Love Is All Around:
My Life as a Married Crip

By Thomas Metz

When I asked my husband's permission
to write a personal essay about our married life for Bent, he said, "Fine, just don't mention my laundry fetish." So that seems as good a place as any to start. My point is that I had to ask him where to draw the line. I've been an enthusiastic reader of personal essays more often than I have been a writer of them, so I'm not sure anymore what's appropriate.
Am I telling you intimate details of my life because the confessional tone suits me, or because I have come to believe that bare-breasted disclosure is required by the genre, and I don't want to let you down?

I know that the only interesting bits of this piece are going to be the parts that either hubby or I find embarrassing. Why else would you be reading this? If you want to hear the party line on someone's marriage, you just ask your friends. You are reading an online webzine because you expect an idiosyncratic point of view and some searing honesty. I'll try to make this worth your while, but keep in mind I'm a Lutheran.

I like being married. I wasn't sure that I would. I was resolutely single for a very long time, not at all sure I wanted to change my single status. Naturally, this had a lot to do with being gay, a lot to do with being disabled, and a lot to do with being both gay and disabled.

I had assumed growing up that, if I reached adulthood and was really gay, if this was not just a phase, then I would live loveless and single for the rest of my life (which probably wouldn't be very long). I think this kind of thinking is very typical for young closeted gay people.

While in college, I developed a chronic inflammatory demyelinating polyneuropathy that slowly killed off most of my motor neurons. At twenty-four, when my disability became so bad that I could no longer take care of myself, I moved back into my parents' house. A brief single life was a foregone conclusion.

But life surprises.
I recovered a small but crucial level of motor neuron function. I met this guy. My first running swipe at marriage was not a match made in heaven, but closer to earth, my second chakra. I loved Prem, but he and I were so different. When I met Prem, at twenty-six, I still lived in my parents' house. We weren't even officially dating then, but he was a "known homosexual" and my father's reaction was extreme. It set the tone for other members of my family. To this day, none of them has uttered Prem's name. I, who had been so puritanically literal in my truth-telling, began to lie about where I was going. I told my mom I was going to a friend's house. I wish I could take that back (Lutherans 1, Honesty 0).

Not born in this country, Prem was determined to succeed in the first-generation American way. I was pretty sure I was a socialist, and I wasn't at all sure I wanted to "succeed," whatever that meant. I campaigned door-to-door for liberal politicians, wrote articles for the tiny lefty newspaper in Columbus, staffed the AIDS hotline, distributed condoms in the bars, wrote press releases and edited newsletters, attended political meetings and workshops, raised funds, organized events, and marched for equal rights. If Prem had voted at all, it would have been Republican. He was studying for his radiology boards, totally stressed out, bingeing and purging on food, exercise, and me.

It was interesting about Prem and my disability. He was gorgeous. I was a cripple. I was relieved to find out that he hated sports, nature, and activities that took place out of doors. I guess I figured if we stayed indoors, my disability would be less noticeable. The first time I went to his apartment building, I walked slowly through his plush doorman lobby. I figured my jerky movements were less apparent that way. He was solicitous and kind, not the least bit condescending. I think he felt safe with me in some way analogous to how I felt safe with him. He gave every indication of finding me to be a sexy human being. I responded with irony and suspicion. We had sex, and then we split up, and then we had sex again, for two-and-a-half years.

By the time Prem and I broke up for good,
I had moved out of my parents' house and was beginning to reconstruct a life. I was learning how to make a living as a disabled man who also happened to be gay, finding my way, successively, through the feminine world of textbook publishing, the macho world of the sports department of a daily newspaper (the losing team "got their fudge packed!"), and the strangely eunuch world of technical writing.

Fast forward to San Francisco. I was really on my own. I was "self supporting," the sweetest two words in the English language, and I didn't ever, ever, ever want to let anything jeopardize that independence.

At some point I became aware that my disability had intensified a natural tendency to subordinate my own needs to the needs of others—friends, family, or community organizations. My response to the social insecurity of disability was to work very hard to be needed. If I could make myself necessary to others, I could allay my fear of abandonment. I discovered books that addressed this issue and called it "codependency." It sounded like an embarrassing case of arrested development to me, and I worked on it. I learned to put my own needs first. I volunteered less, I learned to cook healthy food, and I balanced my checkbook for the first time in years. And I discovered that I liked it, the simple pleasures of a quiet life. I wasn't changing the world, but I liked coming and going as I pleased. I had a demanding job, a busy life, an expanding circle of friends, and more sex than I'd dreamed possible for a crippled fella.

Let's talk about sex, shall we? This was the weirdest thing. Walking down Castro Street, I felt both invisible and conspicuous. Invisible because no one cruised me and conspicuous because I was so different from everyone else. In the Castro I'm disabled first, gay second. I had been disabled for only nine years when I moved here, and I was still surprised on a regular basis by the sight of my own awkward gait reflected in the plate glass windows of Market Street storefronts. Surely that's not what I really look like. Perhaps this has happened to you.

Technology came to my rescue. If I hooked up with a guy on a 900 number, he never, ever asked whether I was disabled. I guess it never occurred to him. Sometimes I'd describe the nature of my disability in very specific detail. Sometimes I wouldn't. I'd just recite the basics, brown hair, brown eyes, skinny (read "muscular atrophy"), and then we'd meet in a neutral location for a once-over. If we hit it off, we'd go to his place. We almost always ended up at his place. I think I have an advantage over other crips in that I'm ambulatory, and that fools them. They need a closer look to notice the extent of my disability, and by that time we're both naked and, well, a bird in the hand … (Lutherans 0, Sex 1).

But something still puzzles me. Why am I sexier if you talk to me on the phone first? Why does no one just cruise me on the street? I must be missing something.

At any rate, I found a method that worked,
and screwing around was an important part of my personal growth. And I'd like to encourage all you young cripples out there, even if your ultimate goal is blissful iron-clad monogamy, don't shortchange this part of your development. You need to do it. I don't know why. You just do. Play safe. Try to behave with some integrity.

It wasn't free sex that made me slow to get married. I was reluctant to give up my own identity. I didn't want to become like the character Phyllis on the old Mary Tyler Moore show, who in her conversations with the perpetually single Mary and Rhoda, seemed to begin every conversation with a reference to her husband, Lars. Lars existed only off-screen, and in Phyllis's apostrophes to him. Phyllis brought him out, like a prop, whenever she needed a conversational advantage. She wielded Lars over Mary and Rhoda like an unseen bludgeon. Insecure and questioning her life choices, she must have needed that advantage when faced with single gals making a new kind of life for themselves. Not me. I was proud of being a single gal. Especially now that I was having sex.

I remember when I first met "Lars." We both attended a right-on, mostly African-American church that featured gospel music and radical politics. We had both been founding members of the church's queer group, formed in response to the denomination's reactionary policies on gays in the church. Lars was queer, smart, lively, and he had body piercings, both seen and unseen. Very exotic, in 1993. I love telling people that we met in church. After services one day I told him I was driving north for the afternoon, to hike through the coastal wildflowers on Point Reyes. He was charmed. So was I. We had a lovely drive.

Somehow that drive turned into a dating experience (exactly one month), and then we broke up, and then we started dating again two years later. And somehow the dating turned into a marriage. Don't ask me to explain how; I can't help you. It's partly availability and partly plain old luck.

Part of it is having some points in common for bonding, and something about Lars bonded with something about me. He is smart and kind and sweet and impatient and cross and fun and friendly and funny and imaginative and, politically, he's idealistic, outraged, and horrified (as any sensible person should be).

There was also the issue of safety,
not to be discounted by a gun-shy crip. The disability issue had already been broached, seemingly against my will. As I explained to my therapist at the time, he's already seen me fall down, and drop food. I think I first realized I liked him when we were eating in a restaurant and suddenly my hands started shaking. I usually prop my forearm against the table when I eat, and it's supposed to stay there to provide the leverage for lifting the fork, but on this night it had taken on a life of its own. Naturally it would happen when I most wanted to appear nonchalant. I don't know whether Lars noticed. He's polite enough that he wouldn't have drawn attention to it.

But I think mainly it was the company. My favorite thing in the world is to sit in the car with Lars and listen to our own babble as we daydream and stare at the scenery. I could listen to him spin theories for hours. He's smart. He reads. The Chronicle of Higher Ed. Lingua Franca. New York Review of Books. He can talk about anything. Frank Zappa. He knew Mary Chapin Carpenter when she sang in the Washington, D.C. hippie diner where he was a waitress. He cares about politics. Gives a damn about history. He has a picture of his mother with Eleanor Roosevelt and Jackie Kennedy. He reads aloud to me from Christopher Morley, Shirley Jackson, and the memoirs of second-tier Broadway actresses.

Shall we discuss sex again? Lars and I have been together for six years next month, and we still do it. That's all you're getting out of me (Lutherans 1, Disclosure 0). Are we monogamous? I'm pretty sure we are. And I'm pretty sure I'm okay with that. I liked fucking around, and sometimes I think I wouldn't mind doing it again. When we first got together, the issue was one of limited time, emotion, and energy. I knew right away that there was something special happening here, and I didn't want to divide my attention. I wanted to invest it with this thing that was happening with Lars.

I have heard married friends, maybe most of them, say that an open relationship works, and intellectually I agree. But for some reason I'm reluctant. It's so mysterious, a relationship. It seems to work, but I don't know exactly how. I don't want to mess up the ecology of it. For want of further information, I guess I'm opting to keep things as they are for now and hope that whatever developmental milestones I'm missing by not finishing my fooling around phase will be offset by something else. Or maybe someday we'll make a mutual decision to screw around. Who knows. I'm not in a hurry.

Love and sex aside, there are practical advantages to being married, especially for cripples. As my friend Alan said, "I was okay being single, and I thought I would be single for the rest of my life. But I told a friend, 'Once in a while, I just wish someone else would go buy the milk.'" Right on. Do you know how much parking time I have saved in overcrowded San Francisco, because one of us can circle the block in the car while the other runs in to the store to return the rental video? Love means always having someone to say, "You park the car, I'll run in and save two seats."

But don't hope for the moon.
My sister Mabel thinks it's funny that I married a man who can't use a hammer or a screwdriver. To me, it proves that God is a prankster. I said I wanted to be independent, right? I didn't want to marry someone who thought they had to take care of me, right? Mabel does most of our hammering for us.

And a husband can be limiting. Lars won't let me do certain things, like eat dinner out of the saucepan. He says it is barbaric and uncouth. He's out of town this weekend. I am cooking dinner as I write this. Tuna soup. It's something I invented from leftovers. Tuna, canned corn and frozen spinach, with a dash of Mrs. Dash lemon spice. I am going to have to hide this essay from him.

On the other hand, if you do something embarrassing, your husband can bail you out. I couldn't decide which present to buy for a child and I was dithering hopelessly. Finally, I made my decision to buy a beautiful yellow moon-shaped rice paper lamp. When you turned on the light the rice paper turned into a glowing crescent-shaped happy face. Then I saw it had a rip in the rice paper. I bought a second-best present instead and went back out to the sidewalk where Lars was holding the dog. I sadly explained about the rip, and then I realized that I still wanted the lamp anyway. I thought maybe we could repair it ourselves.

I was really hung up on that lamp, thinking how a kid would really love a sweetly glowing nightlight that looked like the moon. But now after all the dithering, I was too embarrassed to go in and tell the man I had changed my mind yet again. Time for a reality check. "Do you think I'm being silly?" I asked hubby. "Yes," he said, without hesitation, "you are." And then he handed me the dog's leash and trundled in to buy me the lamp.

What keeps a marriage going?
Beats me. Remember I said I was "proud of being a single gal?" Well, I'm the opposite of proud about this—I'm humble, for once. I don't know where this came from. I don't think Lars does either. It's just luck and happenstance. You're out there in the world, buzzing hither and thither, bouncing off other little atoms just like yourself, and then suddenly you bump against an atom you bond with, and the two of you form your own little molecule. My friend Alan was struck with the same dumb luck. Also resolutely single for years, one day almost against his will he bumped into Mr. Perfect-For-Him. Wisely, Alan observes, "I can't take any credit for this." Well, me neither. I don't know where this came from or where it's going. Married people need to remember that. It could be gone tomorrow. Enjoy it today. Take a minute and say thank you.

© 2001 Thomas Metz

TOM METZ lives in San Francisco, a long way from Columbus, Ohio. He has performed as a guest artist with AXIS Dance Company, and with Mabel Maney and the Lake Merrymen Players at Red Dora's Bearded Lady Cafe in San Francisco and at the Highways Performance Space in Santa Monica. His writing has appeared in newspapers, magazines, and in A Family and Friends' Guide to Sexual Orientation (Routledge Press, 1996). He pays the rent writing science fiction for various software products in Silicon Valley.

TOM METZ (left) with the object of his affection.
Photo: © 2000 Denise Mignon Railla

 

 

BENT: A Journal of CripGay Voices/July 2001