25 November 2013

"The Comet " in memoriam U Roberto "Robin" Romano 1956-2013

The Comet                                        

I first met Robin at a "Justice For Farm Workers" benefit. My friend Maggie, who is lovely and brilliant and kind  and- rather importantly for this story-- as much of a tall girl as I am, had invited me, partly,because I am interested in justice for farm workers, partly because I have donated my services to be auctioned off for the cause, but mostly? because I really like parties.Also, Maggie shares the same delusion that happily married people everywhere share, which is that their unmarried friend would be happily married too, if their married friends take them to enough parties. As this is a delusion that often involves free wine and sometimes even snacks? Count me in.
She whispered in my ear, "Here comes Robin..he did that amazing documentary about chocolate-" but that was far as she got, because a very short, very charismatic and slightly pudgy whirlwind had just pulled up in front of us. Maggie and I both hover around 6 feet tall...Robin cavorted blithely on the sunnier slopes of 5'4 or so. He said, "Oh look! It's the twin towers!" and cackled madly.
Maggie introduced us, and I said, glibly, "Oh! You're the chocolate guy!"- Which I might not have said if I had known that his brilliant documentary "The Dark Side of Chocolate" was actually a compelling expose of child labor exploitation in Tanzanian cocoa fields. But ignorance is bliss. (-Except in retrospect, when ignorance involves a great deal of wincing. )
Robin was U Roberto Romano, one of the greatest documentarians, social justice voices, and photographers of our generation. At the time, all I knew was that we instantly seemed to be attracted to each other like those little black and white magnetic Scottie dogs one got in gumball machines when I was a kid. This was a bit odd, because in my former life,  my romantic path had been littered with Grade A Certified Prime Adonises, and Robin was not, at first glance, exactly the Apollo of Bellac...a head shorter, wearing what sometimes seemed to be three or four pairs of impatiently-pushed-up-reading glasses at a time, prematurely salt and pepper hair. In repose, his handsome face could look old beyond his years, and unfathomathomably sad ...but as his face was never IN repose, I wouldn't learn that till later. 
Instead, we started talking. And never stopped.
 I don't delude myself that it was my mind that brought him over to say hello to Maggie and to me...I was wearing sky high high heels and a black leather minidress. It's not like I had a sign over my head that said "Talk to me about Foucoult!" 
But after the first few minutes, we never bothered with small talk again. For one thing, my casual "What do YOU do?", was a question that acquired an interesting echo in the subtext of his answer, He didn't say  "I care passionately about helpless people who are exploited or hurt, and i do everything in my power to bring attention to the people, places, and situations involved, because sunlight is a great disinfectant", but  as he matter o factly talked about his documentaries-"The Harvest","The Dark Side of Chocolate", the great "Stolen Childhoods", et all... that passion was like a vibrating chord, behind the way he talked about his work.  -And he entranced me when, in answer to a similar question, I sheepishly murmured "I'm a, a, well, I'm an intuitive..." he looked at me with straightforward interest and said "And why are you embarrassed about that?"

We left the party speedily, when it became clear that we just needed to talk a lot, immediately, and possibly forever. We somehow landed in a West Village bistro without noticing where we were, and had garlicky mussels and inky red wine; talking avidly,both of us waving our hands to illustrate important points, interrupting each other...so utterly, mutually, happily absorbed, that we didn't notice the waiters had placed all the chairs but ours, upside down on the surrounding tables, and were smiling  indulgently,if wearily, at the two oblivious grownups acting like happy kids.

Our second date was impromptu, and not exactly a second date, as we had been talking, texting and writing each other almost hourly, since the moment we parted that night, if only because we had the exact same," S.J. Perelman Is My God" sense of humor, and neither of us was used to someone being equally quick and equally caustic. He had been away on a shoot, acting as cinematographer for a documentary about meditation being taught to kids in inner-city Baltimore.
Five days later he had texted me just as I was ending a session with a client. [-Some back story here: I am an Intuitive Consultant. A few years ago, I discovered a gift for being able to describe people, places and circumstances i would have no way of knowing about rationally,and for predicting events that hadn't yet happened, with an accuracy I both can't explain and am often a little embarrassed about. After being sanctioned by a kind article in "The New Yorker", which lent me a  social credibility not usually accorded to folks who pursue this vocation, I wound up opening up a fulltime "practice". I make no wild claims for metaphysics, or for possessing special powers from a nebulous "beyond"...I might just be reading microexpressions, or be a really good guesser..but I try to be ethical, non-"leading", and supportive: people seem to enjoy and get value from our time together.]

I arrived for our last minute lunch, still wearing what I had worn to the office: no makeup, hair scraped back higgledy piggledy into a schoolmarmish bun, and a floor length dress so modest that Amish women were stopping me on the street and saying, "Dear, we think you could show a LITTLE more flesh here.."
I could see that my new flame was a little taken aback..where was the vivid glamourpuss from earlier that week?
He was an avowed feminist, but he was also a guy, and a visual one. That's just how it was.
But ten minutes into that late dejeuner, we were laughing like five year olds who'd just balanced a bucket of whitewash over the schoolroom door: and some five minutes later, we realized two hours had gone by.
There was a moment of abashed silence: what the hell was going on here?
Then Robin said, with the same earnest intensity he always had when serious: "Look, I want our honeymoon to be in Saint Petersburg. I want to show you the harbor at sunrise, as the ferry pulls in." He took my hand and raised it to his lips, while holding my gaze. He wasn't smiling: rather, looking at me questioningly, and very seriously.
"Is that a proposal?", I asked. I was somewhat taken aback.
"Yes. It is. I want someone I can spend the remaining years talking to, who interests me. You have a wild mind and a great heart. Also, I think you're hell's bells beautiful. -Despite today's outfit, of course."
I was silent. So Robin said, "I am also completely smitten. Always will be. So there it is."
I thought for a minute. Neither of us had had a serious relationship for three or four years..my heart was behind glass, or, more accurately,  barbed wire, after a previous- and spectacularly illstarred -engagement. But when Robin and I met, there was instantly a feeling of, "Oh, THERE you are. What took you so damn long?"
So I said "Well okay then. You're on. On a "let's see" basis, but I'm up for it."
And we both grinned at each other. And got the check, so we could get on with this new life as soon as possible. I had a meeting to go to; he had to go see his mother, so we kissed and vanished in opposite, but ultimately reconcilable, directions.

Why? Where did this instant,bone deep familiarity, come from? Some reasons: we had had similar, although wildly different, lives, but we shared a sometimes inconvenient impatience with expectations or convention, or bullshit.We both possessed a very New York kind of class fluidity that makes one either an "insider" who faces out..or an ":outsider" who forever has his or her nose pressed against an invisible window looking in on unattainable but tantalizingly close treats and treasures..even when it seemed to others, that we were already in possession of some of these.We both had had some privilege: private schools, comfortable upbringings...and a family love of culture,art, ideas.  We were both from what I jokingly called "Semi-Semitic" families...we each had wildly disparate and farflung circles of friends, from teachers and busboys and cabdrivers to celebrity,and intellectual friends...we'd even dated members of the same literary American Royal family...and we each had chosen unconventional and difficult careers, driven by curiosity and a restless, or reckless, impulse to keep following the next step, of what felt the most true in each moment.

And we had the same interior altars, the same sacred things.The first poem he sent me, was a Cavafy poem I have framed on my desk, something he had no way of knowing. We quoted the same obscure Marx Brothers dialogue, loved the same weird paintings, even took similar photographs- although his were masterly, while mine were, uh, not. (With his typical bluntness, he once said, after perusing my photographs: "You have one of the best natural gifts for composition, I've ever seen. But your technique is for shit. No problem, I'll teach you.")  What he had, that I didn't even think about having till after until I met him, was a passionate and public commitment to social justice. I tend to operate on a more personal, local and random level- I'm the whackjob who has waded in and yanked the kids away from a parent beating them on the street, while a crowd of  sidewalk gawkers stood by and watched, as I got my wrist broken with a tire iron for my pains -but the kids were rescued...He was the guy who would face down the leaders of a child sex slave ring, rescue the kids, make the documentary...and eventually get kidnapped and tortured for his bravery.

He was. like many of the funniest people on the planet (of which he was one), deeply thoughtful, even melancholy,below the surface. Unexpectedly for such a Norman Mailer-ish alpha man (broad chested, bluegreen eyed, unapologetically male), he was wildly sensitive, and empathetic, and capable of a gentleness deeper than any I'd ever encountered. He was also completely enchanting with children...upon meeting my 3 year old friend Leo, he bowed gravely, and spoke to Leo as though he was a Very Important Personage. Leo was instantly Robin's acolyte, forever.

After our odd, alfresco agreement, we had a hard time, for a time, finding time to see each other...we were both caretaking elderly parents..I was moving back to NYC, and he lived mostly in a light filled house on a lake upstate, but when I fretted about not being able to come see him because of work, he texted, "There will be world enough and time. That's a promise...and I keep my promises."

It was a promise it was not in Robin's power, to keep.

When he didn't return my goodnight text, on Halloween, I thought---with the solipsism of the newly in love woman, and the insecurity of the no-longer-twenty-five-year-old-girl:  "oh, okay, I guess he's having second thoughts.." I was a little miffed, and retreated into an unwonted formality, in my next texts..none of which he answered. As the day, and then evening, and then morning, went by, I tried to talk back to my anxiety: he was busy, he "needed space"-(an abominable phrase, if not used in reference to astronauts)..take it easy, Per. Lighten up.
But I still had a feeling something was wrong..really, really wrong. My intuitive ability is not so hot when it comes to myself or those I love, but it's still strong enough that I had to fight back against a rising tide of absolute terror.
So I cast romantic dignity aside and texted, emailed and called. Over and over and over.
"Baby, just taking anything romantic off the table for a moment, for God's sake let me know you're alive, okay? Robin?...Darling...Please."

And finally, "Robin. Please. Answer..answer..ANSWER, Love."

No reply.

So when the phone rang on the morning of November 2nd, while I was a bit hungover from a Day of the Dead party the night before, I was somehow both prepared -and completely unprepared- for the voice on the phone...his best friend and caretaker, a woman he spoke of often with great warmth.

"Hi...is this Peri? You don't know me..I'm a friend of Robin's...I'm afraid I've got some bad news. You'd better sit down..."

Robin, the most wildly, vividly alive person I'd ever known, had killed himself. I still don't know how...in his car, medication...all I know is that he left my engagement ring in an envelope with my name and number and a heart on it. And a note that said "The body's in the garage."

He was 57 years old.

And so one life ends. And another life, the life we had been having such fun planning together, ended as well.


I have another life now, one that doesn't include two hundred texts traded daily between passionate, entranced and delightedly surprised, slightly middle-aged lovers, starting at 5 AM and ending at 10 in the evening. My life now doesn't include that dance between intimacy and shyness, an exploration of the gap between how well we understood each other already..and and how much more there was to know. I don't,these days, wake up to an image of sunrise on his lake,taken when he woke at dawn... a photo by one of the world's great photographers, the size of a postage stamp on my phone but still carrying the unsaid message of "I see this and I want you to see it the way I do. Because you do." I don't have four hour phone conversations, an adolescent ritual reinvented by two people who had lived long enough to be hurt, badly, and were trying to find out - sometimes tactfully, sometimes bluntly- if it was possible to love again without having one's soul injured...if this glimpsed and longed for-but-given-up-on possibility actually existed as solidly as it looked..if this one last  game was worth the candle, as the cardplayers of the 19th century used to say.

I've heard that a comet presages the death of kings. The night Robin died, there were meteorite showers, bright and visible even near the crowding-out light of the city we both loved and (sometimes) lived in.
Robin was someone who would have jeered at the cliche of "good night sweet prince", and perhaps especially at flights of angels singing anyone to his or her rest..."I'm a light sleeper, that would really be annoying,", he would have said. But he had an almost angelic compassion for the hurt, the exploited and the voiceless...and a near-demonic energy to carry out his work to help, to draw attention, to create a conscience, for those with , as his great documentary had called it.."Stolen Childhoods".

"People ask me, "how I can do this kind of work. How can I care, with life being so busy? How can I find the time to help? How do I do this? " And all I can think of to tell them is, "How can you NOT?"

He leaned back and looked at me, with a kind of baffled, hurt wonder.

"How can they not care?", he would ask.

 "How can they NOT?"


Peri Lyons. Brooklyn, NY, November 3, 2013

IMPORTANT POSTSCRIPT: Robin and Len Morris started a school in Kenya. If you were moved by this story, or even if you weren't- please visit http://www.kenyanschoolhouse.org/  and make a donation. It would make Robin happy, and it's a great place to start.

Maggie, Robin, Peri      "Justice For Farm Workers" Party,  Sept 2013  NYC

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