Sometimes I just want to e-mail my friend Rob Costa. No particular news, just the impulse to stay in touch with an old friend, maybe bring him up to speed on some positive development, send him a link to an article, revisit an inside joke. It remains an impulse unfulfilled since December 3, 1998, ten years ago tonight.
I came home from work on the ten-something train that night in my usual complaint mode. Stephanie, not yet in her new job in the year after she finished grad school, was up, so she was there to listen to me spout off on whatever had gone wrong that day. It was after eleven o'clock when we were in the living room and the phone rang.
Once you reach a certain age, you don't want the phone to ring after eleven o'clock.
I picked it up and it was someone whose first name I forget but whose last name was Costa. I didn't really have to hear what followed. I just knew. Rob had died. His brother was going through his address book, saw my name and number and thought he should contact me to let me know and invite me to the wake tomorrow.
Whatever was bothering me when I got home from work was forgotten. My friend from college, 33, was dead.
I won't pretend Rob and I were particularly close by 1998. But we each knew where the other was. I was in his address book. He was in mine. Our relationship was mostly that of e-mails since 1994. He was one of the first people I had already known who was online as a matter of course when I became fascinated with this new and wondrous avenue of communication. When I'd work late, really late, I'd take an AOL break (which entailed firing up the art director's Mac) and maybe find a message from Rob. Or start a thread in his direction. It would go back and forth for a while, probably longer when I was in procrastination mode. We'd trade progress reports regarding the relatively new elements of our respective lifestyles: his being gay and my being a cat person. They weren't really equivalent, but I had the sense we got the same rush from exploring a previously repressed part of our true selves. OK, so they weren't close to the same, but our respective fervor of the converted seemed similar enough. I was crazy about my kitties and he was, well, happy to be out.
Funny thing about Rob and phone calls. I knew what his brother was going to tell me in '98 just as I knew what Rob was going to tell me on a Friday night in the summer of 1990. He called me at home while the Mets were playing the Cubs at Shea. We didn't speak that often and hadn't seen each other since just after New Year's in 1987 (Flo & Eddie — the Turtles — at the Bottom Line), which in turn was two years after we were in school together. Anyway, he calls and says he has something to tell me, a little hesitant in tone, and I thought to myself, “He's gonna tell me he's gay.” And he did. Damned if I knew how or why I intuited that. I had never particularly considered whether he was or wasn't. I went through the “come to think of it, I never saw him with any girls in college” bit in my head, but that didn't really prove anything (like I was a Lothario at USF).
As I tried to keep one eye on El Sid and Greg Maddux, I listened to Rob tell me how he knew it for a long time, how he dreaded admitting it to his family, how they were far more accepting than he could have hoped and how now I was the first straight friend he was telling. That floored me more than the news flash. We knew each other for one academic year, my last. He transferred to UConn thereafter. With him in Connecticut (Fairfield County when classes were not in session) and me on Long Island, we got together a few times, but “first straight friend” to get the call? Really? Not that it's a contest, but I felt honored…and not even that mad to have been distracted from the Mets beating the Cubs.
Rob always had a great way of saying something that made you feel good about yourself or about humanity. For instance, on my dorm room wall, I had a pretty lame but free poster from my local Anheuser-Busch distributor. It had an outline of the state and a beer bottle making like a rocket ship. BUD'S TAKING OFF IN FLORIDA, it said. As I began the process of packing up, Rob asked it he could have the poster as a reminder of his one year at USF so he could put it up at UConn and think of all the good times we'd had. It didn't amount to more than drinking and bullshitting and that sort of thing, but that was such a nice thing to say. When Rob's brother called, with only the vaguest idea who I was, and when I met him and the rest of Rob's family as well as Rob's partner (who greeted me with, “oh yes, you're the baseball aficionado”) at the wake, I wanted to tell them, “I'm the guy from the Florida poster.”
We invited Rob to our wedding in 1991. He was kind of down when I spoke to him in the weeks leading up to it, but I urged him to show, it'll be fun, bring somebody if you like. I noticed that on the table where all the place cards waited, that one sat alone once the festivities were in full swing: Rob's. We got married three days after Magic Johnson revealed to the world he was HIV-positive. I felt silly (and a little ignorant) immediately thinking the worst because my friend was gay, but I had this very bad feeling that Rob wasn't prevented from attending by car trouble or the blues. Sure enough, he let me know that he and a famous basketball player had something in common. HIV is what finally got him seven years later.
Adjusting to his health situation pretty well when it was still fairly new, however, he accepted our invite to visit us the Friday of Thanksgiving weekend, which was a couple of weeks after the wedding. He was the first guest we received as newlyweds and it was a wonderful time. Stephanie liked him from the get-go. Since Rob and I were comrades in pop music tastes, I inflicted a sampling of a medley I had created the year before: a six-sided salute to more or less every hit of the '80s. In describing the painstaking process that went into what was then the crowning creative achievement of my life, I told him if there's ever a fire in our place, the first thing I'm grabbing is these tapes.
“I would hope the first thing you'd grab,” he cautioned, “would be Stephanie.”
That's the feel better about humanity stuff I mentioned.
During the e-mail era, Rob, by then working as a salesman for a pharmaceutical firm, was keeping his virus in check. Now living on Long Island, he met us on a Sunday in the summer of 1995 for a Mets game. His firm had box seats that he normally gave to clients. This Sunday we were his clients. I asked where the seats were. He had no idea, he said. He just handed them out usually; he hadn't been to Shea since I invited/dragged him to a doubleheader in 1986 (during which we drank a good bit of the Bud that was taking off in Flushing and the Mets split with the Cardinals). Our return was a momentous day in the history of The Log: Bobby Jones beat the Marlins and it created my first winning streak in a very long span. It actually helped turn around my entire Shea history. Before that day I was 39-51. From then on out, 179-133. It felt like it was going to rain all day. It never did.
The last time I saw Rob Costa was a sunny Thursday the following April. He was visiting clients in the general vicinity of my office and let me know he had four tickets for the upcoming Sunday game. He couldn't go but wanted to give them to me; he'd drop them off where I was working. The least I could do, I figured, was take him to dinner in appreciation. As we walked to the local Bennigan's, he asked me how “B 'n' C” were doing. I told him I didn't understand. He was referring to Bernie and Casey, he said — you know, your beloved cats.
Oh, I laughed. I thought you were referring to something else. When Stephanie and I go grocery shopping, I said, we refer to my cereal of choice, Banana Nut Crunch, as BNC. I was wondering why you were asking me about it and, for that matter, how you knew our nickname for it. I thought it was, at best, slightly amusing. Rob, however, turned almost melancholy in considering what I'd told him.
“I'm just thinking of you and Stephanie grocery shopping — making your list, going through the Sunday Times, clipping the coupons…it's so sweet that you do that together.”
I never thought about Banana Nut Crunch quite the same after that.
Ten years. Ten years since I got that post-eleven o'clock call. I don't think of Rob Costa all that often, but I do think of him. I would love to drop him a line.