Updated: Aug 1, 2021
“ I was still reading the poem when he came into my office and began to cry, telling me he had gone to his doctor to investigate some aches and pains and found out he had full blown AIDS. "
Phil was a traffic coordinator at the agency where I spent my first decade in advertising. He was tall and thin, in his early 30’s, and had a dry sense of humor that often resulted in a little sneer when he tried to be funny. I knew he was gay when I met him, but he only hinted at his private life, uncomfortable talking about anything other than work. I was already “out” when he joined the agency, and gradually his friendliness became flirtatious then sometimes even jealous when I wasn’t giving him attention. I had no interest in him romantically, but I began to ask him about his life. He was cryptic in his replies, eventually alluding to kinky sex and hints at an underground life. One day I found a card on my desk with a poem inside that he had written called “My Secret Bicycle Lover,” and I knew it was a reference to me as I had told him I had been riding every weekend for miles upstate, taking photographs of anything that looked beautiful, from flowers to cows to corn fields flying past me. I was still reading the poem when he came into my office and began to cry, telling me he had gone to his doctor to investigate some aches and pains and found out he had full blown AIDS. Although finally able to admit he was a gay man, he was filled with rage at this disease seeming to out him, and he denied ever having had unprotected sex. For the next few months I was his confidant, acknowledging his anger and trying to convince him to get on medication, which he refused. His condition worsened until he walked with a limp and lesions appeared around his back and legs. He hid it as best he could, but had to go on disability, which made him feel humiliated and defeated. He began an anti-viral cocktail too late, and dementia took over his thoughts, causing him to show up at the office unannounced to visit, often dirty from sleeping in the park, his limp now supported by a cane, his sunken face bruised from street fights. The last time I saw him he was sitting in our reception area. “I came to tell you that I love you,” he said, loudly. I walked over to him and hugged him. “I love you too, Phil.” He limped out, and I never saw him again. I wish I could have told him how much it meant that on the day he found out he had AIDS he wrote a poem for me. That I was sorry I couldn’t return his affection the way he needed. That he didn’t deserve to die an excruciating death because he was ashamed of the man he was. That I am sorry he died feeling so alone. That being his friend during the final moments he was his true self was an honor that I would never fully appreciate until it was too late.