Saturday, December 01, 2001

I met my high school sweetheart - the one who was a boy, not the one who was a girl - in my freshman acting class. He was two years older than me, and he knew my sister.

He was a rather visible presence in our high school of 2,500 students, which was quite a feat. He was an artist, he was obsessed with history, he was wickedly funny and earnest, he did stupid things like running around with a red magic marker, ''slashing'' the throats of various teachers, which nearly got him expelled.

He was the leader of a large group of students who didn't quite fit in anywhere else - some of them were vaguely into acting or debate or orchestra, some were sort of jocks, but all of them were somehow outside the groups of students who were really into those things.

And, most important of all, my friend Mary said, "Robert Feiger told me that he fools around with boys." This, however, was not a generally known fact.

Five months later, on a school trip to London, I found out, as I'd hoped, that this was true. He fooled around with boys, and he really liked me. It was a huge release to have sex with him, to passionately kiss someone who was physically a man (I was small and a late-bloomer; he was hairy and muscular though he was only 17). It also made me terribly sad, I wandered around London with him, morose in most bittersweet way, feeling as if I'd lost something and that I was no longer a child.

So we became boyfriends. Secret boyfriends, but real boyfriends nonetheless. The relationship was full of drama and clandestine sex. Everything an adolescent love affair should be, despite the need to hide it all. I think he felt guilty about it, but I didn't, not really, mostly because early on I told my sister about it and she let me know that not only was there nothing wrong with this, but that it was in fact a good thing.

The relationship lasted on and off for a good six years, through both of us going off to college, through him getting his first - and only - job at the Washington Post and finally ended when I moved to D.C. to be with him. (After three weeks, we called it quits for good.)

But we stayed in touch. He left the Post and moved to Boston, working as a freelancer. I stayed in D.C. and, more or less, got married, bought a house and became firmly ensonced in the oddly dangerous safety of being part of a couple.

He lost some of his charm. His ideosyncracies became irritating, his earnestness became shrill, his convictions turned into pomposity. I found him hard to take. I suppose I'm still angry with him, somehow, for not living up to what I wanted him to always be.

He called me one day when I was at the office and told me that he had been raped. He had been raped and had contracted HIV. It had happened in Boston Common, a group of thugs, he said, had beaten him up and violated him.

It made me sad, and irritated that he only talked to me when he had bad news. And I suppose I pulled away from him. I suppose it scared me as well. I didn't know what to do or say, and I felt useless, helpless and outside his life.

We didn't see each other for quite awhile after this. Then, several years later, my beloved little brother was visiting and we went to the National Gallery. In the room with all those lovely Dutch paintings - Rembrandt and Hals portraits, a Vermeer - we ran into him. He was visiting Washington as well. And so, we got back into touch, briefly.

The next year, I went to Chicago one late spring week for a conference, and I decided to see him. He had moved back in with his parents.

He had turned frail, although I was very ungenerous with him. He looked well enough, but he required a cane to walk. I thought he was deliberately courting pity. He couldn't see very well, he said, but I thought he seemed to be able to see just fine. We sat and had coffee in a cafe that was in what had been the paint store on the main street of the town we had both grown up in, and it seemed to me he wanted people to look at him and see that he was dying, and this made me intensely irritated, and then ashamed of myself for being irritated.

He told me he was having portions of his journal and drawings published in the Post, the diary of a dying man. And he talked about how much he regretted having treated his parents badly, of having been unfair to his longtime Finnish boyfriend, of never having given love a chance. And I could only say to him that he had had a great life nonetheless, done things and been things that he should be most proud of. But even though you must say such things, that you know them to be true, they don't seem to give solace.

They did publish the diaries, a couple of months after he died, which was not quite a year after my visit to Chicago.

I couldn't read those diaries, mostly because he retold the story of being raped, but changed the details so significantly that I can only believe them to be a lie, which I suspected from the beginning. And it upset me so that he felt he had to lie about such a thing, that he must have felt such shame at thinking that he was somehow responsible for contracting HIV that he needed to concoct a story that removed any possible blame. As if one should possibly blame him, that blame is a word that should ever, ever be associated with HIV.

It makes me cry still, as I write this, and makes me furious with him. It's hard to have such feelings about someone you love. And I still, five years after the fact, don't really think that he is dead.

Finally, it is ironic and I sometimes catch myself wondering whether he has somehow manouvered my life so that I have ended up in Scandinavia, a place he always romanticized all out of proportion and where he wanted always to live but never did.

- by Francis S.

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