Gregg and Joel
Background to the Log
In my Log I do not talk about why I began studying the issue of homosexuality. This story is intended to fill in some of the blanks.
Only a couple of months after "Gregg" and "Joel" moved into the apartment across from ours around the fall of 1997, my husband mentioned to me that he thought they were gay. Of course back then, we didn't have a clue what gay was. To us, it had to do with the way someone dressed or talked, or the kind of music someone listened to, or the fact that a couple of young guys rooming together had an apartment that looked like a showcase. Every time I stepped outside my door and turned to head down the stairs, I found myself looking straight through the enormous living room window of Gregg and Joel's apartment. I could see a luxurious white couch, an elegant, polished book case, and house plants overflowing their planters, leaves cascading down in streams of bright green. "Why can't my apartment look like that?" I'd wonder lying on the Montgomery Ward sofa in my own living room, filled with plain oak shelves without a single house plant in sight.
They were by far the best neighbors we had ever had. Our second-story apartments shared an outdoor deck and Joel was always careful to keep it swept and clean. Gregg was the one with the green thumb. Not long after they moved in, he asked us for permission to spruce up the deck by setting up some outdoor plants along the railing. "Go ahead," I said. "I'd do it myself except they'd all be dead in a week." I'd never had much success with plants.
They were so nice and considerate I was interested in getting to know them better. They looked only a few years older than me, and the possibility that they might be gay made me more curious. I had never before gotten to know anyone who was gay, and had always thought it was something completely foreign. But I found these guys easy to like and I guess I didn't expect that. Of course, I thought if we became friends maybe I could get into a discussion with them about homosexuality, and that's when I could contribute brilliant insights from a Christian perspective such as, "Don't you know it's a sin?"
But that never happened. One Sunday afternoon Gregg and Joel were sitting outside and saw my husband and I returning home from church, dressed in our Sunday best and armed with our big leather Bibles. I stopped to chat with them and mentioned that my husband was a pastor. I generally try to be up front with people about this, because otherwise if they don't find out until late in the game, they start worrying that they might have let a swear word slip out in a past conversation with me, and that might cause them to feel uncomfortable around me in the future.
The downside, of course, is that once people find out we are apparently so zealous for our religion that my husband has actually made a full-time occupation out of it, some may start to feel uncomfortable anyway. As the months passed both Gregg and Joel remained friendly, yet I knew they were holding me at a distance. Their resistance to my friendly overtures was very subtle and never rude, yet I sensed its decisiveness, and after a while I knew there was a certain line that I wasn't supposed to cross. Naturally, I figured it was because I seemed to them like a pretty devout Christian, and they were gay, and that was a chasm that they had decided could never be bridged.
Even so, I would chat with Gregg every once in a while, who wasn't nearly as shy as Joel. About a year after they had moved in, I went out one afternoon to get the mail and found Gregg tending as usual to his plants. I said something like, "So what's up with you?" and he floored me by telling me that he had just retired. After giving me a few seconds to recover and sputter out a congratulations, he said, "Well, I've been working at this job since I was sixteen, and now I'm thirty-six. I've got a great retirement package, and now I want to have time to do some of the things I've always wanted to do." I went away thinking that this has got to be the luckiest guy in the world. Here I've wasted years going to college and grad school while Gregg simply landed a great job at a young age and started building up a really cool early retirement. And now he's got it made for the rest of his life. I went around telling all my friends that I knew this guy who was so rich he could afford to retire at age thirty-six.
After that I didn't see Gregg around very much. When I did see him he explained that he sometimes traveled out of state to see his family and to check up on a business he owned. A life of travel and leisure, I thought. Joel, on the other hand, was always at home during the day, cleaning incessantly as he cranked up the show tunes on his stereo. I started to view him as a housewife of sorts, like me except without the kid, and wondered why he wasn't out looking for a job. I noticed at night he was often gone. It seemed like such an odd arrangement for Gregg to be supporting Joel, who did housework during the day then apparently went out in the evenings and enjoyed the L.A. nightlife. I just chalked it up to some weird gay living arrangement that was totally beyond my comprehension. Yet I couldn't help but view Joel with suspicion for leaching off Gregg's wealth like that.
Then for a stretch of about six months I didn't see Gregg at all. On the other hand I ran into Joel all the time as he was watering Gregg's plants, taking out the trash or doing laundry. He had always been shy and a bit awkward socially, but lately he looked so depressed and withdrawn that every time I tried to chat with him, I felt like he was fading away. Maybe it was because the holidays were approaching, I thought, which tends to be a depressing time for some people. But I also wondered if there was something wrong with the guy. I thought maybe he had some weird "gay issues" he was dealing with and that's why he couldn't get a job. Who knows what those issues were, but I was sure I couldn't possibly understand them.
Two days after Christmas 1999, I left my apartment in the morning to go work out and bumped into a crowd of people coming up the stairs. I was vaguely aware of the activity in Gregg and Joel's apartment, but since I was in a hurry I didn't give it a second thought. When I returned, the apartment manager stopped me in the courtyard and asked if I had heard the news. I told her I hadn't. "Gregg died yesterday," she said. I still remember the shock, how I turned and looked up at their apartment, but all I saw were strangers bustling in and out of the place. The manager explained that Gregg's family had come from out of state with a moving van to pack up his belongings. Apparently he had been sick for a long time, and like me she hadn't known anything about it until this morning. When I asked what he had died of she said, "They told me a liver disease"--then she waved her hand indifferently--"but it was probably AIDS." By the time noon rolled around Gregg's family was gone, having taken all his things, which amounted to just about every piece of furniture in the apartment.
I spent the following week wondering how I might offer my condolences to Joel, who was now by himself after the holiday season in an empty, furniture-less apartment. The problem was, in offering condolences it would only be natural for me to ask what Gregg died of, and if it was AIDS Joel might not feel comfortable telling me the truth since he would have no idea how I might react since I'm this evangelical Christian. And so I was afraid I'd be forcing Joel to have to lie to me when he was already going through enough as it was. On the other hand, if I didn't inquire about what Gregg died of, then it would become obvious to Joel that I was assuming it was AIDS. After delaying several days, I finally prepared some food and screwed up the courage to go knock on Joel's door. The apartment was so dark and quiet I thought no one was home. But Joel finally answered. I asked if he was okay and offered him my stack of Tupperware. He didn't volunteer any information about Gregg's illness and I didn't press for details.
Joel moved out a few weeks later, but we talked briefly before he left. He told me Gregg had actually been home most of the time that I thought he was traveling, and used to stare out the living room window a lot. I mentioned how empty the apartment looked and asked what the deal was with Gregg's family coming so quickly to collect Gregg's things instead of at least waiting until he had secured a new pad first. Joel rolled his eyes and said that the morning they came, they were packing things away so fast he had to follow them all around the apartment to make sure they didn't swipe his stuff too. Once he had to rescue a silver tray from a box and explain to Gregg's sister that it belonged to him. "Oh, too bad," she had said. "And I had just the perfect place for it."
For months later I moped around feeling vaguely depressed. Was it grief? That didn't make sense, I hardly knew Gregg. It felt more like guilt, except I couldn't think of why I would feel guilty. Hadn't I been a good neighbor to them? Didn't I bring Joel dinner after I had heard the news? Maybe I could have done more, but at least I didn't respond heartlessly to Gregg's death like the apartment manager, or Gregg's family.
Even before Gregg died I had begun reading up a little on homosexuality. In the summer that followed my reading became an obsession, as if I were trying to find answers but didn't know what the questions were. I talked with my apartment manager later and she confirmed that Gregg had died of AIDS complications. As part of a legal process, the family had sent her a copy of the death certificate. She also mentioned that Joel used to talk openly with her about being gay. I felt a little hurt when I heard that. Why hadn't Joel been open with me? Did he think I was a bigot or something?
One evening in August 2000 I was reading Love Undetectable by Andrew Sullivan. I had already read up a little on AIDS, studying a health guide for gay men at a bookstore and a set of instructions on how to care for AIDS patients on the Internet. But Sullivan's book took me into deeper, more personal issues of what it meant to be HIV positive. I learned about the shame, the secrecy, the sense of failure you feel for having contracted the disease, and the terrible isolation of having to face the prospect of your own death while your straight peers were marrying, having children and looking toward the future.
As I read I was thinking about Gregg and Joel when suddenly a particular incident came to mind that I hadn't thought about in a long time. Way back when they had first moved in, Joel came by one day and asked if his smoking bothered us, since he often lit up while sitting on the stairs just outside our door. He wanted to know "because at work today someone told me it might be offensive to other people." The incident stuck out in my mind because he had gone out of his way to be considerate to us. But then, if I remembered that incident so clearly, why had I conveniently forgotten the part about Joel's work, and assumed for so long that he didn't have a job? Why did I jump to the conclusion when I used to see Joel go out at night that he was just goofing off? Because I assumed he was "living the gay lifestyle" and figured he couldn't possibly be responsible enough to hold down a job? Yet Joel did have a job and had even mentioned it to us, but for some reason I had chosen not to remember. In fact, Joel had been holding down two jobs: caring for Gregg during the day and going off to work at night.
It all made sense now. No wonder Joel was constantly cleaning. He was trying to keep the place sanitary, just like those instructions on caring for AIDS patients said. And no wonder he looked so exhausted and depressed. He was working day and night and probably never slept, then he had to watch each day as Gregg's health slipped slowly away. Even I noticed his sadness toward the end. So why did I automatically assume that it had to do with some "weird gay issues" that I couldn't possibly understand? What could be more understandable than feeling sad because your friend is dying?
All along I thought Gregg had been taking care of Joel, when it was really the other way around. I couldn't have been further off the mark. How could I have misread their situation so badly? Why did I judge Joel to be a flake and a weirdo at a time when he was doing this amazingly noble thing? Is that how a Christian is supposed to view other people? What the hell was the matter with me anyhow?
Bigotry is not always what you expect it to be. Like most Christians, I've been taught in church that I'm supposed to share the love of Christ with others, and that loving your neighbor is the second greatest commandment next to loving God. As much as I can, I try to be friendly, helpful and kind toward other people. In the eyes of many, that makes me a "good person." And of course, no one who is a good person is a bigot.
But sometimes being a "good person" isn't enough, and a Christian can be the last person on earth to see that. You feel you are doing your part, and you look around and see that you are doing more than what most people are willing to do for others. So how it is possible that your good intentions are actually blinding you from confronting the truth of your own prejudice? How is it possible that by simply not taking the time to understand someone, you might actually be wronging them regardless of how good you think your intentions are?
Before coming to this realization, I almost had myself convinced that Gregg must have misjudged me by choosing to keep his illness from me, and that it was partly his own fault that he died so alone. But the truth of the matter hit me that August evening as I was reading Sullivan's book--the truth about me that Gregg and Joel probably sensed from the beginning. It was a Tuesday evening, I remember. I stopped reading mid-sentence, turned the book over on my lap, then broke down and cried. It was almost a month before I stopped crying spontaneously every time I thought about the book or Gregg's death.
To be sure, confronting my own bigotry, insolence and stupidity has been painful. But then again, there are some things about myself that don't surprise me anymore. What's worse is remembering how I had dismissed Joel even when I was aware that he was hurting. And then I think of Gregg. During the last year of his life I thought he was "the luckiest guy in the world." Although I'm sure he was glad that my false perception of him kept his secret safe, I also wonder how much the bitter irony of it only intensified his feelings of isolation.
I've been left in charge of Gregg's plants, and when I'm out watering them I would sometimes glance up at the living room window where Joel said Gregg used to sit staring. I remember how often I used to sit with my daughter, who was two years old when Gregg died, at the top of the stairs right in front of that window. Gregg once told me he did volunteer work with children at a local hospital, and so maybe he used to see us sitting obliviously out there and think about how he never had a kid, and would never know what it would be like to have one, someone to carry on a part of him into the next generation of humanity. Or maybe he used to look at this two year-old and think about how she had her whole life ahead of her, while his was quickly coming to a close. And then I'd wonder if he used to look at his plants from the window and think about how they would be here long after he was gone, taking in sun and air and rain in a world that he no longer inhabited. And so there I am out on the deck, the natural-born plant-killer, watering Gregg's plants with unprecedented diligence, feeling for some reason that it's important for me to keep them alive.
Posted on August 17, 2001
© 2000, 2004 by Misty S. Irons