This Is written in honor of my cousin Robert and his long time companion, Pat. Robert died of in the way described on Mothers day coming up on 5 years ago. Pat passed away on Wednesday this week. Rob was my co-black sheep and how I was able to cope with growing up weird in Texas. He lived a tough life as a young, gay man in West Texas before the age of the internet and before it was considered wrong to abuse someone for being gay. He was the first gay person I ever knew, and I was the first punk he ever knew. We got each other. He taught me a lot though it took me a while to realize it. I hope he and Pat are finally together again, and that the things I do to honor his memory help in some way.
"Bella, there is a man out in the front office asking to talk to you. I was going to call security because he looks like a street person, but he claims he is your cousin and to tell you , "Baa Baa black sheep."
Ali, my assistant, had no idea why those words caused my heart to race and me to drop the camera in my hands to the floor as I raced to the front office where I disheveled, thin and sickly looking man that I would know anywhere, was leaned up against the wall near the door.
"Hey there, stranger…have you missed me?"
"Oh my God! Jasper?"
When he had finally fled the family compound in West Texas, he had been bloodied and defeated, throwing a few things in his backpack and running off with a glance back at me, standing there crying in horror at what my own father had done.
He didn't look that much better now. It had been years since I had seen him. All my efforts to find him had been for naught, as every lead the private detective I hired had reached a dead end. I knew that he had been arrested for vagrancy in Houston a few months after he had left home, but he had completely vanished from that point on. With the advent of the internet, I had resumed searching off and on over the years, but with my photography career taking off, and returning to Texas not even a consideration, Jasper had become someone I mourned as lost to me forever, rather than someone I anticipated finding alive. I didn't care that he looked like he hadn't had a bath in weeks and that his clothes were ragged and filthy, I threw myself into his arms, sobbing as if my long broken heart was in danger of being totally ripped out an destroyed.
Jasper had always been different. Funny and flamboyant, with a sharp wit and a shine that lit of the dull tans and grays of the endless West Texas landscape. We spent hours hanging out together, talking about music and places beyond the small minds around us. Our hopes and dreams taking us away from the whispers and scoffs of the people around us, including our own family. He wanted to go to California like I did, to make it big in acting while I wanted to be a photographer. We plotted and planned together, his dry sense of humor easing my stress of being around soo many of my West Texas kin.
"Well looky here, if it isn't Mutt and Jeff" my aunts 2nd husband snarked at us. "The two black sheep of the family have found a way to flock together, isn't that special? Hey faggot, you need to get your ass in the house and help your mother get the table set for dinner." He swayed on his feet leering at me as Jasper stood up, stepping between us.
'Fine, we are going. Come on Bella."
Even I knew then he was protecting me. Always trying to look out for others when he, himself was dealing with the worst of situations.
Chuck was a bastard of a step father who had no problem making Jaspers already difficult life, even harder. I found it ironic later to find out that a man who constantly referred to Jasper as a "Faggot" was himself forcing himself on Jasper for years before Jasper was able to escape.
We always stuck by each other when we were together at reunions or holidays, but as we grew, he became colder and angrier, more reserved. Our grandmothers funeral was the last time we had spent any time together, but for a sad time, it was a time we spent leaning against each other and giggling, talking about how she would have hated the music that my father had chosen for her service and how weird it was that the funeral home had a tree that had leaves that looked liked marijuana leaves. We ended up sitting on the steps of the funeral home drinking from his flask, talking about how bad things had gotten and I sadly realized things were coming to a head.
"I cant keep living like this. Between Chuck and your dad always on my case about the estate, I would rather just go live on the streets of Houston than to keep taking it."
"Jasper, please don't let them win. They wont stop there. They will just go after more and more and they will keep on until they eat us all. If you break and run, who will I be the co-black sheep with at reunions and holidays?"
He had smiled at me sadly and said, "Maybe if I wasn't around, they wouldn't see you as a black sheep anymore. Don't worry about me. I will land on my feet. I always do."
He had hugged me tightly and kissed me on top of my head as we sat there, and the funeral became sadder for me at that point because it felt like the death of us was being foreshadowed.
When we had all gathered back at my grandmothers house after the funeral, the bickering over the material goods had begun. My father was relentless. He saw everything as his right, and even though the will had left a significant amount to Jasper as her choice of main heir, my father wouldn't stand for it because Jasper was a minor and as he saw it, inferior because he was, 'Queer" and shouldn't even be a part of the family.
"Shoulda done the damn world a favor and pinched your head off when you were born. I knew you were gonna be a waste of skin." He relentlessly advanced on Jasper, who stood there, staring at everyone waiting for someone to step up and say something, to defend him and make him feel part of the family. I stood up and said, "Daddy!" but Jasper shook his head and motioned for me to sit down and be quiet. His own mother sat there with her head down as Chuck glared at her and slugged back yet another beer.
Jasper had always been grandmothers favorite, and it was a known fact that she had intended to set him up with the means to make his escape from the situation he had been born into, but her health had failed her quickly and before the will could be filed with enough people to ensure it would be respected, she had died leaving Jasper to try and defend himself against the family, including her son, who felt that any amount given to him, was a slap in the face that robbed them of their birthright.
"Look, you get the bulk of everything. She just wanted me to have enough to be able to leave. Isn't that what you want? Me to leave? Or do you want me around for the same reason Chuck keeps me around?"
Everyone gasped as Chuck choked on his beer. "You filthy little bastard! I'm gonna kill you!"
He got up and lunged at Jasper as my father had punched Jasper in the face. Chaos had ensued as they tried to beat him and other family members tried to drag them off of Jasper.
"Stop! He's not worth it! Just leave, Jasper! Leave and don't come back! You aren't part of this family." His own brother was shouting at him as Jasper struggled to get up off the floor of the living room. He staggered down the hall to his room and gathered a few of his things, and then slamming the front door open, ignoring my cries to take me with him, he disappeared out of our lives for years.
"Jasper! I have looked for you for years! Where have you been?"
"Bella, that's a long story and it looks like you are busy. I can come back some other time and we can talk."
"Oh bull shit! If you think I am letting you out of my sight now that I have found you, or that you have found me, you are crazy! Ali will handle closing up the studio. You are coming with me. Don't bullshit a bull shitter, Jasper. Do you have a bag or anything we need to throw in my car?"
"Yeah, its around the side of the building. Ill go grab it an be right back."
"Jasper? Please, do come back. I really did look for you, for years."
"Bella, I will be right back."
I watched him walk around the side of the building and I felt Ali come and stand beside me. "He doesn't look well, at all."
"I know Ali, and that scares me to death."
"I'm going to clear your calendar for the next few days, okay? Call me if you need anything."
"I will. Thanks Ali"
"Told you I would come back."
"I'm glad. Now how about we get out of here and get you someplace where you can get comfortable?"
His story was horrible. He had ended up homeless on the streets of Houston. A slender, delicately featured, young boy does not fare well in those circumstances. He had no money and no resources, and after he was caught shoplifting some food from an all night market, the store manager extracted payment from him in the way his stepfather had for years. Jasper had realized he could make enough money that way to survive the Houston winter and work his way towards the West, he had eventually landed in L.A. where he had hoped to get into acting even though he was homeless and sleeping in alleys. He had tried for a few years, cleaning up as best he could, reading trade papers he dug out of the trash, but as the streets took a toll on him, it became impossible to look good enough to get taken seriously by any casting agency, and he eventually returned to doing what he had to do in order to survive, he killed the pain with cheap alcohol and borderline starvation.
While I had been going to college and building my portfolio and reputation as a photographer, he had been sliding into the abyss of back alley blow jobs and unsafe sex with even more unsafe men. He had been feeling less and less himself over the last few months, chalking it up to a case of pneumonia that he had not quite fought off in the early spring, but he looked cadaverous, and he was pale, though he was out in the California sun all the time.
"I saw your name in the paper the other day and I about dropped dead of a heart attack in the street. I didn't come by your studio to bum off of you Bella, I came by to tell you how damn proud of you I am. You made it! You are living your dream and that is soo damned amazing. I worried about you for years after I left, and I tried to call, but they always just hung up on me."
"Well, he's not hanging up on people anymore, Jasper. My father had a heart attack a few years ago and drove off the side of the highway into a pump jack. Chuck got cancer and died slow and miserable and no one was sad to see it. Your mom passed a year ago in her sleep. Your brother got married to a local girl, but they had some problems and he's in prison for assaulting her and their kids. And you aren't, "Bumming" off of me, I have news for you, its part of why I had searched for you for so damn long. I managed to salvage your inheritance. The money that grandmother had earmarked for you is still yours and then some. I got it put into a trust and invested it.
" I have money?"
"Yes Jasper, enough money to make you quite comfortable and happy, so why don't you go take a shower and Ill find you some clean clothes, we will talk more afterwards."
He was in the shower a long time and when he came out wrapped in a towel, he almost looked like the old Jasper, but a lot thinner and paler. I didn't know why at the time, but I was scared for him.
"Here Jas, I found some sweats and t-shirt that will fit you until we go shopping for you some new clothes. What would you like for dinner? Anything you want, we are celebrating."
"Oh Bella, I got over being picky years ago. Just whatever works for me."
"Nonsense. I want to celebrate and we can either go out or we can stay in and I will cook."
"A home cooked meal sounds really good. Its been a long, long time since I have had one."
I cooked for him that night and he at like he was starving, and he probably was at that point. The abundance of good food made him sick though and he vomited about half of it back up and he then lay on the couch shivering and shaking for several hours, when he didn't improve and seemed delirious, I called an ambulance and then waited for him to be seen. My platinum credit card and signature on the promise to pay line, got him seen quickly and labs were drawn along with an exam and a battery of other tests. He was dehydrated, anemic, still suffering from pneumonia, he had worms and multiple infections in places I hadn't even wanted to know about. He needed dental care, and treatment for thrush.
Thrush…that was the first red flag besides the history I gave them that made the doctor go back and order additional tests. I was sitting next to him, softy stroking the curls that had fallen over his eyes back out of his sleeping face, when the doctor came walking into the room.
"Ma'am, may I speak to you for a moment?"
"Yes, Not a problem."
"Are you involved in an intimate relationship with Mr. Whitlock?"
'NO! he's my cousin. I'm his next of kin and responsible party."
"Oh, okay. Well, this still is not going to be easy news to hear, and he is going to need support and compassion."
The sick feeling of dread was back even stronger and I had felt my knees begin to buckle at that point. "Oh God…Oh no. no. no. I just got him back. We just found each other again. Please! don't tell me what I think you are going to tell me. He has been through soo damn much."
"Ma'am, I'm soo sorry. We still have to get back the results of the Western blot test, but the rapid test results indicate that he is indeed HIV positive and severely imuno-compromised. The good news is that with him being off the streets now and your care as well as the cocktails of the drugs that are available, we can get him back on his feet and he can lead an almost normal life."
I got the doctor to let me tell him and we cried in each others arms as the unfairness of it all hit us. I had promised him, then and there, to stay by his side and take care of him through it all. He tried to argue with me, and I think I lost my mind a little bit at that point.
"I didn't spend years hunting for you, only to lose you to some damn disease. You will stay with me. You will get better. We will deal with this. We are the black sheep that flock together, remember?"
"Okay, Bella…you win."
And win we did for the next 10 years. He got better and stronger and reached the point where he moved into his own place, and he even opened a business buying and selling exotic art pieces. That was where he met Alec, another HIV+ man who fell in love with Jaspers charm and his accent that got stronger when he thought someone was attractive, and around Alec it was as thick as my gravy. They made a beautiful couple and they were happy until the meds that had worked for so long started to not work so well for Jasper anymore. We tried alternative treatments, drug trials, and all the latest research out there, but his t-cells continued to drop. He stayed up beat and tried to not let it show, but we could feel him starting to pull way from us, trying to make a distance so that the pain would be lesser when he passed. I fought him tooth and nail, refusing to surrender, to allow a disease to the exact same thing to us that our family had done soo many years before.
"Bella, I'm dying. I'm getting sicker every day and I have no intention of slowly wasting away in some damn hospital bed, chained to Ivs. I love you, honey. I love you more than you will ever know, but Alec and I are going on vacation tomorrow and I wont be coming back from it. Know that I will be happy, in the arms of the man I love and that I wont be in any pain. Please? Let me go. Take care of Alec when he comes home. He will need a friend, and no matter what, don't you bury me in Texas.
The hardest thing I ever did was drive them to the airport and then unwrap my arms from around his neck as the last call for boarding came for their flight.
"I love you my co-black sheep. The world is going to be gray forever without you."
He had smiled at me, touching his forehead to mine as he said, " Don't worry, we will flock together again someday. Til then, you have to be the shepherd for all the other lost black sheep out there."
He went to sleep that night with a bottle of Patron Silver and Alec, and never woke up again.
I shepherded Alec until he joined Jasper two years later, and then I was alone until one day I was opening up my studio and found a young boy digging though the trash out back looking for some food. His slight build and delicate features told me all I needed to know about his chances on the streets, and that was the first stray I brought into the flock.
Riley had come to L.A. from Shreveport to escape a small town and a family that didn't want a gay son. He had only been on the streets a few weeks when I took him in and told him about my cousin. It was the beginning of a calling that saved us both.
"Black Sheep Shelter" seemed a fitting name for the non-descript house tucked away from the mean streets, and while some might find the name off-putting, those who end up there and hear the story behind the name, are all to proud to call themselves part of my and Jaspers flock.