Thirteen sits directly across from me, her eyes boring holes in mine. As they go, she’s not unattractive: tall, long wavy brown hair falling onto her shoulders, conservative navy blue dress, a minimum of jewelry, but real gold and obviously from one of the finer stores in town. You can’t grow up with my mother and not know real gold when you see it.
She has her pad with pen perched above it, waiting to record the juicy tidbits of my life.
“Can you tell me about yourself, Aaron?” she says, quiet, but confidence oozing.
I’ve had twelve other therapists in my life, so I recognize the standard beginning quite well.
“I’m gay,” I say.
“Yes.”There is not a trace of reaction in her face.
The other twelve would have choked on their coffee at that.
So much for shock value.
This is not going well. I’ve been in therapy since I was six years old—not, of course, by choice. My mother decided long ago that I was in need, as she’s always put it. No amount of begging and pleading could change her mind, so I just go along. That’s how I cope with Sylvia Karnes Hardaway, darling of the Chicago charity set, rich as Croesus and hard as nails. She’s not loved by her peers—most probably feared—but she raises more money for Chicago charities than any other in the Windy City Women’s Forum.
So what to do with this woman sitting across from me? Do I clam up as I usually do?
He’s just not talking, Mrs. Hardaway. Perhaps it’s best if you find a different therapist, one Aaron might be more comfortable with.
And the search was on for number two, number three, number four, and so on.
Well, I’m seventeen now and tired of this. But Sylvia must have her way. It just makes my life easier.
“You’re not shocked that I just came out to you?”
“Why should I be?”
“I don’t know. I never would have mentioned it to the other twelve. I’m assuming you know that you’re my thirteenth therapist?”
“Yes, you’re mother told me that when she made the appointment.”
“Ah! My mother. The beloved Sylvia Karnes Hardaway.”
“Do I detect a bit of sarcasm there, Aaron?” She makes a note on her pad.
“Yes, you do. But I don’t want to talk about it. I’m more interested in why you think it’s okay to be gay.”
“We’re here to talk about you, Aaron. But, in the interest of laying the subject to rest, it’s a different world we live in today. Being gay is not thought of like it once was.”
“Tell that to my mother. I daresay she’d have a different take on the subject.”
“Oh? So she doesn’t know? About you, I mean.” Another note on the pad.
“We don’t talk much. I’m out to my sister and my older brother; hasn’t come up with the younger one, yet. Let’s see…I’m not out at school, but that’s because I don’t care if I talk to anybody there or not. And it goes without saying that my father doesn’t know. Sometimes it seems like he doesn’t know about anything that goes on in the world except his business. I don’t have friends, so that pretty much covers it.”
She has been scribbling furiously. With as many therapists as I’ve had, I know I’ve just given her plenty to talk about for many sessions to come.
She looks up from her pad. “And how do you feel about being gay?”
“It is what it is. I’ve watched TV, read books, seen movies. It’s been with me since the womb, and to quote my little brother’s favorite musical West Side Story, ‘womb to tomb.’ It’s just who I am.”
I’ve felt this way a long time, but it’s the first time I’ve ever voiced it. Thirteen’s good. She makes me want to spill my guts.
“I met someone.” Suddenly, a big smile breaks out across my face—probably one of those like in the chewing gum commercials where there is a sparkle and little chime tings.
“Really? So tell me about it.”
“It began, as most things in my life begin, with my mother. Last week, she summoned me into her drawing room. That’s what she calls it. It’s just a living room, but when you are the queen of Society, it’s a drawing room.”
Thirteen smiles faintly.
“‘Aaron, dear,’ she said, “‘I need a teensy, weensy favor of you.’ Not waiting for me to protest, she went on, ‘“The ICCW,’” she continues, “‘has a Christmas ball. It’s coming up next week. And I’m afraid I committed you, darling.’ She went on to tell me that the president of the Illinois Club for Catholic Women, some lady named Margarita Mendez Klein, you believe that name?—had a daughter whose date had bailed at the last minute. Something about final exams at his college being moved up.
“Anyway, this woman’s daughter needed a date and Syl offered me up on a platter.”
Thirteen says nothing, just writes furiously.
“Syl went on, the torturous look on my face not registering. ‘She’s a darling girl…Shirley, Sharon, Serena…I can’t remember her name, but you can find out when you call Marg for the details.
“I wanted to scream at her that I wouldn’t do it, but I don’t say no to my mother, ever.”
That produced another note on the pad.
“So, as per Marg’s instructions, on Saturday afternoon I steered my Benz up Shoreline, cut over to Michigan, and left my keys with the valet at The Hilton Chicago.”
I’m purposely adding all sorts of extraneous details to the story just to fill up the session and mess with this newbie, a little. I sort of expect Thirteen to tell me to cut to the chase, but she seems engrossed in my little story.
“A message board directed me to the correct room. Sara—not Shirley, Sharon, or Serena—would be looking for me. I told her mother I’d wear a red carnation. ‘That’s what they do in movies,’ I said. Marg loved that. Funny how she arranged everything. I never even talked to her daughter Sara.
“I swished through the double doors of the ballroom, a girl came bounding up to me.
“‘Hey!’She spurted the word. Sara was no shy, little mousy typical Catholic school girl. Not ugly at all…turquoise eyes that sparkled, naturally rosy cheeks, long silky red hair, shapely curves…all six feet of her! Thank God I’m six two, or she would have dwarfed me.
“‘Aaron? Sara!’ She bubbled. ‘I knew you from your carnation. Nice touch!’ There was no way her mother had to fix her up with me. This girl would have had a replacement date in a flash.
“Call me A, I told her. And from then on, it was A. I felt like I’d made a friend. Sara was amazing, chattering on and on, making sure I felt at ease. I had to laugh. She was furious her mother had fixed her up for this shindig. Insisted she could have found her own replacement date, even if she’d had to pay. Then she suggested I charge her mother. ‘What? You think your mom found me at a sleazy agency?' I asked her, grinning so she’d know I was kidding. She actually turned red, almost the color of her hair. ‘No, no. I know who you are. Son of Sylvia Karnes Hardaway, Chicago legend.’
“I bristled at the sound of Syl’s name, then I sloughed it off. Sara didn’t have a mean bone in her body. She had no idea what a witch Syl is.”
I probed Thirteen’s face and manner. No reaction. Good. Talking about Syl can come later—if there is a later.
“Sara kept on. ‘Believe me, my mom must really want to get in good with your mom to ask her to send you my way. But, then again, my mom is fearless and would ask…’”I cut her off and told her I was happy to be there. And I was. I really was.”
“That’s a good thing, Aaron,” Thirteen says. I like her. She seems human. Not some Psychology book-driven automaton. “Go on,” she says. “This is fun.”
“She gave me the gist of what was going to happen. Most of the evening, she said, we would just dance and eat. But first, the girls would be presented to the Cardinal to receive the Ecumenical Medal from the Vicar of Christ. Sara giggled and said, ‘Fancy, huh?’ Sara’s twinkle was infectious.
“My job was to escort her into the room at the beginning, then make sure she didn’t trip while going onto the stage. Sounded easy to me.
“Then she said we’d have to do a ceremonial dance. Whoa! I wasn’t prepared for that. But Sara assured me that it was easy and that teaching the dance was one thing this rehearsal was for. Then she pulled me across the room to a group milling about near the wall opposite the doors.
“‘Gang!' Sara announced. ‘This is Aaron—filling in for Mick.’
“Midst smiles and greetings, one guy, dark complexion, smoky gray eyes, held out his hand. ‘Hey, Aaron filling in for Mick.’
“I took his hand. ‘Hey, yourself.’ I looked into his eyes, begging him with mine for a name.
“‘Derrick. Derrick Brownlow.’
“Well, hello Derrick Derrick. I hoped his gaydar was turned on. Of course, I had no idea, then, that he was gay. But my antenna was way up.
“A voice called from behind us. ‘Ladies! Gentlemen! It’s time to line up. Come this way.’
“‘That’s my mom, the indomitable Margarita Klein,’ Sara said, as she ushered us toward her. I didn’t want to leave this Derrick guy, but duty called.
“‘You must be Aaron,’ Mrs. Klein said. ‘Thank you so much for doing this. And be sure to tell your mother how pleased we are that she persuaded her handsome young son to do this.’”
I look into Thirteen’s probing orbs. “This woman had to have been angling for Sylvia favors. I mean, look at me, I’m far from handsome. My ears are on crooked, my eyes look like dirty swimming pool water, and my hair is impossible. My sibs all take after Syl. She’s beautiful, I’ll give her that; I definitely have my father’s genes when it comes to looks.
Thirteen frantically takes notes but keeps her eyes pinned on me. Amazing.
I continue my story.
“We all lined up in the ballroom lobby, I guess you’d call it. Another mother, clipboard in hand, put us in order, Sara and I near the front of the line.
“‘I don’t want to sound racially insensitive, as they say in school, but I don’t know many Kleins who are Catholic,' I said, making small talk as the others were herded into their places.
“Sara rolled her eyes. ‘Jewish Catholic. Dad’s a card carrying Orthodox, Mom’s a Papist. Makes for an interesting mix, believe you me. Me? I just go along, you know?’
“There was a shush from the liner upper.
“I glanced over my shoulder where Derrick and his deb were about four couples behind us.
“He winked at me. Yep, I thought, his gaydar is turned on—or maybe he was just messing with me. Sara drew my attention back, ignoring the shush.
“‘I honestly don’t know how they accomplished it but Dad got me bat mitzvahed, while Mom has managed to arrange my coming out as a proper young Catholic woman. If you ask me, their respective rabbi and priest are totally in the dark—or, considering the generous donations they get from both mom and dad, they turn a blind eye. I, on the other hand…'
“Another mother yelled, ‘Quiet, young people!’ cutting Sara off. Instructions were given…we were to link arms, walk regally through the doors and across the room when the young lady’s name was called, make sure she didn’t trip up the two steps to the stage; she would join the other debs on stage while the escorts waited against the wall of the ballroom until all the names were called, then one by one, we would help our debs back down. Easy enough.
“From inside the doors, I heard yet another mother call out, ‘Lucretia Ann Abbott, escorted by Lewis Marcourt Frasier.’ Two of the most pretentious names I’ve ever heard.
“Finally, it was our turn. We did our thing. I went to the wall, as instructed. When Derrick finished with his girl, he came to the wall and pushed his way in between me and the guy next to me. I felt something stirring. It felt good, but I remember thinking, Oh, God, not now.
“‘I can think of a thousand other things I’d rather be doing’ he whispered, leaning in close to me.
“I shushed him.
“‘What? You afraid of a bunch of Catholics?’
“‘Maybe. These women look fierce,' I answered.
“One of the women looked over at us, putting her finger to her lips. Then she noticed Derrick was out of line, so she came over and pulled him into his place. The procession was endless, and with each girl, they practiced the medal handing out thing. I felt a buzz in my pocket. Someone was texting me. I surreptitiously pulled out my cell and looked at the screen: fun, huh?
“Maybe , I text, wanting to shout out hell yeah! Later.
“I once again pocketed my cell, feeling like I had won the lottery.
“We knocked out the dance in record time, and one of the mothers told us not to be late on Tuesday evening, warning us to start out early if it snowed more. Sara hugged me and we parted.
"I met up with Derrick outside. I was not letting him get away. 'Gino’s East?'
“'Sure thing, man. Love their pizza!'”
I pause and wait for Thirteen to say something. She glances at her clock.
“Well, Aaron, what a story, and I can’t wait to hear the rest. Derrick sounds like quite a guy. A risk taker, though. Shedding my therapist’s jacket and putting on my mother apron, I have to caution you, go into this with eyes wide open, Aaron. Love is fun when it’s new, and we can often overlook signs of problems that might crop up later.” She stands and sets her pad on her desk.
“See you next Thursday for a further chapter of this saga?”
I stand and nod. Then it dawns on me that I’ve never wanted a second session before.
“And next time, Aaron, I want you to tell me about your family, your brothers and sister, dad, and your mom.”
Thirteen doesn’t have a clue what she is getting into. Syl. Talking about her could last a lifetime. Thirteen needs to stock up on pens and pads.