June 2, 2015
She swore up and down she’d quit the minute they put an end to the contest, but that was years ago and here she was taking almost too much pleasure in the act of unzipping the plastic strip from her Sportsman filters. She and her husband still had a kitchen drawer full to overflowing with the folded prize cards. The control panel side of hundreds of TV’s. The stern half of an armada of speedboats. All they had ever won was a single free pack. Still. They split it between them, and, oh my, they enjoyed them thoroughly.
She takes pride in the joy she is able to glean from the smallest of things. Each step in the process of smoking, for instance, has always delighted her. She sat down at her end of the kitchen table and flipped the pack open with her thumb. She pinched and pulled out the foil, rolling it into a ball and dropping it into the ashtray. She automatically looked for the folded ticket representing a half a prize, mildly disappointed each time.
She couldn’t help thinking about her father. He smoked Sportsman too, but his were the no-nonsense, unfiltered ones – ‘The Sportsman’s Own Cigarette.’ A tough man? Maybe. Maybe not so much as you might think.
Just as she took her last puff, Edward opened the bathroom door and called out, “Odette, your appointment is when?”
She crushed out her cigarette and made her way upstairs, tidying as she went. Downstairs, she had heard him call, but she didn’t respond. Communication is as much through practiced silence as through speech at this stage of their lives together. The appointment, she thought. It stuck in her craw, this appointment.
As Edward came out of the bathroom, she went in. On the way by, he held her around the waist and pulled her close for a clean-shaven peck on the cheek. “Morning, Missus,” he said.
“Good morning, Mister. It’s at eleven o’clock – the appointment.”
It is a point of pride for her that she always does herself up nice. When she was finished, her hair was perfect, her make-up discreet. She chose a Sunday dress today, for the appointment.
She slipped on her apron and cooked up their Cream of Wheat. Edward poured her a cup of coffee. They sat together, eating in silence. Normally, Edward would bring up some item of news, or something about work, hockey, the garden, or the weather – he is one of those quiet people who always have something interesting to say. But the appointment has created a barrier between them. Nothing permanent, though, she thought. Nothing major. She was a little hurt that Edward agreed with the social worker. He felt that she should go for the counseling. He thought maybe she could use someone to talk to. Herself, she agreed to go, but only because the alternative was so much worse.
There was still plenty of time after breakfast, so Edward took his coffee out to the back yard to putter.
Odette set to the dishes. She watched Edward through the kitchen window, the window she inherited from her mother after she died, along with the rest of the house and property.
As a child washing breakfast dishes, standing up on her special stool, she was looking out this same window the day she saw her father with the neighbour’s boy, just home from college. Well, she didn’t see them exactly, but she could clearly make out the shadows of hands groping and hungry mouths devouring; a shadow play against the sunlit shed. Out of pure shame she never told anyone, not even her mother. She still has never told anyone. Well that is not one hundred percent true – she has told Edward somewhat censored versions of the story from time to time, usually in the heat of arguments about Oscar.
Odette’s father wasn’t one of these effeminate types. He was a man’s man (literally, as it turned out). But, the point is, he had worked in the lumber mill up on Gorge Road. He drank at strip clubs with the boys after work. Odette’s mother, until she was blindsided by the truth, often chastised him for spending too much time drooling over ‘those Tally-Ho sluts.’ Be careful what you wish for, Mother, Odette reminisced, standing there at the sink, and then she cringed with guilt, because she believes her priest with all her heart; her mother can read her thoughts from her place in heaven.
She pulled her hands out of the now tepid dishwater and inspected her Living Gloves before she reached into the sink to pull the plug and start all over again. Edward was in his vegetable garden, pulling weeds. Now there was a real man’s man. Edward: a big man; a born provider; an eager lover. His sole purpose in life is the care of his wife and son, a smidgen brutish in his way, maybe, but never mean-spirited. Odette loves him so much. He has stood by her through thick and thin, and what she has gotten herself into this time might be the thickest stretch in their relationship so far. But nuts to that, Odette is proud to be the type of person that speaks her mind and who takes action when it’s necessary. She’d just need to be more clandestine about it the next time. Lord, Odette, she scolded herself; get these dishes done before you have to start them over for the third time.
“Ready, Missus?” It was almost time to go. Edward was swinging his key ring on one calloused finger.
“Oh. I suppose I’m as ready as I’ll ever be, love.” She sighed.
“Are you going to be alright, Mom?”
“Edward, I don’t think I want you calling me Mom, today of all days.” Edward towered over Odette. As he has done since the day they met, he squatted down to bring himself face to face with her. He put his thick arms around her sparrow’s frame. He buried his face in the crook of her neck and she could already feel the start of his five o’clock shadow. “Now listen here woman, I’ve been calling you Mom ever since Oscar was born, for the better part of a quarter century. I can’t stop it just like that, can I?” He caught her lowered eyes, pulled them up and winked at her.
“Well, for heaven’s sake, honey.” She pushed back from him. “You know that if I hadn’t found those damned magazines in Oscar’s old bedroom, I never would have done what I did. It pushed me over the top. He’s going out with that woman from his gym now, but he’s still hoarding those magazines. Under our roof! Enough is enough!” “Odette, settle down and listen to me. Oscar will take care of Oscar. We have to let him make his own mistakes. Hopefully the boy will learn from them. If I’ve told you once, I’ve told you a hundred times, the magazines were just a phase….”
“A phase! Edward, for God’s sake, open your eyes. Since age fourteen he’s been spending every spare minute with that nice, well-dressed David from school, holed up down there in his bedroom, door locked, blaring that bebop. He never dated, never went to school dances. Even now that he’s on his own and he’s been dating the girl, he still spends all his time with David. And the girl. Why, she is at least as manly as the boys, if you ask me. She has muscles on her muscles!” She made a sour face that didn’t quite jive with the way she felt. Odette doesn’t know what she thinks about gay women. She’d never given it much thought. Not until she met Oscar’s girl, and not even then, really.
“Odette. Come on now. Those magazines you found must have been there since before Oscar moved out. If he’s forgotten and left them behind, I’ll take it as a good sign, thank you very much!”
Odette realized that she might have pushed Edward a little too far. He does not want Oscar to be that way, even if he’s never said anything about it. But he’d come around when push came to shove, she was sure of that. He would come around the way he knows best, by ignoring reality. Not that Odette is necessarily pro-gay herself, perhaps the opposite, really, she honestly doesn’t know, and she doesn’t necessarily want to think about it, either. But one thing she does know, from experience, is that all the pretending winds up ruining lives. She changed the subject. “I’m sure I’ll be fine at the appointment today. Oh, that reminds me – I’d better leave a note in case Oscar comes by.”
It was futile for Edward to try to rush Odette through one of her notes. “I’ll be waiting out in the car,” he told her.
Her father backed out of this same driveway when he left home to shack up with another man. Odette was eleven. Her skin crawls at the memory. The two girls and their mother went through so much torment after everyone found out. Odette wanted to move far away, but her mother said no.
A few months after he left them, her sweet, sad mother sat her down and said, “Odette, a lot of people, it seems to me, are just plain mean and miserable. And you know what, honey? You’re going to find that those people are everywhere. You can’t move away from those people. The real issue you and I have to deal with here is that we have to find a way to make our way in a world that forces a lovely person like your father to live a lie. And he is a good man, darling, forced into a bad situation. Am I happy that he dragged us into it with him? Yes, as a matter of fact, now that I’ve had time to think about it, I have to say I am. I wouldn’t have you girls if it weren’t for him. So, here’s what we’re going to do, you and I, Odette: we are going to get on with our lives; we’re going to love and support your little sister through thick and thin; we’re going to ignore the bullies as best we can. And we are not going to stop loving your daddy.”
At the time, Odette thought her mother was much too forgiving. Now, she doesn’t know what to think. It was probably her own family’s genes that turned Oscar into one of them, after all, and society seems intent on keeping up the pressure, through violence if necessary, to force them to pretend to be normal. Even now, well into the 1980’s, society insists that they live a lie. I want the gays to be gay, she thinks, but perhaps only because the outcome of enforced normality can be so devastating for the innocent victims.
Well, she took a stand, doing what she did, and she’d do it again in a heartbeat.
The Valencourt’s lived on one side of Victoria’s Beacon Hill Park and her appointment was on the other side, so they took the meandering park drive. Edward switched on the radio to drown out the uncomfortable silence. They were there before he even had time to find a decent station. As he pulled up to the row of government offices behind the Parliament Buildings, Edward said, “Are you sure you don’t want me to come in with you, Odette?”
“No Edward,” she said. “You know we’ve talked about this. I’d really rather go in on my own.” As an afterthought, she said, “But thanks, dear. I do appreciate the offer.”
It was hard for Odette not to get herself all worked up. The social worker said she could bring someone if it would make her feel more comfortable. At first, she thought she wanted Edward to come along, but then she decided it might be too embarrassing for her. The smaller the audience, the better, became her train of thought. As it was, there would be the social worker herself, as well as some kind of a therapist. Her panic inched up. Oh, she never dreamed she would be forced to see a therapist. Never!
She vacillated back and forth since the appointment was made for her. On the one hand, she thought she should say as little as possible to fulfill her mandatory requirement. On the other hand, she came to think that it might feel good after all, venting to a complete stranger. She had a picture in her mind of a soft, middle-aged man with his pastel sweater tied around his shoulders, maybe with a beard, and thought she might be able to open up to someone like that.
As Edward pulled away from the curb, Odette rummaged through her purse for the social worker’s card. She found that the building she was looking for was right in front of her. She went inside and took the stairs up to the second floor. An Asian receptionist with blond Farrah Fawcett hair pointed to a crowded alcove and told her to sit down; someone would be with her in a moment. There were two street people sitting side-by-side across from her. Various riff-raff and their shopping bags took up the other seats. The decor was modern doctor’s office. Salmon pink and Tony Onley prints. Rounded corners and etched glass. Nothing Odette would ever choose for her home, you can take that to the bank.
She distractedly picked up a National Enquirer magazine that had a picture of Liberace and some frilly young man on the cover and immediately thought of Oscar and his magazines, then Oscar and his girl. Then Oscar and David. She threw the offensive rag back face down onto the table like it had spontaneously combusted in her hand. It was some kind of an omen, she felt sure. She sat and stewed.
She looked up when she heard the clip-clop of someone who was quite obviously not comfortable in her shoes. It was the social worker, and she was walking in ridiculous heels like she was struggling to keep herself from falling flat on her face. “Hello, Odette?” she called out from too far away.
Odette reddened. It was bad enough waiting on public display in a place like this, never mind having your name called out as if by town crier. All the social worker needed to complete the effect was a hand bell. She snuck a glance at the street people and was relieved that they were not paying attention to her, not in the least. She got up from her seat and hurried down the hall to meet the social worker halfway.
The social worker stopped short and waited for Odette to come to her. As she approached, the social worker reached out and shook her hand in greeting, holding on as she guided them back the way she had come. “I’ll take you and introduce you to your counselor, Mrs Valencourt. I can only stay for a short while, I’m afraid, and then I’ll have to leave you to your appointment. I have a very busy schedule, as you can imagine.” Without looking back, the social worker aimed an imperial wave at the misfits in the waiting area.
She wasn’t about to have a conversation with the social worker in the middle of the hallway, so Odette just nodded tersely and grimaced.
They entered the last room on the floor, and the social worker nodded for Odette to have a seat. “I’ll call you in in just a minute, Mrs Valencourt,” she said as she stepped into an inner office and clicked the door shut. With nothing else to do and no magazines to look at, Odette read the framed diplomas on the wall. It seems her counselor has a master’s degree in psychology, and his name is… very familiar.
“Odette, you can come in now,” the social worker beckoned her from the doorway. Odette stepped into the cluttered office. “Odette Valencourt, this is Dr Sutherland. He and I have chatted a couple of times about your case and the doctor has your Ministry file and the police report.”
“Mrs Valencourt, you can call me John if you’d be more comfortable.” And right then Odette figured out how she knew him.
“I’ll call you Dr Sutherland, if it’s all the same to you,” she said. She pulled a hanky from her cardigan sleeve, wiped her nose, and put it back.
The social worker cut in, “So, I’ll just explain a little about how this will work, and then I’ll leave you two to your session. Odette….”
“Mrs Valencourt, if you don’t mind.”
“Yes, of course. Sorry, I didn’t mean any disrespect. Now, as I was saying, Mrs Valencourt, you have agreed to attend these appointments with Dr Sutherland. This option was allowed, because Mr Robichaude was adamant about dropping the charges against you. Believe me; it would have been much worse for you if Mr Robichaude had not done so. And needless to say, had the outcome of your actions been fatal, there is no doubt in my mind that you would have been tried for murder. As it was, Mr Robichaude had to spend several days in hospital under observation. I hope you realize you are a very lucky woman. So. OK? You will have a minimum of six sessions with Dr Sutherland. Once those six sessions are completed, Dr Sutherland will assess your progress. If he has no concerns at that point, your commitment will be fulfilled. However, if by the sixth session the doctor thinks that more time is needed, he can decide to make himself available to meet with you as many times as he sees fit, and you will be bound by his decision. Do you understand, Mrs Valencourt?”
“Well, of course I understand. I may have grey hair, but I’m not senile, young lady, not yet.”
“All right, Mrs Valencourt. There is no call for sarcasm here. I don’t think I need to remind you that Mr Robichaude could just as easily have followed through on an attempted murder charge. OK? Now, I won’t see you again myself unless Dr Sutherland deems it necessary, but if you miss any of your appointments, believe me, you will hear from me. I’ll just say once more, because this is very important – these appointments are mandatory. If you fail to attend, or if the doctor feels you are not participating or making real progress in your therapy, the consequences for you could be dire.” Odette said nothing. She sat and glared at the social worker until she left the room. Once she was gone, Odette turned and gave Dr Sutherland the once-over. He is really quite an old man now. He pulled a file on the way back to his desk. She stared at him until he noticed her. She looked him in the eye and there was no sign that he recognized her. Of course, it has been decades, and her last name has changed.
The file had her initials and a string of numbers on the tab. He flipped it open as he sat down. There was a photo in a frame on his desk of a pretty, but pretty tired-looking older woman with two adult kids.
Before he had a chance to speak, Odette said, “I don’t see why I had to be bunched in with the crazies down the hall when you have a perfectly private waiting room right here.” He opened his mouth, but he was too slow. “From now on I will come straight to this office.” She now thought this man might be the perfect person to open up to, seeing as she had some dirt on him, too.
“I was about to suggest just that, Mrs Valencourt.” He looked at his watch. “OK. We’ve only got fifty minutes altogether per session. We’re down to about forty minutes, less, left of this one, so why don’t you start right off by telling me your version of this – I must say – compelling story?”
Odette was not paying much attention to him; so many thoughts were running through her mind. But she picked up on a certain tone, like maybe he was belittling her. Suddenly she didn’t think she could face this man week after week, after all. She kept staring at the photo. She asked him, “Is that your wife and kids?”
“Yes,” he said, the consummate proud pappa.
It crossed her mind to slap that false pride right off his face, but instead she took a slow breath and closed her eyes.
“Alright,” the doctor said, “let’s try to keep the focus on you and your case, shall we?”
“Can I smoke?” Odette asked, but she already had her cigarette and lighter ready to go. She lit up without waiting for his answer. With a look of resignation, Dr Sutherland dug out a spotlessly clean ashtray from under some papers on a shelf behind him.
He was about to urge her once again not to waste the valuable time they had, but he was lulled by the meditative look on Odette’s face as she drew the smoke and held it in. He had given up cigarettes years before, but he still missed them. After she breathed the smoke out through her mouth and back in through her nostrils, she began. “I’m sure you know everything, doctor. You have the reports right there in front of you.” She pointed nicotine stained fingers at the file on his desk.
“Yes, Mrs Valencourt, I have read the files, but I want your take on what happened. I want to know why you would mail a live scorpion to Mr Robichaude.” “I am sure it is all right there in your reports,” she said again. And then, “Do you think it is right, doctor, for a man to lie to a woman about…?”
“About what, Mrs Valencourt?”
She shot him a look of distaste. “About his…” she leaned forward and hissed, “… sexuality,” through an insular curtain of smoke.
The doctor gave her a long and curious look. Odette stared back, still detecting no glimmer of recognition, no hint of fear.
He asked her, “Do you consider yourself homophobic, Mrs Valencourt?”
“I am a realist, Dr Sutherland. How about you?” Odette picked a rogue shred of tobacco from the tip of her tongue.
He ignored her question and asked, “How do you mean, realist?”
“I mean, I know about the reality of these situations.” Answering the look on his face, she said, “I know that the gay men feel that they have to get married to – I don’t know – to try to fit in to a normal world, I suppose. And I know from personal experience that when it all blows up in his face,” she looked him straight in the eye, “it tears apart the whole damned family right along with it.” She continued to stare him down. “Well, what have you got to say about that, doctor? What is your take on that?” Dr Sutherland was perplexed. He stopped and really looked at Mrs Valencourt. There was something familiar about her. He was about to ask whether they had ever met outside this office, when Odette cut him off.
“You know doctor, when I was a young girl I witnessed my own father with a boy from next door. They were,” she lowered her voice as she tapped the long ash from her cigarette, “fornicating in our back yard.”
Suddenly, Dr Sutherland was looking a little peaked.
“Do you love your family, Dr Sutherland?”
He gave no response.
“Because, if you do, I am sure you can well imagine the devastation you and your lovely kids might feel if, say, your wife turned out to be one of them – if she left you for a woman, let’s say.”
Still no response.
“Because, that is exactly what happened to me and my family, doctor. My father eventually left us to go live in sin with another man. He ran to Montreal. He may as well have dropped off the planet. Other than birthday and Christmas cards, I never saw him or heard from him again. And you have no idea, I’m sure, of the humiliation my mother, my sister and I had to go through when everyone found out. Or of the guilt I felt having kept his unspeakable backyard escapades from my own mother. All the anguish he put us through, just so that he could ultimately go off and do what he should have done in the first place.”
She wasn’t sure, but Dr Sutherland seemed a little desperate to keep it together. He whispered, “But Odette, you would not have been born.”
Ignoring his informality with her, she said, “That is just what my mother tried to tell me. She was a very forgiving woman, you know, my mother. Much more-so than I am, though God knows I try.”
Dr Sutherland leafed nervously through her file. He excused himself from the office and took several minutes to return. Odette wondered whether he had figured out who she is, but she knows enough about the gays to know that they can be savants when it comes to tricking themselves into believing in their own normalcy.
To be sure, she asked him as soon as he came back in, “Do you remember a man by the name of Lacerte, doctor? Phillipe-Henri Lacerte?”
The penny dropped. She was sure now.
She pushed onward. “He was my father? We lived up on Franklin Terrace in Fairfield? I can see it written all over your face – you do remember him.”
“You are Odette Lacerte? Our old neighbours’ daughter?” He looked again at her file. He should have recognized her address, but his family had only lived on Franklin Terrace for a short time, almost all of which he spent away in Vancouver and then Toronto working on his degree.
“One and the same,” she answered him. “And you were the neighbour’s boy. I’ll bet dollars to donuts you never knew that I was watching one day, all those years ago now, as you and my father groped each other like two dogs in heat behind our old apple tree. I wonder what your wife and kids would have to say about that. Or have you been honest with them – doctor?” Odette raised herself slightly from her seat to smooth her skirt. She was feeling quite relaxed all of a sudden, quite strong.
She could see the fear filming over his eyes, even as he repeated, “Mrs Valencourt, do you consider yourself homophobic?”
She made a sound that did little to strangle a scornful laugh. She opened her mouth to speak, but “Pfffttt…” was all that came out.
“Mrs Valencourt, come on now. You are an intelligent woman. You must understand that this is no laughing matter. You could have killed Mr Robichaude. With his allergies, he could easily have gone into anaphylactic shock. Even as it turned out, you could at best have been charged with attempted manslaughter.”
“Dr Sutherland, my God, I don’t know how you can sit here and preach to me about the homophobia, considering what we both know about you.”
“My personal life has no bearing whatsoever on these sessions, Mrs Valencourt. Now, if we could please just get back to your case.” Dr Sutherland’s face had completely drained of color.
“Alright doctor. I’ll tell you what you want to hear. That Mr Robichaude, as I’m sure you already know, was dating my sister, Gwendolyn. Mr Robichaude and his ascots, and his perfectly coiffed hair, and his froofy little lap dog. Claude Robichaude, an obvious gay, was not only dating my sister, but planning to marry her. That is when I said, enough! My sister, whose own father left our mother for another man, was blindly marrying her way into a lifetime of misery, the same bloody misery we had to go through as kids. I had no choice but to act.
“Tell me, doctor, are you looking forward to the day your wife finds out about you? Or are you not a gay anymore?”
Dr Sutherland just stared at Odette with his mouth slightly open.
“Well, I’ll answer your question, doctor, I am not a homophobic. For your information, I want the gays to be gay, because anything, but anything, is better than having your family torn apart and publicly ridiculed. Anything is better than the remaining normal family members having to endure the rabid hatred of the real homophobics of this world. And I’ll tell you something else, doctor, of the two of us, you are the biggest homophobic, by far. Your whole life, it seems to me, is a bald-faced lie based on weakness and self-loathing.”
“Mrs Valencourt, please. We have to make it through at least five more sessions together, so if we could possibly try to maintain focus on the job at hand….”
I’ll tell you what, Dr Home-Wrecker, I am going home from this appointment, and I am not coming back. Not only that, but you will write me a glowing report at the end of the six weeks. If I hear boo from the social worker, I will take that as my cue to ruin your life. And here’s a bit of advice I have for you. I suggest you take the remaining two hundred fifty minutes we would have had and use it to psychoanalyze yourself. Didn’t you have to take the Hippocratic oath to get your diploma? Or are you not a real doctor… doctor? Come to think of it, I did not see a Ph.D. hanging amongst all your fancy certificates out there. I’m no expert, but don’t you need one of those to call yourself doctor?”
Dr Sutherland did not feel like explaining to this woman that his Ph.D. is hanging on the wall right behind her. He didn’t feel like sharing the fact that he is set to retire in just a few months. He had been expecting a confrontation like this for his whole professional life, but lately, he only now realized, he had dropped his guard. He was too old for this. He looked at the picture of his wife and kids and knew that he would do as Mrs Valencourt asked. He looked across the desk and shrugged, defeated.
Odette stood up and turned to open the door to the reception area where the next patient was waiting. She stopped without looking back, giving the doctor one last chance to detain her.
She looked at her watch as she made her way back to the stairs. Her appointment should have ended twenty minutes ago. Before heading down, she glanced over to the public waiting area and saw that there was no one left waiting and that the photograph of Liberace was once again face up on the table. This made her think about Oscar, and the muscular girlfriend. It made her think about how she could never bring herself to be blunt with Oscar, for the slim chance that she might be wrong about his sexuality. It is up to him, she thought, to be the one to tell them, not the other way around. But she could guide him, maybe. She could give him the opportunity to – what do they call it – to come out of the closet.
As she stepped out onto the sidewalk, she saw that Edward had just turned the far corner. He’d have been circling the block for the last twenty minutes, but she’ll be waiting here on the curb for him the next time he comes around. In the meantime, Odette would mull over how she might tell Edward about the appointment without rubbing his face too much in all this homosexual business. It didn’t take her long to realize that she could never coerce Oscar to come out of the closet to them without making it obvious that she was being manipulative. And all she needed was to have her dear Edward think that she was somehow pushing Oscar into a lifestyle that so many seem to hate.
She saw Edward’s car heading around again and she came to the conclusion that, come what may, it is high time for the gays to stick up for themselves. All the minorities have had to do it. As a woman born in the nineteen-thirties, Odette knew first hand that it’s not easy to take a stand. But no one ever said it was going to be easy, did they? When has anything important ever been easy?
As the car pulled up, Odette lit a Sportsman, and then used its coal to light one up for Mister.
James P. Reynolds has been writing fiction for many years, but only recently started sharing it with the outside world. James lives with his partner in Vancouver, British Columbia, and hosts a popular book collecting website featuring essays about his own collection of modern literary fiction. For 25 years, he has worked to promote equality for people with intellectual disabilities. He currently manages Spectrum Press, producing educational materials by, for, and about people with disabilities. He has written two works of disability rights literature.
Copyright James P. Reynolds, re-printed with permission.