Little Sweetheart of the Boston Strangler
Like so many therapists before her, Tracy (whom you met in the last column) had to be made aware of my romantic history. My taste in men had always been unusual, going beyond the standard predilection for “bad boys” into uncharted territory.
For example, my earliest memory of romance is an attempt to initiate a pen-pal correspondence with jailbird Albert de Salvo, the Boston Strangler himself. It was 1967, I was nine years old, and I had just read Gerald Frank’s true crime bestseller, The Boston Strangler. (This was typical of my reading material at the time, consisting mainly of books my mother had requested from the library for herself.) What you may not realize is that de Salvo was never even charged with the 13 killings he is associated with; he was in the pen for something else. And if you had read the interview in this book, and found out, as I did, about his horrible, sad childhood and marriage, you’d probably want to write him a letter too. Too late, he was murdered in jail in 1973.
I graduated from De Salvo to the boys of the boardwalk in my hometown of Asbury Park, N.J. When we were fourteen, my neighbor Donna Benoit and I both fell in love with a doltish hoodlum named Dave Reis. I can’t remember what was good about him except his shoulder-length blond hair which was very straight and shiny and hung in his face. I think of a missing tooth. We found him on a particular bench where you could always meet guitar-playing ne’er-do-wells, and guitar was our bond. Good thing, as he was not much of a conversationalist. From him, I learned the opening bars of “Stairway to Heaven.” Soon after, he stole my guitar.
Dave Reis was followed by Buddy West, who came in a set with his brother Bobby. Bobby was strawberry blond and freckly, Buddy raw-boned and hazel-eyed. They had an apartment on the top floor of a rat-trap building called the Santander. This was an early experience of bad sex on a bare, possibly insect-infested mattress. Also, they stole cash from my father’s desk drawer and steaks from our freezer. My sister dated Bobby, but Buddy was all mine.
An even less memorable seaside rendezvous was with The Guy With The Convertible That I Bailed Out Of Jail. I recall nothing about him except that the bail was $150.
Why was I like this? Perhaps it was my parents’ fault for bringing me up in comfort and ease, with my own shag-carpeted bedroom, ballet and piano lessons and new clothes each fall, family trips to Disney World. What were they trying to do to me? To rebel against their kindness and generosity, I pretty much had to seek malevolence and dysfunction, or simply spiritual and material impoverishment.
As an undergraduate, I completely lost my heart to my 6’6” curly-haired housemate Mitch, who had a nervous breakdown and a cocaine problem, but was the focus of my hopes and dreams and terrible poetry for many years. Also at Brown I met Jan, my first longterm boyfriend. Just as I had had my enthusiasm for the Boston Strangler, Jan had a fixation on Squeaky Fromme, spokeswoman for the Manson Family and would-be assassin of President Gerald Ford, and had even thought of a plan for springing her from jail. Jan was devoted to bringing down the capitalist state by making free long-distance phone calls and robbing banks as advised in Steal This Book. First, you went through old obituaries in the library to find a baby who would have been about your age if it hadn’t died. You got this dead baby a Social Security card and some other ID, then used that to buy traveler’s checks. You reported the checks lost, got replacements, then quickly cashed both sets at different banks, wearing a disguise for the security cameras. The whole thing made me a nervous wreck and I was relegated to driving the getaway car, a copper-colored 1972 Olds Cutlass given me by my Uncle Philip, who I hope is not reading this. Eventually our revolutionary ideals led us to East Germany, where we could live among like-minded brethren. After several months of unbelievably dull and oppressive socialist living, I rushed back to the States posthaste.
By then my sister Nancy, my best friend Sandye and others of our entourage were living in Austin, Texas. It was there that I met David Rodriguez, an authentic Mexican American street person, at an art opening. My friends and I were at the event for the free food, and in the months to come he would teach us many more ways to get things for free. Hopelessly in love, I hitchhiked with him to Colorado to a creative writing conference. He went to an outdoor concert where he was arrested while trolling around the grounds for pills people had dropped. When the police searched him, they found someone else’s ID in his pocket, someone who was wanted for Grand Larceny in the town of Junction, Colorado, hundreds of miles away. I hitchhiked out behind the police car to spring him. Ultimately, he stole our stereo.
Over the years, I took several trips abroad with Sandye. These provided many opportunities for unsuitable liaisons, as word of a female American tourist passing through town with her easy virtue and her MasterCard will bring out the flower of any country’s freeloading sleazebags. In fact, they’re not all sleazebags, some are quite nice, and for this reason it is possible to think of yourself as doing charitable work overseas rather than just being taken advantage of by the uncircumcised. For example, Dave and his friends were a group of on-the-dole Liverpudlians we met in a bar. They gave us cigarettes and took us to what seemed to be their home, a tent in a field outside Cambridge. Dave was sallow, hollow-cheeked, and so thin I feared I might accidentally suffocate or break him. Though he and his friends stole our camera right after we took the group photos, when I got home there was a letter suggesting he come to the States and live with me. In a trailer, he said.
Perhaps the biggest mistake I ever made was when I went with my bluegrass-loving college friends to the Fiddler’s Convention in Union Grove, North Carolina, in 1977. I didn’t like bluegrass as much as they did, and I soon found live banjo and fiddle combined with very strong LSD to be a form of psychological torture. Even today I cannot hear bluegrass without experiencing a nerve-jangling acid flashback. However, this unpleasantness was dwarfed by my decision to sleep with a guy named Tim. I remember little about him except his first name and that he looked something like Greg Allman. I met him that evening when he fell into our bonfire. The rest of our romance is a blank until the next morning when he failed to stumble all the way outside the tent for a pee and apparently mistook my sleeping bag for a large tree root.
By the 1980s, things had gotten rather grim. Eddie Gonzalez was my sister Nancy’s first husband’s friend from high school, and I think he may have been the original link in the chain that got us all doing intravenous drugs. Since Eddie is now many years dead of AIDS, I don’t want to go on too much about his terrible complexion, his tedious conversation, or his addiction — all of these I was only too eager to share at the time. Even he was horrified by the stupidity of my crush on him.
As should now be clear, the apparent bizarreness of my first marriage must be seen in context. If Tony was a penniless, gay bartender who had recently lost his job as an ice-skating coach due to his drug problem, he was still a significant upgrade from his predecessors. He was elegant, funny, and sweet and he took good care of me in many ways.
After his death, I repelled the advances of a gorgeous, wealthy, physically fit and socially conscious doctor — yes, a millionaire M.D. He wanted to take me to Hawaii and entertain me at his marble-floored mansion. I gave him no encouragement, though during a particularly screwed-up period, after his crush had petered out, I tried unsuccessfully to get him to write me a Vicodin prescription. During the same period, I rejected the marriage proposal of a perfectly nice single dad I’d been hanging out with for a few years. I was waiting for the appearance of my second husband, I suppose, whose complex combination of alcoholism, anarchism, anger, OCD, distrust of women, brilliance, and talents in the bedroom made him the romantic disaster of all time. Even the fact that he loved bluegrass couldn’t stop me.
Having heard all this backstory, plus a few more recent updates, Tracy had me write down what I was looking for in a man. I took my assignment seriously and handed in several paragraphs. Tracy came back the next week with her assessment.
“You want to date yourself,” she told me.
That’s ridiculous, I thought. But wait. Did she mean I wanted to date someone like me, or actually me? I had the checkered past, the dubious emotional health, the bohemian habits that I was historically attracted to, and I certainly shared my interests. I often treated myself less than nicely, which would keep me interested, and while I might not be ideal on the erotic front, no one was more efficient.
Unfortunately, still clinging to my multi-decade obsession with lost causes, I was not available.
Marion Winik writes “Bohemian Rhapsody,” a column about life, love, and the pursuit of self-awareness. Check out her heartbreakingly honest and funny essays twice a month on Baltimore Fishbowl.