Monday October 29, some 20 hours after we boarded the overcrowded train in Benicarlo it finally arrived in Granada. 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 they headed off in their own direction, it was just Steve and I.
Spain continued to be true to its billing as heaven for thrifty travellers. We bought delicious freshly baked pastries at a storefront bakery for just five pesetas each, which was just ten cents U.S. Dinner with Paella, real steak, and wine for just 110 pesetas ($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 high on the hog for a while, including a bottle of wine with most non-breakfast meals. We spent the rest of the day doing nuts and bolts things like buying groceries, cashing traveler’s checks, washing some clothes (we actually found a laundromat this time), and writing and mailing postcards. These things, in a foreign land where you don’t speak the language, often turned into a logistical challenge that took all day.
Always with my eye out for it, I bought the latest edition of the International Herald Tribune. I read about all the wild things that had been going on in world events in the last week. The United States had been in a very tense standoff with the Russians, and had been at a point a couple days back where things had 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 Russians 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 eleven years ago during the Cuban Missile Crisis, and in this case with 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 Soviet Union, dialing back the Cold War tensions. My own trip to the Soviet Union in 1971 with my school Russian club, such trips encouraged at the time by both governments, was a tiny part of that whole Detente thing, and personally reassuring to boot. But here in the moment, to read that all those years of diplomatic work could possibly unravel, was rekindling that deep existential fear, but also at the same time strengthening my resolve that I was part of a generation working for the necessary “peace, love and joy” of the hippie ethos that would somehow transform the world.
I also read 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 Ruckelshaus 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 in Congress were talking about the possibility of impeaching the president.
Reading all these dire happenings while I was so far away from home brought back those feelings of homesickness. But at least now not to the point I had been before I met and started travelling with Steve, when I had felt that tug to immediately hop on a train back to the French coast, 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! Also 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. I wrote all that, except for the money part, in more positive postcards to my mom and 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.
“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, with as much forced breezy nonchalance as I could muster.
“I’m not into that kind of thing.”
Like his was just an offhand request and my response was just a quick “naw” and let’s move on. Like when I asked my friend Molly at age nine if I could put my penis in her thing down there, since I didn’t even know the word “vagina”. She had said exactly that, “naw”, but then suggested something else for us to do and we moved on with no further concern about it. I hoped for that sort of outcome, that it would just end at that and go away, or 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 supposed radicalism and the progressive university town I had grown up in, homosexuality was still considered a discomforting deviation from what was seen as the more appropriate sexual orientation, and still seen as a psychological malady even. My liberal and even feminist mom was pretty much, 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 men’s rooms of some adult type male person 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 believing that love and sex basically only between a man and woman and generally pretty 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 either/or 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 most prominent lyrical suggestion, “Take a walk on the wild side”. A suggestion to move beyond these restrictions on consenting sexual behavior. I had only in passing read about the Stonewall Riots in New York City in 1969, but I had not gone deep enough into the context of the riots to view those events as some sort of compelling revolutionary narrative. I might otherwise have incorporated gay rights and the challenge to our straight culture in my own personal portfolio of (at least wannabe) radicalism, which already included leftist, even anarchist, and feminist, even radical feminist ideas.
So back in the moment, Steve’s question and my initial response still hung there awkwardly in the post exchange silence, and then he spoke again and I quickly realized that there was going to be no quick letting this go and pretending he had not propositioned me.
“You know dude, I really like you and I’m very attracted to you and I really think we both would both enjoy doing something together, but of course only something you might be comfortable with.”
Oh wow, I thought, he wanted to talk about it in more depth and he was sounding sincere and very reasonable. There in my underwear alone for now on my bed, I did not say anything in response but I nodded to indicate that I was acknowledging his words. He continued to build his case.
“You know, I did stuff with a guy a couple times in college and it was fun and no big deal really. I mean I’m not like… you know… I’m a homosexual or anything. I’ve had sex with women too, which was also nice. I mean here we are, just two people traveling together!” He went on in more detail about the women he had made out with and even slept with to make the case that he was in fact into women like regular guys were.
I had to confess, to myself at least though not to him at this point, that I certainly did feel comfortable around him, comfortable sitting here together in our underwear, the wine obviously helping in that department. I mean some guys I knew, when the subject of sex with another guy came up, were like, “ugh… that’s disgusting”. But not me, I was just afraid of how I might be perceived by others. So was I sending him those vibrations that I was attracted to him too and not really realizing it? I figured that that was possible, since I had gotten plenty of thrills getting naked and playing with the other boys in my neighborhood when I was much younger. Why would it be different now?
I had, at age five, gotten naked with my best friend Molly up in her attic bedroom and we had noted the small differences in our anatomy that all the fuss was supposed to be about. Just looking that’s all, not touching each other at all. Later, at age eight, I had gotten naked with a small group of other precocious boys my age in the neighborhood, not even instigated by me, hiding in the big lilac bushes of Almendinger Park. Besides just looking, we had taken it farther and 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. And having had mine in someone’s mouth a couple times, it certainly felt really good. After one of those group sessions in the lilac bushes, I and a couple of the other participants relocated to the walk-in closet in my basement, determined to explore it a bit farther. With me as the instigator this time (but the two of them as very willing participants), we again took off all our clothes and laid on top of each other. Full bodies touching, the farthest we had ever taken that intimate physical and erotic contact. It exciting and even electric
We knew we weren’t supposed to do this stuff, that society frowned on boys playing with each other this way, but we did it anyway because it was thrilling and adventurous and exploratory in every good sense of the pursuit of human curiosity about our biology, including our natural eroticism. Who knows how far we would have taken it, despite the restrictive conventions of the larger culture, if we had had the continuing opportunities. And if I had not gotten freaked out by a particularly traumatic incident after that.
I had confided in my male classmate Joey that I had a crush on a girl Mary in our third grade class and that, and to demonstrate how ardent my love for her was, I would happily “pull down my pants for her”. The next day in class Joey proceeded to blurt out to the whole group of us assembled for recess what I had said to him about her in private, with Mary right there even. Like I had broken some unwritten rule regarding sharing my intimate feelings with another guy, and had to be exposed. Or Joey had a hot bit of salacious information and could not keep it to himself.
I was mortified. And then to make matters orders of magnitude worse, our teacher, Mrs Rood (yeah that was actually her name and pronounced like “rude”), had called me up to her desk later and admonished ME, not fucking Joey, making me feel like some sort of sexual deviant. The psychic wounds from that experience persisted, and had contributed to shutting down any sexual explorations for the next decade of my life. Even now the wounds, though completely scabbed over, were in no way healed.
But here were Steve and I now maybe taking the next logical developmental step, older and fully functional sexually. So what would sex with another guy actually involve anyway? I presumed it would involve doing stuff with each other’s penises and having orgasms, but I just hadn’t really pondered the mechanics before. 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 penis and balls. It was not an unpleasant fantasy, and I imagined I would have gotten quite aroused had he done so.
He spoke again to interrupt my internal line of thought, sensing my ambivalent ruminations.
“So I’m getting that you are at least thinking about it. I appreciate that. You’ve probably never done anything like this before, at least with another guy.”
If he only knew! I certainly wasn’t going to tell him. But it did give me an idea on a way to handle this.
“Well…” I said, mustering all musterable thoughtfulness and sincerity as I revealed one of my darkest secrets to another human being for the first time ever. “I’m a total virgin and never have gotten even close to having sex with a woman.” (My mom and Mary Jane had taught me well not to say “girl” or “chick”!)
He nodded in recognition, and noticing him do so, I continued to plead my case.
But I couldn’t share with him was the even deeper and darker secret regarding the whole bit about Mary and Joey and Mrs Rood. That was still too humiliating even now. And the fact that I had been holding that secret for eleven years was doubly humiliating. I was still too wounded and embarrassed, including being embarrassed that I’d let it shut me down sexually for the past eleven years.
I finally delivered what I felt was my most compelling argument for saying no, what in retrospect, I now felt I should have led with.
“Actually…”, I said, taking the floor again, “If I had had sex with a woman before, I might be more inclined to say yes right now.” Implied was that I wanted my first time to be with a woman so I wouldn’t be afraid at some level that I was an actual homosexual, an actual deviant.
He furrowed his brow, picking up my thinking, “So you don’t want people to think you’re a ‘homo’!” I could here the touch of derision in his voice, which intimidated me some.
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 heterosexuality 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. Although 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 intense verbal sharing.
But now, at the milestone age of majority, eighteen, maybe I was finally ready to move beyond that. But if it was a guy that I first did whatever with, I just did not feel up to handling those ramifications. And now hearing that little salting of derision in Steve’s voice, making me feel intimidated but also a touch angry, I decided finally in my own mind that there was no way I was going to do it.
Back in the moment Steve shared with me more about how he was smitten with me when we first met.
“That first time we talked at that first hostel in Paris”, he said now shaking his head as if he were confessing, “With your hair and your strut in those shoes and your friendly energy…” He paused continuing to shake his head slowly as I could see him contemplating. “I just thought you were really something!”
He flashed his killer shit eating grin at me that was pretty irresistible and said, “Forgive me!”
I totally forgave him, though I just nodded and did not elaborate with words. But there was still no way I was going to let him get in bed with me.
After sharing more about these feelings he had for me, we transitioned into a discussion which turned into more of a debate about honest feelings vs rationalization.
“You know”, he said, “I’ve learned to just go with how I feel, put the chips out there and not overthink what other people might say or think. I mean you could literally make arguments for or against just about everything. We’d all be better off if we were more honest about our feelings and we all knew where we stood with each other.” It felt like he was done trying to convince me and was instead just salvaging his self respect.
I finally started to relax, noting, “You’re right. Peace, love and joy starts with a basis of honest feelings shared.” I even threw him a rhetorical bone at this point. “I really respect you for sharing how you felt. I’m afraid I had more trouble responding with as much candor!”
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 exotic candies, 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 strong discomfort with and even fear of homosexuals of my parents, their 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. Still I was riven in the 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 understanding, Steve finally signaled that he had given it up.
“Well a missed opportunity perhaps”, he noted, wrinkling his nose.
“Yeah may be”, I acknowledged, happy we were done, but me still feeling turned upside down.
Again, not wanting to come off as the delicate and naive innocent, I struggled to keep my cool and project that everything was okay. 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 it for the better. Despite my timidity and an array of other discomforting reasons that had led me to reject 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 learned discomfort with homosexuality.
We spent the next day sightseeing. In the morning we checked out the local Cathedral of the Incarnation, which included the royal chapel where Ferdinand and Isabella were 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 religious conformity.)
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 even, maybe going a dollar or two over our six dollars a day budget, but living in relative 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, one of Granada’s featured tourist attractions. 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. 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 to the place having water flowing down either side. 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. Quite a magnificent and 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 wonderfully whimsical. Steve was game to go there as long as I was willing to try hitchhiking yet again.
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 or try to see if my thoughts on the matter had changed. 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 back to rival siblings, him older and me younger, like the dynamic when we first started hanging together back in Paris. 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 would have more recently 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 maybe kept his pants on before, and I, not to be outdone, did the same. 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 were bigger than my own.