NOTE: Sylvia’s Place is an emergency night shelter and daytime community space for homeless LGBTQ youth, 16-24, in New York City. Every story this week will by someone from Sylvia’s Place. Read my previous “Sylvia’s Place Week” post for more information about the program and stories.
Today’s story is by Geer Austin, a volunteer through NY Writers Coalition, a not-for-profit organization that provides free creative writing workshops throughout New York City for people from groups that have been historically deprived of a voice in our society. If you’re in NYC and want to volunteer, they’d love to hear from you.
I went to Los Angeles in 1973, on winter break from my senior year at college, to visit my boyfriend Herb. He was a native Angelino and had grown up in a house in Brentwood next door to a famous movie star’s house. I was from Wilton, a small town in southwestern Connecticut, and had grown up on a 35-acre farm, where my neighbor on one side was an old-fashioned Yankee farmer and on the other side, my friend Robbie, whose dad was an old-fashioned family doctor. Behind our property was a funky old riding club. There might have been one or two movie stars living in Wilton, but I didn’t know them. Herb was a close friend of his movie star neighbor, and his family had many other Hollywood connections. He was a year younger than I was, but about ten times worldlier.
During the first several days of my visit to Los Angeles, I holed up with Herb in his parents’ beach house in Malibu, and managed to forget about other people. It was an escape from our usual lives of schoolwork and friends, and a chance to focus only on each other.
Then one evening he confided in me that he had discovered a bar in Santa Monica the previous summer, before he and I had met, and he had picked up men there on several occasions and gone home with them. I suddenly had a burning desire to see the place, and I asked him to take me there. Why not, he said, and we drove down the Coast Highway to Santa Monica and parked near the bar. Walking through the door, I felt nervous. It was my first time in a gay bar, and I didn’t know what to expect.
Herb seemed at home in the place. He approached the bartender with confidence, even though he was underage, and ordered drinks. Men wearing tight white pants leaned backwards against the bar. Their hair was bleached blond, and their skin was deeply tanned. Gold chains or puka beads hung around their necks. Everyone looked older than we were, maybe as old as thirty-five. I was too much in love with Herb to consider having sex with any of these “older” men. But I kind of liked standing among a bunch of guys who all seemed to have sex on their minds. Herb and I sipped our drinks and looked around. Several of the men stared at us, but we didn’t strike up a conversation with any of them.
“It’s more fun when you’re alone,” Herb said. “The whole point of the place is to meet people. I mean if you aren’t already with someone. But of course I’d rather be with you.” He looked confused, as if he was torn between the desire to be with me and a need to have sex with a stranger.
I snaked my arm around his shoulder, and he leaned against me. We must have looked impossibly young to the other men in the bar. Perhaps some of them felt the way I do now when I see a young gay couple who are obviously in love. Part of me leaps out at them as if I could inhabit their bodies for a moment and recapture the way Herb and I felt back then. Another part of me wants to drop a protective bubble over them so they can walk safely in the world.
Thinking about Herb brings to mind sunlit days walking on the winter beach in Malibu, stripping off our clothes and running into the icy Pacific and then running back to the house to warm each other in bed.
But nostalgia dredges up other past events, good and bad. For example, the memory of the day that Herb and I parted company, when he literally drove into the sunset toward Los Angeles leaving me sobbing on Remsen Street in Brooklyn, New York. Our subsequent sporadic friendship. And relationships entered into in the years after we split up. Losing friends and lovers to early death. Learning that Herb died young. All the things that happened to me after he left my life.