Those Happy Ghosts of Love
A Tribute to Two Individuals in My Life Who Taught Me Valuable Lessons
by John Francis Leonard
I’m shy by nature. Not many people that interact with me daily would believe that; they would be very surprised if I were to point it out. I learned the trick of faking it until I make it. One of the tricks I’ve learned is to ask a lot of questions about someone’s work, family and friends, education, when appropriate, and the old standby, what brings the pair, group of you into contact in the first place. When I win people over, I decide their tolerance for my stories. They’re a great icebreaker. Many of them feature a petite redhead who left Ireland at the age of twelve with her mother,who had chased her abusive husband out of the house with an iron skillet that managed to clock him round the ear more than once. Kind relatives helped them book a ship and sail to the U.S.
I bring her up often, my Irish gran, her colorful sayings, her curmudgeonly exterior which belied a woman of much sustenance and emotion. She was hell on wheels, as her family would often say. I, however, saw much deeper. We had a close relationship. In many ways, she had helped raise me in her own home when she had adjusted to the idea of her single teenage daughter conceiving a child during a time and in a place where that just didn’t happen.
We stayed close my entire life until my family lost her in 2003. I couldn’t believe I wouldn’t receive her letters, written at dawn in her kitchen and continued piecemeal when she found spare moments. They brought me much comfort, wherever in the world I found myself. I often repeat some of her off-color statements to friends and customers…’jumped up Josephine,’ ‘balls, said the queen, if I had two I’d be king,’ or the particularly vulgar…’looks like someone shot at it and missed then shit at it and hit!’ All in her unmistakable Irish brogue. It’s a brogue that I’ve never been able to master that sends it over the top. And let’s not forget taking the lord’s name in vain! No person can call up the blessed Virgin, God, and all the saints like an old, cranky Irish woman. I often wondered, but didn’t dare ask why it was always ‘Jaysus,’ not Jesus? Was it merely accent, or a ploy to not really call his name?
In her final years, while I was living far away in L.A., communication grew strained.She made less and less sense but always got me to send a check to smooth things over. We didn’t know it until the doctors informed us that she was a serious bulimic and that, not ulcers or cancer, was what had finally killed her.
But I choose the good memories, like the time when I was thirteen and she asked me if I needed to tell her something. I confessed that I was gay and found no judgment. Mostly I was sure that this revelation would not go anywhere. With secrets, she was as quiet as the grave.
So if you hear me quote my Irish gran often it’s because I love keeping and honoring her memory.
There’s another person that I met in college when working at The Bar at the corner of Third and Second Ave in the East Village. All the cool gay men packed the place during the weekends and I wanted to be a part of that. My best friend Nick had worked there but was leaving. He introduced me to David, the manager, and the rest is history. I showed up at a casual meeting of the staff in very abbreviated running shorts and a tight white tank top. David had been from a very WASP family in Santa Barbara but spoke like a Jewish matron from outer Queens; we all picked it up. He was short and skinny with stick-straight hair, which he wore in a crew top above the ears and a long straight piece down the middle of his back that was often braided and decorated with African beads supplied by a jewelry artist, who would get us coke, bounce the unruly, and keep a general eye on the place. David was one of a kind; they broke the mold.
David proceeded with the meeting, but suddenly stopped his litany of complaints. He singled me out. ‘You! In the running drag. Do you have anything on under those shorts?’
Blushing, I’m certain I replied that a jock strap was firmly in place. By now there were vocal and very appreciative interest from the rest of the group, they being mostly older and used to David’s antics.
‘Give us a little peek then, go on, you’ll be showing more while you’re bar backing and working that floor.’ So, I stood up, turned around and showed them the strap, i.e., most of my ass. I got a round of applause, and we proceeded with the meeting. Not weeks later, at the tender age of eighteen, I was working the crowded floor for empties in a jock and engineer boots. Our bartenders were past the stage for such antics but were glad to see me keeping up the sides.
Once, hanging out on a Saturday afternoon in the bar I held my best cruising pose. I leaned against the wall with a Rolling Rock cocked on my hip. David was behind the bar doing inventory but keeping one eye on me. I was soon approached by a dreamboat a head taller than me. We quickly got down to business. He was all top and I was all bottom and a pro at head; all was going well. He leaned even closer to my ear and told me that he’d had a lot of beer and would love piss it all over me in his tub. At that age there were still things that shocked me. I got nervous and demurred. Evidently this was a deal breaker for him and he promptly departed.
Before I could think, David was in my face, ‘What happened! That gorgeous man obviously wanted you!’ I told him what he expected but found no sympathy. He stomped his foot and pointed a bony finger at the door. ‘You march, young lady, and find him! I’d die for that man to piss on me!’
I also remember David teaching me how to tend bar. He filled an old liquor bottle with water, connected a pour top and slammed the bottle on the bar in front of me. ‘Now, when you hold it, you hold it like a cock! God knows you’ve had enough practice.’ He also taught me to make my first meal, saying that someday I’d want one of the parade of men in my life to stick around and that it would behoove me to feed him so he’d stay. I still make that spaghetti carbonara to this day.
Severe bulimia took my grandmother at the age of seventy. AIDS took David, along with the rest of the bar’s staff, years earlier. I continue to honor their memory with tales of their escapades to this day as often as I can. It blesses their memory and keeps them alive in my heart.
John Francis Leonard is an advocate and writer, as well as a voracious reader of literature, which helps to feed his love of the English language. He has been living with HIV for fifteen years. His fiction has been published in the ImageOutWrite literary journal and he is a literary critic for Lambda Literary. Follow him on Twitter @JohnFrancisleo2.