Asking For Love



South Street Seaport, NY, NY 10038

Neighborhood: Financial District

An “incident” had occurred at the group home where my younger brother lives with five other men and three women who all have mental retardation. His supervisor, more amused than upset, followed procedure by notifying me and beginning an investigation. Fred, a 103 pound, 5’2” 52-year-old man, was discovered standing with his roommate of two years in their tiny room with their pants down… Fred’s penis against Robby’s buttocks.

Three weeks later, my wife Lisbeth and I were having lunch with Fred by the windowed-wall of a bar/restaurant in the lower Manhattan Historic district. Lisbeth, a psychoanalyst, asked, “Who did it first?”

“He did,” said Fred.

“Robby showed you how?”


An elderly couple sitting directly behind us had already glanced our way several times, something that happens when Fred is around. He is unable to properly form sounds because of asphyxiation at his premature birth, which caused his mental disability. He will dutifully repeat himself the way a person speaks his own language louder and slower in a foreign land. Fred is not subtle.

I had tried this discussion before going on vacation, but Fred adroitly dodged me, a talent he mastered while living in the infamous Willowbrook State School for the Mentally Retarded, and later in his group homes. I had let the issue go—the supervisor agreed that his action showed interest in receiving sexual instruction, something the State routinely demanded be requested by the “consumer,” as my brother is called. I reminded the supervisor that Fred awakens with a jolt if touched during the night and recoils when a stranger touches him—in the past, perhaps at Willowbrook, where the supervisory ratio was one to fifty, he could have been sexually abused.

Lisbeth feared that because of the required investigation and his being assigned a new roommate, Fred might feel he did something wrong. She had begun the discussion saying, “Fred, did something happen in your room?”


“Something didn’t happen in your room a few weeks ago?”

“I had an accident.”

“Something between you and Robby?”

“I’m not gonna camp no more.”


“My roommate takes my stuff.”

“And you take his stuff,” I said. “Last time I saw you, you were wearing his pants.”

Fred smiled.

Lisbeth looked across the table at me, and said, “He’s smarter than you are,” a thought I had recently been having, something I can indulge in now that Fred and I have been reunited for seven years, the time necessary to resume a brother relationship squelched by forty-five years of institutionalization and group homes, when Fred’s only contact with the “world of normal” were our parents. How many ways would I be jealous of my brother if we had grown up together? Fred was much more of a people person than I—his favorite pastime being sitting over a cup of coffee, an activity that makes him seem so comfortable with life, sipping between long intervals. But then, he lights up when he sees me; he talks about me all the time. I appreciate that I can be jealous of my brother; it makes our relationship more normal.

“Fred? Were you and Robby naked?” asked Lisbeth.

My brother’s face relaxed. His French fries no longer interested him. He sat upright and still—Stunned? Caught? Relieved to confess?

“I don’t think staff talked to him about this,” Lisbeth said.

Lisbeth’s boldness and spontaneity trumped Grandma and Grandpa, who were now shifting in their seats.

“Did anyone talk to you about this?” asked Lisbeth.

“No,” said Fred.

“It’s okay what happened. You have sexual feelings. You just need to know how to direct them.”

“It’s normal,” I chimed in. “It’s okay.”

Fred wound up his left arm and lightly punched my right bicep.

“Hey!” I said.

He did it again. There had never been such fluidity in his movement. Fred walks with an odd gait and has poor depth perception. Usually he’ll just tap me to kid around, but now he was putting his whole body into it.

“What’s the big idea?” I said.

He wound up and hit me again, smiling. I punched him back.

“Did you have your penis out?” Lisbeth persisted.

I looked over my shoulder—Grandma and Grandpa had departed the now empty restaurant.


“Did Robby have his penis out?”


“Did it feel good?” Lisbeth calmly continued. She dealt with adolescent sex in her practice all the time: anal sex, oral sex, multiple partners, sex and drugs. In this story, I was the virgin.

“Yeah.” Fred nodded.

“What else do you do to feel good?”

My brother was stumped.

“Do you use your hand?”


“Are you embarrassed?”

I was.

“He’s gulping his coffee,” commented Lisbeth.

My brother wanted to get laid. It was funny and sad—he didn’t know how to proceed. In Denmark, because of a belief in similar possibilities for everyone, he would have been taken to a prostitute. Or he would have moved in with his girlfriend Janet, someone he met at a former day program, someone he asked to marry after he told me that he liked her best.

“Yes,” said my brother. He was embarrassed.

“Don’t be. You have sexual desires. This is normal,” said Lisbeth.

“It’s natural,” I chimed in, a big brother pissed off with the bureaucratic reasoning that had fostered this scenario. But I was impressed that society’s derision of same sex partners did not deter his bedroom activity…experiment…I don’t know! I had never considered that my brother’s only private moments were in his room.

Fred examined us, listening closely.

I asked him something he always answered with silence: “Have you kissed Janet?”

“Yeah.” His solidness, his simplicity showed us that he wasn’t talking about a peck on the cheek.

“Do you want to have sex with Janet?”


Fred frequents the same supermarkets and coffee shops as his “normal” neighbors, folds clothing in a thrift store alongside “normal” employees, and goes to the movies. These activities permit him to observe and copy “normal” behavior. It’s called “inclusion.” The media includes him in their massaging of our senses: how many among us smoothly parley its stimulation and society’s sexual repression? How many among us can directly ask for love?

My brother took our arms to negotiate the cobblestone streets, just as he usually did. He didn’t ask to delay the return home, as he often would. He needed to think things over.

And I don’t know if he’ll ever get it.

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