It happened in February, 2000
When death ghosts you, so does closure
It’s hard to believe that the last email he ever sent me bore the subject: Escape from New York. It was too poetic, even for him. It was the reply all a week later that prompted me to open it, ready to silently chastise the sender for sending his well wishes and surprise over a move west to everyone Rich had emailed. The words still pack a punch to the guts: Rich was dead.
We hadn’t even made our Valentine Resolutions.
It was a quiet December evening on the border of Chinatown just before the Christmas holiday. He was leaving for Montana to visit his family, and I Michigan, but we carved out the time and space for a holiday dinner in a lovely Italian bistro. That we would be dining on copious amounts of bread and pasta next door to one of the best Chinese restaurants was of no consequence. That’s just how we did things.
Being it Christmas and all, I had spent numerous hours painstakingly detailing a Ken doll until it resembled a dirty bondage Village People-esque caricature, complete with accessories. It was the most thoughtful gift I could think of at the time. That’s how it is when you are in your early 20s and one of your best friends in a gay man in his mid-30s.
Since meeting, Rich had fed me a steady diet of books; Graham Greene, Michael Chabon, and a myriad of other authors and books that never once hit my undergrad lit reading lists. It was as amazing a discovery as shopping in Brooklyn and taking the N train all the way to Coney Island with Kevyn. His philosopher soul came alive with talk of books and wore away his weary lawyer-ish exterior.
He handed me a bag from Borders over the table as we settled into our glasses of wine. “I didn’t wrap them,” he stated obviously. There were two books in the bag; the first a large tome of the first three of Armisted Maupin’s Tales of the City because, “You remind me of a character in the book. Read it. You’ll understand.” And the second, a favorite of his: Angels in America — as gorgeously carved of words as the Bethesda Fountain was of stone.
It would be just over two years later that I would be back in Michigan, sitting in my shared Ann Arbor office when I saw the string of emails — reply alls to the email from the week before. I opened the first in the series my impatience for responses to all on a larger distribution expecting surprise and well wishes.
My ire drained cold as I read the sentences. Details were still unknown, apologies for the email, his cleaning lady found him, he was gone. I don’t remember walking across the office building, but I was in a bathroom stall, crying. It simply could not be true. Rich couldn’t have died. He was moving to Arizona. He was giving up 16 hour work days and retreating to the desert.
Back at my desk there were 10 unread emails in the chain. I opened each one waiting for someone to say it had all been a misunderstanding, a February folly, the bearer of the news had broken out of the ward after cheeking his meds for a week, anything that didn’t mean Rich was gone. But that wasn’t what it was — others shocked, distraught, disbelieving, wanting to know how and why — but there were no answers. In the days that followed more and more emails poured in. We shared our grief, our stories, and what little pieces we had learned about our friend. Photos of “persons of interest” were shared — one looked familiar, Russian with unforgettable empty eyes. I tried to remember where I knew him; probably a friend of Mikel, a translator for the Russian mob. At least that was the story I’d been told though there was no reason to not believe it — he was creepy and made me uneasy when he spoke. Rich found him charming and was enamored with his ability to understand English sarcasm.
I never knew what happened for sure and the email chain came to a halt after a week as quickly as it had started. Stories were shared and then everyone went back to life as they knew it now in the post-Rich era. My Valentine’s resolutions that year were made without him. It was a suitable way to memorialize him, and try to come to some sense of closure. It was him who had, albeit indirectly, inspired the tradition with his gifting of Tales of the City.
I flew to Michigan the day after our Christmas dinner, both gifts in my carry on bag. Curious as to what he had meant about a character reminding him of me, I had to know immediately. Mary Ann Singleton, it became clear a few pages in, is who he had been thinking of. And why not? She impulsively moved to a large city from the midwest and ended up with a charming and attractive gay man as a best friend. I never knew if he thought of himself as the best friend or Anna Madrigal, who took care of everyone. It was never something I had asked. It wasn’t until after time and age that the possibility occurred to me.
When I got back to New York I had just read of the Valentine’s resolutions Mary Anne had learned of with the help of said best friend, and insisted that we needed to do the same. And we did, until we didn’t and it was just me. I’d kept the tradition for 20 years, sometimes inviting others to join me, but mostly to keep the memory of my friend alive, stopping only to remember him in other ways.
I might have stopped sooner but one February about 8 years after he had died, I was walking down Market Street in Center City Philadelphia when I saw a man in a long black trench trying to talk into his mobile with his back to the wind and a finger to the other ear. “Rich?” I said aloud knowing he likely didn’t hear me, but he looked up briefly, and then put his head back down and started to walk away with his sidewalk conversation.
It’s embarrassing to admit that I stood there for a few more moments in the icy cold wind wondering if I should follow him. Ask him who he was, and if he knew he was a dead ringer for my dead friend. Instead, I continued on to the train station to go home. I felt gut punched. The thought had always been there, maybe it was his way out, his “Escape from New York” that he set it up perfectly — witness protection.
Truthfully, that he’s alive and well in witness protection somewhere is of no real comfort — to me he is and will always be gone. And yet, I hold onto the idea — all this time later. My denial is as strong as any true lack of closure.