My Best Friend
I'd heard about Barry a while before I actually met him. This was inevitable, as I had succeeded him in a job, and he'd left quite an impression.
Barry was assistant to a fairly young and definitely high strung interior designer who was, at that moment, on the cusp of world renown. Somehow, Barry had always gravitated to jobs that seemed glamorous, but, in the long run, required major grunt work for rather low salaries. By the time he'd figured out that he could make two or three times the money as a tuxedoed waiter at one of Manhattan's many upscale steak houses, I was interviewing for the position.
Me? Well, I'd been working in some of the more established design houses in New York, but with my unerring sense of downward mobility had taken to looking for a position with a smaller firm, where I'd have an opportunity to study the business at extremely close proximity.
I took the new job as soon as it was offered, and was sorry almost instantly. My new employer immediately made clear his notion that I was a young, spoiled Jewish boy. His secret nickname for me was Private Judy Benjamin. He was completely shocked when he found out I'd been with Robert for several years. He'd entertained sexual fantasies about him since the days Robert managed a D & D Building showroom, dressed in torn jeans, a studded motorcycle belt, boots, and any number of my pearl-buttoned western shirts. I began to suspect my predecessor had fled for his life.
I was sitting, rather heavy-hearted, in the empty office one morning, when Barry called and asked if he could stop by. I'd never met him, just heard how charming he was from our various clients, as they'd eye me balefully. Needless to say, I was a bit nervous.
When I opened the door of our tiny Sutton Place office, I was confronted by a tan young man, taller than me, with curly black hairy and a radiant, disarming smile. He greeted me as if we'd already met and walked in. Picking up a package that had been left for him, he settled himself in and began to tell me about the camping vacation on Tortola that he and his now ex-boyfriend had just returned from. He pulled out a packet of photographs, laughing ruefully about the relationship that had fallen apart during the course of the camping trip. I perused the pictures, admiring the dark happy people amidst the palm trees and brightly colored tents, until I came across a photo of a scowling gentleman and gasped, "That's him!!". Barry laughed, and I realized I had to explain myself.
For years, since we'd moved to 12th Street, I would run into this same man, tall, built, darkly handsome. In the early throes of my captive relationship with Robert, I was supremely retarded in terms of dealing with other men I was sexually attracted to. I would stare, hard, at this man, wanting him badly every time I saw him. He, in turn, would smile broadly and wink. I was always to shy to speak to him. Barry explained that this was Bill, the man he'd just split with.
It turned out that Barry lived around the corner to the north of me. Bill lived around the corner in the opposite direction. I sheepishly told Barry my story, while he laughed. He'd seen Robert and I around the neighborhood; wondered who we were. We talked very easily for almost two hours and then I invited him to dinner the next night.
He showed up that evening complete with his personal version of a perfect hostess gift: three Quaaludes. He'd thought my invitation was for a three-way, not an actual dinner. But we took the pills and I fed him Fettucini Alfredo, as we drank wine and laughed and collapsed in a large sodden puddle. At some point, the conversation turned to hair gel, and we discussed the latest French fixative, Tenax, which was just then gaining popularity. In our stumbling state, it was decided that we test the Tenax against Barry's unruly curls. Tenax was a terrible product, full of alcohol, that dried to a hard, brittle sheen and then crumbled into a whitish powder not unlike dandruff. The entire effect was completely unpleasant. I took Barry by the hand into my kitchen and washed his hair under the faucets. When he came up for air, he showed me how aroused he was. I smiled as Robert walked in. In those days, it was not to be. Robert would not have allowed it.
In spite of, or because of this, Barry and I became fast friends, best friends, completely integrating the other into the private menageries we both maintained. In those pre-NYU dorm days, I had a clear and unimpeded view of Third Avenue from my terrace door. The street scene was not unlike Edward Hopper's "Sunday Morning", and I would often play the Velvet Underground song of the same name, sending both echo and jangle down to the pavement below. To my consternation, Barry learned to spy me from the street and would yell out my name from half a block away. I'd be pulled out of some smoky reverie to find Barry hollering my name off the roof top of his building. I broke him of this habit very quickly.
We spent every weekend together, cooped in our living room, playing music, smoking, laughing and drinking until Robert got restive and Barry took his cue to leave. We'd listen to Johnny "Guitar" Watson's "A Real Mutha for Ya", Michael Frank's "Passionfruit", the first two DeBarge albums, no end of Prince and a lot of Pat Metheny. In later years, Barry was highly appreciative of my ability to mix Scritti Politti's "Flesh & Blood" with Wham's "Everything She Wants".
We raced around town for years, met each other's families and friends, and were, in short, inseparable. When Barry met Arthur, his future partner, I felt completely threatened. I was sure that Arthur would somehow spirit Barry away from me. In point of fact, he did; first moving him to the Upper West Side, then installing him in the glamour job he'd always wanted, as a video editor with a production house that was creating the majority of what one was seeing on MTV and Saturday Night Live. On weekends, they'd head off to Arthur's upstate farmhouse. I rebelled, I yelled, I carried on like a spurned lover. But in the end, our friendship somehow endured. We thought our friendship invincible. We'd go up to the farmhouse for long weekends of swimming, cooking and laughing.
In 1985, both Barry and I were feeling run down. I'd been through a few years of Robert's illness by that time, Barry by my side. He sat with me while Robert suffered through several operations, rode the trains with me up to 168th Street to visit him, and kept me company on the nights I was alone while Robert was hospitalized. I felt like I had the weight of the world on my shoulders; Barry just felt lousy. We both went to the doctor together; a fancy Park Avenue physician that Arthur had recommended, with a waiting room full of Early American antiques and stacks of glossy shelter magazines. We both were given full work-ups.
In the week that followed, its was acknowledged that I was indeed run-down, and confirmed that Barry had a slight case of pneumonia. Robert and I agreed to rendezvous at his West Side apartment, hoping against the worst. We found Barry reclining on the American Empire fainting couch that Arthur had bestowed on him, looking and acting like a robust Camille. He had chores for us. I was to hook up his new stereo speakers, Robert was to cook dinner. Barry had a surprise for us. He handed each of us a small white pill. It was that brand new concoction, Ecstasy, and he could think of no better time to try it. Robert hit the kitchen and was soon frying chicken. I had the sound system up and running in almost no time. We sat together, huddled in a battered little group, none of us daring to put our worst fear into words.
Barry recovered and went back to work. He and Arthur started taking trips, following Robert and I to Key West, heading out to Los Angeles to visit Arthur's big-time TV producer friends in the hills of BelAir. The glamorous life he'd always desired was his. Arthur purchased a snow white vintage Mercedes convertible, upholstered in lipstick red leather. I called it his Debra Paget car, which he took umbrage to, but Barry loved driving it.
Of course, Barry was hospitalized again. This time, after a hateful bronchoscopy that left him ragged, it was determined that he was indeed suffering from Pneumocystis Carinii. Our worst fears confirmed. Barry and I sat in his private room, joking about the fact that Sunny von Bulow was comatose on the floor below him. We carefully brushed the subject of his illness, and I asked how he was dealing. He shrugged. He'd been expecting it for years. He would be starting a course of the only drugs they had at that point; the toxic, hateful poisons we had all our hope invested in. I expressed hope. He shrugged again.
We spent the time we could, running from pillar to post, stopping now and then when he was hospitalized with yet another ailment, or when the drugs he was given sickened him. We talked constantly. We made plans; plans for trips, and plans for parties, and plans to continue making plans. We were warding off the inevitable.
I started writing a book that last summer. It was called "See How We Are", and it was to be a document of those years. I pretty much disposed of it at the end of the decade, so tainted and grim, I couldn't bear to have it in my house. But the chapter names, found on a musty yellowed index card recently, are redolent of those awful days:
The Hall of Mirrors
Sunset at the Reservoir
Natasha Kinski Cocktail
Geronimo Contemplates the Waves at St. Augustine
The Hall of Mirrors refers to the AIDS wards one walked through then, seemingly identical rooms of quarantined young men, wasting away, alone. Sunset at the Reservoir refers to a conversation that Barry and I had as we strolled around the Ashokan Reservoir on a late summer afternoon. We discussed life after death, and the fact that if any two people would be able to communicate beyond the grave, it would be us. We talked about how John Lennon had told his young son Sean to look for a white feather falling from the sky, and that would be him. Barry and I tried to work out our own signal. Natasha Kinski Cocktail recalls the evening, not long after Barry's death, that I spent with his long-ago boyfriend, Bill. Bill and I had long since become friends. Beautiful Bill, with his thigh wedged between my legs, explained to me why he would no longer have sex, never again, with anyone, all the while drinking a club soda under a poster of a nude Miss Kinski and her overly friendly python. I stared into his eyes and tried not to study the lesions on his face. The last chapter refers to a vanquished, beaten man, his home destroyed, his people forced to suffer and die before him.
Towards the end of that summer, the lethal combination of Barry's disintegrating immune system and the toxic drugs he was given conspired to make appear as if he was fading away. His features became less distinct, his coloring seemed a careless blur. Though he never seemed to waste away like so many of the young men we saw, he became a colorless copy of the man I knew. He quietly told me that he'd had this idea that driving that Mercedes would change his life. And it hadn't. In the long run, it had meant nothing at all.
As the summer ended, I received the call I'd been dreading for two years. Barry had suffered a major stroke, leaving his one side of his body completely paralyzed. I ran to the hospital, finding him barely able to speak, his face twisted, Arthur pale and staunch at his side. I was heartbroken leaving the hospital that night.
Arthur called me some days later to let me know that Barry had stayed pretty much coherent, fighting to the end. On his last day, he waited until Arthur, stuck in traffic, arrived at the hospital before he left us.
Barry died on October 1, 1987 at the age of 28.
I started writing this piece two weeks ago, with the idea to post it as a tribute to my friend on the 19th annivesary of the day he died. I've been struggling with it since. I'm not happy with it. I don't like the tone; it doesn't convey our life, the humor, laughter, the sadness and pain of that time. I'm just not able to capture the very essence of Barry, in the much same way I can't remember the sound of his voice, no matter how hard I try.
To date, Barry has not sent me our pre-arranged signal.
I still wait.