Pride. Day 6.
Today would have been my friend Barry’s 49th Birthday. I wish he was still around so I could have teased him about that. If I had been lucky enough to celebrate with him today, Jeff and I would probably have made a cake and put a big “50” on it, just to torment him. He would give us an icy glare that says “Back off Bitches”. Knowing Barry, he might also just walk out of the room, leaving his own party. We wouldn’t hear from him for a few days until he would just show up next week sometime as if nothing had happened.
Barry was born 6/6/66 and we buried him on Friday the 13th just 31 years later. That is so perfectly in line with his personality. He was equal parts goth and preppy, if you can imagine such a thing. Also equally sweet as an angel and mean as a snake. I can’t attempt to try to describe him without mentioning his eyes. Everyone noticed them, and commented on them. When doing so, Barry would look away, with a heavy-handed sigh. He was so exhausted from people telling him how lovely and piercing his crystal blue eyes were. It was just sooo tedious for him.
When I was in college I knew Barry through a friend of a friend. We ran into each other on occasion and I was always drawn to him, even though we had never had an occasion to be close. That changed one night when Barry asked me if I wanted to hear something really cool. We stepped outside our friend Jeff’s party and went to Barry’s car, where he commenced to play me the first Enya CD. I know this sounds bad, but I was so excited. We got to talking and he played some other music for me, which I also loved. It was right there that our friendship started. Sharing our tastes in music would be something that kept us close for the rest of his life.
Barry came out to me a few weeks after we started hanging out. I would sometimes drive up to Little Rock to hang with him on the weekends, and I was curious why he wouldn’t introduce me to any of the other guys hanging out with him. He finally just told me he was gay and asked me to please keep it a secret from our mutual friends because nobody else knew.
This didn’t exactly surprise me, as I was on the cusp of my own “coming out”, and in fact, it was realizing that Barry was gay that made me realize that the world was not going to fall apart if I came out of the closet, which I did just a few weeks later. Overall my friends were very accepting and immediately started ribbing me by dubbing me with nicknames - all variations on the word ‘homo.’ After observing this, Barry came out to everyone just a few weeks later, more than just a little peeved that I had beaten him to the punch.
After college, I roomed with Barry for a couple of months in Little Rock. Barry was a respiratory therapist who worked with AIDS patients and also in childrens hospitals. I took a job as front-desk manager at a hotel. We had a great time those couple of months going to the club “Discovery” nearly every night and getting stoned as often as we could. But I was restless and was anxious to get out of Arkansas. Our friend Jeff had moved on to grad school in New Orleans, and with just the slightest invite to join him, I packed everything I owned into my Monte Carlo and high-tailed it to NOLA. Less than 3 months later, Barry joined us.
Even though Barry was just a year older than me, he had come out to a circle of gay friends nearly 5 years prior. That made him sort of a mentor to me. He taught me a lot about HIV and how to keep myself safe. He would explain sexual things to me while making fun of me for being so stupid. He would boost me up and tell me how awesome I was when I was feeling adrift and alone. He would scold me when I was being pretentious or obnoxious by telling me I didn’t need to try so hard to be liked. He taught me that staying in on a Saturday night is sometimes a good thing. He also sternly taught me how to treat gay people and our community with respect.
For example, one time I made fun of Barry for being a bottom. Without missing a beat he grabbed me by the face and told me that he wasn’t ashamed of his sexuality or his preferences in bed, and he sure the hell wasn’t going to take any lip from some uninformed twink. Then he dropped it and never mentioned it again. That’s how he was. He spoke his mind, then moved on. No grudges.
I had known that Barry was HIV+ for many years. I don’t remember exactly when he told me, but it was early on in our friendship. As we grew closer he would share with me his fears of getting sick and dying alone. We were both stoned, swinging in the branches of the oak trees in Audobon park one dawn, when I promised him I would take care of him. The prospect of losing him scared me. This was the early 90's and people were still dying of AIDS at alarming rates. But Barry was tapped into the medical field and he took hold of his own treatment, making sure he was also on the cusp of the latest treatments and cocktails. I told myself he would be fine.
One other detail about Barry - he was just a bit of a compulsive liar. Sometimes I would catch him in a lie, and he would just shrug it off. One time I caught him telling a personal story of something that had actually happened to me. The lies were never that big, and usually were just ways to boost his own ego or to have an interesting story to tell. I actually emphasized with him on that front. I often found myself “putting on airs”, a result of being self conscious around more worldly folk. But I didn’t understand just how dangerous this behavior could be for him or how far he would take it.
Barry usually would never let me or his other friends meet the guys he was dating. He never hung out with us when his boyfriends were around. I always thought it was jealousy and never really gave it that much thought. But in 1996 when Barry started dating “D” I put my foot down. I had just moved to New York and Barry was living in Washington D.C. I could tell he was head over heels in love with D whenever we spoke on the phone and I wanted to meet the guy. After much persuasion I convinced Barry to visit me in New York for Thanksgiving, and to bring D. Barry agreed, but he made me promise that I would not mention his HIV status during his visit. D was apparently very uneasy talking about HIV, and it would upset him if he thought that I knew about Barry’s HIV status. Or so Barry said. I agreed.
It was all utter bullshit. What was really going on is that Barry had completely hidden his HIV status from D. He had thrown out his meds and wasn’t taking care of himself. I’m not sure if he thought D would leave him if he knew his status, or if he had been doing this before they were together. I’m not sure if Barry had a death wish or if the burden of being HIV+ had just taken it’s toll. Maybe his actions were completely repressed. I’ll never know what was really going on. Barry fell very ill in the Spring of 1997 and his health quickly deteriorated. First he was bed ridden and by the time I got down to visit him, he was nearly completely blind, dozing in and out of consciousness. Just weeks later he was in hospice care.
My promise to protect Barry at that exact moment proved pointless. There was nothing I could do. His parents, also oblivious to their son’s health issues, had arrived on the scene and were dealing with their own grief of losing their son, of meeting and dealing with their son’s lover. D for his part was dumbstruck. Angry at first that we never told him about Barry’s status, and then refusing to believe us when we told him we thought he always knew. It was a clusterfuck and completely out of my hands. How completely naive I was, that I ever thought there would be something I could do in that moment.
I’m still angry at Barry for the lies, and so saddened by the toll his HIV infection took on him. But how can I not forgive him. He was so strong for so long, and lord knows I wouldn’t have made it as long as he did. Shortly after his death there were huge improvements in drug cocktails and the life expectancy of HIV+ patients increased greatly. If Barry had just held out a little longer… maybe he could still be with us today. Celebrating his birthday.
Why am I compelled to write all of this? I feel Barry’s whole story deserves to be told, even though I am terribly unqualified to tell it. It scares me that someone as beautiful and strong and bold as Barry could be swept away by this disease. So many people understand the physical damage that AIDS can inflict, but in Barry’s case it was the psychological ones that were his undoing.
I don’t share this to judge Barry or to speak ill of him. To this day my chest swells with love when I think of him. He was a beautiful young man, and will forever be so in my memory. I wish I believed in an afterlife so I could envision a moment in time where I can see him again, swinging in the oak trees. But what’s closer to the truth is that whatever mark he was to make on this earth has been made. The tide of the universe has washed him away from us too soon, his stardust scattered, on to future destinations. But I’m still here, missing him terribly.
Happy birthday Barry, you old fart.