Over the course of the years (jeez) that I’ve been keeping this blog online, I’ve written a few entries that I should’ve classified under a single tag—a tag called And Then He Died.
They all have basically the same kind of structure. I set up a memory of a time in my life when I was much younger—my childhood in Virginia, for example, or the long and laughing years I spent in college. I describe another man, or another boy, and how we connected and became lovers. Or perhaps I describe how we didn’t become intimate, or understand each other much at all. I mourn the lost innocence, or the bungled connection. And then (if you were reading the first paragraph, this won’t come as much of a shock) the person dies.
Not like, right in front of me or anything. Off-stage, discreetly, for me to discover much later, so I can feel badly about what I’d lost. Whether it was a friendship, or something never quite achieved, I’m always keenly aware of what can’t and never will be replaced.
I’ve been laying low this week because I haven’t felt like writing a And Then He Died entry. I just can’t do it, this time. So I’ll jump right to the ending of the entry I could’ve written in place of this one and let you know right off: an old lover of mine died recently.
I first knew Jan twenty-five years ago, when I was in graduate school. He wasn’t a friend of mine exactly, though we did know each other by sight. Though he was tall and lightly muscular, and although his voice was deep and grave, he always seemed fragile. He wore his hair long, down past his shoulder blades. He spoke softly, barely above a whisper, so that one had to lean in and keep quiet to hear him. His eyes were gentle. When he listened, he cocked his head like a bird, and rested upon the speaker a gaze that I can only recall as pure, as if all his concentration was focused upon that moment. He was a musician, primarily. He used his long and lean fingers to play the guitar. Not loud metal. Soft and sweet music of his own composition, which he would strum into life from the strings of his acoustic guitar.
It was rumored for a very long time that he was having an affair with one of our professors. It wasn’t until a few years later, when I joked with the professor about it, that her shock and panic that I’d heard such a thing convinced me the rumor had been true. Yes, a she. I remember being as surprised about that as any of us. As I said, though Jan wasn’t effeminate in any direct sense, his gentleness and shyness gave him what I can only call an air of the feminine. I’d always assumed he was gay. I remember hearing the multiple rumors about his affair with the faculty member, thinking to myself, Good on you, Jan, for defying my preconceived notions about you, and not making any further effort to get to know him.
Which was a mistake. A few years later we found ourselves in the same musical ensemble, where we sat side by side. Every week over the course of a couple of years I got to know him better both as a person and as a musician. I grew to look forward to his gentle asides, and the way he’d hug me goodbye at the end of the night. When he confided in a mutual friend that he found me attractive and had a crush on me, she immediately came to me with the news. I was tickled at the news, and flattered, and genuinely touched. Because we were all acting like fourth-graders, she immediately went back to him with the information. Eventually the two of us slowly, shyly, and tentatively agreed to go out on a date together.
Which meant we made vague noises after rehearsal about going out to dinner, and then he came over to my place one evening that week, took off his coat, and spent the rest of the evening in my bed.
I remember that night well. We stood in my kitchen, leaning against the counters with our arms folded over our own chests. We flirted like mad, and endured awkward silences in which all we could do was grin big-toothed grins at each other. Finally I leaned into him, and took the back of his head in my hand, and pulled him down to me, for a long and lingering first kiss. Yes, he was that tall.
We made love in the dark upstairs. Everything we did was gentle, and sweet, and slow. We smiled at each other between kisses, and laughed at the way he would tingle and tickle at my light touch. We relished each other’s little gasps and sighs as we explored each other’s bodies. My dick hardened like cement when he pulled my ear to his lips and whispered that he wanted me inside him. It was probably one of the longest attempts at penetration I’ve ever taken with an adult—I think it took me nearly an hour to get all the way in him, because I was taking it so slowly. I’d grind and push myself in a millimeter at a time, so that he barely knew he was taking a little more with every push. He hadn’t been fucked in years and years, he told me in whispers, and he’d never before enjoyed it.
He did with me. I fulfilled that fantasy for him. I made it sweet, and slow, and painless. When I made him reach behind to see how I was buried all the way inside him, he was so overcome with emotion and happiness that he shook. Shortly after he came in my hand, as I held him tightly and told him how truly remarkable he was. He finally went home early the next morning, happy and grateful.
And that was it. We never fucked again. He came to rehearsal later that week and handed me a hand-penned note in which he explained that he’d fallen in love with me that night. He knew that I wasn’t in any place to have the relationship he wanted. It would be wiser for him, he explained, not to carry on a physical relationship with me when it would only make him yearn for something he couldn’t have. He watched me read it, and then—characteristic Jan—worriedly asked if he’d hurt my feelings.
He hadn’t. And I understood. On some level I knew it was wrong to make him love me, when it was happening. Jan always seemed fragile, as I said; though I coddled him like an egg through that fuck, I should have been more aware that doing so would awaken in him feelings that I wouldn’t return. I did love him. I loved him dearly for his sweet nature and for the tenderness he shared with me that night. But I couldn’t give him the strings he wanted, he knew without having to ask.
The pain lasted for only a few weeks. We learned how to negotiate around that elephant in the room between us, and didn’t speak of it again. We became friends. Good friends, even. Not the kind of friends who swap fucks, but the kind of friends who always had a lot to share, whenever we saw each other. He was there for my birthday parties, right up until I moved. He was there the night before I moved, at my going-away party.
Still. I knew every time we looked at each other just a little longer than usual, and when our gazes rested upon each other and we’d simply blink our eyes and smile. I knew what he was thinking, and he knew how I felt, too.
He didn’t take care of himself, though. Jan suffered greatly from a couple of genetic diseases that ran in his family. He didn’t have health insurance. He lived alone in a decrepit old house he was trying to renovate. He wouldn’t see a doctor unless it was urgent. Apparently by the time he sought care the last time, it was too late.
So I’ve been wandering around this last week, a little dazed and confused and reminded of my own mortality. At the holiday time of year, no less.
But if there’s anything that any of us need to take away from this sort of thing, it’s this: make your moments sweet. Take the time to lie with someone, to connect with them, to make them the center of your universe for a few minutes, or hours, or days, or years. Create memories of which the both of you will be proud, and of which you’ll be fond for a lifetime.
And make those sweet moments last. Not just as they’re happening, but afterward. Write them down so you won’t forget them, as I obsessively do. Share them so that others can benefit. And revisit them yourself, not with regret or with lingering fear or sorrow, but with the freshness of the day on which they were conceived. Honor those memories, and the men and women who helped create them.
That’s the best memorial anyone could ask.