I have never told this story to anyone, ever. But I've told it back to myself. Over and over again. Thinking about that third-floor window in the apartment building in Tribeca just a block or two from ground zero. Thinking about looking out that window from the inside, and looking up at that window from the outside.
First it was just Ron and me. I think it was the summer of 1999, or of 2000. I can't even quite remember. I'd just turned 30, or 31. I was deep in my meth addiction. My writing profession, my whole daytime life, had nearly evaporated. My new career was getting high, finding men online, hailing a cab at 2 or 3 in the morning, smoking a cigarette in the back of the cab with the window down, back when you could still get away with that sort of thing. Buzzing up 2A or 3B or 4D, or averting my eyes while a drowsily disapproving doorman called up. (I was never the first, or the only, visitor at these apartments.)
Then, as I knocked or rang the bell, there was that delicious moment of suspense. What would he be like? They be like? The apartment be like? The drugs be like? The sex be like? The next two minutes or the next 12 hours be like?
The apartment building was contemporary and blandly upscale. The lobby was silent in this wee hour save the dozing doorman. "Send him up," came a voice through the doorman's phone.
Ron was a nutcase. A lean, tanned, motor-mouthed, effervescent, high-as-a-kite, friendly, hospitable AIDS survivor in a black jockstrap and a leather harness, probably 20 years my senior. He wasn't nervous or distant or fronting with some sort of silent dominant daddy facade. "Come in! You're hot! Get naked! Do you like this house music? I have every drug you could ever want! We're going to have fun! All night!"
We did. I'll spare you the details. What I remember the most is that Ron had no reticence or shame about what he liked to do. He might as well have been an 8-year-old kid at the amusement park. That was kind of new for me. All my prior nocturnal dalliances had been veiled in a certain anxiety, paranoia. Ron just wanted to have fun. He also wanted to take care of me, make sure I was okay. He was the filthy but loving daddy I'd been looking for but never knew it.
"The next time you come, Evan will be here." Evan was his longtime lover. (I guess today they'd be husbands — legally. But that era was still a decade away.) Evan was on the road performing. "Evan's gonna love you."
Evan, who was older than me but younger than Ron, loved me, too. Evan was burly and furry where Ron was smooth and lean. They'd both been HIV-positive for years. New meds had come out recently and they were both now doing okay. It was the new post-AIDS era and they were in a celebratory phase of their lives. They loved going to giant so-called "circuit parties" where gay men danced, did drugs, and had sex for 6, 12, 24 hours at a time. I told them I was HIV-negative and they insisted we always use condoms. "We gotta keep you negative!" Ron exclaimed.
Ron and Evan would also insist we have a light dinner together before we did drugs and had sex. This was a totally new concept for me — that you might combine something from normal, civilian life like dinner with a wild night of debauchery. They wanted to be my friends, which was also novel for me, because I kept a shameful separation between what was left of my functioning daytime life and my drug-fueled nighttime alter ego, and most of my drug-using partners did, too. But Ron and Evan wanted to know about my writing, how the rest of my life was going, where I was from. This was terrifying, but I told them, and, even when they were flying off their gourds from drugs, they didn't hesitate to show me pictures of their beloved nieces and nephews. Which was both sweet and weird.
Ron and Evan were the first gay couple I intimately observed laughing together, having a ball, conspiring giddily, in their domestic life. One of them would say something funny and they'd both crack up. They were so obviously in love. This was very confusing for me. This was what I wanted, after all, at some vague point in my future. But did it come with loads of drugs and a turnstile at the apartment door?
I yearned to be in that apartment, spend as much time there as I could. It was partly the addict's need for a drug cave, but it was also partly something I couldn't name. They were always so happy to see me — not just to have sex, but to talk to me. About books, politics, what I wanted for my life, how they'd met. And underneath my addict's shame and guilt, I was always happy to see them. More than I understood.
Things got darker, of course. Ron had once had his own financial business, but at a certain point, he decided that, due to fatigue and depression, which was likely mostly due to his drug use, he was better off going on disability. Suddenly he had a whole lot of time on his hands. Evan, who was often on the road performing, wasn't happy about this. He used drugs, but not with the greedy gusto of Ron and me. With Evan gone, Ron and I spent more time together, heedless of Evan's exhortations that Ron go easier on the drugs, moderate his use, eat something, and finally, finally go to sleep. Often, we just didn't go to sleep.
The window of their third-floor apartment stared out at an office building that was fully lit at all hours of the night. High out of my mind, I would stare out their window into that building, convinced people were in there at 4 or 5 a.m., staring back at us, knowing full well what we were up to. The streets of Tribeca below us were empty, dark, save for the rare sports car roaring past, blasting Ricky Martin or Britney Spears.
My addiction deepened. I became HIV-positive, feeling as though it had been inevitable and relieved that I finally no longer had to worry about it. I didn't tell them the first time I was with them after I'd found out. I was too ashamed. We were all in the same boat now, and I didn't quite want them to know. I told them the second time. They held me, expressed sadness for something I couldn't yet feel sadness for myself. They urged me to go to their doctor, whom they loved, but I told them I already had one who seemed okay.
But there was a flip side to their condolences. We didn't need to use condoms together anymore. And we didn't. I was one of them now. Not just them as in Ron-and-Evan them. But of all the HIV-positive gay men in New York City, many far older than me, for whom sex together without the hated condom was the upside, the silver lining sewn into the cloud of viral stigma we all lived under.
The summer before 9/11, broke and facing eviction, I went home to Boston, to get sober. I freelanced from my parents' house during the day and went to 12-step meetings at night. But I missed Ron and Evan desperately, thought about them all the time. I didn't know if I missed our wild druggy trips down the rabbit hole or their fun and their warmth, or both. At that time in my life, I had no ability to parse or understand my own feelings, they were so buried under a chemical haze.
The day after 9/11, in a fit of urban patriotism, I impetuously came back to the city, far sooner than I should have. The air downtown smelled like burning chemicals, the walls were plastered with desperate posters bearing the faces of the missing, and firetrucks raced up and down the West Side Highway, their sirens blaring. There was a strange, gentle air on the subway, the tentative smiles, people going out of their way to be nice to one another. This sense that the city had taken a blow and that we all had to stick together, to be kinder. Ron and Evan's building was so close to the tragedy, had been so blighted with toxins, that they had to decamp to a temporary furnished one-bedroom apartment in Chelsea.
That's where we had our reunion, where I hungrily relapsed after exactly two and a half weeks clean, back in the city. It wasn't just the three of us. There was a beautiful, tattooed young hustler there too who, when I freaked out after too many hours of drugs, held me in his arms, gently shushing me, telling me how he, too, couldn't stop, didn't know what he was going to do. I fell asleep at some point and woke to find Ron and Evan still going at it with the hustler, hours and hours after we'd begun. It was probably 11 a.m. on a weekday, when the rest of the world, it seems, was out behind the drawn blinds, hurrying here and there, showing up for work and life during the day, then sleeping like normal souls at night.
I left the city again, back into rehab. I was so unaware then, so aware now, of how much privilege I had compared with many others struggling with addiction: my health insurance and access to treatment, my white face that resulted in cops chucklingly taking my paranoid self to the emergency room on a few occasions and not into custody or worse, two parents in a nice house who took me back over and over again between intakes.
That was the long, grim winter of 2001–2002 in Boston, the winter of anthrax scares, the war with the Taliban, of the Boston Globe breaking the story of the epidemic of sexual abuse in the regional Catholic church. I made headway in my recovery, went to 12-step meetings in the South End and Back Bay, found work as a substitute teacher in Boston. But I was obsessed with thoughts of Ron and Evan. I felt pulled like a magnet toward their apartment and everything we did there, that strange feeling of safety and love amid the degradation and the madness.
I broke down one afternoon in March. I called Ron and said I needed to come to them immediately.
It was the Monday or Tuesday after a major circuit party in New York City. "We've been partying the past 48 hours and Evan wants me to stop," said Ron. "But just come. Come. Come as fast as you can."
My whole body shook with anticipation on the Amtrak all the way down to New York, my last $50 in my pocket. I told no one I was going, and, taking a cab I couldn't afford from Penn Station to Tribeca, feared I'd be spotted by a friend who knew I wasn't supposed to be in the city. Pulling up in front of their apartment, which they'd reinhabited, getting waved up by the doorman, walking down that hallway, I felt a colossal sense of relief, of gratitude. I was home.
The moment Ron opened the door, he surreptitiously tucked a bag of drugs into my pocket. Ron looked wasted, as though he hadn't slept in 48 hours, which he hadn't. Evan was there too, looking less spent. They were both, as always, happy to see me, as I was to see them — roaringly happy inside, as though I were finally exhaling after months of separation.
In one another's arms, we caught up like three old lovers. Evan's work had taken him to Africa and he showed us a slideshow of the trip. But I couldn't separate intimacy with them from the drug instinct. Finally I broke down and asked abruptly if we could just get high together.
"I wanted to talk to you about that," Evan said. "Ron's been up partying for two days now and I want him to stop. He can't set limits and I'm really worried about his health."
Ron sat there sheepishly, silently, like a kid being chided. In my whole career as a user, in both senses of the word, I'll always remember this moment as my moral nadir. Because I said, "I hear you, but I'm an addict too and I can't stop and I just don't care. I just wanna get high with you guys like we used to because I miss it so much."
Ron looked at Evan like a child waiting for dad to give the green light for ice cream. Finally, Evan smiled indulgently and said, "Sure, whatever, let's do it."
"Thanks, Evan!" Ron and I cried. Soon, we were getting high. I felt full of gratitude to them both for taking me back to our sweet spot. In a private nanosecond between Ron and me, he whispered gleefully, "I can't stop and I don't want to stop either. I'm like you."
That was the last time I ever got high with either of them. We used together for about 24 hours, none of which I have any recollection of except the first 15 minutes, into the following evening, when Ron stuffed $60 into my pocket to make sure I got back to Boston okay. But I didn't go straight back. I went to a sex club for another six hours or so, then got on a 3 a.m. bus at Port Authority, sleeping fitfully, making all sorts of strange noises, roaring down I-95 with other lost souls who board Greyhounds in the middle of the night.
I had a strange epiphany after that trip. I'd told no one about the trip, nobody found out, and at first I felt strangely smug that I had pulled it all off with about $30 left in my pocket. I could manage my drug use! But then it occurred to me: Here I was in Boston, cut off from every friend I'd ever had in New York, many of whom were no longer speaking to me, getting by on an $11-an-hour customer service job, no lease, no future prospects. I was by then 32. How much longer could I go on like that? There had to be a better life out there.
That was a turning point. The idea that I might eventually move back to New York and have an interesting and fulfilling life without drugs finally took root. I went to 12-step meetings with a new resolve. In an incredible stroke of luck, a magazine in New York I'd written and done some pinch-hitting for called, asking if I could come fill a job position. I accepted. I went back to that city with its impaired but still sprawling skyline, not the mere few tall towers of Boston, full of focus, ambition. I threw myself into my new job — and into a new relationship. I felt so genuinely lucky to have a second chance.
The desire to use drugs is sneaky. It can be so far at bay that it seems to have disappeared entirely, then on a quiet, hot, lonely summer weekend afternoon, it can come rushing back in, overwhelmingly, taking a physical hold over the mind and the body, whose heart pumps and whose hands tremble at the tantalizing thought.
And that is how I relapsed and, in the midst of that relapse, reached out for the first time in over a year to Ron. I found him not on the original hookup website where we'd met, but on the new one that everyone had seemed to migrate to after 9/11.
Evan doesn't want me partying in the apartment anymore, he wrote. But we can meet at — and he named a well-known 24-hour sex club.
We didn't meet, though. I had the twinge of conscience I'd failed to have a year before. If Evan had banned Ron from using drugs in the apartment, things must have gotten much worse. I didn't like the idea of partying with Ron in some cubicle at a sex club, behind Evan's back. That wasn't the cozy, domestic three-way we'd had going. I don't know how I begged off.
That relapse was brief, just 24 hours, but did major damage to my relationship and my job, stopping just short of ending them both. It would not be my last relapse before the aughts ended, but they would be few and far between, and brief. Today, nearly 15 years later, I can stop myself from moving toward drugs because I can palpably taste the misery that follows, the inability to return to normal thinking and doing for two whole weeks. I know how to get my hand up, reach out to someone, tell on myself — and, almost magically, cut that secret desire down to size.
But I can get high in my head instantly. A nostalgic old tape I roll behind my eyes can make my heart rate spike and my stomach flutter in a matter of seconds. I no longer have illusions that a series of unfortunate emotional events couldn't lead me to drugs, unless I take bold steps on my own behalf. I could switch websites on this laptop this very instant and be high in the next few hours.
In those ensuing years of the aughts, I fell into a strange habit of biking down to Ron and Evan's neighborhood, where for years a massive hole in the ground lay, a colossal and empty grave surrounded by a tall plywood barrier replete with eyeholes so that tourists could stare into the vast pit, choked into stasis by red tape. Always, I would stand under their third-floor window, hoping one of them would see me, turn to the other, say, "Look who it is!" and beckon. Come up, come up! I would come up and we would be on again. With drugs, hoped my reptile, drug-seeking brain. But if not with drugs, perhaps it wouldn't be so bad. For the first time, we might all feel what we felt without destroying ourselves.
But that never happened. The Facebook era commenced. I looked for Ron and Evan there but never found them. I forgot them, for the most part. I entered my forties, the decade Ron was poised to depart when we'd met. I fell in love with a European guy, spent a lot of time overseas, married him, then wondered how much was him and how much was me as the relationship abruptly fell apart.
And in that loneliness, last year, I threaded the Google needle on Ron and Evan more artfully than I had in the past. I found Ron's obituary from 2012. A few years prior, he and Evan had left New York, their city of glamour and decline, moving to what appeared to be Evan's hometown in the Midwest. There was a small, grainy headshot of Ron, that walking apothecary, that good-natured, manic filthmonger. The obit said that Ron was survived by his longtime partner, Evan. It didn't say what, exactly, Ron had died from.
I sat with all this new information. I'm still sitting with it. I knew it was a slightly narcissistic overreach to feel guilty. But that's how I felt. I also wondered whom Evan now laughed with the way he'd laughed with Ron.
I haven't reached out to Evan yet. It's not like I don't know how to contact him. I'm a journalist. I contact people for a living. I think it's more that I'm trying to figure out what to say. I found the news about Ron and I'm so sorry, for one thing. How are you doing?
But what else? I want to tell him what may sound truly pathetic to you: that those days and nights in their apartment were among the happiest moments of my life. I'm still trying to figure out why. I think it's because even though we were three giant fuck-ups fucking up our lives in a suddenly very fucked-up city, they still loved me in a way I'd never been loved before but obviously needed to be. A way that combined the rank and the debased with the tender and the silly and the everyday, which is a very intense and complex way to be loved.
And also because, somewhere under my shame, I loved them back. I wish I'd told them that.
Tim Murphy has reported on HIV/AIDS for 20 years, for such publications as POZ magazine, where he was an editor and staff writer, Out, Advocate, and New York magazine, where his cover story on the new HIV-prevention pill regimen PrEP was nominated for a GLAAD Media Award for Outstanding Magazine Journalism. He also covers LGBT issues, arts, pop culture, travel, and fashion for publications including the New York Times and Condé Nast Traveler. He lives in Brooklyn and the Hudson Valley.
To learn more about Murphy's novel Christodora, click here.