I arrive early and take a seat on the bench that overlooks the East River, on the Brooklyn side, the only concession you would make in order for us to meet. It’s fall but feels like the last days of summer. The air is clear, and there are boats on the water. The bridge traffic creates a dull hum. Background music.
Students in uniform, just out of school, pass by in twos and fours. They are laughing, oblivious to me and my anxiety about what the next hour will bring. They have a right to their joy, still too young to know that the dead can visit you. They eat potato chips and sip sky blue and fuchsia drinks, unaware that you will visit me and we will talk and laugh, and I will cry.
I check my phone for the fourth or fifth time. You’re late: Dead or alive, colored people time is a thing.
As I lean forward to slide my phone in my back pocket, I see you standing at the far end of the bench. You are smiling and so am I. As I make my way to you, I start to cry. I blurt, “Gurl, you are still so gorgeous!”
Your smile broadens. As I raise my hands to touch your shoulders, you shake one of your pianist-long fingers to remind me of the most important rule: no touching. I wipe my tears and gesture for us to sit down. You speak for the first time, “Miss Honey, you look fabulous.”
Your voice still sounds the same, not a minute of age on that joy. In fact, you look exactly as you did before your death in 2001. No gray hairs, no disfigurement, not even a pimple on your almond-colored skin.
I am excited and nervous and emotional. My body has been buzzing with anticipation ever since we agreed to meet. “Oh my gosh, Bert, I can’t believe we are sitting here, together. How? And why . . . ?”
Bert jumps in, “Jacquie, we must do this quickly. Once I explain to you some of the how and why, we’ll only have 58 minutes to talk. So we’ll ki, but we won’t be able to kiki.” His playfulness makes me smile.
“I know this is complicated, but I – actually, we – need your help,” he says. “And this is the only way we could figure out how to talk to you. Can you do this?”
Still unsure of what I’m agreeing to, I reply, “Yes, Bert, I can do this.”
We both smile, and begin the work. You tell me that there are things the dead are able to do, like walk through a room, leaving their scent, and visit the living through their dreams. But there is more. Some things would remain secret, but this meeting one-on-one would be the most ambitious experiment yet.
“Experiment?” I ask.
“Jacq, I could try to explain, or you can trust me so we can spend as much time as possible talking about the main point.”
Reluctantly I nod in agreement. “OK, I get it. Let’s start.”
“Jacq, I will speak in shorthand to try and squeeze in as much as possible. If you have a question, ask me. OK?”
Again, all I can do is nod.
“I am sitting here because you still care. It was decided.” And before I can ask him by whom, he lifts that finger again, tilts his head, and says, “Some of the other guys and a few women too thought that you’d be a good person to start with.”
I listen though my smile is dimming and there is gurgling in my stomach.
“Jacq, you still call our names and we hear you. I came to you because, while we could always laugh together and shared many a stage, we were casual friends. We knew that if one of the other guys came to you, neither would get past the kiki to get to the Q&A.”
My stomach calms down. I want to touch his hands and feel his warmth but that is against the rules. It’s late afternoon and the sun is lowering. He is wearing sunglasses and taking them off is also against the rules. I’m startled when a woman with a small child sits next to me.
“Don’t worry,” Bert says. “They can see a person sitting next to you and hear their voice, but they can’t see me or hear my voice. Do you get it?”
I am somber and, beyond reason, whisper a yes. “OK, Miss Thing,” I say, trying to lighten my state of being. “What is the what?”
“The 1980s and 1990s were difficult. Men and some women died so young. Their bodies were ravaged by disease. Too many of us died before we could figure out what we were truly meant to do.” I nod, listening intently.
“Those we left behind – friends, family, a next generation not even born …” His voice drops just a bit. Is it sadness? Regret? I wish I could read his eyes. “Jacq, you took care of a lot of people in different ways. As each person transitioned, you noted it in ways that went beyond your initial grief.”
I am crying again. So many years of lifting bodies too weak to carry their own weight. In this moment I have no words.
Bert continues, “We wonder if we made a difference. Did our deaths, our work, our way of loving, make a difference in how our communities move today?”
I rub my forehead back and forth searching for some profound words or images. But all I come up with is, “Yes, you made a difference, and we have more work to do.”
I elaborate: “So much was taken with each death. Bert, you were on the first board of directors for GMAD. They held meetings every Friday so Black men in need and desiring the company of other Black men could come together, talk, politicize, affirm their racial and sexual identities. You helped GMAD collaborate with other organizations to help strengthen the support and love and care for our people. Well, GMAD’s Friday night weekly community meetings went the way of the dodo bird. Because of online dating apps and social media, people can meet each other without ever leaving their homes. In fact, without ever building community or mutually beneficial friendships. So where does the next Craig Harris* take his art to perform for the community? Where does the lonely confused kid who just came out go after their parents have kicked them out? The Center is still there, but many of our organizations have grown and now have their own offices throughout the city. That is good. But there is no central place, there is no …”
My voice trails off. I take a deep breath and continue, “They are like other social groups that got funded as nonprofits and had to professionalize. It’s just sad. I have no suggestions that haven’t been made: cross-generational programming, focus on housing, youth street teams, stay-in-school initiatives, collaborating with the House Ball communities, etc.”
It’s Bert’s turn to take a deep breath. He audibly exhales as he leans back against the park bench. His forehead crinkles. I can tell he’s listening.
“In so many ways, it’s easier to be gay today than when we were younger. Online services make it easier to talk to kids. There are campaigns to help those coming out. Laws have changed to protect us instead of criminalizing us. You were a proper, well-educated lawyer who gave that up to teach. Imagine what it would have meant for you and the students if you were a teacher today – loving kids, educating them, opening their minds to possibilities, you as an out Black gay man? Damn, we have drag queens doing storybook time at libraries!”
Bert laughs out loud and hollers, “Alrighty Miss Thing!” with his finger snap for emphasis. His perfect, crisp, Black mother getting the attention of her child ’cause the ass whipping can’t happen in public kind of snap. I’ve so missed that.
I turn my body toward him and fold my left leg under me and say, “Yes, Miss Honey, you and the others made a difference. But there is more work, more yungins’ who don’t, to quote a line from a song, know what it’s like to have a graveyard as a friend, and how that motivates those of us left behind. HIV/AIDS is still a scourge and we have lost our urgency. Because of the meds, folks are not dropping dead in the street as they once did, but it’s still a hard way to live with that virus flowing through their veins.” Bert is nodding, but stays quiet.
“You guys, each in different ways, were my big brothas. You allowed me to hang and, by doing so, learn. That your okayness with your sexuality and your willingness to teach me about it helped me learn about my own and pass that knowledge onto others. I have worked with teen mothers who did not know where their clitoris was. I have worked with women who have never had an orgasm.”
He raises one of his thick full eyebrows as he says, “Gurl?” He snaps but, this time, to mean, “Really?”
“And some organizations are doing better than others in reaching our kids and maybe even our elders. So you wanna know if you made a difference? Yes, you laid the groundwork!” A half-smile crosses his face.
At that moment, more kids, a little older and louder, walk past our cocoon.
When we arranged to meet, I wanted to throw a party and invite those of us left behind. I’m not the only one who calls your name or is motivated by the trauma we continue to feel in our freaking bones. I’m not the only one who would want a visit and a chance to hear your voices and see your bodies, healthy and strong. George and I would cook, someone would bring cards and play music, and we would tell stories punctuated by laughter and questions and mis-remembrances and more finger snapping. We would be together again. But that would be against the rules. Strictly one-on-one.
My phone alarm goes off. I pull it out of my pocket and notice I have just 25 more minutes with you. “Damn,” I mutter. I turn toward the water again and take a deep breath. A towboat blows its horn as it passes under the bridge. The park is busier with passersby. The mother who is sitting just arm’s length away from me is bent over the baby carriage. I wonder what she sees or overhears. Does she see that I am crying? Angry? Loving you and this opportunity?
“Bert, the way Essex spoke about Black masculinity – Black men loving Black men as a revolutionary act – has inspired legions of men to understand that being gentle is affirming, not emasculating. There are Black gay and trans people on television in positive affirming roles. The way you all, we all, worked to demonstrate that Blackness and gayness is a singular and intertwining identity that we don’t have to choose one over the other. Yes, that is your legacy. Black male actors, straight or gay, can kiss on television and hug and have a sex scene. Black male writers in newspapers and magazines can come out and have careers and speak about their partners and about our communities. And yes, there will always be some who will shake their heads and suck their teeth and note the shame of it all. They are the same ones who cannot tell a sissy from a punk so I ain’t worried. If they don’t or can’t see me or you as an individual and representative of our diverse community then … ” I end with the universal Brooklyn Italian gesture for “Eff ‘em!”
My phone buzzes again. Ten minutes left. I go over a list of accomplishments that we as a community have achieved: Black president, transwomen elected officials, gay marriage, and more. But now I have questions.
“How were you able to contact me?”
“Jacq, I can’t answer that one. We worry that someone else will try to figure out how to contact us in ways that would be dangerous. Sorry.”
“I’m not even sure how to phrase this . . . Is everyone together? Are you OK? Who’s holding court? Something, give me something,” I’m pleading now. I know the next time my phone buzzes he will stand to go.
“Miss Honey,” he offers to calm me down.
I peek at the water from the corner of my eye and notice that the din on the bridge is getting louder.
“Yes, we are all OK. We are neither in a heaven or a hell, unless that’s how you’d like to think of it. In which case,” he flashes his pearly whites, rocks his head a bit, and gestures skyward, “the party’s up there!” quoting a popular refrain. We break out into laughter.
Bert thanks me. He tells me our conversation was very important, helpful. He knows I am unsatisfied. I want more details. I want more time. I want to tell him how the survivors have aged. I want to share that we caregivers live with PTSD and how it manifests in our relationships, our choices of work, our own bodies. I want to say that I quote them, I quote him. A poem he wrote more than 25 years ago still haunts me, even though he couldn’t have known that he was writing about me and my own mother, about how we kids always had to be quiet because Mommie was always sad. Yeah, there is so much more.
“Jacquie, your phone will buzz in a minute.”
I am overwhelmed by emotions. My stomach gurgles and my eyes well up. I grip the bench’s metal armrest a bit tighter.
“Gurl, we know how hard it was, and is, for you and the others. We were all so young and unprepared for that time. And yet …” His voice trails off. He rises from the bench while I stay seated not trusting that my legs will support me. Bert bends down to whisper in my ear, “Jacquie, thank you, SistaGurl.”
On cue, my phone buzzes. I don’t bother to check it. I know what it means. As he walks away, the city noises rise to their normal levels.
*Craig G. Harris was an Afrofemcentric griot, community health educator, AIDS activist, and staff member of Gay Men’s Health Crisis, who died on November 26, 1991, at St. Luke’s Hospital of HIV-related complications. He was 33 years old. Mr. Harris’ articles, essays, and poetry have appeared in a variety of publications, including The Advocate, The New York Native, OutWeek, and Art & Understanding, and in the following anthologies: The Road Before Us, Tongues Untied, and Brother to Brother.
© Jacquie Bishop 2019