They say a mother knows. I didn’t.
Who we were. My husband and I lived in a mid-level suburb of New York City. He’s a lawyer in the City, and I’m a math teacher at a high school a few towns over. We have one daughter. Mattie. My husband, Tim, and I met in college and married after his second year of law school.
As to what I didn’t know. It was mid-August so I was home while Tim was in his office in the City. I’d just come back from my regular yoga class and was toweling off after my shower. Mattie rapped on my door. She was still wearing her pajamas and hadn’t been up long.
She looked, well, despondent. She was 18 and starting at Cornell in September. For the summer she waitressed at a restaurant in town, but this was one of her days off.
She came in and we sat next to one another on the bed. I asked her what was bothering her.
“Promise you won’t get mad?”
“I promise I won’t get mad.”
She rocked a little, looking at the floor. “I think I’m gay.”
She turned to me. “Mom. That’s a pretty big deal, don’t you think? I’ve been afraid to tell you for, like, a year.”
“Honey. First, why would I care that you’re gay? I don’t care who you love as long as you love him or her and he or she loves you. Did you think I would? That your father would?”
She said she wasn’t sure. What if Tim and I didn’t accept her? I thought she would have understood us better than that. But then I never told my parents.
I said I needed to speak to her about it after we got dressed. It was, in fact, a shock to me. It was not unpleasant. Still, it was a shock. I gave her a hug when she stood, telling her to meet me in the kitchen.
It took a bit longer than usual for me to simply get dressed. This was a Very Important Conversation for both of us. So I wore nice slacks and a polo shirt, slip-on pumps. With a deep breath, I left my room. I heard Mattie shuffling around in hers.
I prepared us cups of coffee and sat on a tall stool at the island, which is the de facto center of family life in the house. I heard her steps on the stairs and when she entered I nodded to the stool across from me, which she took after putting a little milk and sugar into her mug.
I began. “I’ve never told this to anyone.” Her eyes, a moment before looking into her cup, shot up. “I’m gay.”
Her eyes, her beautiful blue eyes, were suddenly very soft. Confused.
“I want you to know so you understand that I understand what you’re going through. I want you to know that I don’t want to happen to you what happened to me. So you can learn from my hard-won expertise.”
I explained to her how similar I was when I was her age. It wasn’t like today. The late 90s were . . . different. I went on dates with boys because I had to and because it was expected of me. I didn’t enjoy any of them. Instead, I lived for Saturday mornings at the mall. Not pining for any particular girl. Just being in the company of other girls.
Not that I didn’t have a crush on any. I was a little short and generally considered pretty and dreamed of being trapped in the locker room with one of the members of the school’s basketball team. She, I’m sure, never noticed me, and I didn’t know what I would have done if she had. But it was enough to think of her, to fantasize about her at nights and first thing on many mornings. It was just a crush, of course, that passed.
Our coffees were getting cold, and we took sips as an excuse to calm ourselves.
“Did you ever, you know, do anything?”
“I was tempted. In senior year of high school, I did have more than a crush on one of the girls in our gang. For a while I thought she might be interested in me in, well, ‘that way.’ But then one of the boys in the class was outed and the rest of the class, well, mostly the boys, were on him like hyenas. That put an end to any prospects with her.”
“What happened to him?”
“The school was not exactly supportive. A blind eye to what he had to go through. He had a few friends who didn’t care what others thought and that group pretty much kept to itself, ignoring the periodic crap they had to go through.
“Anyway, I ran into her about six or seven years after we graduated. The girl I was interested in. I told her I wanted to . . . I guess I said something like ‘explore some things with you,’ but whatever I said we both understood. She told me all those years later that she would have done something with me but was too scared. She ended up coming out in college. When I saw her again she said she was living with a woman in the West Village.”
Mattie asked whether I ever thought of her, that girl. I told her that I did for a while after that time we met, but not so much now. It was far too late.
I told Mattie I was getting a lot of pressure from my parents to finally find someone. A man. They made it clear that that was what I was to do. I didn’t tell them the truth about me. So in college I went on a fair number of dates and met her father first-semester senior year. I liked him. My heart never sped up in his presence, but I’d been conditioned to not expect that it would. I had fun with him. Smart, funny, handsome. My parents liked him, and his parents liked me.
In the end, he was the best I could hope for in a man. So I married him. And that, for the most part, it’s been very, very good. She said, “you mean, ‘other than that how was the show, Mrs. Lincoln?'” Mattie had a point. I said, “something like that.”
Poor Mattie. She began the day thinking how shocked I would be by what she would tell me. She had no inkling of how shocked she was by what I told her. It was nothing compared to what I next said.
“I had an affair after I married and before you were born. It was the best and the worst thing I’ve ever done. The second best, since you are the best. I hope you realize that. If everything else I’ve done is bad, you make it worthwhile.”
I hoped she believed me because it was true. Now I was looking at her and seeing that she was me. Why had I never told her about her mother?
She got up and came around the Island, assuring me that she did know. She told me we should sit in the living room, and I followed her. I plopped on the sofa and she moved the coffee table and pulled a chair to sit in front of me.
I took another deep breath. I explained that it was about a year after her father graduated from law school, about three after we married. We were holding off on having kids until he’d been practicing for a few years. I taught at a school in the City and he was at the firm where he still is.
“I met her at a teachers’ conference in the spring. We sat next to each other in the cafeteria during a break. We’d both brought our own sandwiches. She, I should say her name. Helen. Helen was fiery with red hair a little bit more disheveled than would generally be considered acceptable during school days.”
Mattie’s hands reached to touch mine. I pulled one away to wipe my eye.
I was back on the day in June, after school was over. She came to the apartment. I’d asked her to stop by. Maybe we could have lunch. We both knew it wasn’t innocent and I, at least, didn’t care. Mattie was sitting beside me, her right arm around my back.
I told Mattie that was, except for her birth, the happiest day of my life. How she was gentle and loving. How it was a passion I’d scarcely hoped to ever experience, a passion my married friends boasted of with their men. I was married with a gorgeous husband and too often faked it.
“Helen and I met throughout that summer. Your father never knew. If anyone saw us, we were just a couple of teacher pals hanging out over the summer. I don’t know what would have happened. In early August, she told me her mother died. She was from Buffalo, and she was moving there to be with her father. She was leaving the next day, going up for the funeral and not coming back.
“We lay next to one another and savored our final moments together. She left me in bed when she got up. We both knew it was at an end. ‘We’ were at an end. I still hear the sound of the door closing behind her. I got up to see her walk down the steps of the brownstone and head west, watching until she was gone. Forever gone.
I put those memories away and never dared take them out again.
“I think of Helen sometimes, wondering what became of her.”
“Was she the love of your life?”
I’d never thought of it like that, but I realized I long felt it. I leaned over to rest my head on my daughter’s shoulder. “She was.”
I shook myself and stood. I felt a closeness to Mattie that I’d not felt since that last afternoon with Helen. She bade me sit back down, and I complied.
“What happens now?” It was my saying it but we both needed to know. Mattie said it was a lot more complicated than she thought when all she wanted to do was come out to her parents. We laughed.
My world changed that night. Tim was on his usual train and was through the door at about seven-thirty. When he got his jacket off, I handed him a Scotch on the rocks. He didn’t drink hard stuff during the week, but this was an exception. He looked at me nervously when he saw it.
Mattie was already in the living room, on the sofa. I joined her as he sat on a chair. This time we were separated by the coffee table.
“Can someone please tell me what’s going on?”
Mattie and I had discussed how we would go about things. Mattie’s coming out would not be, we agreed, a blow to him. So we’d start with that. My coming out, on the other hand, was sure to hit him hard.
We were right about Mattie. She told him and he simply responded, “I’m glad you told me and if it makes you happy it makes me happy.” He turned to me, and I nodded.
Mattie turned to me, and his eyes followed.
“Today’s the day for coming out and . . . I’m gay too.”
We were right. He looked like he’d been hit. He said, “you mean bi-, right?” and I repeated what I said. He put his drink down on the table, a little harder than he intended, and stood.
“What does that mean as to me? About me? Did you even love me? Are you sleeping with someone? Tell me. What are you talking about?”
I asked him to sit. When he did I told him that part of me loved him but part of me never could. Never did. Never would. His face had an expression of confusion that I’d never seen in our twenty-four-year marriage. “What are you talking about?”
I told him about my one affair, with Helen. This caused him to get angry, saying things I hoped he’d later regret. Things were untenable. We all knew it. I’d just told my husband of twenty-four years that I didn’t really love him the way a wife is supposed to love a husband and that I’d had an affair, however many decades before.
He asked Mattie to leave, but I told her to stay. This was family business so it was hers. Out of the blue he looked at her: “Did she do this to you?”
“It’s who I am. I didn’t know about mom until this morning. Nobody did.”
I jumped in, explaining that I’d kept my secret all these years. Only two people knew before today. I’d slept with only one woman in my life. And, for that matter, with only one man. He reached for his Scotch, the ice now melted, and took a drink. Putting the glass down, he repeated, “Where do we go from here?”
In the end, we stayed together in the house for a few months. Once Mattie had gone to Ithaca for school, it was too big anyway. He got an apartment in the City and I got one in the town where I taught. We didn’t even discuss what we should do. We realized it had to be that way. I could lie no longer. We slept in separate rooms while we were still together and were never again intimate. After a couple of weeks, we both relaxed around each other and things became tolerable, even pleasant at times. I told him I did love him, and we understood it meant as far as I could love a man, the father of our daughter. My parents, the source of so much pain when I would not tell them, were far more concerned that my marriage ended than they were about why. I had been such a coward while Mattie had been so brave. But no one can understand what coming-out means.
Mattie found a new world for herself at Cornell. It had a vibrant LGBTQ center and she had supportive friends. She refused, though, to tell me how supportive some of her friends were and, frankly, I was glad she didn’t. When she came down for Thanksgiving, we were in our final days in the house. Tim and I would be in our separate places on December 1. It was not the last time the three of us would be together, but it was the last time in the house and the last time before Tim and I went our separate ways.
She told me in the kitchen that she was seeing someone. She told me of discovering passion and promised me that I too would again have it. And, yes, she told me she was no longer a virgin, “at least insofar as a woman can lose her virginity to a woman.” No details. But it was more than a bit disconcerting to be a mother some months later asking her daughter for, um, pointers, a request that generated a “you’re a smart woman you can figure it out” response. Followed by, “and if you can’t, there’s always Google.”
I sometimes wonder where I went wrong with that one.
I did love Tim and he did understand in the end. He was not as surprised as we thought he would be. About the affair, yes. But not about my orientation. The divorce was amicable. Neither of us is greedy and there was more than enough to keep us both comfortable, even for me on my teacher’s salary. I bought an apartment near where I taught with the proceeds of what for the most part was our happy marriage. Mattie was old enough to do what she wanted to with whom she wanted to—Tim paid her tuition and room-and-board—and she split her vacations between the two of us. He walked her down the aisle when she married a woman she met at Cornell, and they live in the City, not far from that apartment where Tim and I first lived. And where Helen and I first loved.
He moved on as well, marrying a widow who he met when we were still in the house and she was still married. He was, and is, a good man, and he actually had me go to dinner with her for an exchange from ex- to future wife. As we parted, she whispered that “he brings me back to life.” I like her. But she’s not my type.
That was a joke.
I engaged in forays in the City and awkward dates with other women. I looked up that former high-school classmate who was finally able to marry the woman she lived with when I saw her all those years before and enjoyed their company and that of some of their friends several times a month.
Ultimately, I did figure it out as Mattie promised I would. More than anything, I figured out that I needed to find my Helen. When I did, yes, via Google, we exchanged emails and we exchanged pictures—her distinctive hair shorter than the image imprinted on my heart and speckled with gray—and belatedly we exchanged vows.
My Helen was always Helen.