I spent a long, tedious Thursday taking the old man for his tests and also to meet his new doctor. This was a prostate cancer specialist who'd been recommended by his primary oncologist. The new specialist was an Indian gentleman, a Dr. Kumar. When I heard the name I feared my father would balk at being treated by him. Jack Desmond wasn't the most tolerant guy on his best day and he didn't know the meaning of the phrase 'politically correct.' So I cringed at his possible reaction to someone he might dismiss offhand because of his race or nationality, no matter how able the person was.
But, to my relief, the doctor, a tall, stately man in his forties, was the kind of no-nonsense type my father respected. Dr. Kumar had a clipped British accent and an upright, military bearing. The old man responded to this immediately. He saluted the doctor as if they had served together on some colonial campaign in some far distant time. Dad loved old films about the British Raj and Kipling was one of the few authors I knew he'd actually read, so something about this very proper Indian man appealed to him. If the old man could relate to Dr. Kumar even on a level of childhood fantasy, I was grateful. It made my life a whole lot easier. And it made Dad much more likely to obey the doctor and follow his recommendations without complaint. Or at least not as much complaint as usual.
After Dr. Kumar's initial examination, Dad was sent down for an MRI, while I was ushered into his office. It reminded me of Aaron's office at BSU: the antique desk, the oriental carpet, the soft leather chairs, the big window letting in the morning light -- all the accouterments of power and success. The doctor was sitting behind that impressive desk, paging through my father's folder. That's all the old man had been reduced to: a folder full of test results and calculations.
"So," he asked. "Why have you accompanied your father here today? Why you and not someone else in the family?"
It seemed obvious to me, but I launched into a detailed explanation anyway. I tried to explain the dynamic at home. About why my father was so recalcitrant. About my mother and my sisters. About my own frustrations and inadequacies. About my lack of communication with the old man. I tried to explain everything, but I only ended up babbling. I was making a fucking muddle of it. How personal should I get with some strange doctor? After all, he wasn't interested in my life, which had nothing to do with his father's illness. But I just kept on talking, realizing what an ass I was likely making of myself.
"Mr. Desmond," said Dr. Kumar, finally and mercifully stopping me. "You seem like a caring person, but there is only so much you or the rest of your family can do to help your father. I have spoken to his primary physician and read over his history. It is clear that he has not always been the most cooperative patient."
"That's the understatement of the year!" I thought about his initial diagnosis last year, listening to my mother crying on the phone because he didn't want to go to appointments, or refused to quit smoking, or didn't want to follow the diet they'd given to him. It seemed that as Dad got weaker physically, he lashed out even more furiously at everyone around him, but especially at my mother. I'd hang up the phone and thank God I was hundreds of miles away.
"You and your family have been very patient with him, I am sure, but you cannot do it all." The doctor tapped the tips of his fingers together. "You and your mother and sisters cannot take on your father's pain and worries for him. He must do that for himself. The patient must take that responsibility for his treatment and attitude. You cannot do it for him, as much as you all might wish to. We are hopeful that his cancer has not had a recurrence now, but if it has, then he must change his way of thinking. He must learn to cooperate with his team of doctors, even if it is against his usual obstinate manner."
"Right. That will be harder than any actual treatment," I said, almost to myself. "Getting him to do what he has to do."
"Cancer is a terrible disease, Mr. Desmond," said Dr. Kumar. "And treatments, especially after a recurrence, are painful and unpleasant. It takes character and determination simply to get through the ordeal."
Great, I thought, then the old man will really be screwed!
"Your father has physical strength, but he also must have strength of will. The will to live. It must come from within. And it must also come from those around him, especially from the family member closest to him. The one in whom he puts his greatest trust. And that seems to be you."
There it was again. Me. But why me? It didn't make any sense. "Dr. Kumar, I don't understand this at all. My father and I have never gotten along. For years we barely even spoke to each other. He doesn't like my choices, he doesn't like my lifestyle -- he doesn't like anything about me! That's the simply truth."
Dr. Kumar smiled. "I think you are mistaken, Mr. Desmond. Your first name is...?"
"Shea," I replied. "Please call me Shea. If you keep calling me 'Mr. Desmond' I think you're talking about the old man."
"Then I will repeat that you are mistaken about your father's wishes. Patients who are faced with so grave an illness will often select the person to whom they feel closest to help them through it. To make the experience more tolerable. And, in the end, to ease their passage beyond this life. And with a disease like this, that must always be in the patient's mind."
"It must be in his mind," I agreed. "Because I know it's certainly in mine."
Dr. Kumar sat back in his big leather chair and smiled slightly. He reminded me of Dr. DiGiglio: powerful, confident, and at ease. In other words, the exact opposite of me. "No matter what you believe, your father has clearly selected you for that important position in his life. You are the one he wanted to come with him today. He told me so himself. You are the one he wants to be near him. To speak for him. Such actions are louder than any words or disagreements you two may have had in the past."
Now I sat back in my smaller leather chair. This is also what my mother suggested. But they must be wrong. They had to be! The old bastard had always hated me. Hadn't he? And I'd always had those horrible, conflicted feelings about him. Fear of him and his violence. Disdain for all the narrow values he held. But, at the same time, a longing for some kind of understanding from him. It was a fucking mess, in every way.
"I still think you're misreading things, Dr. Kumar. He has a wife at home -- my mother. And my sisters. They're a lot closer to him than I am. They've never been estranged from him, the way I was for a huge part of my life. It doesn't make sense."
The doctor's eyes were very dark -- almost black -- and they focused steadily on me. "Shea, I have seen this happen again and again. Faced with their mortality, the patient's true feelings come to the fore. People who thought they were loved are rejected, and those who have been scorned in the past are suddenly embraced. The patient reveals what he truly wants and what he truly needs because there is no second chance. This is the final test."
"Then you're telling me that his prognosis isn't good? What about at all the tests he's having done right now?" I swallowed and wished I had something to wash down the huge lump in my throat. Like a double shot of Jameson's or Canadian Club. I knew my mother had poured all the old man's liquor down the drain after his diagnosis, but I could use a stiff drink when we got back to the house. Maybe we both could.
"Medicine is not a panacea," the doctor said honestly. "We have successes and we have failures, often at the same time. One patient may try and try, while another may completely give up. But in the end it may make no difference. It may come down to fate. Or luck. Or God. Or karma. Or whatever power you believe commands your destiny. But no matter what happens, it is often beyond the control of any of us. It is the disease that controls the result. Your father is a man near the end of his life. That is the reality. You need to accept that, and your father needs to accept it as well, before you both can find peace."
Wow. I hadn't come in here expecting to be put through a philosophical wringer. "Frankly, I don't know if he can do that, Dr. Kumar. And I don't know if I can do it, either."
"Believe me," he said gently. "It will be harder for you than for your father. Speaking with him, observing him, I think he has already accepted it in his own mind. And in his own heart. Perhaps that is why he has chosen you to be here with him. Not simply to help him through it, but to help you through it as well."
"But I'm not the one who's sick!"
"This isn't all about illness," Dr. Kumar said. "It is about your father and you. Perhaps you are the only one who makes him feel strong. The only one who helps him face his own mortality."
I took a deep breath. "Jesus! I just don't know anymore, Doc! I've been going through some difficult things recently. This is only one of them. It's hard...." I paused. I didn't want to spill my guts to this total stranger. He wasn't a psychiatrist, he was a cancer specialist. A surgeon. And what was wrong with me couldn't be easily excised.
"Think about what I have said," he advised. "Simply be there. That may be enough -- for now."
After the MRI, Dr. Kumar sent Dad on a round of further examinations. A lot of poking and prodding and drawing blood. I thought the old man would start screaming for them to cease and desist, but, to my relief, he moved from procedure to procedure submissively. It was very un-Jack-like, I thought. Maybe Dr. Kumar was right. Maybe my presence did make a difference.
Finally, we were brought around again to Dr. Kumar. Dad and I sat in the treatment room while the doctor explained the next step. The old man would have to return next week for his results and further consultations. Then Dr. Kumar took me aside, drawing a heavy curtain between Dad and us.
"I have to level with you, Doc, I won't be back with him next week. I have to leave. I just moved and I'm starting a new job."
Dr. Kumar frowned. "And where is your work?"
"Indiana." I explained about the university and my new position there.
"Ah!" said Dr. Kumar. "I should have been calling you Professor Desmond all this time! Why did you not instruct me?"
"I'm pretty informal," I explained. "Whenever anyone calls me 'Professor' I look around to see who else has walked into the room."
Dr. Kumar laughed outright. "But you have earned that title, just as I've earned mine, through your own hard work. Accept it proudly!"
Sure, I thought, through Aaron's hard work, since I wouldn't have the job without him. I began thinking that I needed to call Aaron tonight to tell him when I'd be back and to make the arrangements for my flight.
While we were talking Dr. Kumar kept nodding and smiling and touching my arm. It was weird. I seemed to be getting some kind of vibe from him. But I wasn't sure. It didn't seem sexual. I usually caught on to that immediately. Guys who were interested in me usually made no bones about it from the start. And the doctor didn't ping my gaydar. In fact, he seemed the epitome of a straight man. Maybe I was just picking up on a cultural difference. But things were so turned around in my head that I couldn't be certain of anything anymore, even a suggestion of desire.
Which means I was caught unprepared when Dr. Kumar asked me out to dinner.
"Um, I don't know," I replied, completely flustered. I scrambled around, trying to get my thoughts together. And also trying to figure out whether I wanted to go out with this man who, although my father's doctor, was a total stranger. "Besides, I have a partner. He's in Indiana."
But Dr. Kumar was persistent. "I understand that you are only visiting Cleveland for now. But I thought we might get to know each other a little better. Purely as friends, of course. Surely your partner could not object to that? So, tomorrow night? If you are free?"
"Look, Dr. Kumar, can I get back to you? Things are a bit hectic right now." Yeah, like my head is about to explode.
"Certainly. But perhaps a break from your hectic schedule is just what you need, Shea. That and a good meal." The doctor examined me with his eyes. "You are much too thin, you know."
"So I've been told," I said, biting my lip.
"Dinner would be the perfect medicine for that."
"You mean that dinner with you is just what the doctor ordered?" And I smiled for practically the first time that day.
"If you wish." Dr. Kumar smiled back. His teeth were very white in his dark face. "Do you enjoy Indian food?"
"Yes, I do enjoy Indian food." That was true, at least. He's good-looking, I thought. But my gaydar must really be off not to have sensed something stronger if he's so interested in me.
Doctor Kumar wrote something on his pad and handed it to me. "Here is the updated prescription for your father's medication."
I put it into my shirt pocket. "Thanks, Doc."
Then he scribbled something else. "And here is my prescription for you, Shea. I look forward to your call."
"Tell me," I said, folding the slip of paper with the doctor's phone number on it and shoving it into my jeans. "Do you try to pick up the sons of all your patients? Not to be cynical or anything."
"Never before," Dr. Kumar's face was earnest. "And you can be assured of that."
"I believe you," I replied, unsure of what else to say. Getting hit on by my father's oncologist hadn't been in my plans for the day. And it didn't seem exactly ethical. But what could I do? Call the doctor cops?
"Until I hear from you," he said. "Soon, I hope." And Dr. Kumar walked out of the room and shut the door behind him.
I realized then that I didn't even know his first name. I looked at the slip of paper. Dr. R. V. Kumar. Well, that didn't tell me a thing. R. V. He didn't look like he had anything to do with recreational vehicles, so that was a dead end. I shoved the slip back into my jeans.
That's when I remembered something else. I pushed back the curtain. The old man was sitting on the examining table, a funny look on his face. "So, are you going?" he said, standing up slowly.
"Where?" I said, absently. I picked up his jacket and helped him on with it.
"Out with the doctor, where the hell else? You going?"
I felt my face turning hot. "Jesus! Isn't anything private anymore? I can't believe you were eavesdropping. And since when are you interested in my personal life? Or even admit that I have a personal life?"
"I wasn't eavesdropping! I was sitting right here, where he put me!" Dad wheezed out a laugh. "Hey, when you've got nothing to do all day but sit and listen and think, you actually start to figure a few things out. And work out some stuff in your own mind." The old man cocked his head. "So, are you going?"
I stared at my father in disbelief. "You act like you want me to go!"
"Why not?" he shrugged as we walked out of the office. "He might be nicer to me if you're nice to him. You know -- tit for tat. Or whatever you guys do." Jack Desmond was nothing if not a realist. If he could turn my attractiveness to his advantage, why not? What did the old man have to lose at this point in his life? Not a damn thing.
"I don't believe you, Dad!" I said, feeling a little sick. Talking to my father about my sex life -- or potential sex life -- was not something I wanted on my agenda. "You want me to do this guy so he'll give you better care? I don't think it works that way."
"It couldn't hurt," the old man replied calmly. "He's kind of nice looking, I guess. And he's successful. He's a big wheel in this hospital and that's something. And he seems like an interesting guy. Hell, maybe I should go out with him!"
"Very funny. The problem is that I'm supposed to be married, remember? As in commitment. You were at the ceremony."
"So what? It never stopped me," he confided. "Besides, you can't kid a kidder, Shea. I know there's some kind of problem between you and Aaron. I told you, I pay attention. I watch what's going on. Last weekend you could cut the tension between you two with a goddamn knife. So I say, screw him. Go out and have some fun!"
"Dad, this is a little too complicated. I mean, Aaron and I... you don't understand!"
"What's to understand? Is he running around on you? That's the usual thing, since he doesn't seem like a drinker to me."
"No, Aaron isn't a drinker," I said, remaining non-committal on the other.
"Shea, listen to me: don't let that guy walk all over you. I mean it. You don't owe him anything! You may think you do, but you don't."
"Dad, I appreciate your concern, really I do..."
But he just rolled on. "If anything, he owes you something. Aaron's not such a prize, believe me. You're a great looking kid. You have a lot to offer a guy. You can do better, son. A lot better!"
"I can't believe we're having this conversation," I said, rubbing my aching forehead. "Man, this is like my worst nightmare come true!" I took Dad's elbow and led him through the hallway to the elevator. I punched in the button for the lobby.
"Why is it a nightmare? Because I'm telling you to step out a little? To have some fun in your life? What's so bad about that?"
"Nothing, Dad! But it's a nightmare because we are actually talking about this!" I looked down at my shoes, waiting for the elevator door to open. "And because I'm actually considering taking advice on my relationship from you!"
We stepped into the elevator and rode it down to the lobby. I stood next to my father, still shaking my head.
"I've been married a long time, Shea," Dad advised. "Maybe I didn't do such a good job with my chances in life. I screwed up, but good."
"Tell me something I don't already know."
"A man didn't have a choice back in my day. You got married -- sometimes in a big hurry, if you know what I mean -- you had kids, you worked. You didn't think about it, you just did it! That's what was expected."
"And you always did what was expected, Dad?" The door of the elevator opened and we stepped out.
"If you didn't know any better, you did. If you thought you had no choice, you did." The old man nodded to himself. "You might get chained up to somebody you can't get along with, somebody who acts like she can barely stand you -- and you feel the same way. But by then you're screwed, kid. It's over -- and you've got a goddamn life sentence ahead of you."
"What about love, Dad?" As we walked I stared directly ahead, not looking at my father. "What about being happy? Ever think about that?"
Dad shrugged. "Love? What the hell does that mean? Not much, after all. It hasn't done you much good, has it? I know you love that guy, but what's in it for you? All that sitting around, being a good little wife. That's bullshit! Be a goddamn man, Shea!"
"And that's what being a man means to you? Going out with someone else? Fucking around on my partner? In other words, doing to him what he's doing to me?" Or what you used to do to mom, I added to myself.
"No! It means being free to make your own choices. Not letting anybody else stick you in a locked room and keep you there until you're too old and sick to bother even trying to fight it anymore."
I closed my eyes. "Is that what you think Aaron is doing? Trying to get free of me so he can do whatever he wants?"
"I don't give a damn about Aaron or what he's doing!" the old man puffed. "The one I care about is you! Aaron's the one who's had you afraid of your own shadow, while he did whatever he damn well pleased. He's the one who had the key in his pocket. Except now you've got a chance to escape. The door is open, Shea. Finally."
"The Voice of Experience speaks!" I said sarcastically.
"You could do worse than listen to my voice of experience," he said. "What good are all my years of collected knowledge if I can't pass it down to my only son?"
"You mean expert advice on how to cheat on my partner?"
Dad snorted. "He didn't seem to need advice from anyone to figure out how to cheat on you. Believe me, what goes around, comes around. And it's his turn!"
We approached my parents' old Volvo. I helped my father into the car and strapped on his seatbelt. "You'll have me in a carseat next, like a goddamn two-year-old," he grumbled.
"I'm not going to get pulled over by the cops and get a ticket just because you won't wear your stupid seatbelt!"
"All right! All right! Don't beat me up about it!"
I got in and revved up the Volvo.
"You flying there?" he asked. "To Indiana? I mean, if you decide to leave."
"If I decided to leave?" I glanced at the old man. "What's that supposed to mean?"
"Just what I said. If you decide to go to Indiana or wherever the hell it is."
I sighed heavily. "I have to go, Dad. Aaron's there. My job is there."
"You could always live here. In your old room." He almost sounded like he was hoping I would do it. "You could get a job in Cleveland. A smart boy like you, you could do anything. You don't have to take some shit job just because Aaron fixes you up with it!"
So, he knew the truth of the situation -- not that it really mattered. "It's not a shit job. It's a damned good job. I like teaching. I'm good at it. It's all the other crap that gets me down."
"There are plenty of schools here in Cleveland. Why not one of those?"
I shifted into first and pulled out onto Euclid Avenue. "You just don't understand."
"I understand more than you think, Shea. Much more than you think." The old man looked at me with watery eyes. "Don't waste your goddamn life. Don't get hustled into something you'll be stuck with. Don't throw away your youth being miserable because you don't have the guts to break free. And don't end up a bitter old drunk who's a bastard to everybody because of it."
"In other words: don't end up like you?"
"I mean exactly that. And I'm not kidding. I'm not a smart guy, Shea. I never was. I've got a line of bull that's served me pretty well throughout my life, but that doesn't count for shit when you're facing what I'm facing. I don't have much to leave you, unfortunately. My philosophy's always been that if I couldn't take it with me, then I might as well spend it while I could!"
"I'm not asking you for anything, Dad. Do I look like I've been hanging around, waiting for my big inheritance?"
"Good thing, because there isn't any," Dad guffawed. "I don't have much to offer you except what I know. That and what you've already got: good looks, your health, and a brain inside that thick Mick head. You don't need much more than that to get along. Don't throw it away to please that guy!"
"I know, but Aaron has always been there, telling me what to do and how to be. I scarcely remember what I was like before I met him. And I can't picture what my life will be if I leave him." My mouth felt dry. "It's a little late for me to start over now from scratch."
The old man was quiet for a few moments before he spoke again. "What are you, Shea? 29 or something like that?"
It figured that my own father didn't even know how old I was. "I was 28 in April."
"You're a goddamn kid!" the old man was almost shouting. "Just a kid, I tell you! To think that your future is set in stone at your age is ridiculous! Don't be a patsy all your life, Shea."
I seriously considered stopping at the nearest bar -- gay, straight, or indifferent -- and getting both of us drunk. I knew the old man would relish it and I could block out the world for a few hours.
But I didn't. Instead, I drove the two of us back to the house. That evening we sat down to one of my mother's tasteless meals. Some kind of chicken that had been boiled down to a mush, along with unidentifiable vegetables that might once have been green, but were now a shade of off-gray.
"Everything go okay at the doctor?" Mom asked. She searched Dad's face and then mine, looking for some kind of information.
"Yeah, okay," grunted the old man, poking a chicken leg with his fork.
I admit I wasn't any better. "More tests. You'll have to take him in next week for the results."
"Oh, dear," she fretted. "You won't be here, will you?"
"You know I have to leave, Mom. For Indiana."
Yes, leave. There was no other option. I couldn't very well perform a do-over and move back in with my parents, pretending I was 16 again. And I couldn't impose on Rich, either, as much as he would welcome that. Nope, moving in with Rich would be tantamount to accepting a relationship with him, exchanging one intense, successful, and overpowering partner for another. I'd be exactly in the same position I was in now -- fucked!
And then there was the doctor. Dr. R. V. Kumar. Would I be expected to fuck him? Was that the usual payment for dinner? My gay etiquette was sorely lacking in the dating area.
Actually, I didn't have any experience of actual dating. Fucking I had down to a science. Fucking I could always do. It was the lead-up to the fucking that I was uncertain of. With the guys I'd fooled around with when I was a kid -- well, that could hardly be called dating. And it had never been an issue with paying tricks, the rules were clear from the start: it was sex, period. And Aaron had never seen any reason to romance a teenage hustler who walked into his apartment and climbed into his bed. Plop! It was a done deal. In college the guys were mainly of the club or party hook-up variety, not the dating variety. Only a couple had actually asked me out to dinner or a film, and even then it had been awkward. After all, I wasn't some girl they needed get drunk in order for me to give it up. We were gay and if we wanted to do it, we did it.
I tried to remember the last guy I'd actually been to bed with other than Aaron. It must have been Jay. I think that was his name. Short and dark-haired. A History major from New Jersey. Or was that Ray? Not that it mattered because then Aaron returned from England and we decided to be strictly monogamous. No wonder I was feeling apprehensive at the thought of going out with someone else, let alone my father's doctor!
Maybe Dr. Kumar and I would really hit it off. Yeah, we could run off to India together! That would be exciting. Unexpected. And it would solve all my problems: no more Aaron, no more Rich, no more family. Except that I didn't have a lot of luck with running away. The last time had been a slight disaster. Besides, if Dr. Kumar ran away with me, who would oversee the old man's treatments? No, that wasn't an option either.
My mother brought out dessert. Jello. Just plain red Jello. Not even in a mold or with a crummy piece of fruit in it, like a school cafeteria would serve. Not that I gave a damn. Food was the last thing I needed to worry about.
Mom cleared the table and the old man sat down in front of the television, the dog on his lap. The same routine every night. Every fucking night.
I went upstairs to my old room. Mom had remodeled it into a guest room sometime after I left the house. All my stuff was in boxes in the attic or else thrown away. Except...
I opened the closet. It was mainly used for storage, full of musty coats and out-of-fashion dresses hanging on the rod, a couple of hat boxes up on the high shelf. And in the back -- way back -- was a thick cardboard case. I dragged it out.
My old guitar. I'd seen it in there before, but never had a desire to take it out. In fact, I was surprised it had survived all these years. I guess no one wanted it, or else my mother couldn't be bothered getting rid of it.
I took the guitar out of the case. It looked better than I remembered -- better than the one the Irish guy had been playing. Some new strings and a little polish and it would look just fine. I tapped the wood near the sound hole. It had a rich echo. These old Gibsons are well-made. If the neck hadn't warped, it was probably playable.
Not that I could play it. But I could always try.
And it would bug the hell out of Aaron.
Tomorrow I could go up to the music store on Madison and get some new strings.
Why not? Why the hell not?