There is a young man sitting on the bench right outside of my dorm that morning, casually sipping a can of coca cola like it’s a martini and looking way too put together to just be heading to class. When he calls out my name and gestures for me to come over, I’m genuinely surprised.
“You’re Dionne, correct?”
“Yeah, do I know you?”
“No, but I know Linda.”
Linda is my roommate. She’s a cheerleader. She loves her boyfriend and the Grateful Dead. She reads Vogue and has dedicated an entire shelf on “our” bookcase to housing her enormous collection. She plays her workout tapes every morning at 8am sharp. She thinks taking Philosophy will be fun and is disappointed when I inform her that Voltaire is a French philosopher who is very critical of the Catholic Church because she’s a “strict” Catholic—except when it comes to premarital sex, apparently, since she spends more nights in her boyfriend’s room than in ours. She’s perfectly nice to me. I can’t stand her. Even still, I refuse to leave her drunken self at the bottom of the staircase on that first night at WCU, although I seriously consider it.
“Yes, I went to the same high school as that hooker,” he says affectionately. This man radiates confidence. We’re only exchanging pleasantries, but he is vibrant and vividly compelling. “She said I should meet you since you can sing, and as it so happens, I’m in need of a backup singer. I’m Reese.”
“I already know that, sweetheart. I called you over by your name, remember?” He laughs. “Can you do a little something, so I can hear what you sound like?”
He doesn’t even ask me if I want to sing with him, just assumes that I do. Frankly, it doesn’t occur to me to not want to.
I clear my throat. “Like what?”
“How about a ballad?”
* * *
“Can one of you Divas hand me my jacket?” It’s an order, not a request. Melanie, the other singer in our little trio, rolls her eyes. It’s only a talent show, but Reese has already told us many times we have to win. We need the money for our trip to Atlanta. He knows people there. He has connections.
Melanie sighs and gets the jacket for him. She and I are wearing matching slinky black dresses with sequins that Reese took all weekend to glue on himself. He likes having us around, one on each side of him. We’re accessories, decoration. We sometimes have solos, but he’s the main attraction. We don’t mind. We’ve done ten shows together so far, getting paid for only half of those, but we’re pretty well known on campus by now.
Reese doesn’t care one iota about being a campus celebrity.
We win the talent show, easily. We’re all stars, but Reese shines the brightest. We take the $500.00 prize and use it to drive to Atlanta that next weekend. We crash at Reese’s cousin’s house for three nights. But we leave with five gigs booked throughout the city, which means we’ll be driving back and forth at least three more times in the next six weeks.
* * *
I’m lost. It’s my turn to drive, but I feel like I’ve been driving around the city for hours. He and Melanie are sound asleep.
“Reese, wakeup. I don’t know where I am. Do I veer right or go straight after this overpass?”
He yawns, “Calm down, buttercup, I know where we are. Go forward.”
“Do you mean straight ahead?”
I laugh as he closes his eyes again. He can’t even bring himself to say the word.
* * *
Two months later, Melanie tells us she can’t perform with us anymore. Her mother is mentally ill and she is going to leave school to help care for her little sister. Reese and I leave that next Saturday morning without her. After almost seven months of singing together, it’s like losing a limb.
I’m surprised to learn that Reese has already replaced Melanie with someone else. She’s shorter than me, with a deeper voice and her name is Renee. She lives in Atlanta, so we’ll be doing the twelve-hour drive by ourselves from now on. Reese’s cousin has small children, and she’s tired of us crashing at her house for our trips. It works out, though. My brother lives in Atlanta now, so when we go I plan to stay with him. Reese decides to stay with Renee until he can get an apartment.
He tells me he’s not going back to school. I haven’t made up my mind yet.
“You’ll have to take the Soprano harmonies now,” he says between sips of coffee. I nod. We don’t talk about Melanie, or the darkness that overtook her immediately after her mother became ill. We don’t talk about the missed rehearsals and screaming matches between her and Reese.
Instead, we talk about his new boyfriend, my new boyfriend, and who the best singers of all time are.
“Freddie Mercury,” I say.
He audibly gasps and argues for Glenn Jones instead.
“I absolutely love Glenn,” I tell Reese, “but it’s really subjective.”
He calls me crazy. To prove his point, he plays nothing but Glenn Jones for six hours straight.
When I get to meet Glenn Jones, I tell him this story, and he is genuinely amused.
* * *
“Are you waiting on a formal invitation?” Reese asks me. It’s only ten in the morning, and I’ve been awake since four, debating whether I want this or not. We’re in the driveway of the house where they’re having the audition, but I haven’t found the courage to ring the doorbell yet.
“If I get the job, I’ll be gone all the time. I’ll miss school. I’ll miss you.”
“Stop it with the theatrics, Sunshine. You can still do my studio work when you’re here. Being a backup singer for someone like him will be a good experience for you. He’s already made a name for himself. If I were female, I’d be pushing you out of the way right now. You must do this.”
It’s not an easy task to constantly be around an extraordinary person like Reese. We aren’t perfect friends, but our combined flaws are arranged in a way that allows the two of us to blend together seamlessly. The thought of leaving him behind seems impossible.
“Reese . . . it’s only a temporary gig. It’s not like I’d have a real contract . . . ”
“Arrghh . . . I don’t even want to talk about this anymore; that’s how much you’re annoying me.” He moves in front of me, ringing the doorbell himself.
I go inside the house, and a man I’ve only seen before on television asks me to sing a ballad. I’m a little star struck, but I sing I Will Always Love You by Whitney Houston. It’s so overplayed on the radio now, I thought about choosing a different song, but its Reese’s favorite.
I get the job.
* * *
I’m in town for a few days, so Reese asks me to go to church with him. I don’t really mind.
His mom is visiting that week. I get to his cousin’s house, and Reese’s mom asks if we’re a couple. I can sense the anxiety coming from him, so I slink my arm around him, and I give him a chaste kiss on the mouth. His mother looks thrilled. His cousin makes a comment about light skinned babies and how I’d better always love him.
I start singing Whitney Houston again. He laughs, but I can tell he’s relieved that I’m playing along.
I’m holding his hand during the church service when it occurs to me that his shirt is way too big for him. It’s one of his favorites, and it always fit before. He’s gotten smaller. Less vibrant. His mom doesn’t seem to notice.
Later, he thanks me for pretending to be his girlfriend.
“When are you just going to tell her you’re gay?”
“Never,” he says. “I almost did once, but she told me she’d never tolerate a faggot in the family. No, that’s not something I can ever do. My family and my church . . . I can’t lose those things. Besides, Ty doesn’t mind that I’m not out,” he says, smiling a little.
Reese has been dating Ty for three months now. He’s a large, quiet man who works as an accountant. On their last date, he bought Reese a gold bracelet. Reese is as happy as I’ve ever seen him.
* * *
I’m crashing at Reese’s after a night of watching videos. He tells me he has the flu, but he’s gotten sicker and sicker since the evening started. When he can’t breathe without gasping every ten seconds, I call 911. They ask if he’s taken any drugs. He lets out a wheeze of a laugh, and I tell them no.
He says, “I need you to clean up for me. Before my mom comes here, clean up everything.”
I give the operator the address, and they say someone is on their way. “What the hell is wrong with you? She won’t care if the house is clean, Reese!”
“You know what I mean, Dionne. Promise me.” His breath is getting shorter. He’s gasping more frequently now, and I can hear a rattle in his throat, like he’s choking.
He can’t talk anymore. He shakes in my arms. He convulses in small, shock-like jerks. There are flashes of light coming into the windows from outside and I’m barely able to yell, “We’re here!” before the paramedics come racing inside.
* * *
He has Pneumonia. He’s been HIV positive for years, and in the past few months, it’s morphed into full blown AIDS. He’s known for months. As far as I know, he never told anyone. When his cousin arrives at the hospital, I go back to my brother’s house to get some sleep, but I visit the hospital for three days straight, sitting with him and reading to him. The doctor lets Ty sleep there. It’s a brave gesture for that time, in that place.
On the fourth day, at around six in the morning, Ty calls to tell me that Reese is gone.
* * *
I’m at his apartment. I drive there right after getting off the phone with his cousin. I can barely get the key in to unlock the door because my eyes are so puffy from crying. I don’t remember much of anything but that I need to clean up before his mother arrives in a couple of hours.
I look down at the floor and see a stack of magazines with shirtless men on the cover. I hate this. I hate that I’m doing this, but I will honor his request. I clean. For hours, I clean and sort and toss and pack away. I look through cabinets and in drawers. I’m in agony, my body wracked with tears as I force myself to slowly erase that part of him. I pack up every note from every boyfriend, every stick of eyeliner, every pride pin, and every photograph of him that might tell his whole truth. I will give those things to Ty later, when his family leaves, and that thought alone brings on a fresh wave of tears.
When his cousin drops his mother off at the apartment, I want to be angry. She’s in agony. The pain on her face quickly wipes away whatever anger I feel for her. She’s just lost her son. She collapses onto his bed and I go to make her hot tea, but she’s asleep by the time I get back.
Ty arrives at the apartment an hour later. He immediately embraces me. I hold him in my arms as he falls apart, and then we both pull ourselves together long enough to move the boxes filled with Reese’s truth from my car to Ty’s jeep while Reese’s mother sleeps.
“Maybe she knows,” Ty says. I say nothing. I just hand him back the gift he’d given to Reese, a gold bracelet with the inscription; Love Always, Ty.
* * *
At the funeral, Ty sits in the back with distant relatives and acquaintances while I sit in front next to Reese’s mother receiving all the words of comfort that I know in my heart are rightfully Ty’s. There are songs about Jesus and forgiveness and eternal life as I disguise my growing anger with grief. I want to scream, but I quietly listen to the sermon instead.
Ty slips away before the internment starts. I never see him again.
* * *
Reese, I used to wish that you’d never asked me to erase that part of you, but living through that changed me for the better. It made me want to help make it so that no one would ever have to make that request of anyone, ever again. So that no one would have to hide their truth from their family or their church or anyone else in order to be accepted and loved. So that no one would have to quietly sit in the back of a church as their partner is buried and pretend to be just a friend. I went from being a lamb to a lion, from being your awkward fake girlfriend to a fearless activist.
We’re getting closer, Reese. More than it ever has before, ignorance is giving way to love. I recently witnessed a legal marriage, in a church, between two wonderful men. I thought of you and how you would have loved that. I’ve accepted that I can’t change the past experiences and opinions of your family and your church at that moment in time, or the outcomes from their choices or yours, but I forgive them. You would have forgiven them, and so have I.
Happy 42nd Birthday, Reese. I will always love you.
** Editor’s Note: We chose to make an exception to our own word count limit regarding the length of this essay. Some beautiful stories require more space in which to unfold.