I was a stranger in the city
Out of town were the people I knew …
|PHOTO: eelco de wal|
A new world for both, their relationship lasted nearly three years. In terms of gay relationships at the time, this should be measured the way a dog’s age is calculated in human terms: multiply by seven. Both computations are myths, however.
Later, Steven coupled with Aaron. They bought property, furnishings, organised dinner parties and attended many concerts and functions over the years. They are still together at that late stage in life when couples dress, even seem to look, alike.
Jake moved from relationship to relationship, job to job, and was in and out of rehab several times. He is also a success—as an artist and as a scholar. He has lived in three countries and visited many more. He can get by in French, stumbles in Spanish and speaks Italian by quoting lyrics from operas that he knows. His life is one of many romantic encounters.
The story of Jake, a simple country boy who went to the big city to enrol in art studies, begins somewhat earlier, however.
In Jake’s first year at Art College, he met Bradley. Bradley had graduated from another of the city’s art schools that year, having just completed a year’s sojourn in Europe on a fellowship. He was a star of the student art world and the son of the owners of a very exclusive jewellery store. He was living at the time in a townhouse with the owner of the city’s trendiest and most popular gay bar. Bradley had a studio in the bar’s atelier. In fact, the first time Jake ever nervously entered a gay establishment was in the daytime when the bar was closed to help Bradley remove some paintings from his studio above the building’s three uninterrupted étages of gaiety.
Bradley was handsome, talented, sophisticated, and somewhat older than Jake and about to embark on a career move to a New York City West Side loft. He listened to show music openly and without embarrassment, which impressed Jake profoundly. Jake was not so sure of his own sexuality, but certain that Bradley was attractive. Bradley made overtures, but Jake shyly fended them off, nonetheless continuing to fawn over him at every chance he got. He was dazed and confused, but certainly smitten.
Jake offered to help Bradley make the move to his New York loft. They packed up a rental van and left for NYC and a real West Side loft situated in an old industrial building with worn wooden floors, lots of windows and little else. The grimness and decay of this particular West Side neighbourhood was never reflected in West Side Story that was certain.
Bradley had crammed the van with paintings, a chandelier, bags of clothes, a small refrigerator full of booze (from the bar it was assumed) and some mattresses. After the unpacking, drinking and merriment, they (Bradley, Jake, a young woman who always seemed to be hanging around him, and a male friend of Bradley’s from New York who came by the loft to help) settled down to sleep on mattresses on the loft floor. Bradley put himself on the mattress next to the girl because she was feigning fright at her first night in the “big city”. He put Jake on the mattress with the stranger. Jake knew little of the subtleties of social manipulation back then but was learning quickly that night.
Jake spent that long night on the floor attempting to impede this stranger's unwanted sexual advances. He was very upset with Bradley's exploitation by using him as some sort of thank-you gift for his friend's help. Better if Bradley had chosen Jake for himself . In fact, he probably was ready to ‘give in’ to Bradley that night, he admitted to himself in retrospect.
With little sleep and cast off in such a cavalier way, he left New York for home on an early morning train. He never heard from Bradley again. Returning to his girlfriend, Jake turned his back on the complexities of this world that he simply did not understand or find very attractive. A relationship with a woman seemed a simpler solution, except for the ever-increasing awareness of the painful dishonesty of the situation, of which he was becoming more and more conscious.
A few months later Jake picked up a newspaper only to see a photo of Bradley on the front page with the description, “Bradley, an artist whose mask was a sensation at the Truman Capote ball at the Plaza last night”. Bradley had “arrived” in New York.
Several years later, Jake found himself easily falling into Steven’s arms on that dark, foggy night. Much had transpired in the time in between—a time consisting of confusion, pretense and grasping at some sense of self in a hetero-normative world whilst coming to terms with a gay one.
What is the purpose of this story? Well, I suppose it is to say that being gay and stories about being gay are never straight forward (no pun intended) or simple. Our life stories are played out in an entrenched heterosexual culture and society, which often produces not only angst, insecurities and complexes, but also the variety and richness of alternative lives and lifestyles as solutions for many.
Before meeting Steven, very much confused and in a fog of his own making, Jake, his girlfriend and his mates made another trip to New York City. This will be our story for next time.