Read it on Salon
One early morning — Wednesday, March 28, 1951, to be exact, nine days after my twenty-first birthday — I was returning books to the university library, when my friend Betsy Fontana came into my line of vision. After one of her exaggerated and giggly smooching kisses, she introduced me to the woman with her. “This, Mary, my dear, is Charlie Beye, the biggest fag in Iowa City.”
I protested, although Mary seemed to take it as no more than Betsy’s normal flamboyance. We stood chatting, compulsive talkers all, until we remembered we were in a library. I was off on a walk around town with a wad of cash in my pocket, paying bills for my mother; it is hard to remember now a time when shop keepers appreciated cash in the till and there were no credit cards. Mary offered to accompany me, claiming, as I was to learn was typical of her, that she had “nothing to do.” Betsy trotted off to class, and we began our ascent from the library near the river up the hill to the town itself on the far side of the campus where the shops were located. We never stopped talking even to get our breath as we moved along placidly on our walk, but raced from topic to topic, oh, Lord, there was no stopping us. First it was Homer and Greek tragedy. Mary had read the “Iliad” and “Odyssey” closely, although, as she claimed, she was much too immersed in English literature to find time to learn Greek. Still she knew the poems well; I was impressed. I, on the other hand, had nothing to say about English literature, having shunted it aside in my intense pursuit of the ancient stuff. Ah, well, we turned to Tolstoy, a favorite of both of us, whom I had read in high school before I got caught up in classics, so we could argue over the philosophical bits in “War and Peace” and whether they were all that necessary and proclaim our love of “Anna Karenina.” And, oh, joy, we both had read lots and lots of Proust in high school as well; it took me all of my senior year. I was intoxicated by the endless stream of words pouring from both our mouths, spurred on to more and more outrageous word choices in response to Mary’s vocabulary. At last, an hour later, all bills had been paid, and I had something left over to allow me to invite Mary for toast and tea at Whetstone Drugstore where back in the day one could get refreshments. It was now nine o’clock. I had known her for one hour; I was enchanted. We stopped talking to tend to the tea, and I looked across the booth at her and recollected what I had noticed on our walk. She was short, fleshy, there were pleasing curves to her hips — pear-shaped, they used to call it — in symmetry with her round full breasts that her sweater revealed. Her skin tones had a definite copper cast, which went with her thick strawberry blond hair, worn shoulder-length. She wore lipstick, and eye shadow, and penciled her eyebrows. She was definitely not an Iowa City High School girl.
“This has been great,” I said. “I think we should get married.”
Mary did not hesitate at the suggestion but had a question in reply. “Have you ever slept with a woman?”
“Well, no. I haven’t.”
Still unperturbed, Mary contemplated the toast on her plate before saying, “Well, that would be basic in any marriage.”
“Then we shall have to do so, and the sooner the better,” I solemnly decreed. “In fact, perhaps a week from this coming Friday.”
The last part of this lunatic conversation was predicated on the coincidence that I was going to be sleeping alone in our house on that Friday night. My mother was about to move us into a small apartment, for which she had discarded a great quantity of household furnishings. This stuff was stacked in the garage, about to be sold in an auction on the lawn in front of our house. Friday night I would be a guard; the double bed on which I was to sleep in the empty house would be moved out to the auction on Saturday morning. My reader cannot possibly find this course of action any stranger or more inexplicable than its author does!
The walk that ended in Whetstone Drugstore cannot be explained. Most of the time Mary and I talked about emotional depression, as I remember. I told her of my experiences growing up gay, an abbreviated version of what is contained in the previous pages. She herself had known hostility, had her own tales of classmates’ negative reaction to her sexual freedom in another smalltown Iowa high school. Things hadn’t improved any, she told me, when she arrived at the university, where she made the mistake of thinking she could combine sex and friendship. If I was the town’s notorious cocksucker, she had to contend with her reputation as an easy lay. We both knew a lot about the same things, hurt, for instance, and social confusion, and sexual curiosity. We were also both able to put our experiences into a humorous perspective. We were so much alike; the thought of it threw me into a state of intense excitement.
Marriage? How did the idea pop into my head? The smalltown mores of my day dictated that no two people could live together unless they were married. I must have proposed marriage as the obvious status of intimacy. It is a commentary upon the sexless home of my childhood that I never stopped to consider the sexual component, until Mary laughingly asked whether I had slept with a woman. It is a commentary upon Mary that she did not immediately reject the idea of marriage to a gay male. She was spontaneous, reckless, devoid of calculation. The very moment was telling. Mary was a juvenile diabetic who needed daily injections of insulin to maintain her metabolic functions. There she was sitting in the drugstore with me smoking a cigarette, drinking coffee, and eating sugared cinnamon buttered toast. These were so many no-no’s, as I was to discover later, to which she was quite indifferent. Mary was up for experience; she exuded the perfume of transgression and it intoxicated me. I think that she was equally attracted to me, that she was willing to give the idea of marriage, ludicrous, crazy as it was, a try, so long as I passed a test in the basics. While sex was not at all central to her idea of friendship, Mary was not about to let go of it.
No amount of psychiatric discussion has ever gotten me any closer to why I did what I did, for which I had no regrets and pretty nearly total satisfaction during the four and a half years that remained of Mary’s life. Of course, cynics will always argue that any relationship cut short like that will look good. Think of Alfredo and Violetta in “La Traviata,” or, more to the point, gorgeous Robert Taylor and Greta Garbo in “Camille.” If Mary felt doomed, perhaps she communicated that desperate feeling at some level. It was all of a piece with the ancient Greek tragic sense of life. Well, I am sentimental, I know it, and perhaps I do glamorize the memory.
Oddly enough, I was not the slightest bit apprehensive about having sex with Mary. Once she had agreed to consider marriage, we began to act like any couple going steady, lots of necking, lots of kissing. At first it felt strange to me, touching her or holding her. Mary was small, and soft, and slightly fleshy. Boys were tall, hard, and muscular. Swelling, warm, sweet-smelling breasts had to be won through the challenge of the fortification of a brassiere. How much easier to dip one’s hand into a pair of jockey shorts. At this stage I equated breasts with pricks. These were the two appendages of gender that stuck out. My naturally strong libido responded to her flesh, considerably encouraged by her demonstrative affection and attractiveness. Mary was not embarrassed to put her hand on me, to rub my groin and arouse me. Somewhere in the mysteries of my sexual education at home I had learned that women were not aroused by the sight of men, nor were they willing to respond to men’s aggressive actions, but rather waited, quite passively, for the male’s arrival and entry. Mary was not like this; she was ready to ensure that her male’s equipment was ready for action. It was almost two weeks since we made this assignation, and I was certainly ready. Like an athlete in training I had kept myself from any contact with a male, had kept my hand off my dick. Friday night Mother was safely packed off to her new apartment. I had bought condoms and put beer in the refrigerator.
I was what I think is nowadays called “highly sexed,” and rather than feel terri ed, I was keen on the experiment, and as we entered the house and ascended the stairs I could sense the familiar twist and tightening of my undershorts as the blood began its journey. Mary had been relatively promiscuous since losing her virginity at sixteen and approached a new sexual encounter as simply part of a larger repertoire of interaction that she saw developing between two people who had already amply demonstrated a great gift for conversing on a very wide range of subjects with considerable rhetorical skill. The charge in that was certainly as strong as the physical attraction of two young naked people. I was not the least nonplussed by the demands of fitting on a condom, since the”married man with whom I had been sleeping two years earlier had insisted upon condoms until he felt sure that I was clean. It seemed ridiculous at the time, but on this particular night I was thankful for the experience.
The first great discovery of heterosexual intercourse for a veteran of the active role in homosexual anal intercourse was delight at the easy entry. I mounted, slid in, and there I was enveloped in Mary’s warm and moist interior. Later I was to be delighted that the vagina could accommodate a somewhat limp penis after its orgasm, allowing for some tentative thrusts to start toward a new crescendo. As I began to develop my rhythm, I was delighted to look down at her face, watching her breasts bobbing below me, feeling them crushed against my chest. The missionary position allowed me to feel my control of her body through my legs and pelvis. It was my show, I was a god and emperor and king, after all those years on my knees staring at a guy’s pubic hair as I went up and down on him, or if I was penetrating my partner more often than not confronting his shoulder blades, or when face- to-face having to manage the logistics of balance and stance, not to mention the need to have a harder-than-rock phallus for the penetration of the slightly off-kilter orifice. Oh, joy, oh, rapture, oh, bliss. It was a revelation to me, Mary’s continuing surge of sexual desire, matching my own, which until then I did not know I possessed, sharing as we did a reaction to orgasm by slowly moving gently, gently together to produce another. We could make love all night.
For the first time in my life I understood that a woman is a mystery. By this I mean I had complete familiarity with a male’s erotic responses because I myself was a male. A commonplace response of hitchhikers whom I had picked up on the transcontinental highway on their way home after demobilization was that I was better than any prostitute they had experienced in Paris or Hong Kong or wherever. It always seemed natural to me, because I was alert to every nuance of their mounting excitement since I knew it from my own experience. No matter how often a male may make love to a woman, if he takes their lovemaking seriously and tries to comprehend it, he will discover that he can never finally sense her response to his presence or to his actions because there is no true analogue to his own bodily responses, not even massaging the clitoris. More than anything else this was the great discovery for me.
I had been raised in a house of women, habituated to talk with them easily. My closest school chums were all women. I felt entirely comfortable with women. God knows I certainly knew the rhythm and frequency of the female menstrual cycle from early on. One of my long-standing anecdotes at the right sort of social gathering was describing my mother’s often-repeated request that I walk down to Pearson’s Drugstore to purchase Kotex for my many bleeding sisters, and my reluctance as a youth to expose myself to the snickers at my frequent appearance there on that mission, not to mention my wonderment at why they couldn’t get their own sanitary napkins; I mean, why me? Now for the first time I discovered at the deepest physical level my alienation from women whom I would never really know at all. Not for me Joan Crawford imitations or drag parties. Women were women and men were men. In bed with Mary I forgot myself: I was a conventional male person and in the process my penis took over from my mouth as the focus point. I think of the psychoanalyst Karen Horney’s remarks about male performance anxiety connected with the idea of the penis as a tool, and the fact that women can produce offspring without experiencing orgasm, but that men must perform to function biologically.
What is, of course, interesting in this distinction is that I had spent years bringing males to orgasm, experiencing this orgasm orally, controlling it in doing so; my mouth was my instrument. The shared experience of mating as I had sex with Mary, both of us excited together, both facing one another, moving together in response to my thrusting; it was so different from “giving” another guy an orgasmic experience, from the first stirrings through to the ecstatic convulsions, my action, his passivity — no performance anxiety for him, which is perhaps the fundamental allure of fellatio.
I did not see Mary again until Monday. After my morning’s work on Saturday I returned to assist Mother at her auction, then went with her to the new apartment to settle in. Monday, Mary and I met again at the drugstore, where she told me that she had spent Saturday night with her casual boyfriend. “I just wanted to be sure that I knew what I was doing,” she said with a laugh. “Yes, you and I had a great night of sex, but, you know, ‘forsaking all others,’ as the marriage service says. I just wanted to comparison-shop.”
I smiled, but I was scandalized; obviously the irony of my adhering to the double standard for males and females did not strike me. Immediately I felt vulnerable, although it was clear that whatever-his-name-was had not proved to be a serious rival. Within a week or so I met the guy when he went out for the evening with Mary and me. As we were driving her back to her dorm I felt him put his arm down upon mine, which was resting on the seat behind her, and his hand pressuring me. Once I bade her good night, Harvey and I drove to his apartment. On the way he introduced the idea of our forming a menage a trois, for which he had pedantically worked out the logistics. All that was needed, he concluded, was a demonstration of his capacity for homosexual sex. Harvey was the stereotypical ambitious, overachieving New York Jew, an exotic in Iowa, a commonplace in the East. Our time in bed was going to be an experiment. His two roommates, also Jews from New York, greeted us solemnly, then nervously and abruptly withdrew to their rooms, obviously aware of his great experiment. Harvey undressed, revealing a powerful, excited member attached to a well-formed hairy torso. I was immediately overpowered with the kind of desire I would never know with Mary. For the next several hours we tried it all. Harvey, the intrepid explorer, put his member wherever I directed, and, sometimes grimacing with pain, offered his every orifice for penetration, following my example, but it was finally clear that for Harvey, as the expression goes, “Once is curiosity, twice would be perversion. “That’s what I thought would happen,” said Mary.
Did I love her? people always ask me. I don’t know; I am not sure what love is. I liked her immensely, I valued her, I did not swoon over her. I suppose I did not love her in any conventional sense of the word. I certainly did not lust after her. Seeing her nude standing before me did not give me the charge a naked male would produce. We were married July 1, 1951; she died a little over four years later. We never had a devastating quarrel, although once I made Mary so angry that she left our bed in our one-room apartment and slept the night in the bathtub. We yelled and screamed and pouted on many occasions. Our sexual marathons gradually became less frequent and less intense, and finally the sex became more a placid release three times a week. We spent that final Sunday afternoon in bed making love four hours before she died. But in all those days of our life together we never stopped the conversations.
Our courtship lasted three months. I went up to Ames to meet her parents, Carl and Ruth Powers, and to ask for her hand in marriage, that old expression, but we felt old-fashioned to be getting married. It was not a sacrament, a ceremony, no, we saw it as a party event, a drama, a symbol of our relationship to act out. The wedding photos reveal a very young couple, handsome, shy, naive. My heart goes out to all that innocence as though I, the old man viewing them, had never been part of it. But then, everyone in the scenes seems so young, even my mother, who was only fifty-eight at that moment, just five years older than my eldest child today. My best man seems to be no more than fourteen, although of course he was my contemporary in college. We met through gay circles, I chose him as best man on impulse, really, because I was in another life from my adolescence, and a male from my high school class would carry associations I did not want then. Well, that’s what I would have said, perhaps did say, but the fact of the matter is that I had no close male friends from the high school days. He and I and Mary and her attendant drove up from Iowa City the day before the wedding, the ride broken by a longish boozy lunch in a restaurant on the banks of the Cedar River lazily flowing on its long journey to the Mississippi. That night we were nervous and had what we wanted, sandwiches, nothing more, made by Mary’s mother. Afterward we two men bade the ladies good night and went to the local hotel to spend the night. After a few drinks in the bar downstairs we decided to turn in. I was nervous; so was he. This was going to be a performance, and we wanted to do our best.
We sat on the edge of our beds in our underpants to discuss it, and as so often happens in scenes such as these the inherent physical attraction of two males almost nude with the added titillation of mounded flesh seen through white cotton fabric caused them to disrobe completely and act on their desire. And that, I suppose, could be called my bachelor party.
I kissed most of the boys goodbye in the two months leading up to the wedding. For example, my former dueling partner in the high school play, now a university student, to whom I had given considerable help with his term papers in exchange for sexual favors, dropped by my mother’s apartment one day when she was out. He no doubt imagined that he could get a paper from me as he had before, but this time without having to put out. As I sat on the floor next to him poring over the papers and notes he had brought with him, his thighs, his shoulders and chest, his breath and smell deranged my thoughts. I ran my hand up his leg. Minutes later we were naked on my bed, a threatening headache was gone, and I felt a kind of peace of fulfillment that told me something true about myself that I was willing to accept but not to articulate.
I said goodbye to my married friend, who encouraged me to try it straight for a bit — to “get the hang of it.” I said goodbye to the big college athlete who took it up the ass and tried to deny it meant anything; yet when we met for the last time, the two of us sitting naked on his bed, he staring moodily at the floor while I looked out the window, he asked, “But what about me?” I didn’t know, nor do I know now how he worked out his life. The star high school athlete, my weekly companion of so many years, now a married man, I could not let go. He continued to see me from time to time; in fact, on the very day a year later when Mary and I were leaving Iowa City for Cambridge, Massachusetts, and graduate school, he came by when she was at work “just to say goodbye,” and sat across from me staring me in the eye, slowly unzipping his fly, knowing that I could not resist.
Excerpted from “My Husband and My Wives: A Gay Man’s Odyssey” by Charles Rowan Beye, published in October 2012 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. Copyright ©2012 by Charles Rowan Beye. All rights reserved.
Read it on Salon