As told by Richard Tracy
The last evening we were together found us sitting on the end of an old pier, our favorite meeting place. The clarity and brilliance of the full moon in the clear night sky seemed so close you could reach out and touch it. Watching it move across the horizon, we hardly said a word to one another. We had grown so close, there was no longer a need for words, just closeness. I reached out toward the moon and Conor laughed, “I know. I was thinking the same thing.”
“It seems so close.”
He leaned back on his right arm and touched me lightly with his other hand. I smiled and leaned back into the crook of his arm.
We had come of age together, doing all the foolish things kids do including experimenting with sex which included a good deal of laughter until the day arrived when we stopped laughing and realized something else was happening. You read about first loves but when it actually happens to you, it’s like walking on the moon and wondering how you got there.
The next day was by far the saddest. Conor O’Riley, my friend, my lover, was off to college and within a week I would be in Texas at Lackland Air Force Base for basic training. The first time Conor said, “Tu gra agam duit.” I just looked at him and he laughed. He whispered in my ear what it meant. I was so surprised. I didn’t realize he felt that way toward me. I learned to say it with the same Gallic inflections which pleased him no end. It was so much fun to be able to say it in front of friends and family, knowing they didn’t understand.
But today was different. He finished packing the trunk of his car, closed the lid and turned to me. There were tears welling in his eyes when he said, ‘Tu gra agam duit.”
I was on the verge of tears myself and could not utter a sound. I embraced him and held him so tight he gasped. As I released him I whispered, “Me too.”
He grabbed me, “Me too? Is that all you have to say to me?”
I shook my head, smiled, and began to sob, “Tu gra agam duit.”
“That’s better.” We held each other for a long time, and then he was gone and I stood there alone watching half of my life drive away.
We wrote often in the beginning, but by year’s end, the letters were fewer until they stopped altogether. I often think things would have been different if email had been as readily available as it is today, but it wasn’t then.
I mourned the loss of my friend and wondered how the Gods could have let this happen. I’m not a promiscuous person by nature so it was difficult for me to find someone else to include in my life which seemed so terribly empty.
I decided to make a career out of the Air Force and retired a few days after my twentieth anniversary with a comfortable income and nowhere to go and nothing to do. I traveled for a few months and found doing so solo was disappointing.
San Francisco appeared to be the best place to settle. The weather and culture seemed to be amicable to my needs. Perhaps I would find someone there to satisfy the emptiness in my heart. I found a small apartment on Nob Hill behind the Fairmont Hotel, moved in and began to explore this extraordinary city.
I lived on Powell near California and was delighted to have cable cars at my disposal to go just about anywhere. I enjoyed walking the hills of this city but also enjoyed riding those unique coaches with their bell ringing conductors. The charm of this city was beginning to rub off on me in a big way.
One Sunday morning I caught the Powell Street cable car going down to the Embarcadero. I had heard about the sourdough bread you could buy there at Boudin’s bakery. That sounded like a fine thing to do this beautiful Sunday morning. I got off at the end of the line in the Aquatic Park and walked along the Bayfront until I saw Boudin’s where I purchased my first loaf of that heavenly bread. I munched on a slice as I walked aimlessly around.
I noticed a panhandler coming my way and thought ‘What the hell, I’ll give him a slice of bread if he wants it.’ He didn’t want the bread, he wanted money so, I gave him a few dollars and he walked away. I stood there for a moment as he retreated and thought there was something familiar about this bum. He wore one of those billowing multi-colored knitted caps to cover his uncut hair which I assumed was red to match his shaggy beard.
I found myself following him at a distance and wondered why. His clothing amounted to less than rags and his feet were barely clad in worn leather sandals. For some unknown reason, I felt empathy for this creature. I wanted to help him. I followed him for some time until he spotted me. I thought he would run from me but he didn’t. He came at me with an angry scowl on his weather-beaten face. “What the fuck do you want?”
I said nothing and handed him a fifty dollar bill. He took it and looked at me in the strangest way. I smiled and walked away. I was afraid to turn around to observe him. He obviously wanted to be left alone. I caught the next cable car and went to my apartment. For some reason, I could not get this character out of my mind. I wanted to see him again.
I waited until the afternoon of the next day and took the cable car back to the Embarcadero. I walked for an hour in hopes of seeing him but to no avail. I stopped at an outdoor café for coffee and more sourdough bread. I must have been there half an hour when I saw him off in the distance, stopping tourists for a handout. I was shocked when I saw the man he was panhandling push him so hard he fell to the ground and then he kicked him. I sprang to my feet and flew across the street and the park. The man was cursing him out and was about to kick him again when I intervened, “Sir, please don’t do that. I’ll take care of this.” He growled something and walked away.
I went up to this creature and put out my hand, “Here, let me help you.”
“I don’t need your fucking help. Get away from me.”
I recognized the Irish accent and almost gasped. It couldn’t be. It just couldn’t be. I asserted myself, “God damn it, I’m going to help whether you like it or not. Now give me your fucking hand.”
I think he was so surprised he automatically took my hand. I wrenched him to a standing position, shoved a hundred dollar bill in his hand and walked away.
My mind whirled in several directions at once. This couldn’t possibly be Conor O’Riley. It just couldn’t be. But I couldn’t undo what I was seeing; the red hair, the height of this man, the accent. Jesus, it just couldn’t be him. I caught a cable car and went home.
I struggled all evening with the thought of going back. What if it was Conor? What would I do? What would I say? If it were him, he was in dire straits and would be embarrassed to admit who he was to me of all people.
When I woke the next day I decided to go back and let Kismet decide what was going to happen. I boarded a cable car at noon, bought more sourdough bread, a newspaper and settled on a park bench overlooking the bay.
Among all the noises of tourists, children playing, and traffic, I heard someone shuffling slowly behind me. I knew it was him. I just knew it. I pulled out a fifty dollar bill and held it over my shoulder between my thumb and index fingers and waited. The shuffling stopped and there was a pause of maybe fifteen seconds before I felt the bill pulled from my fingers.
And then I heard something I didn’t expect. A very soft, “Thank you.” Then he shuffled away.
I didn’t look. I didn’t have to. I knew who it was. It was Conor, my first love. But did he know who his benefactor was? I would have to wait to find out. While I waited I could not understand what had brought him to this level of life. He had all the potential of greatness and now this.
I came back every other day and the routine was the same until about a week later everything changed. I heard the shuffling along the sidewalk, the pause but this time the bill was not pulled from my fingers. Instead, I heard a soft, “Why?”
I withdrew the bill and held my breath. It was now or never time. Without looking at him I said, “Tu gra agam duit,” and waited.
There were a few seconds of silence as the years fell away in his mind and he was once again on that old pier in the moonlight holding me in the crook of his arm. I heard his breath intake as the realization of who was sitting in front of him hit him and evidently hit him hard. I heard him turn and walk and run away.
I turned, “Conor.”
Hearing his name energized him, even more, to get away from me. I got up and ran after him. But he was strong and fast. I had all I could do to keep from losing him in the crowd. Then he fell, I caught up with him, he tried to get up and realized it was no use as he sank down to the ground.
“I’m not going away. Let me help you.”
“Why? It’s no use. I’m nothing. Leave me be.”
“I won’t leave you be. How can I?”
“The person you knew died a long time ago.”
“Just leave some money and go. Forget about me.”
“And where will I go now that I’ve found you?”
“I don’t know and I don’t care.”
“I don’t believe that. Not for a second.” I was kneeling next to him. When I touched him he flinched.
“Don’t touch me. I’m dirt.”
“I don’t care what you are.”
He rolled over. “Look at me. What do you see?”
“I see that beautiful man who drove out of my life twenty years ago.”
“Then you’re a fool. He doesn’t exist anymore. Help me up.”
I took his hand and pulled him to a standing position. He looked me in the eye, “Go away. Do us both a favor and forget me.” He turned and began walking away.
“And what about me. I have no one. You’re the only person I ever loved.”
He stopped and laughed, “That was kid stuff.” And kept walking.
“Was it? Was it, Conor?”
He turned around and glared at me, “Dick, I’ve done things that would make you puke your guts out. I’m nothing now, all used up. Just skin and bones waiting to die.”
I walked up to him and stood nose to nose, “Tell me there isn’t one small piece of the past left for me.”
He paused for a second, “No, nothing.” He turned and walked away.
“You’re a lying son of a bitch. I’ll never believe that.”
He didn’t flinch. He just kept on walking and I let him. There would be another day for us. I just knew it. I felt it in my gut.
He disappeared in the crowd and I went back to my apartment. A week went by. He was probably right but I couldn’t let go. Not yet. A week later I went back and sat on the same bench with sourdough bread and a newspaper. When I finally heard him shuffle up behind me and stop, I held up a twenty dollar bill and said, “If you want this, you’ll have to talk to me first.”
I heard him shuffle away and thought all was lost. He wanted no part of me. I began to regret having ever come to San Francisco.
I came back the next day and sat on the same bench as before. I didn’t hear him this time but I knew he was there, watching. The day was waning as I gathered my stuff together. As I was ready to get up and leave, he walked around the bench and sat down. I settled back. He didn’t look at me, just stared out into the Bay. “What do you want to talk about?”
“Tell me what happened.”
He sighed, “I fell into the drug scene in school. It got out of hand and I flunked out. My parents disowned me. I got deeper into drugs and wound up in jail for a couple of years. When I got out…”
“Why didn’t you get in touch with me.?”
“Oh, Conor. I’m so sorry I wasn’t there for you.”
“Anyway, I went back to drugs and added sex to the mix. More jail time. Then I came out here. It’s not much of a life but better than what it was. And that’s about it until you showed up. I had no idea it was you in the beginning. You were just some chump john with money.”
He just shook his head, “I don’t know. It’s no good, Richard. There’s nothing left of me. Just what you see and that ain’t much.”
“Let me help.”
“Sure. Give me your address and phone number and any loose cash you have.”
I wrote out my name, address, phone number and wrapped it in a fifty dollar bill. “Here.”
“Thanks, buddy. I’ll be in touch.” He got up, paused a moment and walked away.
The phone rang early the next morning, “Hello.”
“Trying to get ahold of Dick Tracy. Is that you?”
“Yes, it is. Who’s calling?”
“City Morgue. We found your name and phone number on a Conor O’Reilly. Do you know him?”
“Yes, I do. He’s an old friend. What happened?”
“He jumped off the Golden Gate Bridge during the night. You interested in claiming the body?”
“Yes, of course.”
“He left a note for you.”
“Thank you. I’ll be right down.” I sat down and tried to get my brain around the conversation. I could not believe it – Conor was gone, but why?”
I contacted a mortuary and gave them instructions, then went to the morgue.
“May we see some identification, please?”
“Yes, of course.” I handed them my passport.
“Thank you. We need you to give positive identification.”
I nodded and was taken to a bank of refrigeration doors.
The attendant opened one of the doors and pulled the tray out. He lifted a corner of the sheet covering the body. “Is this Conor O’Riley?”
I stepped close to the tray and gazed at my friend’s face. I had prepared myself for the worst but found the most serene, peaceful expression on his face. I reached out and touched his cheek. “Yes – this is Conor O’Riley.”
The attendant waited until I moved back before covering Conor’s face and pushing the tray back and closing the door. “Come with me and I’ll release his effects. Do you know of any family members?”
I lied, “No, he had none.”
The attendant handed me a large plastic bag. I signed the release paper, explained who would be taking the body and walked out. I was still numb when I got back to the apartment. I laid the plastic bag on the bed and then remembered there was a note. I emptied the bag and found a folded scrap of paper along with the fifty dollar bill I had given him. I sat down and held it for a moment before opening it.
It read: You’re the only good thing that ever happened to me. Forgive me. It’s better this way. Perhaps another place, another time. Tu gra agam duit. Conor. My gut wrenched but there were no tears, just an incredible pain.
“IT’S BETTER THS WAY? No, Conor. It’s not better this way. It’s not better this way at all.” I laid the note aside as the tears and sobs came with a vengeance. The reality of what he had done tore into me, then tore me apart.
Days later I came to realize that in a way I was partially responsible for the final decision he made. I thought of how brave and stalwart he must have been in those final seconds before he let himself go. I like to believe he was thinking of me, hoping he was giving me another chance at love.
I kept his ashes until I was ready to let them go. When the Santa Ana winds arrived, I knew it was time. I walked to the western center of the Golden Gate Bridge, paused for a moment at the railing, and then slowly spilled his ashes, watching the warm winds carry them out to sea. “Yes, Conor. Another place, another time. Until then, rest in peace, my friend. With all my heart, tu gra agam duit.”
You may forget many things in your life but you’ll never forget your first love, the feeling of walking on the moon and wondering how you got there.