This essay is not about the normal subject of this blog, but is published is in recognition of the Supreme Court decision to be issued in June on same-sex marriage.
I fell in love when I was 15 with a classmate in my all girls’ Catholic high school. Our college-bound track divided between two math classes. In the room across the hall, our friends had the mad math teacher who pioneered individualized learning. Valerie and I had four successive teachers, elderly nuns who either died or were too senile to monitor anything much less algebra in the course of that year. We learned little math but a great deal about each other. By the end of our freshman year, on a warm June night in 1975, we consummated our growing love for each other in a relationship that lasted until we were 23.
Don’t get sentimental about this brief overview. The experience was one of extraordinary emotional pain. Our very traditional Italian-Irish families would only come to learn over the course of those years about our relationship by intuition, suspicion, and discovery of furtive moments together. Once I awoke as Valerie and I were asleep in an embrace on the porch of my family’s home. My mother was on the other side of the glass door in a stare. Valerie’s younger brother caught us repeatedly on the sofa at her house after school kissing. The only migraine headache I have ever had occurred after my father found us in the basement of his restaurant where we had gone to steal a few moments together. In each case nothing was spoken – we did not have words to describe our relationship – but all was internalized in a tortured, tangle of desire, love, guilt and confusion.
That tangle was evident from the start. In August of the same summer we began our relationship, Valerie told me that we could not see each other. I struggled through a fog of frustrated depression throughout sophomore year, especially since Valerie and I continued to share a number of tracked classes together, and was saved largely by friends who amazingly understood and continued to befriend me. Divine intervention in the form of Sister Jeanine, the Vice-Principal, descended early junior year. I was one of the few students in my year who had a car. Valerie was not well. Her parents were both working. Would I be willing to driver her home?
For the next two years we lived a double life. “Take those damn pills” Valerie’s boyfriend demand of her, meaning, of course, birth control. I dated a young man with whom I had worked at a public pool. Valerie did not choose to go to either her junior or senior ball, but I did. First with my boyfriend, of sorts, and then with my childhood friend-like-a-brother; it is a mark of our internalized cultural that we never even talked about defying norms and going together. And yet, we continued sleepovers, long drives and midnight parks.
Senior year was fun. In our quiet unspoken way, we resolved to the relationship, but alas, because it remained unspoken, so, too, did our plans for what would follow. When my psychologist uncle recommended that I go abroad for college – a shock to my parents who expected me to take over the restaurant – I did not reveal that it would expose our schizoid relationship to tragic variables. Summer after graduation, 207 girls all dressed in formal white dresses holding a dozen red roses on the stage of the Eastman (Kodak) Theater Auditorium in downtown Rochester, Valerie prepared to go to college at New Paltz while I filled a steamer trunk for London. We finally decided to tell someone, and called one of the nuns who had taught us in high school. Happy to receive us as recent graduate, Sister Marilyn became icy as soon as we explained why we were there. We did not know what to do. We needed guidance. “I cannot help you” she said before standing up, turning around, and walking out of the room.
The morning of Valerie’s departure for college, car packed to the gills, she declared for no given reason that she was not going. I soldiered on to a cocktail reception at the Rochester airport, dressed in a tailored grey suit, with aunts, uncles, cousins and my parents sending me off. Buoyed by all the attention, I thought I was fine, and maybe I would create a new … read: straight … life. Tired from travel, a wall of depression hit me as I walked up four fights to my dormitory room. Desperate letters and the occasional phone call bore the strain of attempts to figure it all out. Having gone to gay bars in Rochester, Jim’s on North Avenue, I thought maybe I should explore one in London. Dressed in a long, suede coat with a fur collar and high heeled boots, I circled Piccadilly Circus looking for the side street that I had read housed a bar for women until an older man with a bolder hat and cane approached me and asked how much.
I did not return to London when I came home for Christmas. I worked for my father. Valerie and I continued to see each other but without the complicated comfort of our high school, everything became more troubled. My depression worsened, until one day I not so much refused as I could not get myself out of bed. One of my understanding high school friends worked in a dry cleaner (the strange outcome of being ranked third academically in our class) and asked a customer who was a teacher for advice. He suggested that I go the outpatient psychiatric department at the University of Rochester’s Strong Memorial Hospital.
A few days later, when I approached the desk, the receptionist casually flipped through a paper calendar and gave me an appointment date about three weeks out. “No, you don’t understand, I need to see someone today.” For the first time she looked up at me. In retrospect, I imagine her hand cradling the panic button beneath the desk. But assessing that I was no danger, she directed me to sit in the waiting room. Over an hour later, a tall, slender Germanic woman out of central casting came through the thick metal door. Without affect, she asked me what was wrong. About three run-on sentences into my discourse about Valerie and my failed attempt at college and obligations to my parents to take over the restaurant, I broke down and babbled on. Unemotively, she listened and said, “I will see you, but you must make an appointment. Then I want you to walk over to the admission’s office and put in an application.” “Why? I cried, “It’s August, it’s too late.” The next day I drove my transcripts from Nazareth High School to the University of Rochester admission’s office. Less than a week later, I was admitted as a transfer and moved into a campus dormitory. I told my father when he and his psychologist brother came back from a fishing trip over Labor Day Weekend. As my father started to rear up – a reflexive action for an otherwise very generous and loving man – my uncle put his hand out and said “Congratulations, Tracy Beth!” My father paid every penny of my tuition.
But that move began the long separation between Valerie and me. Valerie had suggested over the summer that we get an apartment. Overwhelmed by uncertainty and depression, I feared too much to take that step. When I began classes, she became pregnant. Why I did not have the courage to fully embrace our relationship, her child, a life together led me on a long course of love relationships, two marriages (one to a woman) that resulted in divorce, and a life-long reoccurring dream that she and I are about to get back together.
For the next few years, Valerie lived with her parents, who helped raise her daughter, went to college and graduate school to become an award-winning teacher in the Rochester School District. After college, I would go onto graduate school in history. I needed two foreign languages to pass graduate school exams and only had one leaving Rochester, so immediately after graduation I went to Middlebury for an intensive summer program. A weekend separated completion of that program and the beginning of graduate school at Binghamton University. Valerie took a bus to Vermont. Together we drove up toward Burlington and along the shores of Lake Champlain spent a lovely, romantic weekend together. Without defining words, as had been the silent course of our relationship all along, she boarded the bus to return to Rochester, her two-year girl, and eventually a marriage and two more children. Without stopping, I drove straight to Binghamton.
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