by Stevan Alburty
© 1998 by Stevan Alburty
get a pathetic thrill when friends ask me how long it’s been since
I’ve been in a Serious Relationship because I can be so specific with
the answer. I stroll into the bathroom, pull the empty Valium bottle from
the medicine cabinet and read the date of the prescription. Like Miss
Havisham and her wedding cake, I have preserved a memento of our time
together and how he gave me such joy, such happiness, such stomach cramps.
As accurately as I can identify the exact date when my romantic expectations were most recently dashed, I can be equally precise in recalling the moment in childhood when those expectations were formed.
On June 26, 1964, I sat through two back-to-back showings of MGM’s new musical, The Unsinkable Molly Brown, starring Debbie Reynolds and Harve Presnell.
My troubles began that Friday afternoon at the Music Box Theatre in Seattle, Washington.
I blame all of my problems with men on Harve Presnell.
During my early teens, I spent summers in Seattle with my grandmother, an exceedingly nervous woman who encased her hair in thick, black netting.
Hormones had begun paying calls on me with increasing frequency. My fidgeting was even threatening to wear holes through the thick plastic armor with which my grandmother protected her furniture. One transfiguring day, I was quite unexpectedly given clearance to plan a solo excursion at the soonest possible convenience. I was to be permitted to take the bus downtown all by myself to go to the movies.
I knew I was about to undergo a significant cultural passage on the road to maturity - the first unsupervised adventure - and the occasion just screamed for an appropriately grand gesture. The moment clearly required sweeping vistas, stunning costumes and a musical score. This was a job for MGM. I selected the opening day showing of their new musical, The Unsinkable Molly Brown.
For those of you who are not familiar with the film, Molly Brown was one of MGM’s last great musicals. It starred Debbie Reynolds as “Molly” and introduced newcomer Harve Presnell as her great love, “Leadville Johnny Brown.”
Molly is a high-spirited tomboy who lives in a log cabin in the backwoods of turn-of-the-century Colorado with her jug-sippin’ pa. The neighbor boys are grimy ruffians and superb dancers all. They like to shove Molly face-down in the front yard and make her spit dirt, which inspires her to sing the first hit-tune, “I Ain’t Down Yet.”
Molly yearns, musically, to own a red silk dress and big brass bed. She wants to be rich. Really rich. So she tearfully leaves Pa behind and sets out for Leadville, Colorado, to find herself a rich miner to marry.
Cut to: the Rocky Mountains, in all their tall, heaving, masculine beauty. The camera pans back to reveal … tall, heaving, masculine Harve Presnell, standing by a boulder on a precipice, gazing out adoringly at his beloved mountains.
That’s it. That’s the moment.
I should have slit my wrists right there.
He starts to sing. It’s an achingly beautiful baritone voice and he sings of his love for ... his state, Colorado. Oh, isn’t that just wonderful? He’s patriotic. He’s sentimental. He loves a goddamn state.
I am only able to remember the rest of the film in fragments, as I found it difficult to concentrate after Harve’s appearance. I hid in the men’s room between features so I could watch the whole thing all over again.
In my present occupation as a homosexual, I judge every man I meet against the benchmark of Harve Presnell. He represented the penultimate romantic male - ruggedly handsome, boundlessly tender and easily able to fund the purchase of real estate and jewelry.
The removal of the last letter of “Harvey” was faintly erotic. (When you are 13, everything is faintly erotic.) His eyes frequently dewed at something wonderful Debbie had said or done; the lower lip was abundantly full as to be cleft.
But beyond a physical presence so stunning it surely required a permit, there was a resonance of gentleness I had never seen emanating from any male. Whenever he thought he might have done something to displease Molly, he’d look as sheepish as a puppy who had forgotten to use the paper.
He was also as clear as freshly-squeezed moonshine about his feelings. There was not a coy bone in his magnificent body. When Molly returned his affections, he did not panic and run to his therapist to work on his fears of intimacy. He hollered and hee-hawed and loved her through half-a-dozen musical numbers.
The last few decades of my life might have gone much smoother, with much happier relationships and far less medication, if what I had contracted that day in the Music Box Theatre had been a simple case of sexual longing, but the repercussion was much more sinister. What I had been seduced by was the irresistible narcotic of the MGM musical itself.
I do not expect the men I date to have a fear of intimacy or a problem with commitment. I expect them to by-God buck up and take me dancing in the middle of Central Park under a full goddamn moon.
But sadly, gay men are, after all, men. We are Hunter-Gatherers; the instinct for acquisition, immediately followed by consumption or disposal, is stamped into our craniums at the factory.
Romance is, therefore, a difficult sport for gay men to master, because it is essentially a game of cat and mouse attempting to be played by two cats. Everybody’s happy as long as both contestants are playing the role of Pursuer. Should one of the participants suddenly express a willingness to actually be caught, the Pursuer quickly loses interest and scampers off in search of the next Object. I once gave a man a single red rose to celebrate our one-month anniversary. He vanished like Jimmy Hoffa.
I am 45. The statistical chances of my meeting a man who will offer me a ring and walk me down an aisle are roughly the same as Greg Louganis ever returning one of my phone calls.
The population of this planet can basically be divided into two distinct categories: those who believe that there are moments when human experience is so transcendent as to require a musical score ... and those who don’t. It is routinely brought to my attention by people in the latter category that life, alas, is not like an MGM musical.
But dammit, (he said, grabbing all of you out there by the shirtfront) it should be. Let’s go right ahead and set our expectations as high, oh, let’s say as an elephant’s eye. I say we demand someone to watch over us, rhythm that is always fascinating, love that is here to stay and, as far as the climate is concerned, blue skies, nothin’ but blue skies.
My Harve is out there.
I ain’t down yet.
Stevan Alburty (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a freelance writer from New York City who spends an excessive amount of time in the Catskill Mountains, where he has a log cabin with a big, brass bed.