I used to do so much counting. Days since Jose died. Years. 1994 became my Year Zero. Everything from that moment separated into two categories. Before Jose’s death. After Jose’s death. People began to ask “Isn’t she done yet?” They didn’t mean the book. “It’s been a year. Isn’t she done yet?” Grief doesn’t have a time line, but today when I heard that year and I did the math, today I realized that I no longer needed to say “It’s been a decade and a half since Jose died.” I no longer wanted to measure my life from that fateful point; I no longer had to.
Tonight I let the bodies hit the floor.
LONGTIME SURVIVOR (HIV University), part 3/end
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, 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 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 education 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 Jose 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 saw Maya Angelou speak and 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. Thirty was the start of Jose’s tenure as my best friend, the very last best friend I’ll ever have, because to be best friends you have to be young in a way that I’ll never be.
It took me a year after Jose’s death before I worked up the courage to have myself tested, a year of alarms sounding in nightmares, a year of immobilizing grief. At some point during that year I finally 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 them, stopped tracking, stopped backtracking, and began letting it all wash over me like waves on the beach. What I can tell you is this: what they say about ignorance is sometimes true.
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: 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 Postmortem 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 in my movie: at the Postmortem 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, like 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 had 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 my closest friend, Jim, 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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