05 January 2006

A Ghost From The Past

I've been single for so long that most people who know me can't imagine me any other way. But at my age, I've got more of a past than most people are capable of imagining, and the fact is that in the distant past there have been times when I was part of a couple, however tempestuously or tumultously so.

One of the most intense - and tempestuous and tumultuous - relationships I was ever involved in was with a guy called Tony. "A guy called Tony" makes him sound a bit like an auto mechanic or someone who runs a hot dog stand, but that wouldn't be an accurate picture at all. I always used to describe him as a skinnier, more animated version of Led Zeppelin's Robert Plant - he once went through a period where he refused to comb or brush his hair for the better part of two years, and it congealed into a similar form of white boy dreadlocks that whirled about as he danced- but thinking back on the first time I saw him, I realized that who he really reminded me of was the god Mercury, as pictured on the old American dime, which many of you are probably too young ever to have seen. Maybe it was the way he moved through the crowd - like quicksilver, I remember telling someone - or maybe it was his facility for communication, which is the nicest possible way I can think of to say that he rarely if ever shut up.

He had a dazzling smile that easily lit up the most dismal of rooms, and its lustre was barely dimmed for me when he revealed that he had spent most of his high school years - when he was lonely, overweight, and self-hating - in front of the bathroom mirror practicing how to smile and how to look interested. By the time I met him at age 19, he was the skinniest, most outgoing, most popular guy in our little small town crowd, and, at least in my mind, far and away the best looking.

Our relationship was never the most successful. I wasn't really his type and only convinced him to go out with me by sheer force of will and persistence, and I was such an insecure yet arrogant mass of confusion and megalomania that I often wonder how anyone could have put up with me for five minutes, let alone an entire year. But we had our good times, and a few harrowing adventures, too, like the time the scary drug dealer broke into the room we had just vacated and left a note pinned to a wall with a knife reading, "Larry and Tony, I'll get you if it's the last thing I ever do." But that's another story, and, so far at least, he hasn't.

We got together in April of 1972 in Ann Arbor and broke up almost exactly a year later in San Francisco, and in some ways, I suppose, I never got over it. It was my first great heartbreak, and, like your first love, it's the one that really counts for the rest of your life. But after a year or two of awkwardness occasionally interrupted by overt hostility, we became friends again, and were even non-romantic roommates for a couple years. Then I got involved with Anne and moved away to the country, and through the early 80s would only see him once or twice a year when Anne and I would come down to the city and smoke some pot with him (I forgot that part about Tony: he was so hyperactive that half a dozen sinsemilla joints, enough to render a normal person comatose if not dead, would only serve to slow him down to normal speed, and I exaggerate only slightly, if at all).

After Anne and I broke up, I stayed up in the mountains by myself for a couple years, and when I finally came back to the city, I ran into Tony on Castro Street. He was heavier now, not at all fat, but solid. And he had one of those clone moustaches that had become all the rage in the 70s, but were becoming a little passe by the late 80s. I no longer found him attractive at all, but I was no less excited to see him. But he seemed positively distant, almost cold. I tried to tell him about what I was up to, my new band, the magazine I was publishing, my revived interest in punk rock, but he acted as if I were some annoying little child, and seemed like he couldn't wait to get away from me. That happened twice more in the following year, but even when I asked him, "Tony, is something wrong? Are you mad at me?" he just said, "No," and rushed off.

Somebody who knew him told me he'd heard a rumour that Tony was taking care of someone who had AIDS, and that the resulting stress might explain why he'd been so brusqe. And that made sense: two of the times I'd run into him, Tony had been with an older-looking man who he hadn't bothered to introduce, but who hadn't appeared at all well. But I never got a chance to ask Tony if that were the case, because I never saw him again.

I tried to find him, but he seemed to have disappeared. Periodically over the years I'd check directory information, and when the internet came along, I'd do searches, but nothing ever came up. That seemed especially strange, because when I'd last seen him Tony was just finishing his Ph.D. at Berkeley - despite having dropped out of the University of Michigan at my behest so we could run off to California and be gay hippies - and was starting a career in education. Being that almost everyone these days ends up with a few Google notations, I couldn't understand how someone so bright - he had an IQ of 165, his mother frequently reminded me - and with so much energy hadn't made more of a mark for himself.

Then, just before Christmas this year, evidently in a bit of a sombre mood, I was doing a computer search of Alameda County death records - why? I honestly can't remember, but it must have been important at the time - and there he was: beautiful, bright young Tony, had been dead for a full 13 years. Dying at the time he did, and at the age he was, one almost has to presume it was AIDS, but there was no indication given on the death record, and I suppose it could just as well have been a car crash or any number of other things. What seemed important to me now was not how, but why he had died when he had, and how someone who had once been so huge a part of my life had left so slight a hole in it that 13 years could go by without my even knowing.

I thought too about his mother: a stolid, stern, but very loving woman who had raised him as a single parent, somehow managing, between welfare and minimum wage jobs, to get him halfway though the University of Michigan (before I came along to bollox things up), and, with no other children or relatives, had devoted most of her life to her golden boy. She'd followed him out to San Francisco, doted on his progress, and I wondered what life had become for her with him gone.

And I wondered, too, how someone with so much promise, so much energy and enthusiasm for life, could just disappear, all that work and all that living and all those dreams just dumped unceremoniously into a hole in the ground. And I especially wondered, as I suppose everyone does from time to time: why him and not me? What have I done - or what might I do someday - that makes my life more worthy of preserving than that of Tony, or any of the hundreds, thousands, millions of people who've passed on while I've been bumbling my way through what often seems like the most mundane of existences?

Well, it's not the sort of question that's likely to be answered, at least not in this lifetime, and it's likely to produce little more than a sore head and a shamed conscience if pursued too persistently. Besides, my particular spiritual outlook tells me there's no point in questioning, that the only appropriate response is one of acceptance, of gratitude, and of determination, for however long I might happen to walk the earth, to make my life shine all the more brightly in homage to all of those who can shine no more.


Anonymous said...

So, Larry, what you are inferring is that you are gay, or rather were?

Larry Livermore said...

I think the word you are looking for is "implying."

And no, I wasn't; I was telling a story about someone who died.

Pondering Pig said...

Well-done, Larry. Told sensitively and without a lot of extraneous bullcrap. I am getting around to writing about my own youth in San Francisco in the Sixties. I know the real, non-psychedelic and non bell-bottomed story is the suffering of the young because love hurts so bad. But it can be so boring to read about someone else's angst. I've been wondering how to write those stories true, not awash in sentimentality. You've succeeded well.