Rah, Rah, Cheers, Queers

Terry Castle

Rhodes, July. Charmed marine breezes, Blakey and I in the Old City, ensconced in medieval hostel-cum-boutique hotel formerly occupied by those nutty-crusader Knights of St John. (A few grim-faced Saracens, too, no doubt – especially after Suleiman the Magnificent’s successful siege of Rhodes in 1522.) Cobbled streets around the fortress awash in the fanatic blood of centuries, but we’re in a holiday mood, sipping ouzo, feeling spoiled, a bit bloated even, also somehow holy. With iPads out and glowing numinously we’re discussing the latest mishmash of blog news from our homeland. ‘Is This Why Kim Kardashian Delivered Early?’ ‘Knobby-Headed Beast Roamed Ancient Desert.’ ‘Will the Beautiful Women of the World Please Stand Up.’ (Hear, hear.) ‘Experts Warn Texans Not to Touch Deadly Giant African Snails.’ Texas, it turns out, is in the news a lot this week. Further morsel from the Lone Star State: ‘Texas carries out landmark 500th execution.’ The Texans wanted to celebrate this historic event by having a Giant African Snail deliver the coup de grâce, but the Peta people intervened. Dang it all.

But the week’s big US story is the legalisation of gay marriage. We’re seriously thrilled. It’s a real new world order. The cat is finally out of the bag. (Has in fact come out of the bag as a transgendered feline-American with eight small, dialectically engineered digital nipples.) The horses, tails swishing up a storm, have finally left the barn. The cow’s jumped over the moon and is getting an awesome mani-pedi before hitting the clubs. The pigs – always fabulous – are redecorating their poke in bright orange and pink mid-century modern. (Let’s get rid of that awful greasy entrails-and-slop-covered sofa, shall we?) And thanks to Twitter and Facebook, the festivities are going global. On various Greek islands, or so we’ve heard, the sheep and goats are massing together in flash herds and rejoicing with old Lesley Gore songs. Real lesbian classics. (Not since Sappho … my … its … [party?] … Mytilene … naked Artemis … Judy’s turn … [cry?] …)

Victory is sweet, even if glimpsed from afar.

Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy on Sunday denied a request from Proposition 8 supporters to halt the issuance of same-sex marriage licences in California. Dozens of same-sex weddings have taken place in the state since Friday, following the Supreme Court’s decision on Wednesday to overturn Proposition 8 – which had banned gay marriage. More same-sex marriages are expected to take place on Sunday in accordance with the Pride parade and a VIP reception for newly married couples in San Francisco.

Yar-har, Prop. 8 supporters! Have done with your fiendish mischief! Go numb! No after-dinner mints for you! Thank you, Justice Kennedy!

Now, granted, Blakey and I already were married in our home state – at least sort of. In August 2008 we managed to sneak in and tie the knot at San Francisco City Hall during the very brief legal window that opened in May that year (after the California Supreme Court ruled that the existing state ban on same-sex marriage was unconstitutional) and ended – abruptly – in November, when Proposition 8, a rogue right-wing initiative intended to outlaw gay marriage in California by adding a permanent amendment to the state constitution, passed with 52 per cent of the vote. By then 18,000 California couples had squeezed through the same window, but it was a bittersweet achievement: our marriage was legal – or no one seemed to want to challenge its legality – but the window had snapped shut for everyone else and the original ban was back on the books.

Yet even without the element of judicial flukiness, I must confess to having felt a certain undertow of anomie at my 2008 nuptials – a creeping, Bartleby-like disconnection from the whole operation. Granted, I enjoyed lots of things: our lovely friends and vows and gold rings, the champagne brunch and Jerome Kern songs, my formerly aghast but now resigned eighty-something mother trundling up from San Diego for the ceremony, and the deliciously dark poem Blakey’s prodigy-niece, the only six-year-old I know capable of understanding the word cafard, had written for the occasion:

Love is special.
Love is delicate,
But at the same time love is strong.
You can hang onto it or blow it away and turn it into hate.
But everyone has love in their hearts.

The gaiety of the programme notwithstanding, the event seemed a bit concocted. A bit forced. I felt oddly empty afterwards and, on the main point, downright incredulous. How could I – of all people – be married? Yes, B. and I uttered our vows on the impressive City Hall mezzanine, under the blind yet benevolent gaze of Harvey Milk (there is a commemorative bust), but it was hard for grisly-guts me not to think back to 1978 when he and Mayor Moscone were shot to death by a madman just a few rooms away. What we’d just done seemed of a piece – somewhat deflatingly – with the shifting, garish, mercurial human pageant one witnessed every day in San Francisco. Fog, cable cars, drag queens, the beautiful celadon-coloured bay, buses full of Japanese tourists, meth-heads on Market, dykes on bikes, Kim Novak’s white coat in Vertigo, dry martinis at the Top of the Mark: did I even live in a real place? As card-carrying cynic and naysayer, I wasn’t exactly diffusing tears of joy in all directions.

Some of the diffidence I felt no doubt had to do with the fact that Blakey and I had already been living together – delightfully, with nary a closet in sight – for six years. Apart from the political statement – rah, rah, cheers, queers – the ritual, I grumbled, was beside the point. Yet troubling too were a host of larger metaphysical questions. Marriage had always been defined (and naturalised) as a relationship between a man and a woman; could it now, merely by way of a few wishful speech acts and contrived theatrical gestures, be completely reconceived? Was it possible – just like that – to revamp one of the key kinship structures around which human society had been organised for millennia? What would Wittgenstein have said? Was ‘gay marriage’ part of ‘everything that is the case’? Would he have got married? To himself or another person? One could noodle away the hours pondering such things.

My own seemingly innate, sometimes Arctic, aloofness had to be part of the equation too. Anyone who knows me knows it: my perverse tendency to stand sadly apart from sociability and look rejected, even when surrounded by affable people doing everything possible to show their affection for me. In some skittish, not so deeply buried part of me, it’s always San Diego in 1967 and the treacherous lunch court at Marston Junior High School. I’m 13 again; shy, pudgy and unpopular, eating my peanut butter and jelly sandwich in miserable, Cain-like isolation, while the more confident girls – those who shriek and rat their hair and travel in ardent, gossipy packs – point at me and guffaw. What a weirdo. Shall we just say that my childish heart turned then to adamant? That self-protection meant fixing one’s eyes on blankness and acting dead? When I began thinking of myself as a lesbian – not so long afterwards, really – the age-old stereotype of the female homosexual as doomed misfit, lost in a dark and sterile world of shadows, seemed purpose built for me.

In those days (and yes, even now) one’s mother could always be counted on, likewise, to underscore one’s alienation from the rest of humankind. I had a sharp reminder of this fact just before B. and I left for Greece. Back at home in California my sister and I are in the middle of the drawn-out process of emptying our mother’s house of forty years in preparation for selling it. Though now deaf, partially blind and reliant (precariously) on a walker, Mavis remains as jolly and defiant as ever – if not exactly full of her usual beans. Droll but unfair to say of her, as Larkin wrote to a friend about his own aging ma: ‘My mother, not content with being motionless, deaf and speechless, is now going blind. That’s what you get for not dying, you see.’ (Larkin, a sentimentalist must note, was also a loving and devoted son.)

No, Mavis has a bit more kick left; and in a manner at once brave, tottery and (intermittently) gaga, decided this summer to move into the Casa de Mañana – one of those ostensibly cheery places known in the US, euphemistically, as a ‘senior independent living facility’. The good news is she’s looking forward to it. Indeed, having read the shiny brochures, who wouldn’t find the Casa’s amenities enticing? Swimming-pool, games room, art classes, beauty salon, a masseuse, even maybe a few quasi-viable ninety-something widowers (retired La Jolla doctors?) to escort you – despite hairless decrepitude – to in-house wine tastings or bingo nights.

Mavis’s move to the House of Tomorrow, however, means my sister and I have been stuck with the House of Yesterday, with its roomfuls of rackety, chaotic, strangely touching maternal detritus. What to do with it all? Yellowed bank statements from the 1970s; shoeboxes full of dried-up polymer clay and fabric paint (my mother was once an avid voodoo doll maker); rusty razor-blades, broken haircurling gadgets, little bars of perfumed soap browning with age in the upstairs bathroom; mysterious bottles of pills from 1994; giant bags of kitty litter; teak doodads from Pier One Imports; a lifetime’s worth of chipped Royal Family plates and eggcups; mouldy phone books; an enormous collection of rotting bubblewrap and plastic bags; and at least 14 or 15 inoperable TV/DVD/VCR remotes, with the promise of many more to come once Tracy and I start looking under cushions and peering under beds.

*

Most fascinating, however, have been the documents – a small archive of feather-light blue airmail letters from England (mainly from my dead grandmother), caches of half-filled Mavis-notebooks, and lots of loose scribbled-on sheets, many of them ripped from promotional scratch pads my mother received over the years from various San Diego real-estate agents. Most of the notebooks preserve miscellaneous jottings from the many art classes Mavis took in the 1970s: rough sketches and colour notes, descriptions of techniques, lists of supplies (glue gun, gel medium), even what appear to be inspirational hippie-hot-tub-era maxims from the teacher (‘stretch your muse,’ ‘make art bolder,’ ‘NIGHTLY IMAGES THAT FIT IN SPECIFIC SHAPE’). One can vaguely intuit a context, may even contemplate stretching one’s own muse, too, by way of the rack and the screw.

But some of the other papers, the orphaned single sheets especially, are more disturbing – uncanny, even. Despite being friendly and garrulous to a fault, my mother has always been somewhat averse to self-examination. Nor is psychological transparency her strong suit. Indeed, she might once have served as poster-lady for that delicate mental process Freud called the Censorship. Given all that seems to go on unacknowledged in her emotional world, these undated, untethered notes can often read – shockingly – like eerie and unprecedented eruptions from the maternal unconscious.

Witness a pencilled memorandum from one of the real-estate pads: ‘WE’VE BEEN THRU A LOT TOGETHER & MOST OF IT WAS YOUR FAULT.’ Haunting enough, this message. A kind of oracular, Emily Dickinson-style ‘Letter to the World’. (A complaint letter, at that.) Like something you might find in a sadistic fortune cookie. I love the self-conscious – and very English – effort to appear fair and sporting, even when not, embedded in the phrase ‘most of it’. But when did she write it and why? At whom was it directed? If it’s from the 1970s or 1980s, Turk, my late stepfather, the hapless Triton from under the sea (he was a US navy submariner), would seem a likely addressee, but it could have been any of us. My mother’s criticisms often came – and continue to come – in a scattershot yet notably inclusive fashion.

Granted, the most unsettling fragment of Mavisiana so far unearthed – motherly strangeness at full throttle – is less coy. Indeed, I emitted a tiny but audible squeak when I first came across it: a single, small, crinkly scrap of paper hidden in a mildewed stash of National Enquirers beneath her sorely overloaded coffee table. (Perhaps I should say when it came across me – like a heat-seeking Mummy Drone striking its not-so-innocent target.) Not that I called Mavis’s attention to my discovery. Despite the fact that she was sitting right there, chatting amiably to all and sundry – a bit drifty, nostalgic even, from her meds – I flinched at the thought of asking her directly about the little missive’s psychic provenance. Like mother, like daughter. Repression the family legacy, after all. What Happens in Terry Stays in Terry.

Emblazoned on the slip of paper was a Harry-Potterish list of aristocratic-sounding titles that Mavis seems to have invented for the three of us (me, my sister and herself) for reasons unknown. Honorifics one might call them, or perhaps, horrorifics. Now I should explain that in my mother’s eyes our all-female trio has always constituted the primordial family unit. Nor can she really be gainsaid on this point. The basic triad was established eons ago, in 1961, when she divorced my father; and (after much enthusiastic jettisoning of various other males along the way) continues to this day. No geographical separation – or so I have learned over forty years of spasmodic, sometimes surly, attempts at self-exile – can weaken or dismantle it. It’s always the same old Delphic Tripod. Our Three Selves.

Being older than my sister by six years, I’m usually, by dint of seniority, in the middle position in the hierarchy – second-in-command after Mavis. But on the twee list of titles before me, I had been demoted to last place:

Reverend Countess Mavis the Portable of Frome Valley

Her Most Noble Lady Tracy the Decent of Larkhill Under Porton

Her Most Serene Highness Lady Terry the Incomplete of Witchhampton Under Buzzard

Eeek: quickly smothered cheep. But surely allowable when suffering such an abrupt reduction in rank.

Granted, there’s almost too much ring-around-the-rosey, Lady Margaret Cavendish-style fantasia here to take in in one go. The mind boggles. While no doubt a fair indicator of incipient maternal megalomania, ‘Reverend Countess’ – my mother’s (theologically confused) designation for herself – remains deeply strange. So does ‘Mavis the Portable’ – if only because M.’s not exactly as light as a sylph. (Sadly, I take after her in this regard.) As for the scenic Frome Valley – again, no clue. Even as it signals omnipotence, my mother’s visionary self-branding remains puzzling in certain aspects. An overall bossyboots drift, however, is perhaps discernible.

My sister’s sobriquet is easier to gloss. She is noble and decent – indeed, she deserves elevation to sainthood for her unstinting devotion to Mavis’s wellbeing over the past two decades. (She lives in San Diego, only a mile or two from our ma.) Still, the approbation suggested by ‘Lady Tracy the Decent’ is weirdly undermined by the hobbity, cadging bit that follows: ‘Larkhill under Porton’. (Tracy who ‘larks about’ ends up in Poor Town? ) As both the holder of a full-time job and Mavis’s 24/7 bulwark against disaster, my younger sibling can hardly afford to be the delinquent type. Nonetheless, the Reverend Countess Mavis seems to hint here at fecklessness: some childish propensity to frolic. Might there be a rogue element of maternal projection here? (Apart from countess-duties, my mother herself has never worked.) As Cavendish herself might have put it: ‘The whole story of this Lady is a romance, and all she doth is romantic.’

As for one’s own Halloween monicker, well, the proverbial poke in the eye with a sharp broomstick might in fact have been preferable. OK, OK, ‘Witchhampton Under Buzzard’ – I get it, ma. I’m not exactly the nurturing type. More of a crusty old thing. Cackling when I should be simpering. A goat for a boyfriend. Feed on carrion. Serious tooth decay. Covered in hell’s pitch. Worshipper at the anus of Satan.

Indeed, as I absorbed my new and unholy cognomen, I couldn’t help remembering another priceless backhand Mavis-jab – possibly the greatest ever – from a few years ago, just after my book The Professor came out. Dismayed by some of my untrammelled observations on family life, my mother had called to inform me, in a manner she obviously felt to be both measured and constructive, that, after a discussion of the book with Pam, her cleaning lady, the two of them had agreed that even though I, Terry, was obviously very smart and had worked so hard and done so well (no one can ever take that away from you!) – everyone is so proud of you, really, you’re so talented – that’s what we think and hey, you know what, that’s what we always will think, you’re tops in our book – but there’s something about you, nonetheless – nanosecond pause for effect – WE JUST DON’T LIKE!

Now many have spoken of my je ne sais quoi. (Not to be confused with my bijou indiscret.) But what was the unlikeable something? I didn’t stay for clarification. Such a ringing non-endorsement from one’s mother – like being a dry cleaner and getting rude comments and one measly star on Yelp – seemed a bit harsh for a Saturday morning. I wiggled my way off the phone quickly enough.

And now, in this unexpected, unexpurgated form, more criticism. For some reason I was able to ignore the Witch and Buzzard part. Too blatantly cartoonish and over the top. No, it was that scrawny, carping, dehumanising word ‘incomplete’ that rankled. For here in microcosm was one of those morbid maternal judgments – familiar from early childhood – of which I spoke earlier. A judgment inextricably linked, it seemed, with my sexuality. Dismaying enough, as I was growing up, were my mother’s vague yet recurrent hints that her bookish, sapphistic first-born daughter lacked something – some crucial female design element. What could it be? A penchant for Brad Pitt? A surrey with a fringe on top? A ladylike desire to cede our shared armrest for ten hours to any bulky he-clod who happened to be squeezed in next to me in United economy? A pretty polyester twin-set? Diamantine best friends? A husband? A child? Panty hose? A tolerance for abuse? Sequinned nipple pasties? The lipstick on the corpse? All of the above?

Tomboy no good. Tomboy pathetic. One had somehow imbibed the message early on. One was not complete (whatever that meant) and never would be. For what was a tomboy, after all, but a sterile, mutilated thing? A sort of prepubescent eunuch. A eunuch, that is, permanently deprived of even the most basic eunuch perquisites. The incomplete version of something already incomplete. A female eunuch, one is tempted to say.

Such a condition, obviously, imposed its own eccentric torments. Never, one realised, would one be entrusted with a scimitar and put in charge of a sultan’s harem. (Nobody has harems anymore, Terry.) Never would one get to sing for the pope in the Sistine Chapel or warble ‘Ave, Maria’ for posterity on a primitive Edison cylinder. (Too late, my child! Alessandro Moreschi, last of the Vatican castratos, did that in 1902!) As a sub-eunuch, a eunuch degree-zero, the best one could hope for, apparently, was to eke out a pittance as servant moll to some artistic and desiccated she-worthy, preferably one already long deceased. The sort of soulless toiling employment you might see advertised at the back of the LRB. Vernon Lee seeks drab amanuensis. Nadia Boulanger requires tubercular page-turner of no discernible charm. Edith Sitwell seeks horsefaced girl to dribble-drabble around the scullery at Renishaw.

Yes, of course: it irked me to be (yet again) Lady Terry the Incomplete – so what else is new. Not least because the lady doing the dubbing was the original boisterous backstage mama, my own comically demanding progenitrix: the Reverend Countess Mavis the Molto Exasperating.

But I’m nearly sixty and there’s something to be said for advancing senescence. Maybe things don’t hurt quite as much? (Blakey just came in the room and asked: How’s your piece going about being married to your mother? You know: gay marriage. One musters a feeble and aggrieved look.)

Still, the fact remains – the US Supreme Court ruling has simply underscored it for me – that many things once burning-pincer-like in their effects seem of late to have lost their capacity to wound. They only sting for a second or two – if that. Included in the new mother-daughter amnesty: any number of world-historical Mavis-isms:

If I’d ever had sex with your father before we got married I would have begged your grandparents to call off the wedding.

You aren’t an especially good ‘caregiver’, are you?

If I had it all to do over again, I never would have children.

The hairdresser gave me this weird short haircut. Why don’t you ever take me to a gay bar?

Frank utterances such as these once prompted prolonged stays in the Cave of Spleen; now I can’t be trusted to keep a straight face when reminded of them.

To whom – or to what – can this salutory change be ascribed? First, foremost and for ever (blushes deeply, gets soulful little baby-seal expression): my dearly beloved spouse. My now-lawfully-wedded whoozy-what. Mia cara sposa. My female lover. The brave and philosophical Lord Beaverbrook of the Shining Squash Racquet. Lady Blakey the Divinely Buff and Scuba-Certified. She of the Learned Opinions on Plato’s Gorgias. She the Love Child of Camilla Parker-Bowles and Wayne Rooney. She who every morning plays a gallant Robert Browning to my late-rising, half-paralytic Elizabeth Barrett – get thee up from thy bed, thou fat lazy kitten-slug, and take that nun’s twat off thy head. Here, I’ve bought thee a clip-on pedometer and thou wilt walk ten thousand steps up and down Wimpole Street today or you’ll never see thy precious iPad again! You don’t want to end up more demented than you already are, do you?

How do I love thee? But changing social realities have also played a part. In the last couple of years especially, once unthinkable alterations in the social contract have acted on me like moral Prozac, an infusion of happy pills. While once slow and hiccupping – marred by tragedy and ugliness of all kinds – the now seemingly unstoppable movement towards legal same-sex marriages in the US and elsewhere has induced in me nothing less than joy and amazement. I want to tap dance. It’s all happened so fast. Like waking up from a bad dream. I feel dizzy, exalted: recognised.

The changes have come about, of course, despite continual anti-marriage salvos from wet blankets right and left – including, paradoxically, any number of supposedly radical ‘queer’ activists. Why would any self-respecting homosexual person want to get married? It’s a vile, oppressive institution. An atrophied, misogynist, mumbo-jumbo kind of thing. Besides, homosexuals got all the same rights and protections married people have when same-sex civil unions became legal. (Both of these claims are debatable and the latter – at least in the United States – spectacularly false.) But history has left the whingers in the dust. Hard to explain if you haven’t experienced it – the emotions involved seem to resist stringent rationalisation. Yet for anyone who lives the reality, or merely cares about the expansion of human rights on a vast historic scale – justice for all citizens – the legislative change must evoke an all too rare civic euphoria.

Even I, Lady Terry the Sapphic Schopenhauer, admit to feeling strangely, yet delightfully, chastened. To feeling moved. To feeling the tectonic plates in my heart being delicately, exquisitely, rearranged. Corny. Yet the psychological transformation might be called romantic, even Coleridgean. From the state of scepticism and doubt in which I found myself on my wedding day in 2008 – that lime-tree soda my prison – I’ve moved into a suspension of disbelief phase. Which turns out to be pretty glorious. Almost better than simply believing, because to suspend your disbelief you have to be grown-up and think about the new thing. Debate it with yourself. Is it real? And thanks to constant love-blasts of spousal support, I’m starting to grasp it. OK, I’m married – and getting more so every day. I have stopped refusing and begun to naturalise the concept: to live it in my skin, as it were, as well as out and about in public. My marriage remains a work in progress – more process than single entity or event. Yet as time passes, it becomes, too, an opening up of mind and spirit.

It may seem surprising – over a lifetime she’s hardly gone anywhere – but my mother has been to Rhodes. She and my grandmother made a brief stop here while on a budget cruise in the Aegean in the 1970s. I remember her telling me afterwards how beautiful the island was and how she’d instantly felt at home – to the point of concluding she must have lived on Rhodes in a previous lifetime, possibly as Mavis the Moonlit, Priestess of Artemis the Huntress, goddess of chastity. Greece seems to affect us both in the same spooky-holiday manner: I felt something similar on my first trip to Naxos.

I like Rhodes too. Even without its fabled Colossus, there’s still tons to see and do. Stroll along the medieval wall, peer through arrow slits, check out the old stone siege-catapult balls; swim, sail, snorkel, slather on the sunblock. The whole island is awash with tatty life, good and bad. Loafing taxi drivers; mother-duck tourist guides, their gaudy umbrellas held high; voluble sex-crazed Greek boys ripping around on scooters; and at every taverna, the Fish of the Day – wordless yet sentient, still twitching on his briney bed of ice and parsley. He implores us with a look: kind ladies from America, take me away from here. I want to go back in the sea. Too late, we’re going to eat you. Rhodes Town even has its very own Starbucks; seven hundred more and it will be just like San Francisco. A Caramel Venti Saracen Frappuccino – with scimitar, please.

Above all, it’s hard to feel mutilated here. Despite having been part of the Ottoman Empire for several centuries Rhodes doesn’t seem to have many immiserated female eunuchs lurking about. Haven’t seen a single one myself, which makes me wonder – my mother’s gaia scienza notwithstanding – if such beings really exist. Liberating thought if they don’t: then I can’t possibly be one! All of which is a riddling way of saying two things: I cherish my dear old mum, who has made life as rich as it is; and I am finding it ever so sweet, this second honeymoon, luvvin’ on the wife by a blue and ageless sea.