Monday October 29 1973, some 20 hours after we boarded the overcrowded train in Benicarlo it finally arrived in Granada, our current destination. We had spent the last couple hours sharing a compartment with two of our backpacker cohort, American guys like us headed for this beautiful old city nestled in the hills of the south of the country. When we got to our destination the four of us found a hotel together, their room right next to ours.
Spain continued to not disappoint its billing as heaven for thrifty travellers. We bought delicious freshly baked pastries at a storefront bakery for just five pesetas (that was just ten cents U.S.) each. Dinner with Paella, real steak, and wine for just 110 pesetas each ($2 U.S.). And finally the hotel room, with two beds, tile floor and a small balcony with a stone railing and a great view of the Alhambra on the hill across town, just 160 pesetas ($3 U.S.). Real easy to eat well and sleep in nice lodgings and still stay close to that six dollars a day budget! So we were living relatively grandly for a while. We spent the rest of the day doing nuts and bolts things like buying groceries, cashing traveler’s checks, washing some more clothes, and writing and mailing postcards. These things, in a foreign land where you don’t speak the language, can be a logistical challenge that takes all day.
We also bought and read the latest edition of the International Herald Tribune, written in English for English-speaking travellers. I read about all the wild things that had been going on in world events in the last week. We had been in a very tense standoff with the Russians, and had been at a point a couple days back where we seemed to be on the brink of war. During the past week in the Middle East conflict, the Soviet Union had threatened to intervene militarily on Egypt’s behalf if the U.S. could not stop the Israelis from violating the ceasefire. The Soviet’s had seven airborne divisions on alert ready to airlift into Egypt, along with several more marine divisions on board their Mediterranean fleet ready to land. Though the U.S. had made a conciliatory response, they had also increased the Defense Condition (DEFCON) from four to three, and had sent a message to Sadat asking him to drop his request for Russian assistance, and threatening that if the Soviet Union intervened, so would the United States. The Russians held off making a move saying they did not want to unleash a world war, and Sadat dropped his request for assistance from the Soviets, bringing the crisis to an end.
I was relieved to read that tensions had de-escalated but discomforted that we had been possibly at the brink again, like we had been ten years ago during the Cuban Missile Crisis, and me thousands of miles and an ocean away from my home. The Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, and the “duck and cover” drills it spawned at my elementary school in the event of a nuclear war with the Soviet Union, had ended a certain innocence of childhood and scared the crap out of me. From that point on, I had grown up with that horrendous gnawing fear of all fears always lurking, way beyond my control. The possibility of sudden incineration in a nuclear explosion or slow painful death from radiation poisoning, and the total or at least partial annihilation of the human race. Even though I was a student of military history, and particularly World War One and Two, I still really could not fathom how human beings could fear or hate each other so much to do something like that. I had made some sort of uneasy peace with the possibility, and lived with it ever since, though finding a great deal of relief in the last four years with the Detente process between our country and the the Soviet Union dialing back the Cold War tensions. To see that all those years of diplomatic work could possibly unravel was rekindling that deep existential fear, but also at the same time strengthened my resolve that I was part of a generation working for that “peace, love and joy” of the hippie ethos.
I also read about the details of the “Saturday Night Massacre” that Zo had alluded to and the strengthening movement to impeach Nixon in its aftermath. Nixon had fired his Attorney General Elliot Richardson and his deputy William Ruckelhaus for their refusal to fire the special prosecutor Archibald Cox who himself had refused to drop his subpoena of Nixon’s recently revealed secret tapes of Watergate scandal related phone calls. Nixon finally found Solicitor General Robert Bork who was willing to fire Cox. Now Democrats and even some Republican Congressmembers were talking about the possibility of impeaching the president.
Reading all these dire happenings while I was so far away from my home increased my feelings of homesickness. But at least now not to the point I had been before I met and started travelling with Steve, when I felt that tug to immediately hop on a train back to the French coast, then cross the Channel back to England and fly back to the States on the first flight home I could arrange. I was actually looking forward to some things in the near future of the journey, like going to nearby Malaga after Granada and maybe staying by the Mediterranean and even swimming in it…in early November no less! Like getting to Madrid in a week or so to pick up all my mail from back home, including hopefully another hundred bucks sent by my mom. Wrote all that, except the money part, in more positive postcards to my mom and to my dad.
After the great dinner, both buzzed on the wine, Steve suggested we head back to our hotel and call it a day, since neither of us had gotten much sleep in the past two nights, first sleeping in the orchard outside Aldea where we were awoken in the middle of the night by the train, then on the train trying to sleep on the metal floor of the hallway outside the cafe-bar car. So we sat on our respective beds, each of us feeling comfortable in just our underwear, talking about the day and about our long train trip. There was finally a lull in the conversation, and having gotten to know my travel companion pretty well in the last week, I could tell that he was psyching himself up to say something consequential. He exhaled a couple times noisily and then asked me, “Cooper, can I sleep with you?”
It caught me completely off guard. I mean I understood the sexual implications but it did not compute. I immediately adopted a sort of defensive state of denial that he had actually said that and quickly replied that, “I’m not into that kind of thing”, and just hoped it would somehow end at that and go away, be stricken from the record somehow (like by the order of a judge in a jury trial) like he hadn’t asked. For all my progressiveness and the progressive university town I had grown up in, homosexuality was still a discomforting deviation from more appropriate sexual orientation, still seen as a psychological malady even. My progressive even libertarian mom was pretty, what I would later learn to describe as, homophobic. The only discussion on the topic she had ever had with me was to tell me, when as an older child I was starting to go places in town on my bike on my own, to watch out for adult men in bathrooms wanting to look at and or play with my penis. Scary stuff, and I recall having a couple discomforting experiences in public mens rooms of someone at least looking. There were close friends of my mom’s who I would later learn had a lesbian relationship, and several male theater comrades I’d find out later were gay, but at this time I was naively heteronormative and generally clueless.
Even my “Greek Chorus” did not have much useful guidance to give me on the subject. David Bowie’s “Jean Genie” and Lou Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side” were lurid tales of wild characters outside the bounds of that conventional heterosexuality and binary gender. Per Bowie…
The Jean Genie lives on his back
The Jean Genie loves chimney stacks
He’s outrageous, he screams and he bawls
Jean Genie let yourself go!
And Reed’s song featured wild tales of transgender persons and male prostitutes. The Kinks’ “Lola” told the story of an innocent young man who “almost fell” for a sexy guy dressed up as a woman, noting that…
Girls will be boys, and boys will be girls.
It’s a mixed up, muddled up, shook up world
And Paul Simon’s “Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard” was a tale of a young man thrown in jail for being seen doing something presumably sexual with another male, Julio, but then released after his cause was championed by a “radical priest” and the media…
It was against the law
What the mama saw
See me and Julio down by the schoolyard
Maybe there was some guidance at least in Lou Reed’s song’s most prominent lyrical suggestion, “Take a walk on the wildside”. A suggestion perhaps to move beyond the the stifling restrictions of conventional heteronormative culture. I had not yet heard or read about the Stonewall Riots in New York City in 1969. Maybe if I had done so, presented in some compelling narrative, I might have incorporated gay rights and the challenge to our homophobic culture in my own personal portfolio of radicalism, which already included leftist, even anarchist, and feminist, even radical feminist ideas.
So Steve wasn’t willing to just let it go and pretend he had not propositioned me. He wanted to talk about it in more depth. He shared with me that he had had sex for a while with a guy he had met in college and that he felt it was no big deal, saying he had also had sex with women. He told me with great sincerity and passion that he was sexually attracted to me and that he felt he was sensing similar feelings from me. I certainly did feel comfortable around him, even sitting here together in our underwear, the wine certainly helping in that department. Was I sending him those vibrations and not really realizing it? And what would sex with another guy actually involve anyway? I presumed it would involve our penises and orgasms, but I just hadn’t really pondered it before.
Maybe there was applicable wisdom in Stephen Stills’ song “Love the One You’re With”…
Well there’s a rose in a fisted glove
And the eagle flies with the dove
And if you can’t be with the one you love honey
Love the one you’re with
Certainly he had written his song within that conventional heteronormative context of a classic rock song, about a guy trying to convince a young woman to have sex with him. But in a broader sense, beyond that societal convention and constraint, was the wisdom possibly applicable here. Still a virgin, my fantasy was to have that first intimate experience with a young woman, but somehow the universe had presented me with a male type person instead.
On what decades later would be acknowledged as a spectrum of sexual orientation, yeah I was on the heterosexual side, but not completely so. Though I was shy, I was no prude and loved intimacy with someone I was comfortable with. The whole metaphor of getting naked and revealing your normally hidden parts to another person you cared about, appealed to my love of intimacy, though my intimacy with other people was usually constrained to verbal sharing.
I had, at age five, gotten physically naked with my best friend Molly who lived across the street and we had noted the small differences in our anatomy that all the fuss was about. Later, at age eight and nine, I had gotten naked with some other precocious boys my age in my neighborhood, hiding in the big lilac bushes of Almendinger Park or down in the walkin closet of our basement. Every time we had done it it was thrilling and adventurous and exploratory in every good sense of the pursuit of human curiosity about our biology, including our natural eroticism. We had even touched each other’s penises and the braver among us, not me among that lot, had even been willing to put a comrades little organ in their mouth for a moment. Having been on the receiving end of that a couple times, it certainly felt really good. Also in my basement closet two naked neighborhood kids and I had even laid on top of each other once, maybe even with me as the instigator, the farthest I had ever taken that intimate physical and erotic contact.
I remembered every bit of those experiences, but I don’t remember if at the time, given the homophobia of the greater culture and the general conventions of heteronormativity in its wake that we participants in that naked play “knew any better”, or knew we shouldn’t be doing this but did it anyway. I might have explored that precociousness much further, with boys and girls, but for the restricting conventions of the larger culture, including a traumatic personal incident. I had confided in my male classmate Joey that I had a crush on a girl in our third grade class and that in the name of true intimacy I would happily “pull down my pants for her”. The next day in class he proceeded to blurt out to the whole group of us assembled for recess what I had said to him in private. And then to make matters much worse, our teacher had called me up to her desk later and admonished me instead of Joey, and made me feel like some sort of sexual deviant. The psychic wounds from that experience had contributed to shutting down any sexual explorations for the next decade of my life.
But now, at the milestone age of eighteen, maybe I was finally ready to move beyond that. But if it was a guy that I first let into my bed, would I be defined as that deviant “homosexual”, even possibly in my own mind, despite my stronger sexual preference for women.
Back in the moment my comrade Steve wasn’t going to let it go, and after sharing so much about these feelings he had for me, we began a discussion/argument about rationalization versus gut emotion. Did I really not have feelings for him or was I just caught up in this societal convention around sexuality. I shared with him about my experiences getting naked with other boys. I also shared with him that I was still a virgin, and that I might have had a different attitude about this sort of thing if I, like him, had had sex with a woman already. My fertile imagination was percolating, juiced by my pent up libidinal energy and the alcohol, with visions of him under the covers with me sliding his hand into my underwear and touching and playing with my genitals. It was not an unpleasant fantasy, and I imagine I would have gotten quite aroused had he done so.
Despite my initial negative and even rudely dismissive “that sort of thing” response to his request, sensing my wavering thoughts after some discussion, Steve persevered and suggested that maybe he join me in bed and we’d just see whatever we were both comfortable with. By my nature I could have said yes, and be in the moment like a kid in an erotic candy store, trying a little bit of this and that, savoring each delicious morsel of sensual and erotic experience, like I had as a young boy getting naked with my neighborhood male comrades. But since that awful experience that Joey and my third grade teacher had inflicted on me, plus growing up amongst the continuing homophobia of my parents, the community and the larger culture, my natural drive to be an iconoclast and challenge conventional ideas and authority had been shut down in this area. I just wasn’t ready to go there, with either a female type person, as societal heteronormative convention would have, or one of my fellow males. I was riven in that moment with a complex set of urges, tugs, twists and fears as we continued our discussion.
After back and forth for a half hour or so, both of us trying to be honest, and me trying to stand explain and defend my initial no, Steve finally gave it up, said it was a missed opportunity but wasn’t important, and that he wouldn’t bring it up anymore. Again, not wanting to come off as the delicate and naive innocent, I struggled to keep my cool and project that it was, as people now say, “all good”. If I was going to be a liberated person I figured I had to learn to handle situations like this in stride and not be rude about them, like my initial negative response probably had been.
Thankfully, we agreed that we were still friends and would still travel together. Another week here in Spain and then we’d each go our own way, me on to Italy and him to Switzerland. I noted in my journal that though the whole thing had really scrambled my world, it had probably scrambled them for the better. Despite my timidity and an array of other discomforting reasons that had led me to bail on his proposition, still I was able to take the whole thing in stride, not freak out and end our relationship or otherwise demonize him for asking, and maybe take a first step away from my own conventional homophobia.
We spent the next day sightseeing. Throughout the day, at dinner, and then back in the hotel room at bedtime, Steve kept to his word and did not bring up his sexual proposition from the night before. I did notice a subtle but significant change in our relationship which carried forward throughout the rest of our time together. We were now more competitive with each other than we had been before. It was like we had transitioned from being a sort of possible couple to more like rival siblings, him older and me younger. He lectured me a couple times during the day about this or that, based on his greater life experience. I pushed back on some of his suggestions about what we should do next where I normally would have just followed his lead. Back in our hotel room at night he spent more time kind of strutting around the room in his underwear where he would have kept his pants on before until getting into his bed, and I, not to be outdone, followed suit. And during that time in the morning when we both tended to briefly get completely naked changing our clothes, he seemed to linger longer in the nude, not afraid to give me a good view of his ample penis and balls that dwarfed my own.
In the morning we checked out the local Cathedral of the Incarnation, which included the royal chapel where Ferdinand and Isabella are buried. The Spanish name of the place was, typically, a lot longer – Santa Iglesia Catedral Metropolitana de la Encarnación de Granada. The place was huge and lofty, like all other cathedrals I had seen in Europe, designed that way presumably to convey to the gaping masses the omnipotence, authority and power of God and his Church. But this structure had thick massive pillars rising to the ceiling and looked somehow squat, not long and thin like Notre Dame. There was organ music playing which added to the medieval atmosphere of the place. The royal chapel had a two-story high metal grille work that separated the tomb of the famous king and queen from the rest of the chapel. There were actually two enormous carved marble sarcophaguses, one with the bodies of the king and queen lying together, the other with their son and his wife. From listening in on a tour we picked this up, and also that the carvings on the tombs are some of the finest from the Spanish Renaissance.
I knew of Ferdinand and Isabella only in the positive light of the conventional U.S. history of their role bankrolling Columbus’ voyages of discovery to the Americas. It would be decades later before I would learn about the dark side of their reign, how they had destroyed the rich religious diversity of their country, expelling the muslims, forcing conversion of the jews on threat of death, and supporting the expansion of the Spanish Inquisition to enforce conventional Christian beliefs.
We had lunch of paella and steak and more wine at a restaurant for only 100 pesetas. The paella with its array of exotic seafood over rice, was our new favorite, which we had with every restaurant meal in Spain. But steak, the flagship entree of the conventional waspy whitebread U.S. cuisine we had grown up with, was also a now affordable indulgence. With my family’s modest budget at home, a steak dinner was the rare treat. But here for a few bucks we could eat it for lunch and dinner, maybe going a dollar or two over our six dollars a day budget, but living in high style in the process.
Well feted with food and alcohol, we walked across town and up to the Alhambra, the Moorish palace and fortress in the hills across town and one of Granada’s featured tourist attraction. It had been built in the mid-13th century by the Moorish emir who ruled the Granada region at the time. We walked through the beautifully appointed palace rooms, formal gardens and more intimate “pleasure” gardens. The rooms were elaborately decorated with many windows overlooking the town or out at the various gardens. Water flowed almost everywhere, out of fountains or troughs that ran through every room of the palace. It was architecture and engineering way beyond the knowledge of the Europeans of the time it was built.
The gardens were fantastical in a fairytale sort of way. Hedges forming a maze of little alcoves with flowers, fountains, troughs of running water amongst stone walkways. There was one particular walkway lined with tight rows of low trees with interlocking branches overhead to form a tunnel. I’d never seen a human made structure with so much running water in all my life, with even the walkways through the woods up the hill having water flowing down either side. Quite a magnificent impressive place. The Moors sure knew how to build their palaces.
Unlike the Gothic Quarter of Barcelona with its tangle of little alleyways and small plazas, Granada had a grid of larger streets with small alleys in between, that gave one a sense of more planning in its design. Again, probably the influence of the Moorish architects and engineers. In certain parts of town on the smaller streets and alleys men led donkeys loaded up with fruits and vegetables or other items to sell. The whitewashed fronts of the buildings featured beautifully carved and painted wood doors and upstairs windows with little balconies with wrought iron railings.
Coming home from the place we walked through the Sacromonte neighborhood on one of Granada’s several hills, known as the old residence of the Romani, or gypsies, who settled in Granada after the conquest of the city by the Moors. It was full of vendors selling fabrics, clothing and jewelry. Whitewashed caves cut into the rock were used as residences. Men played flamenco music while women danced in bright costumes with rattling beads and clacking castanets for tips from the many tourists who were milling about. I enjoyed the sensuality and implied sexuality of the dancers and their dance movements – the swivel of hips, the featuring of the breasts, the smooth suggestive hand and arm motions.
At dinner that night, again at a restaurant with paella, steak and wine, we reconfirmed that we would head to Malaga tomorrow, some 160 kilometers south, along the coast. I had heard from other members of our backpacking cohort up north, who had already been to Spain, that the little resort town of Torremolinos just outside of Malaga had beautiful beaches where one could lie in the sun and swim in the warm Mediterranean, even in autumn. Maybe we could even save some money sleeping on the beach. After breaking the ice of sleeping outdoors in that orchard outside Aldea, sleeping on the beach with the stars and the surf seemed very whimsical. Steve was game to go there as long as I was willing to try hitchhiking yet again.
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