September 1st marks the anniversary of the day a San Diego coroner showed up at my door, bearing an ornate gold ring and the news that a body had been found in a canyon not far from my Hillcrest apartment.
This was 1975 (or was it 1976?). These days, it’s getting hard to remember the year, though I’ll never forget the circumstances. My “childhood sweetheart,” John Albert Brennan Suter, who had disappeared a couple of weeks earlier, was that body.
Look at him. He should still be alive, and still be my friend. In an alternative universe far kinder to queer and gender variant kids than ours, he would be. He’d probably be married to some delicious older man, pursuing his considerable artistic talents, including a gift for spontaneous storytelling. The illegitimate son of an abusive, Irish Catholic mother and an Arab university student who probably never knew of this child, from a young age John had been regularly locked out of his house and forced to shoplift just to get back in the door. I heard so many stories of corrosion and cruelty.
And since his mother had kicked him out of the house for six months at age thirteen, and again at fifteen, John had done what homeless teenagers do in order to survive. He was well acquainted with sex work by the time we fell in love. I was older–seventeen–with a couple of boyfriends in my past. John had just broken up with a girlfriend (or she’d broken up with him) who had a mother who had also looked after John, knitting him socks and providing food (and probably a place to stay).
Then John came courting me. We were both students at a hippie “free school” called Paideia, and hitchhiked to parks and various teacher homes for classes. He’d been a friend of one of my brothers first, and I remember my mom always remarking how effeminate John seemed. (Grrrr…) That was probably one of the reasons his mother had kicked him out too. But he came over with his hand stuck in a jar (really!) and wanted me to help him get it out. I am serious. That is how it started. He later told me it had been a ploy. He was fifteen and was homeless at the time. (That meant he’d been tricking for a few months again, but I didn’t know that.)
Whether John was really “more gay,” or actually bisexual, or possibly more truly asexual, I will never know. He never had a chance to grow into and understand his own sexuality without it being a bargaining chip for food, money, or a couch (or bed) to sleep on.
I got him a job at a local free clinic, paid for by a government program that provided jobs and training for disadvantaged kids. (I was also in that category.) Our combined income of $380 a month gave us enough for an apartment in Ocean Beach and barely enough for food. John stole furnishings off front porches. I didn’t want him to, but I couldn’t stop him–by this point, it was part of what empowered him. There were times, later on, when he also stole from me.
Drugs were not a problem, though. Just in case you were wondering.
At first we created a marvelous “second childhood” together, which is why I refer to him as my childhood sweetheart. Every month we had an “anniversary” which was an occasion for handmade cards (we both drew and tried to outdo each other with how beautiful and clever our cards were) and other small treats. John’s imagination was rich with Babar elephants, talking birds, Jean Harlow, and creatures of fey realms. I wrote stories for him. He told stories to me. He also upped my glamour, choosing my clothes for me. He had amazing taste.
And then one day we were walking down the street and passed a grown-up couple–a woman with long red hair (very Irish) and a darker man, Hispanic. They didn’t acknowledge us. We didn’t acknowledge them. I thought they were strangers but after they passed, John whispered, “That’s my mom and her boyfriend, Johnny.”
John told me once he ate ground glass, “just to see what would happen.” I was shocked. It wasn’t until later that I realized he was telling me the story of one of his first suicide attempts. Our relationship soon devolved from our idealistic beginnings (pretending we were married) to a desperate struggle. Our government funded jobs were defunded. I can’t even get into everything that happened next, except that John started tricking again. Sometimes we lived together (we shared several apartments over the course of our time together), sometimes not. Sometimes we had other relationships, sometimes not. And the suicide attempts were suddenly more serious and right out in the open.
After the first couple of hospitalizations in the mental wards of San Diego, John got SSI. But there was very little therapeautic help for him beyond a diagnosis of borderline schizophrenia and an array of medications which never seemed to help much. Remember too that those were the days when being gay or lesbian was considered a mental illness in and of itself.
Yes. Things deteriorated. He was raped (probably more than once). He drank drano. He could be found in the infamous “circle” in Balboa Park, a famous trysting spot for gay men. He pushed me into a fishtank during an argument–it shattered and I have a scar on my wrist from that event. He got arrested for breaking into a posh eyewear store (for Christian Dior sunglasses). Even so, we went out dancing, had cats, and continued something that felt like love, though it was usually (and had always been) rather chaste. He started beauty college through some kind of rehabilitation program.
One of his fellow students sold him 100 barbituates that he would take into that canyon, along with a water bottle from my fridge. One of his fellow students saw the ornate gold ring on television, posted on the news by police anxious to find something about the identity of the corpse that had been stinking up the neighborhood a few blocks away. Whoever that student was, he knew John well enough to direct the police to my house. I suspect it was the man who had sold John the pills.
The coroner left with a photo of John, smiling, so that it could be compared to the body’s teeth. It took his mother two weeks to claim the corpse and arrange for burial, far away. Without a car in those days, I could never go visit the grave. I never have. John wanted to be cremated, but no, he had as close to a Catholic burial as his mom could arrange. John wanted his favorite childhood toy back too (his Steiff teddybear) but his mom never gave him that either.
So, at age 22 I was effectively widowed even though I’d never been married. The coroner just couldn’t help telling me some of the grosser details of the condition of the body, which made for nightmares for years. And so this haunting has continued, though I’ve done all kinds of things to try to stop it or soften it–even “reading to the dead” as per anthroposophical recommendations. (That helped a little.)
My own children were born on dates within a week of each other, and these dates happen to flank this anniversary of Sept. 1st. I’ve always considered that a mercy. For years I could distract myself from mourning by planning birthday parties and focusing on my kids. Now that both are very much grown, I am once more confronted by the stark meaning that this day has always held for me.
But this year may be different in that I now have my pagan devotions–and my gods and guides and ancestors and wights to support me. So I will light a candle in John’s honor and wish him well. We always say “rest in peace” for the dead, but for those who survive the suicide (or other violent deaths of loved ones), there is never any peace at all.