I remember the night we met. San Francisco was feeling like my kind of town because the club was busy at 7 pm on a Saturday night, and I was always the guy who wanted to drink and dance and still be home by midnight. I was at Badlands, and it was my first time taking a huge risk on myself. I’d driven from Utah to San Francisco on a whim; it was magical, I was electric. And you came in with friends, a few drinks in already, and we made eye contact. You played it off like you didn’t notice me cause that is your way, but you gave me a few more glances, and I was feeling bold. I definitely noticed you. I mean, have you seen yourself? They could put your picture next to ‘tall, dark, and handsome’ for illustration. I asked you to dance, and I think you meant to say no, but you seemed to be as charmed by my Hufflepuff as I was intrigued by your Slytherin.
And so for a few hours there was music and dancing, some loud whispered conversation in each other’s ears, a bit of groping, a little kissing. You were baffled that I was from Utah until we both realized our origins in Idaho. I met your friends. We danced some more. I got one more drink and then I was done, but you had three, and then a fourth, and that’s when you invited me back to your place. And then, forever after, this became the story we told each other and laughed about. I was so naive back then, Dickie. There I was, going home with a stranger, a very rare event for me. And we were in the back of the cab, and you reached into your pocket and pulled out a tiny bottle that looked like eye drops. You unscrewed the lid and handed it to me with a wink. God, you were so drunk. And I put the tiny bottle to my mouth and took a swig of it. It tasted like paint thinner and I gagged and choked as the sharp smell of the poppers hit the cab. You laughed as you pulled the bottle back, saying I wasn’t supposed to drink it, I was supposed to smell it, and the cabbie wondered what the fuck we were doing in the back of his cab.
Back at your place, we cuddled and chatted for a while. You were so goddamn silly when you were drunk. We made out a bit but you were too far gone. I tucked you in, walked outside at midnight, and then walked three miles back to my lodging, because I had no concept of being unsafe in a big city and a cab felt too expense to use on top of my pending child support payment.
Remember how we went silent for a few days after that, and then you messaged me on Scruff with a ‘hey, handsome’? I recognized you immediately but you’d forgotten that we’d met. And then later that day, I ran into you on the subway, and thought ‘my word, that man is handsome’ and we finally made eye contact before I realized we already knew each other. That’s when we traded phone numbers, the day I was going home. And then we texted, and made phone calls, and developed a friendship over the next few years.
On my next visit out west, this time to Los Angeles, we had a lot of physical chemistry and seemed very into each other, and that felt amazing. It felt magical, this weekend getaway with this handsome friend. But things got serious that trip. We had that long breakfast where I ate eggs and you had a giant platter of fried everything, and we shared, and marveled at seeing each other as adults who had survived shitty things. Me: grew up Mormon, childhood trauma, married with kids, out later in life against tremendous adversity, shaking my fist at the universe over a long series of failed dates. You: grew up Jehovah’s Witness, family history of alcoholism and mental illness, severe trauma after coming out, fresh starts over and over again in Washington DC and Seattle and San Francisco, all while you kept your big dream of being an actor in Los Angeles open. You kept rolling your eyes at my naivete about the world, my persistent sunny outlook. I called you ‘charmingly pessimistic’ and you laughed out loud, telling me how that was perhaps the nicest thing anyone had said about you. You stayed the night that night, and I left the next day, and we promised to stay in touch.
Remember how excited I was when you came to visit me in Seattle? I expected a whirlwind romantic weekend, but you were so heavy-hearted. You seemed haunted. It was your first return to a city you’d left painfully. You walked me up and down the streets, showing me your memories. There was the club where you danced in a cage. There’s the breakfast place owned by your favorite lesbian couple ever. There is the park where you laid out in the sun with your friends. There is the perfect apartment with the perfect view that you moved into with your perfect boyfriend, the one you saw your entire future from, the one you had to leave behind, heartbroken, when the relationship didn’t work out. You found yourself in this city, you said. It built you up, and then it broke you to pieces. You wondered how differently life would have been, could have been, what if, what if, what if. We didn’t do anything more than cuddle that weekend. We got on each other’s nerves. You had a lot going on under the surface and I couldn’t get a proper read. You felt like no one could understand you. And you’re right, I couldn’t possibly.
And that was the last time I saw you. That was over three years ago. We stayed in touch, haphazard phone calls and text messages, occasional selfies, quips back and forth. Life knocked you down harder than ever, and you responded by giving the universe your middle finger. You did it. You took the big risk to live your dream. You moved to Los Angeles. You kept countering the depression with determination. You shared with me about your terrible dates, the time you got knocked out and mugged, the hoarder you were living with, the community you found yourself a part of, the job you felt you were perfect for. We laughed and we found meaning where we could. My life was changing too. You were on a journey, and the destination wasn’t sure yet, but you just knew it was a culmination of all the parts of you that had come before: the performer, the singer, the lobbyist, the dreamer, the cynic, the critic, the Disney enthusiast, the heartbroken, the hoper, the charming pessimist. It was all building to something and you were launching yourself forward to something new.
And then the cancer hit. And for the last few years, you tackled it with authenticity and bravery. You educated the world. You shared your photos, your progress, you honestly and authentically told everyone how it felt, what you were going through. I watched every day. I messaged sometimes, and sometimes you responded. Life got in the way (kids and jobs and projects and writing and travel and–) and I never made it out to see you. I just somehow thought it was all going to be okay, that we would have years to stay in contact. You’d conquer the cancer and jump back up, and the dreams were still ahead. (There it is, my naivety, Dickie, still, after all these years.)
And then, a few days ago, I realized I hadn’t seen your updates in a while. I clicked on your page to check in. And there were memorial messages. A board with your life photos left up to honor you. Goodbye messages. Posts saying ‘fuck cancer’. I was eating a sandwich at the time and I choked and my whole body went cold. I went pale, hot tears rolled down my cheeks, I couldn’t get my breath. This wasn’t supposed to be how your story ended. Not like this. Not like this.
You were supposed to live another 60 years, my friend. You were supposed to tease me about drinking poppers for decades ahead. You didn’t make 40, and I fucking hate that. I hate it, Dickie. It breaks my heart. And it leaves me with metaphysical thoughts about how you would have done things differently if you knew how it would end. I definitely would have.
That weekend in San Francisco, when you showed me some of your favorite spots, I watched you giggle with glee at something adorable. I laughed so hard, seeing past the cynic and the pessimist, and seeing that child of pure joy inside you. I called you Peter Pan that day. And you gave me the most serious look.
“I’m not Peter Pan. I’m Pippin.”
Pippin. I’ve never seen the play. I still haven’t. But after I heard about your death, Dickie, I spent yesterday listening, closely. I sobbed. Because Pippin was a prince who was determined against all costs to live an extraordinary life. No matter how many times he was held back by the expectations of others, he quested. He dreamed bigger. He fought to go against the script at all costs. On his terms. Always. I concede, Dickie. You’re Pippin.
And the verse from his big ballad somehow becomes the best way I can memorialize you.