The Fruit of the Tree of Knowledge

It was the summer most of us graduated from college. We were artists; dancers, singers, musicians, actors and migrated immediately to NYC to start our new lives. There was a building on E. 52nd Street that a number of previous graduates had cycled through. That’s where I wound up; a six floor walk-up, top floor. Three of the four apartments were occupied by us. We called it The Tucker Arms after the landlord who lived on the ground floor.

We were determined to enjoy everything Manhattan had to offer. It was a never ending party. The freedom was exhilarating. We did whatever we felt like. It wasn’t unusual to get a phone call at 11:00 pm asking if we wanted to meet up and catch the midnight show of Wayland Flowers and Madame at an Upper Westside cabaret. We’d dress up, smoke a joint and hop in a cab. Afterward, we’d stop at the all-night doughnut shop before climbing the six flights home where we’d crash for a few hours. A quick shower and then off to the various crappy jobs we had to pay the rent. Brunch on the weekends, last minute pot luck dinner parties, picnics in Central Park, dancing all night at drag clubs, sunbathing on the roof, putting on impromptu shows for each other; it was glorious.

It wasn’t just our building though. We had college friends all over the City. One of them was Mary B. She had been a part of our tight-knit group when we were still on campus but had graduated the semester before. Mary was one of those special people that everybody, man or woman, gay or straight, fell in love with just the littlest bit. She was full of life; not pretty in the traditional sense but bursting with youth and absolutely fearless. She had piercing blue eyes, thick, dark hair, fair skin and freckles. She looked like an angel but could curse like a sailor. And she was talented. She could sing, dance, act and was a hell of a photographer. She was someone everyone wanted to be around. Her energy was boundless and infectious. A natural leader, she always went her own way. Senior year, she moved in with her boyfriend, Drew. That’s pretty common place today but in the seventies, it was still considered a bold move.

I saw her once that summer. I had come home from work and knocked on my neighbor Rita’s door looking to hang out for awhile. Mary was there visiting her. She was dressed in a white tee shirt and painter’s pants. Her hair hung loose and she wore no make-up but that made her even more beautiful. She seemed to glow from within. We drank wine and talked. She and Drew had broken up. She was living with her dad in the Bronx. She had been doing a little modeling and was getting more involved with her photography. She pulled her camera out of her shoulder bag to show me. She seemed so happy.

Weeks went by. I had just come home from work. There was a knock on my door. It was Rita. She’d been listening for me to come home. She wanted to catch me before I knocked on her door. Eddie, another friend was there and was pretty freaked out. Mary was dead. My first thought was that something had happened to her in the Bronx. But then Rita said “Drew killed her”. It was one of those moments when you think you must have heard wrong or misunderstood. What she was saying didn’t make sense. So she told me what Eddie told her.

After Mary had moved out of the apartment with Drew, Eddie moved in. Apparently, Drew wasn’t handling the breakup well. He was already trying to deal with his mother’s terminal illness and losing Mary had driven him into depression. That weekend, he asked Eddie to go to his parents so he could have the apartment to himself. He was going to ask Mary to come over and try to convince her to come back. Eddie obliged. When he returned on Sunday, he found Mary dead and Drew overdosed on pills. Mary had come as Drew asked and while she was sitting on the couch, Drew went to the closet, got out his rifle and shot her in the heart. Then he wrote a suicide note and took the pills. Drew was lucky. They got to him in time.

Now Eddie was here because he couldn’t go back to that apartment. Rita was letting him stay temporarily but she had another roommate who was traveling but would be home that week. Rita asked me to come and talk to him for awhile and keep him occupied. We sat and talked all night. About everything but what happened. We laughed and listened to music and got stoned. I asked Eddie if he wanted to be my roommate. The girl I had been living with, a strange androgynous creature that I rather meanly referred to as “Elizabeth the Klingon” due to her unfortunate protruding forehead and unibrow, had recently moved out. Eddie excepted.

We got through that week somehow. Calling other friends with the news, dealing with Mary’s younger sister who crashed with us because she couldn’t stand the atmosphere at home, the wake, the funeral. The following weekend, Eddie moved in. We got him unpacked and settled. We tried hanging out with friends and having fun but neither of us was really in the mood. On Sunday evening, we sat in the shoebox that passed for our living room. The window was open to let in what little breeze there was. The light was fading so we lit a candle. We rolled a joint and passed it back and forth in silence. I looked at Ed. He suddenly seemed much older. “I guess this is what it feels like to be an adult” I said. “This is how it’s going to be for the rest of our lives.” He stared at the candle. “Yeah, I guess so.”

I’ve thought about that evening many times. I truly mark that as the moment I left the innocence of youth behind. Oh I don’t mean I was naive to the pain and trouble of life. And I’d seen death before. But never the death of one of us! We were young. We were immortal. Death wouldn’t touch us for many years. But it did and it took one of the best and brightest.

This realization of our own mortality didn’t stop us from being reckless. We still did crazy, on-the-edge things. But now, the next day there might be a feeling of regret or a relief that we escaped unscathed. No more the blind freedom of invincibility. And perhaps it was a blessing that this overtook us so early. It was just a slight breeze, a warning of the maelstrom to come when a few years later so many were lost to AIDS. Even Ed.

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