The first time Joaquin and I took a trip together was our first spring break as a grad school couple. Without a plan, we ventured north from Sacramento on the eye-five. We stopped at a cheap motel in Corning, the olive capital of the world. Above the bed hung a velvet painting of a ghost ship aground.
Farther north, we wanted to be in nature but were unclear on how to gain access. Finally, we pulled over on the edge of the highway and wandered into a stand of trees. There was a white wooden cross propped beside a tree trunk. A spray of plastic flowers was attached with rusted wire. Somewhere there are black and white photos of Joaquin and me posing fake-solemnly with the dusty memorial.
Death was not quite real to me then, even though I’d spent the entirety of the 1980s in San Francisco and by then had said goodbye to Bill, Alan, Davon, and Bryan. And Nick Sweet’s old boyfriend Rickie, the frail New Englander with the big eyes and rockabilly haircut who waited tables at the Grubstake II.
The last time I saw him, Rickie told us that Nick Sweet—who I knew from high school—had stolen all of Rickie’s money and disappeared. Yet a year later I heard they’d moved to New England together. Nick wrote me a letter from there. He said that Rickie’s mom wouldn’t let them use her car and insisted on driving anywhere they went. Before crossing the bridge to town, Rickie’s mom would pull the car over and everyone had to wiggle into lifejackets. He also wrote that when they first arrived, he and Rickie had had just enough money for a rehab program. But there was no room at the program, so they spent all the money on speed.
They must have returned to San Francisco, because the next thing I heard, Rickie was found dead in Hemlock Alley. He’d been halfway through a course of hormones for gender reassignment. But it could have been a number of things.
I moved back home to L.A. for a big acting job. Nick Sweet had moved back, too. He met me at a Pico coffeeshop with bright pink walls. That song by Deee-Lite was playing, “Groove Is in the Heart.” Nick had brought along a shoebox of photographs from his life. He told me stories about each one.
Nick’s eyes were lively. He really seemed to have gotten it together. He said he was thinking of becoming an X-ray tech. He told me about one night in San Francisco with his stripper friend, Roma. How Nick dressed in full Marilyn Monroe drag and rode sidesaddle on the back of Roma’s Harley. The next day found Nick on a Greyhound bus, back in his baggy jeans and flannel, to visit his mother. He befriended a talkative girl whose parents were gratified she’d made a buddy to chat with. Every half hour or so, he’d excuse himself, visit the malodorous head, and scrape candy apple nail polish from another toenail.
The sun was going down. The pink walls were magenta. We were drinking Coronas and by now we’d heard “Groove Is in the Heart” at least a dozen times.
“Can I write about that sometime?” I asked him.
“Why do you think I’m telling you?” he answered.
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