I need to say goodbye to an old friend. As it turned out, he has been dead for almost two decades, but I only discovered this late last night. We last spoke in 1979, but, then, I’ve been out of touch with almost everybody from high school for that long. The benefits of disappearing in and into a big city.
It is difficult to contemplate even explaining to my wife why I am sad, and so I have come to this most public of private places to mourn.
Let’s call him Sam K. Myth because that was my favorite name for him, the alias under which I think he once wrote for the April Fool’s edition of our high school newspaper. Under any name he was one of the sweetest, kindest people I have ever known. One of the best human beings I will ever know, a friend who ceaselessly campaigned to turn around my surly cynicism.
Despite that I believed in his goodness, believed that some day I would turn on the television and he would be embroiled on the right side of a good fight, that smile of his lighting up the room, that innate optimism overwhelming the savagery of bigotry. That he would and could change the world.
It didn’t turn out that way. Let me tell you a bit more about what little I know, and why it mattered. Matters.
We went to a suburban high school in the mid-1970s. Sam was half-Asian in a school of two thousand with a minority population of maybe twenty. He was smart and engaging, and gay.
My senior year (his junior) we ran against each other for student body vice president; some of my friends had put together a quixotic ticket, and I was the only one to emerge from the primary. The only one who didn’t want to win, and I skated through by three votes. Apparently one morning we were meant to have a debate over the intercom system, but I didn’t know and was off-campus working on the newspaper or something. I had been a pretty successful competitive debator, and maybe I could have cut him up had I been around. Probably not. He was too nice, too positive, too pleasant even for an aggressive, abrasive asshole like me to take off on.
He refused to speak, because I was not there to defend myself. And won anyway, of course.
The next year, his sexuality an open secret (I thought he was out; our mutual friend, who told me last night of his passing, says he hadn’t, and she would know), he was elected student body president. And admitted to Stanford.
He was, I think, active in a Stanford gay students’ group. I saw him at a New Year’s Eve party a few years after high school. I didn’t know many people there and was about to plunge whole-heartedly into the abyss of my 20s, so I don’t think I stayed long. I remember keenly a blowsy young woman from his year, monkey drunk, being helped to the bathroom and smiling at Sam: "I know you’re gay, but I love you anyway." Sam smiled back and cleaned up her mess.
We went on with our lives. I ended up typesetting a gay newspaper in the early ‘80s, at the dawn of AIDS, before the disease even had a name. Because he was an activist and a writer, I kept my eye out for his name in the dispatches the editor collected from around the country, pieces of a puzzle. Never showed up.
Shit happens. You grow up, fall down, repeat as needed.
At some point it began to bother me that I’d never seen Sam in the public eye, and at various points I googled him, but he’s got a very common name and that came to naught.
Last night I learned that he died in his 30s, but not how, and not why, because his family has kept that secret from even his best friend. As they sought to keep the secret of his depression from her.
I have to pause here. I have a passing acquaintance with what depression means. Sam was such a relentlessly sunny soul that it seems impossible now to understand that he could suffer so. Maybe it settled in after we went down our paths. If I understand correctly, his mother’s unwillingness to accept his sexuality played into some of it, but he seemed remarkably well-adjusted to himself for a 17- or 18-year-old kid, then or now.
So my friend doesn’t know how he came to die. I had feared AIDS, because he was young and handsome and (I’m guessing) desirable. Because he settled into San Francisco in the early ‘80s. Maybe AIDS, maybe suicide. Maybe something else, I’ll never know and in the end it doesn’t matters.
I am not, by nature, an optimistic man, and my experience of the world has done little enough to teach me otherwise, though I have hardly been ill-treated. (Lucky, in many, many ways.) Despite that, I felt better knowing Sam was out there, no matter that he and I hadn’t spoken for thirty years. I knew he was out there, that wherever he was, whatever he was doing, things were better than if he hadn’t been there, been doing.
Only he wasn’t. It didn’t turn out that way.
There’s no blame here. I don’t know enough to blame anybody, and, again, it would change nothing.
But I am tired of watching my gay friends fight for their rights. Stonewall was a long time ago, and I realize this society changes slowly. I am tired of watching gay friends fight for basic rights, not the least of which is to be loved for who they are. After I wrote this, I noted on the homepage here at the Courts have delayed gay marriage in California again. Sigh.
I don’t know what cost Sam his life. I know only that in a fair world, in a just world, in the world I believe he wished to help call into being, Sam would still be alive. And smiling.
And it really pisses me off that he's not.
That’s all I’ve got.