I moved back to New York. Nine years in Chicago – impatient, detached, restless, the dutiful son to his dead parents, obligated, filling the gaps with too many handsome distractions (my expiration dates?) – only to finally accept, you really can’t go home again. At least, I couldn’t. But, can you go back to the home you left home for?
Remember, it was early spring 1999. Mom had passed away nearly 4 years earlier and Dad’s prostate cancer, he’d neglected while she was ill, had become untreatable. I decided to return to my parents’ house in Chicago, as I said then, to reconcile a few father/son differences, care for him when he needed it and, maybe, heal some old wounds. Noble right?
My being there made him happy. We got some stuff done before he died.
But, it wasn’t the only reason I left New York. After 12 years, the city had finally worn me down and I didn’t know how to break from the deadly routine I was living. Could barely cope with all the ghosts: brothers from Other Countries* taken by the plague, our group of writers seemingly exhausted by the losses, my “marriage” that crashed and burned, a slowly fragmenting sense of community, and maybe the necessary hardening in preparation for being a full-on orphan had just become too heavy.
We had lunch the afternoon before my flight. You were the last person I saw before leaving. Seemed only right. Having started off as rivals for the affections of a guy neither of us won; working together feverishly to publish Sojourner: Black Gay Voices in the Age of AIDS, before too many more contributors died without seeing their work in print; getting to be a guest writer in one of your classes, LOVED that!; being caretakers for our respective parents, exposing ourselves as a couple of hopeful, old romantics and comforting each other through those regrets and wrong turns, ours was a friendship of weathered survival.
What I remember most is saying goodbye. You headed east on 14th Street and I headed west. I never mentioned it before, but I stopped, turned around and watched you walk away. The wind had picked up and blew a lot of loose newspapers in your direction. With the traffic, all the people out and about and the blowing papers, it looked as if you and the typical chaos of the city were a movie receding in the distance, and I had just written myself out of the script.
Fast forward 18 years. I’d just been thinking about you the morning I got John’s email about this remembrance project so many years after your death. A coincidence I suppose, maybe not. There are any number of these Bert moments in my life. Some leave me smiling, some lonely or needing to talk. Can’t say what triggered it that time. They just come and I go where they take me.
One word: “Kwanzaa.” I know, right? Too funny.
That morning, I was left smiling, remembering you joking about a consuming romance that had me all caught up in – what? – longing, exhaustion, frustration over empty nights waiting for my great love to return from his 6-month UNICEF assignment in Somalia. And there on a street corner, some warm West Village evening, you had me laughing at myself by imitating — very poorly I might add — my distant lover’s Chilean accented baritone calling my name. That memory is well over 20 years old, yet pulling it up still raises a smile, and that morning, some welcome laughter.
What I can’t remember, though, is what that kind of heartache felt like. Walking through the day raw and exposed, brittle, about to crack, dazed, needing to cry or get drunk or sleep away the minutes, hours, days, months alone or with some substitute hero. It’s too far away to see or touch, but I can still laugh with you about it.
These days, surrounded by boxes, bags, rolled-up rugs, displaced furniture and an upended water-color of Marrakech serving as a vibrant window screen, I’m settling into my 10th New York apartment. Brooklyn, of course. A layover on my way to somewhere else? – maybe. The rent is insane, and, yet, I’m paying it. Still not sure about “home” now that I’m back, or if I fit.
Last year, the Bronx Museum of the Arts presented Art AIDS America, “the first exhibition to examine the deep and ongoing influence of the AIDS crisis on American art and culture.” Among the paintings, photos, sculptures and other installations were Marlon Riggs’ Tongues Untied projecting our younger selves on the wall of a passage that led into the larger exhibition space, and Robert Penn’s 2011 25th anniversary visual compilation, Art from Adversity, celebrating our Other Countries family, projected in another room.
Yes, the enormity of those years must be faced squarely and honestly, and can never be forgotten. But, it is no less disconcerting to see people I knew and loved exhibited as if part of a lost civilization.
Nevertheless, there you were, in a clip lifted from the 1989 video Acquired Visions. You spoke of your greater concern with “the issue of living as opposed to the issue of dying of either AIDS or any other illness or pathos that we as black people and black gay people have to be confronted with…” You said that specific concern with “living” helped you be “a little bit more centered, a little bit more grounded…”
So, the next month when I received my own prostate cancer diagnosis, I heard you. The doctor, a very nice man, was properly sympathetic, though a bit longwinded. While appreciative, I was a bit short, “Are you trying to say I’ve got cancer?” He was.
I studied my options and chose (thank goodness for NYC employee health insurance) a cutting-edge, minimally invasive, short-term radiation procedure that promised few (if any) side-effects, exclusive to the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. The machine was kinda cool. I was anchored to the treatment table by a plastic mold of my lower torso and the technicians played jazz music (at my request) while I got zapped. I slept through two of the five treatments. We finished up in February, showed good results in my follow-up and I’ll check-back again this December.
With all that radiation, though, hoped some latent mutant super-power would have manifested by now. No such luck.
I’ve lived alone a long time. If I don’t do it, it won’t get done, has been a guiding principle for most of those years. It’s how I handled the cancer treatment, scheduling it in between work, picking up the dry cleaning, tuning-up the car, recycling on Wednesdays, getting a haircut, it was an appointment, a chore, just another thing to get done. In fact, I told very few people about it. Didn’t see the point. “He’s the independent one,” my parents’ used to say. Old habits die hard.
Eventually, though, I stepped back from Monday thru Friday/9-to-5 monotony enough to make some space and get some distance from it all. Trying to be good to myself in ways I often am not.
That idea of space, making it, claiming it, taking it in our grief or whatever struggles we may confront, is something you taught me. I share it repeatedly, but sometimes forget to listen. So I’m now finishing this letter from my fiancé’s apartment in Hattiesburg, Mississippi. Yeah, you heard me right, Mississippi. Finally took a couple of weeks for me.
Oh – yeah – fiancé, complete with a major southern twang. We’ve now got official, joint income tax, legal in all 50 states, though not everybody’s cool with it, marriage equality.
His name is Wayne. My sweetie was right there for me throughout the whole cancer thing. We met at the Adodi** summer retreat back in 2012 and are planning to “jump the broom” next year. Small ceremony. Nothing fancy. And, that’s where the new apartment comes in. He’s soon moving to New York.
Usually when I find myself smiling, it’s about him. And, Bert, he bakes. His German Chocolate Cake is amazing. Even got me in the kitchen working on a recipe or two. He also insists on working-out. There go my plans for growing old, fat and happy. But, two out of three is pretty damn good.
Home? That’s the idea.
By the way, 2018 also marks the 25th anniversary of Sojourner. I think we’ve got some work to do.
I miss you.
September 2017 Brooklyn, NY
P.S. About two blocks from the house in which I grew up, lived Illinois’ ambitious Senator with the funny name and his family. You’ll be hearing more about them I’m sure.
* Other Countries: Black Gay Expression is the NYC writer’s collective, founded in 1986, where Bert and Allen met and spent several years collaborating on publishing and performance projects.
** Adodi is an organization founded in Philadelphia in 1986 in response to the AIDS epidemic to support same-gender-loving men of African descent. It now has chapters in Chicago, Detroit, Philadelphia, New York, Washington, DC; and a faction representing the nation’s southern region.
© Allen Luther Wright 2017