– jimi hendrix, One Rainy Wish, 1967
When someone gifted dies young, the loss reverberates through a lifetime.
Berlin, 2016: It’s 30 years this month, but in this city of graffiti and skateboarders I dream of him constantly, and the grief still kicks like a mule. The history of my life broke open at that point. I go weeks without thinking of my first husband, but I think of Rob every day. Robert Johnston, who was intending to change his name back to his mother’s, Sawyer.
So to me he was Rob Sawyer, my great love at nineteen. He was twenty.
I remember his artist mother, just returned from a trip to Paris with her third husband, bringing him bandes dessinées, all of us gathered in their Crosby St. loft around her. I am older now than she was then, unimaginably, and I hope will be as third time lucky.
I once showed a picture of him to a Millennial friend. “Wow, he was a classic 80’s bad boy!” she said.
Huh, I said. I mean, he rode a motorcycle and wore a leather jacket and he was an art criminal- but I never once thought of him as a bad boy. I always thought of him as pure goodness, the boy who was so much better and truer and kinder than I deserved.
Rob’s life by when we got together of making art, going to art school, spending time with his family, hanging and drinking with his downtown friends and skateboarding seemed relatively low-key. He was in Fine Art at SUNY Purchase, painting delicious ice-cream pastel still-lifes, and taking photographs too. He had taken some experimental drugs at school, and that worried me, but who hadn’t?
He was a serious graffiti writer, not just getting up, but an artist who had keys to the 6 Yards. He had spent much of the years from fourteen to eighteen out all night, his messenger bag rattling with cans, creating full-car t-to-b burner pieces of extraordinary beauty. His sister Cecile, who I loved deeply, took me in when I ran away the first time, at fourteen. That was when I met him, at the Crosby St. loft in the Winter of 1981. His bedroom was completely covered in graffiti, a gallery of color.
His tag was “Scribe”, which is objectively brilliant.
We came home drunk. We were always drunk, unless we were drunk and high. He was the first boyfriend I had who was just always down to get as drunk as me, ALL THE TIME. We lay in bed talking for hours, as we did sometimes. I would ask him questions about being a boy, like “Have you ever been in a fight? What did it feel like to you?”
That night he told the story of his friend who had touched the third rail, back in his writing days.
He told me about how when they found his friend’s body the rats had been eating it. He was crying and I remember the heat in his cheeks, the way it felt to hold him to me, like it was yesterday. He hadn’t had anybody to share things like that with, as close as he was to his family. It was a terrible night, being open to his pain like that, but it was beautiful too.
One time we were standing outside the office of my Upper East Side gynecologist, after I’d taken a pregnancy test. “If you’re pregnant, I’ll marry you and we’ll have the baby”, he said lovingly. “If I’m pregnant, I’ll have an abortion!”, I said, shocked and outraged at his presumption over my body and my choices. He was the son and brother of women who’d gotten pregnant and married very young and cherished the children who resulted; I was the daughter of a woman who’d had two illegal abortions, then later fought to have two carefully planned children despite her husband’s resistance.
I didn’t know, that July morning, that I was late because I was doing so much more heroin than I ever had.
I recently found that written on a scrap of the Oakland Tribune Food section from 2007. I must have believed it when I wrote it; why have I made so little progress since then? He would not have wanted me to marinate in this corrosive fluid; he fucking LOVED me.
And, he LOVED ME. He wrote it on my bed, which was all tagged up, too.
He was always bringing me little gifts. He slept with me at the apartment I shared with my mom on 20th St. every night, but he would go home to Crosby St. for an afternoon to pick up clothes and hug his sisters. He’d stop in the Village on the way back to buy a cigarette lighter with an Alphonse Mucha print on it or a pair of huge baroque shell earrings from a street vendor.
I woke up slowly, in the air-conditioned chill of my tiny bedroom, his arms snug around me as always, his long body spooned behind me as always. Reached for glasses, cigarettes, turned in his arms to nuzzle his cheek, downy with soft golden beard. We talked of the usual for a little bit, the catch-up of what I’d missed in the blacked-out parts of the night.
Then a shock came through me like a blade, as he said, “You hit me last night.” “What??! Why?” “You said you loved me and I said I didn’t believe you.” I was overwhelmed with remorse, and more, fear that it was true. I desperately reassured him. “I know,” he said, “I know.” “I was just drunk.”
The new Swamp Thing, Vol. 2 #52, was the first thing we read from the Thursday pile.
Shoulder to shoulder at the dining room table, “Now? now?” to turn the page.
Abby and Alec were in New York.
It was so intense we could hardly breathe. My mom laughed at us.
The July 1986 issue of Swamp Thing was called “Natural Consequences.”
He wore the same sneakers Kyle Reese wears in Terminator. He liked The Three Stooges. He had read “Ulysses”. We hung out with my ex Tom, who had been my boyfriend before Rob, and Stefan, who had been my boyfriend before Tom. I called Tom “Babe” and Stef “Honey” and Rob “Angel”; all three of them were “Sweetheart” when I needed someone to pass me an ashtray.
In mid July we went to his family’s cottage in Montauk and had a dream weekend getaway of bondage nights, photoshoot and fried clam days. We went to Tom’s birthday party at his family’s house in Connecticut; Rob and I made love on the lawn under the stars and I got 45 chigger bites on my right leg alone.
We went to see “Labyrinth” at the theater in East Hampton with Stefan and then hung out in the graveyard drinking.
Rob’s ashes were interred there just a few months later, under a stone with a duotone etching of his tag. His mother is amazing. She also got a tattoo of his tag; it was still illegal in the city in those days, but I referred her to Mike Bakaty, the father of one of my high school lovers.
I would make omelets for breakfast. We drank Becks, constantly. We listened to T-Rex all the time.
We got yelled at in Manic Panic cause he was buying me bustiers and he came in the dressing room to look.
He loved my Betsey Johnson dresses, my garters and stockings and four-inch vintage heels. He put ice cubes in his beer when it wasn’t cold enough – and it was always hot, that summer in New York. He was going to summer school at the New York Studio School; I was going to summer school at Parsons.
At summer school I reconnected with my oldest friend, Victoria, and Rob and Victoria and I became a pack, a family unit, for the last weeks of his life.
Rob could drive, and my mom let us use her car whenever we wanted. Rob was the only partner I ever took to meet my father. On the way there we pulled over to the side of the road to try and get a YIELD sign to go over my bed, but the bolts were rusted shut.
My father gave us a handful of cash, and we went to Rye Playland, and rode on every ride, and the rollercoaster twice. All the time in the world.
Anything I needed to do, he went with me. And I helped him through getting his wisdom teeth out! He protected me, and I have never been protected again, or allowed protection.
He supported me like no one else ever has. He drove me to the airport for San Diego Comic Con on July 31, after a July of incredible adventures. He was a person of loyalty and bravery, and to love someone like me took nerves of steel. It didn’t help that I’d slept with Rob’s best friend (above, reading the new John Byrne Superman) right before Rob, or that I was also really close to Chris Claremont.
It seems impossible that someone so full of love and talent and kindness and anger could go from the world in one night.
But he did, the weekend I was in San Diego for Comic Con. My friend Sheepdog had introduced Rob to crack, and Rob bought a personal stash of heroin for “while you’re away”, and he overdosed on crack and heroin on a hot summer night at his family loft on Crosby St.
In August Alec was dead too.
Rob’s sister Cecile and I were photographed by Victoria on our roof in Chelsea, sad goths in humidity.
I had been attacked in San Diego, and the events happening simultaneously created a nest of trauma that I couldn’t understand for thirty years.
All his friends blamed me for his death, with reason, as I was the person who gave him heroin for the first time. He had asked others, but I was the one who did it with him.
His mother and Cile were kind to me, and I am forever grateful. Their kindness absolutely saved my life.
In September Abby returned home to her empty house, as I had returned to my empty bedroom, and we grieved together.
And in their triumph die, like fire and powder,
Which, as they kiss, consume.
I wrote the draft of this post in July 2016, when the poison eggs of my 1986 PTSD finally hatched.
It was a spring and summer of terrible pain and grief, and then it stretched into years of finally feeling what happened in the first days of August 1986. The Kavanaugh hearings were the last straw, and I started EMDR therapy with a gentle and loving Berlin trauma therapist. It helped so much.
I began unbinding my grief for my loss, his family’s loss, and the world’s loss of this beautiful boy.
It has not ended. It is part of the fabric of who I am, today, in a gentler way than it was the last thirty-plus years. He is never forgotten, always in my heart.
I put his tag in the first comic I ever drew professionally.
As well as in several later ones, and in the most detailed painting I ever made.
The painting at the top was made in 1990, when I made several paintings to try and process Rob’s death. It has T-Rex lyrics written all over it in silver Pentel ink, which has proved remarkably archival. Much like this love.
This painting had never been photographed; most of the photos have never been published online. Until now, no online record of them existed – if we had a fire or flood they would just be gone forever.
I am so grateful to my Patrons on Patreon, whose monthly financial support makes it possible for me to take time to document my art archives.