Terry Ward, 66, and Bob Cyrus, 60, have been a couple for 39 years and like a comedy team from old-style vaudeville, each is a straight man to the other, setting each other up for one-liners, often in politically incorrect terms.
They nudge each other with constant ribbing, affectionately but sometimes there’s also a dab of vinegar with the sugar, as when Ward calls Cyrus “a whore,” even as they each tumble into well-practiced personality pratfalls.
Each can finish the other’s sentences and their patter can be hard to follow, unless you hear the inner nuance, which always seems to turn on being each other’s eternal best friend.
Until two weeks ago, they were homeless and living in a shelter. And for years they were hopelessly alcoholic, yet still they clung to each other for love and support.
One is largely deaf, the other is blind in one eye. They are real characters, scarred by life’s twists and turns yet they’re still able to find the fun in their life together even if they have to create it themselves. Ward, blind in his right eye since a stroke last year, says, “We’re never bored — he can’t hear and I’m blind and I’ll hide his hearing aid and he’ll hide my teeth.”
And on April 1 — yes, on April Fools, for they seem to delight in having fun with every part of life — they plan to be married. But that’s only if, says Ward, Cyrus will spring for an engagement ring.
They live in a rent-subsidized apartment in Washington obtained for them by a non-profit social service agency, the U.S. Veterans Initiative (USVI), when it was discovered one of them had been a veteran — Ward served two years in the U.S. Navy mostly on a destroyer in the Mediterranean — and they had been homeless, but had shaken off alcohol and now were ready to start their lives anew.
Speaking of Emily Button, who acts as their case worker in her capacity as the Initiative’s housing director, Ward says, “She’s more than a sweetheart, she’s a jewel.”
Button stepped in and pushed through all the paperwork to make sure in late January that Ward and Cyrus could move out of Clean and Sober, a shelter and alcohol rehabilitation center located at 2nd and E Streets, N.W., where Ward had been living for 22 months and Cyrus for 17 months, and into their own, neat-as-a-pin one-bedroom apartment where their lives are now all about starting over.
Ward can reminisce with a touch of sarcasm about how they met, in 1972, when Cyrus was only 21, and fresh out of Huntington, W.Va. He’d left there after finishing high school and came to Washington to take a clerk’s job in a city post office. Cyrus was already an alcoholic — he says he began to drink, mostly screwdrivers, as young as 13, at about the time he also realized he was gay. By 15 he knew he was hooked on booze because, he says, “It made me feel good.” By 21, he says the pattern was fixed in place — binge drinking followed by frequent blackouts and memory loss.
Ward remembers the rainy Friday night he met Cyrus. Ward was coming home from his job at the Market Inn restaurant. He stopped the cab he was in when he saw Cyrus incoherent and sprawled on his bicycle tilted into a gutter near 9th and Pennsylvania Avenue where water from a rainstorm was coursing all around him. Out of concern, Ward went to offer help, but Cyrus responded only to say, “Fuck you.”
“I was mean and nasty then,” Cyrus says. He admits he sometimes still is. Ward agrees: “He’s selfish because he was the only boy in the family.”
A year later they met again when both were working at the Channel Inn restaurant. They’d remembered their earlier meeting. Cyrus says they didn’t get along. Ward was out but says, “Cyrus wouldn’t admit for years that he was a homosexual,” even though he was having sex in West Virginia when he was 13.
Born in Portsmouth, Va., in 1944, Ward never saw his mother, because she “walked out of the hospital,” he says, the day he and his twin sister were born, and she never came back. Raised by an aunt he called mom he remembers being 8 and wearing his sister’s Brownie uniform to sell cookies door to door. He’d come home and be Jane in their childhood recreations of the “Tarzan” adventures they saw at the movies.
Sexually, the two always led different lives. They were sexually adventurous and are candid with tales from their glory days.
Somehow, though, the two stuck together through many ups and maybe many more downs. Despite their hedonism and alcohol abuse, they escaped HIV.
“Almost all our friends from then are dead now,” Cyrus says.
So what made it last?
“We’re the best of friends,” Ward says. “This is family and I love him. Can’t you love someone without sex? It’s probably why we’re still together because we don’t have sex. He does his thing and I do mine.”
The couple says they were never each other’s types sexually so they never consummated their relationship. It’s common, experts say, for long-term couples to no longer have sex after many years together but is it unusual for couples to have never had sex?
“I would kind of think so myself, but they may be affectionate in other ways,” says Michael Radkowsky, a local gay psychologist who counsels gay couples. He mentions singer Margaret Whiting who married gay porn star Jack Wrangler and had a non-sexual union.
“They just said they were great companions in every other way and wanted to spend their lives together,” Radkowsky says. “So it does happen and there’s no reason to pathologize it. If they’re happy, they’re happy and it works for them.”
As for their alcoholism, Ward had more control over the addiction, always able to keep a job, while Cyrus frequently would lose his. They hit bottom, respectively, especially when they fell on hard times after Ward sold his home and then gave the money to a son he’d fathered during a two-year marriage in the mid-‘60s. It became increasingly obvious that alcohol was a problem — they sometimes spent as much as $300 a week on liquor and bought it by the case.
Now Ward says, “I’m 66 and I’ve got a new life ahead of me,” saying that they have each dropped all their old drinking friends who typically would mostly spend their time together drinking.
“When you sober up, you learn to love yourself,” Ward says.
They continue to help each other. Cyrus, who was hearing impaired at birth and heard at “about 30 percent” now, relies on his partner’s ears. In addition to his vision problems, Ward uses a cane since a fall several years ago.
“Life itself, you just have to work at it,” Ward says. He looks over fondly at Cyrus and says, “At least with this one, I know what I’ve got, he’s my caretaker now – I’ve always been his caretaker, and now it’s my turn.”
“I love him from the bottom of my heart,” Ward says. “This is my family.”