Spike Through the Heart

Any mother who claims to have the best child ever is, I suppose, a typical mother. Okay then, I was a typical mother. But -- not that it was a contest, not that I kept score -- I had more than a few people to back me up in my high opinion of Henry.

Friends, and even total strangers, often approached us, beaming, eager to say hello to my sparkling baby, to remark on his amazing disposition, to compliment the way we interacted with each other. In spite of shuffling from apartment to apartment, having a father leave, return, and then leave again, Henry remained remarkably adaptable, happy. No matter how much our world went TILT, Henry maintained an even keel.

Now three, he was funnier than ever, with the added bonus of being able to speak long, articulate sentences. He brought me joy daily, and I disregarded, with no uncertain skepticism, the occasional naysayer who warned me that, soon enough, he would turn into a holy terror, that all children do so eventually. Maybe their kids did. Not mine. Which is not to say he was perfect or tantrum-free. But the overwhelming majority of the time, he was little Mr. Pleasant.

So many people -- Marty, Grace, Elaine, the Montessori teachers -- helped me with my son, encouraged both of us. Henry basked in the attention, smiled easily, giggled often, and asked me about everything from God to tattoos to Santa Claus. Always I answered honestly, even if the answer was an admission that I didn't have an answer.

ÒI have stumbled through a world of men, searching, searching, for thirty-four years now, trying to come up with the perfect picture,Ó Spike Gillespie writes in her memoir. ÒI have failed, in that regard. But somehow, oddly, surprising my own self, I have"I have stumbled through a world of men,
searching, searching, for thirty-four years now,
trying to come up with the perfect picture,'
Spike Gillespie writes in her memoir.
"I have failed, in that regard. But somehow,
oddly, surprising my own self, I have managed
to create a different kind of picture."

photograph by Liz Potter

To me, that was the secret of the success of our relationship. I did not coo baby talk at my child. If he was aware enough to ask me about something, I reasoned, then he was entitled to whatever truth I could offer, on his level. When he wanted to know about James, about why he left, I explained calmly that his daddy loved us and that we loved him, but, I would add, he had a problem, a sickness, he drank too many beers.

Not one for discretion, Henry would take information he extracted from me, and use it in conversations with others. After our talk about James's departure, he flat-out asked during a phone call, "So, Dad, how come you drink too many beers?" This made me wince at first, but I did not try to hush him. He was not accusing James, just trying to understand. If I was going to be open with Henry, I realized, I could not expect him to do less.

When he asked to switch from part-time to full-time at his day care, the same guilt I'd fought upon enrolling him half days returned, though to a lesser degree. Didn't it make me a bad mom if I wasn't spending every free moment with him? I asked him what he thought, whether he would miss me too much.

Henry assured me he knew what he wanted, and he wanted to stay later so he could participate in the afternoon cooking and art classes. How blessed I was.

I sometimes encountered cynics who thought I projected words into my son's mouth and thoughts into his mind as I recounted things he had said. Never. Though a part of him was very much a wide-eyed toddler, he has always had a serious, determined side that set him apart from other children.

And while I read media reports that assumed the superiority of two-parent families, Henry and I were both thriving. Without the triangle of a child plus two parents in love (or, worse, two parents at war) -- all three competing for one another's attention -- we could focus on each other. Henry and I were one part mother/son, one part freewheeling roomates.

We took trips together, ate what we wanted when we wanted, had no one to answer to but ourselves. As sole parent/instructor/disciplinarian, I could instill my own value system in my child. As my anger at James subsided, I had to admit that more peace than pain came from his departure. Without having to deal with his drinking, I could work on building a more stable life for Henry, a solid writing career for myself.

I wanted to date again, but I wanted to be careful. I determined that any future men I got involved with would be strictly for my own pleasure. I did not need a father for my son. Nor did I want to parade one man after another before my child, announce that I was in love, and then have the relationship fall apart, leaving him confused and feeling abandoned by yet another disappearing man. Given my track record, the odds of my staying with a man for any substantial amount of time seemed slim. Maybe one day we would try to fully incorporate a new adult male into our family. But not now.

Besides, we had Marty to play the part of consistent, responsible male role model. He ate dinner with us several times a week. And he took Henry out one-on-one on Friday evenings to get ice cream, shop for records, have boy talk, and belch loudly. That Marty and I were not romantically involved helped tremendously. Because I had no fear of being rejected by him, I could fully be myself around him. Times when I needed a date for a social event, Marty filled in as surrogate boyfriend.

I always needed someone to attach my romantic fantasies to, though, some man to seek approval from, if only in my imagination. When Peter, the flirtatious cook, denied that all those backrubs in the walk-in had been anything but totally innocent, I moved on to Jerry, a co-worker at a club where I bartended.

Jerry, I decided, fit the bill of man-for-me-but-not-my-son perfectly. That he was ten years my senior, never married, no children and unattached made him, in my mind, an excellent start as I dipped my toes back in the ocean of men. I was drawn to his quietness, telling myself I could bring him out of his shell.

Had Sigmund Freud happened upon us one night, having postshift cocktails with a crowd of co-workers, me yammering away while Jerry stood silently, he would no doubt have pissed his pants laughing at my pathetic, transparent self. I swear I never consciusly noticed that this latest object of my desire ws the precise height and build as my father, had the same gray hair, the same hazel eyes, wore the same khaki work pants, the same soft black shoes.

Odder still, there were similarities between the two I could not have known. As I got to know him a little better I discovered that, like Daddy, he had a huge, eclectic collection of music. Like Daddy, though in a very different, very let's-get-stoned-in-the-garden-and-praise-God way, he was also a religious nut. And like Daddy, he drove a twenty-year-old piece of crap car because he had no use for new cars.

I convinced him to attend a concert with me in June. When he agreed, I viewed it as a date. He didn't. I tried another tactic, sent him a flirtatious letter, challenged him to a game of pen-pal madness. Knowing film was his passion, I also went overboard making a video "movie" for his birthday, featuring his friends.

To these overtures, he responded frankly. Also using the postal system to convey his message, he informed me that my crush was painfully obvious, and that while he liked me just fine "as a friend" (how many times had I heard that line?), I should give up immediately.

Naturally, I read nonexistent messages between his lines and took this rejection as a cue that he just needed a little more time, a little more prompting. I wrote him another letter, this one twenty pages long. He responded with his own lengthy missive. This went on for months until, finally, he caved in and asked me to attend a wedding with him.

What ensued was a most bizarre one-year relationship. Jerry was shy, had lived the past decade in near-cloister conditions, interacting with others -- particularly women -- almost exclusively at work. When he condescended to date me, he made it clear the relationship would be on his terms.

First, I had to accept that he'd had a years-long, unrequited crush on another co-worker, and that nothing I could ever do would make me as desirable to him as she was. Second, we would not have sex until he decided he was ready, a process that took over a month. Third, under no circumstances would we engage in public displays of affection around our co-workers. This relationship was our secret.

Since even after Elisabeth's walking therapy my self-esteem rarely emerged from negative readings on the love barometer anyway, I was happy to comply. It didn't matter how he wanted me as long as he wanted me. He wasn't particularly mean about his criteria, and when we were together alone in his house, he was happy to show signs of affection. He slipped me little gifts, silly love notes, mixed tapes of music that were quite good -- at least we had similar tastes in that area.

When he visited with both Henry and me, he usually cooked us wonderful meals and brought Henry videotaped cartoons. Jerry could be incredibly sweet and generous. But like me, he had a whole lot of issues yet to work out regarding romantic love.

Immersing himself fully in a committed relationship was beyond his reach. While he went overboard working to help me as I undertook pet projects (such as the two benefits I orchestrated during our affair), and while I went overboard helping him make videos, we never fell into that relaxed, comfortable intimacy that lovers have. Jerry told me that he loved me, yes, but was very quick to clarify that he loved everyone, just as Jesus had.

I classified every odd quirk of his as parts whose sum total equalled a unique, desirable man. Told myself that in due time he would get past his insistence that we be secretive. I refused to acknowledge that he felt some shame at what we were doing, and that by giving in to his demands, I was buying into the notion that I was someone to be ashamed of. He was just timid. Really, any day now, he would come around and proclaim our love to the world, would "allow" me to do the same.

From All the Wrong Men and One Perfect Boy by Spike Gillespie. Copyright (c) 1999 by Spike Gillespie. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

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