Bravest Boy

I try to imagine you at forty-seven now, in a button-down sweater and those little glasses sliding down your nose, but how can I think of you as anything but an aging, high school senior?

You would have liked to stay in late adolescence indefinitely, where you starred in the musical, “Grease” as a dance party attendee, not Danny Zuko, as you’d lead anyone who would listen to believe. There would be band, your clarinet tucked easily into your Esprit tote bag, your mom’s presence and the predictability of semesters.

We had been out of high school for three years the summer of the Dahmer killings, and you floated, anaesthetized by your pipe you named Consuelo, and I floated with you.


What were you to me? A friend, or a reflection of your mother, shining down on me with your roast beef, potato and asparagus dinners. You were my home base, the place I left from and came back to.”

What were you to me? A friend, or a reflection of your mother, shining down on me with your roast beef, potato and asparagus dinners. You were my home base, the place I left from and came back to.

It’s clear to me now that you were a liar and a thief, like all of us are in little or big ways. My best friend was a liar and a thief, I say to myself, and wonder about the complexity of people, so different from the Sunday School notions of good and evil with which I was raised.

You told tall tales – that you were flying to Russia to design the great cathedrals instead of the living rooms of southeast Wisconsin. You lied about where you were and who you were with when you were in the backseats of random cars. You took the cash I gave you for the electric bill and put it in your own pocket.

My aunt, who is not a liar or thief, is a stingy prude who is shocked and angry at the library when they play an R-rated movie, and she won’t let you take a postcard stamp without paying for it. Which is worse?

What I’m struck by most is your bravery.

You came out in 1988, at the close of twelve years of all-boys Catholic education up in Green Bay. When your classmates rejected you at Our Lady of Good Counsel, you sashayed across the street with your tote bag to the sister school. You told me that they harbored secret gay longings anyway, though I know that their arrows pierced your skin.

What braver boy has lived?

There were many phases for us. First the dorm where we met; the flat we shared; our other two apartments; and when we got back together all those years later.

The summer of Dahmer is vivid because it was when you and I really had our start as best friends on a battered couch, either yours or mine, with Consuelo and squirt guns in lieu of air conditioning.

There was the newness, vastness and loneliness of being twenty-one. You drove away that loneliness, heavy as the humidity that July.

You asked me to move in soon after we learned about Dahmer, who’d trolled for victims at your favorite bar, Club 217.

We were on my couch then, surrounded by my male roommates’ pin-ups of girls in Daisy Dukes, and a Miller beer bottle sign that no longer lit up when plugged in.

Drea, our ornery old dormmate, was moving out of your flat and back with her parents, so you needed someone else to share the rent.

Drea skipped all of her classes and held court from her bed, organizing the fake ID beer runs. Even though our suite was women only, the girls in ours understood that you wouldn’t fit in on the men’s side of the building, and would be with us.

Now the dorm was behind us, and we lived within blocks of each other. We got together every day just to watch reruns of our favorite ‘80s sit-coms, often on silent as your Madonna, Erasure and REM soundtrack played on.

A news break cut in on one of those afternoons. Body parts were found in a dumpster outside an apartment building in a run-down part of town a few blocks from the gay bars, and a good thirty minutes from our East Side neighborhood.

You turned up the TV, your jaw clenched in my peripheral vision, all blonde and blue-eyed Germanic.

Neither of us could speak. Your solution for the problem of this kind of evil was the same as for enduring a long shift at the diner, a parent’s criticism or a bad report card—pack Consuelo, and light up.  I wanted to be sober for the summer school statistics course I was trying to get through but took a hit anyway, to be in solidarity.

You turned the channel, and we watched a judge show.

“God,” you said.

I wanted to forget about the news story, go to class, and have a life that didn’t include these horrors. I wanted to go to my on-again-off again, Joe, but he would be at work, and he seemed to love a girl in his building.

I moved closer to you on the couch, stinging with longing for Joe, and you hugged me against the body you kept slim by alternating between anorexia and bulimia.

The police arrested a man named Jeffrey Dahmer the day after the news about the discovered body parts. He was a third-shift worker at a chocolate factory. There could be up to fifteen bodies in his apartment unit.

Dahmer was one of two killers lurking behind us, because there was also HIV, which eventually took you out of this existence on Cinco de Mayo, 2003.  There was a randomness and brutality to the Dahmer killings, and a randomness and brutality to your inevitable early end, and how everything we shared can only be known to me now, so that our sweet romantic friendship has all but blown away.

Still, Dahmer didn’t get you when we were out for our first drinks, not even at Club 217. That place is torn up and full of graffiti now.

While at the club, we stood, too shy to dance, our eyes on the print of a smooth male torso behind the bar.

Dahmer’s eyes may have glanced over you as you stood there, waiting to be noticed. He liked darker men, and so did you, so that your Nazi youth nerd didn’t register with his ideals of beauty.

You wore your long leather coat, meaning to attract someone like Robert Downey Jr. in “Less than Zero.” I liked your high school bomber jacket better, but you had stopped wearing it.

You met someone occasionally who was not as good looking as Robert Downey Jr., except for Sol Hernandez, who was handsome despite a gap tooth. He cleaned carpets professionally, and looked like a blue-collar runway model.

You and Sol saw each other for three weeks. He came over, and went straight to your bedroom.

“I had to clean that guy’s carpet,” Sol told me when the subject of Dahmer came up at the bar.

“Did you see anything?” I thought of the reports of human heads and other body parts.

“Nah, it was cleared out of any weird shit, but it smelled foul. Even the hallway reeked.”

We were old enough to go to Club 217 legally now, and we were old enough to start thinking seriously about our lives.  This increase in gravity felt like an increase in atmospheric pressure, begun so gradually early on that it was not suffocating. But early adulthood did not suit you. You hid the utility bills in a drawer, spent grocery money on pot and cut your classes.

We were standing in the bathroom of our flat when you took my arms and placed them around you from behind. “Like this,” you said. “This is how Sol held me.” He hadn’t called in a week, and we knew he wouldn’t call again.

We looked at ourselves in the mirror, my chin on the back of your shoulder. I kept my arms around you, and could smell your cologne, Cool Water.

There was more about the Dahmer killings every day. He had been building an altar made of skulls and skeletons, laid out on a table in his living room, adorned with incense and lights. He said he couldn’t control his compulsion to kill and pled guilty to 15 counts of murder.

Lawyers then argued about whether Dahmer was insane. One side said that Dahmer knew what he was doing, despite being psychotic. Another side said that by killing men, Dahmer was killing his attraction to them, and that he was schizotypical. The judge ruled that Dahmer was not insane, and gave him a life sentence.

In prison, Dahmer (who later became a born-again Christian) said he didn’t care about his life. A fellow inmate killed Dahmer with a metal bar from the prison weight room, and said that God told him to do it.

Dahmer, his victims, Sol, you – none of you are with us. I won’t believe that human life is random, even though I am stunned by how fleeting it can be, how I’m possibly the only person who remembers the red marks your glasses made on your nose, your laugh, your graceful posture and the infectious laugh I heard less and less the older we got.

I kept trying to get hold of you on my visits in from Chicago or the West Coast, when we both tried to impress one another with evidence of having ascended in all the ways that seem important in your 20s and 30s—the clothes, the cars, the jobs. I’ve made it, we said to one another, exaggerating everything. When what I wanted was to be beside you again on some ugly couch, to laugh hysterically over something and know that we were safe because we had a home together, and I was your girl even when men like Joe came and went.

You slipped away fast in the hospital, before the virus could consume you, and you knew you were dying first.

“You have to call my mom tomorrow,” you said over the phone at your family’s cabin up North, your voice weak and slurred.

“I will,” I said, and went into my pep talk. You were going to beat the cancer that HIV had brought on. I was going to accompany you to the treatments. We would drive around town and swim in the lake at the cabin.

The next day, your mother called me before I could dial her. You died following a dose of chemo that did you in.

The next week, I went to your shiny silver casket. You wouldn’t have liked the false, waxen look of your face and hair. I tucked a note stating my love for you in no uncertain terms beside your arm.

I keep your Madonna, Erasure and REM soundtrack going. Still. When you float into my dreams, I’m there to receive you.

Denise Roma is a Chicago writer with short fiction appearing in After Hours, New Town Writers and Off the Rocks.

Photo by Noah Rosenfeld