Done ... [+]
It was 1984 and we were pretending to be spies.
It was one of those "adult" games that twists your arm to mingle. Our host, David, greeted us at the door with a card that had our assignment on it. Mine said: "You are a spy for INTERPOL, but the CIA thinks you work for them. Everyone will be hunting for you. Your Code Name: ‘Snowball.' Password: ‘Too much pizza gives me gas.'"
My counterpart was supposed hear my password and reply: "Are you taking anything for it?"
I hated my password.
How could I go up to a total stranger and talk about gas? I decided to just let the hunters track me down.
On casually inspecting the other guests, I was unamused to notice they were in costumes. My roommate John, who'd dragged me to this party, hadn't mentioned that we were supposed to wear costumes. David officiated in a tux. Others tried to look their version of Russian, or at least exotic. Naturally, it being "Spy Night," there were numerous trench coats.
I, on the other hand, wore jeans and a sweater.
Plus, they expected me to talk about gas.
The night promised to move slowly.
I saw him by the buffet table—a tall, thin man wearing a blue turban, his body draped in soft, loose cotton clothing. The clothes looked authentically Indian, and I thought for the millionth time of how much I'd love to travel to India. Without hesitating, I approached him. "Hi, I'm Ann."
"Richard," he answered.
Being suddenly at an inexplicable loss for words, I gritted my teeth and blurted, "I'm glad they're serving spaghetti . . . too much pizza gives me gas."
Richard regarded me with a puzzled look. "That must be inconvenient for you," he muttered.
I turned red. What a stupid game.
Richard sauntered off, and I stood there feeling terminally foolish.
Within the next three minutes I was approached by five people who wondered if I was interested in being a "Snow Bunny."
Then Richard was back. "Have you ever played in the snow?"
"Sure," I said, "I'm from Utah. It's a dietary staple there."
"Did you ever make a . . . Snowball?" Ah, now he wanted to play.
"Maybe," I answered. (Double agents are allowed to evade. Even lie.) This time, I sauntered off, just to make the game more interesting.
Everyone was after "Snowball" to get "The Information."
What information? I didn't have a clue, but I was starting to get into the game.
A few encounters later, I'd gotten over the embarrassment of admitting that pizza gave me gas. "Snowball" had to come out on top. I'd long since lost sight of John when Richard appeared again. "Let's make a deal."
"Maybe," I replied.
While we each awaited the other's next maneuver, I became intrigued by the long silver chain around his neck, on which hung a charm the size and shape of a pomegranate.
The charm contained four blue stones and a green one. They were set in what seemed like black glue.
"That's a beautiful necklace," I said, lifting it gently away from his chest to examine it more closely.
"Thank you. It's from India."
"What's this black stuff that the stones are set in?"
"Tar? That's different! Is there any meaning to having four blue stones and one green one?"
"One of the blue ones fell out," he replied.
"And you replaced it with the green one?"
Richard's eyes darkened for a moment. He looked lost in a memory.
"Well, while I was traveling in India," he began slowly, "I lost the blue stone in Bombay. This little boy, who was begging in the marketplace started to follow me. He was staring at the charm, so I stopped to give him a better look at it. All of a sudden, he pulled out of his pocket this incredible green stone. And he just handed it to me without a word.
"The little boy had emerald green eyes. I've never seen a color like that, except for this stone. His eyes and the stone were a perfect match. I was really touched, and I had no way of telling him in words. I remembered I had some chocolate in my backpack, so I gave it to him. Well the kid got so excited he jumped up and down and started playing around . . . you know, like kids will do. Anyway, we ended up playing a game of tag.
"All of a sudden this older boy comes out of nowhere and backhands my little friend across the face.
"The little boy screamed and grabbed his nose. Blood was running down his hand. I grabbed the bigger kid and spun him around and I yelled: ‘What the hell do you think you're doing?'
"By this time, the little boy was crying and the chocolate bar I'd given him was dripping with his blood. He dropped it and ran down the street.
"The bigger kid was yelling back at me: ‘My brother begs . . . he does not play!' I couldn't move from where I was standing. Another boy snatched up the chocolate—blood and all."
Richard became silent. Around us, but as though from far away, came noise and laughter from those still playing the party game.
"God," he finally whispered, "I felt so horrible. I mean, that little boy got hit just because he spent ten lousy minutes playing with me. I went to look for him, but I couldn't find him. I'll never forget him, or his green eyes."
Richard took a deep breath.
"Anyway, I took the necklace back to where I bought it and I had them mount the green stone the boy gave me, right in with the blue ones."
"Well, uh . . . the necklace goes great with your shirt."
"Thanks," Richard replied, "I adore Indian clothes. They're so soft and easy against the skin."
We continued to talk; spies, counterspies, the game went on without us. We compared travel notes. Have you been to London? Amsterdam? Aren't you crazy about Paris?
"How are you two doing?" John interrupted, "I think I'm ready to expose Snowball!" John pointed to a trench coat man. "Him. Watch me go blow his cover."
"You realize, of course, John's after the wrong person," I said slyly.
"Oh . . ." Richard answered, ". . . and might I be in the presence of the illustrious Snowball?"
"Might the Taj Mahal be in India?"
Suddenly, David clapped his hands and announced the game was over and the trench coat man (much to John's disappointment) had solved the plot.
"What plot?" I stage-whispered.
"Would the real Snowball please step forward?" David asked. The room applauded as I took a bow.
Richard and I resumed our conversation until John reappeared. "Come on, Ann, I've got an early morning tomorrow," he announced.
"Be right with you," I said.
Richard and I had so much more to say to each other; I sensed a real bond starting between us. I could see us becoming good friends.
"So, let's do coffee next week?" I asked Richard as I wrote my phone number on a napkin.
His smile faded.
"Ann, I can't bear . . . I can't have new people in my life right now. It hurts too much."
"Ann, come on," John nagged.
I asked Richard what he meant.
"It would take too long to explain, and someone is in a hurry."
"Well, you've got my number, so give me a call anytime you want."
Richard answered, "If I can."
We hugged each other quickly, and then I left with John.
"Ann," John said as we approached the car, "don't you get what's going on with Richard?"
"What's to get?"
"Didn't you notice that blue growth on the back of his neck? Didn't you see how thin he was? Do you get it now?"
"Richard has AIDS."
I could not have been more shocked if John had slapped me.
I used to think AIDS was something that happened to people you didn't know. AIDS was disease which, if I pretended really hard didn't exist, would somehow go away. It would certainly never ever touch anyone in my life.
My pretending had worked up until tonight.
Blinking back a sudden stream of tears, I was unable to speak the rest of the way home.
That night I lay sleepless; seeing Richard's smile as we spoke.
And when I finally did sleep, I dreamed of a boy with emerald eyes.
Richard never did call me. David did. To tell me of Richard's death.
David told me that Richard asked to be buried wearing his necklace. But I don't know if he got his wish.
It was 1984.
It was the year I stopped pretending.