Yesterdays and Tomorrows: Nonfiction by H.L. Sudler

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1985

[NONFICTION]

Yesterdays and Tomorrows

What have you learned from your life? What will you take with you when you die? Will it be all the lessons you’ve learned, all the pain you remember? Romances, milestones, regrets, eras? 

I always return in my head to events that have hallmarked my life, steering it into a direction unforeseen, jarring me out of complacency and ignorance. I turn these thoughts over like pancakes on a griddle, examining them, but always arriving at the same questions.

What have you learned from your life? What will you take with you when you die? 

Lawrence Blakely, Laurence Gray, and Bernard Little were all friends of mine in high school—and let them be remembered here and now, for they are all forgotten. We spent three years together laughing, joking, studying, but also growing as kids do, stumbling into adulthood with blindfolds on and hands outstretched. We relied on each other, fought and made up, not realizing the importance of our friendship as gay African-American men.

Laurence Gray was my girlfriend’s sidekick. He was short and lively with a wide, infectious smile and an equally contagious laugh. He was also very emotional and would cry at the drop of a hat. He lived a terrible life at home. His family was poor and he was often hungry and no one wanted him. He was partially responsible for me winning a student government campaign, handing out flyers and making up posters. I helped him with his studies, shared my lunch with him, or gave him money to keep him fed during the day. I remember him in a fight once, and being shocked at how much anger he carried with him. He was no taller than five feet, two inches. He was proud to be an Aquarius.

Bernard was a lot taller, lanky and not terribly good-looking. He referred to himself as Millie and he would breeze through the school hallways, his lunch in a wrinkled plastic supermarket bag, his torn knapsack held together by safety pins, his outfits shit brown and polyester, worn two or three times a week, smelling stale. He had grown up disadvantaged and pushed on his grandmother. You could tell he sensed his future had limited options and that he was living only for today. He gravitated toward me like a puppy dog and everyone knew him—teachers, staff, nerds, jocks. Out of school he was considered invisible. But in school he was a celebrity in our little high school soap opera; comic relief that reminded us that if someone like him could find laughter despite his circumstances, so could we.

Lawrence Blakely was different altogether. He was tall, husky, and black as newly applied tar. He walked with dainty steps, as if he was worried he would disturb the universe with his presence. He spoke in a nasally voice, his eyes distorted behind unflattering bifocals. He always emitted a laughter deep and throaty, as if to hint at the man he would become. A week before senior graduation, Lawrence Blakely and Laurence Gray got into a fight in the chemistry lab. I was the school’s student government vice-president and knowing the fight could prevent them from participating in commencement ceremonies I tried to break them up. The massive Lawrence Blakely attacked me and all three of us found ourselves in the principal’s office with the threat of suspension over our heads.

Then there was graduation. Then they were dead.

After high school, I never saw or heard from Lawrence Blakely or Laurence Gray ever again, and saw Bernard Little only once. I was walking down the street in downtown Philadelphia one day five years after graduation, and another friend from school (also black and gay) informed me that Bernard Little and Laurence Gray had died within a week of each other. A little more than a year later, this same friend would tell me of Lawrence Blakely’s death.

Despite the fact that he had lost weight, shed his glasses and timid gait and become a gym boy—fully evolved into the butterfly he was meant to be—he too succumbed quickly to the disease. All of their families disowned them and they suffered and died for the most part alone.

I was so burned by this, so ashamed I had immersed myself in college life and parties, that I was spurred to do something in their memory. I would not allow these men to rest as fading tombstones in a cemetery. I began to volunteer at local Philadelphia AIDS charities, doing everything from selling pies to handing out condoms and literature at clubs. I attended fundraisers, volunteered at AIDS walks and LGBT pride festivals, and served as a Buddy to people suffering from HIV and AIDS.

The people I encountered at these organizations changed my life. They were angels, each so different from the other, yet all of them bound together in grief and hope. The soldiers at these organizations were like a secret society working diligently for people they had lost, and for people they knew who were suffering from the disease, for people they did not know at all: men, women, gay, straight, transgender, young, old, Black, Caucasian, Latino, Asian. The hours were long and there was always so much to do, but we existed as a family unto ourselves and they welcomed me with open arms.

I am ashamed of my ignorance—for that is the only word that aptly describes my situation. How dare I believe that it could not affect my circle! That I was buffered; AIDS reduced down, chalked up, to a headline, a broadcast, something that people who were careless suffered. Today I would like to think that if I had known about Lawrence, Laurence and Bernard, I would have come running in the pouring rain to stand beside them in their final hours.

What have you learned from your life? What will you take with you when you die? 

I remember my friend Ted Kirk, whom I helped to take care of up until his dying day. I remember his wispy blond hair, his smiling eyes and broad laugh. I remember feeding him his dinner and helping him bathe and use the bathroom and getting him in and out of bed. I remember when he had to be moved to a hospice, and the people there who were so pleasant and worked so tirelessly. I remember him marrying his boyfriend from a wheelchair, his dementia, and times when I thought he would not make it through another night; then finally his quiet death, like a light summer breeze that enters a room and just as effortlessly exits.

When I die I am determined to leave behind my ignorance. I shall leave behind my regrets as well. What is past has passed. I will take with me only my memories of loves, lovers and friends; of sunny, golden days long gone. I will take with me the days of Lawrence and Laurence and Bernard. I will cherish our fun together as children in the face of life’s harsh realities, our laughter. And of the lessons they taught me, which I will forever hold dear to my heart.

 

—H.L. Sudler

H.L. Sudler was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and has served as publisher of Café Magazine, editor of the Rehoboth Beach Gayzette, as well as a contributing writer for numerous anthologies and periodicals. He is the author of PATRIARCH: My Extraordinary Journey from Man to Gentleman and is currently at work on his new book, a novel titled Summerville (March 2014).  He lives in Washington, D.C. “Yesterdays and Tomorrows” was first runner-up for nonfiction in A&U’s 2013 Christopher Hewitt Award literary contest.