He drank Mountain Dew Code Red. His favorite piece of clothing was a Dallas Cowboys T-shirt, because he was born in Texas. He used American Crew hair gel. On special occasions, he smelled like Drakkar Noir, a gift from a high-school girlfriend he couldn’t completely give up. His phone number had lots of 2s in it.
He drove a red convertible. He used to order the Rooty Tooty Fresh n’ Fruity at IHOP because the name made me giggle. He once laughed so hard he cried because I fell off a pair of platform sandals, then nicknamed me Sasquatch. He said “Thank you” the first time I told him that I loved him, on the beach in Montauk, N.Y., and then apologized profusely. The happiest I ever saw him was at the Topside restaurant in Montauk, eating his half of a three-pound lobster at sunset in August.
He died on his 26th birthday. He was a Pisces.
These are the pieces of a life, and a love, you won’t find in an obituary.
At 22, I was a nervous, anxious wreck. For the first time in my life, I wasn’t surrounded by academic structure. I had just moved to New York, because I felt like that’s where I was supposed to live, except that I wasn’t really sure what I was supposed to do. I didn’t eat very much. I got a job in publishing and scribbled in a journal in a cafe at night. My friend Susannah emailed me and asked if I wanted to meet a guy she knew who had also just moved to the city. I had nothing to lose. I said sure, why not?
And so it came to pass that in March 1999, I met a very beautiful boy with black hair and blue eyes underneath the Macy’s men’s store sign on the corner of 34th Street and Seventh Avenue. His name was Greg. We had Italian food in the West Village. He insisted on paying, even though he had no cash and the restaurant didn’t take credit cards. He ran across the street to an ATM while I told the waiter I knew he’d be back and the waiter looked at me like I was crazy. Later Greg and I stood in a subway station for ages, unable to stop talking. (To this day, whenever I pass through the C/E station at 23rd Street, I look out the train window for two kids so wrapped up in each other that they don’t see train after train passing by, intoxicated by cheap wine and a tangle of words and maybe more than a little Drakkar Noir.)
He called the next day. And the next. We had our first kiss while my favorite college band played a cover of “Stir It Up” in a downtown club that no longer exists. A few weeks later, we were a thing. Around him I felt like I could say anything I wanted. I could be silly, or I could talk politics (something we never, ever agreed on). I could sing badly in the car with my dirty feet on the dashboard. I did my New York Times crossword on the couch while he watched golf on TV, and silent hours would pass until we’d both look up and say in unison, “Let’s order pizza.”
Greg refused to take life too seriously. A friend of mine who knew Greg told me recently that this cheerful attitude was her favorite memory of him. As someone who took everything way too seriously, I found this sudden freedom to let myself hang out incredibly liberating. All the different personas I’d tried on in the past fell away around him. I tried his patience on a number of occasions, but he never gave up on me.
A few months after we began dating, I found out he was sick. He didn’t look sick then, like he would later. He said he had a disease called primary sclerosing cholangitis, which clogs the bile ducts of the liver with scar tissue. Bile backs up into the liver and destroys it. The only cure, he said, was a liver transplant -- and he was at the top of the list, which meant he could get a call any day. He had actually sneaked away from his doctors to go on vacation with me the week before this conversation, knowing the whole time that if a liver became available for him, he wouldn’t be able to accept it.
That’s a lot to process, I said.
You can break up with me, he said. I’m giving you an out. Otherwise you’re in it for the long haul.
It was a deal. I anted up.
A few weeks later, I couldn’t reach him on the phone. I found out he’d gotten the call in the middle of the night, had his transplant and it was successful. The next time I saw him, he had surgical staples in his torso, in what would eventually be a scar down his sternum and around the ribcage that looked just like a Mercedes logo (only the best for you, babe, he would say).
And things were better. He had more energy. His jaundice cleared up and his eyes were blue and white again. He went on a ski trip. We went to the beach. We met each other’s families. We settled into the rhythms of a life together.
Soon, however, we found out his body was rejecting the transplant. He was tired and listless again, and the jaundice came back. Greg’s father donated a piece of his own liver to his son. His dad’s liver regenerated, and Greg’s piece did too. But Greg never really seemed to bounce back from the surgery.
The Monday morning before 9/11, I left Greg’s apartment in Hoboken for mine in Manhattan, and I walked through the lobby of the World Trade Center on my way between the PATH train and the subway, marveling at how pretty it was. The next day, it was all gone. I couldn’t get in touch with Greg for hours, and when I finally did, I cried that I couldn’t get to him because no trains were running and all I wanted to do was hug him. He had seen the whole thing from his office window in Jersey City. He said we are lucky, we still have each other. I’ll be here when you get here. Don’t sweat the small stuff.
On New Year’s Eve 2001, while I was making mushroom risotto and preparing to turn on Dick Clark, Greg told me he needed to go into the hospital. I visited him there every day for six weeks. He never returned home. One night he got teary and called me “my Lela” and told me he was proud of me. A day later he was in intensive care, in isolation, on a ventilator, unable to speak.
I got a call at work on February 25, 2002, that I needed to get uptown to the hospital as quickly as I could. I paid a cabbie extra to go through red lights. We removed his life support that night.
Probably the most disconcerting thing about Greg’s death was how fast I was expected to recover from it. When you are a 25-year-old not-really-a-widow, because, after all, he was “just a boyfriend,” you hear often that you are Young! And Still In Possession of Your Looks! That You’ll Find Someone Else! I wanted to tell all these well-meaning people that Greg got new livers, but someone forgot to put my heart back in. I didn’t take any time to work through my grief. I didn’t think I could. I went back to work a week after he died and just a few days after we buried him. I wanted to forget the bad at the end, and was simultaneously terrified I would forget how great the rest was.
Then I found out he knew me better than I ever could have imagined -- he willed me money to pay my grad-school tuition. I had filled out the applications as he got sicker during the fall before he died. We compared the merits of various programs over our beloved Sunday football games. I mailed the applications out three days after Greg went into the hospital, never imagining that he wouldn’t be there when I got the fat envelope. Two weeks after he died, I received my acceptance letter. I picked up the phone to call him before remembering no one was on the other end. “Look!” I yelled into my empty, empty apartment. “We did it!” I finally felt the pride in myself that he said he felt for me the last time he spoke to me.
Greg and I didn’t have a lot of time. We were together for three years, and he’s been gone nearly 10. I have spent more than three times as long without him as I did with him. I grew up a lot. I cut off my hair. I have a good job, in no small part thanks to that grad program. I have wonderful friends. I still think about him every day, whether hearing him say “Don’t sweat the small stuff” when I’m dithering over some issue at work, or eyeing the bodega cooler and wondering who the hell still drinks Mountain Dew Code Red.
For a long time, I felt like I existed in a sort of parallel universe, waiting for him to come back. Only in the last year have I started to feel like I’m really living for myself again. Sometimes I worry that I’m too different, that he wouldn’t be in love with me if he saw me now.
Then I think, I’m different because he loved me.