…on my mind…
Just a bit over 26 years ago I met a boy…
He was 25 years old, so not really a boy, but then I was only 29. I wasn’t completely out of the closet, yet. I regularly went dancing at a gay country bar, and I had just started singing with a newly formed lesbian & gay chorus, so I wasn’t deeply closeted, either. But as far as I knew at the time, other than one cousin none of my family knew I was gay. And only a few of my long-term friends knew.
Ray and I met online on a gay BBS system, and after lots of chatting over several weeks, had finally agreed to meet at a restaurant. I had trouble finding him, because he forgot to tell me that he’d recently dyed his hair. I wasn’t looking for a redhead.
I suspected he was a keeper when I saw the small bookcase beside his bed. I knew he was a keeper when we talked about one particular worn hardback. Not because of which book it was, but because he had a favorite book that he re-read several times a year. And talking about it made him start talking very animatedly about a lot of his other favorite books.
We’d been officially dating for a few months when he first told me that he liked to write. He hadn’t mentioned it before because I earned my living as a technical writer, and while my fiction had mostly been published in small, non-paying ‘zines, he was a little nervous about showing me his work. Turned out he’d never shown anyone his writing before. He had a bit of an inferiority complex about his education: he’d dropped out of high school after his father died to go to work to help his mom support his younger siblings. He had since gotten his GED and taken some community college classes, but he wasn’t confident in his writing skills.
I asked him if he wanted my honest opinion. I admit I was a bit nervous, too. What if I hated his work and couldn’t hide it? Fortunately, the first story he showed me wasn’t bad. It needed work. But he was happy to receive critiques and borrow some of my books about the writing process.
He kept working at it. Revising, writing, reading. He started occasionally sharing his work with other people. He even managed to get a couple of stories published in small ‘zines.
Then he got sick. When the doctors first told us he had two years or less to live, I refused to believe it. I was certain we were going to beat this. For the next few years there were lots of tests, treatments, a few scary visits to the ER, and then chemotherapy.
One night just over three years after they had told us he had less than two years to live (seven years and three months after our first date) he had a seizure and fell into a coma. I spent the next several days sitting beside his bed in an intensive care unit, waiting for him to wake up. But it wasn’t to be.
During the weeks afterward I went through his things, with help from his mother and sister. In the cabinet under the night table on his side of the bed, inside an envelope that said, “No Peeking!” I found a small package wrapped with Christmas paper, with a gift tag that said, “To Gene, Love Ray.” I didn’t open it. But the package was the size of a paperback book. And in another envelope in the same cabinet were two identical copies of a paperback anthology, along with some correspondence from the editor of the anthology.
He had sold two short stories that were included in that anthology. He’d sold them the year before, and had received copies of the book nine months before he died. And he’d never said a word to me about it. He’d wanted it to be a surprise.
He had a deadline for another anthology with the same editor coming up. I couldn’t figure out which of the stories he had on his computer he had intended to submit. I wrote to the editor and explained that Ray had died. The editor sent a very thoughtful condolence note back.
Ray had made his first professional fiction sale—two stories! —a mere six years after shyly admitting he was afraid to show his work to other people, but didn’t tell me because he wanted to see the expression on my face when I opened the package Christmas morning. I wish I’d known. I wish I’d been able to tell him how proud I was of him. I wish I’d been able to grab a Sharpie, hold the book out to him, and ask for his autograph.
Make no mistake, I love my husband, Michael. Every time I see his smile, I feel like the luckiest man in world. But I loved Ray, too. I miss him. I wish he had lived to see the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, to see the citizens of our state vote to give same-sex couples the right to marry, to see the Supreme Court overturn the Defense of Marriage Act, and of course to see that same court make marriage equality the law of the land.
This week Michael and I are going through our things, hauling stuff to Goodwill and so forth. We’re both packrats from long lines of packrats, so we have to do these purges every year or so. I tend to hang onto things, and I get overly sentimental over a lot of those things. I had a couple of rough moments Monday. One was when I came across the book with Ray’s stories on a shelf. Another was when I was pulling plushies from another shelf and found a small, peach-colored Teddy Bear. Only a few weeks after we started dating, Ray had to fly to Georgia for a business obligation. He picked up the teddy bear for me and a coffee mug for himself in a souvenir shop. Yes, 26 years later, I still have the “Georgia On My Mind” mug, and I still think of it as Ray’s mug.If he’d lived, today would have been Ray’s 52nd birthday. That’s right, our birthdays were only two days apart. We usually wound up celebrating both birthdays together with his family, and then would celebrate just the two of us on our actual birthdays. I assume that that is the reason that I start getting a bit depressed and moody every September. I can’t think about my birthday coming up without thinking about his birthday that we don’t get to celebrate.
I would love to see his goofy grin over a cake covered with candles at least one more time.