In 1980, I received a grant to study theater in Madrid, and spent the year attending over 100 productions and talking with many actors, writers and directors. I saw everything from burlesque to Shakespeare. I was 22, and it was my first trip outside North America.
It was also a time of great uncertainty. One afternoon, I returned to my boarding house to discover Spain was in the middle of an attempted coup. The attempt failed, but it colored the rest of my stay there. I was on edge.
I was a closeted gay man who’d yet to acknowledge that reality to himself, let alone to the whole world. When a young man in the boarding house discreetly whispered “Are you gay?” to me in Spanish, I pretended not to hear him.
In the early ‘80s, Madrid was seeing the beginnings of la movida— a cultural and sexual awaking exemplified by Pedro Almodóvar’s films— which was filled with color, emotion and sex. Some of that sex was between men. That part of the awakening, while tantalizing on film, was lost on me in real life.
I returned to Madrid fairly often over the years, living year-round in Boston. As a Spanish teacher, I felt the need to spend time in Spanish-speaking countries to maintain my language proficiency. I loved Madrid, but the awakening that had captivated the city in the ‘80s still eluded me no matter how many times I returned. I don’t think I even understood what that awakening really was all about, although romance and passion were surely part of it. All I knew was that I wanted to experience it.
In the meantime, I made peace with who I was and started dating men in the Boston area. In those days, connections were made in newspaper personal ads. I submitted one, citing my love of film, reading and children. A man named Bruce responded shortly thereafter. He loved many of the things I did and had two children of his own. Our first date was a refreshingly uneventful lunch, a far cry from my most usual dates (including one guy who was obsessed with erotic gargoyles).
My courtship with Bruce was low-key. We’d escape to Provincetown for a weekend, not during the busy summer season, but rather in November or January, when there were hardly any visitors at all. On one of those trips we decided to rent an apartment together near Boston. By 2001 we’d bought a home. We married in 2005, and by 2015 we’d moved to Toronto, raised four basset hounds and two kids.
As we approached our 15th wedding anniversary and 25th anniversary of being a couple, I started thinking of how quickly the years had passed. Now was the time for the two of us to go to Spain. Bruce had recently retired from his job as a financial consultant and I had left teaching to focus on writing. I was also writing a novel that took place in Spain, and I wanted to immerse myself in the country again. We booked a flight and arranged for our newest basset hound, Lily Tomlin, to board for a week with her playgroup.
After we unpacked and settled in to our hotel, we went for a walk. I was paying in Euros now rather than pesetas, but otherwise, Madrid felt remarkably familiar. My favorite bookstore was still there. Blind people still sold lottery tickets in kiosks along the sidewalks. Chueca was not only still gay, it was gayer than it ever was.
I used to think that romance meant a moment when time stops and all you understand is the emotion of the here and now. But what happens when you have 25 years of shared experience? How do you forget all that time? Bruce and I had experienced the deaths of our parents, the ups and downs of parenting. Together, we celebrated when my first book was published. We also shared those many moments when my writing was rejected by agents and publishers. We worried together when Bruce was flattened by pneumonia for two months and when I had a minor stroke. We’d moved to Canada where we now have a close circle of friends who, on my sixtieth birthday, planned an intimate surprise brunch for me. Where does all of that life go in the throes of romance?
In Madrid, that life didn’t go anywhere. Bruce and I didn’t just bring ourselves to Spain. We brought two and a half decades of love, pain, joy, confusion, boredom, disagreements, and, yes, romance. The person I was during my visits without Bruce had changed because of him. I’d spent two weeks in Madrid not long after we met. I’d walked through the city mentally recording all the shops, parks, and cafés I thought Bruce would like to visit when we’d traveled to Spain together. We’d go to the Royal Tapestry Museum, or rent a boat and spend time daydreaming in the Parque de Retiro. We’d take a day trip to Avila, the walled in city a few hours away. Maybe we’d dance in a bar until four in the morning. Maybe we’d arrange our trip to coincide with parades and parties and the steaminess of Pride month in June.
In the end, we took our trip in late March. We had our romantic dinners, romantic evenings, and romantic walks through the city, but our emotional intensity never reached Almodóvar’s operatic heights. A few nights we even went to bed before ten o’clock, when many Madrileños were just starting their evening out on the town. Our one visit to a gay bar lasted less than an hour. We didn’t even visit the Tapestry Museum.
And after twenty-five years together, I realized that this trip, our first trip to Spain together, was exactly what I wanted.
Ken Harvey, the author of a collection of short stories and a memoir, has published widely in many literary magazines. His latest book is The Book of Casey Adair, a novel published by the U of Wisconsin Press. He lives in Toronto with his husband and basset hound, Lily Tomlin. A GLR review of one of his past book, A Passionate Engagement, can be found here.