by Jill Johnston
In May 1989 the Danish Parliament granted lesbians and gay men the right to civil marriage — the result of a 40-year campaign by gay-rights advocates. I was eligible to take advantage of this new law because my partner, Ingrid Nyeboe, is a Danish citizen. Since 1980 we have lived together in the United States, creating a family that includes my son, daughter, and grandchildren. On June 26, 1993, Ingrid and I were joined legally in Odense, a city on the island of Fyn.
Coincidentally an old friend of mine, Geoff Hendricks — an American artist in the Fluxus tradition — had been due to have his first retrospective exhibition in Odense at the Kunsthallen Brandts Kleidefabrik. He plotted to incorporate our wedding celebration into his exhibition. Thus, in honor of our City Hall ceremony — attended by members of Ingrid’s Danish family — a festive “Fluxprocession” took place through Odense’s main street, followed by a number of events in the Kunsthallen.
Four months later, Ingrid and I commemorated the occasion with a party for family, friends, and colleagues back home in New York. “Deep Tapioca” is the text I performed that night, accompanied by three women playing drums, while a montage of slides from our family album flashed on the wall behind me.
I enjoyed it after it was all over. I had in my mind an image of a faucet with fire coming out of it. Ingrid says in Denmark I can’t spit on the street. I ask her what Tivoli means; she says it’s a town in Italy. For lunch I had smoked herring with raw egg yolk. I would go to DK only for that. Or the computerized displays over the seats in the trains that tell you where you got on and where you’re getting off. The Danish Queen must be a little like the Japanese Emperor — a man with no family name and no passport who can’t vote or run for office. The people in these places have all the privileges. As a Danish spouse I can fly to DK with my family name and passport and I don’t want to run for office. Call me anything as long as you spell it right. I’m married now and if I get sick I can fly over for medical services and smoked herring with raw egg yolk. Then I could drive by mustard and poppy fields and see deer in them and listen to Ingrid’s Aunt Else tell me once again that their English is much better than my Danish. Jeg elsker dig, selv tak to her. And fridkadeller for good measure. The morning of the wedding Else came into our room and asked if she could do anything. I said I needed something around my neck and she said, “Like a rope?” Imagine a fire with a faucet coming out of it.
I enjoyed it after it was all over. A day that will live in infamy. The weather report: cold and windy, so don’t let that sunshine fool you. I told Geoff I didn’t want anybody naked at this thing. He thought we would like a naked woman covered with whipped cream which all the guests would eat off her. What if the Queen came? Would the whole town like to be provided with whipped cream? The town was figuring into our wedding because we were taking over its main street for Geoff’s Fluxprocession. At a family dinner in Aunt Else’s house, Hans Henrik said when they all got the invitations they looked up Fluxprocession in the dictionary and didn’t find it. The name of the town is Odense to us, O-o-o(d)ens-s to them (inhale the d, hiss the s a little bit), where Hans Christian Andersen grew up in a tiny room. Ingrid says she doesn’t care about Hans Andersen and they don’t tell the truth about him, that he was gay. In the USA there’s an 800 number you can call to find out The Secrets of Past Lives Revealed. His mother is her aunt. So what are they? Them’s the conditions that pervail. I have to say that so that later on I can say I said that. It’s part of the enjoyment of what’s over. It’s fires mustard faucets poppy deer fields smoked egg yolk 1066 and all that. It’s a statue of a woman in Copenhagen whose nipples spout water at the top of a fountain.
The actual ceremony lasted only a minute. It don’t take long for a lifetime to pass. All we had to do was look happy and follow instructions. We want to be surprised but only by the familiar. The kartoffels in June were great. All the Danes love them.
I enjoyed it after it was all over. Imagine being here now. A truly dated idea. Geoff came as a wood nymph painted sky. We came all in white as virgo intactos. Eric came with his 30-person dress, Kirsten with our double bouquet, Lise with her baby Ingrid, Francesco with his cameras, Laurie with Geoff’s baby red chair he called a wedding chair, Sheindi representing all my friends in America. Ben came from Wiesbaden with the music. Ingrid’s family came from near and far, the chorus for whom we do everything. The rest of the chorus was on the streets, one of whom was overheard saying, “It’s a crazy wedding.” There are always important strangers. One lady with white hair on a bike wreathed in smiles finally actually joined us and even got into a family photograph. One older man kissed us at the Town Hall then got into Eric’s 30-person dress with Ingrid’s teenage cousins. A Great Dane led the whole chorus and the principals. Behind the Great Dane, Ben was pulling a cart with his music in it — two boom boxes serenading Odense O-o-o(d)ens-s with the overture to Lohengrin and the story of Bambi in Danish. I never knew Bambi in English. Why are we following Bambi? Why are Bambi and Lohengrin and chrysanthemums in the cart together? Are Geoff’s pants going to fall down from the weight of branches and flowers he tied around his waist? This is why I’m not here now. Pas pa mig! Create a disaster so you can be a tourist spot. People are smiling and letting the students give them chrysanthemums. I’m telling Geoff what happened last night, that when I told Ingrid I wasn’t going to go through with it, she said I had to because her whole family was pulling together behind it. The Fluxprocession lasted much longer than the previous lifetime. I love the way the family turns out in Denmark to meet you at the airport waving their Danish flags.
I enjoyed it after it was all over. Whose event was this? I had in my mind an image of a faucet with fire coming out of it. Ingrid says I can’t put my feet up on the seats of the trains. A computerized map blinks red lights to tell you where you are and there are overhead outlets for headsets and your PCs. I went to some castles and passed by the crown jewels. A branch gored my forearm while we went running in the King’s park. Aunt Else drove us into the castle of the baron to whom her daughter Plimmer pays rent. I said, “Now I know someone who pays rent to a baron.” But I offended Else by saying they could turn the castle into a school, an old-age home, a halfway house or something. She said, “This is our history.” Now she can tell me that not only is their English much better than my Danish, but I’m insensitive to their history as well. The next day I raved over a castle called Egeskov which was built on 12,000 oak piles. A whole oak forest was used for its foundation. I got very sensitive. Anyhow I was impressed. At a restaurant called Guldfisken which means goldfish I was staring at a party of three. Ingrid passed me a note saying not to stare at them because they were a count and his wife and son who own a castle on the island where Else used to live. I didn’t know counts ate with the people, or at places called Goldfish. So could the Queen join us at the Kunsthallen Brandts Kleidefabrik where we ended up with Bambi and Lohengrin and all? Didn’t she approve of the law that made all this possible? Am I talking whipped cream? Is this proper speech for a new subject? Why are 350,000 people here unemployed? Whose event is this?
I enjoyed it after it was all over. The familiar Fluxprocession turned into a great surprise. At last I forgot I was there, and was constrained to be in that old-fashioned state — here now. Geoff had warned us there would be surprises. It was his event after all. We were just the players in his show. Now we entered the Kunsthallen where Geoff planned to marry us himself surrounded by his sky paintings, as if we had not been married already at Town Hall. That was clear because of the bridal march accompanying us as we were climbing up the stairs to his show, and Bambi was gone. But if we were approaching the quote altar unquote to the bridal march we were at the same time leaving the quote church unquote to the confetti raining down on us. The altar was a platform with a mike in front of a big sky painting. Is originality only a failure of memory? Are we in deep tapioca here? Do ministers saw little red chairs in half? Do married couples lash them back together again in knots? Are we speeding off on our honeymoon in a museum in an old sky-painted VW? Weren’t we supposed to throw these bouquets outside the Town Hall? Why are we hurling them from a car stationed in a museum? But I might as well ask why the Queen or the Japanese Emperor has no family name and no passport. The world, alas, is real; I, alas, am Johnston. I am somebody else’s weird friend. I don’t know what’s going to happen until the next thing happens. Now we are standing beside two musicians in tuxedos or tails playing classical Danish folk music. Now we are dancing for exactly ten seconds. Now we are staring at a table full of something called Fluxfood which is erotically shaped. A watermelon cut in half, one half with a heart cut out of it filled with maybe whipped cream, the other half a cunt. Now we are posing for pictures with the family and I’m being crushed; I can’t get my body into it, only my head peering through shoulders and between other heads. I’ve turned into smoked raw egg yolk. Now Ingrid is opening gifts from her family and I’m folding up the wrapping paper like ceremonial flags. Now the event belongs to us. Much later she remembered that when I went to the island of Femo in 1974 all I wrote about was the jellyfish. I’ve advanced to fires and faucets. The Danes legalized me. I can say anything.
It was all over and I could enjoy it now. Now we concentrate on collecting relics. I’m partial to the scar on my right forearm from being gored by that branch in the King’s park. If our knees bent the other way what would a chair look like? I feel political. I don’t mind straight people as long as they act gay in public. Soitenly. Or let’s say until at least they tell the truth about Hans Christian Andersen. A good sign is that all the cars here drive now with their lights on in daytime–by law. We were on a bus passing those mustard and poppy fields with deer in them. I said Americans like to inconvenience themselves and Ingrid said no they just don’t know any better. In America she doesn’t feel so charitable. In Odense she goes into another patisserie to buy the little cake that her mother always ate, saying, “This was my mother’s favorite.” That’s what she said in Copenhagen. Aunt Else, her mother’s sister, doesn’t eat lunch. I tell her she has cigarettes for lunch. She says, “Yes cigarettes and coffee all day long — that’s why I’m so healthy. Then we tour all of Ingrid’s childhood places. In Nakskov on Lolland we are entertained by Leo and his wife. Leo succeeded Ingrid’s father to a college presidency there back in 1970something. I begin to feel inauthentic as he and his wife rave about their son’s grand wedding in the Philippines. Neither Ingrid nor myself mention our own wedding. Back in America Ingrid had a letter from Leo saying he had seen a write-up in the paper about our wedding since we had been there and he wondered if we thought he and his wife were too “square” to hear the news, and that their grandchildren said to them, “Didn’t you see their rings?” — and he warmly congratulated us. You see what the law will do? Isn’t this civilized? Can’t I say now, “This is our history”?
Enjoy all over and may the road come up to meet you. The principle of a good plot is to get your protagonists up a tree, throw stones at them, then get them down again. On the ferry Danish youth were wearing T-shirts saying A BLOW JOB IS BETTER THAN NO JOB. And Sheindi thought we should’ve worn wedding gowns. Neque enim sexum in imperiis discernunt means they make no distinction of sex in their appointment of commanders. The new future wasn’t happening there because we had to return. I feel sorry for Ingrid in the airport. She says she’d like to stay in DK and be taken care of. I ask her, “As a little girl?” and she says no. But also she says she feels American now. Before, she was afraid of being disloyal to DK, or something. When Else and Ruth say good-bye I have this strange sense of her becoming mute — losing her mother language. And I forget so kvickly all the words I learned to better my Danish. Jeg elsker dig. Selv tak. I love you. You’re welcome.
Jill Johnston is author of six books including Lesbian Nation, Mother Bound (Knopf), and Paper Daughter (Knopf). Her most recent is Secret Lives in Art (Chicago Review Press), a collection of criticism from 1984 to 1994. Her critical biography of Jasper Johns will be published by Thames and Hudson in 1996. Also forthcoming is The Making of Autobiography, from Houghton Mifflin in 1997.