My brother didn’t headbutt his way into the world. He sprang forth feet first, a breech baby running toward life in 1959. Sadly, his life would end painfully and all too soon in a New York City AIDS ward 32 years later.
HIGHLANDS RANCH, Colo. – My brother and I were what some might call “Irish twins” – except we weren’t Irish. We were born a year apart in Pueblo, Colo. Our mother had scarcely overcome the upheaval of one birth when she became pregnant again. She could not know it then, but my brother’s painful birth was the first of many fissures that would break her heart.
John Francis Quintana Jr. didn’t headbutt his way into the world. He sprang forth feet first, a breech baby running toward life in 1959. After hours of painful labor, mother’s OB-GYN manually dilated her cervix to release him from the confinement of her womb, and set him on a life path that would end painfully and all too soon in a New York City AIDS ward 32 years later.
In New York City, Johnny Boy had shed his Colorado past, and had assumed the sleeker sobriquet of “Jay.” He had established a lucrative career without the benefits of a formal education or East Coast ties. He employed dozens of women who sewed his couture-inspired drapes, furniture covers and other interior decorations. Though he was not born into the world of gilded frames, tasseled armoires and silver services, Jay’s innate sense of aesthetics drove his creative passion, and earned him the respect of other artisans, architects and old-money clients. Recognition arrived after years of designing cocktail frocks and gowns for wealthy clients in Denver, Los Angeles and New York. Soon, his window dressings and other designs would appear on the covers of national home and garden magazines. He invited our sister Sandra to join him, and the two built a successful business.
~ In New York City, Johnny Boy had shed his Colorado past, and had assumed the sleeker sobriquet of “Jay.” ~
Jay’s star was rising, and the ultimate recognition in the toughest city on the planet came wrapped in a New York Times Sunday Magazine on Oct. 18, 1987, in a story titled “New Talents, New Ideas: Young Hands Practice Age-Old Craft.” The story profiled the work of up-and-coming designers who were excelling in a renaissance of craftsmanship. ”A spectacular dress may only be worn once or twice and essentially pleases only the woman who wears it and perhaps her husband,” the Times writer quoted my brother. ”Curtains are more permanent and can be enjoyed by the whole family.” Jay told our mother he imagined he was dressing a beautiful woman every time he looked at a window. I could tell you we grew up in a family of quiet artists who inspired us to create, but I’d be lying. My brother was a born artist. He created beauty from darkness and design from chaos amid the maelstrom of our childhood.
He was also born gay. In my earliest memory of my brother, he is about 5 years old and his skinny-boy body is wrapped in a white bath towel. Another white towel is wrapped around his head, and he is teetering around our dusty backyard in mother’s high-heeled, pointy-toed pumps singing, ”I’m Chiquita banana and I’ve come to say, bananas have to ripen in a certain way!” At 6 years old, I wasn’t mature enough to articulate or define homosexuality, but I knew instinctively there was something different, exciting and special about my brother. We were close, but he could not articulate what made him dance in heels or break into a flawless Diana Ross imitation in a robe. None of us cared. We simply loved and accepted Jay as he was, with all his glorious idiosyncrasies.
~ In my earliest memory of my brother, he is about 5 years old and his skinny-boy body is wrapped in a white bath towel. Another white towel is wrapped around his head, and he is teetering around our dusty backyard in mother’s high-heeled, pointy-toed pumps. ~
When Jay was a teenager, our stunned mother found a stash of blue-boy magazines under my brother’s mattress. It may or may not have been the impetus, but shortly after that, Jay came out. After a few weeks of stunned silence and absorbing the news, our mother recovered and accepted Jay with open, loving arms. I still remember how happy he felt to be out of the closet. He had grown into a handsome young man with long hair and limbs, and stood nearly 6 feet tall when I left for college. On that day, he bent me over his arm and planted a brotherly kiss on my mouth. I couldn’t know it then, but that kiss was the first fissure that would break my heart.
Everyone says it of loved ones who have died, but it’s really true in my brother’s case. He was one of the best people I have ever known. He had a huge capacity to love. He was kind, gentle and caring. He never judged people, and was never arrogant about his talent, success, looks, lifestyle or sexual prowess. He was good-looking, and drew frequent stares from men and women as he walked down city streets with a confident stride. He had that yo no se que quality that can only be described as sex appeal. He had a thousand-watt smile that could light up a room, and a calm demeanor that belied the poverty and alcohol-fueled violence we knew while growing up around our father.
~ He had a thousand-watt smile that could light up a room, and a calm demeanor that belied the poverty and alcohol-fueled violence we knew while growing up around our father. ~
Jay left us on a summer day in 1992. He was only 32. My mother and sister were at his bedside in New York as AZT burned through his veins in a last-ditch attempt to save his life. I was trying to reserve a flight to New York, but could not get there in time. My mother called me at work to say the end was near, and put the receiver to my brother’s ear. The only words I could speak over and over again were, “I love you. I love you.” His mumbled response was incoherent, but the meaning was clear, “I love you, too.” As I said goodbye to my brother, and our hearts shattered through the phone lines, my co-workers fell silent. The pain in the newsroom was palpable.
Scrawled on the back of a postcard my brother mailed to me years before HIV had ravished his immune system are the words, “Debbie, Hi from New York. I have just moved here from L.A. & I love it! I am doing fashions and interior designs and making a good name for myself. Please write. All my love, Jay.”
Here’s to you, Jay, with all my love.
Deborah Méndez-Wilson (née Quintana-Vigil) is a fifth-generation Coloradan whose mestizo family roots in the United States date back to the early-1700s in Spanish colonial New Mexico. A graduate of the University of Colorado at Boulder School of Journalism and Mass Communication, Méndez-Wilson spent nearly 20 years working in professional journalism for news organizations such as the Associated Press, Reuters, Wireless Week and others. She also has worked as a public relations professional in state government, health care and higher education. She lives in Highlands Ranch, Colo., with her husband and son, and also shares her life with her adult daughter and grandson.