I am of the generation who finally began to understand the Viet Nam war, the generation that came after the soldiers lost to the horrors they witnessed there, the horrors that duty often commanded them to commit. It was through the lens of Apocalypse Now that so many of us began to realize why our fathers reflexively took cover or maybe even wept at the sound of a certain kind of helicopter. And then Generation X had its own Viet Nam, its own “police action” of an undeclared war: AIDS. There is no movie for us.
Prelude, part 5: TheEnd
This is the end. This is where I take you through the looking glass that leads into the dark wood where we fall down the rabbit hole. There is no coming back. The emotion you’ll be feeling doesn’t have a name; it’s one part roller coaster, one part mad mouse, and a big ole swig of that ride where you’re spinning so fast centrifugal force squishes you against the wall like a bug on a windshield.
And then the floor drops out. You know that one?
Here we go.
From the moment of Jose’s death, questions pelted me like a hard rain; no, like hail. Everyone wanted to know:
how could you do it, wasn’t it hard being so close to death, who was Jose to you, why did you stay to help him die, what do you get out of being friends with people who are sick;
what does it say about you that your friends are all men, why do you have so many gay friends, but you’re married aren’t you, why do you surround yourself with people who are dying, what does it mean that you had to be guardian angel for a circle of dying men;
was Jose like a brother, if he’d been straight would you have married him, what about your husband didn’t you care about him, what was your husband doing while you were gallivanting off to care for other men, so why do you have so many gay friends;
what’s it like to be near death, how did you get the strength, how could you put yourself through it, weren’t you ever scared, how were you feeling, why don’t you talk about your feelings, and why are you hanging out with these people anyway;
how you can write about this and not tell us how you felt, you don’t think you’re better than the rest of us do you, because everybody dies, you’re not the only person who’s ever lost someone you loved you know;
why is it you think you know more about this than anybody else does, to hear you tell it sounds like you always know the right thing to do and are unendingly loyal and always informed and tolerant and you have no fears no inadequacies;
you’re married right, kids you have kids don’t you or you want kids right, didn’t your husband get tired of you always leaving to help other people, what’s it like to be close to the dying;
how did it feel to watch your best friend die?
Before I answer, let me ask one more question: Dear reader, how are you feeling right now?
As for me, historically I’ve had two responses to this barrage. My first was not to: to decline to respond at all. My second response went something like this: What the hell do you want from me? I didn’t say that, of course. In fact, you are the first to hear it, but now that I’ve gotten that off my chest, it occurs to me that I have the choice of a third response. Here it is. Watching your best friend shrink fast-motion into an old man, listening to him talk and talk (and talk was once all the two of you ever needed), fading in and out like so much static on a road-trip-radio stuck between stations, this is a lot like having strangers demand that you reveal your feelings because you’ve done something they don’t understand, something maybe they’re afraid of; and while I want to say that this can’t be done, maybe what’s more important is the question it raises. By what device do people develop the sense of privilege that empowers them to ask, no, to demand to know – and then to know more – about private and painful emotions?
Curiosity. Of course.
Curiosity and fear, those two in equal measure push us forward, a hand pressed at our backs whenever we run into the closed door of the unknown. And as I stand in the doorway of the unknown and open my mouth, or rather, begin moving my pen, I make myself something of a moving target. I see that now. Used to be I thought I had a story to tell, simple as that. Two people, four years, a transformation. I’d have made it up and sold it as fiction, but I’m no good at that and it’s the truth anyway. So, let me be clear: if you don’t like the subject matter, don’t like that this story is about gay men or that it includes gender bending, drag queens, and same sex love; if you don’t like being made to examine the choices you’ve made, if you’ve got no reason to look at the boundaries drawn by all of us around love and self and sex; if you don’t want to look at death or disease or see love that strays off the middle path and defies logic; if you don’t like how I tell the story, think I’m on my high horse or just a bitch, then honey, quit reading. This story just ain’t for you.
Ahhh, at last I hear it, that sound I’ve been waiting for: Paul Monette’s partner whispering to him, “You tell ‘em, Paulie.” It means I’m on the right track. So many cautioned Monette when he wrote about AIDS , which he rightly named as just another form of genocide; “the national sport of straight men,” he called it, “especially in this century of nightmares.” Eyes open, heart wide, full-voiced, and in complete awareness of the lightning-rod emotions running through him, Paul Monette spoke the truth: “We are creatures of the cruelties we witness.” Maybe it has taken the transition to a new century for us to see this.
Of course we don’t hear much about AIDS now, and part of this is because we all feel more comfortable with the subject when we can think of it as curable, and after all it is old news. As I sit here writing today, it’s halfway through 2004. That makes two decades since the Center for Disease Control warned blood banks of a possible problem with the blood supply and two decades since the first safe sex guidelines were proposed. Still, as you read this, some of you may find that you know about as much as I did when I started, which was nothing. I’m also guessing, or maybe just hoping, that there are some of you who will remember when living in the ‘80s and ‘90s meant polishing tiaras and emptying bedpans. For you, for the fact that I will cover old ground as if it were new, I offer Jose’s perpetual refrain: “But, Dina, everybody knows that.” For those of you who know nothing about how AIDS landed on the American scene and gutted a glittering generation, let me shelve the attitude -- at least try -- and tell you a story. Call it my coming out story. My path through life has led me down some unexpected roads, and frankly I’m not sure where I am right now but I do know this isn’t the neck of the woods where I went in, it’s not Kansas, and it sure as hell ain’t Oz, honey.
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