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Flash Essay, 12-2: Remembering
Bill Partlow, 1960-1996

By Chris Dohse
Copyright 2004 Chris Dohse

(Editor's Note: The following was first posted by the Estate Project for Artists with AIDS, a project of Alliance for the Arts, on this page, in a group of testimonials organized by David Gere. It was also read out loud at the New York Public Library. Reprinted by permission of the author. Bill Partlow was an actor, singer, dancer and director, and founder of the AIDS Theatre Project.)

Bill and I lived together in an apartment near the university where we were both in acting school, Wright State University on the outskirts of Dayton, Ohio. Wright State's campus has a unique feature. The buildings are all connected by underground tunnels, so that in Ohio's frequently harsh winters students don't need to go outside between classes.

For Christmas in 1979 we both got roller skates. This was the height of the roller disco fad and we were obsessed with Cher's contribution to the genre, "Hell on Wheels."

A few nights after Christmas, Bill and I were draped on the couch of our apartment, bored. It was too cold to go to the bars so we thought it would be a great idea to break into the deserted tunnel system (the school was closed for the holidays) to try out our new skates. We got in somehow and began flitting around.

Outside the costume shop, on the basement level of the theatre building, we found a gigantic heap of clothes. Unwanted donations apparently. We began to try things on. We ended up in a couple of stale-smelling 1950s housedresses, the kind of things Aunt Bea might have worn. Then we found hats and purses to complete our transformations into frumpy 1950s housewives. On roller skates. We began to call each other by our mothers' names. I became Phyllis Elaine and Bill was Mary Ann.

So off we skated into the maze of tunnels to do a full lap of the campus in these outfits. In a snowbound Ohio landscape. In 1979. In the middle of the night.

As we clung to each other, bumped into walls (Bill wasn't so bad but my skating skills were atrocious) and shrieked with laughter, we'd sigh and say things to each other like, "Oh, Mary Ann, it's a trial on my soul." This had become one of our favorite things to say to each other. We also made frequent gestures like this (hand at neck), which we called "clutching our pearls," or this (hand on head), which we called "poofing" our hair.

Suddenly, we heard keys jangling at the end of a corridor. We were trapped in the center of a long straightaway, with no way to escape before being seen. I gasped, "Whatever shall we do?"

Bill grabbed me by my shoulders and manhandled me into a wild trajectory away from the approaching guard. Pursing his lips, he advised, "Phyllis Elaine, skate like a madwoman!"

This advice has proven endlessly sound again and again when I find myself in dead ends. Bill was an original. A spontaneous, generous, talented human being whose courage and compassion never wavered. His memory irrevocably shapes me.

As I skate like a madwoman through my life, I smile to think of Bill, clutching his pearls in Paradise.

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