December 25, 2010

Tommy's Tale, Part Two

Me and Tommy
We had 15 years together, from the time Tommy was 15 until the day he died fifteen years later. I wanted more but I also know it was enough, that I was lucky to know my brother.

After my newly found father freaked out about me being gay, we didn't speak again for about 15 years. I retired my thoughts of him. Before, I'd always wondered what my father looked like, what kind of man he was. I knew now: he was a colorless drunk living in the Bronx. This enabled me to put my daddy issues to bed forever. As most gay men whose fathers reject them know, there's a simple way out: you have to become your own father. That's the game and it fixes it for all time. You can walk anywhere alone after that because your internal father is always with you. I never needed my father or cared about him ever again.

But I always wondered what had happened to those two young half-brothers of mine. When I was 30 I found out, at least about one of them. Out of the blue, Tommy, the youngest of my half-brothers, called me. He wanted to get together and I jumped at the opportunity.

Tommy turned out to be, at 15, as big as me -- 6'5". In fact, he was a bit taller than me. We didn't look alike at all. I guess he took after his mother. And Tommy was gay! That was such a wonderful surprise.

As it turned out, this was one of the reasons why he sought me out. He was enrolled in a Catholic high school in the Bronx and was getting tremendous grief because he was out at school. Here was another similarity: neither of us ever lived in the closet. But because of his out status he was taunted by the cave-children at school. They did typical dimwit things like putting tacks on his chair. And the dear "Brothers" who ran the school apparently felt Tommy deserved such treatment. Always kind to children, the Catholics.

So he turned to me and I was more than happy to be his gay role model. From the day we met, we were brothers in every sense of the word. Tommy was my other half. We understood each other perfectly. We were different, of course. He was much more easygoing and friendly than I was, and I was more aggressive in life matters. I went after what I wanted while Tommy laid back and enjoyed whatever came his way. For fifteen wonderful years we shared our lives.

Unfortunately, we'd both inherited our father's genes and were prone to alcoholism and substance abuse, and over the years we were both addicted to various things. I was the one who fell apart regularly because of drugs and alcohol. Though Tommy seemed to drink and drug as much as I did, somehow he withstood it better. He was the guy with the hollow leg who never showed evidence that he was high or drunk. I never heard the boy slur a word.

So in the end, I don't know how much of a role model I was. For gayness, I was a good one. For life, I guess I wasn't. But then we were both hammered by addictions. I don't think Tommy would have used less alcohol or drugs if he'd never met me. It was in our genes; we couldn't avoid the problem. But even drunks and druggies have good days, and when we were together it was always a good day.

I'd get sober in AA now and then, for a year or three, but I'd always relapse. In my early sober years I tried to get Tommy to understand that he was an alcoholic too, but he never did get it. He figured I was the one with substance abuse issues, not him. And then of course I'd soon relapse and we'd be hitting it together again.

Despite this, we had some great times. I have a half-sister too; she's the "sister" I refer to here at times. We've always been wildly close, closer than any brother and sister I've ever known. So at some point it seemed sensible to have Tommy and Maria meet. One night we all went out dancing at the Limelight. We drank and laughed and danced and I think all three of us would agree that it was one of the best nights of our lives.

But all things come to an end. Tommy started to get sketchy about contacting me -- and even sketchier about what he was doing. He'd slip away for months and I wouldn't hear from him. He was living here and there, so there was no way that I could contact him. And then after a longish absence he'd appear at my house, filled with wild stories.

And some of those stories weren't good at all. It was the 80s and at the time, I was working in the field of HIV-related discrimination. In other words, I was very familiar with AIDS issues. So when he visited one day and finally told me what he'd been doing -- having unprotected sex with strangers, shooting dope and sharing needles -- I knew exactly what this meant. As I heard his words I felt a cold wind slip into the room.

Of course I tried to get through to him. "You can't do this," was my basic message, phrased in various ways. But I'd never been able to reach Tommy with any information he didn't want to hear. In all the years I knew him I don't think I ever changed his mind about anything. He did what he wanted to do. I might as well have been talking to a brick wall.

And really, I knew it was over then and there. He wasn't going to be able to put the genie back in the box. I was sure he was infected although he seemed healthy enough at the moment. It was a horrible visit. I felt I was spending time with my dead brother.

And that was pretty close to the truth. I never saw him again after he left my house that day. He called one more time to say he'd be over the following weekend, but the weekend came and went without him. I knew immediately what had happened. He would never just fail to show up like that without calling. Never.

I felt that cool breeze rushing around my heart again but I ignored it. I told myself I didn't know for sure that anything had happened to him, couldn't really know that he was dead. And if I didn't know it, then it wasn't true.

I went on like this for another year or so, my head buried in the sand, knowing but not knowing. It was better this way, I thought. Maybe he was still out there, healthy and having fun and that's why he didn't call. That was it: he was just having too much fun.

I didn't want to know.

Stay tuned for the next and final installment of Tommy's Tale. It will appear here next Saturday morning. If you missed Part One, you'll find it here.

UPDATE: You can find part three of Tommy's Tale here.

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