25 years ago today Steven Stern lost his short, brave fight against AIDS. I still haven’t wrapped my head around it. He’s been gone longer than the number of years he was physically here but I’d be lying if I said that I’ve had much closure. I’m not sure if losing your first love to AIDS at 22 is something you ever really get over; I still think of him almost daily in different ways. Such is the peculiar currency of memory: preserved under a bell jar—frozen, unchanging, untouchable, gleaming.
Sometimes I hear Steven’s frequent admonishment to be more self protective: “make like a doormat and you’re gonna get stepped on,” he’d warn me in clipped Brooklynese, even though I don’t think he ever lived in Brooklyn and if he did it wasn’t for long enough to sound like Thelma Ritter when dispensing advice. For Steven, this was a creative choice he made for emphasis, like the shrug of a shoulder, or a wink. He thought I was naive and let people take advantage of me. Of course, he was right and I still hear him hectoring me on the subject when my need to be liked clouds my judgement. Sometimes I just think of Steven’s incredible smile and how it lit up so many rooms and the way it lit me up on the inside because I knew seeing me was one of the things that made him so happy. Most often though, I hear the exquisite sound of his laugh: huge, effortless peals that punctuated every conversation and guarded against painful things. I am so glad that I can still hear that joyful sound, because as long as I can hear him, hear his voice and his laughter, I know the tremendous, unbreakable bond we shared connects us still.
His friends called him “Steve,” but he was never a “Steve” to me—only “Steven,” and there were very few things Steven loved as much as the sound of Barbra Streisand’s voice. On this subject he was completely unbending and unapologetically uncritical. He loved it all—even the questionable stuff like Butterfly—didn’t give a shit, to him, she walked on water and he’d be the first one to tell you that (in clipped Bro0klynese). I felt Steven’s presence strongly last October when I held our friend Nancy Balbirer’s hand while tears streamed down her face at Barbra’s concert in Philadelphia. Nothing would have made him happier than to hear Barbra sing live or to know that the 20-year rift in my friendship with Nancy caused by the trauma of his death did not keep us apart forever after all, so the “rift” became a “pause.” Streisand’s recording of Coming in and Out of Your Life may seem a bit dated now but, but it was one of Steven’s favorite songs—we listened to it together all the time—and, as with so many of my memories associated with Steven, turned out to be rather prescient.
Steven wrote me a card on September 9, 1982 (his birthday). I still have it. I saved everything including notes he wrote me on napkins and passes to excuse him from class to go to doctors appointments and drawings he made. On this particular card, which he wrote just days after I left him in New Jersey and went off to college in Boston, he wrote “true love means parting without separating.” I know he was proud that he came up with that himself because he wrote “Steven H. Stern” under it in capital letters. He wanted me to know that and I think that he intuited that I would need to have these words.
Steven could be prescient—as he was when he would tell me that he didn’t think he would live to be 30. I used to scream at him when he would say that because I wanted him to be with me forever and live a long, healthy life, but there were some things that he just knew. On this point he was correct. He didn’t live to be 30, or even 25.
I called him “french fry.” He called me “Mr. Bright,” because he though I was such a brain. Steven lacked confidence in certain things, like his intellect—owing, I think, to undiagnosed learning disabilities and the stunning averageness of East Brunswick High School—but in addition to his precocious street smarts, he could be very insightful sometimes, like with the aphorism under which he proudly signed his name. At the time, I never would have thought I would come to understand the meaning of what he said so deeply, or that with 25 more birthdays now passed, I would still rely on those six words with both an indescribable ache and tremendous gratitude.
If you knew Steven, share these photos and my humble words with someone else, for as the novelist Samuel Butler said, “to die completely, a person must not only forget but be forgotten, and he who is not forgotten is not dead.” For those of us who knew and loved him, Steven is still very much alive.
On August 8th, 1982 Steven inscribed my graduating yearbook in a sprawling, effusive love letter. Though not particularly sentimental in general, he worked himself up to writing this passage by listening to Streisand’s recording of John Lennon’s Love at least 10 times. He did this because, I think, he knew it was important to me and so he dug deep enough to find these words. Reading them now they seem callow, but also tremendously sincere and very much like him. Though their intention references our imminent separation just weeks away, they ended up carrying a much heavier load when he got sick just a few short years later. Knowing as he did that he might not physically be with me for very long, he expresses very clearly that being remembered was important to him. Perhaps that is why, 25 years later, I am still writing an elegy for Steven Stern and though I am still heartbroken, I am also happy, because as long as I can hear the sound of his voice I know he is here.
Remember…remember…remember…remember it all
We had a blast. The best. We have had incredible times together and you must remember them in order to keep me alive in your mind.
There is nothing, ever, that could make me forget you.
Yes, I’m “coming in and out of your life,” but what the song neglects to tell you is I’m returning. We will stay together forever, no matter what, we’ll push through.
You are the best thing that ever happened to me. Our love will last always.
You may also enjoy:
New York City in the 1980s, or “Squirting AIDS With Research”