Saturday, May 02, 2009

(the second to last chapter of The Brides of March: Memoir of a Same-Sex Marriage)

At What Price Equality?

July 2005

The hotel beds looked like a bomb had struck. Blankets were flung back, food containers perched precariously on the pillows, dirty clothes mixed with sheets, and a pee-soaked disposable diaper leaned against the bedstead. Ah, vacation with the family.

The gray morning light of Vancouver, British Columbia, filtered through the sheer curtains as Jannine and all three kids piled on top of one another in one bed, making a human pyramid while watching cartoons, and I monopolized the other with the morning Vancouver Sun. It was a minor miracle that we were there at all, both of us having little energy to make vacation plans (partly due to that lingering post-election depression), and Jannine simply didn’t have time to plan anything, even though it was her long-awaited eight weeks’ sabbatical, and something to treasure.

It was in a vacation state of mind that I leaned back against the pillows to look at Vancouver’s newspaper, and saw that Canada had become the fourth nation in the world to legalize same-sex marriage on the day we arrived. How ironic.

We hadn’t any intention of taking them up on the option.

We were already married to our friends, to our family, and a piece of paper from Canada would get us nowhere with the American government. The only way to benefit from the marriage certificate would be to leave our Portland home, our friends, pull our children out of school, pack up our worldly possessions, and move to Canada.


I didn’t even want to tell Jannine, who had successfully engineered that human pyramid on the next bed, with her as the foundation and Graeme the crowning glory, something that as a safety queen I would normally decry, but chose to ignore because I can’t be a spoilsport all the time. What good would it do to bring the subject of same-sex marriage up; we couldn’t take advantage of it, unless we moved to Canada, which so far had been just another city (though more European), and filled with unapologetic smokers.

But as we stood on the deck of the ferry coming into Nanaimo, Vancouver Island, for the next leg of our journey, I felt a stirring of “home.”

The drive north to Campbell River was shorter than I had calculated, and the kids were still gushing over glimpses of rocky beach, basking harbor seals, and the sun glinting off the Georgia Strait, when we turned into the driveway of the Seadrift Resort, where I began my career as a memoirist by running down the road yelling, “My father’s drunk!” until my mother caught me.

Jannine was justifiably uncertain about my desire to stay in a cabin at the small fishing resort my family once owned (replete with spiders, beach rats, and bad memories), when I proposed the idea. But she accepted my arguments: the former buildings had been razed, the beach alone was worth the location, and it would be good for the kids to see the place that had formed my overly-protective psyche, my love of nature, and my belief in the great circle of life in all its gory glory.

Our kids were so much more ready for it than I had been, in 1970, when I burst out of my grandparents’ smoke-filled car upon arrival, raced down the gravel path to the shoreline, only to find yards of stinking seaweed and sand fleas.

We moved to Campbell River, British Columbia, from Los Angeles, California, where we lived in a ranch house in the Hollywood Hills with avocado shag carpeting, surrounded by other ranch houses, sage brush, coyotes, and cottontails. My sister was Jodie Foster’s classmate (before she went on to that French school), and every kid wanted to be a star. Beaches were warm, sandy, and filled with people, not rocky, isolated, and knee-deep in kelp.

I didn’t know then that when the tide was out, it revealed a sandbar for swimming, a community of seals sunning on the rocks, and a rocky point that went far out to sea, binoculars needed to see someone standing on the farthest tip, from the shore.

Duncan and Anna were in heaven. There were seaweed beds to slither through, kelp whips to snap, crabs to grab, tide pools to explore, logs to ride, and stones to skip, and when we crossed the Island Highway to show them the spot where I once caught frogs each summer, we found a doe and her fawns standing in the shade. The wildlife watching (for easy to please enthusiasts like us) was to die for: herons fishing, seals bellowing, fingerlings swimming, bald eagles overhead, garter snakes in the grass, and turkey vultures devouring a dead sea lion with a bullet hole through its skull, just down the beach.

So cool.

And if our youngest says I sawed the head off the decomposing sea lion with our older son’s pocket knife, soaked it overnight in a 50% bleach solution so we could add it safely to our skull collection, and that it was “clean as a whistle” in the morning, he doesn’t know what he’s talking about.

With the tide out, Shelter Point was an ecological goldmine; we spotted every specimen in our guide book to coastal wildlife of British Columbia, including a still-born harbor seal among the species of starfish, chitons, and limpets clinging to the rocks.

No, we didn’t take him home and have him stuffed.

On the beach where I once walked barefoot on the barnacles, taking tourists to dig for butter clams, and collect oysters (they are abundant now, and toxic to man), I stretched out my arms and felt at one with the world. This was my religion: the rocks beneath my feet, the mountains across the strait, the sky filled with eagles, vultures, and gulls, and a government that recognized us as equal.

It was a little freaky when we discovered that Peter, the owner, was the man who bought the resort from my mother in 1978, at a lowball price suggested by our real estate agent, who’d informed him that my father was a psychotic drunk who’d left her in the lurch with two kids, and that she’d take anything. Nor was it reassuring when we realized that the tenants in the next cabin were on crack. But it was a solid week of beach exploration during the day, and Harry Potter and the Half-blood Prince aloud at night, and saner than any other week I spent at the Seadrift during my lifetime.

It was on Quadra Island, a community of three thousand former draft dodgers, left wingers, and ecologically minded artists a ten minute ferry ride from Campbell River, that Jannine and I started thinking about the move to Canada. She had twigged to the Vancouver headlines on legalized same-sex marriage, and couldn’t stop thinking about it any more than I could. We drove off the car ferry to Quadra, down the two-lane road to the Quadra Resort (we were the only tenants, the owner being ambivalent about opening the resort that summer), where we fed apples to deer, watched kingfishers dive, herons fly by, and I thought about real estate prices and schools.

While Jannine took the older kids kayaking two days into our stay, I pushed Graeme in his stroller into the small real estate office down the road, and checked out the listings. The equity on our Portland home could purchase free and clear eight wooded acres with a pond, a four bedroom home, and a guest house. It was sickening to learn that the prices had doubled in the prior two years. I told the agent, an older woman with soft frosted hair, that I was just curious, that my partner and I had fallen in love with Quadra. She twinkled, and said, “Everything starts with an idea!” then paused, “You know, the first same-sex couple to marry in British Columbia live here on Quadra.”

I told myself I wasn’t just trying to run away. It wasn’t like we’d never considered moving to Canada. Many of us mentioned the idea when same-sex marriage became a possibility up north, just as the south scurried to deny us the chance. Also, as the draft loomed in a shadowy future, we’d already been thinking about Canada, about peace protests, and conscientious objector status, and shooting our sons in the foot.

A friend has already offered a small caliber weapon for the job.

Canada seemed, at that moment, to have so much to offer: socialized medicine, a free press, a multi-party political system, and for me, the chance to relearn how to say “oot” and “aboot” as I did in my youth, creating a mixed-up accent of Canadian, Californian, and Pacific Northwest that had people speculating about my European origin for years.

My wife was both for, and completely against, the idea. In theory, it sounded grand: move to Quadra Island, grow organic vegetables, telecommute, and bicycle for transport through the 52 inches of annual rain. In practice, it could endanger her job, and would separate us from the friendships and family relationships we have worked so hard to nurture, especially as gas prices soar, making frequent visits a fantasy.

Though there is an airport in Campbell River…

Our kids were strongly opposed, despite deer in the backyard and eagles overhead. We had put down roots so they wouldn’t share our disjointed childhoods. Our plan had worked, oh so well. They were deeply embedded in Portland, entwined with the community through hair-like strands of self, shared experience, commonalities, until these strands could weather a hurricane. But a move would tear them to shreds.

I justified my desire to move by telling myself that the kids needed more nature, less city, in their lives. That the chance to kayak, to hike, to see bear swimming, eagles feasting, and breathe fresh air, was worth more than living where I worried every time they left the house, humans scaring me far more than any wild animal. I also saw with my own eyes how well they were suited to the natural world. They were never bored.

More than that, we experienced several parental “paydays,” those rare moments when you see all the work you’ve put into your kids and all the talent and brains they came into the world with, combine. For some parents, it might be a moment of exemplary politeness, a perfect piano sonata, or a report card lined with A’s. For us, it was seeing our naturalists in action: Duncan and Anna sneaking up slowly on the vultures and eagles feasting on the sea lion, able to observe without disturbing the birds; it was Duncan inching his way out to the seals on the rocks, his body low to the ground, risking barnacles and bloodletting to see them up close and personal. It was the way they would look, but not disturb, pick up a snake, but put it down exactly where they found it.

They loved that when an eagle eats a baby seal, it pulls its skin off, beginning with a cut in the tail, forming a sealskin bag that native Canadians would gather and use. They loved that killer whales were a few miles out to see, that bears swim between the Gulf Islands, and that just north of Campbell River, Vancouver Island was virtually wild, just logging roads, deer, black bears, and cougars.

They seemed to belong there.

Quadra Island is paradise in the summer (but doubtless depressing in the winter with those 52 inches of rain), but mostly I was still mad about our marriage being annulled. In that mood, I could not think of one person who kept me tied to home. Our house was just a house, something that could be replaced. I was angry that the entire nation wasn’t outraged that our right to marry was put to a vote.

It was hard to re-enter America, to explain to the customs agent that they were all “our” children when she asked which children belonged to whom (though it would have been harder to explain that hypothetical sea lion skull and a few of our other unusual souvenirs), and drive the freeway south. Our future felt precariously balanced on a scale: our current life on one side as second class citizens under the law and a life with equality, and the unknown, on the other. We asked ourselves, when does it cost too much in human dignity to stay? When have you pounded your head against a brick wall too many times? When is it worth uprooting a family and beginning a new life?

Back in Portland, it took weeks to feel “at home,” to grow back in love with our pink stove, the Martha Stewart Naples Yellow paint on the walls, the framed memories lining the stairs, the drawings, the photos, the vintage cameras, and antique typewriters, the furniture begged, borrowed, and stolen (long story) but never new, that make up our domestic world. It took weeks to readjust my dial to Portland time and space; my mind was on Quadra, with equal rights and bald eagles, not on back-to-school supplies or registering Duncan for online math.

It was on Anna’s first day back at Alameda in September that I felt I could stay. As I walked across the brick courtyard to the playground, greeting old friends, recent acquaintances, and former teachers while Graeme ran ahead to climb the play structure, I thought, “These are my people. Portland is my home. It’s worth fighting for.”

The scales are tipped, for now.

No comments: