I was saddened and somewhat surprised to hear of the death of Russ Reiley, a very funny guy with an awful lot of darkness around him, some of which I unfortunately helped to stoke. My surprise was not that he had died – he suffered from diabetes his entire life – but more that I hadn’t heard. A close mutual friend hasn’t mentioned the news to me, even though he apparently died in 2004, but I think I know why, which I’ll go into later.
I met Russ through Firing Squad, a sketch comedy group I was in during my first NY stint. In one of our few reviews – I think it was the long-defunct paper Downtown – he and I were singled out for “deft comic timing” or something like that. I enjoyed working with Russ, and loved his sense of humor. He was a native Manhattanite and brought the weird coiled energy of that select tribe to everything he did.
Comedically, he was one of the strangest, and therefore best in my book, conceptual thinkers I ever met. I remember a poem that he wrote:
The Ballad of Johnny Reb
Little Johnny Reb,
Fighting for the gray,
Off to save the south
On an August—–
Shot!! Right in the knee!!
Jesus Christ, that hurts!
Son of a bitch!!
He was fascinated with the banal, and loved the idea of icons being revealed as schmucks. A sketch he wrote that never came to fruition – Russ was not a great finisher – was called “The Devil Ain’t Nothin’ But a Sandwich.” In it, two teens conjure up the devil and ask him to wreak havoc. The devil then makes the lights turn on and off and botches a card trick. The teens leave, disgusted, as the devil cries out, a la Ned Glass, “You kids! You make this woild rotten!” I know that he threw the last line in for me. We shared a love for West Side Story (one of the things that unites us with the spouse), and for one solid week after I discovered this fact, I couldn’t stop saying things in my not-very-good Ned Glass voice to the point where Karl, future husband, one night rolled over and groaned, “Oh God, I’m marrying Ned Glass. Someone help me.”
Through Karl’s illness and my subsequent moves, Russ stayed in touch. I never realized he was completely infatuated with me; I thought we were just really great friends. I loved talking to him on the phone, and when I began to get serious about returning to New York, he promised to help me get set up. My pregnancy with the Eldest derailed that plan, but Russ and I talked all through my pregnancy and after. He encouraged me to write because he had a friend in NY with a small paper, so I sent him a couple of articles. That friend turned out to be the spouse, which is a whole other post.
However, this is where the story begins to tangle up off its so-far merry path. Through my stormy relationship with the Eldest’s sire, Russ was there for me. He wrote me a beautifully eloquent note at one point, in the guise of a civil war soldier (clearly, he was fascinated by the period) communicating with the Widda Perkins. I only remember it said something along the lines of, “I am under the stars thinking of a hot meal, and of how I love you.” It was so tender and sweet, it brought tears to my eyes. One night soon after, I called Russ and couldn’t get in touch with him. I thought, oh shit, he died. So I left him a message and said, “Look, if you’re dead, I’m going to be really sorry that I never told you I loved you. But I do.”
It was true at the time. In our phone relationship, Russ was completely on; he didn’t have to sustain anything beyond an hour call. We also had similar taste, shared experience, and he was one of the only people I had left from my time in New York; relationships have been built on much less.
Post that, things went thick and fast. The editor/spouse had a job opening, so I and the then 2-yr-old Eldest flew to NY to meet him (couldn’t STAND him, but he eventually offered me the job and I took it) and spend time with Russ. It was clear in person that we weren’t such a great match after all. I assumed Russ was extremely experienced with women – he was so funny and cool, he was in a hit comedy group, the Poster Boys, at the time, and part of his phone persona was man-of-the-world. But he wasn’t one, and my own life as a love veteran/widow/single mother who’d never been married to the paterfamilias was a lot for a novice to deal with; frankly, I didn’t want to trust myself to a novice. On top of that, Russ, by his own admission down the road, had lied pretty consistently to me, about apartments, how things would be paid for including my plane ticket, spending time with him in LA while his group shot a TV pilot (never happened), the seriousness of his illness (I didn’t know from childhood-onset diabetes), and probably a lot more.
By the time I moved to NY, it was all over but the shouting. Russ was pissed, and he was already a pretty angry guy. We had a couple of very ugly phone altercations, and of course the fan really hit the radiator when I started seeing the spouse a year later. (Of course, a lot of people were furious, incredulous, or just downright nasty about that one. Maybe I’ll write about it some time.)
I tried to patch things over with Russ, but the one time we met to go to a museum with the Eldest in tow, the naked hurt, anger, and betrayal in his eyes was too unpleasant. When I was pregnant with the youngest, there seemed to be no point in continuing anything; I got the feeling he felt like I was rubbing in the fact that he’d introduced me to the spouse in the first place with my big belly.
Apparently, he and the spouse sort of made things up before DP, I, and the offspring left the city. But honestly, Russ didn’t have that big of a bone to pick with DP. I was the object of obsession, and sadly, remained so. I asked our mutual friend, mentioned earlier, about him once, and she said, as kindly as possible, that if he heard about either me or the Eldest, he would either go completely silent or cry.
Over the years, especially in the last year when tracking people down via Facebook and other means has become so easy, I’ve thought about sending him a note or something, saying that I’m truly sorry that he’s unhappy, and that I wish him well. But I could never figure out how to do it in a way that wouldn’t seem self-serving, condescending, or stupid. Had I been able to succeed, I honestly didn’t want to start up any kind of conversation. I’d tried. It wasn’t going to work. So I had resolved myself to hearing, at some point, that the diabetes had finally prevailed.
And now that day has come.
I think I know why the friend never told me. I think Russ knew that, if push came to shove, I would have wanted to come and say goodbye, and I am guessing he asked her to specifically not say anything. She’s very loyal, and if she promised him that, and he would have asked for a promise, she would keep her word – and afterward, what do you say? Anyway, I don’t think Russ wanted to see me for a variety of reasons. He had a melodramatic turn, and I’m sure there was a bit of the “let her remember me as I was” sentiment to it; I know that he had at least 2 amputations, probably his legs. But I think that the real reason was that he didn’t want to deal with me emotionally, or with the very full chasm that grew between us. I had made it plain to him that I wasn’t sorry for the way things had turned out. It was Russ’s choice to insist that I had been unfairly stolen from him, to believe that I had betrayed him. Neither of those things are true, so I could never apologize to him for them. And I guess I still haven’t forgiven him for holding so tightly to delusions about the two of us. He told me once that he lived in a world of fantasy, so he at least was aware of it. But a really great friendship was destroyed. I don’t know if we’re equally to blame. Doesn’t really matter, does it?
(Then again, Russ may not have said anything and the friend just assumed my knowledge would only complicate things. Clearly, she had plenty to deal with. At some point, we’ll work it out.)
If I could see him one more time, I would thank him for making me laugh so much and for being a great friend. As long as the boundaries were in place, we were good. I wish I could ask him to forgive me …. but for what? I don’t know. Honesty, for telling him the relationship in person was not working? Impulsiveness, for falling in love with him over the phone? Practicality? When it became clear that he didn’t have a steady paycheck coming in, I said, “What did you think we were going to live on?”, he answered, “We’ll live on love!” It would have been charming in the phone stage. In the reality stage, when I had a kid to feed on the mean streets, it was not.
The worst part is, I have realized that I am still angry at Russ. I am angry that I ended up as the epicenter, or at least a major ingredient, of his torrent of dark feelings, his self-loathing and rage. He didn’t deserve to feel that way about himself. But there was no way he could hear that from me while he was alive, and obviously, now that he’s dead, no way he can hear it from anyone.
For what it’s worth, I truly hope he rests in peace. I hope death for him was solace. I hope he died smiling; I’ve known people who did. And while I’m truly sorry to have been the source of tremendous pain for him, I know that for a long time, I was a source of happiness.
I know that in the end, that doesn’t really balance out.
For that, I am sad.