"This story is so honest and pure as to count as a true rapture."
This story can teach us SO many important and invaluable life lessons. Yes, I am re-reading one of my very favorite books again, Just Kids by Patti Smith. Just Kids begins as a love story and ends as a breathtaking conclusion of two people who were soul mates in the truest sense of the word. It also serves as an incredibly visual and fascinating salute to New York City during the late sixties and seventies. This book is wonderfully written, its poetic, its honest, its gripping and its deeply inspiring and fascinating.
Patti Smith is around the age of 18 when she arrives in NYC, homeless, penniless but determined to find her way as an artist in the big city. While sleeping on benches and on park lawns, she stumbles across the path of Robert Maplethorppe, another 18 year old budding artist, destitute and alone, also in search of his path.
Upon meeting, the two immediately form a tight bond. They decide right then and there, barely knowing one another, to be each others friend, support and inspiration. They move in together. They create art with one another. They pool their finances. They become inseparable friends. They see themselves in each other. And they accept one anothers differences with love and patience. They quickly fall in love.
Here are some particularly moving passages from the book during this time of their relationship together:
"Wordlessly we absorbed the thoughts of one another and just as dawn broke fell asleep in each others arms. When we awoke he greeted me with his crooked smile and I knew he was my knight. As if it was the most natural thing in the world we stayed together, not leaving each others side unless going to work. Nothing was spoken, it was just mutually understood."
"Perhaps it was the relief of having a safe haven at last, for I seemed to crash, exhausted and emotionally overwrought. Though I never questioned my decision to give my child away for adoption, I learned that to give life and walk away was not so easy. I became for a time moody and despondent. I cried so much that Robert affectionately called me Soakie. Robert was infinitely patient with my seemingly inexplicable melancholy. I had a loving family and could have returned home. They would have understood, but I didn't want to go back with my head bowed. They had their own struggles and now I had a companion I could rely on. I had told Robert everything about my experience, though there was no possible way of hiding it. Our first intimacy revealed the fresh red scars crisscrossing my abdomen. Slowly, through his support, I was able to conquer my deep self consciousness."
They didn't have much money, Patti says, but they had each other. They spent evenings listening to records together and working on each of their own art work side-by.side. They sometimes wandered through the city together, scraping up just enough money to buy and split a hot dog, or something else small that they would share. Robert worked part time and took care of the apartment, Patti did the laundry and made their meals, which were very limited. They would visit museums throughout the city but could often only afford one ticket, so one of them would pay entry and go inside for an hour or two. Then upon coming back outside, whomever had gone in would report back to the other one about the interesting exhibits.
They made a pact to always be there for one another, and this mutual code manifested itself in many different ways and little games. One of these was called One Day-Two Day. The premise was simply that one of them always had to be vigilant, the designated protector. If Robert took a drug, Patti needed to be present and conscious. If Patti was feeling down, Robert needed to stay up. If one was sick, the other was healthy. It was important that they were never self-indulgent on the same day. (Though Robert did not take drugs often, just occasionally smoked marijuana and took LSD a few times, and Patti never took drugs).
In the beginning, Patti admits "I faltered, and he was always there with an embrace, or words of encouragement, coercing me to get out of myself and into my work. Yet he also know that I would not fail if he needed me to be the strong one."
On their first New Years Eve together, they made new vows with one another. In terms of their goals both as a team, and as separate artists (and agreed to support one another and help each other reach these dreams).
There are times during this period together when Patti is the bread-winner and main source of their financial support. But Robert picks up the slack by working hard at home, cooking meals for her, being there to warm her hands and support her when she arrives at home.
"There were days, rainy gray days, when the streets of Brooklyn were worthy of a photograph, every window the lens of a Leica, the view grainy and immobile. We gathered our colored pencils and sheets of paper and drew like wild, feral children in to the night, until exhausted, we fell into bed. We lay in each others arms, still awkward but happy, exchanging breathless kisses into sleep."
Eventually something changed in their relationship. Their nights took on a wordless-ness to them. Patti began to walk in the evenings after work to visit her friend, Janet. If she stayed too long, Robert became uncharacteristically annoyed and possessive, "I waited all day for you," he would say.
Slowly Patti began spending more time with a painter, Howie Michaels, whom she had met. In her hunger for communication, she turned toward Howie, visiting him frequently on her way home from work. She admired his work and looked forward to the kinship their shared. But as time passed, she was less than candid with Robert about the nature of her growing intimacy with Howie.
"In retrospect," she says, "the summer of 1968 marked a time of physical awakening for both Robert and me. I had not yet comprehended Roberts conflicted behavior related to his sexuality. I knew he cared for me deeply. But it occurred to me that he had tired of my physically. In some ways, I felt betrayed, but in reality, it was I who betrayed him."
She fled from their little home together. Robert was devastated, yet he still could not offer an explanation for the silence that had begun to engulf him and Patti.
Patti moved in with a close girlfriend. Despite how distraught Robert was, he helped her move her things into the new apartment.
Patti and Robert, unable to break their bonds, continued to see one another. Even as her relationship with Howie waxed and waned, Robert tried to persuade her to return, wanting them to get back together as if nothing had happened. He was ready to forgive her, but she wasn't repentant. Patti didn't want to go backward, especially since Robert still seemed to be harboring an inner conflict that he refused to voice.
Finally he showed up at Patti's workplace on day and asked her "please come back, or I am leaving for San Francisco." She was confused as to why he would want to go there, his explanation seeming vague and disjointed. He grabbed her hand and said "Come with me. There is freedom there. I have to find out who I am." "I am already free," she told him in response.
"If you don't come with me, Ill be with a guy. Ill turn homosexual," he threatened.
She just looked at him, not understanding at all. There was nothing in their relationship that had prepared her for such a revelation. He handed her an envelope and then he walked away into the crowd. Inside was a letter he had written about his feelings and thoughts (as Patti had always been asking him what he was thinking and feeling lately). She read it, taking in the conflicting tensions and feelings within his letter, folded it and put it back in the envelope, not knowing what would happen next.
While in San Francisco, Robert wrote letters to Patti, telling her that he missed her, that he had accomplished his mission, discovering new things about himself. Even as he spoke to Patti of his experiences with men, he assured her that he loved her.
"We were evolving with different needs," Patti says. "I needed to explore beyond myself and Robert needed to search within himself."
Upon returning from San Francisco, Robert embarked on his first romantic affair with a man named Terry. Terry was soft-spoken and empathetic. He accepted Roberts caring for Patti and treated her with warmth and compassion. "Through Terry and Robert," Patti says, "I observed that homosexuality was a natural way of being. But as feelings between Terry and Robert deepened, and the intermittent relationship she had with her painter Howie diffused, I found myself feeling alone and conflicted," she said.
"Where does it all lead? What will become of us? These were our young questions, and young answers were revealed. It leads to each other. We become ourselves."
"Something in the spring air and the restorative power of Easter drew Robert and me back together. We sat in the diner near Pratt and ordered our favorite meal-grilled cheese on rye with tomatoes and a chocolate malt. We now had enough money for two sandwiches.
Both of us had given ourselves to others. We vacillitated and lost everyone, but we had found one another again. We wanted, it seemed, what we already had. A lover, and a friend to create art with, side by side. To be loyal, yet free."
Patti took a trip to Paris with her sister during this time, to work on her art and to get away. And as she had always dreamed of seeing Paris.
Robert wrote her near daily. "Still love you through it all," he ended one of his letters, then signed it "Robert" with the t forming a blue star, their sign.
Upon Patti's return to NYC, she and Robert moved into the famed Chelsea Hotel together. They made a renewed vow to always remain close to one another, to stick by each other.
"We were amazed at how much had happened, retracing our small odyssey from calamitous to calm. In the end, we were better off together," she says.
|In their small room together at the Chelsea Hotel.|
She and Robert were incredibly close. They supported one another, both financially and emotionally. They respected one another deeply, both their great qualities as well as their downfalls and challenges. They accepted and loved one another. They were loyal and deeply attached to one another, yet there was an extraordinary elasticity to their love and relationship. They both met emotionally challenging moments head on. They gave one another an immense amount of freedom to explore what either one of them might need at that time, be curious about, or be struggling with. They inspired one another. They laughed together. They loved to spend time with one another. They told each other everything.
All sorts of other deeply challenging things happened between them. Soon thereafter they came back together closely, Robert embarked on an affair with another man. Patti finds out and is surprised and hurt, yet she keeps it to herself, waiting for Robert to tell her on his own. She knew he had struggled with his sexuality, despite the two of them being quite close, both physically and emotionally.
The point is, there is a deeply loyalty within their connection, a steadfastness that keeps these two deeply connected. Even when whether very emotionally challenging life stages. Even during times when within their lives they might have been more drawn apart from one another for a temporary time, they always found their way back to one another.
Their relationship is not one governed by harsh judgments, or tight boundaries, or fear or anger. Their relationship is one governed primarily by love, acceptance, loyalty and a very deep connection. These two whether peaks and valleys, mostly together, though sometimes apart. But they always manage to find their way back to one another. Sometimes as the dearest of friends, other times as both close friends and lovers. But either way, the answer was always "each other." They saw such a deep value in one another that they could not imagine their life without the other one in it. Regardless of whatever form of relationship that might take (as a friend...lover...pen pal for a time being...etc).
In the end, they of course do not end up together romantically. Robert maintains a longstanding relationship with a man over the course of a decade or so. Patti marries someone and then has a child with her husband. Yet she and Robert remain just as close emotionally. They are truly the very best of friends until the end of Roberts life, when he passes away in his late 40s as a result of AIDS. Both of their long-term partners understand the nature of their relationship, love and connection, and respect this.
I believe that Robert and Patti can teach us a lot about love and relationships.
They can teach us about being steadfast to someone. Exercising the emotional maturity and emotional strength to decide to stick close to someone whom you love deeply, feel a great connection with, who you find great value in and when you have a mutual desire to be close to one another. (Of course, both people have to have the same wish and put in the same amount of effort, otherwise this will not work).
They teach us about forgiveness. And about accepting the humanness in all of us. That people can go through incredibly challenging times, they can hurt us unintentionally, and yet they can still love us deeply and be a good and worthwhile person within our life over the long-term.
This story can teach us about the growth and the complex path of relationships. Relationships are fluid, ever changing, almost like something of a dance. People are sometimes incredibly close, other times they need more space. But if the love and connection is real, they will come back towards one another eventually. Mature, real love can allow for this dance.
Sometimes one person is making mistake or struggling, and then this may switch and the other person is having some difficulties and needs the support. But they still remain there for one another ultimately.
They teach us about having faith, and about loyalty to one another. They can teach us about the nature of trust, and believing in both your connection and in the goodness of one another.
This book is not only spectacularly written, but its an inspiring and unique love story. One of the best I have ever heard in my life, actually. Its unconventional, and yet totally wonderful.
Patti and Roberts story is one that shows us what human beings are capable of within their relationships with each other. The depth, beauty, longevity, forgiveness, but most importantly, the growth, of what relationships could be between two people if we had the commitment, ambition, love and courage, to make it so.