Wilde City Press authors are joining together to post each day of the month of October to celebrate Gay History. For my post, I decided to narrow it to a more personal view and write about three men who had more of an impact on my life than I could ever have imagined. Who knew, when I met each of them years apart, how it would all turn out? As we celebrate our history as a society, I’m looking back at my own gay history.
Before I left for college, my older sister (who is also gay and now has a partner and two children), took me to my bedroom away from our parents and had me watch a TV special about a new disease that was affecting gay men. It didn’t have a name yet; they were just calling it the “Gay Cancer.” When I left for college, she wanted me to be careful, to take precautions, to stay healthy. I took her words to heart, and I stayed safe, probably a little too safe for my college years, but that’s another story altogether. For now, let’s just say I went to college where the first of many life-changing meetings took place.
My sophomore year, I had a new roommate, Jeff. He was handsome and outgoing and athletic and I got along with quite well. Jeff joined a gymnastics group and one night, with nothing else to do, I went along with him to watch. A tall, broad-shouldered, gregarious man caught my eye as he did cartwheels and backflips across the mat, and I admit I swooned a bit when Brian introduced himself. His legs were strong and he had a quick smile and a loud laugh. He and Jeff soon became good friends, which meant I became Brian’s friend as well. Everyone Brian met became his friend. As it turned out, Brian and I became closer friends than he and Jeff did, and though Brian dated a few girls and said he was straight, I stubbornly told him I had a crush on him. He kindly rebuffed me and we remained friends.
When he graduated the year ahead of me, Brian went off to work on a cruise ship for a year and see the world. I made my way through my final year of college with a few letters from him (no email or cell phones back then), which was a treat, as Brian didn’t like to write. His family lived in a nicer area than I had growing up, but it was close by, and when he came home from his year abroad, we hung out. I told him about my nights out at the gay bars around town, explained the differences between them (natural wood versus art deco). One night when we were out to dinner, Brian told me he was gay, that he had lied to me in college. As we talked, a man approached our table, handsome in a shirt and tie with suspenders, and asked if Brian had gone to his college. I sat, stunned, still trying to take in the fact that he was gay, as Brian said “No,” and the man walked away. Later, Brian dropped me off at my parents’ house and went to a bar he frequented where he ran into that same man, and they went home together. Soon after that, they moved in together.
A year later, Brian came by and took me to dinner again and told me he was HIV+, and my world fell apart.
Before Brian came out to me, I had decided I needed to take some time before finishing my degree (English, go figure) and moved home to live with my parents. I got a job at a local music store chain, where I met John. He was tall with handsome French Canadian features, dark hair cut into a flat top, and a soft, bushy mustache. He was older, had been around the bar scene for a long time, and had a wonderfully wicked dark sense of humor. He was also a talented musician and singer, and I loved listening to him sing around the store. One night as he was out at the bar, he met a man, Mark, and before long had moved in with him. John set up a studio in the basement and worked more seriously on his music. What I didn’t realize was how much he drank, and how often, and was surprised when he ended up in the hospital with pancreatitis. It was then he discovered he was HIV+, and after hearing that diagnoses, Mark shared with me that he was, as well.
John struggled with his drinking, some months doing well, others not so much. One day while I was at work, having left the record store for a job in the automotive industry, Mark called to say John was sick, very sick, and he needed to get him to the hospital. I left work and drove to their house, still wearing my shirt and tie. John was thin, so thin, and didn’t seem to be able to speak, he just sat and stared. He was unable to make himself move, and I had to drag him out the door and through the snow to my car, not once wondering why they didn’t call an ambulance (perhaps afraid of how they would be treated). I remember all the little details of that day, how John’s jeans slid down his hips, how light he was in my arms but heavy, too, dead weight. I managed to get him in the front seat and buckled in and then helped Mark to get in the backseat. At the hospital, John didn’t want to sit in the wheelchair to be rolled inside, and I stood in front of him, met his eyes, and talked him down into the chair, gently prying his fingers off the top of the car door. I spent time with each of them, and before I left, went in to say goodbye to John, and he blew me a kiss.
It was the last time I saw him. I got a call the next day that his body was shutting down. I went to the hospital and sat with his family as they took him off life support and he slipped away, on January 9, 1993, just days after I had returned from a trip to Atlantic City with Brian to celebrate New Year’s. Mark and I held each other as we cried, and I promised him I wouldn’t let him be alone.
I found out after he had died that John had written me a song. Mark gave me John’s notebook and in it was a song titled “Real Job,” an upbeat dance number with lyrics encouraging me to become a writer, to ignore my family’s insistence I get a “real job” instead. I visited Mark often, and he paid for me to accompany him on a trip to Palm Springs where the heat unfortunately wore him out too much, and we had to leave earlier than planned. During this time, we watched the TV show “Life Goes On” together, which featured an actor with Down Syndrome as well as Jesse, a character with HIV, a first for television. During one of Jesse’s medical emergencies, Mark and I both broke down sobbing as it was just too close to real life.
Mark and I became friends in that final year, and he asked me to take his beloved orange tabby, Tom, an amazing cat. Mark and I traded books, and he introduced me to Michael Crichton as well as a number of other authors. In March the year after John died, Mark went to the hospital and stayed for two weeks. I watched Tom and took care of his house, calling him often to assure him things were fine and I’d visit soon. Then, on the spring equinox, as Brian and his partner were on a cruise, Mark passed away. I never got to say goodbye to him, and I was stunned. John’s will had never been finalized, and I became the executor of that, and owner of John’s items as well as Tom. Mark had left me a good amount of money in his life insurance, enough for a down payment on the house where I still live with my partner.
Brian went on AZT, but it made him very sick. One night I rubbed his back as he leaned over the toilet, vomiting up what little he’d eaten as he moaned, “I fucked up bad this time. I really fucked up bad.” I had nothing to say other than I was there for him. He lived another year and a half after that. He lost weight and energy, and it was difficult to connect the man I had met in the gymnastics room at college all those years ago with the man I knew now. When Brian went into hospice, I told myself it was only to build up his strength so he could return home again, but two weeks later, a week before his 32nd birthday, I got a call from Brian’s partner at midnight and drove out to the hospice center to be there when he took his last breath. I was 30 years old and had lost my three best friends within three years’ time.
Two months later, I met Fred, my partner to this date, and I sometimes wonder if there wasn’t some kind of spiritual guidance in our meeting. Whatever it was, my life is so much better than I had imagined. And I still smile at the memories with my friends who taught me more about life than I could have ever hoped to learn. And even though I still hold a “real job,” I’m now a published author, and wherever John is these days, I know he’s happy for me and beaming that big smile beneath his bushy mustache.
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