Jim said it wasn't that he minded going to see naked pictures of his own daughter; he just didn't like driving all over the country to do it.
I reached across the console to pick some lint off his pants. "Westfield isn’t the other side of the world,” I said. “Anyway, they're not pictures. They're paintings."
He pushed my hand away. “I don’t care if they’re the Sistine Chapel ceiling,” he said. “Why is everything in Westfield?”
We drove the sixty-odd miles to the town where our daughter, Kim, had settled after college and found our way to the hole-in-the wall storefront that housed the gallery. I pushed open the beveled-glass door and caught my breath. The invitation to the show had come on a 4” by 6” postcard that featured a back view of Kim, the crenellations of her spine descending from delicate neck to narrow hips. It had provided a glimpse of one breast; the show offered so much more. I spotted a table nearby, loaded down with hors d’oeuvres and red wine in little plastic glasses. I rarely drink, but suddenly a glass of wine sounded like a good idea.
It didn’t bother me that 23 of the 32 paintings were nudes. I was an Art History major before I dropped out of college to marry Jim, so I understood the artistic value of the human form. Nor was it a problem for me that the paintings were created by Kim’s partner, Jenny. I was completely okay with Kim’s lifestyle. I worked through all that back when she was in college. Not when she was a freshman, and joined the Bi/Gay/ Lesbian Movement at the University, because she was always joining one cause or another. I mean, she belonged to PETA, but that didn’t make her a rabbit. Later, though, when she was elected secretary of BiGLM, that’s when I realized what it meant.
The problem was her father, who was in complete denial. Although we’d visited her apartment, a two-bedroom affair where the girls shared one room and kept the other for guests, for some reason he didn’t get it. They say God never gives us more than we can handle. As I see it, denial is His mechanism for doing that. People filter out the things they can’t deal with, and Jim had constructed an entire wastewater treatment plant to keep this particular reality from seeping in.
I had tried to get Kim to sit down and talk it out with him, but she refused.
“Not until he’s ready,” she said.
“How about when I’m ready?” I asked.
“Chill out, Mom,” she said. “Not everything is about you.”
After I sampled my wine, I looked around the room and found Kim standing in the center of a crowd, which is pretty much where I’ve found her since she was about five years old. Some of the women in the group surrounding her were holding hands. Two of the men had their arms around each other’s waists. I felt Jim stiffen. Kim caught sight of us and broke away from her friends to give me a Passion-scented hug. She kissed her father and turned to me, eyes challenging.
“What do you think?”
I played for time by taking a sip of wine.
“She’s very gifted,” I said, and it was true. The paintings blended the technical skill of a Wyeth with the romanticism of a Cassat. “Where is Jenny?”
Kim nodded toward the crowd she’d just left. Standing on the periphery was her roommate. She had spiked hair and skin so fine-pored it looked airbrushed. Her eyes always seemed to be assessing something I couldn’t discern – how light played across a surface, or perhaps something more subtle. She wasn’t a talker. I’d spoken to her dozens of times in the three years she and Kim had been together, but our conversations had never gone anywhere. I once asked Kim what they found to discuss, but when she countered with the same question about her father and me, we dropped the subject.
The door opened again and Kim drifted away, calling over her shoulder, “Check out the show and let me know what you think.”
I turned to Jim. “We have to buy one of these paintings.”
He scooped up a handful of cookies with dabs of apricot preserves in the center. The room might have been wallpapered in burlap for all the attention he paid to the exhibit. He shoved two cookies into his mouth. “You choose,” he said.
I snagged another glass of wine and set off to make a circuit of the room. Jim speared some cheese cubes with a toothpick and followed me.
On close inspection, the paintings were as impressive as they’d been from a distance. The picture from the invitation was a 24” by 36” canvas of Kim’s back. You could even make out the pear-shaped birthmark at the base of her neck. One whole wall was dedicated to views of her left hand in various media – oil, pen and ink, acrylics, watercolors. Other works paid the same attention to the rest of her body. It was apparent that the artist was in love with the subject in a way that was as physical as it was emotional.
I nerved myself to deal with Jim’s reaction. “What do you think?”
He examined a line drawing of Kim’s face. Her eyes were closed and her mouth was open a little, as though she were snoring. Titled “Kim, Sleeping,” it was priced at twenty-five dollars.
“This one’s nice,” he said.
I rolled my eyes. Why had I even worried? For reality to break through Jim’s blockade, it would have to get past his stinginess.
A nearby oil painting caught my attention. Kim was seated on the floor with her knees drawn up. She was swathed in black satin, only her head and shoulders, feet and ankles visible. That was about 90% less visibility than most of the paintings. I wrote out a check for three-hundred and fifty dollars on the spot. Jim looked back at the line drawing wistfully, but didn’t object.
I tracked Jenny down near the refreshment table and handed her the check and she thanked me. We stood there for a moment, but before the silence could grow awkward, there was a flurry at the door. A middle-aged woman in a wool suit with a pleated skirt and a man with thinning hair and bony wrists protruding from his navy sport coat entered. Jenny’s features went still, and her pupils seemed to contract like the aperture on a camera. She made her way to the door and hugged them.
Jenny’s parents had two opposing traits that made it impossible for me to predict how they’d react to the show. Mr. Baker had supported his family as an illustrator for forty years, which meant he’d view the show as an artist would, based on its merit, which was considerable. They were also Seventh Day Adventists. Only God knew what that meant.
As they toured the room, Jenny’s father inspecting each canvas in detail, I decided to make the circuit again. I stared at the hand paintings. They undulated just the tiniest bit, but it seemed wasteful not to finish my wine. I inched my way over to the final wall, which featured a life-size canvas of Kim lying on a settee. Jenny’s mother had disappeared, but her father came to stand beside me. He took out a jeweler’s loupe and held it up to his eye, scrutinizing Kim’s thigh at close range. I knew he was examining the brush strokes, but it was unnerving just the same. After a moment he grunted.
“Jenny says you bought that one,” he said, waving the loupe toward “Kim in Satin.”
“Best piece here,” he said.
I thought so, too, though I suspected we had different criteria.
Back at the refreshment table, Jim was staked out next to the cheese tray. He looked at the empty glass in my hand. “How much have you had?” he said. Before I could answer, Kim and Jenny’s mother joined us.
“Mom, Dad,” Kim said, “this is Mrs. Baker.” Mrs. Baker shook hands with Jim, then slid her fingers into mine. Her hand so light and dry it was barely present.
“Wonderful show,” I said. “Jenny is very talented.”
Mrs. Baker’s gaze ranged over the room. She looked confused, like she wasn’t certain she’d come to the right place.
“Yes,” she said, “she has a gift.”
I picked up a fourth glass of wine, earning glares from both Kim and her father.
“To Jenny,” I said.
Mr. Baker wandered up, and Kim made introductions again.
“I was just saying how talented your daughter is,” I said, waving my free hand to encompass the room. I couldn’t remember why I thought this was going to be so stressful. I swayed a little and Jim put his arm around my waist.
Mrs. Baker stood without speaking, a half-smile on her lips. From her expression, we might have been prospective mothers-in-law meeting to decide what to wear to the wedding, a wedding that would never happen, at least not in either of our home states. Her gaze wandered from Jenny to Kim, and her half-smile wavered. In her eyes I saw the ghosts of lost grandchildren.
“Kim plans to have kids someday,” I said, wanting to comfort her, wanting to break the silence. “When she’s thirty-two, she says.” Mrs. Baker didn’t seem to understand, so I added, “By artificial insemination.”
Jim’s grip on my waist tightened, but Mrs. Baker’s smile had solidified again. She had the expression First Ladies wear when the Japanese ambassador breaks wind at a state dinner. Embarrassment sent more words skidding from my mouth.
“I’ve never understood how that works,” I said. I turned to Kim. “Do you pick the donor from a catalog?”
Kim looked at her father. His arm became a clamp around my waist. I shoved at his wrist until he released me.
“That’s one way,” Kim said.
“There are others?”
“You can find a friend who’s willing to donate.”
“To donate sperm?”
“Yes, Mom, to donate sperm.”
“Do you have a friend who would do that?”
“I haven’t asked. I’d probably go with an anonymous donor,” she said.
“And then what – they give you the sperm in a little jar?”
“It’s an office procedure, Mom.”
I chuckled. “Somehow when I imagined a doctor getting you pregnant, I always thought he’d be my son-in-law.”
It was as if all the sound had been vacuumed from the room. I looked at my empty glass. Had I really said that? Jim had that long-suffering expression he gets sometimes, and Kim’s face and neck were the shade of Pepto-Bismol.
“I think I’ll go look at that canvas again,” Mr. Baker said.
Jim turned to Jenny. “Let’s go get my picture.” Kim headed off to the back room to get some wrapping materials.
Only Mrs. Baker stayed by me. Her eyes roamed the gallery, but that smirk never left her lips.
“Was this what you were hoping for?” I said. “When she was a little girl, was this what you wanted Jenny to grow up to be?”
Because it wasn’t what I’d wanted for Kim. I’d wanted her to grow up and live out the American dream, to be a housewife with a couple of kids and a minivan. I wanted her to live nearby and call me for my meatloaf recipe. I wanted to know that my life and the way I raised her were okay, and not something she had to run as far away from as she possibly could.
Mrs. Baker looked at me for a minute. “Artists experiment,” she said, dismissing our daughters’ three-year relationship with two words.
While Jim and Jenny wrapped our painting, I followed Kim to the cloakroom. Her movements were so jerky her skirt made a swishing sound when she walked.
“I’m sorry I embarrassed you,” I said.
She sighed and turned to face me. “You’re really not okay with this, are you?”
“I’m okay with you,” I said, “and whoever you are. It’s just hard for me, knowing how people judge. I want everyone to see how wonderful you are, and for a lot of people, this is all they can see.”
She smiled, but it was a lopsided smile.
“I don’t need to be wonderful to everyone,” she said. “Just a few people. You, Dad, my friends.”
“Sometimes I think, ‘what if she’s gay because we made marriage look so awful?’”
I tried to say it lightly, and I must have succeeded, because she laughed. “It’s true you two aren’t poster children for the perfect marriage, but it’s no different with Jenny and me. We fight every time I want to spend money, and she drives me crazy, ignoring the dysfunctional stuff that goes on with her family. She came out to them a year ago, and they’ve never discussed it since. Not once.” Then she frowned. “Is that what you really think, Mom? That I chose to be gay?”
I thought about what she’d been like as a teenager, popular, dating a lot, but always with a distance, a distaste for physical intimacy, that smothered relationships at birth. I thought about her preference for the company of her girlfriends. She’d always seemed like a good candidate for a harem, where she’d perform her connubial duties maybe once a year, then be free to spend the rest of the time spending time with other women.
Twenty-five years ago the doctor had placed her, bloody and squalling, on my belly. Her hair had been almost transparent, plastered to her scalp by amniotic fluid. I had reached out my hand to cap her head, and felt her pulse fluttering against my palm. She was a miracle then, and she was still a miracle today.
“No,” I said. “I think this is who you are. I think this is who you were born to be.”
Jim steered me back to the car, one hand on my elbow, the other clutching our painting. He released me to fish his key-ring from his pocket and poke the key into the door-lock, then stood there for a moment, staring at the lock without turning it.
“I don’t understand why Kim hangs out with so many fruits,” he said, sounding irritated. He seemed to be speaking to the keyhole.
I looked at him, the evening air cooling my cheeks and scalp. I sighed. For thirty years he’d been there to prop me up and care for me and stand beside me when I made a fool of myself. I pressed my palms against my face, letting the breeze fan away the last of my buzz.
“Really?” I said. “I’ve never noticed.”