I got news of her death through an e-mail. On a Thursday afternoon, a friend of a friend let me know she had died of cancer.
I knew she was sick, but I didn't think she would ever die. I thought her courage would carry her through.
I've written about her in roundabout ways for years — always roundabout, because she never wanted any kind of spotlight on her. She was private, and I will still honor that privacy now.
I don't think it would be too much of an invasion, however, to say I loved her very much as a friend and that she made a big difference in my life. I always called her my very own personal Susan Sontag. She was absolutely brilliant.
With this news of her passing, I could no longer work, could no longer focus on writing.
The people currently in my life really don't know that much about her, and I had nobody I could call to share the news of her death with. Nobody else would care.
It was alright, I told myself. I always wear the mask well.
I walked to Madonna's over on Seventh Street, probably too much of a habit since I've moved downtown. I would have a few drinks, chat with the regulars, hide behind the mask — maybe be a bit of a talk show host. That's how I feel when the mask is in place.
Johnny was there, his normal friendly self. We started talking about some bullshit I can't even remember now. My mind wasn't on it. My mind was still on my friend.
Bartender Laura brought me another drink with her normal smile. I doubt if I smiled back.
I decided I was going to be quiet in this happy, friendly bar. Maybe no one would notice.
After the third vodka and tonic, I asked Laura for the tab. My mind was cloudy, and I was admitting to myself that I was depressed over my friend's death.
When Laura brought the bill over, she gave me a look.
"Are you alright?" she asked.
The look I returned probably wasn't a nice one. I felt hostile. I felt angry. I felt the mask slipping away.
"No, I'm not," I finally said.
"You don't care," I said, probably a little too loudly.
"Yes I do," Laura said with a look of concern on her face.
And with those words said, I opened up. I told her about my friend's passing. I told her about how much she meant to me.
I started to choke up. In between waiting on other customers, Laura would take my hand.
I told her about my friend's courage. I told her about my friend's family. I told her about how fucking miserable I was feeling because I didn't answer my friend's last e-mail.
As I continued to talk, I realized the mask was gone. It was nowhere to be found.
Before I left Madonna's on that late Thursday afternoon, Laura gave me a hug, said she was sorry for my loss. I hope I thanked her for listening to me. She cared when I needed it the most.
It's now days later. I went to my friend's funeral this past Tuesday and said my goodbyes.
I left the mask behind and let others there know how badly I was feeling over her death. I cried. It felt freeing somehow to show real emotions.
Hiding behind the mask — what's that about? I think as a writer I need to have this in place some of the time so I don't get too attached to people I'm writing about. As a parent, which I am, I have to be strong for the kids even when those kids are now adults. As a buddy and a friend, I need to be the one they turn to for strength. I can't let them see my insecure self. Never. Never.
It's bullshit. It's all self-imposed crap.
After my twin brother died from AIDS in September 1994, I always kept a stiff upper lip in public. No one was going to see me cry. I would be strong for everyone around me.
Now, years later, I think of him almost daily and cry alone. That's lonely. That's screwed up.
Therapy will help, and I've started. Letting my adult kids and my friends see me without the mask will let them know I'm human.
I screw up. I love and feel loss. I'm afraid some of the time.
Without the mask, I'm just like they are.
CONTACT LARRY GROSS: [email protected]. Living Out Loud runs every week at citybeat.com and the second and fourth issues of each month in the paper.