By Janis Ian
In a small town somewhere at the foot of the Appalachian Mountains, teachers prepare for the coming semester. Professors grimly consult lesson plans, breaking in new Dockers ("I still wear the same size I wore when I graduated," they brag, bellies hanging over their straining waistlines like blubber off Ahab's whaler). Dormitories are surrounded by troops of exterminators bent on eradicating last year's mess before the health department shows up for a final check. The grounds are infested with newly arrived victims, ready to give the university their all and terrified that anything beyond the boundaries of the parents' homes will eat them alive. If they only knew.
On Greek Row, ivy-covered buildings fit the Southern stereotype, their porches reminiscent of plantations filled with happy-go-lucky slaves slowly serving mint juleps. Here and there, traces of affirmative action creep through: Phi Beta PETA, Gamma Gamma Dyke, United Colors of Benetton. For the most part, though, the area resembles a large tree house with a big sign that says BOYS' CLUB: ALL OTHERS KEEP OUT! And that's how it usually is.
But wait! What's this? Monogrammed suitcases bearing the initials GQ are flung at the foot of the frat-house stairs. A crowd of dully curious jocks gathers around while more cases are unloaded. "Gentleman's Quarterly?" suggests one hopeful, sucking in his gut and trying unsuccessfully to hide his bright red neck with a Polo collar. "Gridiron Quarterback!" shouts another, quickly pulling out a handkerchief emblazoned with the school colors; Caucasian white and Ebola orange. Wrong on all counts, boys. Suddenly an alligator-clad foot drops from the limousine, followed by a pair of doeskin pants. Above a set of Rubenesque hips sits a T-shirt that says NUKE AN UNBORN GAY WHALE FOR CHRIST. Spiked hair the color of a blood-red sunset finally emerges atop a menacing grin, and the boys fall back in horror, several muttering the Our Father. Yes, folks, the new arrival to Delta Delta Bubba is none other than my wife, "Graduate Queer." Mr. Lesbian is going back to college.
To law school, no less. At the University of No Return, a full four-hour drive from our home. She will have to live there, while I stay here. Never having graduated from high school, I can't understand why anyone would want to pack up the Doberman and the John Waters tapes to spend three full years at a school insanely devoted to football. But it's the only school that accepted her. One would think a redheaded Jewish lesbian single parent who will be 50 upon graduation would be a walking federal grant; "Harvard should be begging for you!" I rage. "Harvard's 30 hours away," she consoles me. I am totally bereft, trying to congratulate her while remembering the horror stories I've always heard about graduate students. Mainly that after their spouse finishes putting them through school, they leave for someone younger. "But you're already younger than me," she says reasonably. That reasonableness will probably make her a judge by the time she's 55. I can see it now -- Mr. Lesbian in hand-tailored judicial robes subtly bordered in lavender. Talk about cross-dressing.
I've been good, helping her pack, filling out forms (Person to notify in an emergency: Janis Ian. Relationship: Mrs. Lesbian). Telling her it's OK, I'd be touring until Christmas anyway, what's a few years out of a lifetime. Telling myself it's the right thing to do, everyone should have a chance at their dreams, we are lucky to have each other at all. Reactions range from the sublime ("Wherever you are, my heart will be") to the ridiculous ("What do you mean, you're taking the printer?") to the embarrassing ("You absolutely cannot go to law school -- I need you for my Advocate colums!"). This is certainly bringing out the something in us, though what that might be I cannot imagine.
I fear her vocabulary will pass me by; the last time I criticized her, she muttered "Communis rixatrix," which sounds like a dinosaur but actually means "common scold." I nearsightedly pore over the class schedule, asking inane questions like "Why are you taking tarts? And where will you take them, anyway?" until she explains that it's torts, not tarts, something to do with required course work. I remind myself how lucky I was to have her with me on my summer tour, watching her annoyance when fans would say "Are you Mr. Lesbian? Can I have an autograph?" and laughing as she angrily scrawled "Mr. Lesbian says NO!" across copies of my new album. I remember that this was all my idea anyway, how we've saved and mortgaged so she could have the chance to do what I take for granted -- earn a living doing something she loves. And there'll be Christmas, and summers, and E-mail if I ever get on-line.
After all, it could be worse. She might have wanted to study proctology. Sighing, I bravely follow her out of the car, and we start up the stairs to unpack as one stunned jock calls out. "Hey, you can't go in there -- you're a lady!" I turn and finally get to use the classic line I've been waiting a lifetime to say: "That was no lady -- that was my wife!"
Or as Mr. Lesbian says: "All those closet cases groping each other's butts under the guise of sportsmanship? Of course I love football." And that about sums it up.