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.