When I told my high school boyfriend, Chuck, that I couldn’t marry him because I needed to meet other men before settling down to marry, I envisioned that unfolding rather neatly. As it turned out, I met a variety of lovely friends who lit me up with romance, friendship, song, and heartache too. I had not anticipated being confused about sexuality, though!
On the very first day of orientation, I met a guy whose voice wafted over me like a warm southern breeze. His Memphis drawl made me want to ask him endless questions, so he would keep talking to me. I didn’t do that, of course, but I wanted to! I was happy to learn that he was a Biology major like me, so I would likely meet him again. Mark would become my best friend in college, the man I most wanted to be with, and yet my most challenging relationship of all!
Our common interest in wandering the old farm fields of the campus afforded us many hours of companionship, often with more sensory delight than conversation. Mark also introduced me to Saturday evening classical music concerts at the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra’s Music Hall. The first concert we enjoyed found us in the front row watching – and feeling – the cellos pulsing the base line in the Mars movement of The Planets. I had never experienced such vibrant music and jumped at the chance to go to more concerts with Mark, and sometimes another mutual friend, Mike. After the concerts, we would stop at the Drawbridge Inn café and snack on cheesecake and coffee.
Throughout our freshman year I could always count on Mark for a good walk, an inviting intellectual conversation, or an evening of beautiful music. Sometimes, we would skip Biology Lab, avoiding the crowded room with the plan of coming back later when all the “commuter students” had gone home. Don, our mutual friend, would drive his Toyota Corolla across the Ohio River bridge to the Conservatory where we could surround ourselves with “real” plants. Mark’s developing interest in orchids was satisfied there, and I enjoyed learning more about orchids and bromeliads from him than I could have ever done in the classroom! Then, we would go back to the lab and get it all done in peace.
In May, we said goodbye for the summer and he went home to Memphis. I went off to work as the Nature Lady at the Girl Scout Camp in Ohio where I had taken my troop (see Gratitude Celebration 24) on a winter adventure the year before. All summer long, I loved leading the girls in sensory explorations of Nature, hoisting them up to get a bird’s eye view of the tree tops on a “Bosun’s chair”, and sitting out thunderstorms in the Nature Cabin. I also made a fast friend in the director of the camp’s swimming program, Linda. She would come meet me at the Nature Cabin and we would walk to dinner together. Since neither of us had groups of scouts to manage we had many evenings free to spend time together singing. Linda was a master guitarist who played Tennessee Williams songs and wrote her own.
As the summer waned, Linda’s songs became touchingly suggestive of a deeper love than I had realized was there. I accepted her hand to hold while we walked, not understanding that she meant something I did not. When camp was over, we were both exhausted and we took a nap in my attic bedroom. I was enjoying the warmth of a good friend who had touched my heart with song and whose companionship I would miss when we went separate ways for the Fall.
I was oblivious to her intent, however. Perhaps you can forgive my naivete, and my surprise, when my mom said the next day, “You need to find someone else to take you back to school. I don’t want to. I can’t accept what you are.”
It finally dawned on me! My mom thought I was gay! And I didn’t even know for sure what that was! True, I loved being with Linda, holding hands, sleeping next to each other, making music that reverberated joy through my whole body and soul. But, I didn’t think that made me gay! And so what if I was? Did that make me wrong and unacceptable?! My brother drove me the two hours back to school, loaded with newly dyed bedspreads and a wall hanging for my room with Kelly. I was stunned, and sad to feel so separate and misunderstood by my mom, rejected in a way I had not experienced before, confused by the notion that loving someone could be wrong. Well, at least I had my friends at school and a full schedule of classes to keep me occupied. There could be more walks in the woods with Mark.
I was happy to see him! And glad that now we could develop our friendship. I was also spending time with new friends, like Donna, Mary Jo, and Chris. To my surprise, Chris asked me to go to the Fall dance with him. As usual, I sewed myself a new dress. This one was a luscious royal blue, chosen to be noticed by Chris’ colorblind eyes. I was honored to be his date, since he was a popular upperclassman. The evening turned out to be a disturbing one, though because Chris seemed more interested in exploring the adjoining breezeway, walking out on the street, and avoiding the dance! When we retreated to my sister’s empty apartment for a post-dance dinner and romantic time, he pulled away and acted sullen. He drove me back to the dorm and I said goodnight to my roommate Kelly, giving only quick answers to her questions about my night. I had no clue what had just happened!
Well, I could spend time with Mark, at least when Linda wasn’t visiting me on weekends. By now, I was more aware of the kind of relationship she wanted to have, and I obliged her affectionate warmth, reveling in the music and singing. We went exploring with Kelly, who wanted to visit the University of Cincinnati in hopes of transferring there.
My confusion about love and affection magnified one evening that Fall when I quietly laid my head on Mark’s shoulder as we listened to the Pachelbahl Canon, a resurfaced tune from the Baroque era. I was jerked out of my reverie when Mark bolted up off the couch and walked off! Startled, I collected myself and slipped back to my own room in the women’s dorm in another building. The next day, I found a note on my bed that clarified Mark’s action, and woke me up to the reality that I had been missing. Mark had needed to inform me in direct words that he needed me to know that he was “a homosexual”.
I was devastated, and ashamed at the same time! I walked out of the dorm and cried my heart out to the stars in the black night of the farmstead campus of Thomas More. I had been so sure that Mark could be a partner and now I didn’t know what to do. I felt so stupid for not recognizing his orientation, mostly because I honestly didn’t understand anything about being gay. At that time, in the 70’s, no one had ever talked openly about that before, and I couldn’t think of anyone in whom I could confide or inquire. I thought I had to keep it to myself, and protect his secret, so I didn’t say anything to my roommate, Kelly, and was glad she didn’t ask.
Fortunately, Mark’s friendship truly was lasting, and after a few days avoiding him, I discovered that I could enjoy relating with him platonically after all. But, I was so baffled and confused about this whole notion of sexual orientation now! Here was Mark, a man I felt very attracted to, telling me I couldn’t be with him, and then there’s Linda, a woman I enjoyed being with for singing and having fun, saying she did want to be intimate. To top it off, one night I went over to my friend, Donna’s, room, and she’s having a heart-to-heart with Chris, my mysterious dance-avoiding partner. When she was finished, she came by and shared that Chris, who I had thought was her boyfriend, had just told her that he was – you guessed it – gay!
“What’s going on?” I asked God, since there wasn’t anyone else to ask, ”This is so messed up!”
Somehow I managed to weather the quagmire, keep studying Biology, Chemistry, and Physics, and go off to Canada for a second magical summer of canoeing in the kettle ponds of the Canadian Shield. The camp season ended a week after the start of my senior year, so I proudly returned to the campus late, confident that missing the first few days of classes would be just fine. I was all tanned and fit from my summer outdoors, glowing with happiness in a yellow top I had made myself. I was determined to focus on studying and not drown in the frustrations of relationships.
What I didn’t know, however, was that the young man sitting across from me in the dining hall as I joked with a Sociology professor, was composing an ode to my blue eyes. And that’s tomorrow’s tale of gratitude.
My deepest gratitude to Mark, however, comes from a realization much later in my life. After our graduation from Thomas More in May, 1976, I have only seen Mark a few times. He has remained a true friend of my heart, however. It was Mark to whom I ran for comfort when I ended my relationship with Linda, setting my boundary of intimacy with her. He understood.
Years later, as I longed for his companionship as a fellow Nature lover to whom I needn’t defend my yearning for the outdoors, I realized that there really is such a thing as a spiritual relationship that can be as real and nourishing as a physical one. Since then, I have allowed myself to feel close to him in my thoughts and connections with Nature. We’ve met up a few times, enjoying cheesecake and easy conversation, picking up where we left off the last time we talked as if we’d soon be walking into Biology class together. At those moments, I was glad that I had not relinquished our friendship, choosing to follow my mother’s words when I had divulged my 20-year old broken heart. She had said, simply, “I don’t know what to tell you. If you love him, then love him.”
I’m beginning to understand how that can be.