Forty three years ago this weekend, a young man said something to me that was totally unexpected.
It came from out of the blue. It left me breathless. And it would change my life forever.
Under the Influence
He was my big brother in the Kappa Sigma fraternity at the University of Florida, the same fraternity my father and the uncle I was named for had belonged to. The back of my jersey read Covey 3. He was working that summer in South Florida but had come up for the weekend. So I took him to a party thrown by the staff of the Alligator, the student paper at UF for which I was a reporter.
Alligator parties were notoriously industrial strength and this one was no exception. There was no shortage of booze but that was hardly all that was available. At the time the region had its own brand of locally grown marijuana called Gainesville Green readily available from the Micanopy Marijuana Grower’s League just 10 miles down the highway from campus.
This night’s supply was particularly potent. We called it Gangster Weed.
We’d only been partying about a half hour when I noticed that my big brother wasn’t doing so well. He was laughing at inappropriate times and occasionally crying for no apparent reason. The woman I was living with at the time who had hosted the party was worried and suggested I might want to take him upstairs just in case he was going to get sick.
We went upstairs and I had him lie down. I told him I’d be right downstairs if he needed me, and then went to the door. “I’ll check back on you in a few minutes.”
“Don’t leave me alone,” he said. “Please. Stay here with me a little while. Please.”
So I stayed. And within minutes, a lifetime of repression from living in the gall bladder of the South, Augusta, Georgia, (“They call it Disgusta back home,” he said) came bubbling up.
At one point he began talking about a high school football player, a classmate whom he had admired greatly. Seems that one night this star athlete had wrapped his car around a big live oak in the front yard of my big brother’s grandfather’s house.
“I’m really sorry,” I said.
He went on to describe visiting his grave to mourn but always when no one else was around. I just listened as he told me the story between sobs. After he had calmed down, I asked, “So what is going on with you tonight? And why are you telling me all these things?”
“Because tonight I realized that I love you as much as I loved him.”
I swear the axis of the Earth shifted at that moment.
Bear in mind this was 1974. Fraternity brothers did not tell each other that they loved each other. That kind of talk could get you kicked out of your house in a heartbeat.
“Do you think you can sleep a little bit?” I asked. “I need to go back down to the party.” He said no but he thought he could drive home at that point. I was dubious but he persisted and soon thereafter he came downstairs, made his apologies and took off.
“I’ll see you tomorrow,” he said. And out he went into the night.
I was absolutely wrecked. And I proceeded to get even more wrecked the minute the door closed behind him.
He Wreaked of Establishment
Truth be told, it had taken me awhile to even like this young man. He came from a wealthy family in Georgia and his clothes and car evidenced that. He had come to UF by way of Mercer University, a snotty private school in central Georgia. Worse yet, his family was Baptist!
They belonged to the Augusta Country Club of Masters Tournament fame. He spoke of watching Arnold Palmer practice his putting game during the Masters across the brick wall separating his home from the neighbors’. His house was at the top of a street named Chipandy Drive on which his developer father had built all the lavish homes of up and coming Augustans. (Andy’s older brother’s name was Chip.) Andy was the baby of the family, boyishly handsome with beautiful skin, golden blonde hair, brown eyes.
He wreaked of Establishment.
Indeed, he was everything I was not – oldest child of a professional middle-class family who had to rely on scholarships, loans and part-time work to attend college. I’d come to UF by way of a community college, hailing from a small town in Central Florida, completely at home in the woods where I grew up. And there were few places where I felt more uncomfortable than country clubs - where Rotarians and Kiwanis Clubs met – except for Baptist churches.
Truth be told, in the summer of 1974, I was more of a fading hippie than anything else. Anything that even remotely smelled of Establishment was suspect in my book.
But over time, I began to realize that first impressions were not reliable when it came to this young man. He was soft-spoken and had developed a highly introverted interactive style over his formative years in Georgia. This, no doubt, served to protect his incredibly gentle spirit, thoughtful mind and the good heart that he only showed to those he trusted. And he had come to Florida precisely to escape the very things I had wrongly judged him for – the racist, classist Baptist matrix he had endured so much of his life.
I knew he had grown to like me despite my hippie self-righteousness. And I soon decided I was lucky to have him for a big brother, the other possibilities largely being the hive minded business and pharmacy majors common to most fraternities of the 1970s when being Greek on America’s college campuses was decidedly not cool. Indeed, I had joined primarily to please my father.
But over the months, I began to realize my feelings about him were not simply fraternal. And I had absolutely no idea of how to understand or to deal with what I was feeling.
I was dating a beautiful, smart young woman I’d met in community college. We dreamed dreams of my becoming a lawyer and us both going to work in state government, living in one of the many neo-antebellum miniature Taras dotting the hills surrounding Tallahassee and raising little Stepford children.
I loved her deeply. But more importantly, this was the way things were supposed to be.
But they wouldn’t be that way. It was a hard lesson to learn that love alone would not be enough. My girlfriend figured it out first and left me right out of college. She ultimately did realize all of her dreams but with another young man from another fraternity. The unraveling of the dreams she and I had shared began that Memorial Day weekend with the revelations of an intoxicated big brother at an Alligator party.
By the point, Andy told me that he loved me, I realized that I was falling in love with him as well. I denied it. I told myself it wasn’t true - it couldn’t be true. But that night I was brought face-to-face with my darkest secrets.
Twice in as many days.
My roommate and I went down to the pool at the apartment complex the next day to swim. I’ve often found that swimming is one of the few comforts available for raging hangovers and Lord knows I had a real whopper that next day.
She asked what had happened upstairs. “Everyone was worried about him,” she said.
“With good reason,” I said.
I told her the story of what had happened. She asked what I thought about it. I said, “I am just praying he won’t remember any of it. He was pretty loaded.”
Just at that moment as if on cue, up walked Andy. My friend swam to the other end of the pool.
“I’m just going to leave you two to talk,” she said.
“Thanks a lot,” I muttered under my breath.
“So you got home OK last night,” I said.
“Yep. I told you I was all right to drive.”
Figuring it better to not postpone the inevitable, I plunged right in: “So do you remember what you told me last night?
“All of it?”
“And did you mean it….” (gulp….)
Once again, I felt the axis of the Earth shifting beneath me. Twice in as many days.
What Advice Would You Have Given Yourself?
Now, flash forward 43 years.
Saturday night over Thai food and Malbec at one of our favorite neighborhood places, we remembered that night long ago and the 43 years since then. They have been challenging to say the least.
We have lived apart from each other five different times for a year or more. There have been other people in our lives, both male and, in my case, female as well. Despite Woody Allen’s attempt at humor that having your sexual orientation fall close to the middle of the scale doubles your chances for a date on Friday night, truth be told, it can be very, very confusing to be bisexual in a homophobic culture like our own. The pressure is always to pretend that the part of yourself that doesn’t meet the norm doesn’t exist.
It took me awhile to figure out who I was and who I loved. Thank G-d for Andy’s patience.
We survived the loss of our home to a hurricane resulting in a painful four year process of rebuilding. We have moved numerous times all over the state from north to south and back to central as well as across the country to California and back. We learned to endure the creative hostility of his Baptist parents even as my own family embraced Andy from the beginning as one of their own.
Seven years ago we celebrated the end of America’s discriminatory marriage laws that allowed us to finally become legally married, an event that took place on the steps of the U.S. Supreme Court under the inscription “Equal Justice Under Law.” (“We’re here to get ours,” this former lawyer remarked)
Like many older gay couples, we now celebrate two anniversaries, one for when we agreed to be a couple and the other for when we got legal. Indeed, it was the concern for legal issues from hospital visitations to the ability to make legal decisions at the end of life that prompted our decision to get married.
As we laughed and occasionally lapsed into painful silence as we remembered our 43 improbable years together, I asked a question that had been on my mind a lot recently. “If you could go back and give some advice to your then 21 year old self that night, what would it be?”
Andy agreed to answer it only if I did the same. Between the two of us, here’s what came up in the conversation:
· Be patient. You have a lot of growing up yet to do. A lot! This will be painful at times. Sometimes it may seem like there is no way ahead. But you can make it through if you will work at it.
· You are going to have to figure a lot of things out on your own. There are no books for you to read and there are no public examples for you to emulate. If anything, you’ve been taught to lie and hide your lives together. Your love will be anathema to most people for at least the first half of your lives together. You really are on your own. But you can get through.
· Hold onto each other. There are some major challenges that are coming that you have no way of knowing yet. They will shake you and your relationship to your core. People are going to be petty and nasty to you because they don’t understand you and don’t want to. But you will have each other.
· You’ll need to be careful. Fearful people can be cruel. Don’t presume the best of people, particularly those you don’t know. Your lives could be in danger. Never underestimate them. Fear and ignorance make for a toxic cocktail.
· Ignore the people who arrogantly presume to speak for G-d at your expense as best you can. You’ll find your own way to G-d’s presence only to discover G_d was there waiting for you all along. And you’ll realize that their willingness to invoke the powers of heaven to vilify and destroy you are little more than an attempt to baptize their own fears and prejudices. They point toward gods not worth worshipping and religions not worth respecting.
· It’s going to take a long, long time to get to the point where your love for each other will feel solid, stable and mature. You’re engaged in a life-long process of on-job-training here. But your relationship can get there if you just keep trying.
· Don’t look now but before it’s all over there will be a number of people who will look to you for a model of how such a relationship can make it against the odds. You may not have asked for this role but this was never just about you. Take that responsibility seriously.
· Finally, don’t give up. Ever. Your love is worth fighting for. It’s worth suffering for. It’s worth waiting for its full blossoming into something absolutely wonderful.
So, Would I Have Walked Away?
Of course, it’s easy to see these things in retrospect. Hindsight is invariably 20/20. Perhaps it’s better we did not know all of what was to come that night 43 years ago. I’m not sure either of us could have begun to comprehend it, much less have been willing to engage it. My guess is that despite my tendency to enjoy a challenge, had I known what was coming I might well have walked away.
But here at the other end of that 43 years, I can say that knowing everything I know now, I’d do it all over again.
I am who I am today largely because I was willing to undertake an unlikely journey with my fraternal big brother that night and stay the course all these years, however imperfectly. I am who I am because he was able to love me into adulthood and wait for me to work through all my many demons even as I afforded him the same opportunities in return.
As a result, I have known love, understanding and forgiveness that I could never have predicted and perhaps did not always deserve. I have had the unflinching support and inevitably wise counsel of a life partner who has believed in me through all the many undertakings into which I have plunged both of our lives and who has helped me to survive the many disappointments I have met along the way.
This love has proven to be the most precious component of an unusual, unpredictable life that has been chock full of love, laughter, surprises and sorrows. A love like this is a rare jewel. I never take it for granted. And for this love of my life, I will always be profoundly grateful.
Happy 43d Anniversary, Andy. This day I give thanks to a very generous G-d for the gift of you and our lives together.
Harry Scott Coverston
If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.
Most things worth considering do not come in sound bites.
For what does G-d require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your G-d? (Micah 6:8, Hebrew Scriptures)
© Harry Coverston 2017