We’re all familiar, by now, with the publicity that celebrities get when they come out, and some of us, despite our best efforts, still scroll down to see what the peanut gallery has to say about it, at the end of such an announcement. From the safety of their own homes, of course, their responses are often mean-spirited and downright ignorant. Recently, after reading an article about a celebrity’s sexual orientation, I read a response that, with a chillingly matter of fact tone, claimed that “homos” are victims of a birth defect and that perhaps, one day, rather than celebrating their coming out, we will discover a way to genetically prevent them from even coming into existence.

After I read that comment, I felt profoundly sad for the next couple of weeks. I could not get his tone out of my head. The coldness of it made me afraid; I felt very low. One day, when his words were ringing in my mind, I thought of my friend, Robin, who died of illness related to kidney failure during the summer before eighth grade. I didn’t even know it had happened. My friend told me in history class. I thought that I had heard her wrong, but when she told me again, I burst into tears. My teacher gave the class an assignment and called me outside. I was relieved when he didn’t ask me what was wrong but instead, told me to go get a drink of water.

Robin had had such a lovely heart and could send any of us into uncontrollable laughter with her self-deprecating humor. I would seek out her and her friends at lunchtime, and they’d invite me to join in their fun. I remember that year was particularly difficult for me. My mother had developed a drug problem. She was always rather cold and lacking in empathy, but once the drugs started, she terrorized us every moment that she wasn’t passed out. Since I was the oldest, I took the worse of it, but when I saw Robin, all of that disappeared. I never thought of Robin’s illness when I looked at her, although I know now how much she must have suffered because of it. I loved her so much, and I loved the way I felt around her: like a kid.

Who knows what Robin could have become if we had been able to cure her disease? But we couldn’t, and I have always been the better for her existence. I don’t even know how many other people she healed, if only for a lunch period per day, with her funny stories and easy-going manner. All I know is that she turned my attention away from the sorrow and fear of watching my mother hurt us—and herself—and toward lighthearted conversation about regular kid stuff. I felt how I imagined my mom did, when she popped another pain pill.

To be clear, I don’t think of different sexual orientations as defective, but the man’s comment online reminded me of the kids who were sometimes intolerant of Robin because of her illness, which affected her physical appearance. I remember that they baffled me.

I did dream of Robin after she died. I bumped into her when I was looking through my locker. I looked down and saw her cleaning out her locker. I said, “Robin! I thought you had died.” She told me that she had died but that she had to clean out her locker first. I told her that I had never gotten to say goodbye and that I had really liked having lunch with her. I still believe that Robin came to me that night to make me feel better, again.

For the audio version, click here or below.

             for Robin Radikowski

You were smart,
to slip out first.
I remember when boys
laughed at your red
face, the trouble
your kidney’s failure
caused when you
didn’t make it
to Typing class, and I
had no idea that you
died. You were
12, and I lost it
in History.

Today, a blogger
called “homos”
victims of a birth
defect, and I thought
of you, Robin, sitting
at lunch with us.
I don’t know if you
were gay. I always saw
you as sexless, really.
The champion
of delight: the only
relief from adolescence
came to you
as quickly as death
did, and I think, now, at age 40,
how I wish you’d come to
me again in a dream as
you did the week you
died, explaining why
you were still here, cleaning
out your locker, and making me
forget, once again, to be afraid
of this world.

(First published in Third Wednesday Magazine, Summer 2014)


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