Wrestling with Women, Part II

Hanging out on the CCNY lawn

This is the second of three parts. But first, a happy astronomical note: In a recent post I mentioned that astronomers expect that the star Betelgeuse, which has been dimming of late, will go nova and burn out sometime between tonight and the next 100,000 years. Now they think that the dimming is the result of a gas cloud obscuring part of the star, or sunspots, or some other transitory phenomenon, rather than the star about to go nova. So my favorite constellation, Orion, is likely to look the same for at least as long as I’m around to enjoy it.

*          *          *

The morning after my first awkward love-making with Laura, I called her and told her about my revelation that I was a lesbian. She pooh-poohed me. She didn’t want to label herself or our relationship. I was hurt, like a rebuffed puppy. I could hardly take my eyes off her in our next judo class. She was my height, her figure halfway between trim and curvaceous, with dark brown, nearly black hair and a fair Scottish complexion. Her eyes were dark as well, while the whites had an almost bluish cast. What I found most attractive were her crisp walk and gestures, which gave the impression that she might have been a dancer.

About a week later I received a letter from my boyfriend, Patrick—a brief note, actually, written in a crude hand. He had been arrested for shoplifting and would be serving 30 days on Riker’s Island. Since I had a spare key, he asked me to look after his apartment.

The truth was, I really didn’t know much about Patrick. When I’d asked what he did for work, he said he was a troubleshooter. I assumed that meant some kind of engineer, hired to solve problems in construction or manufacturing. Such was my ignorance and naïveté. It hadn’t occurred to me that a guy my own age—18—would hardly qualify for such a position, or that an engineer would probably be occupying something nicer than a basement studio in a rundown building just south of the garment district. After reading his note, though, I suspected that he might not even have completed high school.

I told Laura about the apartment right away. She had wanted to leave her husband for some time and seized the opportunity. She packed and moved in, intending to use Patrick’s place as a quick transition to a place of her own.

The studio was most likely illegal. It was a few flimsy walls carving out what basement space remained between the furnace and the laundry room. Dark even in the daytime, it had a double bed, clothes closet, and kitchenette. Laura decided to compensate Patrick for use of the space by scrubbing the dirty skillet he’d left in the sink. She washed and dried her linens in the laundry room, put them on the mattress, and invited to me “come wrinkle a sheet.” The sheets were cornflower blue, which seemed exotic compared to the plain white linens at home, and were infused with the scent of Tide detergent—a fragrance that became a turn-on during the months of my infatuation. I made love to her. She didn’t reciprocate.

Laura found her own apartment quickly enough, and was out of Patrick’s before he was released. When he came home, he told me that he’d met a couple of guys at Riker’s who were going to “teach him the ropes.” At this point I broke up with him. I told him I didn’t want to be his gun moll.

*          *          *

Laura and I continued seeing each other. Since my mother got upset when I didn’t come home, I’d put Laura on the phone to prove that I was just spending the night at a girlfriend’s house and not with a man. Meanwhile, my world was expanding. Laura introduced me to Scottish folk songs and we’d dance around her living room. We went to cultural events within our budget, the most memorable being a Miriam Makeba show at the Village Gate.

After she left her husband Laura stopped going to martial arts. I missed wrestling with her. One evening after class I went to dinner with another judo student. A couple of drinks in, perhaps because Charlene was amiable and I needed a friend, or perhaps because she was black and knew what it was like to be scorned, I confessed to her that I was having an affair with a woman. “Welcome to the club!” Charlene’s smile was warm and hearty, though with a sad edge. “There’s me, and Betty, and Judy, and…” She named about half the class. I was completely astonished. Like so many other young gays, I’d been thinking I was the only one. Then Charlene extracted a photo from her wallet, of herself and the famous pop singer Johnny Mathis. “We go out together whenever he needs a pretend girlfriend.”*

That year I met Laura’s mother, a beaten down old woman, shapeless, in a faded print house dress. She barely acknowledged my presence. Her husband had been a drunk and occasionally used her as a punching bag. I later realized that he had probably sexually abused Laura as well. But in 1962 nobody talked about that, and I was young and ignorant enough to believe that my love plus a few sessions of therapy would overcome any damage she might have sustained in childhood. Still, there were signs, if I’d been able to read them, that she was living with trauma.

She would sleep through the alarm clock and miss work, so she paid an answering service to keep phoning her until she got up. There were piles of laundry in the living room when I visited her, as well as dirty dishes and half finished cups of coffee scattered about. Some of the latter had been sitting long enough to grow multicolored circles of mold. At the time I thought this meant that Laura had liberated herself from the shackles of housework, and even admired her for being willing to thumb a nose at society’s expectations.

We were sitting on the campus lawn late that spring when I spotted a 4-leaf clover, and a moment later saw another. Wanting to share the luck, I offered one to Laura. She refused it. I still don’t know why.

As summer approached, she got the idea of applying for a job waiting tables at one of the Catksill Mountain resorts. I applied too, hoping to be with her, but neither of us was hired. I went back to my typing job at the Navy Regional Accounts Office.

Our occasional nights together continued in the same non-reciprocal pattern. I thought she didn’t find me attractive enough and kept hoping that would change. I did what I could to please her, including writing slushy poetry—none of which, fortunately, has survived. She kept encouraging me to leave my parents’ home. By the end of summer I got up the nerve to take an apartment in Brooklyn, a short subway ride from work. Laura never came to visit, and now that I was on my own and more available, she withdrew altogether.

I was alone then, night after night, without a lover or a circle of supportive friends. Defeated, I quit the job and moved back in with my parents. For the next two months I slept most of the time, rising only to go to class.

*Mathis didn’t come out publicly until 1982. When he did, he received death threats and went silent about the issue again until 2006.

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