Today would have been our 39th anniversary
Why was I there? I felt like a runt. I poured a tumbler of Tanqueray and skulked about, looking for some kindred spirits.
The door to a bedroom was ajar, and I could hear the appealing murmur of serious conversation. Little did I realize how serious it would become.A very handsome black man sat languidly in an overstuffed chair by a bay window, discussing -- with those who were sitting at his feet -- the environmental advantages of high-density urban living. Several people lounged nearby on the bed, and others were in the bathroom, snorting coke and trying out some of the products in the medicine cabinet. A bottle of Asti Spumanti was being passed around. I walked straight over to the man in question and sat at his feet. He reached out to me, and we shook hands. His name was Joseph.
I had never met a man who radiated such a powerful masculinity. He was very imposing physically -- tall and well-built -- but it was his voice that appealed most to me. It was deep and resonant, with a forcefulness that at times was more heated, I thought, than he probably intended. He was articulate and cultured. He was an architect who expressed his dynamism by erecting glorious urban skyscrapers, as well as country estates for the rich.
We left the group, and sat on the carpet in a quiet corner. He spoke to me in the most beautifully respectful way. He plied me with questions about myself. He answered mine with insight and humor. I lost track of everything except for my fascination with this gorgeous man.
We had probably been talking for nearly two booze-energized hours when a small, exquisite young man joined us.
Joseph's masculine, almost macho, way of speaking changed immediately as he softly, sweetly, seductively greeted "Justice," who sat down beside me on the floor. Joseph actually batted his eyelashes, which was rather unsettling.
As Joseph introduced us, he told me how Justice had transformed his second bedroom into a sun-drenched aviary, filled with tweeting songbirds, who flew freely among a forest of branches and perches. Justice was a darling boy, very tender and radiant. He was a window dresser at Sak's Fifth Avenue.
"I've missed you, Big Daddy," Justice said.
"We'll make up for it later," Joseph replied, with an unnerving sauciness.
I was enjoying being a witness to their interaction, but I was a bit crestfallen as well. I had been thinking that Joseph might become the "Big Daddy" that I yearned for -- someone who would protect my fragile psyche and body in this beautiful, brutal city.
When I decided it was time to head home, they invited me to go out "clubbing" with them the next night. "Heineken and dancing -- you'll be in heaven," Justice said. "You really must come. Pretty please?"
|New York Times photo by Robert Zash of gay bar on Fire Island.|
I am hoping that this expression is no longer in use, but in the 1970s, heterosexual women who hung out with gay men were known as fag hags. It didn't bother me personally, because I didn't think of them as fags or of myself as a hag, but the ugliness and snideness of the term were offensive to me.
NO LOOSE SNAKES!
You also get physical affection, without any snakes getting loose in anyone's pants.You can hug, roll around on the floor laughing, or even sleep together -- which I did, with several gay men -- and you can snuggle all night without a worry in the world. I found this to be very comforting. They expressed the same sentiment.
Not all gay men fit into this stereotypical mold, but most of my gay friends were particularly sensitive and caring. They had interesting aesthetic sensibilities. They were fun, generous and spontaneous. They had a wicked, biting wit. There was, of course, a sadness as well. AIDS hadn't appeared yet, but homophobia was rampant, even in New York. These young men had endured years of torment and bullying before they finally "came out of the closet," as it was called in those days, and everyday life still inflicted indignities upon them. They were often treated with outright disgust, and they were in constant danger of being assaulted.
Joseph was fortunate in not fitting the stereotype. He was a Great Big Hunk of Steaming Man. I had been confident that I had very reliable "gaydar," but it had never occurred to me that he was gay until Justice walked into the party, and he melted.
"Gay Pride" was just getting started, and I watched with great emotion as it helped to lift them up in the same way that the Black Pride movement had done for African-Americans.
I went out with Joseph and Justice, and we spent a long evening drinking and dancing in a well-known Greenwich Village gay bar. It was packed, and the music was loud. Some men were in business suits; others were in nothing but Speedos; still others wore flamboyant costumes, with feather boas, sequinned platform shoes and lots of makeup.
I have always felt a sense of privilege -- and I guess of pride as well -- when I have been allowed to be immersed in someone else's subculture. Out on the dance floor, I felt so free, but I never forgot for a moment that there was a trust implicit in their permitting me to be there. Of course there was an element of voyeurism on my part -- I couldn't help that. I had never been anyplace like this before. But I had a sense of responsibility toward these gentlemen, who surely knew that I was having an anthropological as well as a party-hearty experience in their midst. I was the only woman there, but I wasn't the most feminine person there by a long shot.
FISTING AND STUDDED LEATHER
But when we walked into a place in which a naked young man was trussed up grotesquely on a spotlighted stage in the center of the room and was being "fisted" by a guy in studded leather (the crowd screamed its approval), I said "I'm through with this" and walked out. My clubbing days were over. I am very open minded, but I'm sorry, guys -- that is plain sick. It's an image that has haunted me ever since.
Joseph began taking me to dinner, just the two of us, and one night he made me vegetarian chili in his spacious, minimalist Fifth Avenue apartment. After we ate, he got out his portfolio and showed me each building he had designed -- both the blueprints and photos of the completed work. We looked through his library -- he had gotten a classical education at the University of Chicago, where reading the Great Books was required -- and at his photographs of his growing-up years. That night, I stayed with him, as I often did, and I loved feeling so safe. He was a tall, muscle man with such a clean-smelling undershirt. Who could ask for anything more?
The next morning, we had breakfast down the street, and then we walked through Central Park for a couple of hours.When we got back to his apartment, he told me he needed to call his mother. Much to my dismay, he put me on the phone with her. She sounded like a very gracious and cultivated person, but I'm sure she was as uncomfortable as I was in trying to converse with a total stranger.
Joseph then sat me down at the kitchen table and pulled out some blueprints. "I want to marry you," he said, "and I thought you might be more willing if I showed you how we would live."
A WHOLE NEW LIFE
I was stunned. I hadn't planned to get married until I was at least 30, which was five years away. I wasn't sure I ever wanted to be married.
But Joseph made a good case. We were great friends who thrived in each other's company. We had the same interests and values. As a pair, we were delightful to each other and to ourselves and to our friends. We seemed to bring out the wit and expressive energy in each other. We were sought-after party guests, and at that time in my life, there was nothing for which I'd rather be sought after.
One very big advantage of marrying Joseph, as far as I was concerned, was that he was gay, and he'd have his boyfriends, so I wouldn't have "wifely duties." I didn't want wifely duties. And I wouldn't have to worry about losing him to another woman. I was very fond of his lovers, young pretty-boys who were in a swoon over his big, manly maturity.
"Don't you love me?" he asked.
"Of course I do, but I haven't been thinking of it as a marriage kind of love," I replied.
"But don't you feel the romance between us?" he implored.
Indeed I did. Long before he proposed, I had regarded ours as a "romantic friendship." I've had a few in the ensuing years. It's when a great friendship comes to involve an urgency, a yearning to be together, a palpable change in body chemistry when the friend calls or appears at your door. It is the feeling of being suffused with peace, pleasure and contentment when you're with that friend.
It is essentially romantic love minus sex.
Of course I was very moved by Joseph's proposal and by what he had already done to make our "married life" exciting and beautiful. I stroked the blueprints. I inhaled deeply and shook my head. It was an incredible scenario.
I couldn't "just say no."
Over the next week or so, I gave it a great deal of thought, and I couldn't imagine a better partner or lifestyle than my wonderful friend and that glorious loft and the continuation of my grand New York City adventure. I was also hopeful that if I settled down, I would cut back on my alcohol consumption, or stop altogether. I was drinking heavily almost every night.
I was unaware at that point that Joseph had already booked a flight for his mother and set the date for April 18. She wanted me to have her opal wedding ring, which had been made less than 10 years after slavery ended, and had been in her family ever since. He was going to clean out the yet-unfinished Soho loft for a huge party.
THE FIRST KISS
The next time we had a "sleepover," we were in our usual "spoon" formation when Joseph turned around and began kissing me. I pulled back. "What's going on?" We had never kissed except for the perfunctory way in which friends greet each other.
He said, "I thought we'd better start trying out the marriage thing now, to see if we need any professional help. I've never been with a woman before."
My heart sank. "But you're gay, Joseph, so just keep on being gay. I'm fine with that. I thought that was a given."
He told me he would never ask me to enter into a marriage that wasn't "real and complete," and that he wanted to change. He didn't want a sham marriage, and he didn't want to be running around with his boys when he was my husband.
I got up and brought a bottle of Jack Daniels back to the bed. I had him sit up, and I told him the sordid story that explained my unwillingness to have a sexual relationship, even with someone I loved and trusted as much as he.
"There's no way?" he asked.
"No way," I said. "Is there no way you'd be willing to be married and remain the way you are?"
"It's a matter of integrity -- I won't do it," he said.
We had our one and only real kiss. To my surprise, he began crying.
"I never wanted to be a gay man," he sobbed. "And I thought that with you, maybe I could change."
Whenever I see anyone crying, even on TV, I cry too. To see this paragon of strength and discipline wracked with sobs tore me apart.
"You can't be normal with me, because I'm not normal, Joseph," I said, through my tears.
That was the night that our gay wedding was postponed indefinitely, forever.
I have just learned through an association of black architects that my beloved friend Joseph Wills has died. No details are available, except that he was in Hollis, N.Y. at the time. How can there be no details about where and how he died? Why is there no obituary? What must his life have become for it to end this way?
I still have the opal ring. Both he and his mother insisted that I keep it as a token of the "special bond" we all shared with each other.