I met Scott at Parliament House, Orlando’s legendary gay bar, sometime after I graduated college. In those blurry years between earning my Bachelor’s and ending up at my current employer, too much happened; the exact date he entered my life is lost on my mental calendar as it took place during a time when nights meant an excursion out to a nightclub where I might meet the man of my dreams and go home on a high, or meet no one and have my sense of self-worth reduced to nothing. When I first saw him, I remember thinking he was the hottest man at Parliament House that night. I observed him from my perch on the bleachers by the side of the dancefloor. He stood at the bar, in side profile, his thick eyebrows raised in a perpetual state somewhere between boredom and impatience. He spoke to no one but observed everyone, his head bobbing just slightly to the beat of the music, his mouth downturned as if annoyed by it. Yes, there were more “refined” looking guys than he—the ones with the hair perfectly styled, the clothes perfectly pressed, their lips always smirking disapproval of anyone except themselves. Those prissy piss-pots weren’t my style; Scott was more. . .manly. He looked, fittingly enough for a man in his early thirties named Scott, like then TV-star Scott Bakula. He wore what would now be called “lumberjack chic”—flannel shirt, and in Florida, no less—and jeans. His light brown bush of hair wasn’t so much styled as it was where it just fell; I doubted it was even combed. And he smoked. Oh, thank God, he smoked. While that would be a social—and a personal—no-no from me in 2018, at that time, I was a Benson & Hedges Deluxe Ultra Light Menthol kind of guy. He, fittingly enough, was a Marlboro Red.
I don’t recall how we met exactly. That particular memory is likely lost to one too many rum-and-Cokes, my old standby. For all I know he bought me a drink or I bought him one or he asked me to dance or what have you. All that matters is I remember making him laugh. I remember his almost always stoic face bursting apart with the most brilliant grin and that deep throaty chuckle booming so loudly that everyone at the bar in the billiards room—a long, narrow bar between the room holding the packed dancefloor and the too-brightly lit dining room, the PowerHouse Restaurant–seemingly turned to stare at us. Most glared at me enviously. After all, what was I doing with that hot guy they all wanted?
I was making him laugh, that’s what.
I wish I could recall what made him laugh but, again. . .rum-and Coke. I know that, at some point, he mocked my cigarettes and I know I made my joke about wanting to adopt two children and name one Benson and the other Hedges. I also know he had my lust firing on all cylinders. But I don’t know what I said that made him laugh so hard the first time I made him forget himself.
When–after I had a few rum-free Cokes to caffeine-kill the alcohol buzz– he motioned to me that it was late and he’d walk me to my car before he went home, I assumed he was actually simply moving the night onto one of our places and the “late night” was merely the prologue to move the story onto the next chapter. So, naturally, at my car, I kissed him. This I remember. It wasn’t an aggressively embarrassing kiss. Just a goodnight kiss you’d give your grandmother. I figured a lumberjack would take it from grandparent kiss to great sex without my overly amorous advances. Instead, he just stared at me, as if stumbling for something. I remember an odd silence as he stared, as if wavering between the imaginary devil and angel on his shoulders. “Give me your number,” he told me.
This, I decided, I liked even more. I’ve never been the type to—okay, under most circumstances I haven’t been the type—to go straight from “Hello” to bed and have always disliked men who moved that fast. Sex as sport is not my style. I’ve grown up watching too many old movies and, socialized by them, I—fittingly–ended up with an image of me as Doris Day. Or Boris Gay as one might say. I think sex is a post-marriage thing. But, as gays weren’t allowed to marry then, “Date Three” had become my qualifier. If we went on three dates, I had come to reason, then we could have sex. Now, in Scott’s case, I would have gone right there and then and if you don’t understand why, I encourage you to Google “Scott Bakula” and then remember that this is what my Scott looked like. And I bet you would have gone right there and then, as well. But the idea that we were on what could technically qualify as “Date One” and he was asking for my number for “Date Two”—which I would likely retitle “Date Three”, configuring it so the telephone call arranging said date would be viewed as “Date Two of Sorts”—was seductive in itself. So I scribbled my phone number on the edge of TWN—the local free gay newspaper—and handed it to him. He took it, said he’d call me tomorrow and, again wavering, stepped away awkwardly. I went home on a high—my Rock Hudson was a lumberjack-dressing science teacher who looked like Scott Bakula! But into my excitement crept some ego-bashing paranoia: why hadn’t he jumped my bones or followed me home?
Having been around that block so often its residents thought I was a neighbor, I decided I’d never hear from him again. But no sooner had I decided that and gone to sleep, likely humming The Smiths’, “Last Night I Dreamt Somebody Loved Me”, than he called the next morning. Which, technically, was the same morning, as we hadn’t left Parliament House’s dark, tree-shrouded parking lot until well after 2am. On the phone, he said the most erotic thing ever. “I’ve been awake all night thinking about you.” Which was followed by the even-more seductive, “Do you like coffee? Maybe we can meet at Perkin’s?”
Date Two (telephone call) done, I went off to Perkin’s on 436 in a hurry, wearing my best shirt—and underwear. (Don’t judge; coffee was now qualifying as Date Number Three.) The truth was, at that time, I had not yet learned to like coffee. I also did not care to sit in Perkin’s—what I called “an old person’s restaurant”—but for Scott and the chance at ending up spending my life with him (my expectations had not yet been beaten up by life) I’d sit there and learn to like coffee and fellow diners who reeked of Ben-Gay. And I did. Some people look back on the people populating their past and fomdly recall things like, “Ah, yes. He introduced me to Rochmaninoff and a good Pinot Gris” or “He showed me the world and I learned to love the art of the ancient Poopeedoop People of Papa New Guinea.” Scott taught me to add cream and sugar to coffee. Voila! A coffee addict was born!
It was a strange third date, otherwise. Being a teacher in the county we were sitting in, he worried about being too loud. So he spoke quietly and I mimicked his whispering. Because, that looks normal, right? Nothing to see at table number four; just two grown men whispering. But that’s what life was like then. He could be fired for being gay and we were sitting in a restraurant where, at any moment, someone might recognize him as the science teacher from such-and-such high school and overhear something, busybody raises a fuss, and before you know it—teacher fired. It wasn’t uncommon, it happened then and it still happens today. So. . .we whispered.
In one of those whispers, he told me he had wanted to kiss me back. Had wanted to take me back to his place. But that he couldn’t because he was HIV positive. After I digested this–romantic hopes dashed but a brotherhood possibly taking its space–I whispered back that it was okay. He whispered back that he appreciated my not running away from the table. I whispered that I would never run from a friend over their HIV status. Then we whispered for hours over several pots of coffee. Because that’s what men do.
Sundays or Saturdays at Perkins became our norm. Why he never wanted to go for coffee in Orange County or somewhere, I never understood. So I went to him. Hours would be spent laughing and talking—in whisper tones—about everything from what we watched on television to music to guys we had dated to something funny that happened the last time one of us went out to Parliament House. I learned quickly that he was in love with the man who had infected him. He loved that man even though the man had knowingly infected him, had known he was HIV-positive, had not disclosed his status, and intentionally and repeatedly had sex with him. If there ever was room in his heart for me, I knew I was going to always be sharing it with the man who had tried to kill him.
I also learned that his medical bills were outrageous. He had sold his home and was now living in a one-bedroom apartment to pay for the AIDS Cocktails, as they were known then, which held his immune system in check or balanced out his t-cells or something. I never understood what all those drugs did other than keep him alive. But he was ashamed of where he lived now, feeling it was a come-down from being a homeowner. It wasn’t. Not for me. It was homey and, yes, a bit outdated, but it was populated by his past and that past was everywhere: photos of friends and family all over the walls and shelves. Family and friends who, I knew, he had grown apart from. I, alone, was basically it. He couldn’t share his secret with anyone but me and he couldn’t spend time with people with whom he couldn’t talk freely. Outside of his doctors, I was it. His stoic, never-smile at anyone -but-me face had an explanation.
I usually made him laugh but, one Sunday, I made him cry. I had written a screenplay which, though not my medium, I thought might have some promise. I had dashed it off over a weekend and a few weekdays, driven by some mad craziness. A story had come to me and it poured out onto my word processor, that brief technological craze between typewriter and PC, as if being telegraphed through me to the page. Usually I mill about ideas for weeks, months, and years on end before committing a letter to the page; this was a “get out of bed and get to the keyboard” moment. When done, I had given him a copy after he had asked for it. And after he read it, he told me something I had never heard from anyone other than my teachers at school: That I was a writer.
When you have had people correct your grammar and toss in a sniff at your literary aspirations—forgetting story-telling and grammar are two not unrelated fields but two different fields nonetheless: one is an art and the other a science—being told you are a writer is a defining moment. Being told you moved someone to tears with your words is unforgettable. And seeing their tears as they re-read the passages that moved them is both surreal and harrowing at the same time. Because, for me, I still didn’t know where the story of a grown adult who, as a child, had been pimped out to pedophiles by his own parents even came from. It just flowed out of me in this insanely rushed, painful process. And there was no whispering when he read certain lines to me that left him sobbing and looking at me in a different light.
Nothing ever came of that screenplay because shortly after that, his health began to start failing and there was no time to sit at a keyboard. Coffee at Perkins was replaced by coffee in his apartment. Afternoon-into evening blackjack sessions. Sitting on the living room floor laughing hysterically over recollections and reenactments from our pasts. As he couldn’t afford cable TV, I would tape movies that aired on HBO or AMC—AMC when it was still American Movie Classics—at my place and we would watch those at his. (He had an idea from somewhere the cat dander would weaken his immune system so, because I had a cat, he never came to my apartment after his first visit.) Through those tapes, I introduced him to Astair and Rogers, Eleanor Poweell and her massively long show-ending dance tour de forces, Jeanne Craine and Dana Andrews in “State Fair” and one of my early favorites, “Sunset Boulevard.” He, in turn, introduced me to. . . The Animaniacs.
As his health failed, the one thing—other than myself—which could temporarily ease the bitterness which gradually took hold that his life should be cut short, was that half-hour of animated insanity created by Steven Spielberg. I didn’t get it at first and, with the superiority of a bachelor’s degree and an appreciation for art and literature, didn’t understand what he could see in a “cartoon for kids”. And then it clicked. It was actually a cartoon for adults but marketed to their children. Everyone could watch it but the jokes played on multiple levels, with whole cartoons devoted to spoofing films or mocking celebrities that the adults knew but the children never would have heard of, much less been able to reference. The frivolity was a balm, and never more so than when he had to take a medical leave from his job due to his illness. It was a medical leave he would not come back from, but I don’t think he ever thought of it that way.
Though he was understandably bitter that someone had knowingly infected him and that infection might now cut his life short, I don’t believe he truly believed he was going to die. I think he believed that something would happen. There would be a cure found and it would be made available to him and he would be rescued. His diet of pills would work and get that immune system back in check and the pains he was feeling would subside and the cells would stop multiplying and the fevers would go away and on and on, always believing. I believed, too. Even ill, he still looked if not healthy, handsome. Handsome men don’t die. People who laugh at you and watch over you and maybe get jealous when you go out on a date don’t die. Teachers who go out on medical leave come back because their students need to learn from them, not the substitute filling in for them. But, sometimes, family comes into the picture, hear the truth of why their handsome lumberjack of a son is on medical leave and, seeing how weak he truly has gotten—a weakness not visible to those who saw him every day as it gradually took hold but was immediately visible to anyone who hadn’t seen him in years—decide his friend (me) is the enemy and his place is not in Orlando. And he, too weak to put up the fight necessary, then vanishes with a phone call and the final message, “I need to go with them.”
He died a few weeks later and the message telling me so was an abrupt one left on my answering machine. The family who never accepted him wouldn’t let those who loved him near him as he died. Maybe they blamed me? I don’t know. Maybe in his drugged stupor, he explained how it happened and maybe, in a twisted way, they mistook me as the one who infected him? Possibly. I don’t know. I don’t care about them. His death was, for me, a phone message on an answering machine. No deathbed goodbye. No last words. No last hug. No last chaste, goodbye-to-grandma kiss. No funeral. Nothing. Just an abrupt message telling me he was dead, left there by a sister ashamed of her own brother for dying from AIDS. Click.
A few months ago, I was in Los Angeles and saw the Warner Bros. water tower. The Animaniacs theme song—which was started out at a cartoon rendering of that water tower–immediately filled my head. More pleasingly, and more so, memories of Scott laughing also took place there. I still talk to him, every now and then. Coffee time is his. Since I never got to properly say goodbye, I don’t, in some way, feel he’s really, truly, gone. I still wish I could pick up the phone and call him but, unable to do that, I can at least occasionally have a cup of coffee—with cream and sugar—and, fittingly, whisper to the air that I love him and miss him.