First Comes Love...
From my first bite of migas -- scrambled eggs with fried tortillas, peppers, onions, cheese, and ranchero sauce -- my first glass of iced tea, my first plunge into the vast, gorgeous city pool at Barton Springs, I could hardly believe I had ever moved away. The simplest pleasures, like driving my car to the grocery store and not having it towed away or leaving my house unlocked and not having it robbed, were a thrill to me after New York and New Orleans.
Yet Austin was not quite as small a town as it had been when I'd first encountered it in the seventies. By the time I left in 1981, a real estate boom was transforming the center of the city and stretching its borders. Though the boom was decried by many for ecological, aesthetic, and spiritual reasons, upon my return I did not find the city changed in essence. It had always had a colossal ego, like the rest of Texas: for me, raised in a state with a self-esteem problem, this was part of its charm. Neither the boom nor the subsequent bust did much to change the inhabitants' view that they were among angels, living in heaven.
The change in the local economy had one unfortunate effect: my old neighborhood just west of downtown, Clarksville, was now far too expensive for our reduced fortunes. So me and my baby got us a little shack on Jeff Davis, the most famously named of the namesake streets that ambled through the unaspiring north Austin neighborhood that fell into our price range. The other streets nearby paid homage to citizens of more mysterious renown, Jim Hogg, Joe Sayers, Messrs. Koenig and Ullrich, each now loaning his arcane glory to a bedraggled Boulevard or Lane. Everything about this run-down neighborhood with its shaggy, stunted greenery spelled R-E-N-T. Few home-improvement projects pitched further than a couple of weeks into the future were undertaken by its residents, a quintessentially Austin mix of footloose students, upward-striving young couples, and old folks who had been there since the dawn of time. Though I never made any friends in that neighborhood or even learned many peoples' names, Tony knew exactly who lived where and would comment on any divergences from their usual patterns of comings and goings.
Our house was a white clapboard box divided into four rooms, featuring once-beige carpeting, pitted linoleum, a single space heater, no AC, and ceilings so low that the outlandishly tall landlord could not stand up straight when he came to visit. Its star attraction was its extremely low rent, a key requirement at this point. When we arrived in Austin in August, essentially penniless, the teaching job Tony had been offered evaporated like spit on a sidewalk. His friend never even returned his phone calls.
I was frantic about this. How was I going to become a great writer if he didn't have a job? I kept urging him to go over to the ice rink and find the guy, but that required a kind of assertiveness Tony was incapable of.
It wasn't that Tony had a problem expressing his opinions. When adequately provoked, he could be fearsome in his vehemence. Once while entering an intersection in Manhattan, he was cut off by another driver, a pointless move since it was rush hour and no one was going anywhere but gridlock hell. Tony slammed the car into park, jumped out and spat on the guy's windshield. I expected to see him mowed down by machine-gun fire right then and there. Another time, I found a half-written notecard stuck in a book he was reading, addressed to a friend who owned a Mexican folk-art shop near our house. Dear Marcia, it began, I just had the worst shopping experience of my life thanks to that dopey cow who works at your store.
But when it came to agitating to get something he wanted, like the teaching job, Tony was Mr. Wait-and-See. I had no patience with this approach. Like an obsessive high school guidance counselor, I was determined to inspire him, egg him, or force him into more achievement-oriented behavior.
As the phone call continued not to come, we speculated that this old friend of Tony's couldn't handle the idea that he and I were a couple. He had betrayed his gay brethren; he was out of the club. Not every gay male friend reacted this negatively, but practically all of them were at least somewhat bemused by the situation, made more confusing by the fact that Tony never claimed to be a bisexual. He was a gay man who happened to be in love with a woman -- who had forsaken all others to make his life with her. It was an odd choice and, for some gay friends, a threatening one -- a kind of mixed marriage.
And what was it for us? Here we were, two people who would later joke that if we invited all of our respective ex-lovers to our wedding we would have to rent a convention center, and we had each chosen a partner with whom we were less than compatible sexually. Had we just had enough sex, or at least enough of sex being the most important thing? A convention center full of disappointments later, had we just developed other priorities? That must have been true for Tony, who became a virtually asexual being once he fell in love with me. I, however, actually believed that our physical relationship would eventually work out the way I wanted it to, and failed to consider what life would be like if it didn't.
Part of why I had fallen in love with Tony was specifically because he was gay: off-limits, impossible, forbidden. To be with me, he had to change his whole life, and the idea of someone doing this on my account appealed to me deeply. I needed it. It was as if I were partially deaf, and someone was finally screaming loud enough for me to hear. I was a drama queen -- the part was made for me. At least since Judy Garland wasn't available.
For Tony, who, despite his natty appearance and carefree demeanor, was really falling apart at the time we met, a changed life probably didn't sound like a bad idea. And maybe I did remind him of Judy Garland, at least a little. I certainly had the excess, the vulnerability, the spotlight-snagging, onstage approach to life. He used to joke that he fell in love with me because I carried a whole carton of cigarettes in my purse.
More than lovers, we were like infatuated grade school best friends who spend
minute together and never tire of one another's company, experimenting with sex occasionally at wild sleep-over parties. My need for attention and closeness was one Tony was fully capable of filling. He never got sick of me, never wanted me to go away, never needed to be alone. He could be alone with me around just fine, with his head in a magazine or taking a nap. When I required more than just his physical presence, he came right back, sometimes a little grumpily, but back. Finally, I was not too intense.
Nor too wild. No stupid things I said or did when I was drunk or otherwise fucked up were ever a problem. I acted like a jerk last night, I would say, remembering some inebriated poetry reading or raunchy break dancing.
No you didn't, honey, he'd say. You were funny. Everyone loved you.
What we both wanted, deep down, was the security of unconditional love, the no matter what you do, no matter what you say, I will always be right here. Even if you're gay and I'm straight. Even if you're beautiful and I'm just okay. Even if I have money and you don't. In fact, we melted into each other. I gave him money, he taught me how to dance. I made him smart, he made me beautiful.
And beauty had so much to do with it. I loved being with Tony and being seen with Tony because he was so beautiful. His beauty and his love of beauty were not superficial; they were him, they poured out of him. Within a month after we moved in, he had completely glamorized our pitiful shack with fifties furniture from thrift stores and tchotchkes from Mexico, make a dumpy cracker box with formerly beige carpeting into house beautiful. Even the bathroom had voodoo candles, postcards of the Virgin of Guadalupe, a basket of colored soaps. There were Bunny Matthews New Orleans cartoons pinned up on the wall surrounding the toilet and a hanging plant flourishing over the tub. To me, fixing up the bathroom meant putting in a new roll of toilet paper; I was truly amazed.
While Tony was redoing the house -- he even went so far as to build and stain a worktable for my typewriter and papers -- I put the great writer thing on hold and got a job writing technical manuals for a computer software company, a position I ended up keeping for more than a decade. In my spare time, I reactivated my connections in the local literary scene; soon there were plans for what would be my second small-press book, illustrated by Sandye, Steve, Shelley, Pete, and a few other artist friends. I received a call from a woman named Liz Lambert asking me to read in the series she emceed weekly at a café downtown. Liz, a smart, funny blond lesbian with a heavy West Texas accent, was one of the first new friends Tony and I made as a couple and became a central figure in the close circle we eventually assembled. In those early days, we would visit her in the red brick duplex she shared with her gay twin brothers, staying up half the night drinking and talking.
Eventually, my sweet Beau Tali ran out of walls to paint and had to find something else to do. Skating was out. How about something with flowers? Clothes? Music? Hair? We decided his future one night when Nancy and Steve were visiting and we were all high sitting by the edge of Town Lake shouting out possibilities like we were playing $25,000 Pyramid.
Beauty schools and liquor stores were the two main types of business on the decaying retail strip that bordered our neighborhood, so it was a simple matter for Tony to sign up the very next day at the Modern College of Hair Design. For nine months, he set off for school every morning on his bicycle wearing a beautifully pressed white shirt and a pair of jeans, carrying his lunch in a paper sack under his arm.
The Modern College of Hair Design was run by a prissy, self-righteous born-again Christian couple named Gordy and Viv. They were all preachy and smarmy and love-thy-neighbor on the surface, slave drivers and Scrooges underneath, gleefully collecting money from everyone who walked in the door. The clients paid to get their hair cut and the students paid to cut it. What a deal. Gordy and Viv's downfall was the fact that their outlook on life made them seriously at odds with their trendy young student body.
Tony hated them on principle from the outset and over time developed a genuine loathing for Viv, who had a sugar-coated voice, a Doris Day flip, and absolutely no mind of her own. Now here was a dopey cow if there ever was one. Within a few weeks of his enrollment, Viv and Tony were at war over what music should be played on the school's sound system. She set the radio to a Christian Muzak station; every time she walked out of the room, he'd run over and change it to the black station or college rock. Then he started bringing in cassette tapes from home, compilations he made of bands like the Smiths and Dead Can Dance and Tears for Fears.
One day, Viv returned from lunch to find Boy George rocking her world and she had enough. She minced over to the tape deck, ejected the tape, and dropped it in her purse. Tony looked up from the squirming six-year-old whose hair he was attempting to cut, dropped his scissors on the back bar, and strode over.
That's my tape, said Tony.
You can pick it up after five at the front desk, she informed him, clutching her purse as if he might grab it away from her.
Inspired by her gesture, he snatched at the purse. That tape is my property and I won't be here after five, you fucking bitch.
You certainly won't, said Gordy, a meaty hand on Tony's forearm.
By the time he confessed to me that he'd been expelled from one beauty school, he'd already been across the street to enroll at another, Gordy and Viv's prime competitor, the actual name of which I can't remember since Tony always referred to it as the Postmodern College of Hair Design. The Postmodern College was run by a jolly, laid-back guy named Ranger Ronnie who was perfectly happy to have the kids blast their music and dye their hair purple. Word filtered back to Tony's friends in Christian boot camp, and by the end of the month three-quarters of Gordy and Viv's students had transferred.
People had a way of clustering around Tony, of following him. It was not just that he was a trendsetter; he was fundamentally a good person to be around. He enjoyed hanging out so much, drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes, that his pleasure in it was contagious. You couldn't help hanging out with him.
That fall, the newlyweds, Nancy and Steve, moved back down to Austin from New York for a while, trying to clean up in the drug department. Some dealer friend they'd been sharing a loft with in Soho had just gotten busted, and his girlfriend had ended up on the Bowery hooking, and the whole ordeal threw a major scare into them. Of course, once they arrived, they started ordering FedEx shipments and on the days one was expected, we'd all be on the phone to each other all day to see if it had come. We'd meet at their little house downtown after work and shoot up and talk and laugh and play cards and dance to Steve's rap tapes. Eventually, we'd have to go home and we'd lie in bed, too high to sleep, drifting over the whispering plains of the subconscious in a waking dream.
Do you want to get married? Tony asked me one night as we lay in this state.
What a great idea, I said. Let's get married and have some babies.
I couldn't wait to tell my mother. n