When I moved to New Orleans several lifetimes ago, Cheryl became my boss and one of my closest friends. I didn’t think anything of it.
Looking back, maybe I should’ve.
I’d come from Mississippi, where there was (and still is) plenty of homophobia to go around. I knew that New Orleans had (and still has) plenty of bigots, but compared to my former home, it felt like a completely different universe. In that bizarro-world, it seemed totally normal that a bubbly, blonde, middle-aged straight woman would befriend so many gay men.
But in fact, that was kind of unusual, and as I recently learned, Cheryl took a good bit of flack for it — not just because some of her family and friends were homophobic, but also because, back then, in the early 90s, there was a lot of AIDS-phobia, too. Then, as now, AIDS was considered by many to be a gay man’s disease, so hanging out with gay men was something that “normal” people weren’t encouraged to do.
Thankfully, Cheryl didn’t give a shit about all that. Or if she did, she never let on. She flung open the doors to her home and took in countless gay men who were in-between jobs or apartments or boyfriends. She fed them, kept them company, and helped them get back on their feet. And I thought that was normal, I thought it was how things worked.
I was deeply, deeply naïve.
* * * * *
Cheryl passed away a couple of weeks ago in Provincetown, Massachusetts, where she’d landed after Hurricane Katrina ripped through New Orleans, leaving her with nothing. Last night, Cheryl’s daughter — a young woman I used to know well but haven’t seen in two decades — held a get-together at her home in the suburbs to remember her mom.
It took the better part of an hour to get there. Part of me was looking forward to seeing Cheryl’s daughter and many, many old friends. But when I walked up to the house, I saw no one I knew — just a bunch of older folks who looked suspiciously like Cheryl, dressed like they were going to a Baptist funeral, not the celebratory memorial I’d imagined.
And so, I did what I always do in those situations: I ran.
I mean that literally: I sprinted back to the car and drove away. Instead of sucking it up and doing what I’d gone there to do, I bailed. Last night was supposed to be about Cheryl, and I made it about me and my weird social anxieties/laziness.
I know that, in some ways, it doesn’t really matter. Cheryl was the one I loved, she’s the one I wanted to see most of all. But that doesn’t let me off the hook for being a dick. I have a hunch I always will be. Hell, it’s built into my name.