I’m From River Falls, WI.

by Erik Schubert

Satellite overhead image of Wisconsin from Google Earth 2022

So the other day was February 1st. It’s a day I have come to dread. Not because it ushers in another cold month of winter, but because it marks the anniversary of my very first boyfriend’s death.

My story starts in the North Woods of Wisconsin where I lived and worked at a summer resort. During my first summer there I came to grips with being who I am, gay. During my second summer employed at the same summer resort I came to find my first true love, Edward.

Edward made quite an entrance. He was so worldly and mature for his age (we were both 20). Anyway, removed from civilization as we were, somehow Edward showed up for work at the resort driven in a Checker cab. All the other employees reported for work either by driving themselves, or by being driven by their parents, not Edward. Apparently he had flown to the nearest city (75 miles) with a commercial airport and just jumped into a cab. To make his grand entrance all the more splashy, Edward’s cab pulled round the semi-circular drive to the front door of the lobby during a lull in the pre-season employee appreciation party and all were gathered.

It was quite a first impression. He was so beautiful and elegant. Even his luggage was beautiful. I was so nervous when it came time to show him to where he’d be staying for the next 2 months (I was a bellhop that season) because he was far too polished for the North Woods and he was much too refined for the turn-of-the-last-century, “faded glory” resort where we were both found ourselves employed.

Edward and I spoke only for a moment during our first encounter while I briefed him on life at Deer Park Lodge. I loved him immediately. He was perfect and my initial thoughts of love immediately turned to fear for that he wouldn’t be able to endure the essentially gross way of life of a resident summer resort employee. (Think “Dirty Dancing” but flash forward 25 years with lots of deferred maintenance and much more squalid employee living quarters.) I held my breath and crossed my fingers that he wouldn’t “bounce” and that I get a chance over the course of the summer to meet and know him better.

He didn’t bounce and for the first six weeks of the summer resort season I watched him. I watched him serve his tables. Edward was very elegant. Serving tables was effortless for him. Where most waiter and bus-boy teams could handle seven or eight tables, Edward working alone could skillfully serve up to 10 tables. I watched him swim after dinner service from the lobby window. I watched him sunbathe down by the Beach Villa during the hot, lazy afternoons of July. I watched him laugh and play with the other waiters and waitresses. He had a great laugh and an infectious smile. I was smitten.

There are so many details to the story of Edward and my relationship with him. Yes, we did finally meet on a dark night after dinner for love’s first kiss. We did stay in touch after the season. In fact, I traveled almost weekly from Madison where I was attending the University of Wisconsin to spend weekends with him in Milwaukee. Despite all the happiness surrounding weekends together, Edward wasn’t thriving and eventually he shared his plan to move to California (where his mother lived) with me. I was heartbroken, yet we stayed in contact with one another during and after his transition to the West Coast.

In time the news from California went from middling to bad. Edward came out to his mother and her new boyfriend and together they kicked him out of the house. I don’t know too much about his period of his life, but I do know that Edward started to live on the streets. The next thing I knew from him was that he was living in a hotel somewhere in San Diego. I discovered much later that the hotel was a SRO (single room occupancy) skid-row flop-house. Further, Edward was working San Diego’s infamous “Fruit Loop” near Horton Plaza and turning tricks to survive while numbing his beautiful, active mind with lots and lots of drugs. It was under these circumstances that he unknowingly contracted HIV. It was the Spring of 1987.

The following summer Edward somehow gathered the wherewithal to return to the North Woods of Wisconsin and join me to work another season at the same resort that had brought us together the summer before. Initially these were happy days. Toward mid-season however Edward wasn’t feeling well and he eventually sought medical help. Being ever stoic, I was largely unaware of Edward’s worsening medical condition. Then one evening, shortly before dinner service Edward took me aside to share the bad news that a doctor had told him earlier in the day. All time seemed to stop. Certainly it was a death sentence for Edward, or so it seemed in the early years of the spread of AIDS, but what did the future hold for me? Had I contracted the HIV virus from Edward?

As I wrote earlier, there are many details to the story of Edward and my relationship and yet these facts and occurrences seem to drop away such that all I can remember is the love. We were together and apart several more time in the intervening years before his death. I finished school and graduate school and Edward found a reprieve from his illness in work as a direct marketing professional. He was a natural, self-taught wonder. I still marvel at his ability to re-invent himself and affect the move from skid row to Manhattan as a highly sought after marketing rain-maker.

Twelve and a half years after meeting Edward, we lived together in a comfortable apartment not far from Times Square. Edward was quite ill and looked much older than his 32 years. He felt awful most of the time and was having a hard time with so many things, but most noticeable was his inability to remember. He had AIDS related brain tumors which caused the fog around his days and the terrible headaches that he now suffered from.

Seeking relief from my concern and the grip of his maladies, one night Edward slipped his leash for a night out with the girls from the office. Of course alcohol and whatever other recreational drugs he got his on hands on interacted poorly with the cocktail of medicines he was taking to combat AIDS. Edward was in a semi-delusional state when he eventually found his way home. I greeted him with equal parts anger, for not taking care of himself, and loving concern. The chemistry of the moment was fraught and eventually it lead to a heated exchange of words… the last words we shared.

In order to clear my head and escape the craziness that my life had become with Edward during his decline, I headed over to Brooklyn to feed the cats of a friend of mine who was out of town. A hour, or so later I returned home to find Edward passed out on the bathroom floor and breathing heavily. He had been sick and from all outward appearances he looked like he did on so many other evenings, crashed out in the wake of a bender on the town. I straighten him out roughly and rolled him on to his side lest throw up in his sleep. I made him comfortable with a blanket and pillow, yet I was furious with him that he didn’t seem to care anymore. I went to bed wondering how I could survive another day of AIDS related madness and wondering what the future held for the two of us.

I awoke the next morning to the gruesome sight of a lifeless body on the floor where I had left my boyfriend the night before. As it turns out, the outward appearances of normalcy surrounding Edward’s bender had been misleading. I had missed clues that he had taken a mouthful of pills during my absence to feed the cats the night before. I am forever saddened for the loss of such a wonderful person as Edward. Perhaps it was merciful that he died literally on a high note, but I wasn’t ready to say good-bye and now every year on the anniversary of his death I play out in my mind if there was anything I could have done differently to affect a better end for him.

Sharing your story can change someone's life. Interested in learning more?