by William Reichard
“When in this charming car, this charming man…”
Matt had everything I thought I wanted: dark, chiseled features, thick black hair that swept up in a dramatic, yet perfectly natural looking, wave. He was just over six feet tall, very trim, and perfectly proportioned. He was Morrissey before there was Morrissey. He worked at Platters, the best record store in town. I was afraid to go into the store when it first opened. It seemed too hip, too exclusive for someone like me, who didn’t know exactly what hip was, but knew I didn’t possess that elusive quality.
Minneapolis, in the mid-eighties, was a city in the grip of potential. The “Minneapolis sound” of Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis was all over the radio, and Prince was on his meteoric rise to fame. The arts funding was the best in the country and Minneapolis and St. Paul were crawling with artists galleries, and upscale hair salons where you could buy a whole new aesthetic, and a new painting, at the same time.
Artists and other cultural workers were moving to the Twin Cities from all over the country. Rent in both cities was still low, and there were many Minneapolis neighborhoods that had seen better days. Both cities also had an abundance of old warehouses, factories, and long-empty office buildings that had been rezoned for studio and retail space. Unofficial (read: illegal) live/workspaces popped up around the edges of the city, in the former leather tanning facility on the edge of downtown Minneapolis, next to the Mississippi River, in the now-defunct flour mills, in the factories that had closed in the 1970’s economic slump. None of these buildings were well-managed, and most remained off the city inspector’s radar. The artists and those who orbited them, like Matt and his friends, found cheap apartments and low-priced houses all over the city. Minneapolis was the unofficial art capital of the Midwest and living here at that time was electric. There was creative energy everywhere.
From the first time I saw Matt I was drawn to him. Platters, the record store he worked in, and Tatters, its trendy twin that sold used/repurposed clothing, was located in Lyn-Lake, a neighborhood adjacent to the overpriced and very gentrified Uptown shopping district. Uptown was where suburban kids went to buy the accessories that they hoped would make them look hip. Lyn-Lake was simply hip, and unassuming, where a Peruvian restaurant sat next to a health food and crystal shop, which was next to a VFW, a breakfast place, and a church. Anything fit in there. Everyone was welcome.
After the first time, I shopped at Platters almost every day, just so I could see Matt. One day, when I walked into the store, he held up an album with a pale blue cover, featuring a photo of a well-muscled, shirtless young man. “You should buy this,” he said.
I stared at the record, not sure what to say. I certainly loved the cover. “Who are The Smiths?” I asked.
“You’ll love them,” he said. “Hatful of Hollow is a great record. And Morrissey is sexy.” He smiled as he said that, and then winked.
I wasn’t completely out at that time, it was a slow process for me, and I felt a shock travel up my spine when he winked. ‘He knows,’ I thought. ‘How does he know?’ (Turns out, everyone knew, even my mother. I was the only one who was slow on that uptake). Matt introduced me to Cocteau Twins, Dead Can Dance, This Mortal Coil, and all of the other beautiful, ethereal artists who recorded with the indie record label 4AD. He must have listened to every album that came into the store because his knowledge of music was encyclopedic. He was charming, kind, and funny. He could have sold me anything.
It didn’t hurt that Matt looked like one of the heartthrobs on the enormous stack of The Smiths EPs that I acquired over the next couple of years. Each one featured a different “cover star,” all famous male singers, actors, and cultural figures who were gay or thought to be gay. A young, exuberant Truman Capote graced the cover of The Boy with the Thorn in His Side, and another cover featured the gorgeous Jean Marais, Jean Cocteau’s protégé and lover. Morrissey, the lead singer of the band, was notorious for being a gay, celibate vegan who disapproved of leather, fur, and sex. And yet, The Smiths sang about queer longing, about outright queer desire and its fulfillment. I found the dichotomy exciting, even erotic. It spoke to me and to a generation of young queer people.
Matt’s longtime roommate, Bill, worked at a funky little gift shop down the block. As I came to know Matt, I got to know Bill. I’m not sure when Matt and Bill mentioned that they came from Waseca, a small town about ten miles west of Smith’s Mill, where I grew up. This geographical proximity during our formative years, even though we hadn’t known each other then, created a bond: each of us gay escapees from our rural hell. My hopeless crush notwithstanding, I liked hanging around with Matt and Bill. They represented what I thought I wanted to be: urbane, funny, flip, and effortlessly stylish, the antithesis of my rural roots.
Minneapolis was a city of refuge for many Midwestern queers. For those of us raised away from the coasts, cities like New York or San Francisco could feel out of reach, too far from the landscape and the sensibilities that had shaped us. They were a “someday” dream. Someday when we were happy, secure, and confident. Minneapolis was a happy medium. It was a large enough city, but still retained a sense of intimacy. In those years, just before the AIDS crisis hit the Midwest, the queer community in Minneapolis was large, visible, and seemingly invincible. It was also welcoming to young queers who were just trying to find our way into the world we knew was out there, the one to which we knew we belonged. This is what the Twin Cities represented for many Midwest queers, for small town boys and girls, and it had been that way for decades.
Matt and Bill lived in Kenwood, a quiet, affluent neighborhood that abutted Uptown. Their apartment was close enough that they could take advantage of the vintage movie house and the trendy stores and bars, but far enough away that they didn’t have to deal with the noise, the crowds, and the well-to-do pseudo-punks that gathered in front of McDonald’s. Those kids had the look down: rainbow mohawks and pierced faces, well-worn leather jackets, dog collars, kohled eyes, tattered pants, and the requisite Doc Marten’s. They sneered at passers-by, then begged them for change and claimed to be homeless, all while waiting for their parents to pick them up in their BMWs and Land Rovers.
Matt and Bill lived nearby on the second and third stories of an old mansion; the neighborhood was full of such houses, beautiful old Victorians, with some Prairie School architecture thrown in, that had once been single-family homes for the city’s elite. In the 1960’s, they were converted into apartments. The streets were lined with stately old oaks and maples, which created a soft green canopy in the spring and summer. It was Mary Richards’ neighborhood, and the lake she walked around in the opening of the Mary Tyler Moore Show was only a few blocks away.
Matt and Bill were the same age, six or seven years older than me, but they didn’t seem to mind having a moon-eyed college boy hanging around. I was so skinny then, the same weight I’d attained in the tenth grade. I was tall and awkward, often stumbling over nothing, constantly apologizing for things I hadn’t done. My hair was frumpy and flat, and I still wore the aviator-style glasses my mom had helped me pick out when I was in high school. I think Matt and Bill felt sorry for me. They were opposites, physically. Matt was thin and tall, while Bill was short, bald, and slightly overweight, and he looked years older than Matt.
After a time, they started to invite me, and a few of my friends, to their weekend parties. Of course, we went to the parties. We were thrilled to go to the parties. My friend Troy and I were convinced that we’d found the door to a secret garden of urban coolness. The other guests were the epitome of what we thought was cool. Some were gay, some were straight, and some were somewhere in-between. It didn’t seem to matter. They wore the vintage blazers and blouses that were popular then, accented with a variety of bands, belts, and bracelets. Some of them had ears with multiple piercings, adorned in a rainbow of glass gems, crosses, and tiny chains. They wore the heavy, old fashioned wool topcoats that you could find at Ragstock for a few dollars. They had impressive hair styles: fire engine red, or severe black, or shocking, stand-on-end white. Many had that casual, unkempt look that said, look, I just got out of bed and here I am at this party, but was, in truth, difficult to maintain without mountains of gel and spray.
People were drinking, but no one was drunk. No one was throwing up on the furniture. No one was having a loud, public nervous breakdown. No one was making out on other people’s beds. Some people smoked, but not many, and a few people were out on the second-floor balcony, getting high. It all seemed so weirdly normal, and I guess it was, for them. For us, it was a taste of real adulthood, and a chance to experience what it was like to fit in somewhere. Like a lot of queer kids at that age, we’d spent so much time and energy exerting our sense of originality, our lovingly embraced otherness, that we’d forgotten what it was like to simply belong.
Troy and I felt overdressed for that first party, in dramatic, shapeless black clothes by Japanese designers, loose, billowing coats, flowing scarves, and oceans of glittery jewelry. Yet, no one seemed to mind. In fact, to our surprise and disappointment, no one looked at us twice. Troy had jet-black hair and a root perm, which made his natural curls seem supernatural. They stood up from his scalp and bounced as he walked. My hair was shorter, almost shaved, with dyed white tips sticking up like spikes. We were both experimenting with eyeliner, with varying degrees of success. I thought I looked like a startled racoon, but Troy said I looked mysterious.
We wandered around the party, feeling nervous, as if someone would find us out for the fakes we were and show us the door. We stayed close to one another. We looked covertly at the people around us, giving them sideways glances that I’m sure they noticed. We didn’t know any of them. Moving slowly down the second-floor hallway, between the living room and the kitchen, we glanced through an open door. It was Bill’s bedroom. He smiled broadly when he saw us, and motioned for us to come in.
He was sitting in an overstuffed chair in the corner, and another man was stretched out on his bed. “This is my friend Steve,” he said, pointing to the stranger. “Steve, this is Bill and Troy.”
Steve sat up then, looked at me, then at his host. “Bill and Bill,” he said, deadpan, “That’s funny.”
I tried to laugh in a casual way, but came across as a snorting dork. Troy twittered, then fell silent. I was trying not to stare at Steve. He was emaciated. There’s no other word to describe how thin he was, how pale and drawn. His eyes were sunken, with deep, dark half-circles beneath them. His arms and legs resembled sticks. His teeth looked grey. Bill must have realized what was happening, and jumped in. “Steve has been sick for a while. He’s here visiting for a couple of days.”
I smiled and shook my head. “It’s nice to visit friends,” I said tentatively.
“Yes,” Troy agreed, and then we were silent again.
Bill jumped up from his chair and motioned for the two of us to follow. “You guys need some drinks,” he said, then looked at Steve. “Can I get you a water or a soda?”
Steve reached over and held up a can of lemon LaCroix. We followed Bill out of the room and down the hall, to the kitchen. There were a couple of people in the room when we entered, but they soon left. Opening the refrigerator and bending to look inside, Bill said, “Steve has AIDS.” Then he popped up and held out two bottles of imported beer. “He’s pretty sick. I think he’s going to die soon.”
Troy and I stood there, unmoving, confused. Bill held out the beers, but we didn’t take them.
“Oh my god!” said Troy, tears flooding his eyes. “I’m so sorry!”
Bill blinked fast, trying to hold back his own tears. “Don’t make a big deal of it,” he said quietly. “Not everyone knows. Steve wants to keep it that way for now.”
I shook my head and reached out for my beer. Without thinking, I tried to unscrew the cap, and hurt my fingers on its rough edges. Bill grabbed a magnetic opener from the refrigerator door. “Sorry,” he said. “It’s not a twist off.”
As I opened Troy’s bottle, and then my own, I started to speak without knowing what I wanted to say. “How did he…,” I began.
“Some guy he dated a year or so ago,” Bill replied. “First, he thought he had the flu, but it didn’t get better. Then it turned into pneumonia and they did the blood test in the hospital.”
“What are you going to do?” I asked, though I didn’t know what I meant in that moment.
“It’s a day-by-day kind of thing,” Bill said quietly. “He’s going to stay here for a while, so he can be closer to the University of Minnesota hospital. They’re trying some new drugs there.”
I’d never met anyone with AIDS before. It was, in the mid-eighties, something everyone in the local gay community thought about, and feared, but it was also something we tried to keep abstract, at arms-length. A lot of men I knew said that it was a coastal thing. Men in New York and San Francisco had it, they said, but we didn’t need to worry because it hadn’t hit the Midwest yet. Clearly, we were wrong. Steve was the proof.
Most of the men I knew practiced safe sex by then. I didn’t have sex often, whether by circumstance or choice, but I tried to be safe when I did. We’d all seen the early movies about AIDS: Longtime Companion; An Early Frost. Most of us understood the virus as a drama, and everyone knew it was a death sentence. The cocktail of drugs that would, one day, make HIV a chronic but treatable condition hadn’t yet been created. At that point, most of the patients were gay men, and the world, in general, didn’t care. “It’s just some dead fags,” I’d heard a man on the local news say to a reporter. “Let them die off.”
Steve’s visit lasted a few weeks. It ended when he was hospitalized again. When Bill told us, a couple of months later, that Steve had died, we weren’t surprised, but the three of us held each other and cried for a long time, as much for ourselves and what we thought could be our own future, as for Steve and the pain he had endured.
After our first party, we were at Matt and Bill’s all the time, hanging around the house, going out to eat or to see movies with them, helping them plan and prepare for their parties, helping them clean the apartment when the parties were over. My crush on Matt was hopeless. He was a very handsome man and he knew it, though I wouldn’t call him egotistical. He was confident in who he was, and he knew how to use his looks to his own advantage, though he didn’t seem to take advantage of others. He had that sense of self-assurance that beautiful people seem to naturally possess.
Matt always flirted with me. He flirted with everyone, men and women alike. I wondered if he knew what he was doing, or if it was just a habit. Once, when I was visiting, I stood at the balcony doors, looking out at the heavy snow that had started almost immediately after I arrived. I heard Matt come into the room and suddenly felt his arms around me. He was standing behind me, his arms wrapped around my waist, and he rested his chin on my shoulder. “What are you doing?” he asked playfully.
“Just looking at the snow,” I replied, trying to sound casual, but feeling excited, panicked, and, I have to admit, a little turned on. “I have to figure out how to get home if this snow is going to get worse,” I continued. I was very aware that Matt’s groin was pressing against my ass.
“Maybe it won’t stop,” he laughed. “Then you’d be trapped here!” Before I could respond, he let go of me, lightly slapped my ass, and walked out of the room. I was baffled.
About a year after I met them, Matt and Bill decided to add another roommate to their household—their rent had gone up but their salaries had not—and they asked me if I wanted to move in. I said yes, despite the fact that their neighborhood was far from the college campus where I took classes and worked, and my only transportation in those days was the notoriously unreliable Minneapolis city bus. I said yes because I still harbored a fantasy that Matt would suddenly, dramatically, realize that he couldn’t live without me and declare his undying love.
Fulltime life in their household suited me. It was like an extension of the time I’d spent hanging out with them before I moved in, but now I had my own room. The apartment was large, centered around a long hallway on the second floor. There was a small bedroom and a living room at the front of the house, overlooking the street. As you continued down the hall, you came to the only bathroom, on the right, and slightly ahead, on the left, was my room. Further down the hall was Bill’s room, and the kitchen, with its large balcony, was at the back. The third floor was one very large open room, with a fireplace on one end, and the doorway to Matt’s bedroom on the other. His bedroom overlooked the street, and his bed sat right at the window, so he could lie there and look out. While the second floor had a living room, we rarely used it. The television and stereo were on the third floor, and that’s where the three of us spent most of our time.
Our lives flowed fairly casually for the first few months. I was busy with my college classes, and I worked thirty hours a week at a library on campus. When I wasn’t at school, I was on the bus, which was ponderously slow. Some days, it took me over an hour each way to travel down Franklin Avenue between campus and our apartment through what some optimistically called a “transitional” neighborhood. It’s still in transition now. When I was home, I was usually doing homework. Matt and Bill worked fulltime, and the three of us hung out and watched movies on most weekends. I had a few friends that I hung out with outside of the house, but Bill’s life seemed very tied to Matt’s, and outside the house, Matt was not very social.
I loved to take photographs then, to develop film, to make black and white prints. I spent a lot of my time in the university darkrooms. I loved the acrid, vinegar smell of the chemicals, and each startling moment when an image would begin to emerge from a seemingly blank sheet of paper. Matt was one of my favorite subjects. He didn’t seem bothered by the camera. He actually seemed to like it. I tried to catch him at home, unaware, to get truly candid shots, but it was difficult. It was as if he could sense the presence of the camera, and thus, turned on his charm, struck a subtle pose. Moving into Matt and Bill’s apartment gave me countless chances to photograph Matt, and I took advantage of the opportunity.
On a typical Saturday morning, the three of us would wake up in time to watch Pee-wee’s Playhouse while we drank our coffee. Matt had found the show first. Ostensibly, it was a children’s show, but if you paid attention to the dialog, you quickly realized the scripts were peppered with adult references. It had a tongue-in-cheek naughty quality. The three of us would lie on the floor in front of the television, each wrapped up in our own blanket, and giggle through the show.
One typical scene featured an actor dressed as a 1950’s movie starlet, talking with another actor dressed as a cowboy. The starlet said, “My, what big feet you have!” as she rolled her eyes at the cowboy.
Pee-wee Herman, the show’s perverse man-child star, said, “You know what they say about big feet?”
After a beat, he answered, giggling, “Big boots!” We loved it.
Most of the time, the three of us got along well, but there was a tension between Matt and Bill that I had a hard time identifying, at least at first. A few weeks after I moved in, the two had an intense fight about bathwater. The apartment had very bad insulation, like many old houses in the Twin Cities, and it was cold from October to May. Matt was notoriously cheap, and insisted that the thermostat be kept at sixty degrees. He was always trying to find ways to be frugal, and became convinced that, after taking a hot bath in the morning, he should leave the hot water in the tub, and it would help warm the house. More than once, Bill, who had trouble waking up in the morning, walked half-asleep to the bathroom and stepped into the tub for a quick shower, only to step into Matt’s now frigid bath water. I would hear his shocked, angry screams through my bedroom door.
After his third or fourth encounter with the leftover water, Bill confronted Matt. It was a huge row that seemed out of proportion to the scale of the offense, and they fought about it for weeks. That was the first time I started to think that they were, or had been, more than roommates. There was always a sense of possessiveness in their relationship. Bill grew jealous whenever Matt paid too much attention to someone, and he’d find ways to insinuate himself into these scenes. Matt treated Bill with a kind of insulting respect and said things to him that often struck me as mean, yet tender. Once, Matt made a joke about Bill’s (mostly) bald head and short stature, saying that Bill resembled a little penis, but unlike a penis, Bill could not grow any taller when he got excited. Bill was hurt, and after what seemed, to me, too long a pause on Matt’s part, he walked over to Bill and hugged him. When I looked at Bill’s face, as he and Matt embraced one another, I saw something akin to relief, and satisfaction, in his eyes.
My tenure in their apartment lasted only five months. One night, while I was watching TV in the living room, Matt came home drunk. He didn’t do this often, but obviously, he’d been out having some kind of good time. I was stretched out on the floor in front of the TV, propped up on a large pillow and covered with a heavy blanket. Matt surprised me by walking over and lying down next to me. He was grinning, and after a moment he reached over and touched my face. I was…I don’t know what I was. Surprised isn’t a strong enough word, and shocked isn’t the right word. Flabbergasted, perhaps, and frightened by the possibility of getting something I said I wanted, but didn’t know how to handle.
Matt kept his eyes locked on mine. He touched my cheek with his fingertips, and then ran his index finger down over my lips. Within seconds, we were kissing and rolling around on the floor, and our clothes were flying across the room in all directions. It was…nice. I’d love to say that it was incredible, better than any sex I had or would experience, but it wasn’t. It was nice, and a bit awkward, the way sex with someone you’ve only considered a friend can be, because we both knew it meant more than the two of us simply having fun, whether or not we wanted it to. Sex with strangers can sometimes work as pure recreation, because there is a mutual acknowledgment that the connection is only physical, and only momentary. Sex with friends is always more complicated, because there is shared history, and mutual care that will usually outlive any physical connection. I wish we had been safe, but we weren’t. We didn’t think about what we were doing. We just fumbled ahead. We didn’t talk about what was happening then, and we never had the chance to talk about it later.
I’d had such a crush on Matt, and thought I loved him, and told myself that this was what I wanted, that this is what he wanted, too, that he was just afraid to admit it. On an intellectual level, I knew that he didn’t feel the same way, but it was difficult to give up the romantic fantasy I’d harbored for so long. Having sex with Matt was good for me, because it helped me recognize, finally, that there is an important difference between sex and love, and, it turns out, I didn’t love him.
While we were lying naked on the floor, Bill came home from work. We were scrambling around, trying to sort out our clothes, when Bill came up the stairs. He knew, immediately, what had happened; it registered on his face, and he turned around, went back downstairs, into his bedroom, and closed the door. I looked at Matt. I could see, in his fleeting look of guilt and sorrow, what was wrong. Now I was sure that there was something between Bill and him, but he only made a kind of goofy what in the hell was that about face and finished dressing, then went down to make dinner. He tried to act utterly nonplused by what had happened, and if I’d known him better, I might have seen through this facade.
I immediately felt guilty. When I should have been happy, or at least, momentarily contented, I felt like I’d done something wrong, that I’d betrayed Bill, even though both of them always insisted that they shared nothing more than friendship. I wondered if I’d somehow seduced Matt, despite the fact that he’d been the one who lay down next to me and made his move. He was drunk. He had that excuse, at least. I had none, beyond the fact that I was young and naïve, and I understood then that this was not an excuse I could use anymore. I knew I needed to move out.
After a couple of days of not talking, Bill knocked on my bedroom door. I’d been doing my best to avoid both Matt and him since the night on the floor. They both seemed to need space. I was sitting on my bed, doing homework, and Bill asked if he could come in. I nodded and he sat on the thickly carpeted floor. Drawing his knees up to his chest, he started to talk.
“We were lovers for a couple of years, right after we graduated from high school. We’d always hung around together, and we both knew we were gay, but it wasn’t something either of us was ready to say out loud. We were driving around one night and getting drunk…” Bill’s voice faded away for a moment, as if he was trying to figure out how to tell the rest of the story. “You know how it goes,” he finally said. “We were drunk, and it was dark, and we were out in the country. No one was around. We were always joking about sex, the way high school kids do. Then we were kissing and then more.” Bill stopped talking again, looked at me, then looked at the floor. “You know how it goes,” he said again, and I knew that he was having trouble articulating exactly what he wanted to say.
“I know,” I said. “It’s okay.”
He looked relieved, then continued talking. “We decided to move up to the Cities,” he said. “We thought it would be easier to live up here. God, I was so in love with him. He was the one who brought up the idea of moving and I would have agreed to anything he suggested.”
I smiled and nodded my head. I knew exactly what he was talking about.
“So we moved. We said we were going to college and we both started at the University of Minnesota. We found a place, a one bedroom, and put two beds in there. Matt said it was just so other people wouldn’t know about us.”
Bill laughed a little, then looked up at me. “I thought that was it. I thought we were like a married couple. But things started to change. Matt grew distant. He didn’t want to share a bed most nights. I didn’t want to see what was happening, so I didn’t.”
Bill stopped talking for a while and looked out the window at what felt like an endless winter.
“I think he was just used to having me around for company,” he started again. “I couldn’t figure out why else he wanted to keep living together, but he said he really did, and I took what I could get.” Here he shook his head. “That’s kind of how it’s been ever since then. After a while, Matt started sleeping with other men. Sometimes he brought them back to our apartment. Sometimes he didn’t come home for a few nights. I don’t know what he was thinking, how he thought I felt.”
Bill fell silent, then said he had to use the bathroom and walked out. I sat on my bed, looking at my textbooks but not seeing them. My head was so full of questions, and I was angry and sad at the same time. I wanted to be mad at Bill, but I had no reason. I think I was just trying not to blame Matt for anything.
Bill came back in and sat back down in the same spot on the floor. “Nothing lasts with Matt,” he said. “I finally figured that out after a few years. For him, sex and love aren’t connected.” He looked at me. “You know what I mean, don’t you?” he asked, and I nodded again. I didn’t want to understand, but I did. When I thought about how long Matt and Bill had been together, and the thwarted life Bill had lived for so many years, I was grateful that it hadn’t taken me that long to realize that my crush was really just that, a crush.
“I’m going to move out,” I said quietly.
Bill smiled. “I know,” he said. “It’s okay.”
A couple of years after I left the mansion by the lake, Matt moved to New York. I hadn’t seen him, or Bill, for a few months. Our friendship didn’t end after I moved out, but it changed. I wasn’t the moon-eyed boy I had been when I first met them, and they were no longer my hip role models. I saw their flaws and beauties, and my own.
Matt’s move was abrupt. Bill seemed rattled when he told me what had happened. It was the middle of the winter. It had been dark and snowing for days. Matt had finally reached his limit. His car was packed before Bill got home from work. Bill said he knew it had to end. The good-bye wasn’t long, and he preferred it that way.
My sense of time falters here. I was no longer around Matt and Bill, so they fell out of the context of my daily life. Matt eventually found a partner in New York, and got some kind of a job at Madison Square Garden. He and his partner bought an apartment, and settled down. About three years later, Matt died there as well, of complications from HIV, after what turned out to be his farewell visit home.
The last time I saw him, I was at a party Bill had for him. I didn’t know he was sick. He still had that beautiful chiseled face, and that thick, sweeping hair, but he was changed. He was no longer thin. He was emaciated. His eyes were so bright and big in his pale face, and they were filled with such urgent intensity. We hugged awkwardly when we saw one another. We talked a bit, and he introduced me to his partner, Jerry, who seemed like a decent man.
No one mentioned AIDS at the party, yet the gathering had a somber feel. People stood in small groups, talking quietly, and Matt made his way around the room, visiting each group in turn. Matt knew then, we all did, what was coming. There was no drug cocktail yet, and no real chance of survival.
After Matt passed, I went through a period of panic. He and I had been intimate, before I fully understood how HIV was transmitted. Many of us were afraid then, when there was little mainstream news and we got all our information from the gay press. We had wanted to believe that this was an East Coast/West Coast problem.
By the time Matt died we could no longer afford to be so naïve. For some men I knew, the deliberate lack of knowledge, the denial that something big and frightening was happening, had led to their illness and eventual death. For some men, the advent of AIDS was a signal that life would never be the same again. Sex would never be the same again. And that was a hard fact to accept. A former boyfriend of mine was the first man I knew who died from complications from AIDS. That was in 1992. Matt passed after that, and then my friend Mark, and then…and then…
I was tested when I heard about my former boyfriend, and I was negative. I was tested after Matt died, and I was negative. The sense of relief, and then guilt, that I felt each time the test results came back was overwhelming. It was very difficult to come to terms with these deaths, because my own survival was based on nothing but pure random chance. I hadn’t practiced safe sex at first. Most people I knew back then hadn’t either, at least not here in the Midwest. I didn’t know why I was still alive and uninfected.
I tried to reason away my own luck. When I considered what had happened to Matt, I saw a man who went to New York, a huge, international metropolis, and got sick. When I considered my first lover, I focused on the fact that, after we’d broken up, he had traveled extensively in Europe, and then lived on the East Coast, and only returned to the Midwest when he was dying. I had to learn a lot of hard lessons before I came to understand how widespread HIV was, and the fact that it didn’t respect any geographical, social, behavioral, or age-related boundaries.
After Matt’s death, I collected all of the photographs I’d taken of him— and I’d taken dozens, some small, some poster-sized, some collaged in the style of David Hockney—and gave them to Bill. All of the portraits were semi-candid, but slightly posed. Matt watching TV. Matt at the stove, stirring a pot. Matt reading the newspaper. They were sweet photos taken by a young man with a big case of puppy love. I knew giving the photos to Bill was the right thing to do. I had no legitimate claim on Matt. Bill was the real survivor, the true bereaved, and the photos belonged to him.
I kept one photograph, just for the memory. It was a close-up of Matt’s face, a high contrast print that revealed the beautiful angles of his high cheekbones, the dramatic sweep of his black hair, and the startling brightness of his unreadable eyes. I didn’t know, when I took the photograph, that those eyes would remain unreadable, and that the potential they held, as with so many of my generation, would disappear so early.
William Reichard is a writer, editor, and educator. His sixth poetry collection, The Night Horse: New and Selected Poems, was published by Bright Horse Books in 2018. Reichard lives in Saint Paul, MN with his spouse, poet James Cihlar, and works as an adjunct instructor in English at Inver Hills Community College.
SLAG GLASS CITY • Volume 5 • November 2019
Header Image by sglpix