In the summer of 1990, when I was 55, with so many things coming full circle for me, I went back to New York for the first time in many years. The Gay Games were held there, and I attended—made some new friends, and saw a few of the old ones who were still alive.
"Hi, Harlan, how are you? God, it's been ages. Yeah, we're still together... hanging in there. Did you know Justin died? And Chen? So, tell us about you. Got a boyfriend these days? Why the hell aren't you down there in the mile run?"
The usual stuff.
Afterwards I took off alone, and found myself drawn to places where I'd spent the Seventies—that blurred time of my own race through life.
I'd always been one to brood on the past. So that old curve of the American earth called me back, to run down a missing clarity. It wasn't going to be any sentimental journey. More yawned in wait for me than mere years. An era had vanished into a holocaust of time—a present-time version of what people like to see as those sunny ante-bellum days. A point of view had belonged to me, and to other gay men and lesbians, and also to many straight Americans of those times. It had vanished, without our knowing that it was at risk.
In New York City, I felt the first little shocks. The Village was more dangerous and decrepit than ever, with less reason for a dyed-in-the-wooler to go on insisting it was the best turf on earth. Many businesses and bartenders and bars and bookstores and coffeehouses that I remembered were gone with the wind. Steve Goodnight's apartment, where I'd faced the end of my coaching career and struggled to become a self-supporting writer, was gone. The old brownstone building, and half the block, had been razed for a new apartment tower.
North of the city, all those green reaches of Westchester County that I'd known so intimately in the Seventies, were patchworked with crass new shopping centers. The campus of Prescott College, where my track team sweated for eight years, was now the corporate headquarters for a foreign company. Those woods where my cross-country runners had hurtled along the trails, where I'd scattered Billy's ashes in a remote glen, were being bulldozed to make way for split-level ranch houses. Crashes of oak trees hitting the earth seemed almost as jarring as the gun-shot that killed Billy.
But it was on the South Shore of Long Island that I got the biggest jolt.
In the Seventies, the Great South Bay was still clean. Through the inlet, dolphins came roaming in from the sea. In the fall, millions of monarch butterflies migrated through the area, on their way to Mexico. The warm shallow waters offered a feast of clean food—quahog clams, oysters, and blue crabs. Flooding in from the ocean, to spawn, came striped bass and weakfish.
Old-time bay families were known as "bonnikers", and they'd been there forever. Their men and women went out on the water, and hauled in food with no more regulation than a license to dig and a limit on size. Only the first whispers were being heard about hepatitis in clams that were dug near the mainland creeks. You could gill-net a bunch of weakfish, and eat them without a thought.
Now, as I rented a 19-foot bow-rider in the Patchogue marina, I watched the health inspectors tagging every sack of clams that went in the buyers' trucks.
That lovely bay was dying of pollution, and many bonnikers had gone to wherever people emigrate these days. A few diehards were struggling to build a seafood farm modeled on those of Japan. Two bonniker cops I'd known took me to lunch, and asked me if I'd eaten striped bass recently. One cop said you could only eat striper a couple times a year now—too many PCBs in it. And, said the other cop, it tasted "some different".
When I ate my plateful, I agreed.
That afternoon, when I took the rented boat out, a few sights still looked the same from afar. The ferry, an old PT boat, still plowed a white wake across the bay. But up close, the bay was dappled with sarcomas of red-brown algae. Breezes carried a subtle reek of chemicals and sewage. I drove the bow-rider at a low speed, shocked at the emptiness everywhere.
Along the southern rim of the bay, a strip of barrier beach runs for thirty miles. This is Fire Island, the real reason why I'd come here. A place that was a symbol to me—and to many younger Americans who were both gay and straight—of our belief that love and freedom were ours for the taking. I had lived on the east end of Fire Island. From its tidelands noisy with birds, to its clusters of beach houses on stilts, the "Beach" had been as lovely and remote as some South Sea atoll.
Just looking at that long, low Island on the horizon, with its undulating dunes, made me choke on memory. For months after Billy was shot to death, my mind's eye was obsessed with a picture of his body laying dead on that distant beach, where we'd taken so many walks and runs together. Now I could remember him as alive—his strong arms gripping me, his breath warm on my lips, blue-gray eyes holding the cleanness of Atlantic sky. His curls were like the tumbling sea-foam. His torso was sleek as a wave gathering, muscles playing under his skin like a herd of wild dolphins.
Yes, memory does trick us.
As I drove the boat past the tiny Fire Island community of Davis Park, my mind knew that I'd see the changes wreaked by Hurricane Gloria when she ripped through the island in 1985. Yet my brain believed that the little marina of 1976 was still there.
Just west of Davis Park, as my boat engine idled along, my eyes moved unwillingly, achingly to the new inlet that Gloria had torn through the island.
Right there, where high tide was falling back through the channel, the beach house called "Hotel Goodnight" had stood. That house was my spiritual home for so many years. The Hotel had been one of the many, many houses of love—my loves, the loves of my friends. The sounds of passionate love-making I could still hear so clearly from its bedrooms. The deep kissings and humpings, the urgent groans of men coupling—were stark in the hot golden air, like dragonflies in amber. Now its broken stilts stuck bleaching out of the sand. A few weathered shingles were still blown across the dunes.
On the raw new beach of the inlet, a dead dolphin lay.
So I cut the motor, and drifted in the silence, staring at that carcass half buried in the sand.
Beneath me, the boat rose and fell gently, humped by the passing swells. On the hot, humid breeze, that stench of the rotting meat drifted to my nostrils. I closed my eyes, and remembered my own war to turn the tide of life, to call it back to me.
That life that was ripped from me on September 9, 1976, at the Montreal Olympic Games. The day that Billy died.
Copyright © 1991 by Patricia Nell Warren. All rights reserved.