This is the sixth installment in a series of blog posts chronicling life with my partner, Robert, who died of AIDS March 21, 2002. Read Part 1 here, Part 2 here, Part 3 here, Part 4 here, and Part 5 here.
"Just come," Fred pleaded. "It's Christmas, and there's somebody I want you to meet. Come to the party."
For the last few Christmases, I hadn't even bothered to buy a solitary poinsettia, let alone a tree. My house resembled one belonging to someone who didn't celebrate Christmas at all. I liked all the pretty stuff when I had it up, but always dreaded taking it down. Watching a beautiful tree, being offered up as a sacrifice for mulch, would always send me to a place in my mind away from any kind of comfort. Taking the journey back, out of depression, was always a struggle in those gray days of January. So, just forgetting Christmas all together had been the best option for me.
This Christmas I felt different though. More determined than ever to be in sync with everybody else, I just let myself go to the party. I didn't spend much time getting ready. The nose and ears were checked for stray hairs. I took one last look in the mirror, and then sprayed my pulse points with the remaining cologne left in the bottle. The wind was going to ruin the swoop I had sculpted out of the thinning hair on my head, but I didn't seem to care. Day by day, I was beginning to get more comfortable with the new person emerging from within.
The party was held in one of those little old lady houses downtown that had been converted into the HIV/AIDS agency. The bedrooms were offices. The living room was the party hub. Some simple refreshments, courtesy of the Food Lion Bakery were displayed on festive trays in the kitchen. I found a place to sit, like I usually do, and then waited for someone to come over and talk to me. I sat there alone for awhile until I heard Fred's boisterous entrance to the celebration. Finally, I was saved. While I waited for Fred to make his way over, I noticed a man enter the kitchen from the porch. He must have been sitting outside the whole time I was there, because I had already checked everybody. As he walked by me, he said,
"Aramis. You're wearing Aramis, aren't you?"
'Yeah, I think so. It was my last bottle. Do you like it?" I asked him.
"No. It makes me sneeze," he admitted.
"Well, that's refreshing," I replied.
Then I got a good look at my critic. I remembered him from the Friends piano bar. He was the one who was always at the center of everything. The one "holding court," as they say. This slightly built person's frame didn't seem to match the smooth baritone voice it came with. I remembered him as being larger, but then everybody seemed to be losing weight these days for one reason or another.
I was about to introduce myself when he said, "I'm sorry. I don't know what I'm doing here anyway. I should be at home."
Then he left before I could say anything else to him. Eventually, I found Fred who was working the crowd. He wasn't hard to miss. I just had to listen for his signature phrases which consisted of the following: "Girl, let me tell youuuuuu," and "Oh, I can't stand it!!"
When I caught up with him, he asked me if I had met Robert yet. I admitted that I hadn't met very many people, and that the only guy I had spoken with, walked away from me before I could introduce myself. Fred excused himself, and came back a little while later with someone straggling behind him.
"Gary, I'd like you to meet Robert. Robert, this tall, white woman is Gary."
"Oh, no, you're Gary? Well, hi," Robert said shrinking away, not even bothering to extend his hand.
I told Fred that we got off to a rocky start. When Robert walked away, I admitted to Fred that I thought Robert just didn't like me.
"No, you're wrong. Just give him another chance. He's been beaten down. The guy has no self- esteem."
I told Fred sure, I would give him another chance -- and then secretly waited until I could make a discreet exit. When I saw no one was looking, I left. Before I made it to my car I heard, "Gary, wait."
Fred had found me. It was too late. As I turned around, Robert was walking behind him. "Why don't you two go to Merriman's for a drink or something? You need to talk to each other."
Before the night was over though I discovered I was all wrong about Robert. Over rum and cokes, we talked about how we hated the Washington gay scene and loved the bar Friends. Then as he was laughing, he rested his hand on my shoulder, and said, "I've got to be going, my dear. It's late and I want to go to sleep tonight with you on my mind."
I walked him to his Jeep and gave him a hug. That night, I got a phone call at 1:00 a.m.
"Gary. Is that you? Me, Robert."
"Yes, Robert," I replied. "It's late."
"Unforgettable. That's what you are, just like the song, I keep hearing it in my head and seeing you at the same time," Robert whispered.
Feeling silly, I asked Robert what he was wearing.
"Cool Water. I'm wearing Cool Water. That's all," replied Robert. "Good night, Gary."