Some parents spend their weekends at the edge of the soccer field or in the bleachers at the gym. Not me. My daughter Ali never liked team sports, but after she came out I became a spectator to her new life as a gay woman and soon discovered a culture with its own music, theater, politics and rules.
It was not enough for me to accept her. That was the same as a mother telling her daughter she's beautiful. It was not enough for me to like certain movies -- "The Birdcage" comes to mind -- or gay hairdressers, or hotshot lesbian softball players. I soon learned that most images of gays and lesbians are rife with offensive stereotypes, and that Ali had become part of a family I did not know.
I don't like being left out of her life. She called me one Tuesday afternoon, begging: "I know it's a weeknight. I know you go to bed early. But you can't miss Peggy Shaw. Please come see her with me. You'll like her. I know you will!" So I said sure, even though I wondered how I'd possibly stay awake. Turns out I didn't need to worry.
We ate at the college dining hall and then headed to the theater. As we entered the lobby we joined a sea of women in some of the ugliest clothing I have ever seen, mostly black, shapeless and wrinkled. The best-looking women in the crowd wore tight black jeans and muscle shirts. At that moment I experienced one of my occasional pangs. I really miss shopping with Ali: standing outside the dressing-room door, watching her make instant judgments in front of the mirror, enjoying moments of absolute joy for both of us when I was able to say, "Let's take both dresses. You'll use them."
My mother looms up as I tell these stories. She wants to say, "Serves you right. I told you you'd have a daughter of your own someday and then you'd understand." My mother also lost the experience of shopping with me after I went to college, and it had nothing to do with sexual orientation. In August of 1963, we had filled a trunk with kilts and sweater sets, and dresses I would wear to mixers, and off I went to Emerson College to major in theater. I only needed one semester to discover Pinter and Albee, mourn the assassination of John Kennedy and change my wardrobe to black jeans and turtlenecks. My mother hated the way I looked. She kept buying me things I never wore (she still does). So there's one lesson. Ali's sexual orientation has absolutely nothing to do with the fact that I can no longer buy her clothes.
In the theater lobby, Ali started introducing me to her friends. As soon as someone turned away, Ali would tell me her story: She used to be with the woman who is now with the woman who dated the best friend of the woman she dated two years ago. The relationship histories sounded just like my friends' and mine. For three years, six of us got together once a month to learn to knit. We never knit a thing, but our stories got all tangled together into one knotted ball of disappointment. And we thought men were the problem. We were convinced of it. That's why I thought it would be better for Ali. And then I learned that every woman who's having a hard time getting some man to commit and thinks, "Oh, life would be so much easier if I were gay," is wrong.
Ali and I made our way to our seats. Many Hampshire College faculty, who normally offered only a cursory nod at administrators like me, turned to smile. Ali gave me a hug. I ran my hand along the shaved bristle of hair above her thin neck. Yes, the hair went early! Sometimes she looks no older than 12. The lights dimmed and I turned my attention from her intense profile to the stage.
When the lights came up, Peggy Shaw stood on a nearly empty stage, wearing a pair of boxer shorts and nothing else. She has heavy, thin-skinned, middle-aged breasts and the legs and thighs of a field-hockey player. Her hair is short, her face pleasant but unremarkable and void of makeup as I recall. She seemed more naked than wholly naked women I have seen in movies. I could see freckles and a lattice of broken veins on the backs of her legs, above the knee, same as mine. Then she began to talk in a bland, conversational tone while she wrapped an ace bandage around her breasts.
For the next 40 minutes or so, she got dressed and talked, sometimes as a woman and sometimes as a man. She had a small suitcase onstage and a clothes rack. In an Army uniform, she became a young, gay soldier forced to keep his secret -- a man whose own father does not know the most important thing about him. Later, in the same uniform, she became a woman -- the big, scary dyke of nightmares, ordering young women to march with such command that anyone in the audience seeking a dominatrix must have been aroused.
In addition to clothing, her suitcase contained a strap-on penis. Wearing one is called "packing." I believe she talked about the special occasions that required such "packing," but honestly it was hard to concentrate on her monologue. Ali kept sneaking sideways glances to see of I was OK and some of her friends in the seats around us were checking her out to see how she was managing the idea of her mother watching all this. I wanted to ask why a lesbian would ever want to wear a fake penis. I didn't think they liked male sex organs. But I could not ask and so I gave the performance my full attention. I have since learned that dildos come in lots of shapes -- dolphins, fruits and vegetables, snakes -- because vaginal sensation is still desirable and not necessarily associated with penises, although the penis shape is also acceptable and sometimes used as a joke or a statement, as in the case of Peggy Shaw.
Her stories connected loosely in time and place and gradually formed a mosaic. I understood that I was witnessing a journey on the stage, but also within myself, because Peggy Shaw's gender gradually ceased to matter. Gay, straight, bi, transgendered, who cared? She played with it so much that she rendered it meaningless, like someone repeating a word over and over until it sounds silly. She could strap her breasts and pack her trousers and look like a woman with flat breasts and socks rolled up in her undies. Or she could convince me that she was a gay man on sex-change hormones, or a straight man with a slightly funny shape. Oh well. Oh well.
After about an hour, she changed into a charcoal-gray silk suit -- a crooner's suit. Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Perry Como, they all wore suits like that. She unrolled thin, black dress socks, found a shoehorn and slipped into shiny wing-tips. From the suitcase she took a starched and folded white shirt and I was reminded of my dad who wore a fresh white shirt every day. They came from the Chinese laundry folded just like that with a band of blue paper wrapped around them. Peggy Shaw pulled her shirt collar up and knotted a tasteful silk tie at her neck. She straightened the knot and rolled her collar neatly. Then she greased her hair and slicked it straight back from her forehead.
Music came from speakers on either side of the stage. She pulled the microphone free from the stand so she could wander around the theater. A white spot followed her and she began to sing the Julio Iglesias song "To All the Girls I've Loved Before." She moved as though she might break into a waltz at any time, reminding me of Fred Astaire. She had a mischievous look on her face, like a flirty man, or an outrageously provocative woman, or anyone who is getting away with a great trick.
Suddenly she fell to her knees in front of a woman in an aisle seat and sang right to her, meltingly, looking right into her eyes in a parody of seduction. I was jealous. I wanted her to come over and sing to me. I wondered if Ali shared the same wish and if she could tell what I was thinking and if she had become embarrassed to have me there.
Peggy Shaw sang more verses, each more dramatic than the next until the strings soared and the piano rippled and the lilting refrain of the last phrases faded ever so slowly, just like the music behind the credits at the end of a hopelessly romantic movie. Then she raised the mike in one hand and bowed from the waist and smiled into the white, hot spotlight. Two more small bows, blown kisses, roses on the stage -- over. The house lights came up and we all began to shuffle out of our seats.
The end of a good performance makes me lonely and I let go slowly just as I linger over the end of a good book. It's always like losing friends.
"Yes, really I did like it," I assured Ali. It was already well past 10. I declined her offer of tea. Also, I did not feel ready to talk about it in detail. Ali walked me to my car and I headed home on empty roads that brittle cold February night. Route 63 passes horse farms, the turnoff to the Peace Pagoda and an ashram; a Quaker meeting house, leaning old farmhouses and glass-walled custom homes with westerly views. Only a few lights remained on at that hour and I thought about all the warm people curled up under the covers, dreaming, drooling, snoring, farting, wheezing -- oblivious. We enter sleep with such trust and really there's nothing between our helpless half-naked selves except window glass, a wooden frame and some clapboards -- barriers without much meaning.