Inspired by Plagues

Yesterday, as I was having fun putting the short stories together and designing a book, a welcome break from this virus and the idiocy of the “liberate” people (death is a kind of liberation, I guess), I thought of our last “plague.” Thinking of that led me to think of Peter who died on the last day of the year in 1987 of meningitis, a complication of HIV/AIDs. The new anthology of short stories — Who CARES if there’s life on Mars? — is dedicated to Peter. Everyone who gets the book will see the dedication. SO… I thought I’d write a bit about who Peter was.

Anyone reading my blog might get the idea that I’m “bitter” about “luv’.” I’m not really bitter, but the way it worked out for me in my life taught me that what ought to work, might not, and that even real love might not be “happily ever after.” “Luv” is fraught with unknown perils and it doesn’t “conquer all.” It’s also not “all we need.”

Peter was a grad student at the University of Denver when I was. He was an incredibly intelligent, glib, irreverent, iconoclastic, talented and physically beautiful man. He had graduated Summa Cum Laude from Harvard. He’d studied in Italy and France and traveled in North Africa. We met in a graduate level survey of American literature. He was working toward a PhD in creative writing. I was just starting out toward an MA in English. The first real thing he said to me, besides “Hi!” was a note, “Voulez-vous faire du ski avec moi?”

One of our classmates had seen Peter and me talking in the parking lot and warned me, “Peter is gay.” It wasn’t long before Peter had told me himself, with more information, “I’ve had passionate affairs with both men and women.”

So, I went skiing with him and didn’t enjoy it much. It was cold. I didn’t like the ski area, I was a total spaz. The experience was awkward and confusing, but, so what else was new? I didn’t realize Peter was interested in me. Our first date (that I didn’t know was a date) was ostensibly (I didn’t know it was “ostensibly”) to talk about a couple of poems by Yeats for a seminar we were both taking. I took my book. He picked me up and we went for pizza. We never talked about Yeats.

My heart might have been aflutter about Peter, but I was still trying to contend with the last (two) complicated love relationships in my life. I was still married to a man who had abused me (and would, once more). He had left Denver to study in Wyoming, and I was living alone. In the background of THAT was someone who had clutched my heart since I was 19. And, and, and… I was scared.

Somewhere in all this I took my ten-speed up Waterton Canyon. The thought of riding up a trail in the foothills had captivated me, and mountain bikes hadn’t been invented yet. The tires of a ten-speed road bike are not the right thing for that rough, rocky, thorn-throttled trail. I got a flat and ended up walking back four or five miles down the canyon, picking up companions as I went. One old guy who joined me on the walk down was a true expert on the canyon and, because of him, I knew to look for mountain sheep. About a two miles before the end, a BLM truck gave us a ride. I lifted my bike into the back and we sat on the tailgate all the way down.

When I got home, quietly inspired by Peter talking about the creative writing seminars he was taking, I wrote the experience into a story. I gave it to Peter to read. Teacher-in-Training that he was, he wrote comments, most notable (and clearly unforgettable) “I love your story! It has energy which most of the stories I read in this fucked up program lack. Keep writing.”

I’d written a couple of stories in high school, but until that moment, I hadn’t thought of myself as anyone who could write a story. Peter never wavered in his encouragement, and the last letter I have from him responds to a story I’d sent while he was living in Chicago. Again he has written, “Keep writing.”

We were together in our own way for five years. Love is going to love where it loves, and that’s about all you can ever say about it for sure.

I took the title of the anthology from one of his letters in which he’s written that his grandfather is dying of cancer, then writes, emphatically, “Who CARES if there’s life on Mars?”

The last time I saw Peter was over Labor Day Weekend in 1981. He’d asked me to marry him. I went to Chicago to talk it over and learned that his boyfriend wasn’t at all keen on the idea of Peter marrying me. From one point of view, the weekend was hilarious. From another it was desperately sad. I was stuck there for two nights. The redemption was a long day at the Chicago Institute of Art seeing paintings I’d only known from books. It was the moment I learned that I like wandering alone in big cities and looking at paintings. The ending — at the airport when I finally got to get away — was absolutely, abysmally, totally, heartbreakingly and inarguably sad. Sprawled out on 3 seats in a nearly empty DC-10 I resolved that there had to be more to life than “luv.”

One of the stories in this new collection imagines Peter and me as old people, sitting outside a coffee house in the gay part of San Diego. In the story “I” am a man. It was fun to write it. It’s a “what if” these two otherwise eminently compatible people had been able to form that relationship everyone wishes for? As Borges wrote in “The Garden of Forking Paths,”

“…I leave to various future times, but not to all, my garden of forking paths.”

Fiction is that garden.

19 thoughts on “Inspired by Plagues

  1. It reminds me a little of LA LA Land, which I refused to see until my son insisted. He told me I would cry. Funny, that’s when I knew I had to watch it.

  2. What a wonderful story, Martha. You and Peter both added meaning and richness to each other’s lives, which I’m coming to believe is the best of “luv”. Will we see each other, help the other along the way, whether or not it goes entirely the way we might of wished.
    Yes, I remember the early days of the HIV plague well. Med student and resident during those times, before the virus was even isolated and identified. So much uncertainty and fear.

    • ❀ It's a beautiful thing, I think, when two people really SEE each other and have the courage to fight for what might be possible between them. It was Quixotic but if I'd had "better sense" I'd have missed something beautiful and important.

      • Exactly. And how good you didn’t marry or become lovers, or your personal run might have been considerably shortened. At the end of life, which I’ve been thinking about a lot owing both to the times and my Dad’s circumstances, it’s rare for people to regret the chances they took that may or may not have worked out, and common to regret “playing it safe”. Always a balance to be struck, of course, but in general, go for it is an okay approach.

        • Peter and I were lovers, but (I’m glad to say) we never tried living together. I have thought a lot about the end of life since I retired. I know that THIS interval is amazing in its own right, but I also know that when I “graduate” it’s NOT going to be into a new career (I don’t think). The virus made me reassess my final requests etc. and that was good and necessary (always clarifying). Looking back on the whole imbroglio of my life, it seems to me that I had to learn something. Convoluted and labyrinthine as it was, it couldn’t have been otherwise.

  3. This is a wonderful story of the friendships upon which romantic love is based. It also provides a good background for the stories you will share in your new book! Thank you for sharing this very personal part of who you are!

  4. Martha you have really had a most extraordinary life so far. I have had some interesting adventures but not anything to the level of yours. I think you completely fearless (and uncommonly blessed to have such rich and precious memories)!

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