Damien Bona wrote about the movies. Loved them; loved all the vain absurdity that goes into making and appraising them; loved our need for dreams that keeps us watching them.
Damien went to law school; had been, in fact, a real attorney and mature adult, but gave it up to do what he loved. With Mason Wiley, Damien wrote a 1,248-page book called “Inside Oscar: The Unofficial Story of the Academy Awards,” which went into ten editions, as well as other books and articles on film.
In 1983, from separate backgrounds and directions, Damien and I, both arty queers, started work as part-time proofreaders in a huge corporate law firm, whose clients –– Union Carbide, AIG, Goldman Sachs –– were making pantloads of money doing things that did not make the world a better place. Knowing that we were lucky to have this job was hugely depressing. But our real luck lay in being able to share our depression with other writers and actors and dancers and musicians and teachers of the firm’s “support staff,” who also didn’t earn enough doing what they loved.
We came to form a sort of late-capitalist café society that met during evening and graveyard shifts in beige cubicles lit by buzzing fluorescent tubes on the 42nd floor of a hideous (“fly-into-me-next”) Midtown skyscraper. And, while we deferred our own writing or rehearsing or choreography to proof some Dow Chemical brief for typos, it was Damien who offered a way out.
Damien: who one night tacked up a Polaroid of his cat and invited us to add photos of our turtles, frogs, dogs, parakeets, thus creating our signature “Pet Wall,” which magically reappeared each time it was removed by mid-management apparatchiks. Damien: who brought a rubber baby doll to work, blanked out its eyes with Liquid Paper, and baptized it Baby Marie, patron saint of support staff, to whom we prayed for deliverance. Damien: the inane moral center in an infinite abyss of amorality.
As the token communist, I often felt it my duty to launch educative volleys on just how bad our clients were. “Entergy is responsible for the Indian Point Power Plant’s radioactive emissions!” I’d seethe. “Why are we proofreading this Entergy crap?”
“I don’t know, Queenie,” Damien would say. (Possibly to quell my anti-imperialist diatribes, Damien called me Queenie.) “Whenever it’s all too much, I just curl up with a bottle of scotch and watch a Judy Garland movie.”
But in the summer of 1990, Damien’s scotch-and-Judy need abated. Thanks to a well-placed personals ad, Damien met the love of his life.
Ralph Peña had come to the United States to escape the Philippines’ Marcos dictatorship, which had taken a menacing interest in Ralph’s radical theater company. Describing himself as a “fan of James Joyce, walking in the park, and ice cream,” Ralph coded the ad to say he was looking for “something long-term” and to screen out “weirdoes.” It didn’t quite work –– Damien answered. They agreed to meet.
“It was in front of the Chelsea Cinema on 23rd Street,” says Ralph. “And there was Damien. We went to dinner and talked about theater, politics, movies. I was just smitten because I find smarts really sexy. He also had the gentlest eyes. When it came time to go, we headed back to the subway and before Damien took the stairs, I grabbed his hand and didn’t let go. That was the first night. I didn’t let go, and he didn’t let go either.”
Soon, Ralph and Damien were living together. Ralph started the Ma-Yi Theater, dedicated to producing new works by Asian-American artists. Damien wrote. For money, they worked for corporate America, and when they could afford it, they traveled. “We wanted to retire in Paris,” says Ralph. “But then we saw how poor we were.”
Once, sightseeing in London, Ralph remembers, Damien –– probably inspired by the cornball ballad “A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square” –– suddenly got down on one knee. “He didn’t have a ring or anything, but people were looking at us. Then he pointed out that we were in Berkeley Square. And I said, ‘Yes.’ We got our rings as soon as we were back in New York and had our cat bless them.”
At home, to while away their time, Damien and Ralph would name their furniture. “And when we argued,” says Ralph, “we wouldn’t talk to each other; we’d talk to the cat. She became an arbitrator. Sometimes he’d also play ‘Be Careful, It’s My Heart’ on the stereo, real loud.”
Years passed, and Damien, guided by Baby Marie, continued to fund his writing by proofing at the firm, remaining inane, acerbic, hare-brained, humane. Too soon, it was 2012, and one January day at work, Damien began to die.
Sitting at his cubicle, for some inane, hare-brained reason, Damien Bona, 56 years old –– having logged over 28 years of dutiful support staffing –– had a massive cardiac arrest. Taken to Roosevelt Hospital, he lay in a coma for two weeks before Ralph, with the rest of Damien’s family, had to let him go. Damien was taken off life-support on January 29 and died later that day.
“I know Damien and I weren’t perfect,” Ralph says, when we talk on the phone. “We certainly had our moments, our big fights. But I never stopped loving him; I never stopped feeling loved. Should I have spent more time with him? Should I have been at his side 24 hours a day? I would love that now. But that’s not how it works.”
Usually, when I write about something I care deeply about, I’ll end by getting all causey: Call the governor! Send money! Get involved! But not this time.
This time there’s nothing to do. Except maybe to accept the vast truth behind my friend’s death.
“I used to ask Damien,” says Ralph, “’Where are we going? What are we doing? What’s going to happen to us?’ And Damien would always say, ‘It’s happening. We’re already doing it.’
“Which is why I always thought, Susie, I always, always thought that I would go first. Because he’d have had a better perspective. But that was it: It’s happening now. We’re here now. I love you now.”