It is so hot. I am crying on a pay phone in the burning sun on the corner of 18th and Columbia Road, the center of the Adams Morgan neighborhood in Washington DC; I am eating a McDonald’s cheeseburger and telling my friend back in Chicago my world is falling apart. I can still smell the mustard that is running down my arm. I am feeding quarters like mad into the phone to keep the call alive. I had just turned 30, recently broke up with my boyfriend, and had no idea what I was doing with my life.
After the phone call, I went back to my apartment and opened the mailbox. There was a small box and a letter addressed to me. I took the box and the letter up to my room. I decided to read the letter first. My friend Luke had sent me his ashes.
My friend Luke had AIDS for a very long time.
Luke was a leather guy. Funny, hippie, gardener type. He was my first friend at the gay video store I worked at in college. He was so comfortable and trusting with me right away, I remember he told me he had HIV between taking bites of his sandwich, and then moved on with the conversation. We were close in age, but he seemed much older. He took me under his wing and showed me the gay scene and introduced me to his friends. We would sit outside the video store and he’d say, “Avoid him, he’s a bitch…but that guy over there? Get his phone number right away, you won’t be sorry.”
He took me to The Triangle, one of the oldest leather bars in Denver. We walk in and this friend of his comes over to me, slaps my butt so hard it brings tears to my eyes. “I’ll show you what to do with that ass,” he says.
“Oh no you won’t,” Luke replies, and whisks me away to a different part of the bar.
Luke could have let me flail, but he came to my rescue. My gay protector.
After I graduated college, we stayed in touch. He always said when his sight went, he would plan his memorial service and take his life. In the last letter he wrote to me, the one that came with the package, he told me I was one of 18 people who would receive his ashes because we lived in places he always wanted to visit in his lifetime, but never made it. He wanted a part of himself scattered on the National Mall in DC, where the AIDS quilt had been.
He caught me. I was about to move back to Chicago. I put Luke’s ashes on top of my dirty laundry basket and sat with him in my room. What am I going to do? I thought. I couldn’t bring myself to open the box. I left it there and went to work.
I left the ashes there in the box for weeks. I’d touch the box and walk away.
It came down to the wire. I only had a few days left before I moved back to Chicago. I was packing like crazy. Luke’s tiny box was the last thing in my apartment. After warily eyeballing it one last time, I grabbed it and put in my backpack. I couldn’t just throw his ashes in a moving box and take them back to Chicago. “Luke,” I said, “you’re finally going for a ride on the DC Metro.”
I took Luke down to the National Mall and sat with the box. There was surveillance everywhere; sleek, good-looking Secret Service people sipped coffee inside their cars. I watched all the hot dads wheel their kids around and find spots to lounge in the grass.
I addressed Luke’s ashes: “You’d really like this view, I mean…really like it.” I opened the box. It held a small gold urn, about the size of a shot glass. I twisted off the top and quickly looked inside. I saw bits of bone and sand. Who knew ashes are kind of bluegreen? They’re rather pretty.
There I was, at a huge turning point in my life, standing on the National Mall. I took a long, brave look at the ashes. It was so hot. I was sweating into my eyes. Tears started flowing into my sunglasses. I was weeping for my loss. For Luke’s loss. I kept saying, “I’m sorry, I’m so sorry.”
This was it, the moment had arrived. I needed to dump these ashes and move on.
I turned the urn over. The wind caught them, and they blew all over my pants.
Who knew a tiny shot glass of ashes could hold so much? I was screaming and laughing. If someone had a camera above the National Mall they’d see a guy jumping up and down, shrieking, frantically wiping ashes back into the ground.
I finally gathered myself up. Somehow, I got back to the train, which seemed to take forever. The escalators on the DC Metro are so deep, you know? I held the small urn in my hand. Rolled it back and forth in my palms. I had decided to move to DC because I had fallen in love. If I hadn’t taken the chance I would have never been there at the right time to receive this gift from Luke the gift of getting out of my own way. It’s not always about you.
I still have the urn at home. There is the tiniest bit of blue-green around the rim.
Sean Ewert is a Chicago actor, writer and puppeteer. He has performed his stories at This Much Is True, Story Lab, Links Hall, Oracle Productions “B” Sides, Story Club and Reading Under The Influence. He has worked with Collaboraction, Von Orthal Puppets, Oracle Productions and The Chicago Mammals; recent credits include “The Anyway Cabaret” with TUTA Theatre (where he is a company member) and “The Walk Across America For Mother Earth” with Red Tape Theater/Steppenwolf Garage Rep. Sean is an avid traveler, taking his first airplane ride at three years old. Recent travels have taken him to the wilds of Iceland, the sacred hills around Budapest and the south of France. Love to John and new dog rescue, Pilot.