Sunday, April 02, 2006

Friends recalled

I met John Hedge in Houston, shortly after moving there in April 1985 to live with David. John was David's friend and lived in a secluded apartment near the corner of West Gray and Shepherd. Sometimes we went to his apartment for dinner, but mostly he came to our house. John and his lover, Craig, were the only people I ever met who were allowed to smoke in our house. (This was David's rule and I knew that he valued John and Craig so much that I never questioned it.)

At our first meeting, I was intimidated: John was well-educated, spoke carefully, and made frequent references to literature, films, opera which I knew nothing about. I stammered responses to the few direct questions he posed to me--where was I from (Ohio), how did I like Houston (it was enormous), what were my career plans (I had none but had just volunteered to train with the Gay & Lesbian Switchboard, a volunteer commitment I kept for eight years).

John and David also talked about their health, and the health of their many friends and acquaintances. When David and I first started dating, he said that, based on our sexual histories, he assumed I was seronegative, he seropositive, and that we should take appropriate precautions. I had volunteered as one of the first "AIDS buddies" in Cincinnati--ironically, my buddy, Stephen, had lived in Houston but had come back home to die--and so I had developed a mindset about AIDS and the virus, a kind of intellectual buffer I guess: my response was to volunteer and to subvert any emotional doubt or fear. I don't think John had been tested when I first met him, but--like David--he assumed the worst.

I don't think I ever saw him as he really was. John was extraordinarily well-read, and when he learned that I wanted to become a poet, he tried to encourage me and lead me into discussions about Whitman, Eliot, Bishop: poets whose work I was horribly ignorant about.

John and Craig fought rather famously. They both drank hard, and Craig, I eventually learned, had a cocaine habit. (Craig was also rumored to have appeared on the cover of a Houston magazine in Halloween makeup--the costume was allegedly composed of not much more than makeup--but I never saw a copy.) One day over lunch in Montrose, John told the story of one of their fights: he had stormed out of Craig's house (the top level of a duplex near Allen Parkway with a beautiful view of downtown) and, backing his car out too recklessly, had broken the axle. Undeterred, he started walking home (a distance of, I would guess, two miles). Craig followed him outside, begging him to come back. "I broke my car!" John shouted. Craig got into his own car and followed him all the way home.

Once, when John was in the hospital for perhaps the first time, we stopped to visit on our way to St. Thomas University: I had been selected as a juried reader for the Houston Poetry Fest. John asked me to "say" a poem (I now know that Robert Frost used this phrase, as in "I'd like to say one of my poems"). I was too nervous to comply: how could my stuff compare to anything he'd read? He gently persisted, even though he seemed much too ill to really care, and I'm ashamed that I didn't have the courage to comply. "Then say just one of your lines," he finally said. "Say the first line." It was the summer that scared Maria, I squeaked out. "Hmm," he said. "That's intriguing. It was the summer that frightened Maria."

Of course I changed the line.

Craig died first. I remember one day at the hospital, when David and John had gone downstairs for coffee, and I was left alone in Craig's room. He was burning with fever, emaciated, skeletal, past recognizing any of us. He breathed in deep rapid gasps, his arms flung wide and one bony leg drawn up. I couldn't help thinking of a photo I'd seen somewhere of a prehistoric bird--Archeopterix--fossilized in stone. And I couldn't help realizing--I'm ashamed even now to admit this impulse--that I wanted to peek under Craig's twisted hospital gown, to get one look at the infamous cock which, David had once told me, Craig had been able to insert inside himself.

It was only a few months before John was bedridden at home. The last time we visited, the shades were closed and his room felt unbearably hot. A nurse swabbed his forehead with a cold cloth, murmured he won't open his eyes, and left the room. John's usually straight-banged black hair was gone, and I couldn't understand why he looked almost bald, how his hair could be reduced to this gray wispy fuzz. Sweet Pea, his little dachsund, was curled at the foot of the bed. The phone rang in another room, and we could hear Ann, John's former wife, leaving a lengthy message. David, whose shock was palpable, and whose inability to express emotion was one of the deep wounds in our own relationship, took John's hand. I will always remember the great effort it took him to speak: I love you and I will always treasure our friendship. He then stepped past me, leaving me alone in the room with John.

So much to say. Such guilt for not checking in more often. I could have read to him, I kept thinking. I stared at the bony, sunken face. I said nothing. After a few minutes of intense silence, I walked out.

On the drive to Montrose--the university was just a block from where David and I had first lived (on Yupon Street), David broke the silence: "I never realized that John wore a toupee."

He didn't! I exploded with fury, stunning us both into renewed silence: David appalled at my tone of rage, and I ashamed that I had known so little about a man who could have been one of my truest mentors.


Robin said...

Hi from a friend from back in those Houston days. Enjoying your blog. Robin (from summer semester in MEX) xo

Nels said...

And I remember that reading, I remember it very strongly for reasons I won't mention on the blog. But that day does stand out.

Anonymous said...

May god bring peace to you,
Intricate memories,
Nice blog entry.
Regards - K