“Patti Smith has graced us with a poetic masterpiece, a rare and privileged invitation to unlatch a treasure chest never before breached.”- Johnny Depp
This story can teach us so many deeply relevant and invaluable life lessons. “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 and honest, its gripping, deeply inspiring, and fascinating.
Patti Smith is around the age of 18 on her arrival in NYC, homeless, penniless but determined to find her way as an artist in the big city. Whilst sleeping on benches and on park lawns, she stumbles across the path of Robert Maplethorppe, another 18 year old budding artist, equally destitute and alone, also in search of his path of artistry.
Upon meeting, the two immediately form a tight bond. They decide right then and there, on barely knowing one another, to be each others friend and support, while naturally becoming one anothers greatest inspiration as well.
They move in together. They create art with one another. They pool their finances. They become the most inseparable of friends. They see themselves in each other. And they accept one anothers differences with love and patience, all while challenging each other with honesty where each may need it the most. They quickly fall in love. This is where the story captures your heart, and doesn’t let go. With all the emotion laden ups and downs that follow, opening the readers heart and eyes in ways that will surprise.
A few 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 on 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. With regard to their goals, both as a team, and as separate artists (as well as agreeing to support one another and help each other reach these dreams).
There were times during this period when Patti was the bread-winner and main source of their financial support, though Robert would pick up the slack by working hard at home, cooking meals for her, being there to warm her hands, and support her when she arrived 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 they shared. 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. She 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, 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 one 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 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 oscillated 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.
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 choose to meet 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.
Other deeply challenging things happened between them. Soon thereafter, Robert embarks 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. Knowing he had struggled with his sexuality, despite the two of them being quite close, both physically and emotionally.
The point is, there is a deep loyalty and love within their connection, a steadfastness that keeps these two connected. Even when weathering incredibly emotionally challenging life stages. Even during times when within their lives, they have been 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, by fear or anger. Their relationship is one governed primarily by love, acceptance, loyalty, courage, and a 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 friends and lovers. But either way, the answer was always “each other.” They saw such a deep value in one another, 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…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, then the two of them having a child together and beginning a family. Yet, she and Robert remain just as close emotionally. They truly are 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 who we both decide and know is worth it- even when it may be painful or difficult. Exercising the emotional maturity and strength to decide to stick close to someone whom you love deeply, feel a great connection with, whom you find great value in and share a mutual desire to remain close to one another. (Of course, both people have to maintain the same wish and put in similar levels of effort, otherwise this will not work).
They teach us about forgiveness. About accepting the humanness in all of us. That people can go through incredibly challenging times, they can hurt us unintentionally, and yet, 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, while in other times they need more space. But if the love and connection is real, they will come back towards one another eventually. And if the person has truly worthwhile character and a great heart, this can be worth facing challenging emotions to maintain such a relationship. Mature, brave, 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 remain there for one another ultimately because they believe in the inherent goodness and worth of both the other person, and in their relationship with each other.
They teach us about having faith. About knowing when something is a truly good thing, even in moments when this might be a bit harder to see because of a painful situation.
This book is not only spectacularly written, but its an inspiring and unique love story. One of the best I have heard in my life. Its unconventional, and 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.