Last week a charity’s representative contacted my father, who is hospitalized with pancreatic cancer, to get him to send a $30,000 contribution he’d apparently committed to before falling ill. When I heard, I was annoyed. But then I recalled times when I misguidedly thought I was doing the right thing. In one of my memoirs, I depict a moment that makes me aware, with a start, how naïve my good intentions could be back then, as I’m afraid they still can be today.
Here’s that passage, Chapter 6 of Promise, my unpublished account of my three years at Harvard Law School:
To get to my college friends on Beacon Hill, I threaded through the law school campus and crossed the pedestrian bridge over Cambridge Street to Harvard Yard, then turned along Mass Ave toward Harvard Square. Much of that stretch was bordered by solid wall, not the usual ragged edges of buildings jutting in and out, so I could walk fast, rhythmically whacking the wall with my white cane to make sure I stayed on course. This was my release from the constraints of law school. At the Square, I slipped through a narrow entrance down to the Red Line station, where I took the train to Boston’s Charles Street.
On most Saturday afternoons, Fred, one of those college friends, and I sailed in his boat on the Charles River. Sometimes I steered, turning the rudder as he directed. I reveled in the wind and the rise and fall of the boat as it streaked over the waves. But the lower boom of the sail constantly threatened to sheer at head level across the deck, and I spent much of the time bent low.
“My landlord has moved out,” Fred said.
Such an impersonal reference to our mutual friend, Ian, startled me. When Fred had arrived in Boston, Ian had offered to share his apartment in exchange for Fred doing fix-up work in the building, which Ian owned. It wasn’t long before they had a huge fight, and Ian had moved out.
“He was hoping you’d leave,” I said to Fred.
“Did he tell you what happened?”
“You tell me.”
“At 11 at night, just a week and a day after I moved in, he invited me out for a walk to the public garden. It turned out to be no mere stroll of a late spring evening. Before we’d gone even a block, he was renewing a past dispute between us.”
Over the years, I’d grown to take pleasure in Fred’s antiquated way of speaking.
“I wonder how it is that you’re the one who ends up staying when it’s his home,” I said.
“He gave me a lease.”
“Ah, that explains it.”
Ignoring my sarcasm, he said, “I agreed that he and I did not at present make ideal roommates. But I’m doing a lot of work on his front stairway, and the tenants are behind me. I told him I felt justified in remaining where I was until I’d finished the stairway.”
“Which could take a long time,” I said.
“A very long time. I’m hard to dislodge.”
“Frankly,” I said, “if it were my apartment and my building, I’d be upset.”
“I would be, too. My argument does reveal a habit of thinking in terms of political strength. It’s not a good thing between friends.”
I never learned what their “past dispute” had been about. Neither man seemed open to discussing it, and I was afraid that if I asked, I’d be sucked into an even deeper vortex of complexity. Meanwhile, sitting in this boat in the middle of the river, Fred acted unperturbed.
My thoughts turned to a mess of my own. The previous weekend a friend of a friend named Judy had given me a ride back from an event we’d both attended at Amherst, my undergraduate college, an hour and a half west of Boston. As she drove, she explained why she was glad she’d gone to a women’s college. “They make it possible for women to grow. Even women professors let men take over in the classroom in a coed school. There’ve been studies on that.”
I’d come around to respecting this claim for women’s colleges, even though I wished Amherst had gone from all-male to truly coed while I was there. Having just eleven women transfer students graduate in my class had hardly fostered normality between the sexes.
Aloud, I said, “Does that mean you’ve become assertive?”
“That sounds too aggressive. Women look for consensus.”
“Isn’t reaching consensus time-consuming?”
“You think that way because you’re a man. In my experience, everyone agrees when someone says something sensible. If someone disagrees, there’s a lot of head shaking, but then someone says something conciliatory. Before you know it, there’s consensus.”
“If I believe I’m the only one with a certain opinion,” I said, “I think twice before saying it. That’s my contribution to consensus.”
I was satirizing my shyness, but she didn’t catch on.
“When I’m too uncomfortable to speak,” she said, “I figure it’s because I’ve picked up that they want to exclude me.”
So much for consensus, I thought. Why one moment was she touting consensus, the next saying how easily, and obtusely, she felt excluded?
I said, “Is it really so different around men?”
“I haven’t been in situations involving a lot of men since graduation. The students in the two courses I’m taking are mostly women, and the poetry program where I teach is all women.”
Trying to untangle the point of her story, I thought all her talk about consensus and exclusion might be a way of hinting at something from which she was afraid I’d shy away.
I thought it over for a few hundred yards, maybe a mile or more, before posing the question that had stuck in my mind. “Judy, are you lesbian?”
“You don’t have to tell me – I don’t care either way. I’m just wondering if that has anything to do with what you’re saying.”
More miles of road sped under our wheels. “I think,” she said, “that’s a highly inappropriate question.”
The rest of the drive I felt like an insect she wanted to squish in a tissue and toss out the window.
Next day our mutual friend pulled me aside after Torts. With that edge to her voice that this time signaled displeasure, she said, “What did you say that got Judy so pissed off? Did you ask her something about being a lesbian?”
“What business is that of yours? It’s a very personal thing. She’s angry with you.”
So was the friend. She avoided me all week.
Choosing a moment when we weren’t tacking in one direction or another, I told the story to Fred. When I’d finished, he said, “Do you think you might have been making a big leap from what she was saying to your assumption that she’s a lesbian?”
“I didn’t assume. I asked. At the time I thought it mattered, but I’ve lost the feel of the moment and I’m not sure any more.”
“Were you trying to change her?”
“Of course not.”
“Then why ask at all?”
“I thought if we didn’t get it out in the open, we’d keep talking in circles.”
“I’m not saying what you did was wrong,” Fred said. “You go right at things, I know.”
“But if you suspected someone was beating around the bush–”
“I’d go right for the bush.”
“Start again. If you suspected–but you’ve already answered my question. You’d go right at it, too.”
“You lawyers like distinctions.”
“You lawyers like distinctions,” I mimicked.
He chuckled. “There’s accepting someone for who they are but not accepting them on their terms.”
“You accepted her being a lesbian, if she is, but not her secrecy about it.”
“Her privacy about it. Secrecy sounds sordid. But I do accept her privacy. When she made it clear she didn’t want to discuss it, I didn’t pursue it.”
“But your question forced the cat out of the bag. However she reacted, she gave something away.”
“Yes, I see that.”
I also saw in that moment that the hazards entailed in trying to do the right thing went both ways. How often I’d responded less than appreciatively when someone tried to do the right thing by me. Why couldn’t I just accept what people gave without placing my own expectations on what that should be?
Note: I’ve encountered objections to my use of “lesbian” as an adjective, but there is much online support for it, including at Merriam-Webster: https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/lesbian.