First published in Between the Lines in June 2002.
Last month I learned of the death of an ex-partner. It’s an odd feeling to lose to death someone whom one has already lost to painful separation. But it’s a loss nevertheless.
Robert and I met as graduate students in philosophy at the University of Texas. I had just “escaped” from Notre Dame, and I had high hopes for Austin. It was 1991: Ann Richards was governor, and the UT student-body president was an African-American lesbian socialist. (“Toto, we’re not in South Bend anymore.”)
Robert approached me at the new students’ party. Physically, he wasn’t my type, but there was something about him I found mesmerizing. He had a keen intellect and a razor wit. We got into an argument during that party—the good kind, the kind that philosophers thrive on. We quickly became friends, and then something more.
The relationship is hard to explain to people who didn’t know us (and even to some who did). It was passionate but not sexual; full of conflict yet strangely comfortable. The contradictions suited us. Most people were unaware that we didn’t have sex, which was fine with us. (How many of us know the details of our partnered friends’ sex lives?) Some would say the relationship didn’t “count”, but it counted to us, and that was what mattered.
He had a brilliant sense of humor. Robert, who had grown up in Odessa, often poked fun at his West Texas roots. He used to steal phone-message pads from the philosophy department secretary and then leave notes in my office mailbox, often beginning with “Robert Ramirez, of Paris, New York, and Odessa, called…”
Or another time: “Alvin Plantinga [a famous Christian Philosopher] of Notre Dame called. Message: He wanted to talk to you about the problem of evil, but when he heard you weren’t in, he said, ‘Aw, Fuck it.'”
Yet Robert was also (by his own admission) a fundamentally angry person. He was bitter about his estrangement from his father, about losing his previous partner to AIDS, and about what he saw as the generally sorry state of the world. He drank excessively.
It didn’t help when he was diagnosed with HIV himself. Interestingly, some of those who had shunned him for his surliness started to cut him slack. I told them not to: “He was a cranky person before; now he’s a cranky person with HIV.” He didn’t want their pity, and he didn’t need it, either. Beneath the crankiness was a remarkable individual, and those who paid attention knew it.
The last time I saw Robert was shortly before I moved to Detroit in 1998. Our breakup had been turbulent. We met for coffee; it was awkward. I asked him, “How’s your health?”
“My doctor has advised me not to buy green bananas.”
“Seriously, Robert, how’s your health?”
He told me he likely had less than a year. Yet he managed to hang on for four, despite battling testicular cancer, which was difficult to treat because of the AIDS.
I shall always remember Robert for his sharp wit, his deep intelligence, and his fiercely loving core beneath a gruff exterior. I share his story to celebrate his memory, and also as a reminder that—despite protease inhibitors and drug cocktails and “the end of the plague”—AIDS still kills.
Robert Ramirez—of Paris, New York, and Odessa—rest in peace.