The Times I Miss Rob
The Times I Miss Rob
by Greta Christina
The times I miss Rob the most go like this: I'm reading the paper, I come
across some article about dinosaurs or black holes or genetically
engineered sheep, and I think, I should ask Rob about this, he's a
science guy, he'd know something about it. The thought flicks by, just
for a passing moment, and then--boom. I remember, and remembering is like being kicked in the chest from inside, and he dies all over again.
You don't realize how often you think about someone until every time you
think about them hurts.
This is going to sound ridiculously self-evident, but the thing about
someone being dead is that they are no longer alive. They don't change,
they don't get older, they don't do new stuff that they can tell you
about or meet new people they can introduce you to or come up with
outrageous new ideas that you can argue with. You don't have their life
as part of your life anymore. What you have instead are memories, like a
videotape; and, like a videotape, memories are static, changing only in
that they disintegrate. You remember, maybe, what they said about the
ethical responsibilities of the scientific community or your relationship
with your parents, but you can't ask them now, what do they think about
it now, what is different now from a year ago, or two years, or ten, the
last time you talked with them about it, the last time they had an
opinion, the last time they were alive.
One of the more frustrating things about a death is the way your memory
fades. When someone is alive, you are reminded each time you speak, or
write, or see their face, of who this person is. They change, and the
change, whether promising or disturbing or just plain there, reminds you
of the fact of their life. The event of their death, the crisis and
break, separates you from the one who has died, perhaps even more than
the actual fact that they are dead. You immerse in the pain of the loss,
and lose touch a little with exactly what it is you have lost. You shy
away, at first, from images of the dead person, flinch, pull back from
the pain that's still too sharp. Later, when the grief passes a bit and
you begin to want to remember...so much gets lost without the weekly
phone call, the dinner-and-a-movie, the silly thing in the paper you cut
out to send them, the reminder. The image becomes fuzzy, your love for
them becomes vague, almost generic. You remember that he liked animals,
argued for pleasure, enjoyed his body, was shy about talking about sex.
These things mean nothing. They read like a personal ad.
This death has brought up ugly thoughts in me, unspeakable thoughts,
thoughts that make me cringe. I want to acquire the status and respect
due to a survivor of tragedy by telling everyone about it. I want to
protect and hoard my grief by not telling anyone about it. I want to tell
his other friends and gain the power of bearing important news. I don't
want to tell his other friends and have to deal with their goddamn grief,
too. I want to make people be nice to me and do what I want because my
friend has died. I don't want to get close to another person with HIV and
go through this again. I want to prove that he was exceptional in order
to make my grief seem less ordinary. I really belong to the gay community
now that I've had a close friend die of AIDS. I wonder if they'll have
decent food at the wake. I wonder what's happening to his fabulous art
collection. I wonder if I was mentioned in his will.
I think these things, and know them to be ugly, absurd, stupid and silly
and no way to live at all. I don't even want to give them power by
speaking or writing them.
I also don't want to give them power by not speaking or writing them.
One of the facts here is that Rob is a victim of the epidemic. This does
not make his death any less special or individual. What it does, instead,
is to make the epidemic far more personal. It makes my anger over the
epidemic far more visceral. It makes me realize yet another absurdly
obvious fact: that every single one of the hundreds of thousands of
people killed by this virus had friends who loved them, families that
annoyed them, books they wanted to read, work they hadn't finished. Each
of them, like Rob, was an individual, with a life that took up space in
the world. Each of them left behind people who feel the way that I feel
I realize that I've said very little so far about Rob himself. I'm sure
that's intentional. For one thing, I'm a coward about pain, and it hurts
to remember him. But it also hurts to remember, and not be able to
explain. Describing what Rob was like is proving to be a sad and angry
exercise in futility, a struggle through storm and mud that winds up in a
shopping mall. "Handsome, intelligent, wealthy gay white man, graduate
student in genetics, loves art, animals, the outdoors, reading,
performance art, playing piano, working out, dining, dancing, and
lovemaking..." No. So I'm not going to try to tell you who he was. I'm
going to tell you about some things we did.
I remember riding with him in his fire-engine red Porsche 944, telling
him about some book I'd found interesting, and watching him make a detour
to pull into a bookstore and buy it right then and there.
I remember going to Disneyland and taking LSD with him and his friend
Steve, and each of us having our own little areas of Disneyland fear and
resistance that we had to overcome. Mine was Space Mountain, Steve's was
the spinning teacups, and Rob's was It's A Small World. I remember Rob
being very, very stubborn about not wanting to go to It's A Small World.
I remember his outright terror of the figure-skating penguins and the
smiling pink-and-purple hippos doing kneebends and the three-foot-tall
cute and adorable People Of All Colors And Nations, all singing that
stupid fucking interminable song. I remember he was the last of the three
of us to capitulate. I remember him enjoying it in spite of himself, and
fuming at us about it anyway.
I remember a long and fierce argument we had over the telephone (one of many lengthy and expensive long-distance phone conversations) about some writing I'd done. I remember him trying very hard to understand why I cared enough about society and social constructs to spend my time arguing
I remember yet another long-distance phone call, sitting in my San
Francisco apartment and calling him up at his beach house in Laguna to
tell him about some article I'd read about a new theory of evolution. I
remember talking with him for hours about kin selection and the possible
evolutionary value of homosexuality in mammals and the work he was doing
on the genetic causes of aging in fruit flies. I remember thinking that
he was only person I knew who thought this stuff was interesting.
I remember talking with him about a performance piece he was thinking
about doing, something about the military metaphors used to discuss AIDS,
and suddenly being whisked off to the toy store to buy dozens and dozens
of little plastic soldiers and tanks and astronauts and space aliens and
cowboys and Indians and farm animals; then sitting for hours in some
generically decent Southern California restaurant, eating our generically
decent Southern California sandwiches, and playing with these dozens and
dozens of little plastic war toys, arranging and re-arranging them on the
table, putting them in our water glasses to see if they'd float, giggling, confusing the waitresses, and discussing performance art.
I remember doing a Tarot reading for him, a year or so before he died, on
the question of whether or not he was going to die of AIDS. I remember
wanting to tell him, "You stupid git, you have AIDS, of course you're
going to die of it," and I remember wanting to tell him, "Don't talk like
that, you're never going to die," and I remember flipping up one
card--The Magician. I remember him saying that the card meant his death
was under his power, that he wouldn't die of anything he didn't want to,
and wouldn't die until he was ready. I remember hoping to God that it was
true, because anyone who got as much of a kick out of living as Rob did
would never be ready to die.
I remember getting mad at the cards for lying to me.
Shortly after Rob died, I went to his house, where his belongings were
being dealt with and sorted and handed out, and found myself becoming
grasping and greedy, piling up stacks of his things (books and music,
mostly) to take home with me. I took weird, almost random things: things
that seemed to capture the essence of what I loved about him, or that
seemed to capture the essence of what I never knew about him and now
never would. I took things I admired but would probably never read or
listen to, things that reminded me of something he'd once said, things I
just plain wanted, things I didn't even particularly like. I seemed to
believe that having the books he'd loved in my possession would, in some
way, be like having the person who loved those books in my life. I seemed
to believe that I could read a book he'd had that I'd never read, and
discover another piece of his nature, thereby keeping him a little bit
Now I find myself rarely reading those books or listening to those pieces
of music. When I pick one up, I don't think, This is something Rob liked,
and therefore I'm likely to enjoy it as well. I think, This is Rob's, and
the reason I have it is because he is dead.
So I have these weird aberrations on my shelves; huge volumes of modern poetry, stacks of gigantic color-plate books on surrealism, an
almost-complete set of the works of Philip Glass that I would never in a
million years have collected and that has to be explained to every new
visitor who comes to my house and looks over my music. No, I say
hurriedly, I'm not that crazy about Philip Glass, I didn't buy those,
they belonged to a friend of mine who died. Most of my visitors are
queer. None of them asks how my friend died.
And now I sit at my keyboard, with a dead man's jacket in the closet
behind my back, trying to finish this piece, not wanting to finish it,
hating to write it, not willing to abandon it. Rob died on August 18,
1991: I started writing this almost immediately, and now, more than a
year later, I find myself struggling to finish it. I started it to get
some closure on his death and my grief, and now I don't want to end it
because that would mean getting some closure on his death and my grief. I
have a not-so-irrational fear that, by completing this work, I will be
closing another door on Rob, saying yet another goodbye to him. And I
hate that. I hate it, I hate it, I hate it.
Copyright 1992 Greta Christina. Previously unpublished.