By Grant Bentley

[Numbers Bar]

Tommy first came into my life way back in 1972. It was my second year teaching in a small rural junior high school. My grade 7 science class was like any other grade 7 science class, with one exception: Tommy. He was unusual in that he had a 2-second attention span and couldn’t sit still for more than 30 seconds in a row. He was just a little guy but had more energy than all of the rest of the class put together. Today, he would have been diagnosed as ADHD and pumped full of Ritalin. Back then, he was considered incorrigible and was the principal's most frequent visitor.

Tommy and I got along just fine though. Maybe he just liked science or maybe he just liked me, I didn’t know. Then again, maybe it was because I could see beyond the behaviour and realize that Tommy was, in fact, a little sweetheart with a heart of gold. All he needed was someone to care about him and treat him with respect. I did and he responded.

I will never forget the time he decided he wasn’t going to go into the principal’s office twice in one day. He grabbed hold of the upper part of the door jamb with his hands, hooked his feet against the lower part and held on tight. He showed amazing strength because the principal, who was not a small man, couldn't pull him off. To say that the incident attracted a lot of attention would be an understatement. To say that the principal was totally embarrassed by the whole event would be even more of an understatement. Tommy received a few days at home for that one, but he left a lot of us with a memory that would last a lifetime.

After completing grade 9, Tommy moved on from junior high to high school. The high school was in a different town about 30 miles away. Unfortunately, he didn’t last long there. For whatever reason, he disappeared and I lost touch with him for several years.

It wasn’t until 1984, about 10 years later, that I went to visit his family and he just happened to be there on holiday. When I walked in, it was like he had just been reunited with his long lost brother or something. He flew into my arms and I got such a hug, I thought I might suffocate before he let go of me. He did finally let go and we moved out to the back deck to talk for a while.

He was 25 then, but he hadn’t changed much. He was still the hyper, random little guy he had been in junior high, except now he shaved. Some might have referred to him as scatterbrained. Actually, some did. His thoughts were all over the place and whatever popped into his head came out his mouth. It made for an interesting conversation. We talked about his leaving school and moving to Vancouver and about some of what he was doing there. We did reminisce about the ‘good old days’ in junior high and had a few laughs. He joked that his fingers still hurt from holding onto the door jamb of the office.

Since it was the start of the summer holidays, he asked me what I was doing for the summer. I told him I had been thinking about going out to the coast for a few weeks. I wanted to enjoy the ocean and the beaches, maybe do some boating or kayaking. His excitement level went up several notches and I got another big hug. He suggested that he should catch a ride back home with me and he could show me all the best places to see and visit.

I thought, ‘Why not?’ I liked him, he liked me, we got along well and he was familiar with the city. It sounded like it would be fun. It was settled: we would travel to Vancouver together, I would stay with him and, as he put it, we would have the best time ever. We talked it over some more and set a date to leave.

When I went to pick him up, he was packed and sitting on the front step waiting for me. For the next several hours, I drove and Tommy chatted about anything and everything. His constant chatter actually helped me. Since we were driving through the mountains and I have a distinct fear of heights, the distraction was not unwelcome.

The first night of the trip, we stopped at a motel about half-way to Vancouver. After a quick bite to eat at a nearby restaurant, we were both pretty exhausted and ready for bed. We crawled into bed and were laying there. Tommy asked if he could ask me something. I replied, “Sure.”

He then proceeded to ask me if I would have a problem sharing a bed with a gay guy. Okaaaay. There we were, side by side in the same bed and he throws a loaded question like that at me. How do I respond? Tell him I have no problem with it? Tell him I have no problem with it because I’m gay too? I gave it a few seconds of thought and opted for the first one. Because, knowing Tommy, the second one would have resulted in a nearly-naked young man all over me. Not that I would have minded, but I felt I needed to think things through thoroughly before I got myself into something I would regret later.

He replied, “Good, because I’m gay.” He rolled on his side to face me and, with tears in his eyes, kissed me on the cheek and whispered “Thanks.” He then rolled over facing away from me and went to sleep. I, on the other hand, lay there for quite some time mulling over what he had just told me.

The next day we arrived in Vancouver, found a hotel and got settled. Apparently “staying with him”, as he had put it before we left, meant him staying with me as he had no place of his own. We went down to a restaurant for a late supper, then decided to retire for the night. We were both fairly tired after another long drive through the mountains and, for me, too few hours of sleep the night before.

The next morning we were up early and, after showering and changing, he wanted me to meet his boyfriend. So, after breakfast, we drove out to his boyfriend’s condo. I was introduced to Scott, a very handsome young man who appeared to be in his mid-twenties. During our visit, I learned that Scott was a third-year university student at UBC, studying chemistry. After visiting for a while I was getting hungry and decided I should head back to the hotel. Tommy wanted to stay with Scott and asked if I could I pick him up the next day. I saw no problem with that and left for the hotel.

About seven o’clock the next morning, I got a call from Tommy asking if I could come and get him. It struck me as being a little early, but I went along with it and drove over to the condo. As I drove up to the visitors' parking area, I saw Tommy with two police officers waiting for me. I immediately thought that it was not good. It wasn’t. I was approached by one of the officers and questioned at length. Who was I? How did I know Tommy? Did I know Scott? Why was I in Vancouver? Etc, etc. After about half an hour of questioning, it seemed that I was considered an ‘innocent bystander,’ so to speak. Apparently, Scott’s neighbours had phoned the police in the early hours of the morning complaining about an ether smell throughout the condo complex. When the police arrived, Scott fled through the patio doors and disappeared, leaving Tommy asleep on the sofa. It turned out that Scott was putting his chemistry courses to good use by manufacturing a substantial amount of methamphetamine.

Since he had been asleep, the police believed Tommy when he claimed he had no idea what was going on, so he was allowed to go with me, on the condition that he was to stay in town. Needless to say, we got out of there as quickly as we could. So much for the boyfriend.

The rest of the day, I was feeling pretty upset and I let him know it. I knew he felt badly about involving me, but when the police told him to get someone to pick him up and vouch for him, I was the only person he could think of who would.

That evening, Tommy suggested that we should to go out to a club and have drink, maybe meet some of his friends, go dancing and relieve the stress of the day. I agreed, so we headed into downtown Vancouver. Tommy gave me directions to a great bar he knew called Numbers. We got there about ten o'clock, ordered our drinks and sat down. Just so you know, Numbers is a gay bar. It obviously didn’t bother me but after we had been sitting for a few minutes, Tommy suddenly realized that fact (remember the scatterbrained part?) and began to apologize all over the place. He offered to take me somewhere else but I told him not to worry, and that I was fine staying there.

There were several couples on the dance floor. After about twenty minutes, I asked him if he wanted to dance. (After all, he did say have a drink and go dancing, right?) The look he gave me was priceless. It was a look of total shock, soon replaced by a huge smile. We hit the dance floor, and danced for at least half an hour. We were both having a lot of fun.

Then a man in his mid-forties, approximately, came up to Tommy and said something to him. Tommy asked me if I would mind him leaving for a few minutes. I told him I didn’t mind and they were off. About half an hour later, Tommy was back. We had another drink, which Tommy paid for this time, and danced some more. Eventually we decided to take a break and rest for a while. No sooner had we sat down again than another older guy motioned for Tommy to come over. Once again, Tommy asked if I would mind if he left for a bit. Again, I told him it wasn’t a problem.

Now I was not entirely nave or stupid. There was a seriously cute little guy leaving the bar for short periods of time with much older and not-so-attractive guys. It didn’t take rocket science to figure out what my sweet little friend was doing. Neither did it take me long to realize that I was beginning to fall for the little guy, and I was more than a little upset. I ordered another drink and tried to decide what to do.

‘What do I do now?’ I asked myself. ‘I know I'm falling for this little guy. I want to save him. I want to protect him. I want to love him. I want him to love me.’ Then my brain kicked in. ‘I don’t know... Maybe I should just make some excuse tomorrow and go back home. Get out now before I get too involved.’

However, the heart doesn’t always listen to the brain. ‘I know he really likes me,’ my heart chimed in. ‘I'm only 9 years older than him. That’s not much, is it? If I keep him with me, take care of him and let him know about me, let him know I care about him and want him, he’ll realize he needs me, and he’ll see he can have a better life. A life with me. A life without hustling. So tonight, when we get back to the hotel, I’m going to tell him.’

Again, within a half hour Tommy was back, all bubbly and excited. He wanted to take me out for a late supper to show me how much he appreciated what I was doing for him. Obviously, he had more money.

We got back to the hotel about 2:00 a.m. After we were in bed, I spoke up. I asked him if he wondered why I was so comfortable at a gay bar and why I had asked him to dance with me. He assumed, of course, that it was because I was just trying to be nice and not make him feel bad for taking me there. “Guess again,” I told him. He rolled to face me with a totally puzzled look on his face and I just smiled at him. Then a smile appeared on his face and finally a huge grin. “No way!” he almost shouted. “No f******* way!.” My own smile turned slowly into a grin. The next thing I knew, I had a nearly-naked young man all over me. Needless to say, we didn’t sleep much that night.

We spent the rest of summer going out to the clubs, taking long walks along the waterfront and cuddled up on the beach watching countless sunsets. It was amazing. It was the best summer of my life. And, thankfully, he didn’t step out with any unnamed men again all summer.

I was now hopelessly in love with him. No, not just because of any sleepless night or nights, but because he was so sweet, kind, caring, and vulnerable. The fact that he was such a hyper, bubbly, scatterbrained little guy just added to his appeal.

However, all too soon, the summer was drawing to a close. I would have to head home and get ready for another year of school. I mentioned that to Tommy and he immediately began to cry. After he calmed down, we talked. I hoped that he loved me and I knew I loved him, so I suggested he should come back with me. But, he explained, he couldn’t go home with me; not back to where he grew up, not back to where his family lived. How would we explain the two of us living together? His family and many others knew he was gay. If he moved back there with me, they would know. They would know I was gay. My career would be over. He couldn’t do that to me

Not only that, but Vancouver had been his home for the last several years. He loved it here and had made a life for himself. (‘Right, a life hustling tricks at the local bars—some life,’ I thought sardonically, but I didn’t say anything.) He had lots of friends and people who cared about him. It was vibrant and exciting in Vancouver. If he moved back home, he would be alone except for me. Home wasn't much for him; 50 people in a little village in the middle of nowhere, and half of them thought he was a freak.

He knew he couldn’t move back home with me and I knew that, at that time, I couldn’t stay in Vancouver. My biggest fear was leaving Tommy and having him go back to his old lifestyle, and I told him so. I think he was a little shocked that I had figured it out. He was a hustler and, sooner or later, it was going to kill him. But, Tommy being Tommy, in his hyper, bubbly, optimistic way told me I worry too much. He could stay with one of his friends and he would get a job at one of the local clubs or restaurants. They were always looking for people, so I was not to worry.

‘Yeah, right,’ I thought to myself, but I didn’t voice my doubts to Tommy.

He told me that the summer had been the best two months of his life. Partly because it was with me, but partly because we were on his home turf where he felt free. Free to be himself, free to love me and not be afraid to show it. For me too, here, in Vancouver, I could be out and proud, in love with a beautiful young man and have no qualms about showing it.

We made sure our last week together was special and full of love. It was a week we would both cherish until the day we died. We made plans for next summer, but even so, I left Vancouver in tears. That I didn't have an accident was a miracle; I think I cried for the first four or five hours of the trip home.

We didn’t have computers, email or MSN back then. In fact Tommy didn’t even have a phone, but we got him a post office box and we had promised to write to each other, which we did for a several months. Then one day a letter I sent came back undeliverable. I cried myself to sleep that night. I thought, ‘okay, maybe he moved. I would soon get a letter from him letting me know where he was.’ I didn’t. Something had to be wrong. Tommy wouldn’t just cut me off like that. Several weeks later I talked to his brother, but the family hadn’t heard from him in months. Where was he? How could I get in touch with him?

I went back to Vancouver the next summer. I hung out at all the places we had frequented, but I couldn’t find him anywhere. People I had met the previous summer hadn’t seen him for two or three months. I stayed for two weeks, searching every day with no luck. Finally I decided to drive back home. Again, I cried for the better part of the trip home. I had held onto the dream that we would be together one day, but now I didn’t know where he was or how to reach him. He had cut off communication with me and disappeared. Had something happened to him? Had I lost him for good? I hoped not.

Years went by and I never heard from or about him. I moved on to a new job and a new town several hundred miles away, but I never forgot about him. He was always there in the back of my mind. The hope that I would find him again slowly diminished, but it never went out. Until proven otherwise, there would always be hope.

Many years later on a visit home, I ran into his brother. I immediately asked about Tommy. He looked at me and a tear rolled down his cheek. He told me that Tommy had been home for a couple of weeks last year.

He also told me that Tommy had told him about us. Tommy had told his brother that I had given him the chance of a lifetime. The chance to be loved and cared for, for the rest of his life and, like a total fool, he had let me go.

I immediately got excited. That little spark of hope was rekindled. I was sure his brother would know where he was. I could find Tommy again. And, best of all, he knew he had made a mistake letting me go. This time it would work out. I just knew it.

But, when I looked back up into his brother’s face, he was all-out crying. Through his tears, he managed to say, “If he had just listened...”

I gave him a puzzled look. That’s when he dropped the bomb. When Tommy had been home last year, it was to say good-bye. He had full-blown AIDS.

There was no doubt now. Tommy was gone. My loveable, vibrant, bubbly, scatterbrained little guy was gone. I just fell to the ground and cried as the final glimmer of hope went out.

I didn’t even get to say good-bye.

A very special thanks to Azy for all his time, hard work and patience editing this story for me.

Final note:

Tommy was real.
My love for him was and still is real.
AIDS is real.

It destroys lives, dreams and hopes.

Since Tommy's death, as we have learned more about how HIV works, researchers have been able to develop drugs to inhibit it. These drugs have been successful in slowing the progress of the disease, and people with the disease now live much longer.

But there is still no cure for HIV/AIDS.