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Authors: Michael Nava

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BOOK: The Death of Friends
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2

C
HRISTOPHER CHANDLER WAS A
superior court judge whom I’d known for twenty years, since we’d been law students together at Stanford in the mid-’70s. He was married and his wife, Bay, had also been a friend of mine back then. They had a son, Joey, and they lived in Pasadena in a beautiful house on an elegant street. Chris was generally agreed to be a comer, smart, fair and ambitious—and straight. It didn’t hurt that his father-in-law, Joseph Kimball, was the senior partner at one of the city’s biggest and most politically well-connected law firms. Chris was thought to be a shoo-in for elevation to the federal bench next time a Republican occupied the White House. That had always been his goal, even when we were students, and the most casual review of his judicial career revealed a certain amount of calculation in that direction. Nothing too damning, a provident change of party affiliation, a reputation as a tough sentencer in criminal cases, that sort of thing.

Any hint of excess ambition on his part was leavened by his and Bay’s indisputable commitment to good works. She took the lead there, serving on the boards of numerous organizations that ranged from a battered woman’s shelter to an AIDS research fund. Occasionally, flipping through the
Times,
I’d come across a picture of them at a charitable event, all dressed up in tux and evening gown. “Impersonating adults,” I’d tease Bay when we talked, which happened maybe two or three times a year. I crossed paths more frequently with Chris, since his courtroom was downtown where I handled the majority of my cases, but for having once been such good friends, I saw very little of them.

I know this puzzled Bay who, over the years, made many attempts to revive our student friendship. She saw through my polite evasions of her offers of dinners with the family, and when I did accept I knew she was aware of my discomfort. I tried not to show it because I genuinely cared for her. She was straightforward and good, though not without edges. Like me, she was a recovering alcoholic and prone, as most ex-addicts are, to bouts of depression and gusts of dissatisfaction. I know she was ambivalent about having become, as she once joked, “a society lady with causes.” This, I reminded her, was an improvement on her mother, who had simply been a society lady, bone-thin, self-absorbed and distinctly without causes. She laughed at that. But I didn’t have a glib retort when she said, “We’re old friends, Henry. You know there aren’t any secrets between us.”

She was wrong. My friendship with her had always been based on a deception. Just like her marriage.

Chris had been a year ahead of me at Stanford, but the school was small enough so that we were on nodding terms. In my second year, we had a class together and we moved from a nodding to a speaking acquaintance. I was twenty-two years old, and when I was not in class or studying for class I could be found making timid excursions into the frenetic gay world of San Francisco in the mid-1970s. That those two parts of my life, law student and homosexual, seemed irreconcilable bothered me considerably, because I couldn’t see having to choose one over the other. I had wanted to be a lawyer from the time I was a boy, inspired by biographies of Lincoln and Clarence Darrow, and Perry Mason on TV. As for the other thing, well, I hadn’t exactly planned on being homosexual, but I knew I was by the time I was sixteen; knew it, and knew I could no more change it than I could change the color of my eyes. My problem was how to be homosexual and a lawyer at a time when being gay was grounds for disbarment in most states.

If there were any other gay students at the law school, they kept it to themselves. I often wished there were, if only to have had someone to talk to about my dilemma, but not for that reason alone. I was a reserved and inexperienced Mexican-Catholic boy from the central valley of California, whose idea of homosexuality was derived from Walt Whitman’s romantic vision of “two boys together clinging,/One the other never leaving.” In my forays to San Francisco I found a lot of boys who didn’t mind clinging to me for a night or two, but forever was not in the vocabulary of the times. I thought if I could meet someone more like myself I would not have felt so continually out of place. Sometimes, in class, I’d look around the room and speculate who among my male classmates might be gay. Some seemed more likely than others, but Chris Chandler was not one of them. At twenty-three, he was a square-jawed, fair-haired boy who looked like he’d stepped out of a Brooks Brothers catalogue; the kind of WASP kid beside whom I felt very much the brown-skinned scholarship student.

One night I was at a gay bar in the city, a place called the Hide ’n Seek, feeling, as usual, out of place but hopeful, if only hormonally. There were white lights above the bar, but the rest of the room was bathed in red and blue and the muggy air smelled of cigarette smoke, aftershave and amyl nitrite, a drug that jumped the heart and smelled like old socks. Disco music blared over huge speakers mounted on walls in the corners of the room. A strobe light pulsed above the dance floor, catching the frenzy of the dancers. It always amazed me that there was never any violence in the bar despite all the men crowded together, lurching drunkenly into each other, spilling drinks and burning each other’s clothes with careless cigarettes. Instead, the accidental brush of male body against male body was like the striking of matches that flared and sputtered out, desire like wisps of smoke slowly thickening the air.

I was standing at the edge of the dance floor, a little drunk and feeling a bit sorry for myself, when someone bumped into me. He said, “Sorry.” I turned around and said, “That’s okay,” and saw it was Chris. For a moment, neither of us said anything, then Chris smiled, a slanting, embarrassed grin, and said, “You’re Henry, right?”

“That’s right,” I said. “Henry Rios. You’re Chris—”

“Chandler,” he said. “You’re in my Corporations class.”

It was a small thing, that exchange of last names, but in that world of one-night stands and first names only, it made running into him there seem perfectly natural.

“Buy you a beer?” he asked.

“That would be great,” I said.

We made our way to the bar, got the beers and found a relatively quiet spot where we could talk without shouting. As if we were sitting at the pub in the student union, Chris kept up a steady stream of chat about classes, professors, fellow students and even, I remember, the Security Exchange Act of 1935. Later, he told me he’d chosen those innocuous subjects to relax me because I seemed so unsure of myself. It worked. I loosened up, and eventually we moved to more personal matters; places of origin, families, and finally, “You’re gay?” and “How long have you known?” and “I would never have guessed you.”

Last call was called. Chris smiled at me and said, “How did you get up here?”

“I took the train,” I said.

“Can I give you a lift back to school?”

“Sure,” I said, and because I was uncertain, I didn’t know how to ask whether he wanted to spend the night.

He smiled again and said, “My place is quiet and I live alone.”

I woke up the next morning on a mattress on the floor of Chris’s tiny apartment, which was over the carriage house—now converted to a garage—of an old stone mansion in downtown Palo Alto. It was a typical student apartment, orange crates for bookshelves, a trestle-table desk, books and records everywhere and that mattress. Chris was asleep beside me. For half the night we’d just talked, and then there’d been that moment when the next most natural thing in the world was to kiss. There was none of the awkwardness with him that I’d felt with other men; the small voice in the back of my head trying to remember the man’s name or the mumbled negotiations about who would do what to whom. It had never felt so good before to be with another guy, so easy and friendly—“We two boys forever clinging…” Well, no, I didn’t think that exactly, but what a difference it made to make love to someone I could also imagine as a friend.

I got up and went to the bathroom. When I reached for the soap to wash my hands, I heard a metal clink in the wash basin. I fished around and found a ring, a plain gold band. There was an inscription inside,
To Chris from Bay,
and a date from earlier that year. I took it with me back to the bedroom. Chris was awake. I showed him the ring and joked, “What’s this, you’re married?”

He took the ring from me, slipped it on his finger and said, “Not yet. Just engaged.”

“Zack,” I said to the sleeping boy. “Wake up.”

He opened his eyes, yawned and mumbled, “Sorry, I’m really tired.” He sat up and cradled his head in his hands, his long hair spilling like a veil across his face.

“It’s been a long night for everyone,” I said. I pushed a cup toward him and said, “Here, this isn’t very good, but it’ll wake you up.” He sipped the coffee and made a sour face. I said, “So you’re Chris’s boyfriend. I didn’t know he had one.”

He put the cup down with a clatter, looked at me with his too-blue eyes and blurted out, “Chris is dead.”

I was so tired that it occurred to me I was dreaming this conversation, and that any moment I would wake up, my head filled with the receding image of bright blue eyes and the echo of “Chris is dead.” But then Zack began to sob, loudly and uncontrollably, and his body shuddered as if someone had picked him up and was shaking him, and I realized I was not dreaming.

“Stop that,” I said sharply.

Zack looked at me, and whatever was in my face at the moment silenced him.

“I’m sorry,” he stammered.

“What happened to Chris? Was he killed in the earthquake?”

He shook his head. “Someone killed him.”

That stopped me. “What do you mean?” I said sharply. “Killed? Who killed him?”

“I don’t know,” he said, on the verge of tears again.

“Calm down,” I said. “Okay? Take a deep breath. Now let it out. Again.”

He gulped air with an almost comic intensity, but it quieted him. For a moment, we sat looking at each other. There was something about Zack Bowen that struck me as childish or, rather, childlike; an exaggeration of affect, a pop-eyed emotionality.

“Feel better?” I asked him.

He nodded.

“Now let’s start over,” I said. “Tell me about Chris.”

He took another deep breath and said, “He was working late last night. In the courthouse? I went to talk to him, but when I got there, he was on the floor and there was blood all over the place.” He rushed the words as if they had a bad taste. “I felt for a pulse but he was already cold.”

“What did you do then?”

“I went home,” he said. “I didn’t know what else to do. My clothes were—I had to change my clothes.”

“Why didn’t you go to the police?”

Shamefaced, he said, “I didn’t think of it.”

“You didn’t think of it?” I asked incredulously.

“I was afraid…” his voice trailed off.

“That they would arrest you for killing him?”

Now he really did get pop-eyed. “I swear I didn’t do it. I would never hurt Chris.”

But I wasn’t inclined to let him off so easily. I said, “If you didn’t kill him, why were you afraid to go to the police?”

“I know what the cops are like,” he said. “The way they ask you questions, you get totally confused and pretty soon you’re saying things you don’t mean and the next thing you know they got you.”

This had a familiar ring to it.

“You’ve been arrested before,” I said. “What charge?”

He picked at a fingernail and mumbled, “Six-forty-seven-b.”

Penal Code section 647(b): soliciting an act of prostitution. That he knew the code section meant he’d been arrested more than once. I had a sinking feeling about all of this, Chris’s murder, this kid. It began to have the ring of something sordid.

“You hustled?”

“A long time ago.”

“Is that how you met Chris?”

“I said it was a long time ago,” he replied, his eyes daring me not to believe him.

“Okay. Tell me exactly what happened yesterday,” I said. “From the moment you got up until you found Chris. And Zack, tell me the truth.”

“That’s what I’ve been telling you,” he said.

3

H
E LIVED IN THE
valley and he worked as a waiter at a restaurant on Sunset Boulevard in Silver Lake. I knew the place, an upscale Mexican restaurant with a tin roof and twenty-dollar entrees frequented by gay yuppies. He and Chris had not spent the night together.

I interrupted him. “How long have you been seeing him?”

“About six, seven months,” he replied.

I was full of questions about how a Superior Court judge had entangled himself with an ex-hustler, if ex is what Zack was, but the immediate issue was Chris’s murder, so I saved them for later.

Still, I couldn’t resist asking, “Did you know he was married?”

Zack nodded.

“How did he manage to spend nights with you?”

“He only did that since he left her,” Zack said guilelessly.

“He left his wife?” I said, astonished. “When?”

“Last month?” he said. “Yeah, last month. He was staying at a hotel until he could find a place. I wanted him to move in with me, but he thought that would be too hard on his son.”

And too public, I thought, but just said, “I see,” remembering I’d had coffee with Chris within the past month and he hadn’t said a word to me about any of this. “Okay, back to yesterday. Did you see Chris during the day?”

“No. He called me just before I went to work, and asked me to come to the court when my shift was over because he wanted to talk to me.”

“About what?”

He looked away. “I don’t know. He didn’t say.”

“But you had an idea of what he wanted, didn’t you?”

He looked at me as if I was telepathic. “No,” he lied. “Not really.”

“You said you’d tell me the truth,” I reminded him.

After a moment, he said, “I thought maybe he wanted to break up with me.”

“Why did you think that? Did you have an argument?”

“No, we didn’t fight,” he said. “Chris didn’t fight, he just got quiet, like he had something to say but he wasn’t saying it. That’s how he’s been the last few days. It drove me crazy trying to figure out what it was.”

That sounded like Chris, all right, but I knew Chris. The question was, who was Zack. Most of the hustlers I’d run into were street kids with fifteen-year-old faces and sixty-year-old souls, usually violent only in their self-loathing, but sometimes capable of turning it against their tricks. I’d been thinking that something like that had happened to Chris, but Zack didn’t seem to fit the mold. I didn’t sense any banked rage in him, only a victim’s passivity.

BOOK: The Death of Friends
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