Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Mike


When I was in college, I met a guy named Mike. Like me, he was a reporter at the college newspaper, and like me, he was gay. This magical combination of journalist and gay guy made Mike pretty interesting to me, and at a time when I hadn't yet had a serious boyfriend, I thought Mike could be one.

He was a character -- he wasn't from the South, but at times he affected a funny southern twang. He called people "Sugar Beet" and said things like, "I'm serious as a heart attack!" Our friends always joked that he was a black woman trapped in a white man's body, which is terribly politically incorrect, but seemed pretty accurate.

He told a hilarious story about going to Denny's with some friends after a night of clubbing. They were all drunk and being loud, and sitting at the next table was someone eating (probably very patiently) a late-night meal. Mike, bleary-eyed, looked over at this person and shrieked, "My LADY be eatin' an ICE CREAM SANDWICH!" Only when "my lady" stood up did Mike realize that a) he wasn't a lady, and b) he was actually eating a grilled cheese. The man walked over to Mike's table and hurled the sandwich into his face. Mike was too stunned to react, which is probably a good thing, but as he later said, he sobered right up.

Whether Mike's stories were completely true in every detail is beside the point. We didn't care.

One night in early 1988, after a party at a friend's house, he and I finally got together. We dated for three or four months, and we had a ball going to thrift stores and a kitschy '60s diner near his house that he called "Wiener World" (not its real name). I spent weekends with him in his rented old-Florida house full of flamingo-painted souvenir plates and '50s furniture, walking his Weimaraners Honer and Sheba. Once we visited a primate rescue sanctuary in northern Pinellas County, and although I found it incredibly sad, I saved the pamphlet for years.

But our relationship wasn't well timed. I was just starting an internship with a newspaper in Polk County. Mike was working for another newspaper in Clearwater, where he lived. Commuting from Tampa, where I lived, to Lakeland, where I worked, and then all the way to Clearwater to see Mike proved a challenge.

Also, I was 21. I wasn't particularly serious about any of this. I was the definition of a callow youth.  Mike was about ten years older than me, and thus more mature. Mike's sister once accompanied us on a day of thrift shopping, and as we sat in the car while Mike ran some errand she turned to me and said, "I hope you won't hurt him. He really likes you." I assured her I wouldn't.

But of course I did. Life just got busier, I got more serious about my job, and I suppose, in the end, I really wasn't all that crazy about dating a black woman trapped in a white man's body. Mike's theatricality grew a bit tiring. I didn't intend to break up. It wasn't a decision I officially made. But I simply stopped calling him.

One night, he showed up at my door in tears, demanding the return of his house keys. "You broke my heart," he said, and I could only stammer that I hadn't meant to. But that was that. No more Mike.

And then, a few years later, there really was no more Mike. He died of pancreatic cancer in 1992 or so. It was a development that shocked all of us who knew him. When I heard he was sick, I mailed him a copy of the Weekly World News, a kitschy tabloid newspaper that published obviously fictionalized articles about aliens and UFOs and freaks of nature like "Bat Boy." Mike loved the Weekly World News, and I promised him it held remarkable recuperative powers.

He wrote me back a short postcard, telling me that he'd actually bought a subscription -- but thanking me just the same. I still have the card. "Float on!" he wrote.

And that was the last I heard from him. When he died soon afterwards, I believe I was already living in Morocco and unable to go to his funeral -- or maybe I was still in Florida and simply felt it wouldn't be appropriate. Maybe I couldn't face his sister. In any case, I didn't go.

My college friends and I still remember Mike, though, whenever we get together. We laugh about his ice cream sandwich story, and part with his famous phrase, "Keep on keepin' on!"

(Photo: Some colorful boxes on the street near our flat.)

17 comments:

e said...

I knew a Mike fitting some of your description who died of pancreatic cancer during the time period...still think of him now and again.

Yorkshire Pudding said...

Thank you for sharing this tenderly crafted true story Steve. A lovely memorial.

Marty Damon said...

The people who have passed through our lives. And, I suppose, we who have passed through theirs.

Colette said...

Great story about an extraordinary force of nature. I'm sorry he's gone.

ellen abbott said...

people do still live on at least as long as those who knew them live. I can't put it any better than Yorkshire Pudding.

Ms. Moon said...

I can almost hear and see him. What an honest and yes, tender, accounting of a first love.
Thank you.

Red said...

We sometimes have incidents which change our lives forever. this is one for you and you will remember it all your life. Interesting story and interesting character.

robin andrea said...

This is such a touching, sad story about those first moments of love. That is always how life is, timing and circumstance. A very loving remembrance of Mike.

Sharon Anck said...

What an incredibly touching tribute to an old friend.

37paddington said...

Thank you for introducing us to Mike. I think I would have enjoyed knowing him. I wonder why he is so present in memory for you today? What reminded you of that time in your life, that first awakening to love? A very touching post.

Catalyst said...

Well written, Steve.

jenny_o said...

The ice cream sandwich story IS hilarious. And I really respect your honesty. All of us have done things in our own callow youths that hurt someone, but not all of us are willing to confess it. I think contacting Mike when you found out he was ill was something I would have found hard to do, so kudos to you for that. I'm betting he was glad to hear from you once more.

Helene Titsch said...

An absolutely touching story. Keep on keepin' on!

John Gray said...

We all had our own mike stories me thinks ..thank you for this one

Steve Reed said...

Thanks for all your comments, everybody!

E: Oh, you definitely knew Mike!

37P: I have no idea what specifically made me think of Mike, except that I've been meaning to write down his ice cream sandwich story for a while now. I had nothing better to blog about today so the time was right! :)

Jenny-O: Without saying anything too specific or getting into painful details, we made our peace -- which was good for both of us.

Sabine said...

Sad story with a happy beginning. I think most of us have had a Mike person in their lives.

A friend once told me that we all have three love stories that shape us, the rest is just distraction:

The first knocks us over and makes us burn and ache and all the stuff of a first time but it races ahead too fast and cannot last.
The second starts well but will grow into a game of pain and hurting and will not end well.
The third may start slowly but this one will last.

Linda Sue said...

Sad, now, I totally feel Mike's heart ache, and am also hungry for a grilled cheese. Wonderful post, Sir!