Letters in Search of Love

DemingPictured here, part of the Florida Mountains, southeast of Deming, New Mexico.

I wrote most of the essays that appear, here, specifically for this collection, although some of them have appeared elsewhere. All of them are from experiences I had during a period in my life from about 1987 through 1991, which began with what I thought of as my greatest loss in life and ended with what I now consider my greatest gain. I returned to my hometown of Deming, New Mexico—ostensibly to take care of my ailing and aging parents.

In a way, this period was the darkest of my life. I think I was clinically depressed, although I never went to a psychologist to find out. Yet strangely enough, given my chronic depression, this was one of the very best times of my life, as well.

  This period of years has a definite beginning. My lover of fourteen years came to me one night in January of 1987 and said that he wanted to break up, because he said he was heterosexual. Three months later, I ended up in Las Cruces, New Mexico living in a motel room, with a part-time job, without a car, and with the usual emotional baggage. An essay about that experience is not included, because I did not want to inflict on the reader the morose self-pity I engaged in and, at times, grimly enjoyed. But I do mention this breakup in several of the essays, since getting over it is, in a sense, a thread that ties all the essays in this collection together; the emotional fallout from it was partially responsible for the paths I took during that five-year period.

  At the beginning of this period, I felt old (in the gay male queen's sense of being old) at thirty-eight. At the end of this period, I was forty three and feeling as if life was just beginning, feeling young and stronger than ever. In the beginning, I was fat and weak with a terrible self concept; by the end, I could get behind a shovel in my garden and chunk dirt for hours without tiring. It was certainly the first time in my adult life when I was proud of my body, when I felt wonderful in a T-shirt and cutoffs. Even as a teenager, I'd never felt so confident about my appearance. In short, it took five years for me to cast off the previous fourteen. The struggle with anger and hurt made this period difficult, but by the end of it, I looked ahead with relish.

  I hope these essays illuminate that transition.
* * *

  In "Part One: Letters in Search of Love," the essays deal with my search for a new lover. In a clinical sense, I suppose the reason for this search has some fancy name; ordinary people, or country-western singers, however, would just say I was on the rebound. It probably would have been a disaster had I "married" another man too soon, because I still did not know what my weaknesses or my strengths were. Although I did not find a lover through this exchange of letters, the process of the search was part of the healing necessary to bury my fourteen-year relationship. In all, I exchanged letters with at least two dozen men over a year-long period.

  From those letters, I discovered that my pain was not unique. Nor my loneliness. I also discovered that gay men accommodate adversity and their sexuality in surprisingly different ways. Letters from prisoners sometimes amused me, sometimes scared the Hell out of me, and gave me a safe peek into prison life. Other men who wrote were even more self pitying than I was, which had a wonderful curative effect on my own self-pity.

  The most perplexing, maddening, and insulting letters came from a widower (age around seventy) whose wife of a thousand years had died and, now, he was answering ads from gay men—at least I know that he answered my letter, which appeared in RFD. I say it was maddening because, in one of his letters, he sent a seven-page, single-spaced type-written document, stamped CONFIDENTIAL in which he laid down the law by which I would abide if I decided to become his plaything. There would be no discussion, no objections, and no input from me. He obviously hadn't bothered to read what I'd written in my letter for RFD or, like the plantation slave master who used his slaves for whatever perversions he desired to engage in, he had no respect for me or any inkling that, as a gay man, I had feelings. I have not included his letters in the essay about him, entitled "The Curious Case of the Widower," but I have tried to capture the essence of his definitely non-gay, sexist, decidedly heterosexual attitude.

  Most of the letters, however, were from men who were sincere, well-educated, stable and, like me, earnestly looking for a lover to grow old with.

* * *

  In "Part Two: Adventures," I have included only two essays: "The Old Man and St. Louis," and "AIDS in Paradise." Chronologically, they precede the essays from Part One. I had both "adventures" in the same year, as I moved into a new phase of getting over my breakup with my lover. I had spent most of 1987 in dreary self-pity and hurt. In 1988, I had spent most of my energy helping my parents who had each been hospitalized. But by 1989/1990 I finally began to feel and express my anger at my ex-lover. I had always thought that anger was a destructive emotion but, in my case, it was a blessed relief from hurt and self-pity. It was like a burst of adrenaline or a shot of speed, and provided the raw energy I needed to push myself to do something with my life. Because I felt that I was getting old, I began to live more deliberately, demanding what people now call "quality time."

  I quit working at a regular job in 1988 and did not see fit to try for another one until 1992. Because I took this step and sought to live as frugally as possible, I was able to discover what was truly important to me and what were merely luxuries. Because I didn't have a job, I began to appreciate the value of a dollar—I mean one buck, one unit of 100 pennies. When I had a few bucks in my pocket from cleaning someone's yard, I felt rich. Rather than purchasing my entertainment, for example, I learned to appreciate simple, free pleasures, like gardening and watching the progress of the sun across the sky, the way the waning sunlight makes things change colors; how each season of the year brings out different plants and flowers; how much music there is at sunset from the birds. Before this, that magic hour between afternoon and evening had been spent in traffic jams in Dallas and Washington DC and other cities.

  I took risks during this period to push myself beyond self-imposed limitations, chances that I had only fantasized about taking when I was younger—like going naked outdoors in broad daylight, leaving all my clothing miles behind me. While I was getting undressed or climbing a mountain in the nude, I often laughed nervously at the predicament I risked putting myself into:

  What if some red-neck, shotgun toting, good-ole boy out hunting in the desert caught sight of me? What if the Border Patrol agents, on the lookout for illegals from Mexico, spotted me? Or Drug Enforcement Agents flying over the area in a helicopter looking for drug runners saw me, instead, leaping naked over bushes and running along like a wild man?

  In "The Old Man and St. Louis," I tell of my adventure of driving an old man from Deming, New Mexico, to St. Louis, Missouri, to visit with his family one last time—according to him—before he died.

He was rapidly being overcome by his Diabetes, was nearly blind from it, and had a wound on the bottom of his foot that wouldn't heal. He was continually eating sweets on the trip, I think, to hasten his death. Once there, when I met his family, I felt sorry for the old man because, while his sisters and brother-in-law welcomed him into their homes, they seemed strangely irrelevant to the old man and what his life had become—this trip home for the last time becoming a sort of frustrated rush through a place from long ago that echoed, not with his memories, but with present-day concerns, bearing little connection to the place he held in his heart.

  Likewise, in "AIDS in Paradise" (published in The Deming Six: Voices of the Chihuahuan Desert, Winesburg Express, 1995) I tell of the job I took on a goat ranch in Northern New Mexico in exchange for room and board. The two gay men running it were HIV positive, and when I arrived to work, one of them had recently been hospitalized (not for the first time) from complications due, not only to heat exhaustion, but problems with his red-cell count. Not only did I not make a dime on the job, I barely got fed. But it was an adventure and a wrenching learning experience whose worth is still evident to me. In "Part Three: Reprises and Extensions," I include two essays I wrote for John Preston's anthologies—Hometowns (Dutton, 1991) and Member of the Family (Dutton, 1992). The essay, entitled "Deming, New Mexico" that appeared in Hometowns is essentially about the same period I am covering in this present collection of essays and gives a setting to the place where I lived. I include the essay, entitled "My Sister and I," from the award-winning anthology, Member of the Family, because it includes a little more about getting over my lover of fourteen years, as well as shows a little more of my family background. I wanted to extend the essay about my hometown of Deming, New Mexico, by talking more about the two most wonderful people in the world; so I wrote the essay, entitled "The Healing Place," which is about my parents and the healing environment they produce no matter where they live. As I have said, in 1988 I quit my last technical writing job and went home to Deming, ostensibly to help them out when my mother was hospitalized, and then I stayed "a little while longer," because my father was hospitalized the same year. Then that year passed, and I continued to stay in Deming. Another year came and went and, soon, I found that I was living in Deming and happy about it, letting my career as a technical writer slide as I tried to move into a career as a writer (on subjects and in genres of my own choosing).

  I discovered (or rediscovered) who my parents are, what meaning I could glean from life by simply being with them as they struggled to just get by. Their unconditional love and their non-demanding generosity played a great part in my healing from the loss I spoke of earlier.

  I am fully aware that some of the essays are sprinkled with bitter moments; there are also dollops of self-pity and a dash or two of snobbishness—but I hope they are also seasoned with some humor and a rising sense of self-discovery. At any rate, I would not trade this period of my life for any other.

—Ronald L. Donaghe
Copyright 1998
Las Cruces, NM

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