Nonfiction by Christine Quattro
(November 23, 1991)
Five days before Thanksgiving, Freddie Mercury released a statement. It said that he was dying. Twenty-four hours later, he was gone.
The letter became a battle cry in the war against AIDS. Support this cause; join this worldwide fight, a line read. Freddie had been battling for at least two years, growing more and more gaunt, fighting the private battle his letter said would continue to be private. I am famous for my lack of interviews. Please understand this policy will continue. Tabloids and lovers had speculated he was sick for years before the statement. It was never confirmed until Freddie was certain that his time had run out.
He was two men: Freddie the brother and partner, and Freddie the superstar.
In the archives, critics are of two minds: that Freddie’s preening and prancing across the stage was a clear nod to his sexuality and that his flamboyance was a distraction and not a confirmation—Rock Gods were supposed to perform not explain. Like many others, I am reluctant to categorize a person I will never know. I can only report how and in what ways he changed my life.
(November 27, 1997)
I am blasting “This is Your Night” by Amber from the speakers of my Sony stereo system. My mother says I sound like a herd of stampeding elephants as I rocket around my room, strutting, high knees, swaying hips. I am dancing, I tell her. I’m really sweating now, and spinning in intense circles. The track changes, and I don’t hear the door open because the latch doesn’t catch in the wintertime. The door sits two centimeters higher than normal, so it slides open as my cousin Joe knocks on it. He’s watching me for several long minutes as I execute the perfect Macarena before the finale: hands on hips, swaying, and jumping to the next side to start it all over again. He stands in the doorway shaking with a silent laughter that makes his shiney cowlicked hair wave back and forth. “Jesus, that was amazing,” he says.
We spend every Thanksgiving locked in a ferocious foosball tournament. I say that wrist flicks are illegal, and he explains through the brim of a red solo cup why they are necessary. He shows me his mix CDs, custom creations for our time in the garage. Socked feet Tom Cruise-slide on polished concrete, Ping-Pong paddles are guitars, right and left legs alternate high kicks, off key voices screech so offensively that we turn the volume higher. Joe plays “We Are The Champions” on repeat, as many times as I want, as long as I can remember the name: Queen.
(November 22, 2001)
Every Thanksgiving, Joe drives to us, forty-five minutes north of his rent-controlled apartment in San Francisco. He arrives in the wee hours of Thursday. “Traffic is light at midnight,” he says.
I sit on the cold red-brick front porch, waiting for the familiar wink of Oldsmobile headlights. My headphones keep my earlobes warm in the fifty-degree weather. A well-worn mix CD rotates in my Discman so raucously that I can hear the sides of the disc scraping plastic. Queen, The Ramones, some Whitney for good measure, a techno-remix of Total Eclipse Of The Heart. I shout the songs as loud as I can. My mother comes outside holding her forefinger to her lips: Shut up, you sound like a dying bird. She turns off the porch lights, as if this will make me stop hopping around like a maniac.
Out of the frosted-breath high kicks and jump-whirls I’m doing are the headlights. Joe stops his car in the driveway, lighting me up as I whip the chord of my headphones right out of the socket. He leaves it running and stands laughing with his arm across the open door, pressing his right fist up in the air over and over. When I reach him, I come up to his belly button, my very own 6’5 Keanu Reeves. “I have something to show you,” he says. Out comes a small white box, which he says is an iPod. “It holds four hundred songs!”
Two months before, I listen to music and dance, as I get ready for school. When I get to school, I stand in line with classmates and watch on live television as two planes hit the tallest buildings I’ve ever been inside. My mother comes to school, “Your father is in Pennsylvania, I can’t get a hold of him.” Oh, to be young and only know a person is missing, not having understood where it is they might have gone or what it will mean for the rest of your life.
A year later, my father leaves and doesn’t come back. The only time I see him is every year on the week of Thanksgiving when there are enough people around that my parents don’t have to speak to one another. When he arrives, Joe claps him on the back as if nothing has changed.
My mother begins a pattern of vacations in Chicago with her business partner. The trips always fall on my birthday, the week after Thanksgiving. So Joe stays with me. He becomes my roommate—we sit on the couch watching VH1’s I Love the 80’s and eating Kraft Mac ‘n Cheese. Joe wakes me up on my birthday by blasting Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” over the HiFi system.
(November 24, 2005)
Every Thanksgiving of my life is the same: people arrive, food is made, people leave for hours at a time to play golf, wine taste, and return at night for debauchery and table games. Joe never misses out on anything. He is the life of our party. But this year, he has debilitating back pain. My mom is skeptical. “Does this have to do with that biopsy from January?” she asks in quiet moments around the refrigerator when she doesn’t think anyone is listening.
“Nine centimeters in all directions is a lot,” my mother says.
“Those were fibromas,” Joe tells my mother.
She peels part of a lemon peel and sips vodka, “Where did you learn that word?” My mother, a nurse, doesn’t sleep for weeks afterwards. Is it possible to elude cancer markers if you pretend they don’t even exist?
Joe’s mother, Mary, asks in the ways only Catholics know how, about his sexuality. What about that girl Cindy? Wasn’t she cute? My father is recruited to ask, Joe are you gay? As if it even matters. Only Mary, crazed, hungry for grandchildren and something besides her own thirsty existence, is worried. “I’m not gay,” Joe tells my father one night on those red bricks of our front steps after several Cognacs.
“So what if he is,” I say.
My father tells us that Joe is deeply in love with a girl from his days at UCLA, but she’s with someone else.
My father asks, “Why don’t you live your own life? There’s plenty of other fish in the sea.”
Joe says, “She’s it for me.”
Freddie Mercury lived with his longtime girlfriend, Mary Austin, for a decade before he told her that he was bisexual.
“Are you sure that you’re bisexual?” Austin asks. It’s only later that Mercury is able to tell her no. He’s gay. It doesn’t matter to her, only in that they discontinue their sexual relations. They still live together for a while, but eventually Mercury finds his own place. He continues to call Austin the love of his life. It is this decision that keeps Austin alive long after Mercury contracts HIV.
“I think he thought he was free,” Mary Austin says in an interview. “I think he thought that he was invincible, and of course, there was the AIDS.” After his death, Mercury bequeaths Austin most of his estate, especially his ashes, and tells her to keep their final resting place secret lest any Queen fanatic, or bigot, finds it and disturbs it. The doors to his estate, where Austin still resides, read Privacy Please.
(November 23, 2006)
Joe has been dead for eight months. It was that spot between the shoulder blades, the genes that mutated one too many times, the moles that changed color and size and dimension and killed him. I should have known when my mother was insistent he be careful changing his bandages, how the nine centimeter removals were much larger than she expected. I should have known Thanksgiving would never be the same again.
After his death I saw us as clones: two only children, raised by dissatisfied mothers and absent fathers with futures predestined. It’s a shock of proximity, realizing the only person who knew what I was going through was right next to me. What would my life have become had we conspired to get out alive together? He was an adult and could drink wine and go home, escape. He had to know he couldn’t change my childhood but he still didn’t say a damn thing about it. Not a warning or a “hey get out while you can!” He could have said that all the effort I put into performing for my mother wouldn’t be worth it in the end. How our mothers were fractals of anger turned outward on their children. How no matter what I did she would never be happy. Joe could have said that the life of a performer was a desperate one. But then again, how could he tell me to get out when he never had the nerve to? His death was my only way out. I see that now.
In my mind’s eye I can see Joe sitting in the armchair in my parent’s living room, laughing because he doesn’t expect to like VH1’s I Love the 80’s series so much. They make a huge deal about Freddie Mercury and the absolute God that he is. I watch Joe as he talks about Queen, unmatched in the memories he clings to from age seventeen. I am the same age when Joe says, “The things Freddie helped me through…” Now I can’t let go of watching Freddie in white, wasting away on stage, hips swaying, and still prancing.
Before Joe died he said, “I didn’t know, really I didn’t.” Mary, my mother and I are standing by the hospital bed, next to Joe.
The oncologist says, so we all can hear, “Joe, I told you a year ago that you were Stage IV.” Malignant Melanoma. At seventeen I know my mother and his mother are nurses. My father is on the Melanoma Research Foundation board of directors. Even I know there is no logic here, no excuse. “You have anywhere from six months to six weeks left,” the doctor says.
Joe just stares and stares and stares. “No, no, you never said that. They were benign,” Joe says emphatically.
My mother puts her hand over her eyes, “Who told you that word?” Joe’s mother, Mary, reasons with the doctor. Surely she must have said something else, because Joe misunderstood. He thought the diagnosis was life not death.
But the oncologist has lost her patience, “I told him, flat out, he was Stage IV. He ignored my calls.” I look at Joe, and he cannot meet my eye. The rest of them go off to the side.
Joe finally looks up, “Hey, you.” I push myself towards the bed and crash-land on the pillow next to his head— the mouse brown hair greasy, the whites of his eyes yellowing.
“I love you,” I say. I hear a catch in his throat, but he says it back. His beautiful body has transformed and it doesn’t really matter how we got here so much as recognizing that we are. It’s not that he didn’t know, it’s that he didn’t want to know. Or, that he knew, and denied it to the rest of us. I only know that I will never know for sure.
My mother says, “He made his choice. The rest of us are paying for it.”
He had two separate lives: the one in San Francisco, and then the one with us.
There was no bridge connecting the two because he didn’t want there to be. In my seventeen years I’d never been invited to his apartment except in his death, and then it felt worthless. I would see the things he hid from me, from all of us. Better to not know they existed at all than to get a glimpse of what I was denied. The chance to see him in his natural state, not performing for Mary, my mother, or me. It’s this moment that started my nomadic nature. Joe is the catalytic converter, the jumper cables on my engine, the push start. I saw in his dying how I was failing at living.
(November 22, 2007)
In The Year Of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion writes about how she thinks her husband, John Gregory Dunne, is still alive after he dies. She can’t get rid of his clothes because when he comes home, he will need shoes to wear. She writes that we have to be cool customers. We have to make everyone else feel better about saying goodbye to someone who we never expected to leave us. Other people can’t see how the small, insignificant things in our homes will never again be ordinary because they once belonged to the one we lost. For weeks, Didion can only eat scallion-and-ginger congee from a Chinatown restaurant. She didn’t know it was the only thing she could eat until a friend left it. She didn’t know how they knew, other than that they too had lost someone. Didion thought this was the one thing they knew, that they couldn’t communicate out loud to her. So they left the soup and she was grateful.
I wish I could have been grateful for someone bringing me a mystical gallon of soup I didn’t even know that I wanted. But no one did. The only thing I ate after Joe died were Snickers bars from vending machines and, even then, I dissected them like a turkey at Thanksgiving and ate the dark meat first: thin layers of chocolate separated from the filling, the wrapper splayed open like a drop cloth to catch the innards as they fell. I ate them long and slow in public places and didn’t notice that kids next to me were watching until I was done.
A year after someone dies, people begin to expect you to act normally. Boys who like me and I am trying to get rid of still expect me to talk to them about possibly or not possibly having sex at some indeterminate time so they can continue to plan the next ten years of their lives.
“I’ll be a dentist, so that means college and dentist school and then residency and then I’ll move back here and start my own practice and we will get married and it will be great,” one says. “I don’t want to marry anyone,” I say. Oh, the rage this builds in a small town boy.
But now, since Joe has died, I have an excuse. I refuse to put an expiration date on my grief. I put the image of my dead cousin’s body in between these boys and their plans and my own life. I build my rampart: “It feels too soon to make large decisions.” I can avoid markers of a future if I just deny markers exist. Joe taught me that.
In addition to the Snickers, I am eating anywhere from three to four muscle relaxers a day on a mostly empty stomach. At least four pot brownies a week. Alcohol is not necessary but, when it is, it’s always red, red wine.
(November 11, 2008)
There are the things I don’t anticipate about Joe’s absence as the years stretch and the guilt gets worse. Somehow, the devastation is not that he’s died, but knowing that I knew so little during his life. Along with my numbing techniques, this knowledge makes me catatonic. Time swirls together: a mixed drink in his red solo cups, me in a church waiting to be released into young adulthood. The freedom of college is the escape I’ve been waiting for my entire life. I’ll be out from under the stampede of my parents uncoupling and recoupling. But then it doesn’t happen.
The noose begins to tighten when Joe leaves. My mother begins to count the miles on my car— back and forth from work, back and forth from school, though she is terrible at math. She overestimates how close things are and underestimates the distance between others.
At the back of a church pew, I sit like an antelope at the end of a herd. Ahead of me is a man exalting things I can’t see and I don’t believe in. Next to him, my mother and Mary sit side by side. I’m stoned on painkillers, because pot brownies are not cool for church. Off to the side, in the corner under an illuminated EXIT sign, stands a man. He is staring at me. I hold his gaze for a moment to be sure it is me he’s looking at.
Six months later I am lying in this man’s bed. I am “free.” I stay there for years. This man’s birthday is November 1975. On Thanksgiving, I bake him an apple pie with small perfect vents in the crust. He is only two years younger than Joe, and he helps me with the everydayness of my life that I once dreamed Joe to be capable of. We mostly like the same music, but Queen is not his favorite. This is the trap of chasing a ghost: you can never again have a thing of equal value.
(November 23, 2016)
The biggest problem for me now is sorting the small pieces of Joe smuggled away in boxes. They’re in disarray from the many homes I’ve inhabited since his death. Which one holds the terrible photomontage played at his funeral set to Queen’s Greatest Hits Volume 1? Which one contains the photo albums in which I have too few photos of us together?
There is nothing worse than having the objects of one loved and now dead placed in your hands. A magnetic energy of value they’ll never have again hovers around the transaction. Their power only existed because they belonged to the person you love. But that person is gone, so both the objects and you will never be the same. Repeatedly, cardboard boxes are opened to things that look dull and useless. Here, a small pocket knife he had, my father says. I put it on my keychain. Here, some sweaters of his. You like sweaters, my father says. I put them in my closet. Here are some cassette tapes. You like music, my father says. I put them in my car.
Each time you access an important memory, you alter it somehow. I lost the pocketknife. The sweaters are falling apart, moth-eaten. I don’t own a cassette player anymore. I’m beginning to wonder what is the most valuable thing I have left from him that I can hold in my hands.
Joe didn’t want anyone to know he was sick until he was sure he was dying. He didn’t have someone hide his ashes like Freddie did, but he made sure they were untouchable. He’s just the fragments of teeth floating somewhere out to sea, bone dust soluble in water, disappearing into the cold Pacific Ocean.
Christine Quattro is a writer and social media marketer from California. She earned her MFA from Sarah Lawrence College, where she currently works. Her writing can be found in Breadcrumbs Magazine (#286, and #324), has been featured in the Sisters Reading Series, and is forthcoming in Bridge Eight Literary Magazine (March 2018). She lives with her partner, Josh, and their two pitbulls Cash and Gunner, in a house once owned by a CIA agent.