He has outsoared the shadow of our night;
Envy and calumny and hate and pain,
And that unrest which men miscall delight,
Can touch him not and torture not again;
From the contagion of the world’s slow stain
He is secure, and now can never mourn
A heart grown cold, a head grown gray in vain;
Nor, when the spirit’s self has ceased to burn,
With sparkless ashes load an unlamented urn. - Percy Shelley, “Adonais”
Every so often I find myself thinking about people who were important to me but are now gone from my life for one reason or another; one year ago tomorrow I told you about my paternal grandmother, and last month about my cousin Jeff; a year before that it was Liz and Walter. But recently I’ve been remembering another dear friend whom I’ll call Terrance, and today I’d like to tell you a little about him.
Like most of my male friends, I met Terrance through Jeff, who went to high school with him. Because he lived in Metairie I didn’t get to see him as often as the friends who lived nearby, but I always enjoyed his visits; besides being sweet and kind, he was very funny and extremely knowledgeable even by the standards of that rather erudite circle. I sensed that there was something rather unusual about him, but I was too young and inexperienced to be able to put my finger on it until one day in the summer of 1981 when I received a letter from him in which he revealed something he had never told another living soul: he was gay. The letter explained that he wanted to share his secret with his friends, and he started with me because he figured a girl would find it less threatening than a boy might; still, he was too shy to tell me to my face, hence the letter. I immediately sat down and penned a reply, assuring him that I wasn’t going to go “running for the hills” as he had put it, and sharing the fact of my own bisexuality with him. The next time I saw him in person we talked about it, and I encouraged him to come out to Jeff as well; after that went as well as I had predicted it would, he gradually became more open about it and by the time I arrived at UNO in the summer of 1983 he was “out” to everyone except his parents.
Alas, the easy acceptance with which his nonconformity had been greeted by intelligent, open-minded young Baby Boomers and Generation X-ers ill prepared him for his mother’s response, which was disastrous: she kicked him out of the house. Luckily he had a full music scholarship, an adequate job and supportive friends, and he was able to rent a small house in the student ghetto; his possessions were not abundant, and so could be crammed without too much trouble into a pickup truck and station wagon Jeff managed to scrounge. I still remember the bright, sunny Saturday afternoon on which we helped him move; the wicked old bat wouldn’t let any of his friends into the house, so he had to singlehandedly bring everything to the door, from which we took it to the vehicles. The estrangement didn’t last long; she had apparently imagined she could scare the queerness out of him by the threat of eviction, and when that didn’t work she soon made up with him so as to regain her ability to meddle in his life. Fortunately, he was wise enough to decline her offer to move back in, and thereby gained a degree of privacy he could never have attained while living under her roof.
With that privacy came freedom, and he went a bit wild; in only a few short years the young man who had so shyly shared his secret with me had shed his inhibitions and now dove headfirst into the thriving gay subculture of New Orleans. I clucked and tutted and urged him to be careful; I was concerned that his studies would suffer, and he was such a loving, trusting person I was afraid he would get hurt. He of course laughed and pointed out the irony of my warning him against excessive promiscuity, but after a few bad experiences and heartbreaks he did slow down somewhat and eventually settled into a committed relationship with a conservative gay man from Michigan. During all that time, his mother had gone from bad to worse; she couldn’t stand not knowing where he was at every waking minute, so if he didn’t answer her calls to his home and work she would sometimes start calling around to his friends’ houses in an effort to locate him. The fact that I was included in these calls is a measure of her obsession with spying on him, because she absolutely despised me; he once made the mistake of telling her that I was the one he had come out to, and she apparently blamed me for “encouraging” him (presumably she believed that had I reacted with horror he would’ve stopped being gay).
Terrance had never enjoyed a robust constitution, but toward the end of 1990 he started getting sick a great deal more often, and after a few months of this I urged him to go to the doctor about it. Eventually he did, and when he told me that he had pneumonia I felt my heart sink.
“Oh, Terry, pneumonia…you know what that could mean?”
“Yeah, I know. I was tested.”
People often turn to me in a crisis because I never go to pieces; I remain calm, cool and levelheaded and never cry until it’s all over. At that time AIDS was more or less an automatic death sentence (especially for a person who was never healthy to start with), and we both knew it; we sat there for a long time discussing his limited future and how he planned to face the end. All through that conversation and for the rest of his life he matched my self-control and rationality on the subject, which is all the more impressive because he was the one who was going to die. He asked me not to tell anyone; he wanted to share it with only a few friends, and to tell them himself, because he did not want to be the object of pity.
We only had to keep his secret for a little over a year; his case was already quite advanced when it was diagnosed, and he did not respond well to the ever-increasing number of medications his doctors prescribed. At my wedding a few months later, he was too weak to stand for more than a few minutes at a time, and by summer he was completely bedridden. His mother was at the hospital every day, so he asked me not to visit because he didn’t want to upset her; I was hurt but not offended, because his comfort was the most important thing. One day he called when she had stepped out for a while, and I sensed he was saying goodbye; from what Jeff told me later, he stopped eating the next day and was gone within 48 hours. The funeral was held immediately and none of Terry’s friends were invited; in fact, we only knew he was dead because his mother left a message on Jeff’s answering machine a couple of hours before the service, asking him to tell everyone else. We all gathered the following weekend at Jeff’s house to have a small memorial ceremony for him, and to share our favorite memories of him. Jack was worried that I didn’t cry, but I overheard Jeff tell him, “She will, but not any time soon.”
He was of course right, but it was longer than usual even for me; in fact, it took several years. Sometime in the late ‘90s (I believe it was after I had started stripping) I unexpectedly came across something that reminded me of him, and the floodgates opened wide; I cried for a long time, and wept a little every time I thought of him for months thereafter. Eventually the pain subsided as all pain must, but whenever the mysterious cycles of the heart bring the recollection of things lost to the surface again as they have on the night I write this, a generous portion of the tears I shed are for Terry.