Monday, June 23, 2008

Moscow, 15.10.92: The Dark Heart of the Story*

*In all previous installments in each travelogue on this blog, I have transcribed my travel journals verbatim. The only exception is the prefatory comments appended to the first installment of this Moscow travelogue. As those notes indicate, this was a truncated trip, one undertaken at a time of extraordinary stress in my job situation, combined with unanticipated stress on the trip, in the person of a fellow traveler.

From this point forward in the travelogue, I have either to gloss the journal entry, or to choose sections to transcribe. I have to do so because much of the text for the 15th and 16th is very personal commentary that reflects on my interaction with several members of this group tour of scholars of religion. The journal entries capture my reflections with great immediacy.

Now, more than a decade after these experiences, I do not want to make uncharitable judgments about some of the people with whom I was traveling. I do not want to publish reflections that may cause pain.

On the other hand, I do feel compelled to hew true to the narrative line of my journal in these two days. I feel so compelled because the journal captures some of the anguish—this is not too strong to describe my experiences on this group tour—that people tagged as eccentric or disordered can experience, when thrown together in close quarters with others who are unreflectively certain of their righteousness and salubriousness, even as they practice cruelty towards the despised outsider.

As I have noted, the difficulties I was working my way through on the job front at this time had everything to do with my being gay, in a long-standing committed relationship, yet teaching at a Catholic college at which I could not ever speak publicly about this relationship. I had gone to the college determined not to dissimulate, but also aware that a ground rule for existing in most church-affiliated colleges at this time was to be silent about one’s identity and long-standing relationship.

All of this was complicated by the fact that the school hired my partner at the time it hired me. Our lives were an open secret.

When one lives that way, one is susceptible to constant sotto voce slurs that one cannot answer. To go on the tour of religious educators and to find that there were several members of the tour who mirrored to me the torments I was already experiencing at work was a psychically and spiritually daunting experience.

As this entry of the 15th notes, I met my Waterloo the last evening in Moscow, and decided to leave the tour and return home early. The entry describes in great detail what happened. Since I do not want to inflict pain on those I perceived to be tormenting me, I will radically truncate the transcript of the journal entry I transcribe below.

I would also be less than honest if I did not note that I find it downright embarrassing to re-read this narrative. I have just been through another job debacle, one that, once again, had everything to do with “lifestyle” issues. I feel, frankly, like quite a failure as my “career” winds up, and as I near the age of 60.

I feel that in transcribing the material below, I will give aid and comfort to those who choose to see me as flawed, psychologically aberrant—to all those who choose to view gay human beings through such a lens, and in doing so, to legitimate the torments they inflict that produce the very psychic pain they then use to justify their abuse!

What follows are verbatim excerpts. Where I add a gloss, the gloss is signaled by an asterix pointing to the explanatory text. And so, as Mary Oliver says, the dark heart of the story, which is all the reason for its telling:

Now at the airport. I’ve decided to return home. The last two days have been sheer hell for me. Last night, I felt relatively well enough to go to the “gala dinner,” as Gallia, our tour guide, kept calling it.

But on the bus, I began to hurt terribly in the back of my head, my hand sweated profusely, and my insides turned to water. The more I tried to work with it, to chat and carry on, the worse it was, so I could barely walk by the time I got to the restaurant.

I asked to sit down outside the banquet hall with R., a woman on the tour with whom I felt able to converse. She was helpful, clear about what options I had, and finally I decided with her help to see if the tour guide could find a doctor. . . .

R. went in to dinner, and out came Vasily, our interpreter—or another interpreter who had apparently done the interpreting for that day, which I did not attend (as I’ve said previously).

Vasily said he had studied medicine for six years and interned for another. He’s youngish—mid-20s—thin, with a face like an ascetic Baryshnikov. At first his eyes seemed coldly appraising. He looked at me and said, “You’re all right.” Then he began to talk and turned out to be fabulously kind and comforting. We spoke of Dostoevsky and Bakhtim, how Moscow is becoming more cosmopolitan and has more books and cultural events than in the past, more heading towards New York. He told me of growing crime in the city, of how the Georgians (he called them by an ethnic name, people who live in south Georgia and surrounding areas) are becoming a crime problem in Moscow, how they form crime syndicates and are resented.

It was a real conversation, and though I know he did it mostly to take my mind off myself, he also seemed to enjoy it. He even said he’d rather be talking with me than be in there.

He had apparently called medics, who arrived after we had talked. Three Russian women, all large and bedraggled, came in with a medical kit. All were in splattered white frocks. One was blond, the oldest—maybe 45?—hair pulled into a kind of bun, but straggling out all over. She seemed the head of the group, and had blue eyes that are hard to describe—not frightened, not cold, not rabbitty, but somehow both unfocused and competent, and even caring.

The other was a large woman with graying black hair, but young, and a rather merry expression—not pretty, but attractive in her “I’ve-seen-it-all” frankness, and frank, even bawdy, interest. In the top pocket of her apron were a pack of cigarettes and medical accoutrements. She spoke a little English, and made occasional comments, often mocking, but not cutting.

The other was the least attractive—broad, Slavic face, hair pulled back and dirty, brown-red; she was tall, big-boned, bulky. She seemed most frank and reactive of all.

The blond took my blood pressure and listened to my heart. Then she ordered an injection, an antispasmodic. She took the pressure again in a minute, and through Vasily suggested I return to the hotel and rest. The pressure was high, not too much, but they never told me the exact figure . . . .**

This makes me—the whole experience, the me the experience shows me to be—want to live a more radical, feet-on-the-ground truth than I have done ever before. . . . No more dissimulating about being gay. I am, I live it, and it’s on that ground people must relate to me. If they then reject me, well, I’ll just have to relate to them as the circumstances allow. At least we won’t relating via a smokescreen . . . .***

I awoke later when W. came in, and he and R.O. [the group member who accompanied me back to the hotel] went to the hall and talk. W. was the person I was put to room with, a Baptist from Kentucky.

To listen to what he said was painful. What choice did I have? Had I gotten up to tell them I was awake, I would have confronted terrible embarrassment, nor did I know what would be said in any case, and that it would be of a nature that would make me appear to be an eavesdropper.

W. was obviously angry. I say “obviously,” but who knows: I keep trying to learn not to judge quickly. But what I heard him say in an excited voice was that I had tried to call home two nights before, and “I don’t even know what home means for him.” And he seemed angry that I had upset people, that another group member had even wondered if she ought to return home with me.

All’s fuzzy, but I now realize this conversation occurred after W. had first come in and told R.O. that people upstairs were concerned, and had gone to report to them. So the tone of what he said made me feel very uneasy, that they had speculated about my “home life,” and W. had painted a picture of me as a true neurotic who had made his life unpleasant.

All this was reinforced when he came in, and I told him I had heard him talking, and he said, “I think you need to think about getting professional help.”  When we awoke this morning, I told him I was sorry for all the disturbance, would not go to breakfast because I did not want to face people, and that I do have a family—and family to me is family. I had in fact told him last night, I now recall, in my stupor at bedtime, about Steve living with me.

He seemed not happy to hear all this, but what had I to lose in being honest? And I’ve resolved to be honest. I also now see that much of our interchange was guarded and monosyllabic all along, and I may be to blame, too, because I hadn’t told him much about me. But how does a gay man tell a straight Southern Baptist one something that’ll almost certainly blow up in the confider’s face? And weren’t the monosyllabic replies for the two days indications that he was already irritated by my “differences,” and at heart aware of the sexual difference? Why else say, “I don’t know what home means to him”—as if I were a specimen in a jar? If he wondered, why not simply ask me? . . .****

Gallia had taken me to have my ticket changed, and in the taxi we talked about my house, my life in the U.S., and I told her about Jean M. She said I ought not to let people such as her bother me, and that in all societies people who have more money are treated as if they are worth more, and this is just not true. She made arrangements for a taxi to take me to the airport. When I tried to pay the driver for the trip to Finnair, he said he trused me and I could pay him all the money—that and the airport amount—at the airport.

And here I am, 5 P.M., some chest pains, incredibly tired, wondering about the next leg of the trip . . . .*****

** The material omitted describes how a member of the group volunteered to go back to the hotel with me. We talked as the antispasmodic took effect, at which point, I fell asleep.

*** Details of the conversation between the other group member and me following our return to the hotel, and then a note that I had fallen asleep.

**** To make sense of all this, I have to note W.’s connection to the person I have identified as a constant torment to me on the trip—Jean M. As I have noted, Steve had taught Jean M., and she had made his life miserable when he taught her. When she learned, as the trip began, that I was connected to him, she seemed to focus her discontent with S. on me. In those curious jockeying dynamics that go on when any small collective of human beings are thrown together out of the blue for several days, Jean M. quickly sought to become the alpha female of the group, and to bolster her position, made beelines for two other alpha males of the group. One of these was W., my roommate. So there definitely was information flow from Jean M., who knew of our living arrangements, and W., to help explain his ongoing animosity towards me.

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