Mary Elizabeth Nelson
Author’s Note: This is a stand-alone story. But it was done for a major character in The Neallys whose history is referred to but predates that story. This story fills in that history. As with The Neallys, it is a slow burn. If you intend to read The Neallys, which is about 21 Lit pages, you should read that first; there are spoilers here. There are also intentional references to specific places that, with no parties realizing it, take place in both stories, although separated by many years.
As always, the story and characters are fictional. The errors are mine. And comments are encouraged.
Mary Elizabeth Nelson
My name is Mary Elizabeth Nelson. Much of my life and much of my story turns on the fact that I am a lesbian. Thus my initials, MEN, are ironic. Stealing from Dickens, this is my story but whether I am its hero is up to you, dear reader.
I was born on July 8, 1963 in a hospital near Mill Valley, California, an affluent suburb north of San Francisco. My younger brother, Billy, was born there on August 5, 1966.
I am an inch or two taller than average. My hair is jet black and since I turned 45 any gray that might otherwise be present has been chemically repressed. My face can best be described as “stern.” It would fit well for any number of hard-woman characters that populate any number of 19th Century novels. Particularly when combined with my broad shoulders and big thighs. A swimmer’s body.
My father, William, went to Stanford and was a lawyer at a big firm in San Francisco. My mother, Mary, went to Saint Mary’s College, a small Catholic college across the Bay. She did volunteer work for our Mill Valley Church.
I knew I was gay early on. Boys never grew on me and from high school my looks lingered on older girls. When I discovered the joy of masturbation it was always with thoughts of a girl. Or woman. Before college I had a few make-out sessions when we were sure we were alone, but we—all well-closeted—were all terrified of being caught. Nothing but drive-bys. None got past the kissing stage. But my lips and tongue confirmed what every other part of my body knew. That I was gay.
I was a good student. Smart and clever with a creative streak. Some of my teachers recognized it. I had a crush on two or three of them. I could have gone to my father’s alma mater, Stanford, but chose Cal-Berkeley. He made enough that financial aid was not happening and my parents foot the bills for my tuition and room-and-board. I kept what I earned over the summer.
Things of course changed when I got to Berkeley. It’s where I met Laura Johnson, the first woman with whom I was intimate. We had a class together, and I sat with her a few times in the library. After the third or fourth time there she didn’t pull away when my fingers happened to run across her wrist. A few days later we mustered our courage and were naked in my dorm room. About ten minutes after our clothes were off we were off. Neither of us had a clue but found our way to a 69, me on top, and we each had our first orgasm at the tongue of another woman. We repeated it a few times, but it was training-day and she drifted off to someone else and I drifted off to someone else and we became cherished memories for each other.
My “someone else” was Holly Usher. Sophomore heading to law school. Very pretty. An inch or two shorter than me with fair skin, long auburn-hair, blue eyes. My first girlfriend. We met at a dorm party where we were both bored. We did everything together for a few months but, ironically, she got bored with me and was taken by, and taken away by, a short blonde junior from Van Nuys. My first heart-break. I spent the rest of the semester without anyone steady and with only a couple of liaisons that were fun but fleeting. What are now called hookups.
I worked at a law firm over the summer. While home my father never tired of speculating why I planned on majoring in English Lit and my mother never tired of asking whether I had found a man to settle down with. My brother, Billy, was a high-school junior and we ignored one another. There was never a doubt as to who was the favorite in the family. It was not me.
I left the three behind when I got back to school. Sophomore year began much as freshman year ended. I threw myself into my classes and spent my free time mostly with groups of friends, sneaking beers and smoking pot on weekends. On the girl front, nothing serious with the occasional weekday hookup.
One of those proved fateful. I saw Sally Ethers in the library. From Washington State and majoring, if I recall right, in economics.. She was sweet and one thing led to another, as they say, and she came up to my room on an early December Wednesday. Not long after an uncomfortable Thanksgiving in Mill Valley. Sally and I got comfortable. Lying on my bed, in nothing but t-shirts—bras and panties still on—kissing. Nice kissing and I was starting to fall into her dark eyes when I heard the knock. In retrospect it doesn’t make much sense, ataköy escort but I thought it was another classmate with something urgent and being pantsless being no big deal, I grabbed a robe and jumped up to answer. Sally hopped up too.
I don’t know which of the three of us was the most surprised. Standing there in one of her Nieman coats with a purse over her arm was Mary Suzanne Nelson. My mother. Sally was behind me, in a robe and rustling to find her pants. Me staring at my mother and she looking past me and seeing Sally rustling to find her pants, the most obvious thing in that being that Sally did not have pants on. Neither did I. I was, sorry, fucked, but not in the way I hoped.
My mother turned and walked away. I never found why she’d come.
Sally and I never did anything then or later. Her bare legs set in motion the train of events that changed my life.
It was quick. On Thursday, an envelope was under my door when I got back from class. Addressed to Miss Mary Elizabeth Nelson. A “Notice”:
Miss Mary E. Nelson,
Please be advised that William Allen Nelson is hereby exercising his right to cease providing any and all financial support to his daughter directly or indirectly from this day forth. Please be further advised that he has elected to allow his daughter to remain in her current position as a matriculated student at the University of California, Berkeley (the “University”) through the end of the current semester and to continue to reside in and enjoy the benefits attendant to such residence on the campus of the University for that period and no more. Insofar as his daughter elects to continue her matriculation at the University beyond the final day of the current term, all obligations, financial or otherwise, are hers and hers alone.
Mr. and Mrs. William Nelson wish their daughter the best in her future endeavors.
William Allen Nelson, Esq.
I called from the payphone in the hall. My mother answered: “Mother. What is happening? Why are you doing this? Why?” The last thing she ever said to me was, “Mary, you know we can’t accept this. You may come home when you are ready to come home. You have keys. Your father and I will be out between two and four on Saturday. You can remove what you want then. I’m sorry. Please lock the door behind you and leave the keys.” She hung up, not waiting for a reply. “And leave the keys” were the last words I ever heard my mother say. I have no idea what my father’s last words were since I never spoke to him again. I saw neither of them again.
Her message was clear: I was disowned.
I still had exams but I didn’t know why they would matter since I wasn’t going back to Berkeley and doubted I could afford college myself. I needed to get my stuff from the house and figure what I was going to do after that.
When I ran into Sally again, I told her what happened, barely finishing before the tears were back. She held me closely as we made people walk around us in front of the library and promised to try to think of something. I had similar conversations and hugs from a number of others, but Sally was the one who came through with something and so add my eternal gratitude to my list of things about her. She is truly a not-so-minor hero in my story.
Sally had a cousin who lived in New York’s East Village. Danny Ethers worked at a florist off the Bowery. Sally gave me his number, and I put a bunch of quarters into a payphone at the library and called him. He said he’d be happy to help if I could get to New York and suggested that I might get a not too-expensive Amtrak ticket.
Danny also said he had a friend who had a friend, a woman, who was looking for a roommate. The place was small but not crazy expensive. He also knew enough people that needed decent workers, especially in bars and restaurants, that I could probably find a job that’d pay the rent.
I had enough money from my summer job that I could afford an Amtrak ticket. But before that, of course, I had to get my stuff.
A friend had a car and she drove me to Mill Valley on that Saturday. She sat in the living room while I went through my things. I looked around my room but most of the stuff I wanted or needed was in my dorm. Here I took some photos and left the swimming trophies. I ran my hand across my set of Jane Austen’s novels and grabbed them. In my closet I found my long-treasured stuffed bear—Elmer. The only male I ever slept with.
When I left and closed the door, leaving the keys on the hall table, I had five pictures, six books, and one stuffed bear. That was the entirety of the world I took from the Mill Valley house in which I grew up.
New York, New York
Penn Station is a dump. It is the one spot in New York City of which New Yorkers think tourists are not critical enough. It has no redeeming qualities.
Penn Station is a dump. It is where I fell in love with New York.
It was December 30. I’d spent avcılar escort the days after moving out of school on a friend’s couch and since she was Jewish we went to a Chinese place for “Christmas” dinner.
I was a mess. Physically. Mentally. Emotionally. A woman named Alice sat next to me when the train was in Philadelphia and while she was initially talkative and I was not, she adopted me before we left Trenton. She lived on Manhattan’s Upper West Side and was in Philly for a day trip. By Princeton she had my story and though she spoke of having a husband she cared not when I revealed—how could my story be told without that reveal—that I was gay. When we got to Penn Station and I was finally off the train, she called her husband, Harold, from a payphone. She then accompanied me. She paid for the cab that took us to my new small-but-not-crazy-expensive apartment on Avenue C near 7th Street. (Since I won’t have the chance to mention her again, I should say here that I still speak to her once or twice a year, with her now being in Orlando. I last saw her shortly before she moved after her Harold died in 2012. At his funeral. Alice was the first New Yorker I loved and the first to love me.)
Danny was as good as his word about work too. I became a waitress at a restaurant on 8th Street near NYU. With work and exploring and forgetting about everything that happened and was happening in California I was happy for the first time in years. The staff of the restaurant, front and back, got along well. Within a few months I was part of the whole East Village/NYU universe. My gayness was never an issue; if someone had an issue with it, she wouldn’t be in this group.
In August I went into NYU’s English Department. A professor, Marc Peters, was holding court with students in his office. He beckoned me in although I confessed to not being a student. He didn’t care. They were talking about Virginia Woolf and I knew enough to join in.
When the others left, I stayed. He taught several courses in 19th Century lit and had a small class—about 15 students—on Jane Austen. I explained that I was forced to leave Berkeley for financial reasons and wondered whether, sub rosa, I might sit in on his class if there was an empty seat. Prof. Peters swore me to secrecy and made me promise not to tell anyone that I wasn’t a student. If enrolment did not fill the room the empty seat was mine.
Enrolment did not fill the room and I took one of two empty seats on the first day of class. I sat after whispering a thanks to Prof. Peters. I was treated like any of the “real” students. Over time and debates I got to know several of them. One was Betty Anne Elliot whose name, yes, harkens to a well-regarded if too-persuadable heroine.
Betty Anne Elliot. She was a couple of inches shorter than me with more delicate features. Her face was heart-shaped and with a long, slim Aquiline nose and a small but wide mouth. Perfectly-sized boobs, i.e., smallish. Light brown hair worn long and jewelry always simple. Of course I would fall in love with her. Madly. Deeply. However the poets put it.
Over time the number of classmates with whom I drifted for post-class discussions dwindled until there was only Betty. And whether we talked about Austen or politics or we talked about California, where I was from, or Long Island, whence she came, didn’t matter. We talked and I breached my pact with Prof. Peters and confessed that I was a scab and left Berkeley after a year-and-a-half. Then, because it seemed natural to tell her, I said I was gay. I didn’t say that was why I left Berkeley.
That was that.
She told me about Gerry—Gerard Allen. She grew up with him in Huntington on the Island. They were exclusive for about six months. She wanted kids. Throughout the semester her affection for him became clearer and clearer. I was happy for her. Then, right after Thanksgiving, she showed me the ring. He’d proposed over the holiday.
Nothing changed between us. We still fit in time to see one another and she kept apologizing for monopolizing my time and denying me the opportunity to see “your type of woman.” I laughed it off.
I met Gerry about a week before the end of the semester. He and Betty came into my restaurant with another couple. They sat at one of my tables, and Betty introduced me. While I gave her table extra attention, things were too busy for me to pay too much.
In the spring, with our mutual class over, I did not see Betty. She spent more of her free time with Gerry, often up at Columbia. We didn’t talk much since I was working most nights and weekends. Just an occasional and usually brief call on one of my days off. Then that dwindled as well and I regretted it but I was out of her life even if she would always lurk in mine. It didn’t matter since she was now doubly off-limits—straight and engaged.
I continued what I was doing. Mostly spending my free time during my out-of-kilter schedule hanging with friends beylikdüzü escort and going on the occasional date. Sometimes going to bed if there was any chemistry. But something, usually my work-schedule, got in the way. I never go past a third date. I was not unhappy. To the contrary, I took up writing. I wasn’t thinking about Betty so much. She wasn’t popping into my mind as I touched myself before falling asleep as she often did at first.
You know how my mother’s knock on my door changed everything in a flash? Much the same thing happened with Betty.
It was early April 1985. I was preparing for the night’s dinner shortly before the restaurant opened. She walked in. She asked to speak with me. I don’t know when I had last seen her, probably briefly in February when I was crossing campus. She wore the ring. My boss said I could take ten, and we stepped outside.
“I can’t stop thinking of you.”
“Listen. I cannot stop thinking of you.”
“Betty, you’re straight and you’re engaged. We haven’t seen each other in months. What are you talking about?”
“I don’t need reminding. But look. And you can walk away if you want. I’ll understand. But I need to know. I cannot spend the rest of my life wondering. Look. I hope it’s . . . that you’re nothing special.” Seeing my reaction to this little “compliment” she added: “I mean to me. That I find out that there is nothing and can be nothing between us. And that’d be that. But, fuck, please. I. Can’t. Stop. Thinking. Of. You.”
We were on the sidewalk, my ten minutes almost up. In shock.
“Just one date. That’s all I’m asking. One girl-girl date. If, as we both hope, it’s nothing, it’ll be no harm, no foul.”
“What about . . .”
“Gerry. That’s for me. OK? If there’s no ‘we’ it didn’t happen. OK?”
And that’s how I ended up meeting Betty for drinks at a bar in SoHo five days later. It was the worst date either of us ever had. Because there was something. Hell, I knew there would be when I agreed. We went out on several more dates on the West Side. By then I had moved to a one-bedroom on West 83rd Street.
On a Sunday in May we made love. It was the only time we consummated our relationship. We both knew it would be. We both knew it was stupid. Before we walked to my apartment, she told me she loved me. I had long loved her but I knew I couldn’t say it and I didn’t. We knew it didn’t matter. She made her commitment to Gerry and was not going to walk away from it and from her family. This was 1985, remember, and things were a lot different then. They still are for some families.
“I don’t have the courage to do what you did.” And I held her before we got to my place and we made love. I stayed in my bed as she got dressed and did not move when she gave me a final kiss. On my forehead.
She was gone from my life, me put into a box placed in some spot in the rafters of her mind, aging like Miss Havisham and eventually forgotten. But, of course, I was Miss Havisham and I could not forget.
I found out—I’m not sure how—that she married Gerry and they had a couple of boys and lived up in Yonkers, a city just north of the Bronx. Near Sarah Lawrence College. It might as well have been the Dark Side of the Moon as far as it mattered to me. That’s all I knew of her.
Between lunch and dinner at the restaurant I wrote. The words flowed. With four or five short stories, I sent them to magazines. No nibbles let alone bites. My third batch, though, got a nibble. A letter from the Holy Grail: The New Yorker. Yes, The New Yorker. A fiction editor called Shirley Davids said I “had promise.” On my next day-off I was sitting in her office on West 43rd Street. She, dangling and occasionally puffing on a cigarette (again, different era), went through—”ripped through” in time and manner—my stories. Six months later my first short-story appeared in The New Yorker.
With the New Yorker seal-of-approval, my stories were no longer rejected summarily and eventually I had enough out to publish a collection with Random House. It didn’t sell many copies, but with the money I was getting from my stories I could almost quit the restaurant.
I did quit when the gruff-but-lovable Ms. Davids—as she was universally known—got me an interview that led to a job at Time Magazine. Now I was making good money—again, another era—and on the road covering politics. The occasional appearance on MacNeil-Lehrer or Washington Week in Review on PBS.
I thought of my family now and then. What of Billy? He was an ass but he was in high school when I’d last seen him. I decided to reach out to him. In 1986 he would have been a sophomore and I knew he’d be at Stanford. So I wrote him a letter. This was before I got to Time. It was simple,
I am sorry about what happened between me and father and mother. I can only be true to who I am. I hope you can understand that. Know that I am always here for you.
To “William Nelson, Class of 1989, Stanford University, Palo Alto, California.” About a week later there was a large manila envelope folded in my mailbox. I opened it and saw my letter to my brother. It was unopened and written across the back of the envelope, in all caps, was “DO NOT CONTACT THIS PERSON AGAIN.”