When I was 17 years old I went to Denmark as an exchange student for a year and fell in love with a girl. There are so many more things that happened during that time that I could talk about, and someday I will probably write a book in order to extract them all, but the falling in love part is the thing that I am thinking about at the moment. It’s not the gayness thing that I think really needs mentioning, since in the past month or so being gay suddenly appears to have become as normal as being anything else. Specifically, I am thinking about the route between her house and mine. I spent so much time at her house out in the suburbs, about 5 miles away from where I lived. I have strong and brilliant memories of the things that happened on many separate occasions at her house, with her family, in her neighborhood, but I actually can’t remember how I ever got there. In my mind, I can’t see the streets between the two places, and I can’t remember whether I biked or rode the bus; it’s all just a blank.
I only know that it’s about 5 miles between our two houses because I can enter each of our addresses on an online map, and I can see an overhead view of the space between where we each lived. This of course wasn’t possible when I lived there. I don’t remember having a map at all when I was there, so how I ever found my way to her place is another mystery. Denmark is laid out with a fantastic system of bike paths and walking trails which are separated from the streets, and I guess I mostly went everywhere on these routes, so even if you got lost there was a feeling of safety in following the cute little signs with a white sillhouette of a biker against a blue background. I can sort of remember the route that I rode every day to school, but only certain turns and vistas. It’s strange what got imprinted onto my mind, and what was bleached out.
Between my girlfriend’s house and my house a large portion of the distance is a public forest. One day I decided that I was going to walk all the way to her house through the woods, without letting her know that I was coming. This one trip to her place I remember pretty well. I recall striding through the trees feeling really great about myself, and coming upon a group of elderly ladies who were taking a group walk. I went speedily past them because I could. After forging ahead for about ten minutes, I realized that I was desperately lost. The group of ladies caught up with me and helped me find my way because they knew the woods. They called themselves the Grey Panthers, and they took monthly forest walks which would always lead to a different little thatched roof cafe somewhere on the forest path (Denmark is filled with such wonders of cuteness). In the forest cafe they would all sit down to a fancy spread of tea and cake. I joined them once afterwards and had some lovely cake, and my girlfriend and I tried to join them again in a different location, but we got lost on our bikes in the woods. Either she and I surrendered to being lost, and laid on the ground in the leaves for a while, or I just imagined us laying on the ground in the leaves.
I remember being on my bike at the library near the train station. This is one way that I could have gotten to her house. If I rode my bike to school, I could have ridden my bike to that train station after school, and then taken the train with my bike to her town, and ridden my bike down the paths to her place. I don’t exactly remember doing any of this, but it’s a possibility like all the others. Anyways, one day I was at the library near the train station, and I was looking through a bin of books that the library was discarding, outside of the building. I found a book which had probably been published in the early 80’s with a cover that had a picture of a girl about my age and the title “Trine er forelsket,” which translates to “Trine is in love.” It was kind of an informational book; each page had a photograph and just a few sentences of text. I read through it, and in the story, Trine had fallen in love with a girl, and was dealing with telling her best friend and her family, who in this 1980’s paradise of liberal Danish openness were totally supportive and understanding. I would kill to own that book now. But of course, once I realized what it was about, I stared down at it in my hands, looked over my shoulders, slammed the book shut and shoved it back into the bin. If I had found that book about a month later, I probably would have had the balls to buy it. At that moment though, I was still too terrified of how I felt and what it meant– I think that we hadn’t even kissed each other at that point. I have a recollection that I was on my way to her house when I found the book (which offers more proof for my bike to train to her house theory) and that the discovery of the book was like an incrimination of my secret feelings.
And it’s so different now. I know that every generation gets to say that about the time when they were young,* but it really is strange to see how much things have changed since my year in Denmark. I think that the exact date that being gay stopped being something radical was three weeks ago. We were doing a performance in Northampton MA, and I was on stage, and a young woman who I had recently met who is trans (from male to female) was standing in the audience with her girlfriend (a biological female). I was singing a new song that I wrote for my girlfriend called YOU’RE MY LIGHT. The lyrics are about how I feel like I don’t know how we got to where we are, and I don’t know how to call what we are doing, and when people try to make a name for it their names can feel wrong and weird, but I just know that I like where we are. As the words were coming out of my mouth I realized how much more they were for the couple out in the crowd than they were for me. Transitioning from one gender to another– that is a radical path to finding yourself and finding love. It’s still dangerous to do that in the mainstream. And the new wave of youth gets to figure out how to make it possible and to teach us old farts how to talk and think about it. I’ll write some more songs and if I’m lucky they will translate.
*My mom says that the most significant social change in recent history is the invention of the birth control pill, which became widely available a year or two after she graduated highschool, and she’s probably right, although I never really used it. From her telling, at the very least it sounds like the pill made the sixties and seventies a whole lot of fun.