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 made it seem so close you could reach out and touch it. Watching this heavenly body move silently across the horizon, we hardly said a word to one another. We had grown so close, words were no longer necessary … just closeness. Conor laughed when I reached out toward the moon, “I know. I was thinking the same thing.”
“It seems so close.”
He leaned back and lightly touched my back. I smiled and leaned back, resting my head on his abdomen.
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 best friend, my love, was off to college; within a week I would be in Texas at Lackland Air Force Base for basic training.
The first time Conor whispered, “Tá grá agam duit,” I just looked at him; he laughed. Then he whispered in English what it meant. I was so surprised, I had no idea he felt that way about me. I learned to say it with authentic 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, “Tá grá 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 the best you can do?”
I shook my head, smiled, and began to sob, “Tá grá 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 didn’t exist 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 the Air Force my career 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 empty and 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 those wonderful unique cable cars at my disposal to take me just about anywhere in the city. But I also enjoyed walking the hills of San Francisco, inhaling the invigorating cool ocean air as I climbed to my apartment on the hill. The charm of this city was beginning to rub off on me in ways I had never imagined.
One Sunday morning I stepped onto the Powell Street cable car on its way to the Embarcadero by San Francisco Bay. I had heard about the sourdough bread you could buy at Boudin’s bakery. That seemed like a fine thing to do this brisk, beautiful morning. I got off at the end of the line in Aquatic Park and walked along the Bayfront until I saw Boudin’s Bakery in the distance where I purchased my first loaf of that heavenly bread. I munched on a slice as I walked aimlessly about.
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 continued on his way. 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 as red as his shaggy beard.
I found myself following him at a distance without wondered why. His clothing amounted to little more than rags and his feet were barely clad in worn leather sandals. For some 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. Instead, 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. Then he 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. But 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, finally stopping 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 you 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. This couldn’t possibly be Conor O’Riley. It just couldn’t be. But I couldn’t undo what I had seen … 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 was him, he would probably be too embarrassed to admit who he was – especially to me of all people.
When I woke the next day, I decided to go back and let Kismet decide what was 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 ten seconds before I felt the bill pulled from my fingers.
And then I heard something I didn’t expect. A very soft, “Thank you,” before he shuffled away.
I didn’t look. I didn’t have to. I knew who it was. It was Conor, my first and only 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 end. 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 money 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, “Tá grá agam duit”.
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. 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 rapidly 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, then 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 eyes, “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.” He 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 and whispered, “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 walking and I let him. There would be another day for us. I just knew it. I felt it in my gut.
He disappeared into 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 few days 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 belongings 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. I hopefully answered, “Conor?”
“Trying to get hold of a 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.”
“Oh, my God, no.”
“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 wrap my brain around what I had just heard. I could not believe it – Conor was gone, but why?”
I contacted a mortuary and gave them instructions, then went to the morgue.
“We need to see some identification, please?”
“Yes, of course.” I handed them my passport.
“Will you make a 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 closer 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. Did he have any family?”
I lied, “No, he had none. Just me.”
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 THIS 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 finally 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 his remains along with my tears out to sea. “Yes, Conor. Another place, another time. Until then, rest in peace, my friend. With all my heart, Tá grá 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.