I'm not afraid of flying. It's odd; I think everyone expected me to be, including myself. But I travel a lot for my job--I'm a photographer--and aside from a subtle tightening of my stomach during every takeoff and landing, when I'm thinking of just how easy it would be to come back down again and how it must have felt for Brendan to lose altitude way too quickly, I'm just fine.
For the first few months, my therapist and my mother kept waiting for the other shoe to drop, for me to finally flip out and have a full-blown panic attack on a plane. Anytime she knew I was going to be flying, which was not nearly as often as I actually did, my mother watched the TV, waiting for the Breaking News bulletin.
This just in: There is a plane stopped on the runway at the Charlotte Douglas International Airport as one of the passengers on board is being removed after experiencing an emotional breakdown. Stuart Grange, thirty-four, is the surviving partner of Brendan Miller, who, along with three others, was awarded a posthumous Presidental Medal of Freedom for his role in stopping a plane hijacking in 2008.
My partner, the national hero. On a commuter flight from Charlotte to Boston, Brendan and some other brave souls had reenacted the infamous Flight 93, leaving behind parents, children, spouses--and me. No one claimed the attack at first, and then every small-time nutjob in the country spoke up, saying they'd done it. The FBI dismissed them all. In the end, no one was really sure if the hijacking Brendan died preventing was linked to known existing terrorist groups, whether domestic or foreign, but since the government was willing and eager to have justification to continue the war, it was generally tossed around as "speculated to be connected with the terrorist attacks of 9/11." It was enough to strike the nerve of public sentiment, and the media cashed in on it.
I was interviewed everywhere from The Advocate to the local Channel 9 News and was held up as a poster child for gay rights, which was kind of funny since, aside from attending the occasional Pride celebration and donating to legal organizations, Brendan and I had never really been big on activism. It wasn't like our situation highlighted any huge discrimination either. Brendan wasn't killed in a hate crime, I wasn't denied hospital visitation, and his parents didn't bar me from his funeral. Property taxes on our house took a chunk out of my savings account, and I got slapped with inheritance taxes that no widow would have had to pay on her deceased husband's earthly goods, but as tragedies go, being gay didn't really make ours any worse.
However, that's not to say that it made it any less. I still woke up in a cold sweat several times a week, thinking I could hear my phone ringing.
I wasn't afraid of flying, but I was terrified of my phone.
I had been on a pre-Christmas photo shoot when my phone suddenly went off, and everyone stared at me. I'd forgotten to turn it to silent before we started. I could have just silenced it and let it go to voice mail, but it was Brendan's custom ringtone, and he usually didn't call me when he knew I was at work. I stepped out of the room and took the call.
"Hey, babe, it's not really a good time--"
"Stuart, I love you."
There had been something in his voice that made the pit of my stomach go cold and uncomfortable. "I love you too, but--"
"This will probably be the last time I get to tell you, so..." His voice broke then, and I could feel my own eyes burning. "I love you, baby. I love you. Tell my parents I love them too."
The line went dead, and my throat slammed shut as I remembered that Brendan was flying out to meet with a client in Boston. He should have been in the air. He was in the air.
And at that moment, I knew he wouldn't be in the air for much longer, and I sat down and cried.
Somehow Brendan's last call to me turned into an emotional touchstone for many in the GLBT community, and his heroism was a waving flag for the equal rights movement. It became so surreal that sometimes I felt as if it had all happened to someone else. It only felt real when I was alone at home, surrounded by photos of him propped up on various surfaces, staring at the dust gathering on the edges of the frames.
Those times, it felt like I was just waiting for Brendan to get home. He would come through the door, his hand full of movies he'd rented that we'd never get around to watching, though we would read the backs of the boxes and make noises about how interesting they seemed--documentaries, art-house films, foreign dramas without subtitles that I would have just fallen asleep halfway through.
Sometimes, the house felt huge and empty and echoey, and I wished that I'd given in and gotten a dog like Brendan had always wanted. Then I would have someone whose sorrow would overshadow mine for a bit. The dog would come and lay his head on my knee and look up at me with big, sad eyes and whine as if to say, "You're not him. Where's the nice one, the one who gives me treats and rubs my ears and lets me sleep on the bed when you're gone?"
And I would explain to this nonexistent pet that Brendan wasn't coming home ever again, but that it wasn't the dog's fault, wasn't anything he'd done that made Brendan leave and not come back. It wasn't anybody's fault, really, except some radical extremists with an ax to grind. But that didn't make it fair, and it didn't mean we couldn't miss him. It didn't mean the dog had to stop looking at the door with his head cocked like he was waiting for Bren to come through any second, and it didn't mean I had to stop sleeping curled around his pillow that was starting to smell less like him and more like my own tears.
But we didn't have a dog, and I couldn't say those things to myself, so I just sat on the couch in a cold room in silence, watching as the afternoon sun gave way to dusk and then the impermeable shadows of night.
Sometimes I wouldn't even turn on the lights. I'd just sit there and stare into the darkness and wait for morning to find me.
After a while of this, my therapist suggested activity would help me. Maybe I should find a cause, something I could focus on that would motivate me and give me energy. I wasn't sure I had the energy to go looking for a cause, but since one had already come looking for me, I decided to answer one of the half-dozen or so requests for interviews that had landed on my doorstep since Brendan's death.
I don't think I had anticipated it opening a floodgate of other requests as the community took advantage of the chance to show the world that people like us loved and rejoiced and sorrowed like everyone else--and that for the second time in less than ten years, an openly gay man had done a brave and heroic thing. I understood it wasn't really about me or even Brendan as much as it was about shining the spotlight on our humanity so that people didn't have an excuse to see us as merely an "issue."
Even understanding this, however, I felt uncomfortable. There was some grumbling--and rightfully so, I thought--from within the community that I was a fraud, that I hadn't done anything to earn my place as the face of gay rights. And I hadn't. I hadn't aggressively campaigned for pro-gay legislation, though of course I'd voted appropriately. I hadn't gone to any protests or held up any signs. I let people tell offensive fag jokes without correcting them. I hadn't even asked Brendan to marry me. I loved him, but that just wasn't something that ever came up with us.
I was on my way to yet another memorial speech, this time in Dallas, Texas, where I fully expected to be the victim of at least one name-calling incident, when the sun finally started creeping through the windows of my darkened mind again. The flight in from Miami, where I'd had a two-day photo shoot for a magazine layout, had been long and tiresome, though I'd been impressed by our landing at the Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport. Landings always made my stomach tighten involuntarily, and it had been so smooth, I'd barely been able to tell when we touched down.
I hadn't been lucky enough to get an exit row seat or even a spot on the aisle, and I didn't relish the thought of fighting all the harried Friday-afternoon commuters for a grab at the carry-on luggage, so I stared out the window at the tarmac while I waited for the plane to clear out a little more. By the time I got my camera bag out from under the seat in front of me--it never went anywhere I couldn't grab it quickly, especially just in case we flew past an interesting cloud formation--and my overnight case out of the overhead bin, I was one of only three passengers left on the plane.
Two of the flight attendants and the pilot were standing at the front of the plane by the exit doors, waving and smiling and rattling off automated pleasantries. I paused for a moment, adjusting the strap of the camera bag on my shoulder as I caught the pilot's eye. I could feel something poking me in the side, and I knew it was only going to keep bothering me, so I paused for a moment to set the bag down on the first row of seats.
"That was a nice landing," I said, distracted as I reached inside the bag to rearrange the lenses. I'd put one of the cameras in the wrong side of the bag, and that was what was making things so uncomfortable. I took it out to double-check it, glancing up to give the pilot an apologetic smile. The two other stragglers were still gathering their things, so I wasn't the only one holding them up, but I was still the one standing right there.
"Thank you." His eyes sparkled, and something about his expression prompted me to smile back, taking a moment to file his features. He looked Asian--I had never been very good at differentiating further than that--and except for the few silver hairs at his temples that lent him the kind of distinguished air you hear about movie stars having, he looked like he could have been my age or younger. "Enjoy your stay in Dallas."
"Thanks." Satisfied that my camera and lenses were all right, I closed the bag and hefted it over my shoulder again, intending to move on before the pilot's voice stopped me.
"That's a nice camera. A Canon?"
"Yeah, a 1DS Mark III. It was my birthday and Christmas present two years in a row." I laughed. It wasn't quite true, but close enough. The Mark III was Canon's newest professional digital camera at the time I'd acquired it, and it had cost a pretty penny. Brendan had surprised me with it after he'd watched me damn near have an orgasm reading over the specs in one of my photography magazines. I could gush about it any day of the week, and it was only by sheer willpower that I held myself back now.
"Nice." The way the captain drew out the word, I could tell he knew what the name meant and appreciated it.
"You a photographer?" I asked, interested. That didn't look like a casual gleam in his eye as he sized up my camera bag.
"Nah." He gave a dismissive wave of his hand, his nose wrinkling as he laughed. It was oddly charming. "Just a hobby. Not enough to justify spending that much money."
It seemed like it might be a little more serious than a hobby for him, and I thought I might like to talk to him about it, but the remaining two passengers on the plane were moving up the aisle, and I didn't want to block the entrance. I glanced over my shoulder to check how far away they were and then smiled at the pilot--his name tag said CAPTAIN McDONOUGH, and I almost laughed, because an Irish surname was the last thing I expected him to have--and started to move off to the ramp.
"I'd better get going. Thanks again for the smooth flight."
"Thank you for flying with us. Have a nice day."
I was barely into the little wheel-out hallway they bring out to the planes when I heard one of the flight attendants laughing.
"Way to go, Captain. Flirting with the passengers."
I almost missed a step as I scuffed my shoe on the carpet, and I couldn't help turning to look back at the cockpit through the open door. I didn't expect to be able to see Captain McDonough through the entrance, but he was leaning forward a little, watching me walk away, and I felt a jolt of surprise as our eyes met. He didn't seem embarrassed to be caught staring at my ass, just grinned a little wider. My heart did a double thump in my chest like I'd been hooked up to defibrillating paddles.
The remaining commuters on the plane shoved past me and jostled me into the wall. The pilot chuckled and turned away, and I trotted up the walkway, feeling impatient. I was thirty-four years old, far past getting sweaty-palmed and nervous over an appreciative glance from a good-looking man.
Somewhere in my head, Brendan's voice laughed and told me I was still in the prime of life; why pretend otherwise? I grinned. It was such a Brendan thing to say.
But then I remembered I would never actually hear him say it, and my smile faded. My excitement from the flirtation turned into a cold mess of guilt in my stomach, and I tried to forget it had ever happened as I stepped into the airport and headed for the passenger retrieval area, hoping the organization had remembered to send someone to pick me up this time.