WARNING: The tone shifts in this posting! When I wrote about the necklace there was something else I wanted to say but I stopped myself because I felt it was inappropriate. The fleur de lys is also a tattoo my old pal Cliff had on his calf. And when I see the symbol I think of him.
This is Cliff's story. This is not his whole story and this is not the only telling of it. The only tangible object that I know of that exists in which he is remembered by is a brass plaque up in the studio of the radio station where we used to work together in San Francisco. It reads, “Cliff (last name), 1968-1993.” There is no grave or marker, but I'll get to that in a minute.
Cliff was 25 years old when he passed. I was close to him when I first started college during 1989, 1990 or so. He had a serious addiction to cocaine during the era I hung with him but a lot of us friends ignored it/downplayed it/denied it. I heard he was using heroin after he moved to Los Angeles in ’91, but this news hit my detached being like something insignificant. It was bad but I became quickly distracted. What could I do? We had a falling out previously and lost touch. I had decided to start making healthier choices. I couldn'’t keep up with his all-nighters and self-loathing. I moved to Olympia, Washington to live in a house, to garden, knit, and shop at the co-op. He moved to Los Angeles to party and have anonymous sex.
One damp morning in 1993 I got the call in my little wonderland of Washington State. Did I hear already about Cliff? He overdosed...but only his mother thinks it was an accident. The rest of us know it wasn't. I returned to San Francisco immediately for his service and was haunted by his memory everywhere I went. There was the corner where a tampon fell out of my purse and he picked it up and handed it to me saying "oops," and I wanted to die. We took that bus there to Chinatown for trinkets to give out on Christmas.
His service was at the beach. We gathered around a pre-determined spot in a circle and held hands and told stories. Some of the stories were about what a difficult person he could be and how much we were going to miss the bastard. Cliff had a lot of friends. In the center of the circle was a Pillsbury Doughboy cookie jar I tried not to look at and prayed was not what I thought it was. This was his box, and he was inside it.
Cliff’s mom told a story last. I wanted to meet her since I tasted her chocolate chip cookies some years back. She sent Cliff a care package and the cookies were so good I made him call her so I could get the recipe that I still use to this day. That memorial weekend she had just gotten a replica tattoo of one Cliff had so she could feel closer to him. Cliff'’s was a jagged fleur de lys that took up his whole calf and his mom’s was smaller and more feminine. Should I tell her he got that tattoo while drunk, stoned and on ecstasy? That he had the hots for the tattoo artist with the perineum piercing? After she spoke we all stumbled to the shiny jar like zombies and grabbed handfuls of ash and bone that used to be Cliff and took them to the sea. This was illegal and we knew it and we did it anyway. I walked into the icy waves in my shoes and socks and pants like everyone else because how could we care while being so numb with loss. As I dropped my handfuls in, the water flooded back in the wrong direction. “Go back!” I heard someone yell. It was happening to all of us.
I still can’t wrap my brain around how his life became a story because of how it ended. He was gay. Even his cat was gay. His whole building was like that. There was no question of this fact yet he never accepted it. He was angry at how sexuality got doled out. He wanted to be straight, as if he would have fitted in then. As if the mainstream culture wouldn'’t have found another way to alienate his sensitive soul. His being overwhelmed with his identity evolved into his being overwhelmed with addiction. And we couldn'’t stop that either. He had to make his own choices. Some of his friends were angry at how clueless his mom was. She is the only person who didn’t know he was gay. I wonder if now, 13 years later, she's not too overwhelmed by the meaninglessness of her son’s tragically premature passing to accept that he was gay. It has been said that None of us are free until we are all free.
It's the 25th anniversary of AIDS by the way. It's been underreported. Read this article to learn about it.