Fifty years ago I moved into my friend Michael’s apartment with the intent of turning our remarkable platonic attachment into a love affair. He was a bit taken aback as I stood on his porch with my suitcase. When he politely asked where I would sleep I announced, “in your bed.” We were together from that time until his death 45 years later, in May, 2017. The following is about one of my lucky finds that makes me glad I’ve understood the value of history.
I know that there are people who in their deep desire to reduce clutter, have routinely dumped stacks of paper which mysteriously seemed to get taller despite their best efforts. I think I could repopulate vast naked forest lands with the sheer volume of utterly irrelevant documents, advertisements and catalogs which, regardless of my trying to do business digitally, still show up in their physical form in the mailbox on my front porch. My recycling container is full every week. I’m always imagining my castoffs, bundled together with innumerable thousands of others, floating on some giant container ship at sea, going nowhere but in wide circles. A scary thought in this time of climate change. On the other hand, I’m really good at hanging on to every scrap of paper that really means or meant something to me, my ancient journals, letters, love notes, which can instantly transport me to another time in my life. Reading the thoughts, declarations and perceptions of my twenty year old self is simply different than just remembering. I can’t change those words from myself or others to fit what my mind might prefer all these years later. Those are the facts of a moment in time. That’s why I like hard copies and paper trails. They can be destroyed, edited or recycled. But they can’t be unwritten as they were once, long ago. When emails and texts became the more dominant modes of communication, I printed plenty of those too. I’m not the least bit sorry.
Some people don’t like looking back. Personally I’m a big fan of perusing the former iterations of me, all of which make an elaborate mental tapestry of how I got to here from there. Parts of what I read are humiliating. I don’t like seeing the me that I was in certain times of my life. I think the hardest times for me, aside from some childhood traumas which most of us experience in one way or another, were the years 1969 through 1971, from ages eighteen through twenty. I started college in 1968, just past seventeen years old, a little young after having skipped a year of elementary school. I wish that hadn’t been a popular thing to do back then when a kid showed academic talent. For me, that was a stolen year of my childhood. I could’ve used that time to do a bit more growing up. But I didn’t have much say in the matter. When I went off to college I was pretty clueless about what I was supposed to be doing there. I was ready to shed some of the more irritating pigeonholing that seemed to define most aspects of my social existence, but was cautious about moving off on my own. I’m not impulsive by nature. Although I’ve had my moments of taking an intellectual or emotional leap, more often I was thinking and weighing and deciding before I made my moves. That first year of college, I was part away at school and partly back at home. By the summer of 1969 I’d moved along a bit and decided I was going to try new things and new people and definitely, new risks. I felt pretty confident that I was more ready to move ahead after a year of floundering in my past.
That fall of 1969 was so much better than the previous year. My classes were ok, I was deeply engaged in my rapidly evolving political ideology and I was trying new things. I was the last person I knew to drink alcohol and try marijuana which both happened shortly after returning to campus. I signed up for all kinds of activities I’d never tried, pushing to get outside the expectations of my former life. I was having a pretty great time, meeting new people and dating. But then I met the person who ultimately shook me off my forward footing and helped me turn into the sniveling wretch I became for the next two years. Al. Our relationship didn’t start out that way. I was pretty dazzled by his wide-ranging intellect but initially, I wasn’t sure I was looking for a serious relationship. After a few months, he was first in professing his love, albeit with the qualification “for now.” I heard that qualification but ignored its implications. After a bit longer, I was hopelessly in love with that guy and convinced he was the real deal, my future partner. Bad signs were flashing in my head but I thought, like many innocent people, that with time, he’d get past his immaturity and realize that it was just fine to discover “the one” at an early age. I was so sure everything would work out that after months of resistance, I stopped being the last virgin I knew, positive that we’d get through the next few years and wind up together.
My journals from late 1969 through most of the summer of 1971 are absolutely cringeworthy. Page after page of despair over the yo-yo emotional disaster I called our relationship, which consisted primarily of painful breakups and passionate reconciliations. I did a lot of raging and crying to his stone-faced responses. We engaged in this awful cycle so many times that I became partially inured to it, dully holding on to the hope that eventually we’d get past all of the madness and be together and happy. I didn’t fully understand back then that after a while, that kind of instability and pain can deeply erode your soul. He saw a lot of other women while I dated one other person which was in keeping with who I’d always been. But somewhere inside me, I knew that I was in terrible shape and that I needed to do something to break the toxic cycle in my life. I wanted a big break and some distance to work on myself. Two girlfriends and I cooked up a trip to Europe which would take place in the beginning of 1972. I still had a couple of classes to complete but I was so worn out and frazzled that I didn’t care. So we made our plans. Al and I were still going through the misery of our cycling madness. But that summer at a wild hippie wedding which was classic for that era, I had the great fortune to meet Michael. Our electric instantaneous friendship was a game changer. I’d literally forgotten what a healthy progression in getting to know someone felt like. I was still hassling around with my feelings for Al and Michael had a girlfriend. But we started spending a lot of time together.
By October, 1971, my journal entries were sounding a lot less pitiful, more thoughtful and redirected from the maudlin despair of the Renee/Al saga to the Renee with a better future and a lot more self-esteem. The film “Say Anything” from 1989, had a character played by Lili Taylor, who composed weepy love songs for her dopey cheating boyfriend – years later she reminded me of myself in 1971. But back to the positive turn in the road. I recently read one entry where I described my renewed sense of faith in healthy relationships where trust and support were central components rather than paranoia and destructive behaviors. My connection with Michael was healthy and I was already a bit nervous about exploring anything more than what we had at that time. By the time I left for home and the upcoming Europe trip however, a few more months had passed and I was growing more certain that there was potential for something more than friendship between Michael and me. He came to visit me the weekend before I left to go abroad. I was positive I loved him but too terrified of mucking up our friendship to do anything about it. In transit to my flight from New York, however, and immune from any unsettling confrontations, I did the impulsive thing, calling him from the road, confessing my love and then disappearing into my travels.
We exchanged many letters and postcards during the time we were apart. Recently I came upon a letter which I wrote but never mailed, written on March 14th, 1972. Too nervous, I know, to take such a big aggressive step. I’m so glad I found it. Listening to my young voice echo across the decades is a rare treat. From my 20 year old self:
Today was beautiful, sunny rainbows in Geneva. Lakes, rivers and parks everywhere, it’s oh so clean and lovely. I really appreciate the warm weather, it’s been cold in lots of places where we’ve been; somehow sunshine is trailing us now. The best part of this place is “The Old City,” antique churches with walls of tiled pictures. Also there are swans, ducks, pigeons and seagulls everywhere – I’m getting way into birds here.
I need you really badly right now. I want to talk to you so you can help me sort out my feelings. I’m happy and content with this trip but there’s a lot on my mind and I think that the imminence of going home has something to do with my urgency for communication.
I’ve thought a lot about people on this journey, all kinds, and relationships. I’ve met so many different people on this journey and each one has added an extra shade to my perception of what it’s all about, and me in regard to it all. I’m so much more sure of myself, what I am, who I am and I don’t want to have to change again. There’s so much I left behind, I don’t know how it’s all going to shape up when I return.
Letters are generally an inadequate form of communication, but usually I can tell what’s behind the words. One thing’s for sure, Al’s gone, out of my big picture. I care about him but I never want to be with him again. God it was sick, wasn’t it? The Dennis business has had its ups and downs – interim Dennis, even through the mail, that all feels strange to me.
As you can probably tell, I’m beating around the bush or rather around my head. What can I say to you? I’m afraid to come back. It’s all there, whatever any of these feelings are, and I don’t know how I’m going to walk in and pick things up. I’m so afraid of you. I feel vulnerable and although I know you won’t hurt me, I’m anticipating trouble. It’s hard to describe.
I wish you could’ve gone through this trip with me. I’d really like traveling with you, I know it, we’d just sort of blend together. I want to love you very badly, mostly because I already do and the absurdity of it all keeps pressing on my head. I keep thinking how I’d love for you, me and the dogs to jump in the car and run away forever. Shit.
I keep feeling that I’ve made everything up, that I’m just fantasizing. I don’t know how I got into this mood, I don’t know why I’m telling you all this insanity, I think I’m lonely. Well why not just be honest, for Chrissake? Why should I try implying things when I can just tell you straight? What all this incoherent nonsense amounts to is actually very simple.
According to all indications, I’m most probably in love with you and by very easy calculations have been for some time. Unfortunately external circumstances were a problem and as a result, I never, or my feelings never, had a chance to know if we could work or not. At least I didn’t. I don’t know about you. So the explosion before I left and then dreamland. It’s crazy, I’m still having feelings for others but I’m hanging on the edge of a precipice, you, you’re stuck inside me, and I turn there, to that spot, all the time, at least when I’m experiencing something heavily, or when the pinch is on. What does it all mean? I don’t trust myself in this, or you in this, or this itself, I’m dying. Love at first sight, are you kidding me? Why aren’t you here, why aren’t I there, why did I leave and does it make a difference in reality?
Fuck, I want to sleep with you, dammit, do you understand? What a horrible thing to write, but it’s really true and at least it would resolve something. Michael, I want us to love each other.
I’m about to puke right now, this letter is insensible, unreasonable, hyper-emotional and full of sexual frustration. I wish I wasn’t political, this would be lots easier. I hope you don’t get pissed or upset, this actually is positive and nice somewhere beneath the turmoil. How do you say you love someone when the subject has been carefully evaded or concealed for so long? That’s why it would be better to talk, look and touch, clear the air, the confusion and figure out the real difference between fantasy and what’s really happening. I know you’re fucked, too, you keep trying to get it all down but you’re uncertain, unsure. What a drag. I haven’t heard from you for a while which may account for some of this…paranoia. If you can possibly tell me, what’s going to happen? Have a good spring vacation, please write to me in Frankfort before you split. See you in the beginning of April.
I love you, don’t be uptight about it. It’s just the same as it always was. Reny.
P.S. Say hi to Herbie (my dog)
So this was never mailed. I’m so glad it didn’t matter. The rest, as they say, is history.