The Museum of John

John must have been only thirteen when he designed and made a beautiful maroon velvet dress for his girlfriend, Betsy. Betsy had been diagnosed with a form of kidney disease and either the disease or the treatment or both had made her bloat and swell. She no longer recognized her face in the mirror. She “felt ugly” (as teen girls do sometimes). So John made her a dress so that she could feel beautiful. He was going steady with Betsy when I first met him, a fellow student at our hippie free school.

JohnEmpathy and kindness, and awareness of the healing power of beauty: that’s very essence of John, a bright being whose corpse was lifted from the floor of a canyon in San Diego, so very long ago. Always, his impulse was toward beauty and charm, but also¬†toward secrecy. I believe he had to learn stealth, just as he had to learn the art of theft, in order to survive his mother. Though we shared so much, in many ways he was still so secret with me. Like sleeping with me the night before he walked over to that canyon with a water jug and pills, and left my life forever.

I left him sleeping that morning, leaving a note before I left for work, “John, please feed the cats.” I probably added “love you” but I don’t remember for sure. I came home to find no John, but catfood spilled all around the bowl, as if he’d fed them with great agitation. This was one of his last actions before he propelled himself into the arms of death, at the age of nineteen. There was no note left for me.

As I mentioned in my previous blog about John, I was seventeen and he was fifteen (just about to turn sixteen) when our romance began. Our official anniversary day was March 13. Now that I am letting myself remember, the memories are cascading. I have to write them down. I am well on my way now to becoming an old woman and his life has got to count for something beyond what I remember. I write now so that you can remember too, even if you never knew him.

Imagine two teenagers in thrift store glam, as well dressed as their poverty will allow, hitchhiking to Fashion Valley in the heart of one of San Diego’s main transportation corridors, to do what many teens do–hang out at the mall. f77baea5685918596162655b517780b8However, we were haunting the stores which sold Irish Beleek china and Waterford crystal, as well as the trendy boutiques. I still have a delicate Beleek shell teacup and saucer, a present from John (not stolen, as so many of his gifts to me were). I think we went to these stores so often because he was longing for his maternal grandparents back in Ireland, and their home apparently had a few such treasures. Those good people probably never realized the extent to which their grandson was tortured by his mother. I think that when he acquired such things for himself, or gave them to me, he was attempting to create a zone of psychic safety for himself, as well as beauty. So today my cup and saucer will go on an altar, as I light my candle for John.

So many stories are embedded in objects, and I still have many that are associated with John. There are those rose petals thrown from Mick Jagger during a concert John and I attended together. I was in a long, pink satin, bias-cut dress from the thirties (very Jean Harlow) and John lifted me onto his shoulders so I could see better. Mick pointed at me from the stage, knowing of course that he was just creating a vivid, life long memory for a fan. Later, he threw a huge bowl of rose petals, and John and I scooped them up. I still have them, in a tube.

And a lock of John’s hair. And beads and beaded handbags…And somewhere, a copy of his death certificate pasted into a scrapbook, because I could still scarcely believe in the reality of his death.

And yet I will confess, when I first understood (after the coroner’s visit) that he was really and truly gone, I felt relief as well as sorrow. All those years of repeated suicide attempts and mental ward stays, and all the other traumatic episodes–like the time I rescued him from a giant man who evidently meant him harm, by pretending that my father was dying and we had to go now!–or the time he crawled into the attic of the house we shared with one other person, and we didn’t know where he was, and perhaps he was trying to kill himself then among the spiders and rodent droppings, but then emerged a couple of days later, dusty and ashamed–those days were over now.

In my earliest twenties by then, I’d been trying to launch myself as an adult–going to nursing school, working as a sample librarian at an interior design studio–but the constant chaos of John meant that I could seldom concentrate long enough or ever be at peace. I couldn’t know my own mind or chart my hopes and life trajectory without knowing that sooner rather than later, another John crisis would erupt. I ended up dropping out of nursing school. I couldn’t handle all that time spent in hospitals during training, not when I’d just been with John in E.R. or the mental ward the night before. He was even in a coma once–and that thought that I, his girlfriend, had absolutely no say over what happened to him, but that his cruel mother did, nearly drove me insane with frustration and grief. Fortunately, he did awake after several days.

He punished his body and his mind wobbled even more. He told me once he was seeing little red demons, chanting “bones and blood, bones and blood.” The drano he drank ate holes in his esophagus. He ate a lot of ice cream for nourishment, as a result. He fell asleep on a couch with a cigarette and the apartment he shared with a lover was severely damaged. I often wondered if that was an accident or another attempt on his own life. By the time he ended his life, he was sharing an apartment with “an old queen” (John’s words) who was pestering him for sex but who approved of me because I used a “Diamond Deb” nail file.

But we shared dreams together in a warm bed on his last night on earth. And I never knew ’til later.

John, you left behind your cat Bernard. You left me behind, and many other grieving friends. Your little sister even took your name for awhile. And I believe you left behind a mother who was quite mad, and became even more so after your death. There are very few people I’ve ever wished would rot in hell, but I confess, she is the one.

The oddest part about this story is how I later drew upon the construction of our “second childhood” when I began to have children of my own, how I created fantasy magic and made stories for my children, as well as love. How they had a rich diet of books and beauty and food that was nourishing and outings in parks and museums. But behind each childish request for a treat from my own children, there was always the echo of John’s wistful request one day for pistachio pudding (the cheap kind, from a box)–a request I never had a chance to fulfill. I made some and ate it once, as a kind of penance.

It didn’t taste of ashes, but of synthetic mockery. And yet that taste had held pleasant significance for him.

Whatever karma brought us together, John, I hope it was completed in our lifetime. I am not sure I could bear a repeat of all this, much as I love you still.

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An Easter card to John from me.

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All My Sorrows: RIP John Suter

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.

John A. Suter-3

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.

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Both boys are in my clothes. John on the right.

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.

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One of John’s cards to me.
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One of my drawings for John–Valentine’s Day elephants, his favorite animal.

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.

John & Amy-2So, 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.

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