Certain statements require a response. A muttered ‘Where did I leave my keys?’ can be taken as an instance of talking to one’s self. One could call out ‘They’re on the table by the front door,’ but one could equally well say nothing. A “Have you seen my keys?” uttered in a loud irritated voice as the speaker approaches has to be answered.
Similarly ‘I love you’ is not a statement one can ignore. The reply need not be verbal. A smile, a hug, a leap of joy—all those convey one’s happy acceptance of this gift. Silence, a refusal to interact with the speaker, is the most devastating response one can make, worse even than ‘I don’t love you’. A perfunctory ‘I love you too’ can mean that the statement has become a meaningless routine or a means of saying ‘good-bye for now’. Lewis and I exchange the remark a few hundred times a year, I think. Sometimes it is a form of reassurance. Sometimes it is a pleasantry. Sometimes it is a greeting. And sometimes, the best times, it means everything ‘I love you’ can mean.
Lewis was the first to declare his love. We had eaten dinner in a restaurant in Harvard Square and were walking along Kirkland Street towards his flat. It was late November. It was dark and there was a cold wind blowing from behind us. The pavement in that area was composed of red bricks sunk into the ground. They were wet and slippery with a green algae-like growth and the soggy remains of decaying leaves. The roots of old trees planted between the pavements and the street had lifted and tilted the bricks in many directions. A rain earlier that day had left puddles trapped in all the low-lying segments. The street was poorly lit, and we had to look carefully before we put a foot down. Even so, I had stepped in several puddles, and my socks and shoes were sodden.
We were almost the only people walking that night. Everyone else was inside keeping dry and warm. We stopped at the corner and waited for the light to turn green. It says something about the importance of the moment to me that I remember that we were waiting for the light to change at the corner of Kirkland and Beacon streets, on the border between Cambridge and Somerville. I could not now tell you the names of many other streets in Cambridge but I remember those two.
I said something about my feet being wet and needing to take my shoes off and let them dry when we reached his flat, and then Lewis blurted out, ‘I love you.’ Just like that. No preamble. No build-up. It was as if my remark startled him and he suddenly realised what his feelings towards me were. He looked as surprised as I felt.
I turned towards him and smiled. The smile splitting my face was almost a painful grimace. ‘Say it again,’ I said, which Lewis did. I grabbed him by the shoulders and hugged him. I did not care if anyone saw us. ‘Thank you, thank you.’ I was so overwhelmed with emotion that I had to put a hand over my mouth to keep it contained within me. My eyes suddenly were wet with tears.
‘I love you too,’ I said. We sat up until late in the morning discussing our feelings. I told Lewis that his love was a gift. Both of us were happy and contented. Neither of us wanted to think beyond the pleasure of declaring our love. We did not want to confront all the hindrances to being together. We wanted to enjoy a moment—the first declaration of love—that could never recur.
I was in the United States on a temporary work visa. My permission to enter the country began two weeks before the start of my employment at Harvard. I had to leave it within two weeks of the end of my work there. If I wanted to extend my stay, I had to return to Ireland and re-apply for admittance. I could be deported at any time if I was found to have broken a law, even a minor one. At the time, homosexuality itself was a crime in Massachusetts. Homosexual acts fell under the anti-sodomy statues, which also criminalised adultery. I doubt I would have been arrested for adultery. Public or blatant homosexual acts were another matter.
Ireland had similar laws. In a country and at a time when even sexual intercourse between husband and wife was considered best confined to brief, mechanical, unemotional encounters on rare occasions (I exaggerate, but only slightly), homosexual acts did not ‘exist’. The concept itself was literally unthinkable and hence unthought.
Then, too, Lewis and I were uncertain of our futures. Mine certainly did not include residence in the United States. He most likely would have to scramble to find a teaching job as the end of his position at Harvard neared and would have to take what was offered, even if it was a job at ‘North Dakota State Teachers’ College’, as he only half-in-jest put it once. All the social and legal obstacles aside, our chances of remaining together were bleak.
Lewis’s family accepted the fact of us. We were lucky in that. I did not even broach the topic with my parents. I never wrote my father directly. Every Sunday I wrote to my mother and Niamh jointly. My mother may have shown the letters to my father. If she did neither she nor he ever mentioned it. I found all the letters in one of the boxes of materials about me that Niamh and I found in her office after her death.
Every week I filled all the available space on one of those thin, blue international aerogramme sheets of paper that folded into a letter-sized rectangle and was closed by glued flaps on the open sides. My handwriting at the time was small and neat. Each letter must have run to 500 words or so. I reread all of them when I found them among my mother’s papers.
In the letters, I refer quite often to ‘a friend’, but I only rarely name him as Lewis. I wrote about the supper that put us together, but I devoted my account to the egregious behaviour of Professor Lanham and the ‘kindness and efficiency’ of the Faculty Club staff. Lewis figures only as the other, briefly mentioned, anonymous victim of Lanham’s prejudices.
I wrote about my chance meeting with Lewis in front of the library and our chat that evening. I treated it as the friendly encounter it was. I said nothing of the attraction to Lewis that I felt. I did not keep my mother’s responses to these letters, but I seem to remember that she once remarked that she was happy to learn that I was making friends. ‘Friend’ would have been more accurate, but it is easy to gain the impression from my letters that I was surrounded by a crowd.
Even so, more and more of Lewis crept into the letters, especially during my second year in the United States. Lewis and I spent the entirety of July at his parents’ oceanfront cottage on Cape Ann. Years later a chance remark by his younger brother revealed that the family had intentionally given us this time alone together. In my letters during that month, I had to explain where I was living and with whom. I certainly did not mention that Lewis and I were sharing a bed, but it was obvious from my accounts that the two of us were living together. I think I hoped that my mother would figure out from my letters that Lewis and I were more than friends.
Cape Ann is beautiful. I bought a camera and took many pictures that summer. Among my mother’s things I found a packet labelled ‘Patrick, summer 1967, Cape Ann Massachusetts USA’. Below this in a different coloured ink, she had at some later point added ‘with Lewis’. The packet contained photographs of the area, of the Rosenthals’ cottage, of me, and of Lewis and me taken by a neighbour.
The neighbour owned a sail boat. When he discovered that I love sailing and was not without some skill at it, he invited Lewis and myself to join him almost daily. In one picture, Lewis and I are seated along the windward side as a counterweight to the force of the wind on the sails. We are wearing bathing shorts. There is a metal railing along the side. We are seated with our legs under the railing and dangling over the side of the boat. Our arms rest on the railing. We are deep in conversation with each other. Neither of knew that we were being photographed. Our looks speak of mutual absorption. There is a stretch of beach visible beyond us and other boats. We pay them no attention. We are seated closer than was normal for American males at the time, but not at what would be considered intimate closeness in Ireland, where men were less hesitant about touching one another and read nothing but friendship into it.
I felt, as I think did Lewis, that we were living in a charmed bubble for the moment. We were together, we loved each other—that was all that mattered. But we knew that the bubble had to burst sooner or later. We would eventually be separated and it would be difficult for us to continue to make a life together. On several occasions we tried to talk about the future, but we soon ran into the problem of my return to Ireland in another year and Lewis’s probable fate. That dismayed us so much that we soon abandoned these discussions—abandoned talking about those issues, that is. Our future was much on our minds.
That was an agonizing period. Both of were trying to be so optimistic, but our optimism was so obviously a pose that it served only to remind us of the problems we faced. I was very aware by the way that you were bothered by the prospect of being separated. You didn’t want to talk about it, but you often mentioned your upcoming return to Ireland. I had the impression that you were trying to warn me that you wouldn’t be around forever and that we should make the most of the time we had.
Would you mind if I read your letters to your mother? Don’t feel that you have to show them to me. I just want to relive those years from your point of view and see what you had to say.
Lewis—Of course, you can read the letters. I should warn you that they are very boring. Mostly weather reports and carefully edited accounts of what I was doing. You might be able to reconstruct what we were doing from the hints I drop, but my mother could not have found them revealing.
I’m attaching the schedule of interviews and talks Simon set up. As you will see, the first one is on June 26. Why don’t we arrive in New York on June 24? Let me know when you book the flights and I will get Simon’s office to make hotel reservations. We haven’t discussed what to do after the wedding. Is there anywhere you want to visit before we return?
Emily replied to my email. She was her usual chatty self. I imagine she sent you a similar message—very happy that we were coming. She stressed that she and Steve already had everything they needed to set up house and we were not to worry about gifts. We have to take something of course. Any ideas? Is money too crass? I was heartened to hear that the wedding itself will be a ‘small’ affair. What does that mean? Pat
I made reservations for 6/24 to NYC, then fly to LA on 7/1, to Boston on 7/9 and then back to Heathrow on 7/15. I have some family business to take care of in Boston and some people to see at MIT and Harvard about the IJNT. I hope you don’t mind a few days in Boston. We will stay with Robert and Anna while we are there. Robert emailed yesterday and asked us to fly back with them on the 9th after the wedding and stay at least through the 14th. Not sure what is going on. He’s being mysterious. If you need to be back before the 15th, let me know and I’ll change your flight.
Are you sure that you are up for all that Simon has scheduled for you? It looks like a very busy few days in NYC.
I will ask Sophie about the matter of wedding gifts. I’d prefer not to give money, although that may be the best option. Emily wrote me a similar note. Your guess about the possible meaning of “small” is as good as mine. I assume that means both families and their friends, but I have no idea how many people that involves.
By the way, I’m learning a lot about you from this account.
Lewis—All good, I hope.
The reservations are fine. I can work on the revisions. Simon’s colleagues in NYC and LA will take care of all the arrangements and provide drivers and handlers. All I have to do is be ready when they arrive and then talk wherever they deliver me, and luckily that is something I can do. They have already booked us a hotel for our stay in New York. Pat
Stop fishing for compliments. You’re the one writing an autobiography.
Another picture for the book. I apologise for the lack of comments. It’s been a busy time at work. I am making notes for our discussions. My only comment at the moment is that this section is short.
Michelle—I do not know if I want pictures of the young me in the book. Will there be permissions problems about using photos taken by a third party? The man who took them was in his late forties, early fifties in 1967, when the pictures were taken. He surely is dead by now. Would his heirs need to give permission? His given name was Kenneth, but I don’t remember his surname. Lewis, or his siblings, may know. He was using my camera, and he knew when he took the picture that it would be my possession. I never understand these copyright issues. Yes, the section is short. Patrick
Nor do I. We will sort them out when you decide what pictures to include. And, yes, you do want pictures of the young you in the book. Lots.
‘God’s poet is silence’—a distinctly odd American writer named Joaquin Miller wrote that line. I ran across it when I was hunting for a quotation on silence to serve as an epigraph for a book.
I crave silence. Not always, but often, more often than most people do, I believe. I want the complete absence of language, written or spoken, and human noise. At times I hate words—their inadequacies, the ambiguities, their slipperiness. I hate the struggle to produce my daily quota without clichés or phrases that I have used too many times or the hapless nonsense that my fingers all too readily pound out on the keys. There are days I count successful when I neither utter nor hear nor produce nor read a single word, days when I escape words and the noise produced by humans or their machines. Silence for me is the absence of human-generated noise.
My refuges are encased in silence. For the past fifteen years, once or twice each year, I stay a week at a monastery in Normandy run by the Trappist order. Contrary to popular belief, the Trappists do not take a vow of silence, but they watch themselves carefully for signs of garrulity or the misuse of speech, particularly utterances that might assert the speaker’s will rather than god’s or that contain malice or ill-feeling towards others. Still, they understand the value of silence, and the monks of Montfort Abbey allow me to share theirs. In exchange, I labour in their kitchen baking bread or in their gardens hoeing or weeding. The monks welcome me, as they do any visitor. They realize that I am no longer a religious Catholic in any sense that they would recognize, but they are confident in their god’s ability to bestow the grace of belief on errant souls.
My ancestral home in north-western Ireland is another such refuge. It is isolated. The nearest house is three kilometres distant; the nearest approach to a village eleven kilometres. It stands at the end of a private drive that is gated where it joins the road. The house sits on the side of a hill that slopes down into the ocean. On the days I retreat into silence, I turn off my mobile. The radio, the telly, the CD player, the computer, remain unused. On such days, I often spend hours sitting on a rock facing northwards and watching the ocean. It is not a comfortable spot. The wind, and there is always a wind, is usually cold and damp. If the ocean and the atmosphere are unruly, the air is filled with salt spray. Rain is frequent.
‘What do you do out there?’
‘I think.’ That’s what I told Lewis the first time he asked. It was an answer he could understand. He sits in silence when he thinks. He could accept that I do the same. But in truth I am trying not to think. I am waiting.
Lewis and I do not always speak the same language. At first we often meant different things by the same English words, and that could cause confusion. But I have lived enough in the United States and Lewis in Ireland and England to become acquainted with each other’s idioms. These days the confusion is generated more often by differences in our backgrounds and the different assumptions we make. The idea of ‘grace’ was part of the atmosphere in which I was raised. It is a foreign concept to Lewis, in part because he does not believe in god, let alone a divinity who has to bestow the grace of belief on us. I, too, am dubious about that god’s existence but I am familiar with the vocabulary of his adherents.
It is also a foreign concept for Lewis because he does not exist in a world of wonders. To Lewis, the world is rational. A so-called miracle is simply a failure of understanding. He is optimistic. There are things we do not understand—yet. Advancements in science and learning will eventually lead to an explanation. For me the everyday is a mass of accidents and chance happenings so unlikely that the quotidian itself is miracle. At the moment of conception, hundreds of thousands of sperm, each with a unique genetic message, head towards an ovum, itself bearing a unique message. One sperm penetrates the egg cell and fertilizes it. There is nothing about that particular sperm or that particular egg that makes the collusion inevitable. But another sperm would result in a person with a slightly different genetic inheritance. The nurture part of the equation is no less circumstantial.
Thomas Aquinas wrote the hymn Sacris solemniis (Solemn sacrament) for the feast of Corpus Christi, the celebration in honour of the Eucharist. One verse, which begins with the words ‘Panis angelicus,’ contains the line ‘Dat panis coelicus figuris terminum’. ‘The heavenly bread bestows the end of the figure/symbol.’ In more modern terms, it means that Christ ends figuration, the inherent nature of human speech to cloak reality with words. The line points at the existence of a reality beyond words that is given to us through the grace of a supernatural agency. Now, we have no way to express our comprehension of reality other than through words, and I do not believe in the supernatural agency, but I find the thought behind this line beautiful. It is so beautiful that it ought to be true. I know intellectually that the line is nonsense, but I cannot help wishing that it were true, that it were possible to apprehend the reality beyond words, the reality that exists in silence.
For me, fiction tells lies so that it may tell the truth. I earn my living through words. I have in my life written millions. Yet I would exchange all of them for a moment beyond figuration.
I once tried to explain this to Lewis, but when it became clear that he thought it nonsense, I gave up the attempt and never raised the subject again. I know that if I did, he would try to argue me out of the ‘error’ of my beliefs. I prefer that he think of me as a rational person, not unlike himself. Lewis overwhelmed me, overwhelms me. My need for him can at times be so great that the thought of being separate from him, however slightly, leaves me distraught. A hint of difference looms large in my mind as a failure on my part to be ‘us’.
Then, too, I want to keep part of myself private. I want to reserve part of myself for myself and not risk it becoming part of the ‘us’ that Lewis and I are. So I do not speak of certain things, the things that make me uniquely me. I do not want them to become subjects we talk over. I do not want to iron over our disagreements and to reach a consensus. Still less do I want to plaster them over and agree to disagree. I hoard them to myself and sit with them on my rock by the ocean. I wait in silence—and so far in vain—for God’s poetry.
Do all relationships have these silences and moments of solitude? I suspect that many successful marriages are built on strategic silences and uncorrected misconceptions and even outright lies and delusions. A couple agrees not to talk about this or that subject and to submerge their differences. They concoct a mutually agreeable fable that allows them to live together. I know that American marriage counsellors urge honesty as the bedrock of a relationship, but I wonder how many divorces could have been avoided had the partners been less honest with each other.
I asked Niamh once if she knew the cause of our parents’ break-up. Like me, she is mystified by it. If my parents argued, we never saw it. Despite their separate residences, my parents preserved the fiction that they were still a couple. My mother appeared beside my father at public events. She campaigned on his behalf, although at the time my father was a TD, spouses were much less prominently on display than they are today. The assumption that a wife was somewhere in the background, most properly at home, would have been strong. The fact that they lived separately was known, and if asked, both of them said mother lived in the country because ‘it was better for the children’. Both of them died without revealing the cause of their estrangement. Towards the end of their lives, they probably spent less than ten hours a year together. Separation and silence were the elements of their relationship.
I have mentioned the photograph of my parents at Grant’s Hotel in Wicklow taken on their honeymoon. In that picture, their heads are half-turned towards each other. They are holding hands and smiling. They appear to be genuinely happy in each other’s company. I do not remember ever seeing them like that.
The picture was torn into angry pieces and then later reassembled using Sellotape. The tape is yellowed and brittle. The edges of the tears are frayed and white. The photograph is divided into irregular shapes. Was my father or my mother responsible for those bitter shards? Who tried to piece the picture back together? Why did my mother keep it? I can imagine plausible answers to those questions, but the true account is hidden in the silences of my parents’ lives.
Perhaps that is the nurture behind my silences. The couple I was exposed to earliest survived as a couple and as individuals because they were silent. In many ways, I have been exploring that silence in all the fictions I have written, with those stifled characters who cannot live fully because they dare not face the causes of their silence. The written word is my form of keeping faith with silence.
I do not know if Lewis reads my novels or short stories. I never ask. I would like to think I do that to spare him the labour of finding something complimentary to say. I take his approval of my work for granted, and he does nothing to disabuse me of my faith in his support. I write for Lewis, to explain myself to him. I do not ask if he has received the message. I do not want to know. I also write for myself, to explain myself to myself. I cannot say if I have ever understood the messages I send to myself or whether my writings are simply one more attempt to obfuscate and dissemble. I have received the grace of forgetfulness and oblivion. I revel in the power of fiction to provide comfort.
Silence is a habit between Lewis and myself. In our early years together, silence about our relationship was a necessity. Many today regard that as a form of cowardice and hold that we should have been brave enough to risk all and force society to acknowledge that two men could love each other and live together successfully. I could offer arguments in rebuttal, but they would not change the past. We were not brave enough to risk our careers and our future together. We were furtive because we wanted to avoid punishment. We accepted society’s judgement that we were not ‘normal’ and that ‘decency’ required that we lie about ourselves. We grew accustomed to reticence and concealment. Perhaps that is why so many great actors of our generation were gay—their daily lives were an act.
Now that Lewis and I are acknowledged as a couple, there are photographs of us together. Our relationship is commonly mentioned in accounts of my works or my life. I doubt that Lewis’s colleagues mention it when citing his work—mathematics is impersonal—but they certainly know of us. Now that it is legal for us to have a civil wedding in Ireland, Great Britain, and the United States, we are discussing whether we want to take that step. It seems unnecessary, and we are used to not being a legal couple. Our neighbours, in Cambridge, in Dublin, in Brighton, even in Donegal, already treat us as an old married couple. We allow ourselves more freedom to display that relationship in Cambridge and Brighton; we are restrained yet open in Dublin. We are more discrete in Donegal. There are different degrees of acceptance and tolerance.
Oddly, for such a momentous step, our discussions of marriage focus on the legal advantages. Both of us are contemplating the problems of old age, debility, death. Will, we ask ourselves, marriage lessen the legal hassles surrounding those events? Marriage is to a much lesser extent for the two of us a means of expressing our love for each other. We take that as given. It is not something a ceremony will change.
I spent several hours this morning watching the ocean, doing more thinking than waiting for silence. It happens that way sometimes—truth be told, more often than not. Words are hard to avoid.
When Lewis visits me in Errarooey, we spend the first few hours talking. The conversing is important, even if the content is trivial. There is grace in the everyday, even if Lewis does not know that. It exists among the words and the noise and the silences.
I understand more about chance and probabilities than you do. Unlike you, that means that I don’t accept unlikely seeming events as mystical. It wasn’t fate or chance that brought us together outside the Widener, or even luck, still less a matter of grace, although the encounter turned out to be important and good in retrospect. It was more a matter of Brownian motion among the crowds of people at Harvard at the time, the relative positions of the History and Math departments in respect of our destinations at that moment, our daily schedules, and a great many other factors. Granted that the mathematical modelling of that encounter would be complex, but that does not mean that it is impossible.
I do accept your silence on certain subjects, and I understand the reasons for it. There are subjects we do not need to talk about. It isn’t that discussing them would lessen their importance. It’s more a feeling that talking about them would be an admission that the closeness between us would be in danger of ceasing to be. If I initiated a conversation about your writings, for example, it would mean either that I failed to understand the import of your subject or that I wanted to reassure you that I understood. Either of those admissions would signal a failure of understanding on my part and the possibility of a breach between us. When you use an Irish phrase, I can ask you what it means or consult Dolan’s dictionary. That is a trivial matter, and I can talk to you about such things. But I can’t talk to you about really fundamentally important things. In such matters, we have to trust that we understand each other so well that conversation isn’t necessary. I would never discuss ‘Pain Killers’ with you (1) because I know what you were saying in that story and (2) because I couldn’t risk telling you either that I understood or didn’t understand it. I will not admit that there could be such a degree of separation between us that a failure to understand is possible. That is our silence. It’s also our love.
I know that you regard—with good reason—my family as being noisy. We are. We revel in the words you profess to hate. And yes, we do use words to avoid the silence. Perhaps we fear the silence that you want. Perhaps through words we try to avoid it. Or perhaps we are simply denying its existence.
I think I have read all your fictions, not sure if I’ve seen all of your newspaper writings. Probably not—you wrote so many in your days as a reporter and columnist.
Marriage—I’m inclined to visit a registry office the next time we are together and just do it with the minimum amount of fuss and ceremony. We certainly don’t need wedding presents or a wedding supper. If we involve friends and family, we would have to find a location convenient for everyone. (To phrase that more accurately, a location that minimizes the inconvenience to the largest possible number of friends and family. There is no one location convenient for all of them.) If we get married in the United States, that would mean at the least that Niamh and Michael and their sons and their families would have to fly to the States—which they might enjoy doing, especially if we paid for the trip. And either Sophie or Robert or both, not to mention their families, would end up having to travel to wherever we decided to hold it. We would have to invite our friends and colleagues here as well, even though none of them is likely to join us. We could use the occasion of being in the States for Emily’s wedding to get married ourselves, but that would take away from her wedding. I’m not sure what standing a marriage made in the States would have here, and since this is where we live and intend to spend the rest of our lives, I’d rather satisfy the UK requirements. If we were to do it in Brighton, then all our relations would have to travel but it wouldn’t be as much trouble for friends and colleagues to get there. Dublin would save your family a lot of travelling. No place is without problems. So I propose we just do it and then tell everyone afterwards.
Dearest Lewis—Yes—to the comments about silence. And to the marriage. You are so right about avoiding the fuss. As soon as I finish pounding out the rough draft of Times Zones, I will meet with Michelle in Dublin to go over this first draft. That may take a few days. I fear that there may need to be some negotiating over the book. I am confident of her support—although she has been quiet of late—but her colleagues are another matter. Once I am through in Dublin, I will return to Brighton. We can do the deed there. What are the English regulations about registry marriages? Do we need witnesses? Or do we simply show up, fill out the forms, pay the fee, and that’s it? Pat.
Pat, love. I will check on the Registry Office requirements. Did we just agree to get married? L.
It appears we did. How did that happen?
Who’s that saint whose name means “Golden-Tongued” in Greek. You told me once, but I’ve forgotten. He lent me the grace to propose to you.
Chrysostom. Did you propose to me? I do not recall seeing you on bended knee—oh, wait, yes I do.
This section strikes me as fragmentary. I know that your usual method is to bang something out and then expand it as you rework it, but this moves in so many directions. It is rather undisciplined. I am losing track of where you are headed with all this.
You are right. Lewis in his response gave me some thoughts on the silences in our relationship, which I will work into this section. I was trying to write about the different forms of silences in our (Lewis and myself) relationship and the different forms of silence each of us (again Lewis and myself) pursues and why and to contrast that with the silences in my parents’ marriage and in relationships in general.
This draft version is best regarded as an extended outline of what I want to say in the book. Parts of it will be more filled in than others. You are a saint to read it. Will it, I wonder, sound like excessive and self-serving flattery if I tell you that I have in the past benefitted from your unerring editorial nous and hope to benefit from it again? If so, please disregard previous sentence.
Your undying admirer and beneficiary, Patrick
The blather on you, Patrick
‘Oh aye, that were grand, that were.’
Lewis chuckled and hugged me tightly. His head was resting on my shoulder, and he pushed his face into my neck and kissed it. ‘Mmm. It must have been good for you to forget grammar like that.’
‘It is an Irish way of speaking so. It would not feel the same to me if I said “That was good, wasn’t it?” ’
‘Ogh aye, yeh royt, Mr Ross. It were grand, as ever was.’
‘Is that supposed to be an Irish accent?’
‘Ogh aye, ’tis that, so, Mr Ross.’
‘You are a right fecker, Mr Rosenthal.’
‘Hmm, would you say as a fecker that I’m grand?’
‘Was I not after saying that but a minute gone by?’ By that point my accent had grown as ridiculous as Lewis’s attempt to mock mine. ‘Argh, Lewis, you’ve addled me brains and have me blathering like one of them Irishmen out of Hollywood.’.
‘That’s only fair. You’ve addled pretty much every part of me tonight.’
‘There are still some parts I am of a mind to explore.’
Lewis took me to Gloucester, then still an active fishing port as well as a summer holiday area, early in the spring of our first year together to stay at his family’s cottage on the southern shore of Cape Ann. It was a large two-story house, clad in wooden shingles painted a dark red. The house was never aired properly. Like many properties on the ocean, it was always faintly damp and smelled of mould and fish. It was cold even on hot days.
Three-fourths of the ground floor was one large room, a combination kitchen, dining room, and lounge. Half of one side wall was taken up by a fireplace constructed of large rounded rocks. The hearth was big enough to roast a lamb in. That level also held the bathroom and a toilet and a small bedroom that was reserved for Lewis. The first floor had four bedrooms and a toilet. All the furniture in the house was old. Much of it was wicker, once painted white or green. The cushions on all the chairs were threadbare and lumpy. Lewis’s bed was a metal frame that supported an open set of metal springs. Over that was a thin mattress. The bed was uncomfortable, and it screeched in complaint every time we moved.
The kitchen was full of pitfalls—for me. Each cupboard had a label attached to it to indicate whether it contained dairy or meat or neutral foods and dishes and cooking utensils, as did the sinks. Lewis taught me to distinguish the Hebrew letters used to indicate the various categories. The refrigerator was reserved for meat. There was a separate ice chest for dairy. During warmer weather, his family had to buy blocks of ice from an ice house in the village to keep milk or cheese cold. For me, the danger of misusing a utensil or putting something away in the wrong cupboard was an excuse to leave the cooking to Lewis on the grounds that I would do something to dis-kosher the place and it would have to be burned down. We ate out a lot. In the early 1960s, Gloucester and its environs still had many restaurants and ‘clam shacks’ selling cheap lobsters and clams, and, even though neither was kosher, Lewis and I gorged on them.
We went there every chance we could. During most of the year, the neighbouring houses were empty. That meant that we could be as noisy and boisterous as we liked in bed. Even when the area was crowded with visitors in summer, we felt freer in that cottage than we did in Cambridge or Somerville.
Lewis’s family let us use the cottage and, except during their annual visit in August and an occasional weekend, gave us privacy. They were always careful to let us know when they planned to be at the cottage. I was still shy of being with them, especially in Lewis’s company. To save them from embarrassment, both of us felt that we had to be on our ‘best’ behaviour, which meant avoidance of any suggestion of intimacy. I found it easier to use the excuse of my work to return to Cambridge during their occupancy of the cottage.
For me that cottage is irrevocably associated with the freedom to engage in a physical exploration of Lewis’s body and he of mine. I do not mean to imply that our relationship was primarily physical. It was deeply physical because we were even more deeply emotionally involved. The two aspects of our relationship—physical and emotional—fed on each other, and each grew stronger because the other existed. When Lewis and I met, he was 26 and I was 25. Both of us had passed the hormone-fuelled stage of uncontrollable lust and body parts that asserted themselves at inconvenient moments. We were capable of some restraint. But for both of us, this was a new form of relationship, and sex played a large role in it. We were in love, and that made the sex better, but this was also the first time either of us had had such easy access to sex and could devote time to it. Within the limits of our perceived need to be discreet, we could have as much sex as wanted, when we wanted it, and how we wanted it. We did not have to rush. We could explore. We could experiment. We could observe each other’s reactions and build on what worked. We could even talk about what we were doing and discuss our reactions. We were in love and we wanted to get it right.
The conversation related above occurred our first night at the Gloucester cottage. ‘Grand’ quickly became our code for sex. ‘Are you up for a grand time tonight, Pat?’ ‘Ah, Lewis, that’s a grand thing you’re doing.’ As a code word, it could be used in ordinary conversations heard by others. ‘Have you ever played a grand piano, Pat?’ ‘Many times, Lewis. Only last night as a matter of fact, I was privileged to run me hands over a superb instrument.’ Brazen perhaps, but that was part of the allure of the covert and perhaps part of the revenge on a society that refused to acknowledge our form of love.
Sex is such an odd part of marriages and relationships, straight or gay. We assume that our friends and family members have sex, but we rarely know what they do. It is the very private glue of relationships. If it is satisfactory, we have no knowledge of that. If it is unsatisfactory, we can only guess that it is so. I know couples, some of many years’ duration, who are regularly unfaithful to each other, yet still apparently enjoy sex as part of a loving relationship. I have also known a man who was consumed by guilt because, for the first time after forty-odd years together, he ‘cheated’ (his word) on his partner, who for six years had been slowly and inexorably, and was then grotesquely, dying of cancer complicated by senility. He needed, he told me, to have the ‘comfort of another body’ for an hour. Even as he was offering that as an excuse, he was crying over his infidelity and the feebleness of his rationalisation of his act, at a time when his partner’s mind was gone and sex between them was out of the question. I have also known many people, all male, for whom sex is an exercise, usually a brief one, without emotion.
Lewis confessed to me, several years after the event, that he had almost once had sex with another man. ‘I stopped because it wasn’t … “good”.’ He paused before he said ‘good’, long enough for me to realise that he was searching for a word other than ‘grand’. He didn’t want to profane our word by using it, even negatively, of a sexual encounter with someone other than me.
That moment of hesitation told me more about Lewis’s feelings for me and what he valued than could any simple declaration of love. I did not feel that his trifling temptation was a matter for forgiveness. I am, and I know that Lewis is, occasionally attracted to others. In the past we often spent months apart, and I assume that he like me occasionally wanted the ‘comfort of another body’. That we have never acted on that wish is irrelevant. The want and the need for sex are there. But sex with someone other than Lewis would, I know, lack grandness.
It’s always been grand.
We are going to seem like such a boring couple to your readers.
We did thumb our noses (our collective nose?) a lot in those early days, didn’t we? It was so tempting to be provocative—although looking back we were pretty tame, weren’t we? We’ve never been the type to dress up in drag and parade around on pride day.
I checked—to qualify for marriage at a registry office in the English part of the UK, we will need to give 28 days’ notice at the office in Brighton (if I am reading the information correctly, we both need to have been in Brighton for seven days when we visit the office); we also need our passports, our residence cards, and some proof that we live at our address, such as utility bills or the council tax bills. We can have the ceremony performed at the registry office after the waiting period and we will need two witnesses. The 28-day waiting period can be abbreviated under certain circumstances, but I can’t make sense of the explanation of how that can be done. Of course, there are fees to be paid at every step, including a charge for copies of the marriage certificate.
If you’re up to disentangling bureaucratese, the link is https://www.gov.uk/marriages-civil-partnerships.
Lewis—I will check on the Irish laws but I suspect it will be about the same. Since you do not have a residence card here, that may cause more fash. Nothing is ever easy.
Again too short and touching on a lot of subjects that you need to explore in more depth. If ever I hear Lewis or you say the word “grand”, I shall not be able to restrain myself.
Lewis and I were walking back to our house in Brighton shortly after two in the morning when we encountered the naked man. We had been invited to share an after-dinner bottle of wine with friends who had just returned from a long holiday in Asia and somehow that had become several hours of chatting and drinking. It was a pleasant summer night, and the friends lived only a fifteen-minute walk or so from us. Parking was always a problem near their house, and so we had decided to walk. If the weather unexpectedly turned bad, we planned to hire a cab.
If drink walking were a crime, we could have been arrested for that. Neither of us was being rowdy or loud, but walking a straight line required more concentration than usual. We kept bumping into each other, and kerbs and streetlamps and the odd bin or two had to be negotiated carefully. Both of us were talked out, and we said no more than ten words between the two of us on the way home. We were in a pleasant state of boozy companionship but more than ready for bed and sleep. There was a light breeze coming off the Channel, and, as frequently happens with me, the fresh air both revived me and made me feel even more light-headed. At once it sobered me up and conversely made me feel even drunker.
We were about three blocks from our house, walking along a residential street that crosses ours, when a sound made me look up. A naked man was standing in a first-floor window of a house, clearly visible in the light from a nearby streetlamp. His cock was white against the dark triangle of pubic hair. It was also erect. He was looking at Lewis and me, apparently oblivious to his own nudity and state of arousal, certainly without shame. My immediate response was to look away in embarrassment, as if I were the one displaying myself naked to passers-by.
The school I attended had one large shower room. Hot water of a sort was available only for an hour before supper each evening, and there was a strict rota for the showers. We were allowed only one shower a week, except under special circumstances. That meant there were always several boys in the room either taking showers or towelling off afterwards. I was also on the rugby and hurling teams, and the team members showered together after games. But this was a Catholic school that catered to the sons of middle and upper-middle-class Irish families. Most of us had been raised in an atmosphere of restraint and prudery, and the Jesuit priests who were educating us reinforced our feelings of shame about the human body. The body was a source of frailty, weakness, disease, decay, pride, avarice, greed, gluttony, pain, dirt and—above all—lust. All of them deadly sins. The human body was sexual and hence to be expunged from one’s consciousness. Penises did not exist. The message was that physical pleasure was at best a temptation to sin and all too often an occasion for outright pollution, solitary and/or communal. We would do well to forgo all such pleasures. Consequently, we may have been unclothed in each other’s presence, but we were never naked. We kept our eyes to ourselves. At most we might look into the face of a person if we were speaking to him, but we never looked down. Below the neck the body became forbidden territory, the object of fleeting glances.
Lewis was in fact the first nude I ever saw. I had of course seen unclothed men, and women, before, but Lewis was the first naked person I ever looked at and the first person to see me naked. His body was the first I studied and savoured and enjoyed. Long before the night discussed here, I had learned to overcome my feelings of prudery around him, but my old attitudes could resurface unexpectedly.
The streets in our area of Brighton are quiet at night. There is little car traffic in the early morning hours. The only pedestrians would be those such as Lewis and myself walking home after a late night or perhaps someone with a dog who could not wait until morning. One could probably stand naked in an upstairs window for hundreds of nights and not be seen. It was only sheer chance that brought Lewis and me and the man in the window together at the same moment.
Lewis and I continued to walk after I saw the naked man. I almost said something to him, but then thought there was no point. We would not retrace our steps so that Lewis could see what I had seen, and the man in all likelihood was no longer there. It was not until we were in bed that I learned that he had seen the man and was, as well, aware that I had seen him.
‘What did you think of the man in the window? Were you shocked? You gasped when you looked up.’
‘Oh, good. I’m glad you saw him too. I was beginning to fear that he was a drunken hallucination. I’ve been wondering how to work him into a story. A man walking drunkenly home sees a naked man in a window. Or woman, it doesn’t have to be a man. But was the man real or only a vision? And why did the drunk react to this vision the way he did? You should have said something. I didn’t realise that you had seen him. What did you think?’
‘Yes, I saw him. I think I noticed him several seconds before you did. I thought he must be cold standing there.’
I immediately understood the reason behind Lewis’s remark, as would have any of his family members and friends. Lewis is one of those people who always feels cold. He complains often of draughts unperceived by anyone else. He wears jumpers on all but the hottest days. He has insisted on installing central heating in all our homes, and left to himself, he would keep the thermostats set at 25 degrees C (about 76 F) and all the windows tightly closed. He sleeps under electric blankets turned to the highest setting. He wears flannel pyjamas throughout the year.
I am just the opposite. I am descended of people who for generations lived in an area of Ireland where 20 degrees C (68 F) is considered hot, and any temperature higher than that is thought tropical. I grew up in a house heated only by fireplaces or the cooker or by small electric fires. My school adhered to the view that a frigid environment is conducive to both physical and moral health. Fresh air and open windows at night were part of its religion, along with sports, wholesome food (which meant devoid of flavour), and strict attendance at Mass and confession.
When our relationship began, each of us found the other’s preferences difficult to accommodate. The heat in Lewis’s flat often left me gasping to breathe and sweating. He could not tolerate the temperatures I found comfortable.
The problem was compounded at night. During the day, I could shed clothing and Lewis could add it as necessary to achieve the desired state of comfort. But Lewis feels even colder at night—his internal thermostat seems to drop precipitously the moment he thinks of sleep—but the temperature he wants in bed is far too hot for me. I, in contrast, feel the heat even more when I sleep. I want to be cold. The problem arose because we wanted to sleep as closely as possible to each other. Being together, and being close, physically as well as emotionally, quickly became important to us.
Perversely, even though Lewis personally feels cold, he radiates heat. If you sit in a chair he has just vacated, it is surprisingly hot. Sleeping next to him is like sleeping beside a fire. And Lewis likes to be cuddled. He wants me to hold him. I am fifteen centimetres (eight inches) taller than Lewis and brawny where he is small, and his preferred position for the two of us in bed is for us to be lying on our sides with his face and his arms and hands pressed tightly against my chest and for my arms to be wrapped around his torso, holding him close and for our legs to be entwined. My chin usually rests on top of his head, with Lewis fitting himself as closely as possible into me.
I find it especially difficult to sleep when my feet are hot. At first I slept with my feet and legs outside the covers. Lewis labelled this my ‘heat sink’ and then had to explain the concept to me. It allowed me to be comfortable enough to sleep, but it left half our bodies separated by a thick roll of blankets and covers. Over the years, we have arrived at a modus dormiendi. Lewis wears pyjamas, usually heavy flannel ones. I sleep in the nude. Lewis sleeps on his right side facing me, with his head under my chin and his body against mine. I sleep on my left side facing him, holding him tightly. When we settle in to go to sleep, I pull the sheets and duvet over him, covering the back of his head and neck. Then I tuck the bedclothes tightly around his back and bunch them up so that multiple layers of bedclothes support him. I pull the covers halfway off me so that my back is exposed and fold them over his body so that he has even more layers to keep him warm. Somehow it works for us.
Oddly, over the years, I have grown accustomed to Lewis’s heat. It no longer keeps me awake, and I miss it when we are separated. On the nights I have to sleep alone, I end up clutching a pillow tightly against my chest in much the same place that Lewis occupies when we are together. I find it impossible to sleep unless I do that.
‘When you get up at night, do you ever stop on the way back from the toilet and stand naked in front of a window?’ Lewis’s question came from the middle of my chest.
‘I’ve never done so. Should I start doing that?’
‘I was just curious. I thought maybe you had grown bold enough to expose yourself publicly. You’re much less modest than you used to be.’
‘Are you saying that I’ve grown more conceited as I’ve grown older?’
‘No. You know what I mean.’ Lewis chuckled. ‘When we first met, you undressed in the dark. It took me months to coax you into showing yourself in the light of day.’
‘You exaggerate. I just wasn’t as shameless as you in exposing myself. Are you warm enough?’ I hugged Lewis even more tightly.
‘I’m fine. Did you think I was shameless? I was trying to impress you.’
‘I thought you were beautiful. Still do. He wasn’t as good looking as you.’
‘The man in the window?’
‘That’s nice. I’m glad we saw him then. It was a good evening.’
These reminiscences must seem haphazard. As I have grown older, however, I have come to distrust plots and narrative resolutions, at least in the writings I mean only for myself. The novel may need them, and even short stories demand some restitution of order in the end, if only the mot juste. That seems to be what we expect from fiction. Perhaps that is its purpose—to provide the neat ending that resolves the problem and restores life to its ‘proper’ course. But life is never that neat. Our lives comprise so many simultaneous narratives, following so many different paths. Some of them only tangentially touch upon one another. Some run parallel and never meet. Some diverge. Some cross. And none of them resolves neatly. More often than not, they simply fade away without resolution. Not even death is truly an ending. Oh, it ends our consciousness of the narratives, but they continue in others’ lives.
The naked man in the window had his narratives. They were as immaterial to Lewis and me as our narratives were to him. I wonder if he ever thinks of the night when two strangers crossed his path and saw him and what he made of that encounter. I doubt that he suspects it would lead to thoughts on how Lewis and I sleep comfortably together.
Pat, dear heart,
I find myself wondering more and more what our friends and families and colleagues and my students will make of all this.
By the way, you do not need to worry about my eye wandering. Yesterday when I went for a walk, I found myself paying attention to people’s dogs and not to the young men walking them.
Lewis—I hope that they will see two people who were in love and determined to find a way to live together. It is something we will discuss. I will rewrite the parts that you feel reveal too much. I assume our families and some of our friends, colleagues, and acquaintances will read this. We need to be able to interact with them without wondering if they are thinking of the time when … About the dogs and their walkers, you may have been paying more attention to the dogs, but it seems not to have escaped your notice that the walkers were young men. Love, Pat
Sometimes you make me cry. Love. Lewis
Nice. Is each of these segments going to be a separate chapter or will you draw them together.
Michelle—Some will end up as separate chapters; others as segments of the same chapter. Patrick