"Alright now,” Polly Parham said, leaning forward in her chair. “Here's what I really want to know: Who's the he, and who's the she?"
How to answer such a question? Stalling for time, I reached for my glass of Chardonnay but my jittery hand knocked the glass over. A stain quickly spread on the white tablecloth.
The waiter, a tall bearded college student, quickly came to my aid. "I'll get a towel," he said.
"I’d rather have a refill,” I responded with a weak smile.
As Mrs. Parham and Nick chatted with the waiter, I glanced around. A middle-aged blonde at the next table, seated with a blandly handsome man with gray temples, had been staring at the three of us since we entered the restaurant. I decided to nickname her Nosy the Riveter.
She seemed particularly curious about Mrs. Parham. Elegant, confident and glamorous, with beautiful, silver-white hair spray-starched into an impenetrable matriarchal upsweep, Mrs. Parham had glided through the restaurant, posture straight as a swizzle stick, her body bundled up in a full-length mink coat with an upturned portrait collar, still-shapely legs sheathed in sheer black hose, expensive-looking black pumps adorned with rhinestone buckles. She was impressive—a woman who, at 66, was clearly in her prime.
|Mrs. P in Paris, 1990|
The waiter returned with our drinks. Mrs. Parham took a thirsty sip of scotch and lit a cigarette. And then she returned her attentions to me. "Jim, I hope you don't mind my asking a few questions. As you know, this is all new to me. Until a few months ago, I had no idea that Nicky was interested in...you."
"I don't mind," I replied, taking a sip of wine. "This is all new to me, too." I felt Nosy’s attention on me—or was I imagining it?
"Do Your Parents Know?"
"Do your parents know?,” Mrs. Parham asked. “About you and Nick?"
I took another sip of wine and breathed out. "Nick has met my parents, but they don't know about us," I replied. Mrs. Parham's silence indicated she wanted me to elaborate. "I just don’t think they'd understand.”
"That could very well be," Mrs. Parham said crisply. "But couldn't it also be you haven't given them the opportunity?"
"Mama," Nick interjected, reaching for her hand, "you have to understand, you're not like most parents. You're much more open-minded and..."
"I understand that," Mrs. Parham said. "I also understand that because I'm more open-minded, I'm expected to deal with the fact my son is in love with another man and Jim's parents aren't?" She took a long drag off her cigarette. I could tell Nosy was absorbing every syllable. "It doesn't seem fair to me, quite honestly. I understand what you're both saying," Mrs. Parham continued. "I'm simply asking you to understand what this is like for me, too."
This is going horribly, horribly wrong, I thought. Nothing I've said is making sense. She hates me. This will never work.
"I come from an entirely different generation," Mrs. Parham continued. "We didn't disclose our secrets. But I suppose that's not the way it is anymore."
I could see the agitation on Nick's face. He was about to respond but I beat him to it.
"Who's the He and Who's the She?"
"Mrs. Parham," I said, unsure what my words would be. "I'd like to answer the question you asked me earlier--you know, 'who's the he and who's the she'?"
"I hadn't forgotten," she answered, lighting a fresh cigarette.
"The truth is, I'm the she, and Nick's the he. And the opposite is true, too. Nick's the she, and I'm the he."
Mrs. Parham looked confused but said nothing.
"What I'm trying to say is, Nick and I don't have to play any prescribed roles with each other," I continued. "We don't have traditions to follow, and we don't have expectations to live up to. We can be whatever we want with each other. And we are. But the most important thing is, we're always completely ourselves with each other. I’ve never had that before, not really, and neither has Nick.”
Mrs. Parham considered my answer. "Nicky, were you not able to be yourself with me?"
"No, Mama," Nick answered. "That's why I had to tell you about Jim."
Mrs. Parham finished her scotch. "I suppose I always knew you were gay, on some level," she said to Nick, sadly. "I hoped you wouldn't be gay, because I knew how much harder it would make your life. And Lord knows, Nicky, you’ve had a hard enough life as it is."
To me, Mrs. Parham added: "Nicky had an enormous amount of responsibility on his shoulders as a boy. He had to help me take care of his father. He had to be his father's eyes when he couldn't see. Nicky would read stories to him. As a teenager Nicky drove his father from one doctor's appointment after another. Nicky was always--always--the one person I could count on."
Mrs. Parham smiled lovingly at her son. "I remember the day after your father's funeral. You and I were sitting outside on the front steps. It was a hot morning, and neither one of us wanted to sit at the breakfast table and follow our routines. You looked at me and said, 'Mama, you and I can keep on being mother and son. Or we can be friends.’ And you were so right. We didn't have to play those roles with each other anymore." She paused, retrieved a tissue from under her blouse sleeve, dabbed her nose. "We could be whatever we wanted to be with each other, too. I suppose it’s like what you and Jim have.”
A jazz trio that been tuning up suddenly launched into Begin the Beguine. Nosy sprang from her seat and led her male companion to the dance floor.
"Jim," Mrs. Parham said, extending her hand, "would you care to dance?"
"I'd love to," I said, rising. As we danced, awkwardly at first but then, to my surprise, extremely well, Nosy turned to Mrs. Parham and said, "I hate to ask, but y'all look so cute together, are y'all related?"
Mrs. Parham smiled sweetly and replied, "I guess you could say I'm his mother out-of-law."
There are two things I distinctly remember happening next. One is the completely befuddled look on Nosy’s face. The other is the feeling I experienced when Mrs. Parham linked her arm through mine as we left the dance floor together.
Postscript: After that night, I quickly became soul mates with Mrs. P (as many people, including me, called her). Nick first witnessed this when he came home from work one day and found Mrs. P and I sitting on top of the bed, watching Mildred Pierce and eating brownies.
July 21st will be the 12th anniversary of Mrs. P's passing. There is still a void in my life.
However, I have plenty of fabulous Mrs. P stories--like the time when, she, Nick and I were mistaken for a float during Mardi Gras. Stay tuned.