Can Marriage Be Saved?
MY BEST FRIEND DIED IN 1990. This is the first time that I have been able to type, let alone say, those words. We met at Columbia University in 1981. That was the year a report surfaced in the New York Times about a mysterious "gay" cancer that was claiming a number of lives--lives that seemed to have very little to do with ours, which were lived among the groves of metropolitan academic pretension. Barthes was big, but our very own Professor Karl-Ludwig Selig was bigger. He offered a course on Pasolini, whose epic film about the degradation of the soul, Salò, was being screened at night. Columbia was a boys' school then. Together we sat in our tweed jackets, chinos and penny loafers, watching Pasolini's critique of marriage, fascism and the lengths to which perversity takes us, in mind, body and language. In the film, the most beautiful couple--both virgins, a boy and girl barely out of adolescence--are married by a salacious "priest," and then "defiled" by two older members of the cabal. The old man takes the young boy, and a hardened whore takes the young girl. It is a terrible moment, filled with lilies.
I don't recall if I saw this film with my friend or not, but it was certainly among the films that we discussed at the time. I can't imagine what it meant to us then, before we had married one another in our hearts, but I'm sure the effect of the film was terrifying. After we finished the school year (he graduated and I did not), we both got jobs working in the art history departments of Columbia and Barnard, respectively. Every day, after work, he came over to the Barnard side of the campus where I worked. He'd slip out of his loafers and put his big white feet on my desk as he read the paper and smoked (you could smoke in offices then). He had just broken up with his first boyfriend. One afternoon, as we walked to the subway, I told him how much I loved him, and forever. I suppose it was a marriage proposal of sorts. We never discussed it, but the promise of that afternoon never left us.
I have never been interested in public vows of affection. I have never, to my knowledge, ever left my friend, in spirit or mind, even after his death. I can't imagine that if we had stood up in a room full of people and exchanged words of fidelity in front of a priest that it would have been much different than what we knew we were to one another: partners for life.
Hilton Als, a staff writer for The New Yorker, is the author of The Women (Farrar, Straus & Giroux).