Saturday, February 15, 2014

Saturday Musings, 15 Feb 2014, dedicated to my LGBT friends, especially the married ones

Good morning,

On Thursday, I heard an interview on NPR with a woman turning 103.  I didn't hear her name, or what, besides her remarkable longevity, prompted NPR to provide this woman with fifteen minutes of fame.  But  I heard her tell a story of refusing to share a room in her nursing facility with someone because they were black; and of the friendship she later cultivated with that woman, resulting in her adjudging herself to be a "bad person" for turning her back on someone due to something that made them different in the one way which should not matter.  She spoke of the pain she felt when the woman died, of whispering to her as she drifted away, of knowing, certain-sure, that she and the woman shared so many similarities that their differences were inconsequential.  As chance would have it, I heard this story twice that day, during two different voyages in my car.  And her voice, her words, drew me to the past, as voices often do.

I cannot tell you the year.  Before 1980, because I stand in an apartment in St. Louis.  My dining room table groans under the weight of food which I've heaped upon it.  It's summer.  The mild hum of the small air conditioning unit in one window distracts me.  I'm worried that I haven't picked the right alcohol; that no one will come; that those who come won't stay; that I will be alone with my untouched appetizers and unopened bottles of wine.

My downstairs neighbor raps on my door a half an hour early.  His name is Richard.  He's an artist.  He's wearing cut-off shorts, artfully tattered, cut at the hip and unbelted.  He has strong legs, well-developed arms, and paint spatters on his shirt.  He's gay.  We get along well and I consider him a friend.  

He's brought some of his newest pen-and-ink sketches to show me; that's why he's early.  He's excited about his work and speaks rapidly, happily.  He's drawing his dreams, lurid and lovely, stark and stunning.  They depict acts of sexuality; moments of tender touches between parents and their children; demons rising behind unsuspecting souls.  I scan through the book and feel moved but also frightened.  I suddenly wonder if Richard is a bit much for my grad school friends, for the few who are conservative, the ones who aspire to be lofty, or the ones who still stumble through life, unsure of their path.  It's a mixed group, and some of them combine their traditional backgrounds with a desire to explore other ways of living; others had liberal parents but now wear button-down shirts; and a few will come in beads they salvaged from the sixties at Vet's Village.  Other than Richard, and one same-gender couple who lives in another section of our building, all of my guests are straight.  And that other couple thinks Richard is a little weird, truth be told.

An hour later, my fears have been chased into a cupboard.  Everyone is there.  Strains from the stereo mask the racket from the window unit, which desperately tries to keep pace with the rising heat in the crowded room.  August presses against the window, with its lingering heat, holding even after the sun sets.  

I go into the kitchen to fill the ice bucket.  Two of my friends stand at the little counter.  They've found Richard's sketchbook.  I see from their faces that they don't exactly appreciate the frankness of his drawings.  One of them turns to me.  "This stuff is gross," he says.  "Who did this?"  He has the book open to a page that shows two male angels copulating.  Their faces radiate with glory and joyfulness.  I take it from him.  And then I flash my Judas face and say, "Oh, just my neighbor.  He's gay."  Like that was a disease.  My friends look beyond me, and I turn.  Of course, Richard would be standing in the doorway, a platter on which there is nothing but crumbs in his hands; he has brought the tray to be refilled.  He wanted to help me.

He casts the dish onto the counter, and eases his artwork from my hands.  "Yes, he's gay," he says.  "And now, he's gone."  He turned away; and I never spoke with him again, except in monosyllables, at the mailbox, in the parking garage, and always, with my eyes averted.

In the decades, the years, the months, since I betrayed my friend out of some misguided belief that I would not be caught and in my betrayal, would endear myself to those judging souls in my kitchen, many times regret has risen like bile to choke me.  I've had many friends since then, some gay, some straight.  Some who wore their sexuality with such ease that I couldn't have said, unless I saw their partners, which way they leaned.  I have loved; and I have failed at love.  I have seen love take hold of people and keep them in its tender embrace without regarding to anything other than their need for each other.  When such people join, their gender doesn't really matter.  All that matters lies within them.

Some time after that party, I heard that Richard died.  I realize, looking back, that he must have  been swept away in the early AIDS epidemic.  That realization came  later, when I testified at a will contest hearing.  I had written a will, my one and only, for someone who left his house to his male companion, and then died, from infections secondary to HIV.  I had known he had some illness, but that was 1983, and no one spoke of this ravaging disease at that time.  The world had not yet readied itself for anything other than fear of those who bore its stamp.

My client's will was challenged by his ex-wife and their children.  They claimed that my client had been unduly influenced.  They accused his heir of treachery, debauchery, and debasement.  I sat in the witness stand and spoke of his composed demeanor, his calmness, his certainty.  The lawyer defending the heir later died of AIDS himself.  He won that case, as well he should have.  In my memory, I withstood the blasting cross-examination that day.  I hope this memory is not false.  But this I do know:  As I left the stand, I wondered, not for the first time, if Richard ever brought himself to forgive me.

Mugwumpishly tendered,

Corinne Corley

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The Missouri Mugwump™

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I've been many things in my life: A child, a daughter, a friend; a wife, a mother, a lawyer and a pet-owner. I've given my best to many things and my worst to a few. I live in Brookside, in an airplane bungalow. I'm an eternal optimist and a sometime-poet. If I ever got a poem published in The New Yorker, I would die a happy woman. I'm a proud supporter of the Arts in Kansas City. I vote Democrat, fly the American flag, cry at Hallmark commercials, and recycle.