Sometime after December of 1992, I got a call from Sharon, an old girlfriend of mine. Our friend Ken had died of AIDS and she was pulling together a memorial service. I had not known Ken was sick. Sharon told me how she had taken care of Ken and nursed him in the final months of his life. I remember her telling me how horrendous Ken’s final days were in the hospital and how he suffered. I had not known until her phone call that Sharon and Ken were even close.
I attended the memorial service. It was held in a Manhattan loft. I remember seeing my old friends Toni and Rebecca at the event, and vaguely remember people holding candles in a loose circle and speaking about Ken’s life. I remember wondering what I would say. Ken and I had a complicated history and had drifted apart in the last few years of his life. I remember saying some nice things about Ken but left the more difficult story to myself
Ken and I had met in 1982 at the personal growth workshop, Actualizations, where he and I had also met Sharon. I had already taken the workshop months earlier and as a volunteer was running the sound system in the back of the room when Ken took his first workshop. I have a memory of Ken sitting in the last row on the right side of the room and flirting with me during a break. Ken had energy and force that was hard to resist. He was well built, very masculine with short-cropped salt and pepper hair. He was about 36 at the time and I was about 25. We quickly became friends
When I met Ken I had just graduated from college. At the time he was the president of Wallach’s New York, a well-known men’s clothing store chain in the region. He lived in an apartment on 7th Avenue just above 23rd street. There was something powerful and forceful about Ken. I remember he would talk about his ‘personal power’ in workshops. He was very aware of his own power and liked to exert it.
I remember feeling that being with Ken was like the moth and the flame. Ken was the flame and I did not want to be the moth. He became one of my good friends, but I always kept him at a certain distance, afraid to get too close to him
I always knew that Ken found me attractive. His interest in me, at a time when I did not feel great about myself, had me want to be with him. His flirting had a masculine intensity that both attracted and scared me. He knew my story and the fact that I was trying, at the time, to change from homosexuality through therapy, but he did not care. He gave me regular hints that he wanted to get me into bed.
Ken and I only slept together once, and for me, it was the beginning of the end of our relationship. We had sex in his apartment and I still remember the awful taste of cigarettes on his mouth when we kissed and the stale smell of tobacco on his breath. I remember very little else about that encounter, except one thing: Ken wanted to fuck me. In one of my first teenage sexual encounters, I had a terrible experience bottoming and it was not something, at the time, I ever wanted to do again. I said no to Ken. I remember his pushing me to bottom, but it was a non-negotiable topic for me. I remember his disappointment, and in the end, his jerking himself off.
I was upset that we had crossed a line that I had held for years. I found sex with Ken awful on so many levels. After we had sex, I began to pull away from him. Within a very short period of time, our friendship ended and I began to move on. It was only a few years later that I got the call from Sharon. And it was only after I understood that Ken had died of AIDS that I realized how close I had come to being infected. This was still before condom use for anal sex was common.
There were a handful of men that I knew who died of AIDS:
There was Steve, who worked for Actualizations in California. He and I had sex on my first trip to the Bay Area to attend an Actualizations men’s workshop in 1982 or 1983. He was a very handsome, sexy man who looked like the cowboy in the Village People, complete with mustache, hairy chest, and a flannel shirt. I heard from friends early on in the AIDS crisis that Steve was ill with the disease. I had liked Steve a lot and felt so bad for him.
There was Ron Moffatt, an old friend of mine who I met in 1977 through his boyfriend. We were close friends for many years and lost touch in the mid-eighties. Ron and I also had sex once towards the end of our relationship, and like Ken, it was not a good experience. I began to pull away from Ron shortly after our one sexual encounter. Over the years I have tried to find out what happened to Ron, but there is very little trace of him left. From what I knew of Ron’s sexual life, he went out almost nightly for “a little nookie,” I had always thought that Ron died of AIDS. I later learned that Ron died in 2001 at age 55 after moving to Florida with a partner. I do not know what he died of.
And then there was Ken. I began to think about Ken tonight as I was writing about this period of my life. He was an important figure in my life for almost ten years and someone I was close to. He was a powerful man in many ways, but like so many men of the period, he was driven to have anonymous sex with a lot of men. Ken liked having power over other men. That having power, I suspect, took the form of a lot of unprotected anal sex. Ken was only 46 when he died.