My brother Danny lost his virginity at age 25. To a call girl named Monique. Hired by our mother.
By the time my mother got the go-ahead from Danny, she’d already made the arrangement with Monique. She pushed ahead despite my father’s objections. She wasn’t troubled by social mores or laws against solicitation.
There was a reason for my mother’s taboo-busting parenting. My brother was born with a rare, incurable genetic disease that affects the development and function of the nervous system. The typical lifespan for children born with Familial Dysautonomia was then about five years. My mother rolled up her sleeves, strapped on her stilettos and ignored the statistic.
It wasn’t easy. As an infant, Danny lacked the essential ability to suck and swallow. Doctors inserted a gastro-nasal tube, and that’s how my parents had to feed him.
They spent the first 6 months of Danny’s life camped out in his hospital room. When my parents finally brought him home to their little apartment, Danny’s condition posed particular challenges for the tasks of daily life like going to the market or strolling in the park. My mother turned to her occasional housekeeper as confidante and advisor.
“How do I take him out? Should I try to cover up the feeding tube? What do I say when people ask questions?”
“You put that baby in that carriage!” my mother’s housekeeper commanded, puffing out her chest and standing very erect, “You march on down that sidewalk, and you hold your head up high, and you be proud of your baby!”
That was my mother’s mindset from then on. She was 100-pounds of solid steel. Good thing, too. Growing up, Danny suffered severe reflux that caused recurrent pneumonias, so my parents performed at-home pulmonary therapy, suctioning Danny’s nasal passages and gently thumping his back and chest. Danny’s eyes didn’t produce natural tears, so he administered eye drops throughout the day to prevent corneal abrasions. An extreme curvature of the spine and hunched shoulders required Danny to wear a special back brace and eventually to undergo a risky spinal fusion surgery.
Danny’s poor balance and coordination made it impossible for him jump or skip, catch a ball, ride a bicycle or drive a car. By the time he was an adult, he could barely walk unaided.
All this was bad, but his greatest health peril occurred when his body failed to regulate its responses to physical or emotional stress, turning anything from a minor cold or test-taking jitters into a life-threatening emergency marked by uncontrollable vomiting and wildly oscillating blood pressure and heart rate. These horrifying events landed Danny in the Intensive Care hospital ward scores of times. To attempt to arrest the deadly cycle, Danny practiced relaxation techniques, and doctors taught our parents how to administer Thorazine or Valium injections.
Remarkably, when Danny was 22 surgeons affiliated with the Familial Dysautonomia Foundation performed a breakthrough procedure to tighten his esophagus and prevent the menace of intractable vomiting.
The results were life altering. Danny’s anxiety about the sudden onset of a vomiting crisis dissipated. Danny still faced a host of other health problems, but with the encouragement of his doctors and our parents, Danny decided he was ready to get his own apartment.
It was the late 1980s, and a building boom in downtown Denver was underway. An Embassy Suites Hotel was going up, and there were a few floors reserved for long-term leases. My parents struck a deal on a swanky one-bedroom with drop-dead views of the Rocky Mountains — the ideal bachelor pad.
That’s when my mother dared to dream the kinds of dreams most mothers take for granted. “I thought someday he’d meet a girl,” she confides.
It wasn’t entirely beyond the realm of possibility. A sociology major at Colorado University in Denver, Danny was frequently in the company of other young adults. He was charming and outgoing, with a mop of chestnut brown hair, long, delicate fingers and a fuzzy moustache he’d grown at our mother’s urging. Danny’s laugh was infectious, and he was a dapper dresser, right down to his argyle socks. But even after puberty Danny remained diminutive in size—5’1 and all of 110 pounds on a good day.
There was a piano bar in his building catering to hotel guests and business people who worked downtown. My brother liked to hang out there in the evenings, enjoying the music and nursing a bottle of Perrier. Picture George Clooney rendered as a Sesame Street Muppet. – That was our Danny.
My mother envisioned him with a young woman inclined to focus more on the George Clooney part, someone small in stature, maybe with some mild disability. She fantasized about Danny getting married and maybe even having children of his own.
And she longed for something very basic for Danny: The experience of physical intimacy. “I understood that he was already growing and developing like any other male. I looked upon Danny as going through different markers. Sex was just another marker that was necessary but delayed.”
But my mother knew Danny’s first sexual encounter entailed more than simply finding the right girl. For all my brother’s charms, he wasn’t what you’d call a smooth operator. For example, Danny was blissfully unaware of a tiny drip of urine that often bloomed around the crotch of his pants. “I didn’t want to embarrass him over such a small thing,” my mother shrugs.
She’d become a lay expert on the autonomic nervous system. She knew, for instance, that the parasympathetic branch controls penile erections whereas ejaculations are functions of the sympathetic branch. Danny could have erections, that much we’d all had occasions to notice at morning time. What my mother didn’t know was whether Danny could ejaculate or have a child of his own. A product of her generation, the possibility of procreation was a particular preoccupation. “In those days,” my mother explains, “parents expected to become grandparents.”
Her consultations with neurologists and urologists in Denver and New York shed no light on the question. It was a matter for empirical inquiry. My mother figured a call girl would provide the most expedient solution. So she turned to an acquaintance who struck her as the type who’d “know women.”
Jay was a widower whose 20-year old daughter had Down syndrome. My mother figured he too had considered the dilemma of his daughter’s sexuality. “We were both parents of disabled young adults. We were in the same club.”
Her instincts about Jay were spot on.
“Oh sure! I know several women and one in particular who’d be willing. Yeah, I’ll mention it the next time I see her, and I’ll have her give you a call. She’s the best!”
Thoughtfully, Jay negotiated the fee, and Monique called my mother to iron out the details. She was to arrive at my brother’s apartment on a Saturday afternoon and leave the next morning. Monique asked my mother if it would be okay if she brought along a bottle of wine to keep in the refrigerator. To help relax, Monique explained.
Monique was considerate, asking if my mother wanted to meet her in person first.
“No! I didn’t want to meet!” my mother recalls with a shriek. A face-to-face interaction seem to violate some threshold of privacy between mother and son. Not to mention, her pal Jay had already vouched for Monique.
My mother’s next step was to prepare Danny for his upcoming tryst.
“I explained that sex is like breathing and eating. It’s something that is part of life.”
Danny was embarrassed, and didn’t know how to respond. My mother tried to be persuasive.
“I told him that this was a normal and healthy thing.”
“Alright, alright already!” Danny finally acquiesced.
Matters squared away, my mother finally came around to informing my father about the arrangements.
“When I finally brought it up, Daddy went bonkers. Absolutely wild.” A street-tough product of Newark public housing, my mother was undeterred. “I didn’t want anything to do with his irrationality, so I just left the room.”
My parents had been together since they were 18, and my mother was confident my father would eventually come around.
“It didn’t take him long,” my mother smiles.
“Okay, just don’t tell me about it! I don’t want to know any details!”
Finally Danny’s big evening rolled around. He’d tidied up his apartment and splashed on Polo cologne.
When Monique arrived in the lobby downstairs, she stepped into the elevator with three residents from the building. They eyed the leggy young woman and her up-to-there dress, a cheap bottle of wine in her hand. Monique hesitated at the control panel as the others selected their floors.
“Does anybody know what floor Danny Cohen lives on?” Monique inquired as the elevator doors slid shut. Suddenly the air was so heavy, the elevator nearly malfunctioned.
As it happened, all three passengers knew my brother. One was a judge, Danny’s best friend from the building. He’d moved in around the same time as my brother. He worked at the courthouse downtown, and occasionally joined Danny for a casual meal in the restaurant downstairs.
Moments after the call girl exited on Danny’s floor, my parent’s phone rang. It was the judge on the line.
“A loose lady was going up the elevator looking for ‘Daniel Cohen!’ You better get down here! I’m calling the police!”
“Maybe she’s just a friend from school?”
“Look,” the judge insisted, protective of Danny. “She’s an obvious hooker! What the hell does she want with Danny?”
Finally my mother leveled with the judge. “I hired her,” my mother confessed. Even the lawman could see this was the right thing to do. He and my mother had a good laugh, trying to envision Danny with the prostitute—Muppet meets strumpet.
Laughter aside, my parents wanted to give Danny the dignity of his privacy. The next day, they decided not to call him. Had it been an ordinary Sunday, Danny would have called them around 9:00.
“We waited around all frapping day and nothing,” says my mother. “No phone call from Danny.”
“Maybe he hasn’t come up for air,” joked my father.
When the phone finally rang, it was Jay. “How’d it go?”
“I don’t know, we haven’t heard a peep from him all day!”
“Don’t worry,” Jay assured my mother. “She’s a great gal, and she knew exactly what to do.”
By mid-afternoon, my mother was overcome by curiosity. She dialed my brother’s apartment. “So how was it?”
Danny was circumspect. “Everything was fine.”
But Monique saw fit to call my mother a few days later with a more detailed report. Danny didn’t have an orgasm, Monique explained delicately, but he’d enjoyed himself considerably.
Within two years, Danny’s balance and walking deteriorated to a point that he’d returned to live with our parents. One evening Danny and my mother were relaxing in front of the television. They’d watched a Bill Moyers program examining death rituals in various cultures. My mother asked him if he ever thought about dying. Danny reflected for a moment.
“Well, no, I mean, maybe if I’d had something serious like Cystic Fibrosis or something.” Was this his characteristic naiveté, or was he considerately shielding my mother from thoughts of his own mortality? We’ll never know.
My mother found Danny’s body the next morning. It was curled on the floor beside his bed like a bird that’s fallen from its nest. It was a clear spring morning, less than a week before Mother’s Day. He was 28.
I didn’t learn about these things until very recently, years after my brother’s death. My mother and I were in my kitchen sharing a Taster’s Choice moment, and she could see I was in turmoil. I had so many unresolved questions, but I didn’t want to bring up any subjects that might be painful.
That day in my kitchen, I finally dared to begin asking questions. “Did Danny ever go on a date? Did he ever kiss a girl?”
That’s when my mother told me about Monique. Looking back, my mother was matter-of-fact. “I’m a realist. This is what needed to be done. For every child, especially one with a disability, a parent wants things to be as normal as possible.
“Danny experienced all of life,” my mother said with conviction as she recounted this love story about my family. “Danny lived life to the fullest.”