Keeping Us Tight and True.

Last night C was snoring so loud not even my earplugs worked, so I got up at 1 a.m. and moved to the couch which is about 1 inch too short to be truly comfortable for sleeping. I feel asleep quickly, but woke up at 5 (the alarm was set for 6), tried for half an hour to get back to sleep, failed, got up and made coffee.

We usually get up at 7, but this morning, on my “day off,” we got up extra early to get to the City Clerk’s office by 8 to be first in line at the Marriage Bureau, which opens at 8:30. Just inside the front door, we saw a line to the right and a closed door marked “Marriage Bureau” to the left. A woman in a security guard uniform with her feet planted shoulder-width barked, “What are you here for?”

I said, “Marriage license?”

She pointed to the line and said, it seemed to me gruffly, “There.”

I’d been drinking coffee since 5:30, so, after standing for a minute, I got out of line and asked the security guard if there was a bathroom I could use. She said, “8:30.”

I thought she didn't hear me, so I said, “I asked where there’s a bathroom.”

She exhaled and said, “8:30!”

I said, “Um. Do you mean the bathroom opens at 8:30?”

She looked at me like she couldn’t fathom why she had been chosen of all the people in the world to endure such unmitigated torture, pointed to the glass office doors, still locked, and said, “Eight. Thirty.”

I said, “Well, aren’t you in a good mood this morning.”

We were not first in line, but we were fourth, and by the time the doors opened there were dozens behind us. The doors opened promptly at 8:30, and we were out of there with a marriage license in our hot little hands by 8:50. To be fair, I should mention that the clerk who issued the license was sweet and polite and gave us a warm congratulations as we were leaving. On the way out, I had in my head that I was going to say to Miss Security Grouch, “Why do you have to be such a horrid witch to everyone?” but she wasn’t there any more, and I’m glad. It’s hard, but I think it’s better to leave people like that to their own nastiness. Contain it. Fire just spreads when you blow on it.

All day yesterday and still this afternoon -- I couldn’t help it -- I have the Joni Mitchell song, My Old Man, in my head: “We don’t need no piece of paper from the City Hall keeping us tight and true, no, my old man, keepin’ away my blues.” Now that I am in the thick of this, it’s clear to me how badly I have misunderstood marriage ever since I was a teenager, believing that it was somehow about a relationship between 2 people. Of course we don’t need a piece of paper to keep us faithful or committed or even just together. That’s a commitment we make to each other in our hearts. The piece of paper is about, duh, the community around us that supports our commitment in various ways.

I just finished reading a beautiful, tender novel called “Arcadia” by Lauren Groff. It’s about a hippie commune in New York State. Don’t read it on the train or in a coffee shop if you’re trying to avoid sudden, involuntary weeping in public places. It’s about many things but most directly I think it’s about freedom versus community.

I say “versus” like it’s one or the other. Maybe in some important way it is. When we gain some of one, we lose some of the other. I have all my life seen the fight for gay rights as a fight for more freedom. It’s my body and you do not have the right to tell me what to do with it, etc.

Another book I read recently is “Flagrant Conduct,” Dale Carpenter’s story of Lawrence v. Texas, the Supreme Court case which abolished sodomy laws in 2003. He lays out the contrast between the argument made in Bowers v. Hardwick (the Supreme Court case in which sodomy laws were upheld in 1986) and the argument made in Lawrence, a contrast which reflects the general shift in the gay rights movement.

In Hardwick, the argument against sodomy laws was that people should be free to have sex with whom they choose. But the lawyers for Lawrence barely mentioned “sex,” arguing that “intimacy” is an important component of stable relationships which are necessary in order to create families and communities -- so homosexuals’ intimate lives should not be criminalized. We used to argue for sexual freedom. Now we argue for civil rights. We used to want the right to be different. Now we're asking for the right to be the same. It’s not just a rhetorical difference. It’s a fundamentally different idea: freedom or community?

Is the fact that the latter argument is so much more resonant for me now than it was 10, 20, 30 years ago, is this change of heart due to something so mundane as a fear of growing old alone?

From time to time, C and I talk, as people who are about to promise to spend the rest of their lives together might, about the future. I returned to New York feeling like this was my last move, I would grow old and die here. I’d left for a while, tried a few other places, and had come back to the city I love, my home. C on the other hand wants to, eventually, move to Vermont or Upstate, or Maine. I love those places, but I imagine being 85 or 90, stuck in a house somewhere miles from amenities, unable to drive, starving to death some snowy winter. New York City is perfect for the old and frail. You see old people hobbling around the city all the time. It might take all afternoon to get to the corner for a quart of milk, but the trip is possible. It’s not 3 miles in the snow.

I’ve lived in remote, bucolic places and I love them, but I always end up missing the city. I miss that feeling, anonymous in a crowd, that anything can happen. That feeling of possibility is transformed now, though. It used to be not only about sex, but sex was the most compelling, the most urgent of the realms of what could happen if one stayed on one’s toes. Sex was behind the frantic hyper-vigilance, gears constantly turning, trying to turn every situation into an illicit encounter. Now that that part of it is gone, I don’t crave time alone as much or anonymity.

So, maybe Vermont. But not for a long time, and I want neighbors who drop by for pie and coffee, whose kids we’ll babysit, who’ll drive us to the hospital when one of us falls on the icy sidewalk.