Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Planet of the Joannes

There were a couple of years in the late nineteen-eighties, as my desire to finish a doctorate in grad school fizzled, in which I took a clerical job to pay the bills. It wasn't a spectacularly high-paying position, nor was it all that dignified—it primarily involved sitting in a dank windowless room off a lost corridor, and transcribing dictaphone tapes made by various faculty at the university.

The cramped office stunk of tobacco, thanks to my alcoholic, bat-shit-crazy boss, a man of little education and even less couth. When he wasn't sitting in his desk chair blatantly reading Playboy and Hustler, he was making passes at secretaries in the building and then, when they'd scatter in fear at his approach, would proclaim them "goddamn lesbians." It was a tedious existence. I needed the money, though. And in the weeks after my sexual assault, my instinct was to shut out the world as much as possible, to wall myself away. That dark, smelly room was my cloister, and the mind-numbing droning of the faculty whenever I clamped on those headphones felt like sanctuary.

For a couple of months I worked alone, but then my tiny office was rearranged one day to accommodate another desk. Soon another transcriber invaded my monastic solitude. His name was Geoffrey. He was a narrow-shouldered guy who came up to my sternum, with a head full of strawberry-blond hair. On a big, bulbous nose rested a pair of very geeky horn-rimmed glasses. Elvis Costello glasses, they were. He was skittish of me at first and I of him. I had a paranoid few days in which I imagined our boss had planted him in there in order to keep an eye on me. I began to relax, though, when I realized that Geoffrey was gay; I heard him talk to what I had to assume was a significant other on the phone, a few times a day. I understood from his guarded, non-gendered references and carefully-neutral words that he was trying not to give away that he was seeing another man.

After that realization, I opened up and Geoffrey and I rapidly became friends. We were both the same age, and both had a particular disdain for our boss. "Fucking asshole," Geoffrey would mutter under his breath, whenever that Marlboro-scented storm cloud would loom on the horizon. We bonded over the strange bureaucracy of our division, too. The vice-president of our school was guarded by two administrative assistants and an academic services officer, all three of whom were named Joanne, and all three of whom were joined at the hip. They lunched together. They gossiped together during work hours. They all chattered in high-pitched, rapid voices. "Planet of the Joannes," I nicknamed the fourth floor one day, and Geoffrey started to laugh so hard that he had to slump against the wall with tears in his eyes.

After that we were constant work friends. We lunched outdoors, munching on sandwiches even in the coldest weather, to rid ourselves of the tobacco stink. "I have something to tell you," he said one day over our meal, perhaps a month into our acquaintance. "I'm into guys."

"I am too," I replied.

He seemed relieved, and commented that he'd thought so, but that he'd really had no way of telling. "And another thing," he said. And I remember the very formal way in which he said these following words, because the defensiveness and awkwardness of them struck me in a way that made me wonder how many times he'd said them before, and how badly they'd been received. "I have unfortunately been infected with the Human Immunodeficiency Virus."

“That’s okay,” I told him. “Thanks for telling me.”

Hearing him say the words was something of a shock. Yet I wasn’t surprised. Geoffrey and I sat close enough that even over the stink of cigarettes in that office I knew his smell. I’d grown up with a mother whose odor changed with every new pharmaceutical regimen. I knew how medicines change a person’s scent. Geoffrey’s pores exuded a sharp tang that I can only describe as being like the metallic overtones of a diarrhea smell, but without its organic nastiness. It wasn’t vile; it was merely sharp, and distinguishable. I knew he was taking pills for something. It didn’t surprise me that it was for HIV.

These were still the sad and early days of the AIDS crisis. Geoffrey was a novelty. Not for having HIV, but for admitting it. I’d known a couple of people by that point who’d died, but they’d gone off to New York or San Francisco and met their demises offstage, so to speak. I’d never known anyone living with it, day to day, before him.

I got to know Geoffrey’s daily routine with his pills. It seemed as if there were dozens of them that he’d take throughout the day when the timer on his watch would beep. By that point in our friendship he’d tell me what each of them was and what it was for, as he’d down them without water in our little back room. “Down you go,” he’d say, over and over again. “Do your dirty work!”

By that point we were seeing less and less of our boss. The university had instituted a no-smoking rule in its buildings, and he was spending a lot of time ‘working from home,’ which meant that Geoffrey and I were largely unsupervised. We’d do our tasks in the mornings, then sit in the back room and listen to alternative radio while we talked in the afternoons, or visit the Planet of the Joannes so that we could laugh at them later. Sometimes we’d just head out into the sunshine and wile away the hours. Our super-sneaky boss liked to throw in a phone call to the office at five minutes to five, on the days he worked at home, just to make sure we were still there; we’d creep back in the office just under the wire and pretend to have been good boys all the day long.

It was on one of our afternoon trips that Geoffrey gravely informed me that some singer we both liked—I think it might have been Annie Lennox, but I’m shaky on that point—had HIV. She’d announced it to the press and everything he told me. “Oh no,” I said. “Not her. She’s too good for that!”

He turned beet red. “So do you think that only bad people get the disease?” he snapped.

I never made that mental mistake again, ever.

Because Geoffrey was a sweet and good soul. He dearly loved his boyfriend, a man in Chicago who lacked the means to help him move there, and longed for the days they could finally be together. He had a gentle good humor and a prankster’s sense of fun that made our ventures to the Planet of the Joannes infinitely less painful than they could have been.

At the same time, he had a deep, voracious sexuality. At some point we began to compare sexual experiences and it came out that we both were fans of one of the restrooms on campus—a men’s room so notorious that researchers had installed one-way mirrors in it during the nineteen-fifties so they could study cruising behaviors (it was assumed by then that no one was watching through them, but who knew?). And gradually, on occasion, on our unsupervised afternoon tours around campus, we’d walk to the other end of the university and down into the basement together, and I’d watch him go hog wild.

The restroom was one of those places in the remote bowels of the building where very few people ventured. Anyone down there was looking for sex, plain and simple. I’d act as lookout so that Geoffrey could suck dick until he’d had his fill. Often he’d undo his shirt and kneel there on the floor with a cock in his mouth and another waiting nearby, its owner stroking and watching, while Geoffrey played with his own meat, stiffened by a cock ring. He had skin as pale as mine and the very lightest covering of blond hair on his body. When he sucked, it was with total abandon. His glasses would end up askew on his face. He’d have cum and sweat and saliva dripping down his neck and chest, and spattering his work shirt. He’d particularly go wild over black men, gargling and strangling over their tools with a gusto I haven’t seen outside of porn.

Then, when he was done, or there were no more cocks to service, he’d straighten his spectacles, wipe off his face with a damp paper towel, grin and thank me, and then catch up on whatever pills he’d missed during the session.

We never had sex. Geoffrey was more of a brother to me than anything, and though I didn’t mind being his lookout or even his pimp in the restroom, I never wanted anything more of him. I’m not sure I could have, even. I wasn’t so ignorant that I considered him off-limits or untouchable because of his medical condition, but I hadn’t yet made my peace with those risks. It was probably fortunate for us both that the attraction simply wasn’t there.

I didn’t know at the time how very badly off Geoffrey really was. Daytimes he was lucid and intelligent, creative and chatty. Nighttimes, when I didn’t see him, were apparently when things went south for him. I visited his house once and discovered that it was a maze of Post-It notes and scrawled reminders; apparently he had an advanced-enough case of dementia, combined with the effects of the drugs he was taking, that he would lose track of time, or which of his regimented tasks he was supposed to be doing. If he didn’t stick to a very strict schedule on his own, he could get stuck in a loop for hours.

“I think I’ve made dinner four times,” he would say over the phone to me, some evenings. “But I don’t remember eating at all.” Or, “I had a note to call my mother tonight, but she told me I’d already called her twice before.”

“Do you need me to come over?” I’d ask.

“No,” he’d say in a tiny voice, sometimes. Or sometimes he’d say nothing, and I’d drive up Woodward to his small home, and sit with him on the sofa watching television, until it was time for him to go to bed.

During the daytime he was funny and sweet and lucid. At night, though, with his hairy ankles sticking out of the feet of his pajamas, he looked like a little, lost boy.

We worked together for less than a year. Geoffrey’s symptoms were far enough along that they’d begun shaving away at his life. He had to give him up a beloved cat because of a toxoplasmosis scare. His good hours during the day became fewer, and out of fear of blackouts he had to leave earlier in the afternoons to drive home safely. Soon he stopped working altogether; his boyfriend in Chicago finally found the means to help him move. I got a letter from him the month after he left—a silly, bitchy breath of fresh air in which he asked me about the Planet of the Joannes and wished me sincere luck in coping with the alcoholic boss.

Then a few weeks after that, I heard he was gone. A twinkling little light in my life, extinguished, off stage.

I’m writing this memory of Geoffrey in the very small hours of the morning. I’ve been unable to sleep; the medicine the doctor prescribed for me last week doesn’t seem to be working.

All this restless night I’ve been thinking about Geoffrey, and his sweet and gentle presence, and how much I liked him as a friend. Both of us were wandering and a little alone, back there in that dim office in the building’s lost corridor. How could we have ended up there, else? And yet, for a time, I like to hope our companionship elevated us both—helping me step back into the sunshine again with tentative steps, and keeping him a few steps ahead of a darkness that at every turn threatened to swallow him whole.

I remember you, Geoffrey. It pains me to the core to think about your loss. But I remember.


  1. Thanks for Sharing That.
    Kevin S on G+

  2. Thanks for this post. I'm sure that many readers will have know someone who also died from HIV/AIDS. May they all rest in peace.

  3. Thank you, Rob. I wish more people would not make that "mental mistake" here. I find that I protect myself from...well, the world with my rote "I'm HIV+" statement (you've experienced it). It keeps the guys away, guys who typically either treat me as a poor, sick fool, a leper, or honestly even worse the most dangerous roller coaster ride they could's rather lonely. And I'm happy that you are in my life, even at this remove.

    Even today, my older HIV+ friends - sorry, that should be singular - say that most of the meds he takes are just as bad for him as the disease but that he puts up with his guinea pig status so that those who come after (me) can be happy with taking only one pill a day, and even then sometimes, I wake up in the morning, after a night of dreams that leave me wondering if a TV has been installed in my brain, wondering what the hell I did last night.


  4. What a beautiful tribute to your friend and his memory. Thank you for sharing your memories of him. And I hope you are feeling better soon and whatever ails you passes quickly.

  5. You truly are a great writer. Yesterdays post made me laugh and today's cry. This is why I read your blog. I like the sex stories but, these are what bring me back. Thank you.

  6. Good Mr Steed, I thank you for this one particularly. Long ago I scoured Manhattan looking for a wristwatch that could accommodate the five daily alarms I needed to stay on track with my then drug regimen. I remember clearly how my body would smell differently each time a medication was added/subtracted -- occasionally quite vile, I'm sorry to say, but fortunately those were limited to short-course treatments for this or that.

    In the +/- 30 years I've been living with HIV, almost 25 have featured eating a fantastic number of pills daily. At one point I think the total daily 'pill burden' was 32, which didn't include the over-the-counter allergy & ache & pain meds, or the short-course treatments that happened from time to time. Luckily I am down to a relatively tiny collection of drugs, and the best part is they don't make me feel like shit all the time.

    Your Geoffrey reminds me of too many gone from my life, reminds me of where I was clearly and inexorably heading (before truly effective, if wretched, treatment came along). Against all the suffering and loss of the last three decades my absurd survival is proof, albeit inelegant, that the universe is deeply perverse.

  7. Last week I was just thinking of a best buddy who died almost 17 years ago and how things were at the end and now you write this blog. I usually only think about it all on Halloween since that is when he died.

    Weird how just out of the blue we both stopped to think of someone from days gone by who is no longer with us, but touched our hearts.

  8. This is a beautiful remembrance, my friend. If there is an afterlife where we can view those we care for, I am sure Geoffrey is there, right now, smiling happily at how you have brought his existence back to life with your writing. I don't know if you wrote this last night, or many nights ago, but I'm feeling glad I sent you the message I sent before bed last night. Whether or not you've read it already doesn't matter. It was simply a message to cherish a friendship. Posts like this one remind me why it is so important to cherish the friendships we have. Thank you for that.


  9. Thanks for writing such a wonderful memory of a fellow soul and giving me another reminder that people do care. Today is the first anniversary of my diagnosis.

  10. I have tears in my eyes. Your readers' comments are as beautiful as the story itself.


  11. I shed tears for Geoffrey and others your writing so vividly brought back to me. hal

  12. what's wrong? I hope you are doing better.


  13. So long as the stories of a life are remembered, told, and heard - that life lives on. Thank you for expanding our lives by bringing Geoffrey into them - and for extending his by remembering him and giving him voice here...

  14. what a beautifully bittersweet reminiscence about a friend we lost to the epidemic. that your relationship with him blossomed after your own personal tragedy seems at the very least a small blessing to counteract the horror of that experience. i'm glad you had each other and i'm glad you shared him with all of us. i think we all bear a responsibility to remember those we have lost to HIV/AIDS. some sew those memories into the Quilt, others have danced or painted those memories, and you have written yours beautifully.

  15. Rob,

    You amaze me with your writing and your compassion. You sharing the story of Geoffrey shows your compassion and a great remembrance for your friend. Always remember the great things about him and what he brought out in you. We all deserve a great friend like you were to him!

    Hugs my friend

    Vers RAW Piggy Bttm

  16. Thank you for this beautiful and personal share. I hope that all of us in your fan club and peanut gallery can remain civil and upbeat about these very tender topics.

    You know how people on the internet are. I'm sending you love and comfort in advance of jerks writing mean things on the blog.

    Haters gonna hate, right?

    This is a poignant and bittersweet story. The sex part was hot too.

    All humans are human beings, everybody.


  17. Thank you for introducing us to Geoffrey. A beautiful tribute to your friend and your friendship.

  18. A wonderful tribute, even more so because you still remember how Geoffrey touched your life. So many men went to their deaths needlessly because of a government that didn't give a damn about them because so many of those who could have helped though people with HIV "deserved to be sick" (and die). A so-called civilized nation thought it death was an appropriate "punishment" for two men who shared physical love. Geoffrey and so many other men like him were martyrs to this shameful chapter of history.

  19. Rob my friend,
    That was a very emotional post for me because my best friend first boyfriend that i kne has AIDS and he died 8 years ago. Some week-ends, when my best friend had place to go, he ask me if a could keep and eye on him and i was glad i made it. I saw his life getting worse and went to see him one day and he died the next one. Now, his current boyfriend is working for AIDS research and he gives conference from time to time all over Canada and the USA. We still talk about him from time to time. Just want to say thank you for that wonderful post my friend.


  20. A simple, beautiful evocation of Geoffrey, who seems to live on this page.

  21. Many memories of those of have gone early. But we do remember and think of them often...

  22. The sad thing is most of these guys die without many friends or anyone to help them. I continue to see that where I live. When they die, no one seems to know until days/weeks later. Wish these guys were more open to others that they need help.