When I was in New York, a dead man said my name.
It was summer and the heat was incredible; you could see the homeless beginning to blister on street corners, and people selling bottles of ice water for one dollar. Tourists with sweat dripping down their arms barely had time to stop to admire the scenery before they were pressing into buildings and basking in the blast of AC.
I was on my lunchbreak and had some time to kill before I needed to get back to the office, but I wasn’t particularly enthused about going anywhere. I’d stood under the office awning for some time, looking hopefully at the sky as if waiting for a sudden break in the weather. Eventually, I’d scowled and dragged myself out into the fiery breath of noon, intending to spend a pleasant hour sequestered in some overpriced coffee bar.
After wandering around looking for somewhere that wasn’t already full of yuppies sipping their costa-mocha-vanilla-soybean-double-shot lattes (or whatever young people ordered these days), I eventually conceded defeat and spied the New York public library.
Two large banners outside the library proclaimed that there was currently a ‘Stonewall and Gay Rights’ exhibit. Smugly, I suddenly realised that I could turn this lunch break to my advantage: my wife had recently called me ‘old-fashioned’ and ‘close-minded’ after a rather heated debate and my petty desire to prove her wrong could be satisfied here.
It wasn’t so much that I minded the gay rights movement… I’d never personally had a connection to Stonewall, although I remember the day it was on the news. What I minded most was how damned loud they were about it these days. And I suppose my wife minded how bloody-minded I was about that.
The library is a big place and is more a museum than anything else. I can’t remember seeing many books while I was there, but perhaps I was looking in the wrong place. Perhaps I just don’t remember. I was so shaken when I left that I’m surprised I remember as much as I do.
I remember that by the time I got inside, I was starting to question myself. My feet made quiet susurrations across the stone floor and I could still hear the faint rustle of the fountains outside – a sound that was still so tempting to the boiling body that sizzled underneath my thrice-damned three piece suit. I wanted to simply sit down in the library’s shop, order myself a nice cold coffee, and pretend to my wife that I had seen the exhibit.
But the idea lacked veracity, and knowing her like I did, she would grill me until it became obvious that I knew no more about the issues than the lion statues outside did.
Pulling myself together, I checked my watch and then the signage inside the library, looking for a clue as to where to find my lunchtime lesson in political correctness.
It took me some time to work out where the exhibit was, and I was surprised when I realised that it was such a quiet corridor. Standing at one end, you could see easily to the other, as if all the history of the movement could be compressed into this little footnote of a sprawling building.
Of the people who were there, I couldn’t see anyone even close to my own age. They looked like they all belonged in the yuppie coffee shops. Maybe this place was just the natural overflow when the yuppie coffee shops filled up.
And here I became suddenly uncomfortable. A quiet ringing in my ears compounded my anxiety that, as soon as I entered the corridor, everyone in there would no doubt perceive me as a Gay Man. What if someone saw me? It might go around my office. What if someone told my wife?
I felt sick.
I also felt ridiculous. Here I was, a grown man in a public library, acting like this exhibit was off-limits due to my own crippling insecurities. I wondered how many others were like me, having once hovered at the threshold of this corridor, one foot still not quite over the boundary. How many must have turned back, too scared of who they might be perceived as to bother learning about the very group that they couldn’t bear to be associated with.
I realised that if I didn’t walk this corridor, my wife would have been right.
My foot fell decisively onto the tiled floor, but no one inside even turned from what they were doing. No one else seemed to sense my monumental decision. I settled a little, permitting myself a spot of people watching as I adapted myself to the new ‘me’ who could simply walk into these kinds of places and not be surprised by it.
Two girls were snapping pictures in front of neon-lit displays proclaiming trite sentiments about love, while some young thing in a beret leant in close to an exhibit and made quick notes in a tiny pocket book. They were all too wrapped up in their own lives to notice me.
I was starting to cool, the AC blasting around the room like a parade of ghosts and chilling the sweat on my brow as I made my way over to the first display: some pamphlets from a lesbian activist group. Despite myself, I smiled at some of the self-deprecating jokes on the leaflets and posters, or squinted at language I had never understood, even when it had been current.
Moving on, I lingered over the pictures of Stonewall. I remembered seeing the headlines in the papers – 4 POLICEMEN HURT IN ‘VILLAGE’ RAID. I remember feeling sick at the idea of these hooligans disrupting the justice system, and I remember how strangely quiet the TV had been about everything. I must have just turned 20. An old friend of mine called me up shortly after it happened, asking if we could have a chat, but I had been busy with work and had indicated that this wasn’t the best time. He spoke over me.
Stephen. I’m gay.
The voice had cracked over the phone and I wasn’t sure if it was the connection or the admission. I was silent for too long, already so stressed by my job and a young family that my tongue flopped uselessly in my mouth. I was ill-equipped to handle it and I felt strangely betrayed, like a dream where someone you think you know suddenly turns into a horrifying monster.
“And how does that concern me?” I said, tired and angry. I didn’t want to hear it. I didn’t want to know.
He didn’t answer, and after a beat, he hung up. He never called again, and I meant to make amends but somehow never found the time. I’ve always moved around a lot and eventually lost his number.
I touched the display case, looking at these people I didn’t understand but who were still people. That was the strange thing. They always had been people, but I hadn’t really thought of it like that until today. They all had their own lives, extending outwards in complex webs just like mine.
Turning away from the display, I caught sight of some leaflets about the exhibit and marched over to them gleefully, grabbing one and tucking it into a pocket. On the tube ride home I would skim-read it and then use the knowledge to gloat over my wife later. The physical evidence would also be a real boon to my case.
I was just about to leave, ready to close the book on this relatively uneventful but pleasant enough excursion and checking my watch to work out how much time left I had to grab a coffee downstairs, when something caught my eye.
The neon signs, finally freed from the influence of the snap-happy girls, were being reflected in the plexiglass of another wall-mounted display. This one was quite small, and I moved closer to get a better look.
When I did, I almost wished I hadn’t.
“Aids Crisis” the heading read, in serious black letters. It was in stark contrast to the bursts of colour that were in the rainbow flags and neon signs strewn about the room, but it’s impact felt like a lead weight.
I remembered that too.
The AC was strong here, blasting phantoms into my bones until my blood ran cold.
In the display were donated love letters. Last letters. And there was a name. A common name, granted. But a name.
And it was mine.
‘Dear Stephen,’ the letter began. I thought I recognised the handwriting. I thought I recognised the way my name sounded in that ink.
The plaque underneath indicated that the letter had been donated at the request of the author. It had never been sent, and this was the first time it had been viewed by the public.
Although you will never see this letter, the writing of it has given me some comfort.’
As I continued to read, I could hear the words in a voice I knew. A young voice that cracked like a bad telephone connection.
‘You have a lot of time to think when you’re lying down all day.
For instance, sometimes I convince myself that if I’d just fallen in love with you properly, I wouldn’t be here right now. You would never have loved me back of course; that’s the point. But I would never have tried to love anyone else either, if only I’d loved you properly.
Then other times I think it would have been better if I’d never known you at all. Then at least I wouldn’t feel so guilty.
Last night I dreamt about that time you ended up in the hospital after that car accident and I couldn’t go in because the sight of blood made me sick… I’m sorry about that.
I think that was the last time I let you down. The last time you let me down was when you never called me back. I still nearly hate you for that, but if only I hadn’t been such a coward…
I just have all this time to think about all the little things that might have been different enough for this all to turn out differently. I loved you so much when we knew each other. I still love you now, but not in the same way. The sort of love you feel for someone who you know will be so much happier than you are.
I have no plans to send this letter; I can’t, even for the sake of apology, ruin your happiness with a doomed-homosexual-love-confession (and what would your wife think!) but I won’t forget you.
I won’t forget the night you let me kiss you, covered in hay in the barn’s loft and through the open roof we could see the full moon and we were both so drunk that I guess you thought it meant nothing – ‘just fooling around’ I remember you saying. We were both just teenagers, after all. But it meant everything to me and I’ll never be able to thank you.
Damn it, they’re coming back to adjust the damned IV again. At least they’re always friendly about it. A friendly face can be a rare thing in here.
My love is unfortunately with you always,
I tried to breathe.
I tried to breathe.
I tried to breathe.
Eventually, I heaved a shuddering in-breath, noticing the date of death on the plaque. 1990. He’d died nearly thirty years ago. I hadn’t known. I hadn’t known any of it. But I had known him.
My heart was thundering in my chest. It was like I suddenly became aware of each of my organs, working separately to keep me alive.
Somehow, I left the library. I don’t remember how. I don’t remember getting back to the office or finishing up my working day. I don’t remember going home.
What I do remember is waking up a year later. Putting on a suit and cufflinks that I had worn to my daughter’s wedding a month earlier – a beautiful marriage that I had nearly missed out on. I had said I wouldn’t go, I had said I didn’t endorse her marrying a woman. I had said that I didn’t know why it had to involve me. I had said all of this to my wife, the day before I went to the library.
I put on the suit, and took the tube to the New York Public Library. There were already a number of people on the steps, some holding placards, others holding bottles of one dollar ice water. It was still early in the day, and there would probably be a few more people yet.
I noticed a few curious stares but only smiled, pulling a rainbow coloured pocket square into place in my suit jacket. It was hot again, but it didn’t burn like the year before.
After a few minutes, I saw my wife approaching.
“You’re late,” I murmured, kissing her cheek and helping her up the steps.
“Better late than never,” she smiled back.
We settled ourselves down on the cool stone, watching as the steps filled up.
“It’s a good turnout, isn’t it?” She noted.
I nodded, absentmindedly patting the folded letter in my breast pocket, tucked underneath the rainbow flag.
It had been good of the museum to give it to me.
“He’d be so proud of you, you know,” she said quietly.
I leant against her shoulder and listened to the sound of the fountains, and the quiet murmur of the crowd, watching them bear the weight of everyone who came before.
Of all the dead, calling our names.