up Simone. Don was grateful. As was our custom, we sat together in the splendid, high-ceilinged parlor of our magnificent new home. He poured each of us a glass of wine.
“I have read the first chapters of Genesis more times than I can count,” I said, “in English and in Hebrew. The first great religious art I ever saw was in Rome when I was 20. The Sistine Chapel. Just now, for the first time, and because I’m thinking about getting pregnant, I get it. In that magnificent painting of creation, the male artist has the male God creating the man. In the Genesis story, the woman is taken out of man. The exact opposite of how it happens.”
Don smiled. “I’ve never thought about it like that.” He shifted his tall frame and his nervous twitching foot stilled itself on his knee.
“Phyllis Chesler and Adrienne Rich. We are only beginning to appreciate how patriarchal society still is. I don’t want to have a baby because women are supposed to. I think about it all the time now.”
“Me too,” he said.
We had adopted Alex when he was six days old because I hadn’t been able to conceive. I trusted us enough now to want to try again.
“Alex is why I want another child. He sits with me, right here on the floor with that pressure-color toy. When he makes the color change, he says, ‘Mommy, see how beautiful it is.’ Pure joy. A second child, in her own way, would do that too.” Though it still scared me to say it out-loud, I did. “I want another child, a girl this time if it can be.”
Three years later, a bright morning in October, Alex, his friend Jude, and I entered Prospect Park at Ninth Street, just a block from our new apartment, the one we’d had to find when Don got a job with his denomination in Manhattan. We lost the brownstone that Greenwood Baptist had provided, but I’d never felt comfortable there. The change was good for Don. He had colleagues, men to talk to about politics, theology and the church. The boys raced ahead of me to the climbing bars. Tired, I found a place on a bench and sat down. I smiled to myself. This was a new kind of tired.
Not the heavy sadness I’d sat with when I’d been unable, despite every effort, to get pregnant. I’d watched Alex at play and wondered, how do you grieve for a child you don’t have? What do you do with a body that can’t grow anything but cysts and fibroids? What good had it ever done me to be a woman? When I was a kid I wanted to be a boy. I should have been a boy. Sitting in the shade next to the swing set, I had started to cry. The old language of the faith I hardly practiced anymore came to me as unexpectedly as my tears. “Acquainted with grief. Sorrow and acquainted with grief.” That’s what I’d been, here in the park. But not today.
Not the exhausted confusion about my sexuality I had sat with for years. Loving Simone had helped me. Therapy had helped us. I was tired, yes. But only because we’d gotten to bed after 2:00 am. We’d been to a party. Don had come late. I’d watched him as he came in the door, how he greeted people. He reached out to shake hands and then withdrew his body at the same time, a gesture I knew well, one that suggested he was ill at ease, and that annoyed me. Later, I’d watched him talking to a group of men. Towering over the others, he made a familiar pointing gesture, and that’s when it struck me. There would always be things about Don that annoyed me and they didn’t matter.
Tapping my foot to the music, Miriam Makeba’s Pata Pata, I’d smiled. I wanted to dance with Don. I wouldn’t because the way he danced—stiff and self-conscious—took the fun out of it. And that didn’t matter either. We had been through such a lot. We had Alex. We had each other. That was plenty.
And I was just tired from lack of sleep. The day was unusually warm and bright with low clouds that cast fantastic shadows onto the ground. I couldn’t get over the simple pleasure of watching the boys climb and call to each other, watching without something else intruding, some festering unhappiness.
Alex went to Jude’s for lunch and I came home. Don and I had to catch up with each other as he’d been away at meetings all week, getting back just in time for the party. The next weekend a national gay liberation march was scheduled in Washington. The more I read about it, the more I needed to go because the Christian right was rising up against it. They made me furious. I wanted moral values to be removed from sexual identity. It would have been so much easier for me to sort out what had happened to me in my life if being a lesbian had held the same value and status in society as being with a man did. Happy with my husband now, this struggle for gay rights was still, also, mine. Don had said earlier he might go with me to the march, and either way we had to plan.
He sat at the end of the table, in the chair nearest the kitchen; I sat on his left. The dining room was a second-rate imitation of the paneled rooms we’d left behind in our brownstone, mirrors set in dark frames that were painted. I watched him in the mirror. He had on an old red flannel shirt that made him look huggable, though he seemed sleepy and distracted. At the strange pitch of his voice, high and thin, I turned to look at him directly.
“I have to tell you something,” he said, shaking his head as if to make it go away. “When I was in Washington I had . . . a sexual encounter . . . with a man.” He started to smile, a guilty irrepressible smile. “It was wonderful. I feel in touch with myself like I never did.” He said the last almost belligerently, conflicted, as if he didn’t know whether he spoke something amazing or something awful. Then, in a steady, deliberate voice, he said, “I’m gay.” He folded his arms across his chest and waited.
Tenderness and terror.
How could he do this to us now, after all we’d been through?
If anyone could understand why he needed to do what he’d done, I could.
I finally got my voice. “You matter too much to me,” I said, leaning towards him. “You and Alex. We have to figure this out.” I meant nothing as temporary as confusion about sexual identity would be allowed to tear us apart.
He started to tell me what had happened. I did and did not want to know. He’d just had the best sex of his life and with a stranger. I climbed into his lap, tears streaming down my face. He held me close.
“We never should have married,” Don said gently.
“That’s why I’m crying.”
Then, Alex came home. ‘Let’s go to Coney Island,” he said, always raring to go.
We agreed with relief. It was something to do. We got on the F train and rode all the way out to the end of the line. The atmosphere was charged, strange, almost yellow sand, de Chirico empty, the sky wild with dark clouds out to sea. Alex went on ride after ride, getting what he wanted, happy. And why not? He would be what made us find our way through this because we both loved him, because he was adopted and we couldn’t let his family abandon him again. At last he rode the Tilt-A-Whirl and he was the only one on it, spinning around and around all by himself. Don and I looked at each other, gripped by the same fear, this image of what his life might become.
Alex came off the ride grinning. “Look,” he said, holding out his fists and opening them for us. They were filled with quarters, nickels and dimes. He’d found them where he sat, and then he’d gone from compartment to compartment checking all the seats and filling his pockets with lost change. It had been raining out to sea and the first drops began to reach us as we hurried for shelter. I paused to watch the sky a moment longer. The light was electric, thick yellow and cobalt blue that stayed distinct, and I thought to myself, this is the color that the sky will turn when the world comes to an end.
Turning away, the Cyclone rose up to my right, the high structure of the elevated train before me. Brooklyn was still here. I hurried to catch up with my guys.