As the spring days moved into early summer, we made our way past the seven houses to the end of our block, down the steps that led to a tunnel under Pacific Coast highway, and out on to the beach. The girls loved to shout in the underpass and hear their voices bounce around. I hated the ever-present smell of urine and always stepped into the shadowy passageway first, with a shiver of misgiving.

I was usually the only woman on the beach; rarely were there any children. After several trips, I finally put it together. It was unofficially for men, a gay beach. The nicer term had become part of California vocabulary.

I worried that we might be unwelcome, even intruding, but the men were friendly and smiled at the girls’ antics. Since I’d never seen an ocean before our move to California from Chicago, I cherished our beach time and, like the girls, was disappointed when we had to miss too many days in a row and do other things. Only going to the public library made up for it.

“Well, you couldn’t be safer,” the girls’ dad said when I finally told him of my discovery. Then his brow creased into a look of concern. “I hope these guys don’t get intimate in front of the girls. I’m not sure I’m prepared to explain homosexuality just yet.” Like the task would fall to him.

To my relief, the girls were blissfully unaware and the men discreet. With each week, I felt less of an interloper and more a part of the sunny afternoon group. Compared to the professors and their wives who ignored me at cocktail parties, plus the intimidating, sprawling city of Los Angeles just beyond, the canyon was a tender world that nourished me. It was a safe place to discard prejudices and, in my late twenties, to finally grow up.

Two of the men, Larry and Mack, often joined us at the water’s edge while the girls dashed in and out of the surf. I noticed that they wore matching rings and wondered if they considered themselves as good as married. How sad that they couldn’t be. Larry did mention that the gay riot in New York he called “Stonewall” had started a national conversation. “Hell, just being gay can mean jailtime in some states,” he said, “leftover from the 1950s. It’s about time that closet door is officially opened.”

Stonewall National Monument in New York

Mack had a lighter spirit and ran in and out of the surf with the girls and made-up tales about dragons and princesses for them. Often he would help build a three-tiered sand fortress. One afternoon, Larry brought a little paper British flag he’d saved from a gin and tonic to decorate a smaller, less-successful castle.

“How thoughtful,” I said. He smiled and gave my arm a light squeeze.

“We would be happy to have you and the girls join us next week for a little beach party. We might have good news.”

I was as excited as my daughters when Wednesday bloomed sunny, and at the beach early.

“We’re celebrating,” Larry said as soon as they arrived. “Mack and I sold a screenplay.”

“Yay,” the girls said in unison, having no idea what that meant but it made Mack and Larry beam. We joined them on their Mexican blanket after the girls had finished running in and out of the water. I saw how comfortable they were with each other as they described their life of collaboration. What was that like—being equals in a relationship? I had dropped out of college as a sophomore to marry their dad and wondered if I would be playing catch up for the rest of my life.

“Wasn’t that fun?” I asked as we packed up our gear and headed for home.

“I want to call them the uncles, like we do for our friend Joel,” my older daughter said. They skipped ahead and entered the tunnel shouting “we have uncles” and laughed at the echoes. I was pretty sure that Joel was still in the closet, afraid of losing a chance at tenure where he taught film and American literature at Georgetown.

💕Joel saved my self-esteem and occasionally my sanity when he and my husband were in graduate school together. He would come over and watch Julia Child with me and then we’d hurry down to the A&P, buy the ingredients for the cheapest dish she made on her show, and try to recreate it. He didn’t care I wasn’t a college graduate.

He loved our girls, made me feel smart, and asked me to go with him to see new films when he visited LA, building his movie critic career. He often asked me for my opinion. Joel was a dear, dear friend, gone too soon of meningitis at age 63. Here is a part of the obituary excerpted from the Washington Post:

Joel E. Siegel, 63, a retired Georgetown University English professor was also a lyricist, music producer and freelance film and music critic for the Washington City Paper. Dr. Siegel offered the college’s earliest courses on film studies and built the curriculum while maintaining a vibrant career in the arts outside the classroom.

He managed singer Shirley Horn and produced her albums. In 1973, he authored “Val Lewton: The Reality of Terror,” about the legendary film producer. In 1993, he shared a Grammy for best album notes with Buck Clayton and Phil Schaap for their book accompanying the 10-CD set “The Complete Billie Holiday on Verve, 1945-1959.”

To be continued…


Photo credits: Santa Monice beach – corey-buckley, Sand pail – heather-mckean.