My Name is Alan Bruce

July 3, 1974

Dear Grandma Marie,

Hope you’re feeling better now. I’m awfully glad they found out what was wrong so they can treat you. I drew the picture of our back patio so that you’d have something from me. Just so nobody hexes you, I’ve enclosed a four-leaf clover to ward off evil spirits and it’s also filled with love from me. I’m going to call Grandpa tomorrow to ask him if I can come up. I’ll tell him it’s to help you, but really, he’s the one who will need help. Remember I’m 13, a teenager. I’m not a little boy anymore, so I don’t want you to lift a finger for me, let me do everything I can for you. Hope I see you very soon.

With love,


My mother saved this letter for twenty-five years and gave it to me the night before the memorial for Alan, my son. We read it at his service as a remembrance of his thoughtfulness and empathy. Alan and I were close. He once said that I was the only person he could fully confide in. Part of my way to cope with Alan’s death at age thirty-eight was to write about him and use our previous conversations, copies of letters he’d written to others, and diary notations. As I began this piece, I felt him beside me, dictating, so I wrote it in his voice.


My name is Alan Bruce. Alan is my father’s middle name. Bruce is my maternal grandfather’s middle name. Alan Bruce. Gay names. How did my mother know?

I’ve had trouble with my weight since kindergarten. My pediatrician, Dr. Lance Graber—who, in my opinion, should not be treating children—took the opportunity when my mother left the examining room to lean over, stick his finger in my stomach, and hiss, “You’re fat.” I told Mom and she never took me back to Dr. Graber.

I was ten before I quit wetting the bed. My dad spanked me, said it was my fault for not getting up, told me I was lazy. I recently read that some boys wet the bed because their bladders don’t grow as fast as the rest of their bodies.

Does every kid have a recurring nightmare? As a boy, I used to dream I was rolling a length of white string into a ball. The string never ends, and I keep rolling and rolling and the ball grows bigger and bigger—bigger than me, bigger than our house, bigger than the earth. I always woke up in a panic, knowing I’d never finish rolling. I still wonder about the meaning of that dream.

The last time I talked with my father was in 1975. I was fourteen and he didn’t pick me up for my weekend visit. When I called to remind him, he said I was no longer his son. He accused me of stealing a coin collection from his house. When he first brought it home, he said the coins were a present for me. Maybe he was still mad because I chose to live with Mom when they divorced. I sent him a Father’s Day card in 1990, hoping he’d contact me, but I never heard back.

My father’s mother, Grandma Vera, taught me about plants. She loved to garden but after she got lupus and had to stay out of the sun, she put her energy into houseplants. I’ve carried on her hobby. I always have plants around me. My West Hollywood apartment is lush with spider plants, English ivy, African violets, Ficus, and cymbidium. I have a corn plant in memory of Ohio, a dark-green philodendron in memory of Grandma Vera, and a lacy Boston fern in memory of Grandma Marie.

One evening in April, a family friend called to say Grandma Vera was dying. Mom and I jumped into the car and raced to Timken Mercy Hospital in Canton, Ohio—a two-hour drive. Mom thought the family would be at her bedside, so she stayed in the waiting room and I went to Grandma. She was alone. I sat with her for the next hour, holding her hand until she died. She’d been waiting for me.

I collect crystals. My first one was clear quartz, about the length of my thumb. Several months after Grandma Vera died, it was waiting for me outside our front door in Columbus, Ohio. I spotted it on the stoop as I left for high school. Grandma made the crystal materialize, just for me. At least I thought so. I told no one and carried that crystal in my pocket for twenty years until I gave it to a friend who was dying of AIDS.

My first after-school job was at the Autumn Moon Chinese restaurant in Worthington, Ohio. One day I put frozen chicken through the wrong grinder. The owner spoke no English; I spoke no Chinese. I’m not sure, but I think he fired me.

I flunked my first driver’s test. Mom said when I accelerated out of the parking lot in our white Ford Galaxy, the driving examiner’s head snapped back from the g-force. We laughed about that image all the way home.

I was in high school before I acknowledged I was gay. My stepfather arranged tennis lessons for me at his club. The instructor had black hair, green eyes, and the physique of a god. When he positioned my arms for returning a ball, I turned my head and kissed him. He was horrified; I was mortified. That ended my tennis lessons and sexual experiments until I went to college.

My best friend since seventh grade is John Showalter. We told each other we were gay, but we’ve never been lovers. We did drugs together. We smoked pot in junior high, dropped acid in high school, snorted cocaine in college.

Kyle Haines and I met at Ohio State University, during a business fraternity charity event where she was being auctioned off for a dinner date. Mine was the highest bid of the evening. I suppose I was showing off. I also wanted to appear straight to my classmates. Later that year, I took Kyle to our family Thanksgiving dinner, in case anyone was wondering why I didn’t have a girlfriend. We became good friends.

Kyle was five foot ten, had long brown hair with auburn highlights, hazel eyes flecked with gold, and perfect, glowing skin. We had the same big laugh, and people thought we were brother and sister.

I didn’t tell Mom I was gay until I was twenty-five because I didn’t want her to feel guilty.

Mom and I loved movies and often had dinner afterward so we could discuss the film. When I was twenty, we saw The Turning Point with Anne Bancroft and Shirley MacLaine. As young women, they’re promising ballet dancers. Bancroft’s character devotes herself to dance, becomes a famous prima ballerina with no children, no partner, surrounded by her little yorkies. MacLaine’s character marries, has three children, and teaches dance in Houston. They meet again after twenty years and wonder what might have been had they made different choices. That movie influenced me deeply. I understood with crystal clarity that I was already making choices for my life. It was exciting and scary to realize I was choosing my path, and I didn’t know where it would lead, and I didn’t know if it was the right one.

I woke up one morning three months before college graduation and couldn’t move the right side of my face. I thought I’d had a stroke, but our family doctor told me it was Bell’s palsy. He said it would clear on its own and it did, in three weeks. No one knows what causes Bell’s palsy, but I later read in the Merck Manual that it may be a reaction to an immune disorder. Maybe that’s when I became HIV positive.

Mom had a new astrologer and suggested I consult her. Johanna told me I’d chosen a difficult road in this lifetime. She believes we elect the lessons we want to learn before we’re born and wonders why people like me set such a tough course for themselves.

After graduating in 1984, I got a job with Ernst & Whinney, one of the Big Eight accounting firms, and moved to Manhattan with my college roommate Scott. We rented a studio apartment on the West Side, on 72nd, one block from Central Park. New York’s gay community was wild in those days. People were starting to talk about AIDS, but I wasn’t worried. I was twenty-three, strong and healthy.

Friends tell me I laugh too loud. Strangers turn around and stare at me when I laugh. I don’t care. I’m not going to change. I consider my hearty laughter a sign of my distinctive personality.

Two years later, I left New York. Scott told me my face had turned gray. I knew I was done with the city in January, the bleakest month of the year, while waiting to buy bedsheets at Saks Fifth Avenue’s white sale. Someone pushed me so hard, I fell, and an old lady stepped on my back to get a better place in line. I quit my job, sold my furniture, and said goodbye to my friends. Mom gave me her Subaru, and I drove nonstop to Los Angeles. Sunny California was where I belonged.

Windward Valley Country Club hired me as their controller. I was curious what my boss thought of me, so I figured out how to eavesdrop on him. A cold air register in the men’s room funneled conversations from Harold’s office. I’d sit there off and on, my ear pressed against the vent. I never heard anything very interesting. Harold was an alcoholic and not talkative after 10 AM. The job wasn’t very interesting either, so I left after eighteen months.

I joined Roger Best & Co., a Los Angles CPA firm that manages money for the stars. I don’t drink coffee, but I do drink a lot of Coke. One day at work, I spilled Coca Cola on the telephone. The push buttons stuck, but I didn’t want to tell anyone, so every day I poured a little spring water on the phone and after a few weeks, the buttons were as good as new.

I didn’t get much face time with the firm’s clients. I’d have enjoyed that. I think Roger was protecting his client base from poaching by ambitious employees. I left after two years.

My light brown hair was never thick and when my hairline started to recede in my mid-twenties, I investigated every remedy: hair plugs, toupees, head shaving, jaunty berets, and white Panamas. Miraculously, the hair loss stopped after a few years and I got used to my new hairline. When Rogaine hit the market, I considered taking it to see if I could get more volume, but I didn’t want to put the drug into my system.

I met my friend John in Chicago for a weekend getaway. We went to the Field Museum of Natural History to see their crystal exhibition. My collection is better. I have more than two hundred crystals—amethyst, citrine, black tourmaline, clear quartz, smoky quartz, rose quartz, selenite, sylvite, sodalite, fluorite, cuprite, chromite, Herkimer diamonds, obsidian—ranging from small jewelry-size pieces to large, heavy specimens.

I compartmentalize my friends. I have my gay friends. My straight friends don’t know I’m gay. My druggie friends don’t care. My co-workers stay at work. My macrobiotic friends are in the kitchen. The groups do not mix or cross lines.

I illuminate my crystals with candles. A soft glow flickers through and makes them gleam. Crystals are art sculptures from nature. They remind me of human souls. Each crystal is unique; each crystal is perfect.

My favorite is a small rutilated crystal egg. Thin copper rods appear to float inside clear crystal. I like to hold it in my palm. Its cool weight calms me.

Some of my friends think my crystal-collecting is an obsession. I could have put a nice down payment on a house in Los Angeles for what I invested in crystals.

Methamphetamine is my drug of choice. Every time I use, I’m looking for that first experience—that little cough that signals a change in my brain and brings on a euphoric high. That’s the problem with drugs: you never get that special high again, but you keep trying. I bought a new batch of pure white crystal for the weekend. I injected my usual dosage—a 40-unit shot with 20-units water. I think I did four shots. I thought I was dying, and I’m not one to exaggerate. Nor am I a lightweight when it comes to drug quantities. Some people say the new crystal is purer. Others say to watch out for toxic batches. No more white powder for me. I’ll stick to good old yellow hydro.

Meth is a great high but coming down is a bummer. My nerve endings vibrate with pain and my body and mind are wasted. Coming down after a big weekend takes me three or four days. To keep up at work, I slept in my car during the lunch hour.

My next job was at DGA, Inc., a pharmaceutical-testing company, but I was fired for yelling at another accountant and telling him to fuck off. I told Mom and she said I seemed short-tempered these days. I’d earlier asked Mom to let me know if she noticed any changes in my behavior. At the time, I only did meth on the weekends, but I was concerned about the effects on my brain. Anyway, I forgot I’d asked this and got mad when she pointed out my irritability. I told her she sounded like a dried-up old woman and hung up on her.

Sumter Club, a clothing manufacturer, hired me to negotiate and monitor supplier contracts. There were no women in our weekly staff meetings, and the CEO liked to discuss the physical attributes of the female staff and how they’d be in bed. I didn’t like his attitude toward women, but I was afraid to complain. After eighteen months on the job, my boss canned me. When I told Mom, she said, “It’s because you’re gay.” I thought she was wrong, but one of my co-workers later called me and said she’d heard my boss talking about it.

In addition to astrologers, I consulted psychics, fortune-tellers, palm readers, handwriting analysts. I was looking for answers, my purpose in life, my perfect path.

I couldn’t understand why I was secretive, why I couldn’t control my weight, why I was addicted to drugs, why I smoked, why I was gay, why I hated my jobs, why I couldn’t manage my money, why I couldn’t change.

New Year’s Eve, 1993, Los Angeles. I had a dinner party—coq au vin from Julia Child’s French Cooking, steamed red potatoes, asparagus, and a raspberry-orange trifle from Bon Appétit. Dishes Mom taught me to cook. My friends encouraged me to start catering, but I was cleaning houses so I could do meth.

I worry about the effects of crystal on my brain. I found a letter I wrote to my upstairs neighbors while high. In the letter, I apologized for the odd smells that were oozing from my place and told them I hoped the noxious odors had not reached their apartment. I have no idea what I was talking about.

I cleaned for an orthopedic surgeon who lived in the Hollywood hills. He always had interesting music on his stereo, so I played whatever was on the turntable. The Four Seasons by Vivaldi came up one morning. The Spring and Summer sections were played at a faster tempo than I was used to hearing, and the violinist’s notes were swift and amazingly differentiated. Then the second movement of Autumn began. The violinist was taking liberties with the piece—adding his own music to Vivaldi’s, using bowing techniques that were spooky and off-key. In the third movement, he began with the faintest scratching sounds—so faint I had to lean over the speaker to hear—raised the tone up and up the scale, then down again, and started building the volume until he launched himself and the English Chamber Orchestra into the familiar music. The rest of the concerti had melodic additions that made me smile and marvel at the violinist’s creativity. This was my introduction to the British violinist Nigel Kennedy. Vivaldi would have been impressed.

I joined the Time-Life Classical Recording Club. They mail a different composer’s work to me every month—Beethoven, Bach, Brahms, Haydn, Mozart, Mahler. Haydn blew me away. I called my mother. “Hey, Mom. Have you ever heard Haydn? He’s great.” She laughed and said yes, she’d heard his music.

When I wanted sex, I called a prostitute and had him come to my apartment, but one evening I was restless and went cruising. I was parked on a quiet side street in West Hollywood having sex with a street hooker in the backseat of my Honda Prelude when a police car pulled up, lights flashing. The cops were nasty and the handcuffs bit into my wrists. I think they tightened the cuffs because they hate gays.

I didn’t get tested for HIV until 1993. I told my mother the test was positive and asked her to tell the family. This wasn’t done lightly, and I needed Mom’s help. AIDS was considered a dirty secret, harder to divulge than being gay, but this was a death sentence, and I needed my family to know and to support me. Only my stepfather called to tell me how sorry he was and that he’d be there for me. Grandma Marie never mentioned it. Mom’s three younger siblings, who’d looked after me on summer vacations, remained silent. It’s typical of our family, I told Mom. What’s wrong with them?

Testing positive was all the reason I needed to enjoy myself with meth. I was going to die, wasn’t I?

I was on vacation in D.C., walking down Pennsylvania Avenue on my way to the Andre Kerstewz photography exhibit at the National Gallery, when I spotted a gray marble memorial to General George Meade, the Union leader at Gettysburg. Meade, standing tall and confident, was surrounded by tired young men, their eyes looking downward, their clothing disarrayed. Opposite Meade’s figure, facing away from the street, hidden to all but the inquisitive, was a menacing figure, powerfully built, grasping shields that ran the length of his body, his head protected by a smooth, round helmet with a bar running vertically from the forehead to cover his nose. The eyes were almost hidden by the helmet, but the effect was chilling: they looked dark and menacing. I kept swinging my eyes to his eyes. He looked like a kid’s action hero, incompatible with the other masculine images. Then I noticed the large muscular wings at his back. The Angel of Death.

I’ve thought about suicide. Who hasn’t? But I read if we kill ourselves before our predetermined date, our soul stays in limbo until it’s time. I don’t like waiting.

Grandma Marie said Grandpa distanced himself when he knew he had terminal colon cancer. I started to leave my mother when I learned I was HIV positive. We’d always been close, spoke most days, but I didn’t want her to miss me when I died so I began to withdraw and finally told her I was cutting contact. We didn’t talk for two years, not until I entered rehab.

My psychotherapist claimed homosexuality is not intrinsic. He told me I’m exerting power over my father. That’s why I take the lead in sex. He said even if I’m not gay, it will be hard to transform my behavior after all these years and I may not want to make the effort.

Five years after I tested positive, Dr. Freed—my MD—said, “You might be one of the lucky ones.” I stayed healthy while so many of my friends died of AIDS. He seemed reluctant to say more, but made it clear he was aware of my drug use and wanted me to know I had options. Dr. Freed’s comments affected me in a way that job firings and friends’ exhortations never did. I was going to get clean and find my calling.

I began looking for an affordable rehab facility. In early 1999, I applied to Camden House, a sober living residence. The rules were straightforward. Residents must have a job, return to the facility immediately after work, use no drugs, drink no alcohol, and attend meetings every evening. One deviation and you were out. A physician entered Camden House on April 1, the same day I did. He had a problem with alcohol. His medical license was on the line. He lasted two weeks.

I lived with thirteen men at Camden House. They elected me president of the group. I stayed as long as the house rules allowed—six months. I left October 1, 1999.

I moved to Long Beach to avoid my old friends and my drug dealer and temptation. I was not going to backslide. I became controller for the Virginia Country Club. I was getting my finances in order and paying off my California and federal income taxes and a stack of overdue parking tickets. I felt I was starting over but following the same script. I had not found my calling.

A quote from Walt Whitman has stuck with me since high school. “But where is what I started for so long ago? And why is it yet unfound?” In searching for our path, I believe we get nudges, clues that direct us to our genuine self—a chance meeting with a stranger, a book that points the way, a certain energy that manifests when encountering the true course. I understand all this and yet, I’m not on my true path—I know that much. I’ve missed the key to my destiny, and I’m tired of searching.


February 4, 2000

Dearest Alan,

You died in your sleep and, days later, your body was found in your bed, dressed in your white Sea Island cotton pajamas. Your heart gave out.  Six weeks after you left Camden House. November 11, 1999. Thirty-eight years old.

I held a memorial service at Grandma Marie’s retirement home chapel. I asked your astrologer, Johanna, to travel to Ohio to officiate. I played music you liked: Tears for Fears’ “Advice for the Young at Heart” and Haydn’s “Piano Sonata in C Major.”

Johanna led a guided meditation to connect with your journey. A big bowl of sand was placed on a table, and Johanna ran her finger round and round the sand to create a spiral. Your friends and family got up, one by one, lit a candle, stuck it in the sand spiral, and reminisced about you. When we finished, it looked as though we’d created a birthday cake with the candles waiting to be blown out.

Johanna read the letter you wrote to Grandma Marie when you were thirteen, the one where you taped a four-leaf clover to the paper. Your good friends John and Kyle attended. After the service, Kyle found the clover on the floor in a room near the chapel. As she reached down to pick it up, she heard your voice greeting her: “Hello Kyle!” John died three months later, in the same way as you—in his bed, cause unknown, alone.

I found homes for your crystals by sending them to friends and family whom I knew would treasure a remembrance of you. I buried your ashes with your grandpa. I wanted to keep you safe with my dad.

I arranged a celebration of your life with a dinner at the Refectory in Columbus and ended the meal with your favorite dessert, crème brûlée. I remembered eating it with you in Los Angeles, and you recalled the time you had brunch at the Ivy with a dessert buffet featuring crème brûlée. Walking back for your fourth helping, you noticed the waiter staring at you. You signaled for the check instead. We laughed about you being caught overindulging.

I keep expecting you to call. Every time the phone rings, I think: it’s Alan. Irrational, I know, but it’s the only way I can get through the day. I have the crystals found next to your body—the selenite crystal bar and the rose-quartz sphere. They are here, on the table by my bed, and we are together in my dreams.

With love,