I have picked up my first “novel” and have returned to typing it into my laptop. It’s a sad story, a love story, mostly autobiographical, but not completely. I reread it five or six years ago after not looking at it in decades and was surprised that it was at all good. I did not even have the sense that someone else wrote it. It was my voice, a time in my life, a long ago snapshot captured in prose.
The events in the book happened in the late 1970s. They could not happen now; they could not have happened before. The magic of it is that I wrote it back then; it is a glob of verbal amber. It catalogs many firsts in my life — the first time I traveled to a large city alone; the first time I visited a major art museum; the first time this, the first time that — and now I see how many went on to become things I love. At that time I had only dim glimmers, vague yearnings.
As I said, it’s a love story, one that’s very hard to tell, partly because it involved a world that is not only gone, but one that was underground. My boyfriend was gay, and our experiences were — many of them — part of the world hidden within Denver in the 1970s. Downtown, in anonymous looking, almost invisible bars, the secret world emerged when the 17th street bankers and lawyers returned to their homes in Cherry Hills after the day’s work ended. Trying to find even just a photo of that world is — so far — impossible. It’s not only that it has been wiped away by the passing of time, but it was not even supposed to have existed. So far I have found only a scholarly article written at the time and the cover of one of the issues of the monthly Gay underground periodical.
How did this happen? One day I was walking toward my car in front of the English department building at the University of Denver. I was in grad school. First quarter, second year. Breaking apart marriage, barely enough to live on with my teaching stipend and scholarship. My life, my heart, were tied to my thesis — my life line. Late fall.
I looked up. A strikingly handsome man from one of my seminars was waving at me from the front of the building. “Hi!” I waved and got in my car.
The seminar was Yeats and this guy was clearly the smartest in the class. I’d made a comment about a poem, an image that was obvious to anyone who’d attended a parade where people rode horses. No one else had caught the image through which Yeats was trying to say “PARADE!!!!” Only me, only this guy.
“You want to go have a pizza and talk about ‘Sailing to Byzantium’?” he asked me the next time the class met.
“OK.” Husband was in another state, having given me the “drop out of school or I’ll leave you ultimatum.” I stayed in school.
We never talked about the poem. About an hour into the evening I realized I was on a date, not just a date, but a date with an irreverent, widely traveled, wryly humorous, and brilliant man. I learned later he’d graduated summa cum laude from Harvard a couple of years before.
“You’re so real,” he said to me. I didn’t find that exceptional. He was real, too. Then, as he walked me to my apartment after bringing me home, where (unbeknownst to me, my husband was waiting (lurking?), having driven down from Laramie for reasons I don’t remember), he said, “The thing is, I’ve had passionate affairs with both men and women.”
I believe I said, “So?” I didn’t see then how it could possibly matter.
I honestly do not care a shred about LGBTQ (now we’re adding Queer to the acronym) rights. Everyone has to struggle toward his or her own freedom. One of the things I learned during this relationship is that, ultimately, if we love, we love a PERSON, whatever our “sexual orientation” may be. There’s so much more to that struggle than law, that I don’t know why the laws protecting people’s human rights are even debatable. Colorado was one of the first states to decriminalize homosexuality. Back then, gays could marry in Colorado. There was no gender statement in the Colorado constitution (the obvious assumption was, of course, that marriage was between men and women, so obvious it didn’t need to be stated) and the county clerk in Boulder county issued many marriage certificates to gay couples. The question I heard debated was not whether gay couples could marry but why they would want to. The world of the 1970s was so different in so many ways from our world today that it’s impossible to reconstruct all the intricacies of it. In 1976 Denver had its first annual “Gay Pride Parade” but none of the gay guys I knew had wanted anything to do with it, least of all my boyfriend. “I don’t want to be defined by the way I fuck,” he said. “Besides, I’m not proud of it. I’m not ashamed, but I’m not ‘proud’. Are you proud to be heterosexual, Martha?” I think I just shrugged. I agreed with him. In answer to the ubiquitous “choice” question (I can’t believe people still believe homosexuality is a choice) he said, “Who would choose this, to be separated forever from the simplest, most basic and normal aspects of human society?”
Peter wanted a family and begged me to marry him. “Our children will be remarkable, wonderful.” That is certainly true, but I didn’t want a family, not then. I wanted to see the world and have adventures AND I wasn’t blind to the reality of our situation. Anyway, Peter has been dead since New Years Eve, 1989. I last saw him in September of 1981. The five years we were together are long gone. There is no trace of anything except this manuscript and a letter that says, “Keep writing! Love, Peter.”
I’m going to try to finish this thing.