How Nellie Oleson Became an AIDS Activist



Chapter Fifteen: A Change in the Relationship

I couldn’t marry Steve Tracy (that gay thing kind of got in the way), but I did marry a friend of his sister. I met Donald Spencer in December 1984. He was twenty-two, like me. He told me a friend of his back in Florida, a girl named Cindy, had a brother, Steve, who married a TV character named Nellie Oleson. Small world, I thought. But Don claimed to have never once watched an episode of Little House.

Getting married seemed like a good idea at the time. I had gone through a whole parade of boyfriends, none of whom were exactly marriage material. With my childhood, I thought any guy who didn’t hit me was “a good catch,” and I tended to overlook things — things like huge age differences, boozing, drugs, chronic unemployment, severe mental illness. Then suddenly it dawned on me that I wasn’t a teenager anymore. My friends, like Melissa, were getting married. (She married Bo Brinkman after knowing him a mere six weeks.) I thought maybe I should at least consider it. Don seemed like a good possibility — a guy who was classically tall, dark, and attractive, who didn’t smoke, drink, take drugs, or run around with other women. He was an actor and a writer. He was hilariously funny. He could both cook and sew. He had lived through a terrible childhood but was getting his life together. And he was definitely looking to settle down. In fact, Don asked me to marry him on our third date.

I had to talk him out of it and urge him to slow down. Looking back on it now, the fact that I was dragging my feet should have told me something wasn’t quite right. It all sounded a bit too good to be true. I should have listened to my instincts. But we married in the spring of 1989 in a big Episcopal church. I even wore white. Well, whitish. I didn’t want my pals to fall out of the pews laughing and hurt themselves. So I went with a nice ivory, a shade slightly off of virginal white.

The whole time I was dating and engaged to Don, I always referred to Steve Tracy as my “other husband.” In the years after we both left Little House, we stayed incredibly tight. It was as if our relationship picked up where Little House left off. We kidded around and told each other dirty jokes. We still could finish each other’s sentences — without a script. It was as if we never stopped being Nellie and Percival. Steve was my friend, my teacher, the confidant I ran to if I had a fight with a boyfriend. I needed him. He was the only constant in my crazy life, and I clung to him when everything else was spinning out of control.

I came home one day in 1986, and Steve had left a message on my answering machine: “Um, hi, it’s Steve. Uh ... call me.” Then he hung up.

I felt the hair on the back of my neck stand on end. It wasn’t what he had said, it was the way he said it. He sounded like someone who was being held hostage with a gun to his head. It was the scariest message I had ever heard. Frantically, I tried to reach him. I called and called until I finally tracked him down. But when he answered, he said in a hushed voice, “I can’t talk right now.”

“Okay, fine,” I replied. “Then we’re going to play twenty questions, and you just say yes or no, okay?”

“Are you okay?”
My heart was now leaping out of my chest. “Are you being held hostage?” (I thought I ought to get that one out of the way.)
“Are you in some kind of trouble?”
“Physical, financial, or legal?” (I know. That wasn’t really a yes or no question, but this was taking too long.)
“The first one.”
“Shit! Are you sick?”
“Very sick?”
“Do you have cancer?”
“Sort of.”
“What? Who the hell ‘sort of’ has cancer?”
Then he said, “I have to get off the phone now.”

I knew this was bad. Really bad. I was on pins and needles, waiting for Steve to call and fill me in. But he didn’t. I knew he wasn’t playing games or purposely trying to give me a nervous breakdown. Steve wouldn’t hold out on me. So I figured he was sorting it all out, and I gave him some time, although it was torture. He finally surfaced a few days later and explained that he had been diagnosed with cancer and had freaked out. He assured me it would be all right; he was getting treatment. But I knew he was lying his face off. I knew him too well and loved him too much not to know.

Yet he desperately wanted me to believe everything was going to be fine; he needed me to believe so he could believe it, too. So I never contradicted him — if he smiled and cheerfully told me the radiation treatment was working, I replied, “You betcha!” But deep down, I knew that wasn’t so. He was a great actor, but it killed me every time I saw through it.

Finally, a year later, Steve fessed up. He had AIDS, and he was going on AM Los Angeles, a popular morning news program, to go public with his diagnosis.

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