By the spring of 1976 I had signed the lease for my first apartment on my own. This was a big thing for me. No, it was huge. I felt like I had finally grown up. The building was just off the corner of 17th Street and Eighth Avenue in Chelsea. At this time the West Village had grown too expensive for the starving artist types, so many were scrambling to find new digs elsewhere. Chelsea was ripe for the picking and quickly becoming a new gay sanctuary. The building had five or six studio apartments on each of its six floors and an elevator so things were looking up for me. It was said that the building had originally been built as a transient hotel in the 1920s (I never knew that to be a fact) and as a real bonus, each studio had a functioning wood burning fireplace. This apartment was truly a find and I was as happy as a clam-a place of my very own in MY city.
The apartment was on the sixth floor and my windows faced the building next door. There wasn’t much space between them, so there was no way to get the air to circulate and on warm nights it could be difficult to sleep. The closer we got to summer, the worse my nights were and even a window fan could do no good once the room heated up. I would never go to bed before midnight, but on those bad nights I would wake up in a sweat at two or three am and have trouble falling back to sleep. Rather than tossing and turning, I took to getting up, throwing on a pair of cut-offs and tank top and going for a walk in the neighborhood. The streets were very safe and this was Manhattan, remember, so people would be out and about at all hours. I’d usually walk to 23rd Street, which is a major cross street, and buy a cold soda, or a frozen treat to enjoy as I tried to walk myself back to sleep.
On this one, particular, hot June evening, I was having difficulty falling asleep. I had been in NYC since December of 1972, and still didn’t own a tv set, so I didn’t even have that to possibly lull me to sleep. It was probably close to 1:00 am when I knew I needed a walk, because this sleeping thing looked absolutely futile tonight. I dressed in my usual costume and was out the door. I walked up 17th Street towards Seventh Avenue, figuring I could spend some time looking in BARNEY’S windows. I wasn’t half way up my block, when I saw a guy walking towards me in jeans and a white tee-shirt. He had dark, curly hair and a black beard. So did I at the time, as did probably one out of every five gay guys in the city. It was the look at the time. I remember thinking I’d wished I had brushed my teeth before leaving for my walk. I slowed my pace and it seemed he did the same. The closer he got, the better he looked. My hormones began racing in rhythm with my heart, but on the outside I was continuing my nonchalant stroll.
There is a dance which could be done in a situation such as this. It had taken me most of my time in New York up to this point to learn it, and I was getting good at it, but this dance depended on the other partner. If he wasn’t at the same level of interest, the dance would never begin. If he was, then I certainly knew my choreography. We were both still pretending we had not really noticed each other-that we were not interested in anything but our individual night walks. We got to within about ten feet of one another and he moved a foot or so out towards the street, and I countered his move in towards the buildings. Now as we passed on the sidewalk, I turned my head slightly towards him and smiled a bit, more with my eyes than my mouth. As I did, he parted his lips and showed his teeth, returning a grin. Without even a hesitation, I continued to walk a few feet ahead. I stopped and turned in his direction, just with my neck, shoulders and my waist, my feet still planted in their original path. This was the crucial point in the dance. Had he done the same, or would I be staring at his back as he continued on his way, not interested in curly-haired, bearded, insomniac me?
And in one of those magic moments in a life, I saw that he had turned his entire body fully around and as we finally made eye to eye contact he said “well good evening, guy”, and smiled as he walked towards me. He extended a hand and shook mine as he introduced himself as though we were meeting at some sort of social function. I immediately detected a drawl. I had never really met a southerner in the city, and he acted like nothing but a gentleman and not street trash as one might expect at that hour of the night/morning cruising the streets of my gayborhood. He had been to a late showing of a film, he told me, and was walking home. He lived some blocks away on the Eastside and I explained my sleepless plight to him. I invited him up to my place (in great hopes of the two of us enjoying something that would really tire me out and help me sleep), but he had to be at work early the next morning. He was a psychologist and worked for some City office for social work. Neither of us had anything to write on or with, but he had a very distinctive three-part name and he said he was the only one in the Manhattan phone book. He went by his second name, which was Curtis. I called him the next day, well actually later that same day, and he became my boyfriend by the end of the following week.
Ours was an odd relationship; well at least for me it was. For Curtis, I think it was like any other he might have ever had. We saw each other regularly, getting together a few nights a week to eat and have sex. He was a foody and enjoyed an eclectic range of cuisines, as did I. He would cook one night on the weekend at his place and I would do the same at my apartment on the alternate night. We both enjoyed classical music. I liked opera more than him but couldn’t afford tickets very often and he favored piano and orchestral music, so we would attend recitals or smaller concerts at colleges and smaller venues that were more affordable. Curtis had no friends, at least he never talked about them. I had many friends who I was quite close to, but he seemed neither interested in meeting them nor in joining us when we got together. In the beginning, I was so infatuated with him and the incredible sex life we were enjoying and so much in love with the idea of our relationship, that none of this bothered me. I was having it all for the very first time in my life, plus it was the Bicentennial summer and the city was celebrating in a big way. At times, it seemed like everything the city was doing was also in celebration of my wonderful relationship with Curtis.
My parents usually visited every other year since I’d moved and they were due this summer, but because of the celebrations and huge crowds, they wanted to wait until fall. I didn’t know how I would pull it off, but I did want them to meet Curtis, because he had become important in my life. Up to this point, my parents knew nothing of my sex life nor the direction my sexuality was leaning in. One of the reasons I moved five hundred-plus miles away from home was so that I could live, what I was sure my family would have viewed as my depraved life, without them knowing about it. I had no plans to come out to them, but I wanted them to see maybe a tiny glimpse of the life I had hidden from them. If they wondered how this handsome southern gentleman fit into my world, all the better. I just wasn’t about to have my private life become fodder for an ugly family confrontation.
As uninterested as Curtis was in my friends, he was extremely excited about meeting my parents. He wanted to wait until the last day of their stay, and planned a Sunday morning walk in Central Park, and brunch in an Eastside restaurant. The weather was perfect and brunch was a lot of fun. My mother melted every time he called her Ma’am, even though she insisted each time that he call her Anne. My dad didn’t seem moved one way or another, but then he seldom was. We had some extra time before heading back to the apartment to pick up their suitcases and take them to the airport, so Curtis suggested stopping at The Plaza to show them how the other half enjoyed vacationing in New York. Both of my parents walked through the hotel with open mouths awed at the lobby, the Palm Court and the clientele. Curtis suggested we had time to enjoy a drink at the bar in The Oak Room. Suddenly Curtis became number one in Dad’s book. He loved nothing more than bellying up to a bar and parking his ass on a bar stool.
Curtis sat at one end, my father next to him, my mother and then me on the opposite end. We had already enjoyed cocktails with brunch, so my mother’s Southern Comfort Manhattan “up” quickly went to her head. It was her drink of choice and the only drink she knew to order other than a highball. She started talking quietly to me and her usually animated face looked as though she was struggling with something difficult that she needed to get out. She said that she was worried about me. It was obvious that I showed I could be responsible, and that I was living on my own in a very difficult place, yet I had made a nice home for myself. But she was worried that I didn’t have anyone in my life, that I wasn’t dating and never talked about any women in my life. She said something to the effect that a sex life was very important too. I smiled and told her not to worry about my sex life, I was doing fine. It might have been my second cocktail kicking in too, because seemingly out of nowhere I said “You see that guy at the other end of the bar”, pointing to Curtis, “he’s my boyfriend. I’m gay”. It was that simple. It just sort of fell out of my mouth and I couldn’t have said it better if it had been scripted by Neil Simon. She paused, looked me in the eyes and countered “I knew it. I knew it since you were five”. (I never did ask her what it was at five that made her think I was gay.) Then she ended the conversation with “Don’t say anything to your father. I’ll tell him myself when we get home”.
I told Curtis, the minute my parents were on the plane, what had transpired while he politely listened to my father regale him with stories of his local watering hole back home. He couldn’t believe it. He thought I was brave, because he said he could never be that real with his own mother (and this man was a psychologist, remember). We got back to my apartment, and made love, where I had the most intense orgasm I’d ever experienced before. It had nothing to do with anything Curtis might have done. I never felt so free before. I really was on top of the world in every possible way.