A Valentine for my Gay Ex-Husband
(A version of this post first appeared in iPinion. It remains one of my favorites.)
I met him in graduate school during the early sixties, the kind of smart, studious young man I‘d always been drawn to but never managed to date. He said “oops” a lot and was so funny that being in his company felt like having childhood for the first time. He knew music, wrote poetry in a serious way, and was, in my eyes, the smartest person in our circle. We only saw each other in a group or in a threesome, but we began to rest in each other‘s company, to draw close without touching.
In the spring of our second year, he had a series of anxiety attacks, and that summer he left graduate school to teach. He also entered therapy. We sent each other letters–he rather less frequently than I–and two years later he returned, giving me a passionate kiss upon arrival. In November he said to me, “I think I love you.” I told my friend, “He is the only man I’ve ever wanted. I’ll do anything to have him.”
In December, he and I were standing on a corner waiting for the light to change. An older man walked past, suddenly swiveling his head, to follow the progress of a young man wearing jeans that fit like paint. The only man I’d ever wanted took my arm.
“I have something to tell you.”
“What is it? “
“If it weren’t for you I’d be homosexual.”
“Is that why you went into therapy? “
“Yes, in part.”
“Couldn’t you just get more therapy?”
It was the middle-sixties, homosexuality was still widely regarded as a neurosis, and my own ignorance was profound. But most importantly, I wanted to believe that therapy would be the “cure” because I felt with him what I had longed to feel for most of my existence–happy, valued, loved, secure, at home.
We went full steam ahead – married and moved east for our first jobs. Then things began to fall apart. This time it was I, not he, who needed therapy. The pressures of my first job in the sexist English department of an Ivy League university and, paradoxically, the fact that I married a man who made me feel secure and loved had allowed the darker elements of my childhood to rise to the surface. I broke down, developed odd rigidities and lost my libido. He had insufficient lust to make up for my sudden lack of it.
I entered analysis but the stronger I got, the more uneasy I felt, not just about our lack of sexual passion but about my growing need for independence. He had been my best friend, lover, husband, also mother, father, brother, twin. I had merged with him so fully that, in the course of therapy, I began to feel I couldn’t become a stable person unless I put some distance between the two of us. I needed to come back to him as an adult. I rented an apartment near our home and planned to spend a few nights there each week.
One year later, while we were still living separately and together, I took a month-long trip to think things out. The day I returned, we made arrangements to meet for dinner. I’d slept with someone else while out of town, and my guilty conscience plunged me into panic about whether he had too. I had no right to ask, but the thought of him with someone else made my head and ears felt swollen as if all the cavities of my head were full of water.
“Dick, did you see other people while I was away? “
“Did you sleep with someone?”
I felt my stomach and my chest letting go. The swelling in my head began to fade. I was still the only woman in his life.
“I admire your courage,” I said and meant it.
It was the beginning of the gay rights movement and I saw his sexual venture as an act of personal politics, much like becoming a feminist had been for me. Somehow, I felt we hadn’t left each other. That evening, he wrote in his journal, “Judy I love you desperately and completely. I feel great hope for our future. Now life really begins again.” And he was right. Like swans, we’d coupled for life.
After he began his sexual journey, we both fell in love with other men, but within two years we were living as roommates and would continue to do so for the next ten tears. “Home” was where the two of us could be together, no matter what the terms.
“If ever two people were made for each other,” we said, “it’s us.” He met another man; I met another man too. Mine came to live with me. And Dick. I married my new man–with many second thoughts—and the three of us moved to a three-story Victorian house, ideal for sharing. I was married to one man with whom I would have a child, but it was the sound of Dick’s step on the stair that filled me with a sense of home. When my daughter was born the following summer, life felt complete.
In getting ready for the baby I made little of the fact that Dick was having unexplained bouts of illness and losing his way on familiar streets. Over the winter, he continued to decline, and in June, after a mysterious seizure, his doctor suggested that I attend Dick’s medical appointment with him. We sat in the office holding hands through a tangle of tubes attached to his arm when the doctor said, “You have full blown AIDS.”
“What can we do?” I asked. It was the early eighties. I didn’t even know if this were fatal. The doctor told us of some drug trials at the National Institutes of Health. Dick entered NIH, stayed six weeks, and then came home in late July. Bouts of illness, trips to NIH, and returning home continued throughout the summer and the fall.
In early November, Dick was back again at NIH, the drugs not working. He came home, returned to the hospital, and arrived home again with an IV attached and instructions for me to administer his shots. In late November he slipped into in a semi-coma. On Thanksgiving morning, three days later, as we held hands, he died. He was forty-six.
Perhaps the story of our love belongs to the 1960s, when everything seemed possible, a spirit we never lost. Had we come to each other in the 1970s our marriage might never have taken place because in the 1970s the lines between gay and straight were strictly drawn. But had we met in the 2010s, who knows? Genders, sexualities and modes of attachments have multiplied and blossomed and anything is possible today. In honor of him, I want to celebrate the day of romance with a Valentine that honors the many kinds of love that are in the offing– if we are flexible and creative enough to make them work, if, in the end, we are open to possibility.