David was never David Smith, or David Weinberg or David anything. To be both civil and principled in regard of his new lover required a compromise: he would divulge his last name once and once only; I might remember it or not. Such a peculiar ritual originated in what had been truly auspicious but which somehow went terribly wrong. His father had taken vows to a noble calling—he was a man of the cloth, after all—but threw away the better portion of religious truth and symbolism in permitting a nightmare for all concerned, excepting himself, for whom a Christian conscience and devotion to a fanatical ideology presupposed peaceful nights, tranquil days and a substantial cache of stowed away wealth—and, after the fashion of color-coordinating shirts and pants, a life-style to match.
That one’s first-born should turn out gay was at the minimum socially uncomfortable, but hey, even Dick Cheney managed somehow. That to a preacher homosexuality implied serious sin, while true enough to a Biblical literalist, it meant as well that a gay family member was hopelessly bad for business. And televangelism is big business. It will surprise no one that David left the fold at a tender age and quickly enough succumbed to strivings that in a more mature society might have found more mature outlets. But this was the 1970’s, and it was the Bible Belt. Republican country.
* * *
David had a passion for life. I felt it uncommonly because it was in such stark contrast to anything I had ever known, having lived the life of an undiagnosed autistic. To this day I play substantially the same 30 songs day in and day out, month in and month out, year in and year out. You get the idea. But don’t think there is no variety or spice to my life; I’ll have you know those songs are on shuffle mode.
All my life I had heard that you could learn so much merely by looking into a person’s eyes. All I ever saw, dammit, was a pair of eyes. An autistic requires something at once rational and real, which for me meant anything radically empirical or, failing that, a radically concrete ultimate such as unconditional acceptance. Truth, honesty and integrity, each of which is more than likely defined differently for me than for you, makes it difficult to explain my reality, or what I mean when saying that I needed someone ‘real’. I can only ask that you take me at my word when I say that David was—real.
I met David at an adult book store at Second Street and Lewis. He was crouched between isles, flipping through pages of naughtiness before shrink-wrapping put an end to a quaint and lovely practice. On sensing me cut through his sunlight, he looked up. It was the eyes that met. My mind perceived his dark brown eyes at three times normal size. It was like a UFO had sent out a ray of compressible magnetosphere which pulled me to the ship. In that sort of stupor I walked over to my new lover to have a closer look. It was the first and last time ‘the eyes’ would ever tell their story. But David was the first truly real person I had ever taken as a lover, and if it took a lover to experience what normals do in regard of the ‘eye’ thing, so be it.
David was a mountain climber. He never tired of recounting the rarified beauty of the heights, of sleeping in the clouds and watching sudden and ferocious storms come and go from the shelter of some shallow cavern. I am clumsy and in any case morbidly afraid of heights. My one real experiment with this sort of thing came early, when I decided it was time to take in rock climbing. At the very top of a 25 foot steep climb two things simultaneously captured my attention; a thatch-like patch ideally suited to grab and pull myself over the top to safety and victory, and the bee that had decided, at too close a range, to check out the victory lap.
The response of an autistic to sudden exposure is unpredictable. Whatever the bee might have had in mind, there was to be no victory lap and I was supremely lucky not to have broken more than my confidence in the plunge. What is more or less predictable, however, is that the autistic will exercise remarkable powers of rationality precisely where least expected. On senselessly swatting the bee and losing my balance, there was presence of mind sufficient to jump away from the cliff to ensure a vertical fall, whereat I landed on my feet instead of my head. I would revisit something of this logic years later when the driver of the convertible in which I was riding went off the road in excess of 100 miles per hour. Where many would have blankly stared at life passing before their eyes, I had the presence of mind to duck—and survive.
* * *
David was a survivor. Of course, almost any gay is a survivor in the sense that it is never easy revealing to intimates something so intimate as a part of one’s being that so many others find so objectionable. The chief argument against the notion that being gay is a choice is implicit here: why would anyone voluntarily bring scorn, derision and supreme angst upon themselves, albeit in an effort to match wits with dignity?
Many of us survive being gay by rededicating ourselves to life and dignity. That can also be translated as ‘celebrating life’. That meant for me negotiating an awkward precondition, namely, opening up to others as only an autistic can find every bit as objectionable as difficult. A dear friend who knew J.R.R. Tolkein told me of his impressions of the renowned author, offering the backhanded compliment that I, as well as he, reminded him of one who cared to spend as little time as possible with the very humanity he nonetheless truly cared deeply for. It was this same characteristic of George Bernard Shaw that led a foolish academic by the name of Paul Johnson to conduct a vitriolic moralistic crusade against intellectuals. One might have supposed that adversity instructs, and that gifted writers convey its lessons. Apparently not.
At any rate, I looked my friend in the face (or is that ‘eye’?) and assented to his judgment. Why lie about the fundamentals? It is more important to deal with them in a suitable manner—something that really must begin with stark honesty. Say what you will about the ungenerous aspect of many autistics; their most endearing trait is their habitual honesty—self honesty, that is to say, the kind indispensible to integrity. Einstein, an autistic judged by his delayed development and adult character, characteristically quipped, “I am no Einstein.”
David was exasperatingly normal, which made him a fearful prospect. Whether you follow sociologists and called it “homophilia” or the psychologists, who refer to the same phenomenon as “peer clustering”, the behavioral result—‘birds of a feather flock together’ is true enough. David was not of my flock, if by that we mean mental illness. I was living proof that one could survive, after a fashion, all that serious autism entailed: retarded development, allergies, seizures, intestinal and lung problems and both visual and auditory dyslexia, not to make a big deal of rocking and pugnacity—everything except the mental retardation. David had none of this stuff going on. I was also bipolar for good measure. There was never a neutral gear in people’s comprehension of my personality or conduct. The nicest thing I ever heard on a regular basis: Charles, whatever you’re on, I want some!! How would David ‘take’ to me? You can hide only so much, for Pete’s sake.
Speaking of drugs, it was when he declared that making love with me was better than, well, drugs, that I realized I had fretted needlessly. David had made sure to include accepting those less fortunate a part of his ‘celebration’. As I opened up and broadened my people-horizons, it was increasingly obvious that those having been targets of discrimination were by and large more welcoming to gays. At a Jewish celebration of some sort a matron happened to discover that her waiter was gay—I never got the juicy details of how that revelation came to be known to a guest—but on realizing it she practically shouted for joy that she had a son whom he needed to meet!!! The world needs more ladies like that (though their sons might blanch at the prospect).
* * *
Autistics crave structure, and it will come as no surprise that in philosophy I am a structuralist. So when we speak of committing to a celebration as if to compensate a deficit, I am one to inquire after the kinds of celebration we are likely to observe. Not that Mother Nature is always kind to those expecting structure, still in this instance she seems to have warmed to the idea of three manners of celebrating one’s gay-ness.
The most common is, I suppose, also the most dangerous. Call it the ‘spice quest’. Sticking to facts and avoiding the moralistic side, many gay couples adopt an ‘open marriage’ format—nothing other than the gay version of “swinging”. David was formally coupled in just such a relation, absent which I would of course not be writing any of this. It was also, in the early 1980’s, a highly questionable practice given the mysterious gay-killer that was only gradually coming to be known as AIDS. Curiously, but not from my viewpoint at all unreasonable, many gays had no quarrel with AIDS. It was less fatalism than a profound need to celebrate life’s dearest commitments that led couples to retain the open marriage pact. If one partner got the dread disease, the other would accept it and succumb as well, as an expression of the value of being real regarding the gay lifestyle.
A second style is frequently observed but poorly understood. Most commonly found with those attempting to ‘come out’ under duress, it may appear adversarial, even destructive, so that calling it ‘celebratory’ requires some elaboration. I was invited home with a young man one weekend evening. After what seemed an overly formal and perfunctory introduction to his parents we retired back outside, as if to leave for parts unknown, whereat we instead slithered to the back of the house, careful not to agitate the neighbor’s crotchety dog while climbing through his bedroom window. I was assured this was all part and parcel of a good time, no big deal. (Right.)
What he must have suspected, but which he was unwilling to confide with me, was that his parents had been growing suspicious of this subterfuge and had picked this very night to make their stand. And stand they did, on the other side of the bedroom door against which a chair was wedged under the doorknob to protect against forcible entry. Of course by the time matters had gotten frankly out of hand I was buck naked. But let’s not go there. Suffice it to say I determined that my best interests required that the clothes return and that I depart. I don’t know which was more obtrusive, the dog barking wildly or my attempt to dress on the run while the father, from inside, chased after, room by room, shaking his first through the windows. You gotta pity a kid with parents like that. All he was really trying to do was to finally expose reality to his parents in a manner they could not fail to grasp, which is to say that it was a reality beyond their power to finally resist. So it really was a back-door celebration, as much as to say, Hey this is who I am, get over yourselves already!
The third style varies but little as between the gay and hetero worlds, but in the gay world it carries a much fuller symbolism of celebration. David defined the epitome of this category regardless the gender. The way he played this game left nothing to chance, with no choice but to go along or cancel the relationship entire, his way of saying that you took him as for what he was—a gay man ready to celebrate his orientation. The method celebrates unconditional acceptance in acts of real and metaphorical flirting, with a lover and equally with danger. I beg the reader’s indulgence for such detail as seems necessary to make the point.
This story builds upon a medley of innocent events leading to a comedy of errors. Since last meeting up with David I had changed my residence but arranged with the landlord to accept an employee of mine as a fit and reliable replacement. This same person had a ‘thing’ for me, never mind he was married with child. Ever observant of my ethical obligations, I would not allow this to go further, whether at or away from work, than the most innocent of superficial flirtation, of which, in my direction, there was admittedly a fair amount. Good grief, even my female employees were on the take. There’s just no accounting for taste.
Perhaps the employee felt that he might ultimately win, that I would break down, relent, and give in to his desire. I mean, please, the kid heard me trekking up the long drive and what did he do as a welcoming gesture? He stripped down, sat in the recliner facing the door and wanged it (seeing which I slinked off, as if that would obviate his noting the obvious). Perhaps that is why he left his front door unlocked at night. At length, I don’t recall having given David a key to the house, though had he asked he’d of course gotten it. I simply have no recollection. What I do recollect, with equal parts pain and mirth, follows.
I know what you are thinking. You expect David to pay me a visit where I no longer live. But surely you really don’t totally believe that, you are only permitting two facts to add up logically, not realistically. Even so, you are entirely correct. David entered silently, went to the bedroom, pulled away the cover and went to work. All might have ended well had my employee not indicated the climax in a manner that would have been highly uncharacteristic of his true lover. You really have to pity him. There was no reason to believe that all was not well. Perhaps I had developed a quirk. Still, it was odd enough that he felt compelled to ask of the present occupant, “Charles?” “No,” was the response. As simple and curt as that, and all parties were instantly and acutely aware of a problematic.
But this was not the end of the matter, for the wife began to stir, whom David had not noticed in the darkness. “What’s going on?” she queried. “I think I had better leave,” said David. Now it was David running down the long drive in the middle of dressing himself. He got to his car and a bad situation became excessively so. He had left his keys on the bedroom dresser. Oh dear.
If it obviously pays for occasional lovers to maintain communications, it was also part of the spice that one tolerate the prospect of exposure. David might meet me at a restaurant, waiting where I could not espy him for as long as required—somehow able to divine when I would have had enough coffee to merit a visit to the restroom. He would be there just in advance and lie in wait, whereupon you may use your imagination. This was invariably how we met up, or rather how he met up with me; always unannounced, by surprise, with less than subtle intimations of a prankster’s sense of celebration.
* * *
It had been a number of months, nearly a year, in fact, since I had last seen David. It was an uncharacteristically long spell. I had no idea what to think, still less any way to contact him.
I am not a patient person. I walk several flights of stairs rather than wait for an elevator. I hate waiting for buses and typically miss them in any case. I often take a book or magazine with me when shopping, to be used if the check-out line was excessive. On this occasion it was moderate, and I passed the time reading the cover blurbs of the magazines that crowd the wall above the conveyor. Esquire, People, Us, TV Guide (besides the juvenile stuff). In the mid-80’s People and Us were in a head-to-head competition. It was interesting to see how the ‘dueling covers’ played out.
The cover of Us featured a full-size portrait that was massively altered to protect the identity of the person. I have always wondered why one bothers with a photo if it will be doctored to the point of non-recognition. I mean, the parents wouldn’t recognize their kid after that degree of derangement. Never mind. The brain of an autistic does not obey the normal rules of recognition. The Rain Man could count the pick-up sticks by shutting out the perception of complexity and focusing on spatial associations; somehow my mind likewise identified David from little more than a Rorschach.
And thus it was that I learned that my David was dying of AIDS. He had come to the attention of publicists for having begun an experimental lab where pharmaceutical firms from all over the world sent samples not otherwise able to be tested (or perhaps he placed himself in their gun-sights in order to corral more business). If it was not ideal by laboratory standards, but it was as controlled an environment as might be expected in circumstances laden with fear and hopelessness. This is where the effectiveness of AZT was first established, and though it was not lasting, it nonetheless offered the first hint that a ‘cocktail’ might be called for. AZT remains a component of one of the leading cocktails to this very day.
Later that very week David paid a visit to the restaurant I frequented. He sat down, no games, all business, telling me all that had transpired, how much time he figured he had left. Though gaunt, he retained the spirit that had always marked him. He did not have a lot of patience just now, for he was preoccupied with returning to help his sick comrades. He had come to say good bye after the fashion we had heretofore said hello: we went to a store where he bought an arsenal of purported antiviral agents. The last love we shared, if under the charade of false hope, yet remained what it had always been, a celebration.
* * *
Though we talked, often for hours on end, astonishingly little of it centered on him. He remained a mystery to the end; I never knew if he so much as held a job. I knew only of the means by which he made of his existence a celebration. One might, I should presume correctly, surmise that he lost no opportunity to tune out what was painful and replace it with something substantial, something real, something ultimately meaningful. What is categorical and certain, however, is that it took a very special spirit to end life as it had been lived. As the Greeks honored a life by the measure and manner of its end, David lived to extend to others the gift of his remarkable spirit which, in its giving, was the last measure and manner of life’s celebration as a gay man. I was again chosen to be a lucky survivor, if only that his spirit survived in my efforts to spread the gospel of human dignity of which his father had regrettably never known, and so could never preach.
Causes Charles Herrman Supports
Common Cause, Lambda