© by the author
I know the exact moment I realised my relationship with Nathan was over.
We had lived together for 28 years. I was 52 at the time, and he was 53. Our friends joked that we had a far more stable and enduring relationship than most married couples, and indeed our union outlasted those of many of our friends, gay or straight. Nathan was the first person I knew for sure to be gay, other than myself of course. I met him on my first day of graduate school. I had paused inside the front door of Old North Hall and was examining the list of occupants posted there and trying to locate the office of my supervisor of studies.
‘Hello, you must be Ross Cambourne.’ The hallway was dark and the staircase was brightly lit by the windows at the back of the first landing. I could tell the deep voice came from above, and the creaking of the staircase revealed that someone was walking down it toward me. But all I could see against the light was a dark figure. When I walked further into the hall and Nathan approached the bottom of the staircase, the figure resolved into a young man, taller than myself, his hand extended to shake mine. And I knew, knew without doubt, that this man was gay. ‘My name’s Nathan Sevenfields.’
‘How did you know my name?’
‘From your picture. It’s quite a good likeness. Mrs Jackson, the departmental secretary, tacks the new graduate students’ photos up on a board in our common room. I was just looking them over and spotted yours and now here you are.’
And that was how we met. It was also one of the few times that I have kept a New Year’s resolution. At the beginning of that year, I had resolved that I would do something about being gay. You have to understand that this was 1966. I had first heard the word ‘gay’ only a few years before, when an acquaintance explained to me that he thought the word as used in the line ‘show me a man who rides side-saddle and I’ll show you a gay caballero’ in a Kingston Trio song referred to a homosexual. Other than meaning a man who was sexually attracted to other men, I wasn’t sure what being ‘gay’ involved, but I was determined to find out. I’m not going to bore you with a recitation of how difficult it was to be gay in the dark ages. Those of you who lived through them already know; those of you who didn’t can extrapolate from your own experience.
It was almost five months before Nathan and I first had sex. As he explained to me years later, after he had adopted the idea that honesty was essential to a healthy relationship, he hadn’t been attracted to me. He saw that I was horny and wanted to have sex, and he was feeling charitable and thought he would treat me better than another person might. And so began my initiation into gay sex and gay life. I thought we were in love; he was doing me a favour.
I don’t mean to imply that there was no love. It wasn’t like that at all. I will try to avoid the tendency common among the divorced to revise the past and exaggerate every woe and slight that occurred, and I realise that Nathan would tell a story quite different from the one I am telling. Both of us were enthusiastic about being with each other for the first ten years or so. We liked each other and could envision a life together. And that helped create a good relationship. We had the usual fights about money and clashes about life styles, but the commitment to the relationship helped get us past that. Both of us got jobs in the university after we took our degrees. We found a flat together and later bought a house. Gradually, without consciously intending to do so, we acquired all the possessions and chattels of a married couple—except children, although we did keep a succession of dogs and cats.
Our careers were successful. Both of us became senior staff in about the minimum time possible. Nathan specialises in ancient history and has written a series of highly regarded and popular books about the Roman Empire. He is what is known as a ‘solid historian’—he is careful never to go beyond the facts or indulge in speculation. And he writes incredibly well. As narratives, his histories are superb. My original field was Byzantine history, and a good part of my current work is still in that field. Rather early in my career, I reviewed a book on the philosophy of history. My comments provoked a spirited, and I must say somewhat intemperate, response from the author, and in order to defend my views, I had to think harder about the subject and publish on it. Many of my colleagues have little sympathy for such endeavours, and I’m afraid that, for some of them, I became a ‘once-promising scholar of early Byzantine history seduced by continental-style theorising into fanciful flights of philosophising’. I mention this because it was one source of tension between us. Nathan tends to receive invitations to speak to groups of enthusiastic amateur historians. I am asked to lead seminars by graduate students and to serve as a main speaker at professional conferences.
Another source was something I alluded to above: Nathan’s discovery of ‘honesty’ as a virtue in relationships. I don’t mean to suggest that we had been lying to each other before this discovery. It was just that like most couples we had left much unsaid and often did not bother to correct the other when something less than the whole truth was said. Nathan adored his mother, for example; it was one of his many virtues. I found her talkative and narrow in her interests (truth to tell, she bored me utterly), but I would never have told him that, and I endured many of what I found to be dreary hours in her company.
Sometime during our second decade together Nathan began using honesty as a weapon in the relationship. ‘Honesty’ in this case masked a determination to have his view of the relationship prevail. At first, none of the statements issued under this rubric was an outright lie. Frequently they were uttered with a tone of bemused tolerance. We were eating dinner with a group of colleagues once, and Nathan greeted the appearance of a serving of peas on his plate with the gleeful announcement that I didn’t like peas and he had to eat out to get them. Well, of course, I eat peas. They are not a favourite vegetable, but I do eat them and had often cooked them at home for the two of us. Nathan was simply casting himself in the martyr’s role, the long-suffering spouse forced to forgo an innocuous legume because of the misguided tastes of his partner. Over time, however, the statements stretched the truth further and had more serious consequences for our relationship. One night, for instance, Nathan announced to a group of friends that I hated travelling and hence would never take a holiday, forcing him to travel alone. It is true that I find travel tedious, but I had accompanied him on many excursions. Subsequently, however, this served as an excuse for him to take trips alone despite my protests that I was willing to accompany him. As he put it, he did not want to coerce me into doing something I found objectionable. I came to feel more and more that I was being channelled into a role and that attitudes and behaviours were being prescribed for me because it suited his convenience. Needless to say, it was an irritant in the relationship.
As I said, at first, none of these assertions was a complete lie. They seemed to be such small things that there was no reason to argue about them. As many people do, I suspect, eventually I found myself at the point of no return. I had for so many years put up with these statements and accepted them as the ‘official version’ of our relationship and history together that it became difficult to undo them. Small decisions, none of them of any particular importance and often made by others, accumulate, and the result is that one finds oneself in an intolerable position. Nathan is a much more assertive person than I am, and his view of the relationship—that he was the dispenser of charity and I the recipient—prevailed. It was a view that Nathan, understandably, felt redounded to his credit, and he was loathe to confront its untruth and incapable of looking at it dispassionately. Eventually any attempt by me to contradict this ‘family romance’ was met by vociferous argument.
It is difficult to write about this without sounding a complete fool. But there was much about the relationship that was good. We passed into middle age a relatively contented couple. We were comfortable together, and we had made a good life together. I aged more rapidly than Nathan, however. He is athletic and probably still plays a vigorous game of tennis. In my off hours, I preferred to potter about the garden or to cook. I became bald, he retained his thick head of black hair. My waist thickened (to be honest, I am fat); he remained slim. I was frequently tired by the end of the day. I grew to look several years older than he.
It was around this time that the infidelities came to my notice. I do not know when they started. I became aware of them because of a strange incident with one of his students. Nathan had introduced me to J_____ several months earlier. I happened to fall into step with J_____ as I was walking across the quad one day. I tried to strike up a conversation with him and received in return a withering look of contempt before he abruptly reversed course and headed back the way we had come without speaking. I mentioned the—to me inexplicable—incident to the group of colleagues I was meeting and was greeted by an embarrassed silence. Later, Margaret Brockston took me aside and told me that J_____ was Nathan’s ‘latest favourite’ and ‘might be jealous of my position in Nathan’s life’. Margaret also took it upon herself—rather presumptuously, I thought—to offer the opinion that Nathan was trying to provoke me and overcome my ‘phlegmatic nature and habitual tendency toward irony’. I thanked her for her willingness to tell me the truth and promised her—much more politely than she deserved—that I would reflect on her comments. Needless to say, since Nathan had many more ways open to him for getting my attention than having affairs, I did not give much credence to her views. In any case, I have little sympathy for such facile psychologising.
I spoke with Nathan about J_____ and, in the interests of ‘honesty’, was told that my increasing lack of desire for sex was forcing him to look elsewhere for physical release. Nathan subsequently made sure to tell me about each of his liaisons. According to Nathan, none of them was serious, and he promised that none would endanger our relationship. As far as I know, he took my advice and was careful not to get involved with one of his students again, however.
And so both of us reached our fifties, neither of us sufficiently dissatisfied to end a relationship of many years’ standing, but neither of us totally happy about what it had become. So why did I stay? Why did Nathan stay? Well, why does anyone stay together? Habit and inertia. The comfort of a familiar argument. A shared history. The semaphore flags comprehensible only to a long-time couple and thus in themselves a sign of their bond. Busy lives that gave both of us an excuse to avoid deep interaction. The awkwardness of admitting to a mistake and arranging a separation. My Catholic upbringing and the notion that divorce is a sin. Hope for an improvement. Convenience. The aged cat it would be cruel to dispossess of her favourite spot in the sun. The throbbing toothache that just might go away if one puts off calling the dentist for another day. Trivial reasons perhaps, but the glue of many relationships.
The event that made me realise the relationship was irrevocably over occurred on a Monday afternoon in Washington, D.C. I had been in Washington since the preceding Wednesday for the annual conference of a scholarly organization for specialists in Byzantine studies. The conference ended on Sunday at noon. When Nathan learned about the meeting, he suggested that he join me in Washington on Saturday and that we stay over for a few days and take in the Freer and the other museums. He also arranged to examine a manuscript at the Library of Congress and contacted some old friends of his to have dinner with them.
By Sunday at noon, I was weary of smiling and trying to remember the names of people I see only once a year. I was ready to sequester myself in our hotel room and indulge in the pleasures of being grumpy for a few hours. Nathan, however, was tired of sitting in the hotel lobby and reading the newspaper. The conference was at the Hilton above Dupont Circle. In the taxicab on the way from the airport on Saturday evening, Nathan had noticed (it could hardly have escaped his attention) that Dupont Circle and its environs were frequented by a large number of handsome young men. Even someone as lacking in the ability to identify other gay people as I had no trouble recognizing it as a gay area. Nathan insisted that it would do me good to change out of my suit and tie into more casual clothing and take a walk and get something to eat. I was half-tempted to tell him to go by himself and let me take a nap, but in the end I decided that he had travelled a long way to join me and that it would give us a chance to do something we so seldom did—be together in a place where we didn’t have to be Professors Sevenfields and Cambourne.
England had been damper than usual that March, and Nathan was right, it was a treat to step outside into the spring sunshine, flowers, and warm air. To judge from the ready smiles and laughter, everyone else felt the same way. Even apparent strangers were exchanging pleasantries. The pavements outside the restaurants were so packed with people waiting to enter that it was often difficult to edge around the queues. We walked around for about an hour looking into the shops. The noon rush was over by then, and we were able to find a spot in an Italian restaurant that had an outdoor seating area. It was very pleasant to sit there, and Nathan and I traded horror stories about conferences. The food wasn’t the best—the cook was one of those people who thinks al dente means crunchy in the middle. By the end of the meal, half-cooked bits of pasta were ground into the recesses of my teeth and were proving impervious to the nudges of my tongue. I think chefs in the United States were going through a raw veggie and no salt phase. The “sauce” had consisted of crisp chunks of vegetables that had briefly been in the same room as the stove and was so lacking in flavour that it was an incentive to diet. But even the bad trendy food didn’t impinge on our enjoyment, and the waiter was young, handsome, and attentive enough to rate one of Nathan’s raised eyebrows and amused smiles as he walked away.
The day continued in much the same way. Nathan’s friends invited us to their home for dinner, along with another couple. All six of us hit it off immediately. The conversation was animated and droll. It was a very urbane evening. When we got back to the hotel, Nathan was in an amorous mood (he often was in hotels), and our lovemaking was more vigorous and prolonged than it usually was. For me, and I think for Nathan, it was one of those happy days that came only occasionally by that point in our lives. We spent the night curled up next to each other in one of those huge American hotel beds with its cool, smooth sheets. The bed was so big that in the morning the blanket on the far side was hardly ruffled.
Monday morning we spent at the Library of Congress. Nathan had arranged beforehand to view the documents and artefacts he wanted to see, and he and the librarian were soon engaged in a deep technical conversation about archives and manuscripts. It was pleasant to sit in that book-lined, light-filled chamber among people so enthusiastic about their profession. I shortly tuned out what the two of them were saying and became lost in a reverie about libraries and books and my own research.
Around eleven we went to the Freer. As usual Nathan’s tolerance of museums was greater than mine. I find my desire to view objects diminishes rapidly; museums have too much to see, too many things that demand that one look at them, in my opinion. It would be far better to display only a few of the best items at a time and let the rest remain in storage. Nathan, in contrast, is indefatigable in museums. He wants to see everything and examine every object in great detail and then discuss what he sees. He can speak with such authority that he often collects an audience who treat him as a docent/lecturer. He loves that. But by four that afternoon, even Nathan’s enthusiasm had begun to falter, and he readily agreed with my suggestion that we take a cab back to the hotel.
That was a mistake. Within two blocks we were stalled in a traffic jam caused by a parade of demonstrators walking up the mall toward the Washington Monument. It seemed endless at the time. We must have been stuck at that intersection for twenty minutes before traffic began to move again—slowly. Every light turned red as we approached, and Nathan and I, not to mention the taxi driver, were beginning to be impatient. When Nathan spotted a coffeehouse in Dupont Circle, he had the taxi pull over and we got out. We found two seats at the front window and had a full view of the street scene. The subway station there disgorged a constant stream of people coming from work. It was enjoyable to sit there watching others be busy while we were relaxing.
Opposite the coffeehouse was a gay bookstore, and Nathan asked if I would mind if we browsed for a while. I hate shopping for almost everything, and he loves it. Over the years, we had reached a compromise. Bookstores we did together. Food, I shopped for alone. Clothing—he was on his own. The bookstore was quite large and had a surprising number and range of books. I headed for my favourite shelves—the mysteries section. I had read a few gay mysteries but had had no idea how many there were. Most of them were American publications not available in Britain, and I spent an enjoyable half-hour limiting myself to the four I thought I could fit in my luggage and whose covers would not alarm a customs agent. I jotted down the authors’ names and titles of others that looked promising. I was surprised to find how much time I had spent browsing. We had to be up early the next morning, and I thought I had better find Nathan so that we could eat and then pack for the flight back in the morning.
Nathan was in the photography section, examining a book of male nudes. Those books were displayed on a table, and that area of the store was more open. He happened to glance up as I walked toward him. When he saw me, he pretended that he hadn’t and focussed on the picture in front of him. At first I thought he was doing what he usually did and trying to ignore what he knew would be a prompt from me that we ought to be moving along. ‘I found several books. How about you?’ I held up the four books I intended to purchase. Nathan looked up at me blankly and then turned away. ‘Are you about finished? We should get back to the hotel and pack.’ Nathan closed the book he was looking at and put it back on the table. He moved a few feet away and then picked up another book. He carefully positioned himself so that his back was towards me.
And that’s when I realised that Nathan didn’t want to be seen with me. He wanted anyone who had been watching to think that I had tried to pick him up and that he had snubbed me. As I stood there trying to figure out what to do next, he put down the second book and walked away from me, into another area of the store.
‘Sir, are you ok?’ It took me a second to make sense of the concerned young face that was looking at me with alarm. One of the clerks was holding out his hands for the books. ‘I can keep these at the counter for you if you would like to browse some more.’
‘No, these will be all. Thank you. I’ll just get these.’ I paid for the books and walked back to the hotel. What surprised me most was my acceptance of what had happened. I wasn’t feeling regret or anger so much as relief that the relationship was finally over. I returned to our room and took a shower and then began packing. Nathan didn’t come back for another hour or so. He had decided to ignore the whole incident, perhaps in the hope that it would all blow over quickly, and he said nothing when he came in. I continued to sort through the papers in my briefcase, and then I said, calmly and without thinking much about what I would say, ‘If being seen with me embarrasses you, you do not need to feel that it is necessary to invite me to accompany you. I am quite happy on my own.’
Nathan didn’t even bother to try to deny my interpretation of the incident. He just nodded. All he said in response was ‘Yes, perhaps that would be best’. He changed and then left. When he returned after midnight, I was pretending to be asleep. He got undressed in the dark and then slid into the other bed. In the morning we flew back to London. Since Nathan had made his reservations long after I had, we weren’t sitting together. So I had a good eight hours to think about my plans for the future. I knew that I wanted out of the relationship. The question was how best to engineer that. Nathan, I knew, would not tolerate my leaving him. His pride would not stand for that. I had to arrange for him to leave me. He had to ‘dump’ me and that fact had to be known to his friends. I decided that as long as I was free of him, it didn’t matter what his friends thought.
Back at home, to all appearances we resumed our familiar routine, with only a few differences. I had started waking up in the middle of the night a few years earlier and often, in order to avoid disturbing Nathan with my restlessness, I would get up and move to the bedroom that was designated ‘mine’ on those, mercifully rather rare, occasions when it was necessary to convey the notion that we were merely sharing a house. Gradually I spent more and more of my nights in my bedroom, until we were sleeping apart. I also found excuses to avoid spending time with Nathan alone—the proofs that I had to return the next morning demanded that I stay late at the office; a particularly boring visiting colleague who needed to be fed dinner in college. It wasn’t hard to devise reasons. When necessary, we could still become the devoted couple for our friends and associates, but psychologically and physically the relationship had ended. For many months, however, I was unable to realise my goal of ending it definitively. For Nathan, I would say that my presence was a convenience. I did the cooking and the day-to-day cleaning and cared for the gardens. An occasional conversation was a small price to pay for the services I supplied.
But the gods do provide, if seldom as quickly as we mortals might wish. Enter the only person from Liechtenstein I have ever met. Alois von Hohenlohe was, is for all I know, an overpowering person—tall, muscular, handsome, engaging, intelligent. He came as a visiting external student to study with me and to use our library collections and those at the British Museum. Moreover, Alois, it soon became apparent, liked mature men. His hints to me were unmistakable. I invited him to a dinner party at our house and sat him beside Nathan. They enchanted one another. I made sure that Alois became a frequent guest. It took little effort to persuade Nathan to accede to my suggestion that the vacant and unused nursery and nanny’s room on the third floor would make a perfect apartment for Alois.
Contrary to my usual habit, I accepted many requests to deliver guest lectures that term. Often it was necessary for me to be away overnight. Even my notorious and fabled dislike for travel did not prevent me from accepting the invitation to deliver the Norhouse Lectures at that university in the other Cambridge. I was gone for ten days. Again the gods stepped in. The breakup of our housekeeping arrangements would have entailed much division of common property. We would probably have had to sell the house. Nathan and I would have continued to cross paths at the university. We would, of course, have been civilised and not discommoded our colleagues and friends, but there would inevitably have been unpleasantnesses and awkward moments.
My lectures were very successful. Modesty will not prevent me from saying that I was unusually thought-provoking, not to mention witty and charming. A group of students even insisted that I accompany them to a ‘pub’ in Harvard Square after one of the lectures so that they could continue to talk with me. At the time I thought ‘pub’ was an Anglicism trotted out to spare me the embarrassment of having to admit my ignorance of the American ‘bar’. To my surprise, however, I discovered that the place is indeed called a pub and, moreover, fully deserves the name. (The stout made on the premises is quite good and has grown to be a favourite of mine. Should you ever visit Cambridge, I recommend you to try it.) I enjoyed that evening immensely. I appeared to be a ‘hit’ with the students, and that is always flattering and satisfying.
After the final lecture, I was invited to have dinner at the Faculty Club with several professors from the History Department as well as the Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. After the waiters had cleared the table and coffee and drinks were being passed around, the Dean leaned over and asked if he and a few others might have a ‘private word’ with me after the dinner. To make a long tale short, I was offered a major professorship at a salary that quite took my breath away. As protocol demands, I did not accept immediately, although I knew as soon as I heard the offer that I would. I promised to let them know my decision within a few weeks.
I had told Nathan and Alois that I would be returning on a Thursday. They thought I meant during the day. Actually the flight arrived late Wednesday evening, and I reached our home around three o’clock Thursday morning. I found them asleep in bed together. I think I managed my surprise rather well, even with aplomb. I told them not to get up and to go back to sleep. I would leave before they awoke in the morning. And I did. I left it to Nathan to devise the official story. Vraiment, c’est ça son métier. I spent my few remaining weeks in England in lodgings. I arranged with Nathan to remove my belongings while he and Alois were out. I buried my sorrows in seclusion and refused all invitations.
Nathan, I would guess, quite relished my misery. That is, until he heard that I had resigned to take the job in the United States. I doubt that he has forgiven me that. Of course, no one suspected my hand in manoeuvring him to end the relationship. One of the advantages of Nathan’s pursuit of ‘honesty’ in our relationship was that I was cast as the more naïve and bumbling partner who needed Nathan’s help to survive. No one could credit an unsophisticated professor of Byzantine history with a capacity for such deviousness.