Just like a whisky bottle drained on the floor,
She got no future, just a lot to endure.
"The Ghost Inside"
In 1995 I had myself tested for HIV. Long before that, I knew to use a condom, to stay away from intravenous needles that weren’t fresh from the package, and to treat blood as a biohazard. The day before I received my test results, I wrote a letter to one of my sisters. I didn’t grow up with this sister, nor anyone in my father’s family, but less than two months after my best friend’s death I found myself on the Oregon coast with the whole family: dad, stepmom, both sisters, their husbands and kids. I arrived at the family vacation awash in the grief with no name, neither orphan nor widow; and the crush of living in close quarters, the push to have fun with people I loved but did not know, these slammed up hard: grief rear-ending family fun. When I felt anything at all it was the sensation of being packed in layers of cotton batting and ice. My sisters, so young, neither within spitting distance of thirty -- or twenty-five, for that matter -- death had never touched them. I could not speak my feelings to them. Hell, I could barely contain those feelings. I tried. It wasn’t long before my husband put me in the car and drove me up and down the coastline while I screamed.
Before going to the coast, I had called a friend. “How can I do this? How do I talk about Jose? How can I not talk about him? They’re Seventh Day Adventists. I know how the church feels about homosexuality.” When this friend told me to bear witness, I found myself remembering the beauty of Jose dying:
At the coast each night, I lay awake in the shared room where my husband, my father, and my stepmother lay sleeping. Each night I slipped out of bed, got my pictures of Jose, and fell asleep with them spread around me. I didn’t know what I was doing. This was a time in my life when my favorite picture was of my best friend dying: light caressing his cheekbones, illuminating his brow, his eyes rolled heavenward; here Jose is retablo, altar, ecstatic saint; here he is Christ reclining before God in the final hour, terrific to behold. I was stricken, possessed of a grief that upon my return home had me sharing an eight by ten glossy of this with all comers, exclaiming its beauty. Frank and me both.eyes closed, chin
lifted, cheekbones carved and wood-brown
translucent as petals, lips
for water, eager
Nearly a year later, as I waited for my HIV results, I composed that letter to my sister. I didn’t know it at the time, but I was writing to do what I hadn’t known how to do at the coast: to find, or maybe to create, a space for the emotions I felt and also to create a space for my friends, my dead and dying friends, whom the world so readily condemned or simply denied altogether. That was a part of the world I could not understand but I think on some level I understood that, as represented by my father and my sisters and my stepmom, this world did care about me, and so perhaps it could care about those for whom I bore witness. To my sister I wrote, “Another friend has died.” I had been practicing that phrase. From the time Jose died, I practiced saying it to those whose lives remained unmarked by AIDS.
To my sister, a nurse, I wrote that my friend Frank had only nine T cells left. This sister worked on a small reservation in rural Idaho at the time, so I wasn’t sure how much she knew about T cells. The T cell is a principal type of white blood cell. Its job is to identify foreign antigens in the body and to activate the other immune cells. Each human body starts out with approximately 1000 to 1500 T cells. When the body gets down to 500, it's in danger of contracting thrush, a fungal disease that erupts in a white, yeasty coating on the throat, inside the mouth, on the tongue; usually accompanied by fever and diarrhea. At 200 T cells, the body is in danger of contracting pneumocystis pneumonia, a standard indicator of AIDS. I told my sister that a count of 200 T cells is what the CDC -- the Centers for Disease Control -- defines as AIDS, that when you have HIV and your T cell count dips below 200, you’re considered to have AIDS whether or not any opportunistic diseases are present. I hoped these numbers could convey to her just how scary it was to know that Frank was down to nine, a tiny committee of nine T cells to fight off all infections. I didn’t tell her that we had named them. Silly names like Tabitha and Endora and Jose Jr.
As I wrote, I found myself remembering when Jose had only two T cells. He gave me the news over the phone, pronouncing his fate with the astonishment of a scholarship boy discovering he’d gotten into an Ivy League college.
“You have two?” I said. “What are you going to do with them?” It was the same voice that had popped out of me when Jose learned that one of the opportunistic infections was causing his brain to shrink. After that, whenever Jose forgot something I’d say, “Well, what do you expect Jose, your brain is shrinking” and we’d laugh. Longtime survivors say attitude is everything. People who give up die.
When I began writing The Movie Lovers, less than half my circle of friends were gay. Used to be that most of my friends were gay, but there’s been some attrition. That’s where my education began. My AIDS education. For most of mainstream America it’s fair to say that AIDS education didn’t get rolling until the 1994 release of Philadelphia; until that time, Longtime Companion was the only feature length film to deal explicitly with the subject. In 1990, the same year it hit movie theaters nationwide, Longtime Companion aired on public television and that’s where I saw it, right here in my Portland Oregon living room with my husband, Cliff, my best friend, Jose, and his partner, Frank. The movie closes on an empty beach on Fire Island, the same beach that is packed belly-to-back with laughing, tanning, cruising gay men at the beginning of the story; now it lays as abandoned as the rumpled sheet of an unmade bed. A woman and two men walk across the sand, just the three, talking about those who’ve died, and as the credits roll a place called the Post Mortem Bar appears, repopulating the scene with lost companions. Afterward, this ending was all we could talk about, and odd as it sounds, I believed our conversation focused on this scene because we found it to be so moving, not because we thought any of us would ever end up there. At least, that’s not what I thought. Not then.
When the story line in Longtime Companion ends, 1989, I was still half a year away from meeting Jose. I was maybe a year away from his long distance phone call: “I’m gay.” Next sentence: "I have AIDS." Not HIV positive. AIDS. Gay I'd already figured and I was touched that he wanted to make an official announcement, but AIDS . . . That knocked the breath out of me.
When the story line in Longtime Companion ends, I was still two years away from Jose sitting on my couch, ashen, silently contemplating his death. I was over four years away from the time when Frank would ask me if I thought Jose’s memory was deteriorating and I would lie -- automatically, just the way I would answer Jose when he asked the same question for the third time in less than five minutes -- automatically and without question. By then Jose had contracted CMV -- cytomegalovirus -- among other things. It had lodged in his brain and was slowly closing things down, a kind of Alzheimer’s of the boardwalk at the end of the season.
Longtime Companion came out just after my 30th birthday. The story itself begins ten years earlier, on a sunny May morning in 1981, and opens to a tableau of young, buff, beautiful men reading a New York Times article, the first about the new “gay cancer.” Immediately each of these men calls his best friend, his lover, his partner. The straight, single woman in the movie calls her best friend: “Did you read the paper this morning?” At the time, Kaposi’s sarcoma was so rare only doctors had heard of it. And while we all pretty much know what getting Kaposi’s means now, back in 1981, summer on a Fire Island beach was still carefree and, well, gay.
In the summer of 1981 I was twenty-one and had just finished my first year at community college. I don’t remember reading about a “gay cancer.” That fall, the CDC declared the disease that would come to be known as AIDS to be an epidemic, but I didn’t hear about it. I suppose it’s human nature to need a particular individual, a face, someone to be drawn into our orbit or we into his, before we can care about an entire group of individuals. At that time there were no openly gay men in my circle of friends.
Just two years later, in the spring 1983, the men in Longtime Companion have moved on from reading about a cancer that an unlucky few might develop to talking about a disease called AIDS. They know it’s sexually transmitted. They alternate between worrying and reassuring themselves about past behavior. They practice safe sex. In the spring of ‘83, while I was finishing my associate’s degree, I accepted a dinner invitation from the man who would become my husband. We had sex on the first date. We had sex before we had dinner. Actually, we had sex instead of having dinner: glorious, mind-numbing, lean-against-each-other-and-gaze-in-the-mirror-afterward-in-total-awe sex. We didn’t practice safe sex. We came of age in the ‘70s; we’d never heard of safe sex. Fact is, we probably couldn’t have practiced safe sex even if we’d had a mind to, since the first “safer sex” guidelines weren’t proposed until 1983, right around the time Cliff and I hooked up. Had those guidelines been available, our sexual histories should have inclined us to exercise caution, but again, we wouldn’t have. This isn’t just because, like most heterosexuals, all we worried about was birth control (and the occasional heartbreak), nor because we hadn’t heard about AIDS, though we hadn’t, but because even if we had heard about AIDS, we would also have heard that AIDS was a gay disease, a virus with a bent preference.
But sitting here in a brand new century with all the available facts, I can tell you that 1983 was also the year researchers documented that the so-called gay disease could be transmitted from males to females. Still, facts notwithstanding, AIDS was and will be a gay disease to most Americans. It’s not that people didn’t care, of course; they just didn’t see how this affected them. But those with HIV knew, and they cared.
From Jose I learned how dangerous infection is for a person with AIDS and so when one of my cats accidentally scratched him, I went for disinfectant. I reached to swab the cut with a cotton ball, but Jose drew back and told me to let Frank do it. “It’s only a scratch,” I said, “I’ll be careful.” I felt silly saying even that. The dot of blood was no bigger than an aspirin. But Jose, who was never forceful, insisted: Let Frank do it. Jose was very careful around his friends and family and he took educating others on the subject of HIV/AIDS as a personal responsibility. Facts were facts; Frank was HIV-positive.
Once Frank had bandaged the scratch and I’d put away the disinfectant and cotton balls, Jose turned to Cliff and said, “You know Cat Scratch Fever?”
A metal head from way back, Cliff grinned. “Yeah. It’s a Ted Nugent song.”
Jose was not smiling. “No, the disease. It’s a disease.”
Cliff, Frank, me, we all chimed in, “It is not!” Jose’s trickster sense of humor was legendary. The three of us stood grinning at him like a colony of Cheshire cats. We were not to be fooled.
“It is very dangerous,” Jose assured us solemnly, his accent somehow making the words even funnier.
With Jose there were two things that never ceased to amaze me: the silly “facts” that would pop out of his mouth like gumballs, for example Cat Scratch Fever, which could not possibly be true, and the not so funny fact that half the time he was not joking; some of these things could, and eventually would, kill him. As it turns out, “cat-scratch disease,” or CSD, is quite common not only in Central American countries like Nicaragua, where Jose was born and raised, but all over the world, including the United States. In Texas, where Frank was raised, the number of confirmed cases of CSD the year Jose died was higher than over a half-dozen other animal-borne diseases combined, including Lyme disease and Rocky Mountain spotted fever. Even so, CSD is primarily a child’s disease in the US. It is not considered serious, and treatment is normally considered unnecessary. For the immune compromised, however, cat-scratch disease can cause neuropathy, pneumonia, problems in the central nervous system, and encephalitis. It can be fatal.
In Longtime Companion, 1984 is marked by one of the characters discovering he has a six-inch lesion on his brain: toxoplasmosis. He smiles brightly at his partner. “This explains why I’ve been throwing up.”
I remember 1984 for Cliff’s promotion from boyfriend to live-in partner and for two fabulous forays into urbane culture. The first involved spending spring in Manhattan. Not only did this trip mean three glorious months of theater, art, and music while I studied American culture, but at the advanced age of twenty-four it also marked my first time in a big city for more than just a day trip, my first time away from home without a family member, and my first (well, only) time being mistaken for a boy. It was in the Village, naturally. Back home in Portland, my newfound acculturation ushered me straight to the performing arts center where I gained part-time employment and my second entree into urbane culture: theater, opera, music, dance, and as often as not, the chance to chat the night away with a gay co-worker. Although these co-workers were out to most of the younger crew, a few of the older women on staff continued trying to arrange dates between their nieces and some of these “nice young men.” One of these nice young men and I became friends. We’ve been friends for over twenty years now and the last time I saw him he introduced me to a friend of his who referred to him as her ”best gay friend” -- as opposed to her best friend, who was someone else. It’s worth saying that this distinction struck me as far stranger than my being mistaken for a boy.
I didn’t know it, but this friendship would mark a turning point in my life. As a child I had been aware of those nice young men in the family circle the way most people in American families are aware, vaguely. Inevitably there was some male friend of the family, some uncle or nephew or cousin, who straightened the table settings, who helped repaint the kitchen or paper the dinning room, who was so thoughtful; someone who could cook. I was a teenager when my mother demonstrated through the unspoken bond of friendship that all men are created equal, no matter what gets whispered about them. The generation after mine, the HIV generation, grew up with “out” gay men as just another stripe in the rainbow of humanity. For my generation the education was different. For some, the learning began with the shock of a phone call: “I’m gay.” Others, like me, had a gradual accumulation of experiences: school boys who hung around for protection as much as friendship, college boys who risked their not-yet-ready-for-prime-time coming out stories, young men who shared confidences about what went on behind their closet door. So my friendship with one of these nice young men didn’t mark the first time someone came out to me, nor was he my first “best gay friend.” I was twenty-four when this man and I became friends and my life began to become more densely populated by gay men; by thirty-four I was knee-deep in bodies. Truth is, I don’t know that I’d be writing any of this were it not for the fact that my circle of friends became very gay and then, too rapidly thereafter, very dead.
When I graduated from college in the spring of ‘85, I considered myself educated, socially conscious, knowledgeable about what was important in the world; looking back, I’m none too pleased to see my younger self more self-involved than self-aware. Oh, I thought I was aware. I was aware of apartheid in South Africa. I was aware of the starving in Ethiopia and on my twenty-fifth birthday took donations in lieu of gifts. I was aware that the man in the White House was making lousy decisions. (Those who cannot recall who was in the White House in 1985 probably aren’t movie buffs.) I was aware of chlamydia and herpes and that venereal diseases were now called STDs. But mostly I was aware of my pride at having successfully put myself through college and my joy over the diamond class ring my auntie had purchased to mark the occasion. What did I know?
Several of the peripheral characters in Longtime Companion have died by 1985, and I want to say that most heterosexuals had no idea what was happening at this point, not unless we knew someone who was gay, but that’s not quite the case. A national poll taken in 1985 revealed that 72 percent of Americans favored mandatory testing for HIV, over 50 percent wanted to quarantine those with the virus, and 15 percent of us would have preferred the infected be identified by tattoo. When I see statistics like these I wonder how I managed to be so oblivious. Then I remember the collective gasp and the slammed door: Rock Hudson had AIDS, and thirteen-year-old HIV-infected Ryan White wanted to attend public school. I remember the reactions of my family members and non-gay friends. I remember the fear, the judgment: parents, some of them doctors, fearful that their child might try to become blood brothers with the infected; friends who, though they could not tell me to my face, would not allow their children to eat off my plates or drink from my clean glasses because Frank and Jose used them too. I remember everyone was afraid. By 1985, the talk in Longtime Companion has shifted from AIDS to opportunistic infections and drugs: which drug will work best under each circumstance, each individual combination of infections, each version of the compromised life. One of the central characters, Sean, has developed CMV. It eats your brain. After Sean’s memorial, the next scene is his partner’s memorial. Those in the know reel off the latest research: HIV is in saliva. Lovers are afraid to kiss, much less make love. Friends surreptitiously scrub their hands after hugging a hospital-bound buddy.
When Jose died, at the age of thirty, AIDS was the leading killer of American men aged 25 to 44. All men. City boys and country boys. Homo and hetero and bi. The United States is the only country in which HIV originated and flourished in a marginalized and stigmatized population that was, for the most part, out of sight and easy to put out of mind. Because AIDS began here in the gay community, gay and HIV have became fused in our minds. While it should go without saying that gay does not equal HIV positive and HIV positive does not equal gay, HIV/AIDS continues to be considered a predominantly gay disease in the US, statistics to the contrary be damned.
For things we do not wish to look at, we have closets.
* * *In the early days of the AIDS epidemic (an experience for those on the front lines that had the feel of a holocaust, this word with its meaning rooted in burnt offering and sacrifice; not an epidemic, which simply implies prevalence, something widely or commonly occurring), The New York Times refused to acknowledge gay relationships. The Times’ obituary column referred to surviving partners as “longtime companions” of the deceased. “Widows,” Frank called them, his mouth smiling, his eyes serious. It is from this denial of acknowledgment that Longtime Companion takes its name.
* * *
I know from my own experience how hard it is to say what others do not, cannot, or will not acknowledge. For the remainder of the 20th Century, whenever I talked about Jose and the circle of friends I had when he was alive, I usually got one of two responses. One felt like no response in particular inasmuch as I was talking to those who found my lifestyle or life history to be unremarkable, maybe even similar to their own. The other was some combination of shock, awe, and/or multiple questions about why all my girlfriends were men. Being around men whose hearts lead them to partner with other men has never struck me as strange. Love is love, as far as I can tell, attraction is attraction. We go where it leads. What strikes me as strange is that so many of my friends and so many of my friends’ partners died before any of us reached middle age. What strikes me as strange is the fear and anger that splashed back at me when I talked about gay men or AIDS in what appeared to be an educated perhaps even liberal-minded group of individuals. And, finally, what strikes me as strange, strange that it is still here, strange that it is still so strong, is the denial that still surrounds both homosexuality and HIV/AIDS. (Oh, how I wish these two were not so often bound together in the same sentence). My father, for example, a man whom I consider to be clear-eyed and open-minded, a man who makes his home in places where land and sky are wide and spacious, says to me from his couch one day, “I don’t know any gay people.” And I say, “Yes you do, Dad.”
Knowingly or unknowingly, what we deny we sacrifice.
AIDS was declared an epidemic just as the ‘80s opened but most of us didn’t know much about it until 1988 when, seven years after declaring an epidemic, the Surgeon General mailed out 107 million copies of a small pamphlet entitled Understanding AIDS. “Finally!” Cliff and I said, and we laid the pamphlet out on the coffee table. We hoped that our friends, family, visitors would read, discuss, and disseminate this vital information. But instead of encouraging communication, the effect was like holding up a condom in church. Whenever anyone came over, silence ringed the coffee table. Now when I look back, what I find most telling is not the silence, nor that Cliff and I felt the need to show solidarity with those who’d been openly maligned in the media and on the street for “infecting innocent victims,” but that the two of us didn’t talk about getting tested. If we had any doubts, we each did the math and kept it to ourselves.
The spring of 1986 found me working my first full-time job since college graduation and that spring is acid-etched on my mind’s eye because it arrived with an AIDS joke, the first -- and last -- told to me in anticipation that I would enjoy it: “What’s meaner? A junkyard dog with AIDS or the man who bit him?” My curt response cost me an office friendship. I was naive enough not to understand why, but so be it. AIDS is not a joke. AIDS is not a movie. There are no house lights coming up at the end. There is no walking home. Every gay man who has died because of AIDS was somebody’s son, somebody’s brother, somebody’s uncle, nephew, cousin, maybe even someone’s father. In the decades since AIDS was declared an epidemic and safe sex replaced birth control as the number one concern of the sexually active, an entire generation of children has been born, grown, and come to sexual maturity under the Damocles’ sword of HIV. The HIV generation was raised to fear sex in a way that even the Church never conceived of. They never got the freedom that the generation who came of age in the ‘70s had, we with our rallying cry of “If it feels good do it,” but they’d like to. It’s 2004 as I write this, twenty years after Jose’s death, and today over half the new HIV infections among those under the age of 25 is from sexual contact. Heterosexual contact. Abstinence remains as useful a safe sex plan for this generation as it was a birth control plan for mine.
It was May of ‘94, early in the month I think, and it was hot, too hot: too hot to stand in the sun, too hot to move without sweating, and too hot for an already nauseated Jose to ride comfortably in the back seat of an old car without air-conditioning. Somehow I feel I should have known that last one, but we can only see as far as our experience allows.* * *
Jose’s parents and I had brought him home from the hospital in the heat of the afternoon, and I parked my Rambler next to the back stoop because it was the quickest way into the apartment. But Jose was disoriented that day and uncharacteristically stubborn and he simply, and for no reason we could discern, refused to go. A debate broke out in Spanish. Standing in the heat of the sun, what I noticed was the side of the apartment building. Its gray paint had begun to blister but not yet to peel. A moment’s observation. In the time between that day and Jose’s death I would have many hours to study this tabula rasa, hours spent in five and ten minute increments sitting on these steps or atop the retaining wall, Frank chain smoking to the filter, me picking at the brown grass and dirt, both of us breathing the overheated smell of garbage as we worked to save the man we loved, something which we both knew couldn’t be done. I ended the debate between Jose and his parents by taking Jose firmly by the arm, walking him around to the front of the building, up the front steps, over to his front stoop, up those steps, and into his stuffy south-facing apartment. A distance of maybe forty or fifty feet, the trip took ten minutes and left us bathed in sweat. At each set of stairs, each step, I instructed Jose how to walk. Which foot to lift. When.
I got him inside. I got him comfortable. Then he began to vomit. And vomit and vomit and vomit. The jarring ride in my old car, the unseasonable heat, the long walk to his apartment, the toxoplasmosis, the drugs for the toxo, all these had conspired against him. His mother grabbed a bucket. His father brought a cool cloth. I held Jose close to my body, held the bucket close to his face, stroked his hair and told him, “It’s all right sweetie it’s all right sweetie it’s all right.”
When I got home that night my left eye burned with the splash of vomit that was no longer there and my head burned, as with a fever, with the words Jose had spoken so often: all body fluids are dangerous. Even urine might have blood invisible to the eye. Certainly bile could have blood from an inflamed esophagus or stomach. Later -- days? weeks? -- I called an ICU nurse who told me it’s standard procedure to wear goggles when intubating a patient; when a person coughs or chokes, internal fluids get sprayed out along with the exhaled air.
“How careful is too careful?”
“It only takes once,” she said. It’s what we once heard in sex ed classes about the risk of getting pregnant.
That night I returned home to my husband after holding my best friend in my arms while he puked, holding him not because he was drunk or heartbroken but because he was too sick to know what was happening to him; home to my husband and the dark of our back deck, home to make small talk and then to quietly to say, I’ve been exposed; home to make love, the first time in a long while, with no questions and no protection.
Jose died a month later.
The year my best friend died, Philadelphia made a star of Tom Hanks and the title song remains an anthem to the devastation of that opportunistic collection of diseases we call AIDS. Philadelphia, as I mentioned, also bears the dubious distinction of being the first feature-length film to deal explicitly with AIDS since Longtime Companion came out in 1990. But in the summer of ‘89, the year in which the story of Longtime Companion draws to a close, I didn’t know anyone who had died of AIDS. I hardly knew anyone who had died. I wasn’t yet thirty. Thirty was when AIDS was still considered news and Congress passed the Ryan White CARE Act and a small but certain segment of the nation was saying, It’s about time. Thirty was when Frank and Jose were becoming fast friends with Cliff and me, when the four of us heard Maya Angelou speak, heard the resonance of truth in her voice when she said, “Those who have gone before you have already paid your way.” Thirty was when Jose called weekly to announce which movie he and I just had to see. We were crazy about the movies and crazy about each other. Seemed we were best friends in an instant, though that can’t be true, but it was; and thirty was the start of Jose’s tenure as my best friend, the last best friend I’ll ever have, because to be best friends you have to be young in a way I’ll never be again.
* * *
As I sit here editing this book, the book I wrote for Jose, years roll by, decades begin, decades end, centuries collapse in upon themselves and rise again like a goddamned phoenix. Time is never ending. Time is as relentless as AIDS. And if I could find a cure for time, I’d take it.
It’s been a hundred years since I saw Longtime Companion and almost that long since I lost my dearest friend. It took me a year after Jose’s death before I worked up the courage to have myself tested for HIV, a year of alarms sounding in nightmares, a year of immobilizing grief. At some point during that year I realized, for certain and forever, that the world isn’t safe. It never was, of course, and I can’t tell you if the moment at which that became clear to me was when the bile hit my eye, when the best friend I’ve ever had stopped breathing, or if I simply found myself having a lot of those moments and finally stopped counting, stopped tracking, stopped backtracking, and began letting it all wash over me like waves on the beach; like time.
Wondering whether I’d been infected was frightening, but I needn’t have worried. At the turn of this new century, the CDC Surveillance Report on HIV and AIDS Cases in the US had three things to say about how a person is exposed: sex, drugs, and blood. It’s a chant that plays like the B-side to the boomer generation’s mantra of sex, drugs, and rock and roll! All the rest, all that we imagine about how we may become exposed to HIV, is simply variations on this theme, variations on a theme of fear. I’m okay. But I’ve been watching my little corner of the Post Mortem Bar, and it’s filling up like a last minute barbecue on the first real day of summer, filling up with my close friends and family friends, casual friends, co-workers, acquaintances. The three people walking on the beach at the end of Longtime Companion are very much alive. How they get to be at that bar as their dead friends and lovers reappear, I don’t know, but miracles like that are just one of the things I love about the movies; Jose, too.
Here, then, is the miracle at the end of my movie: at the Post Mortem Bar I’ll get to see Carl, the English department secretary from the university where I was a graduate teaching assistant, and I’ll catch up with a beloved linguistics professor there, too; I’ll see Jim, the eldest son of my grandmother’s best friend, an uncle to me, the man whose mother still believes, as the Seventh Day Adventist church wills it, that her son’s death was caused by the sin of his lifestyle; I’ll see Gryphon, the clothing designer with the sterling bone pierced through his nose, who hand-constructed one-of-a-kind, antique-fabric kimonos for my auntie’s boutique; I’ll meet the young men, fifteen or twenty of them, whose pictures were pasted in a handmade shadow box that sat atop a red silk-draped altar in Jose’s room and to which he gestured and said simply, “My friends who have died”; I’ll see Randy, my younger sister’s best friend and roommate, so dear to the family that our aunt referred to him as “one of the kids,” the man who would later arrive at my doorstep with books and pamphlets, tissues and kind words, and answers to questions I didn’t even know I had; I’ll see Garrett, who was always “going to beat this thing” with yoga, special diets, positive thinking, and who looked so bad after Jose died that Frank locked eyes with me and said, “Garrett’ll be next”; I’ll see Aaron, who died a year after Jose, and he’ll hug me and tell me he was always one to feel that he had to take care of those he loved, that he was dying and didn’t have the energy to take care of one more person and that’s why he sent me away, tears, astonishment, and all; I’ll finally get to meet Michael, the partner of the man who is now my closest friend, the love of his life; I’ll meet the brothers and partners dear to all the men and women I met in my AIDS grief group; I’ll most likely see the neighbor from across the street and he’ll see his live-in “nephew,” whose empty hospital bed was all I ever knew of him; I’ll see the acquaintances, co-workers, and neighbors who haven’t died yet but will; I’ll see Jose; and I’ll see all the friends I held in my mind’s eye when Jose entered the hospital for the last time and I called my father in tears to tell him something that, even then as a man of fifty-odd years, he could not imagine: “In ten years, half my friends will be dead.”
It’s been nine years so far, and that circle of friends is gone. All dead. Or shell shocked.
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