Time goes by. In the summer of 2006 I met my current partner, Rob. After dating several months I wrote a story about the acceptance of our perceived flaws. I found my inspiration in him and while…
Source: “S-st-stop In the Name of Love”
Time goes by. In the summer of 2006 I met my current partner, Rob. After dating several months I wrote a story about the acceptance of our perceived flaws. I found my inspiration in him and while…
Source: “S-st-stop In the Name of Love”
Time goes by. In the summer of 2006 I met my current partner, Rob. After dating several months I wrote a story about the acceptance of our perceived flaws. I found my inspiration in him and while unsure about the emotional reaction he may have from the subject matter he loved it. As a matter of fact, he shared it with his Jewish mother Arlene and with her approval I exhaled. We recently celebrated our 10 year “partnership” anniversary and I thought, “What does that number mean in ‘Gay years’? Is there a mathematical equivalent, like our dogs, to determine the actual value?” Ten, fifteen or even fifty, it makes no difference because life has been good to us…And what could be better than sharing his story with everyone? So, my dear partner, here it is. “Happy Anniversary” and thank you for being in my life for the past ten years supporting me through the happy and sad times and everything in between…
It was a long, long time since I’d been on a date. Oh sure, the occasional meeting with “Stripper”, a former dancer, or “The Tooth Fairy”, an oral surgeon who I’d seen for a few weeks, but tonight may well be a date with staying power. My friend Shawn gave painstaking thought to who should inherit me when he left New Haven in an upward career move. Shawn and I had grown from the seedlings of acquaintance to close friends. We cherished one another immensely and a multitude of stories were born from our dinners and humor. He helps unearth the good in me and shares my journey with great support. In a few short weeks however, I shall be left on my own, a foundling.
Apparently I’d made an impression on Shawn’s friend Robert at our “watering hole”, 168 York Street Cafe. A few steps below ground level, York Street is one of those places that feels comfortable and familiar, like your favorite pair of boxers. Exposed brick adds a hint of “New York Pre-war” except we are in New Haven essentially in a basement. With it’s outdoor patio and fire escape seating, it’s an easy place to be. I’d been introduced to Robert Nathman on multiple occasions. Not once did he remember me. He’d extend his slender hand cordially and offer a perfunctory, simple, “Hi.” With no insult taken I chalked it up to my innate talent for being invisible in a crowd. Better still, perhaps he had some type of memory challenge. Fascinated, I turned meeting him into a game of sorts. Perhaps this was a new version of “The Dating Game”. With the exclusion of questions or answers, you simply offer a straightforward “hi” until some event causes the potential couple to engage. I’d introduce myself, receive the uncertain “hi” and count the number of times this happened. The light never quite went on…until meeting #11…
Shawn called with a game changer. “Guess who’s very interested in you…” I couldn’t imagine but suspected only one person. “Don’t tell me, the guy wearing the pony hair shoes? The dancer friend of Madonna?” Psychopaths, they do favor me. Although handsome, the man seated on the rickety bar stool next to me was somewhat self absorbed, actually more than somewhat. With dark brown hair, tipped on the ends, he was dressed in what I’m sure he considered ‘haute couture’ though in truth it was TJ Maxx circa 1994. He rolled his words into one sentence with no punctuation. You know the type. “Well I was in an ad campaign for the Gap a few years ago do you remember the guy on a bike wearing plaid madras shorts…that was me and then I danced with Madonna on her ‘Like a Virgin Tour’ and she and I are tight…My life is special.” I looked for someone to throw me a rope, not to swing from this cliff to safety but to tighten around his neck. I noticed Rob Nathman standing at the door but he would be no help. The prospect of dating the “talker” was not enticing but he was, in a schizophrenic way, interesting. If nothing else he offered material for my writing.
“No, silly, it’s Rob Nathman. He was asking a lot of questions about you.” I was puzzled. Here, a man I’d met on several occasions (actually 11) who didn’t exude any interest was asking questions about me? Beyond that he holds the same first name as my ex-partner, although, that could be an asset- never an accidental slip up. At any rate I was unsure about the situation. “Really? He never knows who I am.” My skepticism abounded. “I know, I told him that, but something about you made an impression.” I could visualize the shrug of Shawn’s shoulders while raising his hands, “Who knew?” I thought for a moment. “What the hell, give him my number.” Days passed without a call and apparently the impression left on Rob was not as powerful as Shawn had led me to believe. With low self esteem in place I wasn’t up for any of this. And truth be told I couldn’t help wondering what getting to know someone else equated. Would it mean my former relationship was indeed over? It was far too much to process.
I found myself in the “new” Rob’s company while Shawn and I were having cocktails at York Street. As he approached I realized this was not a chance meeting, it had Shawn Anderson’s signature on it. The next few seconds were my opportunity to size things up. He was tall with very long legs and a slender frame. His face was attractive and he was nicely dressed, though conservative in black. I later learned that maroon would be a stretch, that he considered it “shockingly bright” for his taste. This man wasn’t particularly my “type”. Keith, the hairstylist, took note of his closely cropped, not yet grey, hair and dark goatee. Okay, I do have a “thing” for facial hair. His eyes were green and expressive but his looks vaguely reminded me of a former love which frightened me. There was no great salutation other than ‘hi’. Time has allowed me to understand this is Rob’s signature greeting with nothing more nor anything less, although what could be less? I sensed he was shy, or some version of shy, but couldn’t put my finger on the reason. “Do you think I can take you to dinner?” He spoke slowly and directly as if scripted and practiced. “Yes,” I said wondering if he was so proper he may ask my parents for their blessing. With great consideration he made a point of reserving a table, allowing time for relaxation post work and prior to dressing. There was a strong positive in this man’s actions and a strong positive in me, but we could discuss that later.
“What to wear?” I stared blankly at my closet. Not wanting to appear too trendy but knowing conservative is not my middle name there was only one thing to do. I called my ‘life line’. “Shawn, jeans or dress pants?” Honesty was what I needed. “Honey, jeans of course…and make them the new ones you bought, you know, the ones that make your ass look so good.” Dear Shawn, always giving a lift, even a butt lift. Packing myself into the jeans I left open just enough shirt buttons to say, “Here you go, a little man cleavage.” Hell, I’ve worked hard for whatever I have and to his credit, so did my plastic surgeon.
The timing of my arrival must be exact. It was imperative that tardiness, which can be my middle name, not be an issue. Rob arrived promptly, impressed with my punctuality–a flaw that would become a bone of contention in our future. We spoke of everything from childhood to bad dates, parents to siblings, and the words flowed fluidly revealing we had much in common. Our humor, tinged with a perverse sarcasm, was in simpatico. This was deliciously refreshing. I noticed after two sentences that Rob spoke with a stutter. Perhaps the question of the simple “hi” was now answered. It was difficult to not notice when the stutter captured his words and more so not to feel his struggle. As I listened the syllables begin multiple times, his eyes widening as he took in breath, I wanted to reach across, comfort and speak for him. Rather, I smiled and curiously, to my surprise, found the stutter enchanting. Here was a man with an imperfection and as a result held a major attractiveness. How did this make any sense?
“I wa- ww-was the Jewish kid with the big curly hair, the ‘Jew-fro’, had bucked teeth and stuttered in school. It was so h-ha-hard.” I loved that he felt he could confide in me about situations that shaped his life and insecurities.” I guess you n-ne-never lose what you grow up with.” Without hesitation I said, “I think your stutter is cute.” This man, with his deep honesty, warmth and kindness, was completely genuine . He was the kid picked on in school like me. But now came the moment of truth. “So what exactly made you notice me?” I had to ask the question knowing our vacant history of former meetings. “You w-we-were talking to that asshole guy. It made me notice you.” Allow yourself a moment of reflection to ponder the depth of the reason the light went on for him…
As a result of Rob’s stutter I began to think of my own imperfections. Isn’t it funny that what we see as imperfections in ourselves others can find attractive? In an effort to strive for perfection we overlook the simplest point that perfection is in the eye of the beholder. I stumble with social anxiety, primarily around unfamiliar people and situations. For me that is a huge imperfection. Maybe to someone looking for a quiet, less obtrusive man, my shyness may be an attractive quality. I don’t wear pony hair shoes and talk incessantly. Can it be my imperfection is indeed a quality and shouldn’t this apply to everyone? At the end of the day, like any other job, perfection can be full time and all consuming. My former relationship had been steeped in perfection, admittedly we both strove for it, but in the end, perfection helped bring us to our knees.
There is no doubt I don’t want to spend my life going to bars or hooking up, it isn’t who I am. I simply want to share my life, the highs and lows, with someone loving. I want to navigate my days with mutual respect, accepting imperfection as an asset rather than a deficit. Externally my words flow without hesitation but internally I stutter. When I feel my heart race, when my palms get sweaty and think I’m about to pass out, I want someone to catch me as I fall. And I think Robert Nathman may be the one to do that. You see Rob, it makes no difference if you stammer, are shy or carry whatever you may consider a flaw–someone will find your imperfection attractive, as a matter of fact someone already has. When you are about to speak and become self-conscious, take a deep breath and “S-st-stop in the name of love”… you’ll be delighted to know your imperfection just may be the reason you got a second date.
He rarely lost his temper, at least as far as I can remember. Once, twice if you count the pool house project, perhaps. It was summer, the kind when I was young, you know, hot and sticky as…
Source: “Being Henry”
He rarely lost his temper, at least as far as I can remember. Once, twice if you count the pool house project, perhaps. It was summer, the kind when I was young, you know, hot and sticky as summer should be. Saturday meant chores. Our father would dole out jobs to my brother and me. “Let’s divide this up and it’ll get done faster– Keith you vacuum the pool and Randy, you cut the lawn.” Dennis, much older, was saved from conscription. As head foreman of an architectural woodwork company, delegating came naturally to dad. “And pay attention. NO accidents.” Randy was always in a hurry to do something more fun, or more reckless. The neighborhood teens wanted him to join in on an escapade, no doubt heading off to the woods to smoke or make out with some girls. I always did as my parents asked and was dubbed “the easy one”. Conversely I was “the little dick weed” to my brother. What was a “dick weed” anyway? It had to be insulting.
My father, our tutor, would lecture us extensively on the art of mowing the lawn. “Slow and steady, even swipes across is the right way. You cut each blade thoroughly and evenly.” He’d brush his thick hand across the turf. “It’ll come out like velvet.” Dad knew everything about everything and perfection followed. His handwriting was painstaking, except for a slight tilt back, the result of being left handed. His printing replicated the strikes of a Corona typewriter-exact. A skilled and masterful carpenter, he was solely responsible for the construction of our family home. Each rafter, stud, shingle and nail were carefully and methodically put in place by his hands or overseen by him. The house, a single story ranch with peaks and gables, required mathematical prowess. Each corner was exact, the fit tight and with perfect geometry. His eyes were his level and T-square. I wasn’t the son who inherited that side of his brain. Genetics gave me his body and fabulous head of hair. Shouldn’t that count for something? My mother, lips pursed, head shaking would say, “Chip, when it comes to math, well, let’s face it…you’re just not that smart.” I once attempted nominating her for “Mother of the Year”. In recounting the math comment, thinking this made her sound real, the panel stamped her application, “Rejected”. Hmm, go figure.
Slow and steady never worked for Randy. He threw the blades “on” and engaged the transmission. Like an Arabian leaving the gates at Churchill Downs, the mower leapt forward. “Slow it down,” my dad yelled, waving his hands in an up and down motion. He muttered, “That kid,” half-smiling acknowledging Randy being a rebel. Three minutes later the lawnmower, racing through the yard struck a rock. Rotating at full capacity the blades sheared a piece of stone, discharging it from under the deck as if a bullet and our dad was in the line of fire. The fragment struck my father point blank just above his right thigh and across his ass. Had he not had a decent amount of padding “back there” it could have been far worse. The shrapnel tore through his lightweight khaki pants leaving a gash in his buttock. Though not life threatening to him it was excruciating and potentially life threatening to Randy. With a contorted, deep crimson face he cursed. “Goddamn it!” This was one of the three times I’d ever heard him curse, the first being a slip up when he meant to say someone was a “smart fella” but called him a “fart smella”. It was a simple case of a reverse curse. Watching the veins on his forehead expand as blood pulsed through was mesmerizing. Limping, he approached Randy. “Didn’t I tell you not to rush? Goddammit you never listen!” My father was on fire! Three sentences, two curse words, one temper. This was shocking. My mother could reel them off like a truck driver but my dad? Never. Randy ran. He ran like the wind, maybe faster. He ran, of all places, to our mother for protection. It was curious. We usually ran from her to our dad for the very same reason. It was, for a multitude of reasons, a moment in time, for all of us.
Every Sunday morning began with my father singing. From my bed I could hear it distantly as I slept. The mellifluous tenor voice, like so many of his other qualities, was taken for granted. Methodically he’d floss then brush his teeth. The Schick straight edged razor would grace his face as he’d inspect his work in the mirror through his ice blue eyes. If I happened to wake up and pass by he’d look at me, his face covered in lather, wink and carry on. Again singing, he’d run his light brown, square, wooden hair brush under warm water. Sweeping forward then backward and off to the right, his thick, straight, salt and pepper hair would fall into place. With a little nod of approval my dad would begin the day. There was order in all that was Henry. “Hey Ede, what do you need?” He’d stir exactly one tablespoon of Maxwell House freeze dried coffee into a cup of boiling water, butter his toasted raisin bread and wait for his orders. Periodically he’d go out on a limb and have a bowl of Raisin Bran, but that was a special event. “I think we need Italian bread…how about bagels for a change? And stop by Lucibello’s for pastries, get sfogliatelle (his favorite), some bocconotti (chocolate and vanilla pies) and maybe a cannoli or two…no…just one.” He’d make the rounds with the addition of freshly baked rolls from Wolfe’s Bakery and the oversized chocolate chip cookies the bakery was famous for, one for each of us. Amazingly this was all done, start to finish, by 9 a.m. when the rest of us would usually wake up. It seemed miraculous to me as a little boy, and now as an adult, that my parents existed separately from us for only for three hours on a Sunday morning. More so, they never complained about needing any more time away from us than that.
Real life. My father was a young man who’d seen some of the worst parts of life. When two years old his mother died from complications of a procedure. Left behind were six young boys with a father who struggled raising his children. My grandfather remarried, a choice less than perfect, which did not bode well for Henry, the youngest. His stepmother resented the little boy who needed mothering. Punitively, she would feed him spaghetti, morning, noon and night. Spaghetti. Life with his stepmother, “the queen” as the boys called her, was grim if not abusive. Amazingly, my father never spoke of his childhood strife and in later years recalled only the best moments of his youth. “We never had much but boy, did we have fun.” When World War II broke out so did my father. In the military he served with the Fourth Armored Division touring Europe. Like so many others, he was young, from a small city and far away from all he knew. His tour of duty allowed him to see a new world, not necessarily pretty but then again life in New Haven had not been so pretty either. My father’s battalion liberated concentration camps, a horror he’d never seen nor heard of and could have never imagined.
“When we were in the army…” or “You kids don’t know…” were the keywords beginning the stories my father would tell. Breakfast, lunch, dinner and anytime in between, we would hear about his army pals, his Jeep, the tanks and so on. I became immune to them. Immune that is to all but one; probably the most impactful. In his wallet my father carried two pictures. One was of my mother, young and pretty with her done in the latest fashion. The other painted a different picture and within that picture was a lesson of cruel inhumanity. The photo was of skeletal bodies, men, and women too, dressed in striped clothing wearing what appeared to be caps. There was no expression on their faces, wait, yes, there was, hollowness and hopelessness. He’d point to the picture, his finger lingering as if to caress and comfort the people within it. “This is what we found. This is what man is capable of and I need you to understand.” I’d simply stare at the picture and wonder where the people were today. I wondered where they went, how they got there and who they found on the other side of the barbed wire. I wondered why my father kept it close by all these years later. Randy asked, “But dad, why do you carry it around? It’s so sad.” He would just stare at us through those blue eyes, now sad. “Because, if I don’t people can say it never happened and I need you to tell them it did. Tell them your father was there and never, ever, be silent.” Pointing To the people he’d say, “This, should never happen again” My father was wise, sensitive and caring. Once, as my parents watched the movie “Schindler’s List” my mother phoned. “Chip, come over, quickly.” There sat my father, on the floor, legs pulled in tightly to his chest, hugging a pillow and inconsolably crying. His mind was reliving what he’d seen. I reached around, hugged him and let him cry it out. Our life was blessed. He kept his own childhood experience and the Holocaust far from our existence. Henry was a hero, if not to the world, at least to us. As I sit listening to the news being reporting each day I wonder, “What would dad would make of all this?”
Yes, my father was proficient at many things but had two Achilles heels: cooking and fashion. Every weekend my parents would host dinner. The sweltering summer heat set us all by the pool on the afternoon of ‘the accident’. My mother, having made a ham for dinner the night before, decided on a pea soup for lunch. Why she thought soup on a hot summer day was enticing I’ll never know. As queen of the pressure cooker, she loaded the ingredients into the pot, secured the lid and gauge then set it on the stove. Ten minutes later she called to my father, still in the house, “Hey Henry, when the steam starts to come out of the pressure cooker take the ‘top thing’ off.” Moments later screams erupted. My father knew nothing about cooking except how to put a tablespoon of freeze dried coffee in a cup and toast his raisin bread. We ran to the house as our jaws dropped. The creamy white counter tops along with the stove and cabinets were now awash in a sea of green peas. Pea soup was everywhere. Green and pink liquid, suspended from the ceiling, dropped one bit at a time, coating everything. My father, shirtless and covered in soup, clutched his chest. Having suffered one heart attack my mother went to him. “My God Hen, is it your heart? What happened?” He was holding back tears shaking his head ‘no’. She asked with disdain, “Why in the hell did you do this?” Did she actually think he had nothing better to do so he invented the pressure cooker bomb? Slowly he removed his hand from his chest. There, short, white and searing hot, was the ham bone fused to his skin. “You told me to take the top off.” He could barely speak through the pain. “You told me…” Though horrified she felt the need to reprimand. “I told you to take the top ‘thing’ off…you know…the gauge.” Apparently he didn’t know and why would he? At the hospital the ham bone was removed leaving his burn welted and raw. Until the day he died his once perfect, hairless chest, bore a small, two inch scar shaped like a canoe. Here was a man who’d lived through the “Battle of the Bulge”, returned home physically unscathed and was now a casualty of the “Battle of the Bone”. It was a shame.
“Come on, Henry, we have to get to dinner. We’re meeting Marge and Bob and Marion and Mickey.” It was common for my parents to go to dinner on Friday nights. “Alright, alright, I’m getting in the shower.” My father was a news junkie and once situated in front of the T.V. became a fixture. “Hurry up, I’ve laid your clothes out.” One thing can be said about my dad, he was competent when he was “doing it yourself” but could not dress himself to save his life. Dressing for work was easy. There were three outfits, two khaki and one blue. His white shirts, embroidered with the name ‘Hank’ on the pocket, were easily noted. From underwear to top coat my mother would lay out the clothing she purchased like a Hollywood stylist. Was it that she didn’t trust his taste or was he just a little boy in certain respects? Being on time was always a contest he was determined to win. It seemed my mother, dictatorial, could, at times, be emasculating. In an effort to rebel, my father would always rush, dress and seat himself in front of the television as though he’d been there for hours. When she was finally dressed and ready to go he’d say, “Well, I guess you took your time.” His ability to do so showed a certain muscle in their relationship. But this time something was a little off. Was it me or were his pants not quite right?
“Hey,” she called from their bedroom, “Where in the hell did my pants go?” Clearly in haste she’d forgotten to lay out her own clothes. “What?” I wasn’t sure what she was asking. Baffled, she said, “I put my pants on the bed but they aren’t here.” I glanced at my dad, proudly sitting, fully dressed, watching the events of the world. Realizing what had happened I laid my hand across my mouth. “This is definitely not going to end well,” I thought, “Maybe I should call The New Haven Register.” The newspaper headline would read “Suburban Wife Murders Husband Over Pant-Napping”. “Um, dad, I think you’d better change…fast.” He looked puzzled and annoyed. I was interrupting the sports news. “You’re wearing mommy’s pants.” He looked down at the black socks showing just a little too much. “Aw, gosh darn it…” This was his version of cursing and meant he knew he’d, well, fucked up. As he stood I could no longer contain myself from bursting into hysterics. “Shh!! Be quiet….be quiet!” The pant legs were up to his calves exposing his socks and his ass was perfectly outlined. He couldn’t have done a better job with his pencil, instruments and drafting table. In her pants he cut quite a figure. We won’t even discuss what was going on with his crotch. I could barely catch my breath. My stomach began to hurt from laughter. My mother, now dressed, entered the living room. “You know Chip, I have no idea…” Looking at me having hysterics, unable to breathe, she turned to my father who looked like any other Italian man who regularly wore Capri pants. She broke up laughing, so hard she began to wheeze. “Are you kidding me? What..in the hell…are you doing?” And then, sharply, “Are you an idiot?” Correctness was not my mother’s strong suit but really she meant no harm. Still, her derision of my father sent him retreating to their bedroom. Like little Henry, from a sad childhood place, he spoke, “You told me you laid out my clothes. I saw the pants but no shirt so I got one myself.” It broke my heart. I think he truly believed the real problem was the plaid shirt he chose and to his point it did not match her pants.
“Who in the hell is he?” my mother asked, “Have you ever?” I shrugged my shoulders. “You created him.” I pondered the look on his face and knew he needed a champion. “Go apologize.” My mother was taken aback. “Apologize? Why?” She always acted the mother but in this instance had acted the stepmother. “Because you hurt him and we’re lucky to have him and I can’t imagine why but he loves you.” It took exactly six seconds and she followed him. You know, in thinking back over that moment, it wasn’t a stretch to envision my father, as dressed, to have taken the stage on “drag night”. Given a few decades and some practice, in those tight little Capri pants he could have been our very own “Henriette”. Watch out Caitlin, Henriette was fierce!
I love my dad and miss him every day. And so,with Father’s Day having just passed, I think of Henry. In my eyes he was the best of what a man should be. In my mother’s pants he was the best of what a man should be. In life he was simply the best of what a human should be. Of course he had flaws and shortcomings, we all do, but this is not about that. It’s about a little boy, a young man and an adult, all the same person, remembering his dad fondly. I wish everyone could have known him for there was nothing to do but love him. He never said no to a friend or family member and especially not to his boys. “Doing” was his expression of love. He renovated an entire house for Dennis and built a bar rivaling the ‘King Cole’ at the St. Regis for Randy. And for me, his epic achievement was obvious–being Henry. With a less than a perfect start my father made good, both in family and in life. He broke the cycle of his childhood and loved us without condition or retribution. He was simple and easy with no demands…oh yes, there was one…no spaghetti allowed.
As the years went on, and time streamed by, a rare, neurological disease took over my father’s mind. We first noticed something amiss when he was unable to hook together a combined dustpan and brush. The man who’d been fastidious and mathematical was failing. Still, he continued to sing brightly and loudly. Looking back over so many wonderful aspects of my father, the thing most pronounced for me was that he never questioned my life or my love. He never judged me for being gay and he never turned away. I was just his son. I was Keith. Even as his mind diminished, everyday when we would visit with one another he’d simply raise his eyebrows, smile a little mischievously and tap my nose with his…it was our special way of kissing…and that was all I ever needed….he was, after all, just “being Henry”.
“Let’s start at the very beginning…a very good place to start…–“The Sound of Music”
Green grass. A weeping willow tree with a self made tree house sitting half way up, accessible by a makeshift stairway. The clean, cool water of a swimming pool with it’s multitude of brightly colored inflatable rafts. A vegetable garden. Alongside the garden an outbuilding constructed of plywood, painted beige with red shag carpeting inside. Through my adult eyes, and the window of what was once my childhood bedroom, I can see my brothers and me in the backyard. Today my former bedroom serves as my home office, tidy and compact, where my stories come to life. Our parents built the family home as a protected space, a haven, far from city life with its confining yards and active streets, for their children to flourish. As a result, we were able to run through lush grass, swim in our pool, ride bikes along the quiet suburban streets and navigate the nearby woods. Trickier, as a result of their protection, was learning to navigate life. And somewhere in my life I learned to write. With no formal training I sit before the keyboard, tap it and speak. But I felt I needed to give a bit of history to bond, open up and let you see where my passion was born. We can use our history to our advantage or we can wallow in it. The choice is up to us. To wallow in it is short sighted; to embrace and allow it to empower us is hard work. I chose hard work. So here is the history that lives within me and while this particular story is more serious in content, I thank God every day for allowing it to make a more insightful, grateful, powerful and humorous me. And away we go…
It wasn’t long after coming into the world on January 19, 1961 I was introduced to death– perhaps five or six years and truthfully I really didn’t know my uncle who collapsed, losing his life. That single event taught a little boy that in a moments’ time mortality can strike. My uncle’s sudden death was a gift, which isn’t always the case. In the years to come more people would pass from my life, it’s just a given. There have been aunts, uncles, my closest cousin Jimmy, friends, my parents, pets and even my older brother, Randy. But at what point did death change me? At what point did it make me stronger, more resilient and able to see life through different eyes? Oh, yes…I remember…it was the one death that rewrote my life–my partner Dean’s. My Hiroshima. My Tsunami. My world.
On January 19, 1992, the morning of my 31st birthday the phone rang. The clock read 12:16 a.m.. On the other end our doctor’s voice was low and sympathetic. “Keith, it’s David…Dean died about ten minutes ago…I’m sorry.” I was lingering between sleep and wake but understood each word. “Thank you.” Had I just thanked him for the worst possible news? I understood he waited. On some level he knew it was my birthday. Son of a bitch. He always said I’d never forget him. My parents, woken by the ring, came to me, my father sitting at the foot of my bed. “Dean’s dead.” My dad, always gentle, rubbed my arm, “I’m sorry.” My mother, sturdy and protective, offered to go to the hospital. She didn’t approve of my lifestyle, nor Dean for that matter, and at best the dynamic between us simmered like a bowl of oatmeal on the stove. What once had been light and airy was now thick, with a bubble here, a bubble there but never a rapid boil and certainly never quite completely cooked. In the future all that would change, from the negative rises the positive, but for now it was sticky. “I’m going with you.” Per usual, her decision was written in stone. I believe my mother feared I may veer into oncoming traffic or hit a tree. What she couldn’t comprehend was it had already happened, two years prior. “Okay…thanks.”
I entered the hospital room. I’d been there just two hours before. The cool fluorescent lighting lent a grey-green hue all around. Dean was lying on the bed, his body ravaged by illness, silent, propped up with an extra pillow from our home. Seemingly he was asleep. I couldn’t cry nor look away but why would I want to? This was a reprieve for him. His lips were dry and chapped– he’d been through so much. Holding his slender hand in mine, it felt slightly warm and his face, through the wrath, was still handsome. When I kissed his forehead, our last kiss, it felt natural, like any other day except this was not any other day. There would never be “any other day” again. It was mind boggling to think a vibrant young man should die for no reason. He did nothing wrong–except play Russian Roulette, making the wrong choice for a one night stand years ago. It was so senseless. Collecting his teddy bear, a few personal belongings and his pillow I left the now cold room and entrusted my partner, the man I protected and loved, to others. Leaving the hospital, my hope was to never return. Of course I would, someday, but not for a very long time.
The next day my jewelry went into exile. I wanted no part of it. Once it represented a modicum of success, now, in contrast, the only thing it represented was my inability to save Dean. I’d run through a small fortune on private pay medical needs such as breathing machines, the latest drugs, contraptions to inject aerosol medication into his lungs and barrages of tests but to no avail. I spent freely to ensure life was good to him though in truth it was not. Our world became an illusion and I was David Copperfield– life was all smoke and mirrors. I was angry for having deluded myself into equating money with power, not social power but Godlike power. For the record that equation does not add up. For two years we’d lived behind the veiled darkness of his disease. “Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome”– I say it in it’s entirety because I detest the acronym AIDS. It is difficult to type the words when your fingers recoil from the keyboard. For twenty six years I have retreated from it, putting it out of mind, leaving it behind. His life, lived large, had come to a close. Dean was 33 and I was 31. In his abbreviated life he left no stone unturned except the one he couldn’t push because it’s weight was far too great. And when he couldn’t push it I pushed it for him. AIDS isn’t fair but as my mother told me, “Listen kiddo, life isn’t fair.” There, but for the grace of God, go I. For some reason, perhaps to offer inspiration or simply make someone smile through my work or my words, the universe consciously spared me.
It was time to lose the veil. So now what? I always feared being on a plane jettisoning through the sky only to have that plane crash and burn. Planes were going down all around me. Young men, old men, movie stars and rock stars. Sports figures, women, children and even moms in suburbia were not immune. I had to do “damage control” because the stigma surrounding this particular illness was so great. Immediately, by association, I would be targeted as its’ next “victim” and where would that leave me? Well, that wasn’t an option. I have never been a “victim” of anything; always a survivor. I enlisted what I called “The Untruth”. It wasn’t a lie, it was simply an omission of truth and happens every day in every situation– politics, law, medicine, retail and yes, even hair styling. You tell most of the story but not quite all of it. “He died from Meningo-encephalitis. It came on quickly and the medicines just couldn’t fight it.” It can be verified on his death certificate as the primary cause. The underlying cause, which is secondary on his death certificate, can be verified as well.
With the exception of one, people never questioned me, well, not to my face anyway. I never say yes, and I never say no. But I had to change. I lopped off my then dark, long and flowing hair. It was a Sampson moment but gave me strength rather than weakness. The time had come to reinvent and move on and where better to do so than in therapy. “Therapists are unnecessary,” my mother scoffed, “They take your money for something I could do or our priest could do for that matter. Chip, people will think you’re a nut job and worse he will tell you it’s all my fault.” And there you have it. And therein lies the truth. My mother was terrified my insecurities and worse, my homosexuality, lay at her hands. “Sorry mom, but I think the people who refuse to see therapists because they think they don’t need to are the ones who need to the most.” She turned, sighed and pretended to pay me no mind.
The day after the funeral I called Nicholas Lang, a therapist who dealt lovingly with the gay community and our grief. I’d been given his name by my doctor who thought Nicholas could help and he did, immensely. “Hello…uh… my name is Keith Proto. I just lost my partner and would…uh, well…would like to talk about it.” We set a date and my journey, the everlasting search for Keith began. It was a single exercise, at Nicholas’ prompting, which took me here, to the keyboard, to begin writing the moments of my life–the good, bad and indifferent. I didn’t know where the journey would lead but knew wherever that might be I would go there empowered, with humor and a new perspective. Thank you Nicholas.
Ah…writing I love you. You have unlocked the gates of the prison formerly known as my mind—a tight, twisted little space that obsessed about material nonsense and the trinkets that bore no significance. Now empowered, my mind illuminates and allows me to laugh, yes laugh, even in moments of sadness and despair. I have humility. But it’s a full time job remembering how to laugh especially in moments of despair–and there have been moments of despair. But, conversely, there has been a multitude of joy. The moments between diagnosis and death, what I call “purposeful living”, can be the most important you live. Dean’s illness and death, and my relationship with it, taught me to balance the real with the imagined and gain perspective. But death comes along with life, not exclusively with illness, and so should “purposeful living”. I know.
Admittedly I enjoy the material world of fashion, fine food, accommodations and cars but quite frankly who doesn’t? It would be untrue to deny that. The balance is to never worship or let it define you. Embrace your life and your spirit and I know, firsthand, such energy will never misguide you. Experiences, even the negative, give perspective, empathy, and understanding. Life has taught me to embrace my anxieties and fears, assess them with clarity, grow from them and realize there is always someone better off and someone worse off. And, thank you, it taught me to open up and write, sharing with others while helping to heal. Purposeful living can, at times, teach us to never say never because miracles, or moments just shy of miracles, occur every day. So now, with my own perspective and a bit of humor at my fingertips, it’s time to write. Yes… I started at the very beginning…a very good place to start. Life, in the brilliant sunlight, is expansive and glorious when you no longer exist behind a dark veil–and, my friends, therein lies the truth.