If I’m out of my mind, it’s all right with me, thought Moses Herzog.
― Saul Bellow, Herzog
In 1965, television carried the sights and sounds of the bloody march on Selma, Alabama into living rooms across the country. Agitation over the Vietnam War was breaking out on campuses and in city streets, in both small towns and big cities. But the Stonewall riots were a few years away, and gay liberation was not yet on our collective radar screen. So it really isn’t odd that my first gay friend never came out to me and likely never even realized I knew he was gay.
Terry was medium-tall, about 25 pounds overweight, ruddy-skinned, with close-cropped dark, curly hair. He wore black horn-rimmed glasses that gave him, alternately, the look of a scholar or of a mad scientist. He lived in a wealthy suburb with his adoptive parents. The woman who gave birth to him was a distant relative of theirs. She lived in an apartment above a downtown department store, where Terry used to visit her. He seemed ambivalent about all three of these people.
I was attending college, but Terry wasn’t a student. He was part of the local theater scene, of which I was a hanger-on by virtue of being friends with some student actors. We were a loose-knit group of about a dozen kids with mixed economic and ethnic backgrounds.
Terry was energetic, sardonic, funny, and engaging. He amused and entertained everyone, often making himself the butt of his own jokes. But he could participate with equal aplomb in the deep, philosophical inquiries of the undergrad set. I found him more comfortable and easier to be with than most people I’d known all my life. We also found each other reasonably attractive and indulged in some innocent—although not harmless—necking. (I once contracted a serious case of mono from him that that required three days of hospitalization and a month of recuperation.)
Unless you’re completely exploded, there’s always something to be grateful for.
― Saul Bellow, Herzog
During most of this time, I had a stuttering romance going with David, a thin, intense, brooding young actor/student who appeared to survive on caffeine, aspirin, cigarettes, vitamins, and cereal. David, Terry, and I hung out together, often occupying booths or counter space in one of the all-night restaurants that were so much more common back then. We talked constantly, logging thousands of hours of conversation in person or over the telephone. We were into the novels of John Updike and Saul Bellow, so I imagine we discussed Rabbit Angstrom, George Caldwell (The Centaur), and Moses Herzog.
Some people, if they didn’t make it hard for themselves, might fall asleep.
― Saul Bellow, The Adventures of Augie March
One night in the middle of winter, Terry and I were driving around in a car I had borrowed. I forget why, but it was suddenly imperative to him to lay his hands on some money. He knew the combination to the safe in his father’s business office, so he decided to break into it. But first I had to return the car, which meant we were on foot more than 25 miles from his father’s office.
We slogged several miles across icy streets and sidewalks, growing increasingly numb from the cold, to the home of Marian-the-Librarian. Marian was the head of the Children’s Department of the public library, where I had once worked, and we were still friends. But she was in her 60s and lived alone, so I’m surprised she even opened her door. But she let us in, gave us something hot to drink, and agreed to lend us cab fare.
The cab dropped us off at a restaurant, where we ordered coffee. Terry downed his quickly and set off to try to find another car. Hours passed, though, as the waitress kept refilling my cup and giving me sympathetic looks. I realized Terry wasn’t going to return, but I didn’t have enough money to pay for the two coffees.
Eventually it got to be morning, and I called a friend to come pick me up and pay for the coffee. I never learned the outcome of that particular escapade, but it was adventures like that that often earned Terry time alone for reflection behind one set of locked doors or another.
He had several stints in the state mental hospital, from which he wrote me regularly. One weekend, David and I drove halfway across the state to see him. It was a warm, sunny, summer day, and David and I were both in a good mood. We made up names for fictional characters by combining place names from a roadmap: Crystallia Goodheart (heroine), Joppa Scott (villain), Sagola Volney (possible pen name for me). We fantasized about starting a business to provide characters (names and descriptions) to lazy novelists.
It seems, after all that there are no nonpeculiar people.
― Saul Bellow, Humboldt’s Gift
Terry was delighted to see us, garrulous and clowning around as usual: jovial tour guide of the nut house. Once he was released, the three of us picked up where we’d left off.
A few years later, he started talking about moving to Boston and making oblique references to a “marriage of convenience.” I assumed he never elaborated because he thought I didn’t know what he was talking about. It didn’t occur to me that he might have enjoyed being mysterious. In any case, he wanted me to move to Boston, too, and I considered the idea. But I ended up going to California instead, and we lost track of each other after that.
Out of the blue, during the winter of 1977, I started thinking about Terry quite a bit. I felt a strong urge to find out where he was and what he was up to, but I didn’t follow up on it for several months. His adoptive parents were no longer listed in the phone book, for one thing, and I was out of touch with everyone else who’d known him. But the urge persisted, and eventually I located the name and address of a possible relative. I wrote to him asking for Terry’s current address.
The man turned out to be Terry’s uncle. He called me as soon as he got my letter to tell me Terry had committed suicide in Boston six months earlier—right around the time I’d started thinking about him again.
I don’t delude myself that if I’d found a way to get in touch with Terry earlier he wouldn’t have killed himself. That would be presumptuous. There’s no way for me to know what was actually going on with him. But when I found out what had happened, I felt like a member of a mountain-climbing expedition who got distracted and looked away. And in that moment of looking away, I failed to see another member of the party lose his footing and fall, fatally, to earth.
We are funny creatures. We don’t see the stars as they are, so why do we love them? They are not small gold objects, but endless fire.
― Saul Bellow, Henderson the Rain King
- Darkness in literature: Saul Bellow’s Something to Remember Me By (guardian.co.uk)