We met when I was teaching in an open prison. His family were middle- class and he was highly educated but would attend classes to alleviate the boredom of the daily routine. We had several, fairly predictable interests in common - Fifties kitsch, grotesque seaside and religious ornaments, bad B-movies, medical textbooks, records by the Andrews Sisters and a love of cats. We became very good friends and went on writing to each other after I moved to London.
The women who tended to seek out the company of gay men in the period before Seventies feminism were usually totally frustrated with a dominant male culture that harassed them sexually and denied them any intellectual space. They also included badly damaged women, those who had been sexually abused or had no self-esteem and could not cope with any of the pressures of heterosexual life. Although I had much in common with the fag-hag mind- set, including a longing to be androgynous, my friendships with gay men arose largely because I was bisexual and was accustomed to living amongst gay people of both genders. Although I was extremely fond of my gay men friends, however, I had never been in love with one. It had sometimes occurred to me that it might be OK if I was because although I would get furiously jealous if a male partner had other girl-friends, I was never remotely bothered by how many male lovers they might have.
Eventually Otis was released from prison and started attending art school in London. We spent more and more time together and gradually established a routine. I would go over to his studio flat in the evening and mix up the most revolting cocktails from recipes in Fifties seduction books or old copies of Playboy, criticising them in the affected jargon of wine snobs. The television would be on with the sound down and we would play show tunes from South Pacific, Porgy and Bess and children's Disney songs, singing while we got dressed, camping up the most emotional moments and snorting cocaine. Otis would put on his rose-coloured lamps and the air would fill with drifts of sequins, sparkles, powder and scent. It was the era of dress-up clubbing. Otis favoured demure Anne of Green Gables drag with rather more than a hint of underlying debauchery - fish-net stockings and jewelled eyelashes. He said the crackling of net petticoats was the most beautiful sound in the world. I liked a more languorous look - cream silk and lace dresses like underwear, drooping fur stoles, tap shoes. We'd mince out into the night, two girls together. Sometimes we'd take his ferret, Sinbad the Seaman. At weekends we sifted through market stalls, looking for new, appalling treasures. We had an increasingly loving physical relationship, the sort that is not uncommon among close friends; we held hands, we hugged, we cuddled in the cinema. I felt quite happy about this - Otis had never been to bed with a woman in his life and seemed completely disinclined to try. I wasn't bothered. It was a relief not to have to worry about the deeper currents of emotion and sexuality. We had become a couple. Most of our friends were gay and there were among them many such sexually indeterminate partnerships whose private lives remained private. They probably did nothing much either.
One summer's night we lay on Primrose Hill in North London watching the stars hanging in the murky, red glow of the city. It was a soft, warm night with gentle breezes and as we chatted our hands inched towards each other in the grass until he was stroking my wrist. And - just like in the song - then he kissed me. He said he had decided that the feelings he'd always had towards me must be love and suggested that we get married. Although by now I felt I loved him too I was a bit bemused. What did he mean exactly? We had slept in the same bed a few times but I couldn't really imagine being more intimate with him than I already was. He confirmed that what he had in mind was a "Boston Marriage" or "marriage blanc". In this both partners are usually gay and live together for mutual comfort and convenience and because they get on well. Such marriages are unconsummated and the couple are both expected to have other partners. It can work very well. It can be a disaster.
I thought about it seriously. We were well-suited. We had the same tastes and sense of humour and were not given to jealousy. Unlike me, Otis was extremely tidy and a very good cook. He also had a lovely white Persian cat which wore rouge on its cheeks at weekends. Still, somehow, this didn't really seem quite enough to base a marriage on. Also Otis, as much as myself, had personality drawbacks. I had glimpsed, once or twice, a ferocious, even violent temper. I could see he would never wholly desert criminal life which might be very nerve-wracking. He also had an appetite for excess - narcotic, alcoholic, sexual - which often culminated in melodrama of various sorts.
Inevitably too, once our mutual attraction became explicit a degree of self-consciousness entered into the relationship. He was obviously wondering whether our light-weight physical relationship was enough for me. I was worried by the extent to which he was disgusted by female sexual characteristics. Experiment made it only too clear that even a slightly more sexual relationship was too embarrassing in the context of our years as friends. We could not now find a balance and I realised how fragile our affair had really been.
We still went out drinking and clubbing but gradually drifted apart. His drive towards self-destruction became more intense and his temper more viperish. I couldn't help him - no-one could - although we remained friends until he finally left the country. I heard of his self-inflicted death a few years ago. I still miss him and think about him every day. But I now realise that I would never have had the wisdom to care for him properly.Reuse content