Special People in the Lives of Special People: The Joseph Story by Hank Henderson

posted Dec 2, 2014, 9:14 AM by Terrence Moss   [ updated Dec 2, 2014, 9:15 AM ]

My friend Hank, who curates the HomoCentric reading series at Stories Bookstore in Echo Park, posted this remembrance to his Facebook page for World AIDS Day on December 1. It's a beautiful story of love and loss that hearkens back to a time that, based on the stories I hear or read from people of this era, I wish I had been a part of with them. With his permission, I'm reposting it here.

Today is World AIDS day and I am remembering many. I have a performance piece called Cloudy and Clear in which I tell the story of a former boyfriend named Joseph and the “relationship crystal” we bought on the Venice boardwalk in the 1980’s. I last performed the piece some years ago on World AIDS Day at the LA Gay & Lesbian Center. This is my only photo of Joseph.  Below is a written version of the story, somewhat different than the spoken word piece.  I’m posting it today for all the Josephs who didn’t make it through the storm. 

All through my Midwestern childhood I dug up rocks. I took them from streams. I saved them from lakes. I rescued them from alongside dangerous country roads. I hunted them while on family vacations. I even became a tweener trespasser sifting through kid-sized giant piles of rocks waiting to be used at the local cement factory. I would hold them in my hand, feel their heft, consider them, contemplate them, evaluate them and those I chose I would take home and smash with my father’s ball peen hammer.

I wasn’t a violent child. I wasn’t even an aggressive child. I peered out at the world from behind thick, plastic, dark-rimmed eyeglasses, my mom-styled haircut shorter than a crew cut buzzed in the basement next to the washer & dryer. I was just a boy waiting to happen, and in the meantime I was always searching for crystal-filled geodes. Arkansas diamonds, they call them. In fact, the first one I owned was one I bought at a souvenir stand while on a family vacation in Arkansas. It was a perfect clear, quartz crystal that immediately found a place of honor on top of the treasure box on the shelf in my bedroom. Crystals have always fascinated enchanted me. I still have several around the house: a few on a windowsill to glimmer back the sunlight, a couple on top of a bookcase and one on the nightstand next to the bed.

Joseph and I had been at the gay beach in Venice. It was the sandy section between the breakers and the first lifeguard stand north of the rocks, a quarter-mile stretch of short shorts, speedos, sunscreen and sexual tension that would be danced & drunk away late afternoons until late at night up the street at the Roosterfish.

Joseph and I had made our way up to the boardwalk in a dizzied bubble of two in the midst of a crush, that way two people can ignore the world. We’d floated past the skaters, past the mobs of sweaty, shirtless black boys -- afro'ed, cornrowed, tie-dyed or in jeans and spinning, twirling, sexy straight man rollerskating backward to music rolling out of giant boomboxes. We drifted around tattooed Mexican street boys West for the day and gay for the afternoon, past the German tourists so pale and indifferent to the fact that their suits were too small and wrong in every way and bounced off the gay boys staring at the French boys staring at the California girls purposely blond and impossibly tanned.

The two of us both smelled like Bain De Soleil mixed with sand and sweat. I don’t remember what he wore but I know it was a tank top with piping and a pair of gym shorts—short ones, the good kind. It was the 80’s and shorts still earned their name. His tan made him look Latin brown even though he was as white as me. His straight hair falling in his eyes, his eyes falling into mine and both of us hanging onto the air around us like we were falling.

We’d just started winding our way down the boardwalk – back then Venice boardwalk was a half-mile flea market of blankets and boxes covered and filled with everything people didn’t want but knew someone else would, all of it mixed with massages and tarot readings, t-shirts and plants and incense and oils but we didn’t notice. We didn’t care. We had to have been obvious because a woman with hair waving like an aura, bracelets chiming tiny peals begging attention, yelled at us to “come look!”

Her table was covered end to end with crystals purple and gold, lavender and clear, earrings and geodes and clusters all gleaming frantic in the afternoon sun. She pointed directly to a particular crystal at the table’s edge and said, “See how this cloudy part goes right deep way into the clear part? It’s a relationship crystal, see?” She looked at the both of us expectantly. Joseph bought it for me right then.

The rest of the day was a giddy sunburnt blur.

We met at the Mother Lode in West Hollywood. I used to go there with my friends Brian and Deb. Deb ran the pool table like Minnesota Fats, much to the surprise and dismay of the boys who came there to show off for each other. I was never very good at pool, more slapstick than cue stick. Still, I ended up playing a game with Joseph that quickly devolved into a laugh-filled, beer-tinged flirtation. The four of us became fast friends and by the end of the week Joseph and I were dating.

That’s when the world was on fire and our culture was burning the worst. The news, the fears, the dying -- constant and seemingly hopeless. Joseph and I both had the virus. It had charred the edges of my life but hadn’t yet engulfed it. We were healthy and didn’t need the AZT yet, so it was abstract for us in a way.

We stuck hard and fast. I remember I gave Joseph my Tales of the City paperback to read – it was a small, odd paperback edition I’d found at B Dalton’s on Hollywood Boulevard before many people outside of San Francisco even knew of Anna Madrigal and Mouse. I thought he’d like it; I wanted him to like it.

I remember we went everywhere fast. Camaro fast. His Camaro with the racing stripes and spoiler fast. So much chrome you had to squint. Rock & roll so loud you had to shout. We even tore upstate and spent a weekend at his parents in the quiet ranch house he still considered home. It was a town called Hanford, famous only because of a radio station that was on a Journey album cover. We spent the night in the twin bed of the bedroom he grew up in. He laughed in my ear and covered my mouth when I came because his parents were asleep in the next room.

I thought it was funny that I’d left the Midwest and ended up falling for a small town boy who liked Foreigner and Boston, working on cars and drinking beer and eating pizza and playing pool. Thing is, he had moved from Hanford to live in a gay city. I was gay and living in a city. There was a difference. We burned out fast too, and not too long after we had cooled to friends.

Eventually, Joseph grew distant, a small town rock song fading into my recent past. Messages weren’t returned. Rumors of illness rolled around. He was no longer seen playing pool at the Mother Lode.

Deb called me one day. “Joseph’s gone,” and silence clear and cloudy went by until I asked, “How?”

"He had a shunt. He microwaved all his meds and injected them. I didn’t know until…” Deb’s voice trailed off. I waited.

“His parents came down and threw everything into trash bags. Everything. His mom wore rubber gloves and screamed at the landlord to get out. He saw my phone number taped on the fridge and swiped it hoping I was a friend. The landlord was in tears when he called.”

Clear and cloudy. I wondered if Joseph had read the book. I didn’t think so. I wish he had. I think he would’ve waited around for the second one.

Cloudy and clear. The relationship crystal from Joseph. All these years later the crystal is still by my bedside. No one knows but me.