Fiction Feature – Sally’s Story

She did not really know why she was there. She told herself it was because she had more work to do, but she did not believe her own explanation. She had run out of tasks, out of clearing the desk, out of ideas. She was simply there avoiding going home.

‘Home’ was an important concept, at least for Sally. She had never before been afraid of going home, since home represented everything safe about life. Home was where the comfort lay awaiting even the most fraught days; it was where apple pie was made like no one else could make it; it was where smiles were translated into layers of language and where hope was manufactured. Home was not a place to be scared of. But now she was.

She was not really sure how she had arrived at the point when she did not want to face home. There had been times before when she did not want to face her father, such as the time she had ‘borrowed’ the car against his expressed command and then had promptly wrapped it around a tree; or the time she had put vinegar in a beer bottle and placed the top back on in the hope that it would discourage his occasional drinking, which it did but also brought other consequences for her. She had once been afraid to return home and meet with mother – she had taken money from her purse without her permission and she was sure that she would be angry with her. But families recover from these things. But this felt different.

Sally slowly picked up her things and placed them in the leather briefcase her older sister Margaret had given her on the day of her appointment as a Professor at the law school. It was made in Australia and was ideal for an academic lawyer with a complex set of files for complex cases or moots, lectures and research. She loved the case – the feel, the smell of leather it always exuded, the neat little compartments for pens, business cards, paper clips, diskettes and all the other paraphernalia a modern business woman had to carry with her – symbols of the corporate samurai. She took her time, making sure that everything was in the right place and that nothing was missing. Her week-end work was all there.

It was yesterday that she had made her decision to tell her parents. She had hinted at it before, but had never openly said to them that she was sure she was gay and that she had been having a flirtatious, but not physical, relationship with Angela Jackson from the Seattle branch of the FBI with whom she had been working on a fraud investigation about one of her former law firm’s customers. She had not been explicit, just hints. Neither her mother or father, who were now retired and spent their time reading, watching television and cooking gourmet meals for each other, seemed to pay any attention. Even when she had commented that Sandra Bally, an actress they all admired in a television drama, had the ‘most kissable lips and was someone she would like to cuddle up to’ her mother just agreed.

But now she had decided it was time to live out her life to the full and to explore a lesbian relationship if that is where her relationship with Angela went. She wanted to be upfront about it. To be clear. To be understood. When she really thought about it, she wanted her parents to give their permission for her to be someone other than they thought she was. To be different from their image of her and what she would become.

She also wanted to stop them pestering her and nagging her about finding the right man and settling down. At least once a week either her mother or father, usually mother, would talk to her about men, relationships, marriage, family, the family name, having children, settling down: there were all sorts of ways in which the topic could be broached. But broached it always was. Once she thought she had made it from Friday through to Sunday without it being raised, but just before she was going to bed on the Sunday night her mother looked at her wistfully and said ‘you know, you could be cuddling up in bed with a young man who was your husband right about now..’. So persistent were her parents that she thought they must have been taught by a Jewish mother anxious about the last daughter to be married from the household. She remembered the joke her father used to tell.

“‘There was this Jewish woman at the opera – Carmen – and at the end of the first act she stands up and shouts very loudly ‘Is there a doctor in the house? Is there a doctor in the house ?!’ and a man replies ‘Yes, I am a doctor:’ The woman looks at him very carefully and then says ‘Have I got a daughter for you:”‘

Her father tells this story once a month, and he and mother then laugh for a few minutes before her mother asks if she would like to go to the opera with her next week, which causes them both to start laughing again. The monthly joke is now a ritual statement to Sally that she should think about getting a man and settling down.

The other conversation that took place regularly was about work. About compulsion, stress, blind ambition, excessive expectations. They knew that being a ‘big shot academic lawyer’ was a tough job, but when you come home you should leave the work behind you and enjoy life – food, wine, music, literature, friendships, travel, art, landscapes, stars, people, doing nothing – “you cannot work all the time, it makes for a boring retirement and an early grave” according to her father.

He was right. She worked hard, not because she had to but because it stopped her dealing with life. Her life had been about avoiding a basic truth. The academic life suited her well. She could explore other people’s truths, cases, histories, concerns, theories. It provided a means of burying “self” in “other” in a kind of allocentric way. Now that she had chosen to confront and accept her own basic truth – “I am gay” – she now had something else to avoid. “Home”.

She left her crammed-full University office and began to walk the six blocks to the family home in downtown Seattle. It was a large house, an old sea merchants’ mansion which father had bought for a low price in the early 1950’s and had restored. The furniture was eighteenth century, by and large. Though her bedroom and study had some more modern furniture, the desk she used and the bed she slept in came from a sea captain’s house and were both made around 1874. She loved the feel of the wood, the shine of the polish and the craftsmanship of furniture. Just thinking about the rooms she had spent most of her life in made her feel better – there were spaces at home to which she could retreat and feel comfortable.

On the way home, she bought a bottle of Champagne and a cheesecake that she knew both her mother and father really liked from the Italian shop in Pike Street market. Peace offerings, she asked herself, or celebratory gifts? After all, she was making a decision about who she was and who she would become.

She arrived home at 8.15pm. Mother smiled as she came though the door and hung her coat and scarf on the rack that had held coats and hats for over one hundred years. She put the cheesecake on the table and went to fetch the Champaign flutes that were normally used for births, marriages or deaths (“hatches”, “hitches” and “heavings” her father called them). Father said “hi” as she passed through the music room into the formal dining room with its French polished table for ten that her father had found and bought for $25 in 1958 and lovingly restored and polished himself.

When all the glasses were assembled, Sally drew a breath and made a statement.

“I have something to tell you and it’s very important,” she began. Father put down his book and turned down the stereo, though the sounds of Handel’s opera Alcina could be heard gently in the background.

“I know you both want me to settle down and marry and have children and be like Margaret with her beautiful twins, but I have to tell you that it’s not likely to happen: in fact, well, it’s pretty well impossible:”

“You mean… is it something physical, my dear?”, asked her mother, who knew full well that the only time Sally had been to the doctors since she was seven was for an injection when she went to India for a project for the University.

“No mother, it’s not a medical thing: it’s more a personal thing: it’s about me. Who I am:” By now both parents were standing, looking puzzled and perturbed.

“It’s not bad,” Sally continued, “it’s just, well, just that I think I am different from the image you each have of me.” They still looked puzzled. “Look, can we sit down for a minute while I explain?” They did so, silently and without taking their eyes off her face. She blushed and held her left hand to her right cheek in a way she had always done since she could first remember blushing.

“I have been out with boys and with men and I like them for company. I like the way they act before they think; the way they can be very sensitive but pretend to be very strong; the way they can be tough as nails one minute and shy and retiring the next – I like these and other things about men. But over the last two or three years, I have noticed that all of the people I care about – feel passionate about, want to be with, want to have relationships with are women: I like women and prefer their company to that of men. I don’t have a relationship right now with either a man or a woman, but I am sure in my own mind that when I do find the right person it is certainly going to be Ms. Right rather than Mr. Right, if you know what I mean.”

Sally looked to her mother for encouragement, but instead found a face that was caught between sadness and fear – a face she had never seen before. When she turned to her father she saw sadness and shyness, a coyness and a tear that took her breath away, at least for a moment.

“What I am saying is that I am pretty sure that I am gay and that I have been suppressing this for a long time.. I think it’s time I did something about it.”

“Are you sure, Sally, I mean this sounds like a big thing for you, like it’s a mission or a : oh, I don’t know, a giant step: it’s all so sudden, so direct, so determined, so shocking:” said her mother.

“I am sure, mother, and I am telling you this because I am sure.”

“Sally, I don’t know about Mum, but you know me, I can’t hide my feelings any more: I am too old to try keep them in: I am proud of everything you have done and I will always be proud of you as my daughter. I don’t know whether you are gay or straight, and I don’t think you do either, but if you are telling me that you have to find out, then go and find out and make sure you know for certain what it is that you are doing. For me, I don’t want to get involved in crusades and campaigns, I just want you to be happy, to be yourself. If you say you need to find out what this means, then that’s fine with me… after all, you are twenty six now and you have a good job and your own life to lead: all I ask is that you ask for help when you need it and you talk when you need to talk: I…” and then he stopped speaking in mid sentence and just looked wistfully at Sally, and then went to her and hugged her.

Sally was overwhelmed. She had not really known what to expect from her parents when she presented her new self to them. She had always been straight with them, but she knew that this was difficult for them to understand, after all, there had been no real relationship where they could have developed an idea that she was gay – she just knew that she was.

“I am not at all sure what is really going on Sally,” said her mother, suddenly stronger, “but I’ll tell you this: women are harder work than men and are meaner, more vindictive and more difficult to please than men: I know, I worked mainly with women all my life and the men were much easier to handle: so you’d better be careful: I don’t know, Sally, I really don’t understand at all, but if you say that this is how it is: what can I say?” She left the room and went upstairs to her bedroom.

It had been much easier than she thought, at least for now. They had not rejected, challenged, fought, harangued or indeed done anything other than support her. It was almost as if they had known all along.

The next morning at breakfast father asked a simple question. “Will any of this affect your position at the University, not that it should?”

“Oh no, father. I am in a University where at least a quarter of the Faculty of Arts are openly gay and the gay society is one of the largest in the Student Union: I don’t think that’s a problem at all father: anyway, all the cases I known of sexual harassment are of men harassing women: I don’t know of a single case of women harassing other women:”

“Well, that’s all right then,” said her father with an air of finality about the conversation.

After this exchange, and a brief conversation with her mother about how difficult sorting out sex was (“all that fuss and fumbling”), the subject was never mentioned again. What had appeared as a challenge – revealing her real identity to her parents – had turned out to be not at all difficult.

But she was wrong about one thing. Eight months after her breakfast interchange with her father, a female Professor was suspended for making advances and “stalking” a female student. The Professor, a member of the politics department, admitted that she had become “excessively infatuated” with the woman and had become so obsessive that she could think of almost nothing else. When confronted, she admitted the harassment and was suspended and subsequently dismissed. During her disciplinary hearing, it was revealed that she had maintained a daily diary of her contacts with the student, had taken illicit photographs and had worked in every possible way to invade the woman’s privacy.

The campus community was horrified. But for Sally, the case made her think about her own interest in women. Since revealing her understanding of her own sexuality to her parents, she had done nothing to pursue anyone, let alone a student. What is more, having said out loud what it was she felt inside, she felt no longer a hunger or a quest for her “self”. Work became less important – a part of her life, but not the whole of it. As she began to realise that life was about more than work, she received more compliments for her work, more opportunities to do interesting things within the University and more opportunities to meet more people. As she did so, she realised just how much of her life had been taken by waiting to decide who she was. Now that she felt she knew, life was waiting for her.

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