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Monday, April 12, 2010

BEACHES

I seem to remember reading the jacket on a VHS copy of the movie “Beaches” that read something like, “Two friends who have nothing in common except a lifelong friendship.” That perfectly describes my relationship with Steve.

I met him at one of the worst times of my life just after coming out to my parents and being dumped by my first love. I’d turned seventeen in January and I met Steve right around the end of February 1972 just as he’d turned nineteen. He was with his boyfriend John Paul and I ran into them in the lobby of the Carolina Theater I worked after school, we hit it off right away. Like most people I’ve become friends with over the years, Steve liked me because he thought I had a great sense of humor and I wasn’t effeminate like a lot of the guys he’d met. Since he was in the Air Force stationed at Pope Air Force Base there in Fayetteville he couldn’t afford to have nellie friends. For some reason I’d been told of a strict rule back then that “sisters” didn’t have sex. I think we may have heard it from my friend Charlie, so at all times during our friendship, even when we shared the same bed, we never touched one another.
I began spending a lot of time with John Paul and Steve and soon met John Paul’s roommate Gordon. Gordon had been married and had a nine year old daughter. He didn’t look or act gay which I’m sure worked in his favor since he was a mechanic at the Buick dealership. It wasn’t long before Gordon and I pared up and began having sex. He wasn’t really my type, but the dirty fingernails and his ruggedly handsome face attracted me to this tough acting guy. He was kinky in bed and insisted that I open my eyes and look straight into his when he came while fucking me. I guess it was a power trip with him. He was the one who gave me my first case of crabs and I refused to have sex with him after that. It was the same time I suspect he gave the crabs to a pretty young girl who worked in Charlie’s father’s jewelry store. Charlie almost laughed in her face when she said, “Gordon’s the kind of guy that would give you crabs.” I guess we both had a thing for “Grease Monkeys”.

Within two months of meeting Steve he had to go out of town to spend a few days with his parent’s in Charlotte. John Paul and Gordon invited me to go out drinking with them one Saturday night. I guess John Paul was jealous of my friendship with Steve because when we got back to his mobile home that night he started some shit with me about my relationship with Steve. “You two are fucking aren’t you?” he wanted to know. I said, “No, we’re just friends. “Oh don’t hand me that shit. I know you two motherfuckers are sleeping together behind my back!” his voice suddenly growing louder. We went back and forth with him accusing me and me telling him nothing was going on between us. Then he said, “You know what? Not only do I not believe you, I don’t like you and I’m going to beat the shit out of you.” As I was trying to get out the sliding glass door at the front of the trailer he reached around me, locked it, and started punching me in the face. Gordon just stood there watching, but at one point John Paul told him to go and get the gun and he disappeared down the hall returning with a pistol in hand. John broke my nose and chipped a front tooth, so blood was pouring everywhere. I decided he might beat the hell out of me, or kill me, but I wasn't going to make it easy for him. I kicked the glass door until it shattered in a hundred pieces, then rushed out the door to my mothers car yelling at the top of my lungs, “Help, help, somebody help me!” At that point I’d opened the door and got behind the wheel, but he blocked me from shutting the door and held a piece of the glass to my throat. It was then that I realized he had the keys to my mother’s car because he'd driven us home. I started yelling louder and honking the horn so much that it broke the metal horn ring of the mother’s green 1969 Mercury Monterey. “Give me the fucking keys you bastard, give me the fucking keys!” I screamed. He slapped me across the face and my head jerked to the right slinging blood all over the inside of the windshield. By that time dogs were barking and lights were going on everywhere so he threw the car keys at me and threatened, “If call the police you little faggot I swear I’ll kill you.” I slammed his hand in the glass of the door and locked it, then as he was trying to pull his hand out, I got the keys in the ignition and stomped the accelerator causing the tires to squeal. I turned the car around and tried to run him over as I was leaving. I’d have done it too, but he stepped behind his ancient red Triumph before I could reach him. I’d always been taught that if someone threatens you with harm don’t go quietly, raise hell, scream, yell, do whatever it takes to get attention and get the hell out of there.

My parent's called the police and filed charges against him, but he always hid from them and didn't show up in court. He and Gordon went AWOL from his rented trailer and their jobs. He had prior charges and outstanding warrants, but as far as I know nothing ever happened to him at least while I still lived there. A few months later I saw Gordon and him at a light. I was in my dark blue 1965 Chevrolet Impala convertible and he was in some car I’d never seen before. They started cruising me, but as soon as they recognized me they hauled ass so fast I couldn't get their license number.

After that Steve and I became even closer and began spending every free moment together. By that summer I’d been promoted to projectionist and had Saturdays off while I worked the evening shift for three hundred dollars a month. We must’ve put five thousand miles on my old convertible “Samantha” that summer hitting the gay bars in every city in the state of North Carolina. Even though I was only seventeen I was only carded once in Charlotte and when I said, “I left my driver’s license in the car I’ll have to go back and get it,” The guy said, “Don’t worry about it, you look old enough.” I was actually standing in the “Pegasus” bar in Chapel Hill, when a troll of an ABC liquor control board agent pulled a college student out of the bar and arrested him. The guy had been standing right next to me. Back then people still harassed gays in any way, shape, or form, they could. On one of our trips the Loretta Lynn tour bus passed my car and honked as they pulled ahead. There were four of us in the car with the top down drinking beer and we waved and honked back. I’ll never know if the “Queen of Country Music” herself saw us or not.

I’m not sure when he did it, but Steve had put in a transfer to Taiwan, or Thailand, I can’t remember now which one it was, but I was heartbroken at the thought of loosing my best friend and we did everything we could that summer before he had to leave in November. When we were both broke, which was often, we would go around to car dealerships looking at the new cars when they were closed. Steve was certain he wanted a new Oldsmobile Toronado, while I was torn between a boat tailed Buick Riviera, or a Thunderbird. We had all kinds of dreams and plans and we decided that after high school I should enlist in the Air Force and get stationed at the same base. We even found our dream home by going around to all the mobile home dealerships in town that had their trailers open on Sundays, so people could walk through them. We found one called “The Bachelor II” it had a master suite at each end of the trailer and you shared the living room, dining room, and kitchen. We decided that would be the perfect home for us. Steve and I spoke often about our hopes and dreams for the future and we always saw ourselves as being best friends forever. We even decided that we’d go to the old queen’s home for the aged when we got too old to take care of each other and we’d laugh about sitting out on the front porch looking at all the young cute guys as they walked by. Steve always insisted he wanted to die before he turned thirty because by then he’d be too old to attract anyone. We often talked about what it would be like knowing someone for twenty years, it seemed like such a long time to us back then.

I cried when we hugged for the last time before he left to go overseas. He sold his car and only took some of his clothes. Whatever else he had went to his parent’s house in Charlotte. I always admired the relationship Steve had with his father, they were close and his father truly loved him, something I’d never had. The year he was over there we exchanged letters constantly. One of my biggest regrets was when in one of my many moves I decided to throw those old letters away. By that time they seemed silly with all that talk of him saving up to buy a big stereo and a TV to bring back with him and all the trials and tribulations of boyfriends I couldn’t even remember after all those years. We discussed the latest records of The Supremes, Diana Ross and Barbara Streisand, they sure seemed important to us at the time. I’d give anything if I still had them, it was a great timeline of my life back in 1973 and 1974.

When he came back he re enlisted and he got enough money to pay cash for a new butterscotch colored 1973 Cutlass Supreme with a black vinyl top and interior. He then transferred to Goodfellow AFB in San Angelo to be close to me in Texas. We got to visit on a few weekends, but by 1975 there was some over zealous officers at Goodfellow that were having men suspected of homosexual activity followed around town. That made Steve nervous because he’d been questioned on one occasion, so he transferred to Los Angeles. I didn’t see him again for four years.

In 1979 I flew out to L.A. twice to visit him, and we had a good time seeing the Queen Mary, Universal Studios, homes of the stars. On my last visit he had a lover and I had to pay for the three of us to go everywhere. I didn’t mind, but for some reason Steve and I had an argument and I ended up in the bathroom crying. He was angry with me because my attempt at joining the Air Force had failed and I think he resented it deep down. There was also the fact that I was selling cars and making enough money to afford Cadillac’s and Lincoln’s while he couldn’t. I lived in a beautifully furnished apartment and I was making the dreams we talked about as teenagers come true and renting Rolls Royce’s for us to drive while I visited him. He was living in cheap apartments and using public transportation when his car broke down. We were cordial when he took me to the airport, but I left with a heavy heart. I had no idea that it would be eleven years before I would see him again.

A year or two afterwards Steve decided not to re enlist. He sold his car for five hundred dollars and moved to San Francisco. He was sharing an apartment with several guys in the Castro District and got heavily involved in drugs. Any phone number I ever had for him was only good for a few weeks before being disconnected and the only way I had of reaching him was by calling his parent’s and getting his new number from them. Even after I went to considerable trouble to reach him he was usually so high he would cut the call short and promise to call back which never happened. He once admitted to me that he was shooting up with all kinds of stuff and would wake up at times and not know where he was, or who he was with.

I finally gave up trying and didn’t hear from him until he called me from Oklahoma in 1986 where he was staying with friends while making his way back to his parent’s in North Carolina. His lover in San Francisco had died and Steve drove his car to his parent’s somewhere in the Midwest and was now trying to get home. He sounded more like himself than he had in years and he would laugh in that deep baritone voice of his as we caught up on the past couple of years. I was hoping he’d come to visit me and stay for a while. He spoke more softly as he told me, “Sammy, I’m going home because I found out I’m HIV positive and I haven’t been well.” My heart stopped, I couldn’t believe my ears he was actually the first person I knew personally who had HIV. Back then there was nothing anyone could do it was a death sentence. In my heart I’d always known it would happen. Being a gay man and an IV drug user in San Francisco in the early eighties he was bound to get it. I held back tears as I asked, “Do your parent’s know?” “Yes, I told my mother a few months ago and I just told my father last week, he cried when I told him and he told me to come home.” he said.

Over the next few years we talked on the phone frequently, and he even found a new lover at his AA meetings who was also HIV positive. They moved in together and by 1990 they both had full blown AIDS. He once told me that when he saw the movie “Beaches” it reminded him of us. “Really, which one was I?” I asked. “Who do you think bitch!” he said, as I laughed. I couldn’t afford to go see him because it cost so much more to fly on Southwest Airlines to the east coast than it does to the west coast, I don’t know why. Then in June of 1990 we had a contest at the Cadillac dealership I was working for in Dallas selling Vogue Tyres. I didn’t win the contest which was a trip to tour the Kelly Springfield tire plant in Fayetteville, North Carolina, but when the girl who won it didn’t want to go. I went to her and told her I had a friend in N.C. who was dying of cancer and it might be my last chance to see him. She went to the managers and told them to give the trip to me. I have been eternally grateful to her for doing that and we still run into her from time to time. Steve agreed to drive from Charlotte to Fayetteville to spend the night with me. He had a choice of driving his car with air conditioning and no radio, or driving his lover’s car whose air was not working, but had a cassette player. Steve, being Steve, drove the one with no air so he could listen to his music. It was so hot and humid that he got sick after driving home and was in the hospital for three weeks.

Steve’s skin had taken on that sickly gray color that you saw so often then on people with AIDS back then and his once coal black, shiny hair was getting gray and dull. We tried to visit some of our old haunts in my rented white Pontiac, but we discovered that the downtown Hay Street area that we practically lived on had been raised to the ground. Virtually nothing was left but flat deserted blocks where formerly there were hotels, movie theaters, and department stores. It was depressing and sad. I bought rum and Coke, but Steve couldn’t drink any. That night in our hotel room we lay in bed together and Steve told me he had many regrets about how he’d lived his life. He said he never should have left the Air Force and stayed in L.A. He also said he regretted the fact that we’d never had sex. I held him and cuddled with him that night for the first time in our lives as we fell asleep. The next day he followed me to the airport and stayed with me until my flight was ready to leave. One of my co workers took a photo of us sitting together. As I walked to the plane, I kept looking back. He stood there watching me, we both knew it would be the last time we’d ever see each other. One Friday I woke up with Steve on my mind. I just felt I had to call and check on him, we hadn’t spoken since the fourth of July. I was ironing shirts that night as I watched the clock for the rates to go down to call him. Something told me when the phone was answered not to ask for him. When his mother answered I said, “Hi, this is Sammy, I was just calling to check on Steve.” There was a pause, and she said, “Oh honey, Steve passed away this morning. I’ve been meaning to call, but things have been so busy around here.” I choked back the tears and told her how much I loved him and admired her for taking care of him in his final months. She said, “I wouldn’t have had it any other way.” I don’t remember what else I said, but she promised to call me regarding his funeral arrangements. When we hung up I just stood there in the kitchen ironing those God damned shirts and sobbing. He died on July 23rd, 1991 at the age of thirty eight. We’d known each other for nineteen and a half years, we never made it to that twenty year milestone we’d always talked about.
I guess he was really right; we really were “Two friends who had nothing in common except a lifelong friendship.”

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