Conversations With Ross

I'm basically a shy person. If I engage in conversation with a stranger, that stranger has granted me permission to speak. On Easter Sunday afternoon of 1987 in the Detour, a gay bar in Silverlake near Los Angeles, Ross gave me a raised eyebrow. There was no lasciviousness in it, nor was there a hint of playfulness. It was reserved and subtle.I turned around to take another look. His eyes were focused on a cue ball that plopped across a pool table. As the ball bounced to the floor, Ross shook his head then began a casual look around the bar, his eyes finally landing on me.He raised his eyebrows and smiled.Hours later, in my parked car, I leaned over and kissed him as he squeezed his telephone number into my hand. He responded passionately; his lips giving and familiar. As I caressed his back, he moved his hand between our bodies and pushed me away."I'm not much for public sex," he said in a calm voice.Our first telephone conversation flowed as easy and familiar as our kiss. We had both attended the same colleges and had deep attachments to our straight brothers. We discussed Ronald Reagan and our conflicting views on God. My desire for him throbbed underneath every word I spoke.He always had some reason he couldn't see me: "It's late," "My job takes up most of my time," or "I need to get to know you better."I began to pressure him."Is it ever going to happen?""I don't know.""We'd be good together.""I concur.""Do me a favor. If you ever decide you don't want to, let me know.""I really don't know," he said sincerely.A month of conversations had passed when we finally met again. The meeting was purely coincidental. He walked into the Detour one Sunday afternoon while I was having a drink. As I excitedly approached, he spotted me, scowled and rolled his eyes in displeasure. I struggled to ignore the shock and hurt that paralyzed my body, but my voice betrayed me as I began to stutter. Ross excused himself and walked away.Later that afternoon, I found him huddled in conversation with someone else. A succession of beers consoled me while I observed them; their whispers, laughter and touches infuriating me. I saw Ross write down what was undoubtedly his telephone number, squeeze it into the man's hand and smile.Don't take it, I wanted to yell. He'll break your heart.They rose and headed out the door. I followed them. They talked for a while, then shook hands and parted. I hurried toward Ross, calling his name.After a spasm of frowns and agitated flinches, he said, "Look, I put a lot of energy into my relationships, and I just don't have it to give right now.""You should have told me that a long time ago. I deserved to be treated better than you treated me tonight. You behaved like a shit."I walked away, vowing never to speak to him again.This lasted three weeks."Hey.""Hey."There were no angry accusations or heartfelt apologies. His actions had killed what I felt for him emotionally, but talking to him had become a habit.I called him every week; from vacations in Hawaii, Illinois and New York and from pay phones when my telephone was disconnected. When he attended my birthday party in 1991 -- after much coaxing -- it was the first time I had seen him since the bar incident, though I had spoken to him every week during that four-year period. As long as I didn't call during a Dodger or UCLA game or a few days after one of their major losses, I was assured of having an engaging and lengthy conversation that ran a gamut of subjects -- from current events and sports to the philosophical, racial, sexual and political.We both loved talking politics. Ross had a masters' degree in political science, and I have watched coverage of political conventions since I was child. We considered ourselves moderate Democrats and often discussed the need for a truly moderate president, one who took in the best aspects of the right and left, then moved the country to the center. When Clinton announced his candidacy, we were immediately drawn to him. However, his seemingly daily mistakes during the Democratic primaries disheartened me. As an African-American, I was especially disappointed by his playing golf at a segregated country club.Ross didn't think it was a big deal, and we argued about the issue's importance. It was the first time the difference in our races had separated us. I explained to him what Clinton's stance meant, why it was important to me. He apologized, acknowledged my concern, and made his case for Clinton until 2 a.m. After the Democratic National Convention, I volunteered for the Clinton campaign.During the fall of '92, we had almost daily conversations analyzing the campaign. After the Clintons' appearance on 60 Minutes to thwart the escalating infidelity rumors that were dogging his campaign, Ross called me."I thought it went well ..." he said."... It did ...""... And he didn't lie. I can't stand it when they lie to me.""He danced all around the issue. That's the same as lying.""It is not.""Evasion and withholding pertinent information is the same as lying. Sometimes lying is necessary. Tell people the truth, and they'll run for the hills."He gave an exasperated groan."You think you don't lie?" I asked. "You lie every day.""You lie every day," he retorted indignantly."Every time you cover up and allow your friends and co-workers to think you're straight, you're lying-so realize you do it and stop thinking of yourself as a saint."On the phone, we were out. We talked about being gay, relived our first sexual inclinations, lusted after celebrities, debated whether genetics or emotional environment determines sexuality, and analyzed why we were often attracted to men of the opposite race. In the real world, we passed as straight and were so concerned with being exposed that we were even uncomfortable around heterosexuals we didn't consider masculine enough."A liar and a coward. That's what I am," I continued. "I take something that is as natural to me as breathing and hide it. And every time I hide it, I'm saying there's something wrong with me, and I hate myself a little more each day."Rarely at a loss for words, he always listened in silence when I railed against my duplicity. He knew he was included in my comments. Of course, we had our reasons for our deceptions: We were private to the point of neurosis; we didn't want to be defined by stereotypes; we had seen our brothers endure snickering behind their backs and abuse to their faces; we didn't want to endanger our opportunities; and we cared too much about what our families, friends and even strangers thought about us.Still, what prompted us to hide was fear.We could hide our heads in the sand for only so long. It became impossible for us to discuss gay issues with detachment. Our brothers were dying. We had sex in fear. Buchanan announced his holy war. ACT-UP. Queer instead of gay. Young gay people being much more in-your-face with their rage and their identity. Gays in the military.Ross called me after the "don't ask, don't tell" policy was enacted."Doesn't really give us much of anything, does it?" he asked sadly."Nothing. I've been not telling all my life. I don't need anybody telling me to go further into the closet."Still, we didn't blame Clinton. We saved our ire for Colin Powell and Sen. Sam Nunn, two men we once admired. Powell calling homosexuality a lifestyle choice was a sure sign he was acting out of emotion and ignorance, and we couldn't fathom Nunn's extraordinarily aggressive opposition and his willingness to take down Clinton. Did he hate us that much? We watched the bombardment of media coverage in amazement, listened to the premature death knell of his administration, and agreed it was time to let the issue go."If every gay or bisexual man and woman came out, straight people would have to rethink a lot of their bigotry and stereotypes, and we wouldn't have this problem," I told Ross."It's a nice scenario," he said coolly."I'm thinking more and more about it.""What does being out mean? You're never going to be totally out. There will always be people that will assume you're straight. What are you going to do? Shake hands, then say, 'Hi, I'm gay'?"My desire to be free overruled his warnings. My growing awareness of who I was would not allow me to retreat. I experimented by being out to a few of my straight friends.Ross began to open up a bit, too. On my birthday, he sent me a card with the photo of a sexy nude man with a mammoth hard-on. Inside, he wrote: "Hope you have a fun day and that it's as exciting for you as things seem to be for our friend."It was so unlike him. I pictured him disguised in dark sunglasses furtively searching through the cards and nervously looking over his shoulder to see if anyone was watching. The image sent me into spasms of laughter."I have all my birthday cards on the cocktail table. Except yours," I told him."Why?""You know I can't leave that card out.""Sure you can. Being out and all," he said, snickering.I've received a risque birthday card every year since that birthday.A week after I received the first card, I attended a Thanksgiving dinner where one of the guests, a gay man, began to vehemently criticize the sexual content in gay newspapers."It's not that I dislike sex. But there's more to me than just that. There is just too much emphasis on it. In our pride parade, in our newspapers, and in our relationships ..."I shared the discussion with Ross."You can see it in our birthday cards, too," I joked."It's just part of the culture," Ross said."That's what you say. How would you feel if you died and your relatives discovered that Frontiers magazine you got lying under your bed?""Why would I care? I'd be dead."March of 1996. I had trouble contacting him. Work, I figured. His job was his life. When I finally reached him, we discussed Clinton's chances for re-election, then rehashed the NCAA basketball tournament. Our discussion then segued into who wore the best fashions at the Oscars, a topic we discussed with the same fervor as we had the NCAA championships. This year, we were partial to Elisabeth Shue and Halle Berry.During the conversation, I mentioned same-sex marriage, which was in the news. Ross grunted."I mean, really: Can you see yourself with some man in a wedding?" He said "in a wedding" with a patrician sneer in his voice."I could see myself filing papers at the courthouse and throwing a party ..."He grunted."... it would give me some kind of ideal beyond meaningless physical relationships."A few months later, some career problems sent me spiraling into depression. I desperately wanted to flee the concrete and busyness of Los Angeles and immerse myself in nature and quiet. Yosemite was a possibility. Or Joshua Tree. I wanted someone to accompany me who would listen when I needed to talk and wouldn't be offended if I said I wanted to be left alone. I called Ross. We had only gone out occasionally; I had seen him maybe 15 times in nine years, but whenever we had, whether it was to see Diana Ross in concert, to go bar-hopping, or to UCLA basketball games, the pressures of the world left me, and we became enmeshed in each other's rhythms."Call me when you get this message. I need to talk to you."He didn't return my call."What do I have to do to get a call returned? Say I'm going to commit suicide?" I asked him weeks later.He laughed.I told him everything that had happened and updated him on my new plans."You need to go back to school and get your masters' degree and teach. You would be good at it." He worked for an educational corporation and was constantly pressuring me to teach."I hope I'm so successful, there'll be no need for it.""No, you should teach," he said adamantly, the depth of his conviction surprising me.When the conversation was coming to an end, he asked, "So how's your love life?"He was my Dear Diary, and was always up for a good story. My accounts were uncensored, and everyone I met became a vivid character described in unsparing detail. Ross would grunt through the story, then freely give his advice, but it was obvious by his many questions, his incredulous responses and laughter, that he enjoyed my soap operas."Love life. Ain't no love life," I mumbled, then mentioned an upcoming computer game and software convention I was considering attending. Someone whom I cared about a great deal had provided me with a pass to the convention the previous year. I had enjoyed the energy and excitement of the convention, which was enhanced considerably by my amour's presence. Unfortunately, those two days were the highlight of our relationship. Ross helped me get through the hurt."I don't know if it would be good for me to go. It would be like reliving the past, and there's always the chance I'll run into him. The last time I saw him, I got weak in the knees.""I don't know why.""I still have feelings for him.""I don't know why," he repeated, his voice escalating."I don't know why either. I just do.""You're right," he said, his voice suddenly turning very serious. "You don't need to go."I didn't.A few weeks later, my cousin graduated from high school and wanted to know which junior colleges in Los Angeles had the best academic reputation. I instantly thought of Ross. This was the type of work-related question he enjoyed. There'd be no one sentence answer; he'd give me detail. I called his apartment, got the machine and left a message detailing what I needed. Two days later, I hadn't received an answer. It was so unlike him. My mind immediately returned to how he had ignored my desperate message earlier that spring.A few days later, I called again. "Saw Diana Ross on the World Music Awards. She looked good in that blond wig. She was on Letterman, too. Did you see her? My cousin needs that info!" Still nothing. I couldn't understand it and berated him to one of my friends. "I am tired of being in relationships with people where I do all the work," I said.I left another message. "What's up? I miss talking to you, and I still need that information!"When I tried a few days later, his telephone was disconnected. I waited a few days to see if it would be reconnected, then decided to call his office while I was at work. I had never called him at his job. He had given me the telephone number so I could list him as a job reference. He answered. Good, he's OK. I decided to hang up until I realized the voice wasn't his."May I speak to Ross?""Ross is not in ... he passed away."In the past 10 years, I've known death. Steve. Todd. Larry. Mike. Bob. All felled by AIDS. I have lost my Aunt Florence and my grandmother, who had helped my mother raise my brother and me; David, a college classmate, one of the few people in the world who could make me laugh, died of brain cancer; my favorite uncle Albert had died from a heart attack while doing his laundry and my little brother George (I was in the Big Brother program) had been shot to death last fall. I've known death and thought I could no longer be devastated by its destruction, yet I sat at my desk and began to hyperventilate.Must take breaths. Long, deep breaths. Ross. Oh, my God.While I was struggling to breathe, the president of the company where I worked and the director, a personal friend, gathered around my desk, joking about something. Deep, deep breaths. Before they notice."LeVan, what's wrong?"Come on. Control it."Nothing," I said as I struggled for my breath and put my hand over my mouth to stifle the sobs that demanded to be released."Do you need to take a walk?" the president asked.I hurried out the door."If it's about a woman ..." the president joked as I departed.There was no doubt in my mind that Ross had died of AIDS.I walked down the street and screamed at God. How could He allow this to continue? Don't we have to take enough crap? I cursed Ross. Why didn't you tell me? He would go out like this, I thought. Not a word. Secretive. He didn't want me to know. Our conversations would have changed. Our debates, our rehashing of current events, my little dramas. "How's your love life?"I mentally searched through our last telephone conversations for clues. I remembered the fascination in his voice as he described a TV segment on a man dying of AIDS who had lived in the closet all his life. The man wrote a letter to his family; they went to him and stuck by him till his death. I had wondered why Ross was so fascinated by the story. His 1995 resolution was to be a better friend. That was a big change for him since he always seemed so content being alone. Inside the last Christmas card he had sent me, he wrote "You are a loyal and good friend." His sentimentality had jarred me.I went back to work and told everyone my cousin died.Neat. No questions. Ross would have approved.Afterward, I thought of a writer friend's advice after I mentioned being uncomfortable writing of my sexuality."Get over it," he said. "You're going to die one day, and your life will be over and soon; people will forget about you. It's just not important. Get over it. We're here on earth for too short a length of time."A few days after I learned of Ross' death, I watched the gay pride parade and afterward, attended the gay pride festival.I had been trying to get Ross to attend for years. "A bunch of sissies indulging themselves" is how he had described the parade that he had only seen in snippets on television. For years, I had stayed away, too. When I finally saw the festival and parade for myself, I saw community, joy and rebellion. The overemphasis on sex and the stereotypes that made Ross and I uncomfortable were there, but so was community, joy and rebellion.Last year, I described the parade to Ross and told him how much I envied a young teenage boy walking in the parade with his mother and carrying the sign: MY MOTHER KNOWS I'M GAY & LOVES ME. "That doesn't mean he's not going to have any problems in life," Ross warned."They'll be normal problems. He won't have to spend his energy hiding. You should at least go to the festival next year ..."He grunted. He was concerned about people from his job seeing him. If they had seen him, he would have been forced to acknowledge that he was gay."There are so many different kinds of gay people there, it's amazing. It's comforting. You really need to see it. Everybody should see it. And the boys ... Male pulchritude!"This year, the corporation he worked for sponsored a recruiting booth at the festival. I spoke to the co-worker who had informed me Ross had passed away, and he provided me with some details. Ross had died a few days before my cousin's graduation. I had missed the memorial services. I missed meeting his family. I suppose that is what happens when you compartmentalize your life, keeping one side secret from another.I am doing the very same thing in my life.I asked the co-worker whether Ross was out to him, even though I knew the answer. Ross had been very busy the last few months and was in seemingly great health, but had complained of chest pains the last week of his life and had gone to the co-worker's doctor. Ross' family told the co-worker Ross had died of natural causes. Ross was 40.The co-worker and I both wanted something neat, some simple explanation why our adviser, a person young and vital had been taken away from us but there was none; death is messy. All we could do was speculate. Ross would have enjoyed the speculation, the mystery. As long as they don't know.The only thing I know for certain is that he was gay; he was my friend; there won't be any more telephone conversations, and that we're here on earth for too short a length of time. note: Ross is a pseudonym.


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