Twenty years after a gay bashing, I wrote an essay about the incident. It was published. It revolved around a simple happening. This is what occurred: During my graduate school years, three men dragged my friend into the middle of the road, hitting him with a baseball bat. From a short distance, I saw this happen and I did not intervene. I ran. I left him for dead.
Like most essayists, I was not interested in simply describing the particular incident. A gay bashing is a gay bashing. As a gay man, I have a heightened awareness that gay men are beaten all the time. I knew better to think that there was something unique in this event. I wanted to employ the tragedy as a vehicle for making a larger, less obvious comment about human nature. In a way, you could say I was uninterested in myself, which may be hard to believe, even for me to believe.
Another way to think about it: I wanted the “I” to drop out of the essay and become about the world we live in. Maybe if I took another twenty years to write the piece, after this particularly tragic moment of history when hate crimes against gay men, and all minorities have reached an apex, I would have had the makings for a great personal essay. In the present political climate, everything becomes a testament to suffering, which might be a good thing even if it is limited and exactly the sort of victim narrative you don’t want to create.
It needs to be stated that a year after the gay bashing, my friend and I stopped talking. There was nothing more to say: he was beaten. I fled. It was a neat, clean story that found its end.
Although everything I’m writing is true, you should not overlook the element of dishonesty. My primary reason for writing the essay was that I missed my friend, even after approximately twenty years, and I wanted to reestablish contact. I didn’t feel I could simply write an email that would seem spontaneous and say, “Hello.” I needed to have a reason. What better reason is there than to say, “Here is an essay I published about you. I thought you may want to read it.”?
After the essay was published, I told my husband I was going to search for him, and he asked if I harbored romantic feelings toward him, and I said, no, and he believed me, and that was that. After I mitigated my husband’s fears, I asked myself if I was, indeed, telling the truth. It took me a moment: I was telling the truth. Even though my life has been a pleasant disappointment, my husband (in most ways) did not contribute to its blatant failures and a few isolated successes.
Truth be told, even after twenty years, I did miss graduate school. I possessed more and better friends. When I moved to the small, rural village where I teach creative writing, I found that most of my colleagues had children and befriended colleagues who had children. I was adrift. Once or twice I was asked to babysit, but the children found me unengaged and I was never asked to help again. The children were correct in their assessment. I was uninterested in them. I simply wanted them to like me so their parents would want to have me around. I find children invariably boring and useless.
I expected to find out that my friend had children. He came from a huge Mormon family and always dreamed of finding a boyfriend from India (for various reasons, he fetishized the culture in an annoying way) and raise children. These seemed like attainable desires and peoples’ fantasies of themselves often come true. I imagined that his kids were nice and raised well. They would not allow an innocent man to be beaten in the middle of the road.
After the gay bashing, I never apologized to my friend for abandoning him. At the time, I felt that if I did say I was sorry, I would have to accept that I did something irreprehensible, which was too much to handle. I needed to see myself as a victim, which I was. The men wanted to kill a faggot. Fortunately, I was not the one they caught.
You could say that my essay was anything but an apology. I acknowledged that I had done something wrong, but the self-reflection also functioned as a way of letting myself off the hook. It essentially said, “Through the essay I wrote, I self-reflected. Now I am allowing myself to be free.” Perhaps it would be more appropriate to say the essay was a perfectly crafted apology: I didn’t need anyone to accept its request, because I had already forgiven myself.
I stalled in searching the Web for him out of fear that he achieved a number of successes I predicted: a huge salary (I made $50,000); a perfect house (we still rent); a blessed interior life (my depressive episodes can worsen). However, even with those differences, I felt that my published essay would eclipse his successes in one way: I made something. Out of us.
Everything I had predicted turned out to be true: he was vice president of sustainability measures at a huge corporation; he possessed the most stylish apartment; he had kids; he was doing good in the world—surely, he saw life as urgent and good.
There was only one thing I was not jealous of.
He had been murdered.
He kissed me once. I’m not sure why he did it. It was not a spontaneous, romantic kiss. It was not a kiss that would have led to sex, even bad, pointless sex. After the kiss, we never talked about it, partly because there was nothing to say: it seemed less consequential than if our arms had touched on an armrest in a movie theatre, or if I had not known he was in the bathroom and opened the door. It was a kiss without consequence or meaning, which feels, in retrospect, like some sort of accomplishment, if only a name could be attached to such an act. At the same time, now when I shut my eyes and imagine the kiss, I envision that I am kissing the lips of a corpse, one that has been dead for a long time. From the newspaper articles, I cannot tell how long it took for someone to find him dead in his apartment. Because he was demonstrably rich, I assume it took a long time to found him: no one intrudes on a wealthy man’s privacy. But it could have also taken a short time: he was powerful and people depended on him for guidance and support. I wonder if the escort/murderer kissed him on the lips before he stabbed him to death. It would help me to understand more fully my kiss with him if I could compare it with someone else he kissed. Because the newspaper saw the situation as one fueled with drugs and alcohol, I wonder if they even took the time to kiss. From talking to addicts, meth excites you to have sex immediately, not engage in foreplay. On the other hand, marijuana makes you want to kiss slowly. I wonder if he had been smoking pot before he knocked on my door and kissed me. I know he was not doing meth. I hadn’t even heard of meth when we were in graduate school together. Sometimes when I remember us kissing, I imagine him leaving. For me, if there was, and there certainly isn’t, any significance to the kiss, it’s the fact that I shut my eyes during and after and did not move until I heard the door shut behind him.
Once I had a boyfriend, who is still alive although I have lost contact with him, too. Our time together was always spent in his apartment. Unlike myself, he owned a bed. When we woke up in the morning, I always made breakfast. This was not a result of me feeling the need to show appreciation for whatever we did or did not do. I served the meal so that he would have no reason to leave the bed. His comfort was irrelevant to me. When I left, which I always did after I made his meal, I liked my final image of him to be as minimal as possible: a man in bed, watching me leave. I wanted to suspend him in Time so that my life felt more contained, dispassionate, logical.
I ask my husband if he would want to make love to my corpse. He is a patient man and deals with my questions in a humane way. He smiles (faintly) and then moves onto a description of a TV show he wants us to watch together. When I pressure him to answer, he excuses himself to go to the bathroom. His behavior is one of the reasons our relationship has sustained itself over two decades.
Sometimes I need to know the truth and this is where our problems can begin. They are not major problems. If they were, I don’t think our relationship would be a good experience for either of us. At the same time, you never know. “Would you make love to my corpse?” I ask.
“Would it smell?” he says.
This is one of the ways in which he has failed me as a husband: he responds to my probing, sincere questions with comedy.
“Of course,” I said.
If I had known my friend was dead, I would never have written the essay about the gay bashing, which feels like a significant confirmation of an intimate truth, but I’m not sure why or what that truth (or truths) is/are.
As I grow older, I am consumed with elegies. Perhaps that’s not exactly true: I’ve always been obsessed with the dead. As I am a teacher of creative non-fiction, I am always looking through literary magazines for an essay that deals with loss of someone significant or even insignificant. A lot of these essays are mawkish in a (possibly) inoffensive way. They are saying, “I knew him and this is why he is special.” I do not know why my friend was special to anyone except for the reasons that made me avoid him (wealth, unbridled happiness, children, etc.) Perhaps essays have nothing to do with apology or the dead. Perhaps an essay is akin to a kiss, something that could lead to heartbreak, or something that could be aborted and its origin replaced with words, simple and hermetic.