This weekend was the 25th anniversary of the 6th International AIDS Conference in San Francisco, and ACT UP’s week of protests — so I’m reposting this.
During the worst years of the AIDS crisis, I was relatively lucky. I wasn’t one of the people who lost almost every one of their friends; who went to three funerals a week; who was on half a dozen care teams at a time; who lost a partner to AIDS, and then another, and then another. I just didn’t have a lot of gay male friends back then: I’ve always hung out with straight people as much as queers, and even at times when I’ve had more queer friends than straight ones, most of them have been women. I’ve always felt a weird survivor guilt about it, actually: in the ’80s and early ’90s, the queer community went through what could reasonably be called a holocaust, and for the most part, I was only ever on the fringes of it.
I didn’t lose a lot of people to AIDS. But I lost one. And the one I lost was… how shall I put this?
At any given time in my life, there have been a pretty small handful of people I’ve considered to be real friends. Capital F Friends. Friends I could call any time, day or night; friends I could say anything to; friends I never ran out of things to say to; friends who got stuff about me that nobody else got. Friends who seemed to feel the same way about me. Friends whose crises and arguments and late-night phone calls felt like a gift. At any given time in my life, I’ve had maybe half a dozen people in my life who were like that.
Rob was one of those people. I assumed we’d be friends for decades.
I wrote this piece over twenty years ago. I never published it anywhere except my Website and my blog. I’m printing it here unedited, as it was when I finished it in 1992.
The Times I Miss Rob
by Greta Christina
The times I miss Rob the most go like this: I’m reading the paper, I come across some article about dinosaurs or black holes or genetically engineered sheep, and I think, I should ask Rob about this, he’s a science guy, he’d know something about it. The thought flicks by, just for a passing moment, and then — boom. I remember, and remembering is like being kicked in the chest from inside, and he dies all over again.
You don’t realize how often you think about someone until every time you think about them hurts.
This is going to sound ridiculously self-evident, but the thing about someone being dead is that they are no longer alive. They don’t change, they don’t get older, they don’t do new stuff that they can tell you about or meet new people they can introduce you to or come up with outrageous new ideas that you can argue with. You don’t have their life as part of your life anymore. What you have instead are memories, like a videotape; and, like a videotape, memories are static, changing only in that they disintegrate. You remember, maybe, what they said about the ethical responsibilities of the scientific community or your relationship with your parents, but you can’t ask them now, what do they think about it now, what is different now from a year ago, or two years, or ten, the last time you talked with them about it, the last time they had an opinion, the last time they were alive.
One of the more frustrating things about a death is the way your memory fades. When someone is alive, you are reminded each time you speak, or write, or see their face, of who this person is. They change, and the change, whether promising or disturbing or just plain there, reminds you of the fact of their life. The event of their death, the crisis and break, separates you from the one who has died, perhaps even more than the actual fact that they are dead. You immerse in the pain of the loss, and lose touch a little with exactly what it is you have lost. You shy away, at first, from images of the dead person, flinch, pull back from the pain that’s still too sharp. Later, when the grief passes a bit and you begin to want to remember…so much gets lost without the weekly phone call, the dinner-and-a-movie, the silly thing in the paper you cut out to send them, the reminder. The image becomes fuzzy, your love for them becomes vague, almost generic. You remember that he liked animals, argued for pleasure, enjoyed his body, was shy about talking about sex. These things mean nothing. They read like a personal ad.
This death has brought up ugly thoughts in me, unspeakable thoughts, thoughts that make me cringe. I want to acquire the status and respect due to a survivor of tragedy by telling everyone about it. I want to protect and hoard my grief by not telling anyone about it. I want to tell his other friends and gain the power of bearing important news. I don’t want to tell his other friends and have to deal with their goddamn grief, too. I want to make people be nice to me and do what I want because my friend has died. I don’t want to get close to another person with HIV and go through this again. I want to prove that he was exceptional in order to make my grief seem less ordinary. I really belong to the gay community now that I’ve had a close friend die of AIDS. I wonder if they’ll have decent food at the wake. I wonder what’s happening to his fabulous art collection. I wonder if I was mentioned in his will.
I think these things, and know them to be ugly, absurd, stupid and silly and no way to live at all. I don’t even want to give them power by speaking or writing them.
I also don’t want to give them power by not speaking or writing them.
One of the facts here is that Rob is a victim of the epidemic. This does not make his death any less special or individual. What it does, instead, is to make the epidemic far more personal. It makes my anger over the epidemic far more visceral. It makes me realize yet another absurdly obvious fact: that every single one of the hundreds of thousands of people killed by this virus had friends who loved them, families that annoyed them, books they wanted to read, work they hadn’t finished. Each of them, like Rob, was an individual, with a life that took up space in the world. Each of them left behind people who feel the way that I feel now.
I realize that I’ve said very little so far about Rob himself. I’m sure that’s intentional. For one thing, I’m a coward about pain, and it hurts to remember him. But it also hurts to remember, and not be able to explain. Describing what Rob was like is proving to be a sad and angry exercise in futility, a struggle through storm and mud that winds up in a shopping mall. “Handsome, intelligent, wealthy gay white man, graduate student in genetics, loves art, animals, the outdoors, reading, performance art, playing piano, working out, dining, dancing, and lovemaking…” No. So I’m not going to try to tell you who he was. I’m going to tell you about some things we did.
I remember riding with him in his fire-engine red Porsche 944, telling him about some book I’d found interesting, and watching him make a detour to pull into a bookstore and buy it right then and there.
I remember going to Disneyland and taking LSD with him and his friend Steve, and each of us having our own little areas of Disneyland fear and resistance that we had to overcome. Mine was Space Mountain, Steve’s was the spinning teacups, and Rob’s was It’s A Small World. I remember Rob being very, very stubborn about not wanting to go to It’s A Small World. I remember his outright terror of the figure-skating penguins and the smiling pink-and-purple hippos doing kneebends and the three-foot-tall cute and adorable People Of All Colors And Nations, all singing that stupid fucking interminable song. I remember he was the last of the three of us to capitulate. I remember him enjoying it in spite of himself, and fuming at us about it anyway.
I remember a long and fierce argument we had over the telephone (one of many lengthy and expensive long-distance phone conversations) about some writing I’d done. I remember him trying very hard to understand why I cared enough about society and social constructs to spend my time arguing against them.
I remember yet another long-distance phone call, sitting in my San Francisco apartment and calling him up at his beach house in Laguna to tell him about some article I’d read about a new theory of evolution. I remember talking with him for hours about kin selection and the possible evolutionary value of homosexuality in mammals and the work he was doing on the genetic causes of aging in fruit flies. I remember thinking that he was only person I knew who thought this stuff was interesting.
I remember talking with him about a performance piece he was thinking about doing, something about the military metaphors used to discuss AIDS, and suddenly being whisked off to the toy store to buy dozens and dozens of little plastic soldiers and tanks and astronauts and space aliens and cowboys and Indians and farm animals; then sitting for hours in some generically decent Southern California restaurant, eating our generically decent Southern California sandwiches, and playing with these dozens and dozens of little plastic war toys, arranging and re-arranging them on the table, putting them in our water glasses to see if they’d float, giggling, confusing the waitresses, and discussing performance art.
I remember doing a Tarot reading for him, a year or so before he died, on the question of whether or not he was going to die of AIDS. I remember wanting to tell him, “You stupid git, you have AIDS, of course you’re going to die of it,” and I remember wanting to tell him, “Don’t talk like that, you’re never going to die,” and I remember flipping up one card — The Magician. I remember him saying that the card meant his death was under his power, that he wouldn’t die of anything he didn’t want to, and wouldn’t die until he was ready. I remember hoping to God that it was true, because anyone who got as much of a kick out of living as Rob did would never be ready to die.
I remember getting mad at the cards for lying to me.
Shortly after Rob died, I went to his house, where his belongings were being dealt with and sorted and handed out, and found myself becoming grasping and greedy, piling up stacks of his things (books and music, mostly) to take home with me. I took weird, almost random things: things that seemed to capture the essence of what I loved about him, or that seemed to capture the essence of what I never knew about him and now never would. I took things I admired but would probably never read or listen to, things that reminded me of something he’d once said, things I just plain wanted, things I didn’t even particularly like. I seemed to believe that having the books he’d loved in my possession would, in some way, be like having the person who loved those books in my life. I seemed to believe that I could read a book he’d had that I’d never read, and discover another piece of his nature, thereby keeping him a little bit alive.
Now I find myself rarely reading those books or listening to those pieces of music. When I pick one up, I don’t think, This is something Rob liked, and therefore I’m likely to enjoy it as well. I think, This is Rob’s, and the reason I have it is because he is dead.
So I have these weird aberrations on my shelves; huge volumes of modern poetry, stacks of gigantic color-plate books on surrealism, an almost-complete set of the works of Philip Glass that I would never in a million years have collected and that has to be explained to every new visitor who comes to my house and looks over my music. No, I say hurriedly, I’m not that crazy about Philip Glass, I didn’t buy those, they belonged to a friend of mine who died. Most of my visitors are queer. None of them asks how my friend died.
And now I sit at my keyboard, with a dead man’s jacket in the closet behind my back, trying to finish this piece, not wanting to finish it, hating to write it, not willing to abandon it. Rob died on August 18, 1991: I started writing this almost immediately, and now, more than a year later, I find myself struggling to finish it. I started it to get some closure on his death and my grief, and now I don’t want to end it because that would mean getting some closure on his death and my grief. I have a not-so-irrational fear that, by completing this work, I will be closing another door on Rob, saying yet another goodbye to him. And I hate that. I hate it, I hate it, I hate it.
-San Francisco, 1992
Greta Christina is author of four books: Comforting Thoughts About Death That Have Nothing to Do with God, Coming Out Atheist: How to Do It, How to Help Each Other, and Why, Why Are You Atheists So Angry? 99 Things That Piss Off the Godless, and Bending: Dirty Kinky Stories About Pain, Power, Religion, Unicorns, & More.