PART 2 – Tangled Webs
While still living at home, my gay friends introduced me to a woman named Gloria, who also still lived with her parents. We spent weekends together once or twice a month at a mutual friend’s house, or she’d occasionally drive down to Newark to visit me for a few hours. Gloria lived about two hours north, so we wrote to each other during the weeks we weren’t together. Back then, cellphones didn’t exist, and using the house phone would not give us any privacy, so snail mail was our only option.
I told my parents that I had a boyfriend—Gloria’s cousin Michael. Michael didn’t really exist. When Gloria wrote to me, she always signed her letters with Michael’s name—except the one letter in which she revealed her shame and hopelessness over being gay. She said she feared despair would drive her to suicide. The letter frightened me, and so I tore it into tiny pieces and threw the pieces into a paper garbage bag. God forbid anyone else should read that letter.
After eight months, Gloria and I broke up. She had found someone new and left me heartbroken. I rebounded into a relationship with a woman I barely knew. Dottie Lee. Very butch, short dyed black hair, no makeup, masculine clothes. Plus, she was overweight. Not my type. The one thing Dottie did offer was a ticket out of Newark. She drove a ’57 Chevy and wanted a woman to share a house with. And I needed to escape my parent’s home.
Dottie and I rented a small furnished house in Lake Hopatcong and found jobs working at a tin can manufacturing company. I had never worked in a factory before, and had no clue how I should dress. I laugh when I look back on my first day, when I showed up wearing cranberry stretch pants and alligator boots from Saks Fifth Avenue (I had worked there as a wig stylist and benefited from a great employee discount). I wore a mohair sweater, a gold charm bracelet, earrings, full makeup, and shoulder-length blond hair. The women on the line hated me on sight. And to make matters worse, the manager offered me the job of quality control, which meant I had to reject the cans that didn’t meet QC requirements. I took my job seriously, so, when air bubbles escaped the cans after I dunked them in water, I rejected them—as if the women didn’t hate me enough already.
I had very little money, but as soon as I got the job, I applied for a Bamberger’s credit card. The card limit was three hundred dollars. That was a lot of money back then, when three rooms of cheap furniture sold for three hundred dollars.
The day after my new credit card arrived, Dottie left to go food shopping, returning later with a portable television set, dishes, a toaster, clothes, and I don’t remember what else.
“Where’d you get all this stuff?” I asked.
“Bamberger’s. I used your card.”
I eyeballed the pile of loot. “How much did you spend?”
“Three hundred dollars.”
Dottie did not make out as well as I did at work. She took time off right from the beginning, and because we used her car to get there, I also had to call in sick. After three absences within a month, the manager pulled me aside and said he was going to fire Dottie. He asked if I had other transportation to get to work. I didn’t, so that meant I was out of a job, too.
Being jobless didn’t seem to bother Dottie in the least. By pooling our last paychecks, we had enough money to feed ourselves for the next month, but not enough to pay rent, electric, or the Bamberger’s bill. Dottie convinced me to pawn my gold jewelry, including a charm bracelet my parents gave me, with a new charm for every special occasion. I balked at pawning the jewelry, but Dottie convinced me we would get my jewelry back when we found other jobs, but that never happened.
Neither of us applied for jobs. I had no way of getting to a job, and Dottie had no interest in working. Instead, she came up with a bright idea about how to get some cash.
“There’s a guy in Dover who passes counterfeit money,” she said. “He’ll let me keep ten dollars for every fake twenty I pass.”
My first thought should have been, No! That’s illegal. But I had grown up in Newark, in an Italian neighborhood where the Mafia had a big presence. My family lived near the Port, where longshoremen unloading crates from the ships would “accidentally” drop a crate. They sold those goods out of the trunks of cars in my neighborhood. I remember my stepmom buying some of those stolen goods. One day, when she and I went shopping, I switched price tags on a bathing suit. After we left the store, I bragged to my mother about what I had done.
“Don’t you ever do that again when I’m with you!” she said. What I heard was, stealing is okay if I do in when I’m alone. Therefore, passing counterfeit money didn’t seem like such a stretch. I told Dottie I wanted to go with her.
“You can’t. If my friend sees someone with me, he won’t give me the bills.”
“He doesn’t have to see me,” I reasoned. “I’ll wait a block away and when you get the money, you can pick me up.”
“No. I can’t take the chance.”
So, I agreed to wait at home. When she returned several hours later, she showered the couch with ten-dollar bills. We now had enough money to pay rent, but that’s not what we spent it on.
Dottie liked to drink. I drank, too, but only when I went out to the bars to give myself false courage. But with Dottie, I began drinking in bars during the day, every day.
When I think back to that time and see myself sitting on a barstool drinking seven and sevens for breakfast, I remember feeling kind of badass. But it took only two short months with Dottie before smoking, drinking, and eating crap changed me. I had lost weight. My hair was listless, and dark circles formed under my eyes. I had fulfilled my destiny—I morphed into my birth mother.
One afternoon, we came home from the bar to find an eviction notice on our front door. The Sheriff locked all of our belongings in the house, and we didn’t have the money to pay the rent to get our stuff back. We were so poor at that point that I remember taking soda and beer bottles off people’s porches to return them for the nickel deposit. Five returns bought us a pack of cigarettes.
My parents, however, thought I was doing okay. I had told them I worked for Sandoz, a pharmaceutical company as a secretary, and was dating a guy named George. During one of my phone calls home, Jay said she tried calling me at my job and they told her I didn’t work there. I gave her some bullshit story that someone must have transferred her to the wrong department. I don’t think she bought the lie.
“Your father and I want to see you as soon as possible.”
I said I would come on Saturday and that my boyfriend George would drive me down. George was a gay friend of Dottie’s who agreed to play the part of my boyfriend. The slang term is ‘beard.’
George was my beard. Because I’m feminine, I made a good beard for gay guys who needed a date for a wedding or company function. Lesbians use gay men, if they’re not too effeminate, for the same purpose.
My father was tending bar when we arrived in Newark, so I brought George upstairs where we found my stepmom at the kitchen table, her face wearing a flat affect.
“Hi Mom,” I said, a tentative smile on my face. “I’d like you to meet George.”
Something was up. She didn’t smile back at me, or greet George. All she said was, “There’s a pot of coffee on the stove.”
George sat at the table, and I poured coffee into a mug for him. Then, not thinking, I said, “How do you take your coffee?” Stupid. You shouldn’t have to ask your boyfriend how he takes his coffee.
“Your father wants to talk to you,” Mom said. “He’ll be up in a couple of minutes.”
I sat at the table wanting to make small talk, but something felt off and I couldn’t think of anything to say. Mom sat stone-faced until Dad came upstairs.
When he walked into the kitchen, Dad asked to speak with me alone. He led the way into the back bedroom my sister Susan and I used to share. I shuffled behind him, a knot in my stomach.
Dad’s pale face looked grief stricken. “What’s wrong?” I asked.
“I’m going to need you to be honest with me, Joanie. Susan found a paper bag in the closet that had torn pieces of a letter inside. She showed it to Mom and Mom taped the pieces back together and read the letter. The letter was from Gloria. Do you remember what the letter said?”
Oh my god, this can’t be happening. The color drained from my face. “I remember.”
“The reason she taped the letter back together is that we’re worried about you. Doc Lordi told me he saw your friend Gloria come into his restaurant with another woman and they were playing footsies under the table.” Under different circumstances, I may have laughed at Dad’s use of the archaic term “footsies”. I didn’t want to know what Gloria and her girlfriend were doing under the table. It infuriated me she drove two hours to bring her new girlfriend to my neighbor’s pizzeria and make it obvious they were lesbians.
Changing the subject, Dad asked, “Who is this guy you brought with you?”
“A friend.” I avoided eye contact.
“But not your boyfriend.” It wasn’t a question. “Do you have a job at Sandoz Pharmaceuticals?”
Close to tears, my voice cracked. “No, I’m sorry, Dad, I’m really, really sorry,” I sobbed.
He opened his arms, and I fell into them. “Mom is having a hard time with this,” he said. “You need to talk to her.”
“I will,” I said, sniffling.
Dad gave me his handkerchief to blow my nose. “I’m not mad at you, Joanie.” Then he smiled. “I just wish you had better taste in women.”
It was just like my dad to make a half-hearted attempt to lighten the mood, and I loved him for it because it was his way of saying he loved me.
When I returned to the kitchen, George still sat at the table, gripping the coffee mug so hard his knuckles turned white. “Where’s my mother?” I whispered.
He pointed to the bedroom off the kitchen.
I tapped on the door frame, but she didn’t look at me until I spoke. “I’m sorry, Mom,” I said, my voice trembling. “I’m sorry. So sorry.”
“Sorry. What good is sorry?” That was her go-to response whenever I apologized for anything—spilled milk or a broken dish.
“I don’t know what else to say.”
“You disgust me.” She made a face like she smelled something rotten. “I can’t have sex with your father anymore because when I think of you it makes me sick.” She flapped her hand in dismissal and turned away from me.
My cheeks burned with shame, and I ran from the room, motioning George to follow me outside. When he opened the car’s passenger side door for me, he asked, “What the hell happened?”
“They found out I’m gay.” I dropped my head into my hands and wept. “I kept on apologizing to them as if I have a choice in the matter, as if I wasn’t born this way. Like I could wave a magic wand and make myself not be queer.”
I didn’t know what to do, but remaining with Dottie was no longer an option. Not only were we evicted from the last place we lived, but I discovered, through an acquaintance of hers, that the ten-dollar bills Dottie brought home weren’t from passing counterfeit bills. They were from her giving blow jobs to guys out of a Dover motel.
I didn’t want to go back home, not after the awful thing Jay said to me, but what choice did I have? Dottie and I were homeless and jobless, sleeping on the floor of the apartment my cousin Carol shared with Joanie.
Dad requested a family meeting the following week. The three of us sat on the couch together, me slouching in the middle between mom and dad. Dad began by saying, “I discussed your situation with Dr. Dubinet.”
“Why would you talk to the doctor about me?”
“He can get you help.”
My jaw tensed. “Help how?”
“By referring you to a psychologist.”
“What?” I wanted to jump off the sofa. “What’s a psychologist going to do?”
“He’s going to help you get your life back on track. You don’t want to continue living the way you have been, do you?”
Of course, I didn’t. Not the way I was living with Dottie. I shook my head.
“All we ask is that you try.”
Try what? Try to be straight? Is that even possible? I gave in. “Okay.”
Then he asked, “How long have you been this way? Was it Gloria who turned you?”
“No, Dad. Nobody turned me. I’ve been this way since I was a little kid. I’m surprised you hadn’t guessed years ago.”
He frowned. “How would we have guessed?”
“Don’t you remember? I told you I wanted to be a boy.”
He raised his eyebrows. “Lots of girls are tomboys at that age.”
“I was more than a tomboy.”
“I’m sorry, but Mom says the only way you can come home is if you agree to therapy once a week.”
So, I agreed, and a few weeks later, I found a job and moved back with my parents. What I didn’t tell them was that during those few weeks, I started dating a cute, curly-haired young woman named Ellen and we fell in love. As much as I wanted to be accepted by my family, my attraction to women remained. I hoped the psychologist could help me.
My parents never questioned why I spent every weekend with Ellen and her family. Maybe because Ellen passed for straight, or because she still lived at home with her parents. The main reason could have been because Ellen drove me to my weekly psychologist’s appointments. The weird thing was, neither of my parents ever mentioned my gayness again, or asked how therapy was going.
On Saturday nights, Ellen and I joined friends at Fran Bell’s, the gay bar in Nyack. I wanted to be there, but I hated that Fran allowed straight people in for the entertainment. Sometimes I felt like an animal in a zoo, with straight couples gawking at and whispering about the gay men and lesbians.
I loved Ellen, but I was so unhappy. I still drank too much, but stopped drinking during the day. I drank to get drunk and always ended the evening vomiting in the bathroom toilet.
During the time I had weekly therapy with the psychologist, Ellen and I continued with our relationship. But I remained adamant about going straight. The psychologist warned me I was making a mistake.
“You need to accept yourself for who you are. There’s nothing wrong with you.”
“Yeah, tell that to my family. I need to be cured.”
“That’s not possible. I can’t make you become something you’re not.”
I refused to listen, and because he refused to “make me straight”, I ended my weekly sessions.
In retrospect, I thank God that my psychologist wanted me to accept myself, and not use “conversion therapy”—a set of pseudoscientific techniques designed to quash gay people’s sexuality and make them conform to society’s expectations of how they should behave. I had enough self-induced shame, pain, and self-hatred. I didn’t need shock treatments, or God forbid, a lobotomy. What I did need was to accept myself. I wish I had heeded his advice.
I was selfish. I wanted Ellen in my life, but as a sister, not a lover. We had been together for four years and I loved her, but not in the way she wanted. I also loved her family, her mom and dad, even more than I loved my own. I wanted to belong to them.
In 1966, the United States was involved in the Vietnam war. Ellen’s younger brother, Jimmy, had been drafted and sent to Korea. I began writing to him, and during the two years of his deployment, he and I explored the possibility of dating when he came home.
I knew Ellen was still in love with me, but we were no longer in a relationship. I was so self-absorbed, so inconsiderate of Ellen’s feelings. Not to mention Jimmy’s. I wasn’t in love with him. But I tried to make myself believe I could be. I began fantasizing about marriage and children, and I prayed Ellen would understand how important that was to me. I no longer wanted my sexuality to alienate me from my family, and I hoped Jimmy was my ticket to a normal life.
When Ellen’s brother came home from Korea, he asked me to marry him, and God help me, I said, “Yes.”
PART THREE - Wedding Bells