I had every intention of sitting down at the Starbucks in the Castro to do some work. Core Image, a new technology in Mac OS X Tiger was the topic at hand. By “intending”, I mean to say that on the way to the Castro with Sam, Justin and Nathan I fully expected to work while Sam and Justin got haircuts at Joe’s Barbershop. By the time we got out of the car to head to The Welcome Home for breakfast, as we walked past the Sit n Spin Laundromat & Coffeehouse, as we sat down at The Welcome Home and were served by a waiter who once gave Allen and me a meal discount because he noticed that Allen had “a touch of the flu”—The Welcome Home gave discounts to all Persons With AIDS if you asked for it, and, obviously, even when you didn’t—I knew it was one of those mornings where my head would be filled with my own history and tradition. I knew I’d be lost in the memories of home turf.
I thought of Michael, specifically, when we passed the laundromat: he and I had spent the better part of an afternoon there one day last summer, not long before he headed off to New York. I wondered how he was doing, but then again, except for the day or two after I hear from him, that’s always true. I don’t worry about him, but at times I’m reminded of his being positive and I send good thoughts his way. I’ll never stop caring about those people with HIV, about their health, just about them in general. Maybe that’s just trauma from Allen dying almost ten years ago. Maybe it’s just a sensitivity borne out of my biogeekness and having been surrounded by the spectre of HIV for so long. Who cares, though, really, about why? The thoughts are there, a part of me as much as any thing else is.
I thought of Allen, as I said, when we walked into The Welcome Home. He and I would go there often. He was a man of simple tastes in food and so that place suited him.
By the time that the Posse had headed up the street to Joe’s and I made a left down 18th Street to “go work”, I knew already I would be writing instead of learning how to fake a motion blur in Core Image. I had hoped to flesh out a scene from a longer fictional work that I’ve been neglecting for far, far too long. And it was in this place where I wrote the original 550 pages of my first novel.
As I sat at a cafe table at the front windows, I looked outside and noticed the man pushing another man in a wheelchair, the ones I’d walked around in order to get down the sidewalk faster.
My heart sank, my jaw dropped, and I was right back there in that place that Allen’s death had created. The man in the wheelchair was gaunt and not well. He was wearing shorts that I knew he’d worn even when his legs were enormous—the biggest thighs I think I’ll ever see. Only now the shorts drooped like a sheet around thighs not even as big as my arms. I would not have recognized the man in the chair except for the man pushing him: his partner.
So many men have disappeared slowly and not slowly enough, quickly and not quickly enough. And here was another who was trapped by a pathology out of control. Here was a another whom HIV- people look at and think “That could be me” and whom HIV+ people look at and think “That will be me”.
For my part, I looked at his partner, someone with whom I have a very passing acquaintance, but with whom I suddenly felt a horrifying kinship. You want to protect him, you want to entertain him, you want to distract him. You want others to not look at him in that way even though you look at him that way all the time at home when you think he doesn’t notice. You want to believe that he looks good today. You wish that today was all the time there ever was and ever will be. You are desperate and tentative, like chasing after an infant whose motor skills and capacity don’t even increase and in fact diminish before your eyes.
I don’t ever want to be in that place ever again, but there’s nowhere else I’d be if I ended up there. I don’t want anyone else to be in that place either, but I’m glad they stick around to see life through.
I deny no one frippery and shallowness since everyone should be so blessed and fortunate to be able to afford those luxuries.
I can see why people turn back to god, even though I didn’t. I can see why people curse god or even the universe, but I only cursed those whose dogma and politics overrode their compassion.
I can see all the people whose sense of gravitas and respect for the seriousness of HIV remain compassionate and strong, those people, like me, who learned that strength sometimes requires a complete and utter emotional breakdown in order to dispatch grief far enough away and for long enough a time so that you can get to the business at hand: keeping yourself and others alive for as long as possible.
I could see all the people I’ve known and still know whose lives were inhabited by HIV in first person singular, second person singular or third person plural. I could see all of those whose chosen form of prevention of and protection against HIV is braggadocio or bluster.
Not that I’m criticizing the power of the mind. In fact, the subjective universe shows up far more often in San Francisco than anywhere else I know. I have written many times about the seeming ability for so many of us to conjure up the material from the ethereal. And today, in the bright sunny noon trying its contrarian best to dispense with my personal gloom-doom, it happened again: I picked up my head from my new little dream-catcher and there was Michael! I beamed, then wavered. He seemed to know what was going on with me.
It’s not easy to live in these interesting times. It’s not easy to live outside the consuming comfort of a smothering theology. It’s not easy to live and see death. It’s not easy to live with the dying. It’s not easy to chart one’s own path through the universe.
Not easy at all, but so worth it.