After graduation, after a divorce, after an election
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It’s not “dying of AIDS”; it’s “living with AIDS.” It’s not being “an AIDS victim,” or even “an AIDS patient.” Instead, we say, “He’s a PWA” — a person with AIDS.
I know we’re not supposed to think this is a curse from God, some kind of divine punishment for our loving each other. We’re supposed to talk about how in Africa it’s primarily a heterosexual disease, or how lesbians are homosexual, too, and they don’t get it. But I have more crossed-out names in my address book than readable ones, and Chuck, my lover of five years, is dead. I know there will be four times more deaths from breast cancer than from AIDS this year, but sometimes I do think this is a punishment; God has simply transferred us from closets to hospital rooms. I think God so hates humanity that, having promised not to get rid of us by flood, He decided to send a little virus instead. More economical. Doesn’t mess up the landscape.
Do you think I’m angry? Francine, my therapist, says I am. I told her that if I weren’t angry, I’d be crazy. She said I still haven’t gotten over Chuck. I said, “It isn’t Chuck. It’s Chuck and Bobby and Tom and Sal and Lenny and Denny and Roger.” Looking at the photograph of her husband on her desk, I said, “Try to imagine your husband weighing eighty-seven pounds and having to be fed through tubes, his skin covered with more spots than a giraffe’s, and multiply that by seven, or ten, or twenty. Then tell me about anger.”
Last night was Bobby’s memorial service. Only we don’t call them memorials anymore — too morbid, too honest. (Too many.) Now the invitations say, “Please join us for a celebration of the life of . . .”
I saw Bobby the day before he died. Propped up beneath a plastic oxygen tent, he begged for a cigarette. I went across the street to a newspaper stand and bought him a pack, even though I don’t smoke and don’t think anyone should. Closing the door to his room, I turned off the oxygen and lit one for him. But the nurse must have seen the oxygen go off on a monitor at her station, because she came running in just as I was lifting the plastic. She grabbed the cigarette out of my hand, flipped it to the floor, ground it out with her shoe, and then turned on the oxygen. “I can have your visiting privileges taken away,” she said, glaring at me. Bobby, his voice muffled by tubes and plastic, said, “For God’s sake, Helen, I’m going to be dead in three days.” (So his timing was slightly off.)
Bobby’s parents and two of his three sisters flew in from God-Knows-Where, Texas, for the funeral. They were big and scared, and they’d refused to come see him even once when he was in the hospital. I’d called them three times, and I don’t know how many times Bobby’s lover, Joseph, had called. Bobby had refused to call, but we knew how much he wanted them there. When you’re dying, your parents become your parents again, even if they’ve never answered your letters and have told you never to call them.
Now here they were in the Big Evil City, and each time someone offered them a hand, it was obvious that they were terrified to shake it for fear of infection. Thank God for Bobby’s other sister, Kathy, who had left behind her husband and four kids to join Bobby. She’d spent three weeks camped out in Bobby and Joseph’s apartment, talking to doctors and taking care of everything at a time when Joseph could not. He was too emotionally wrecked, watching his own T-cell count go down.
I don’t know how I sat through the funeral. First there was a sermon about how all of us are family, then a lot of liturgical nonsense about how all of us are sinners, and finally something about the departed’s “imperfect body.” When it was over, I went up to the priest, who’s probably queer — he had stopped in to see Bobby a few times in the hospital — and said to him, “I liked your sermon, but you made two mistakes. You met Bobby — there wasn’t a sinful bone in his body. And you saw his body: even at the end, it was still perfect.”
Bobby’s two Texas sisters, who were standing there crying, looked at me as if I had slapped God in the face.
The priest was somewhat better. His face twitched, but he said, “It isn’t up to me to decide these things. My work is to share the Church’s teachings.”
I said, “I know what you mean. I work for an ad agency. I don’t believe in sugar-coated breakfast cereals, but I know how to sell them.”
Angry? You bet. Francine is right. But I read in a book on alternative healing that feisty patients live longer than complacent ones. I intend to be angry. Chuck’s therapist, Nick, used to encourage him to get angry. But Chuck was just like Bobby: professionally nice. No wonder they liked each other. They called me “the angry Jew.” But I intend to stay this angry as an experiment — an experiment in obnoxiousness, which is what people call it when you tell the truth about how you’re feeling, and they don’t want to hear about it.
Sometimes I wonder why I’m going to a therapist who’s eight years younger than I am. Whose major out-of-the-office concern is her biological clock. Who thinks there is such a thing as healthy anger and has an idea of what it should look like: something that could be measured on a device — a painometer, a rage-a-scan — while you’re pounding her pillows with your fists. For the appropriate forty-five minutes, one day a week.
Nick was at Bobby’s memorial service — I mean, “the celebration of Bobby’s life.” They had been on the same swim team. I was hoping he wouldn’t be there, but it was good to see him — and upsetting. It brought a whole lot of Chuck back for me. Not that it wouldn’t have happened anyway. Whoever invented these rituals knew exactly how to get you: the departed’s favorite music playing in the background, the slide show flashing before you as one friend after another gets up to tell what they loved most about the person who has died — no, not died. No one dies anymore: they “make their transitions.”
So there were lots of slides of Bobby: when he was small, when he was in high school, when he was on the football team. Then Bobby when he came to New York, gorgeous and blond and naive. And a lot of him with Joseph, the widow. And there were images of Bobby and me that first summer we went to Fire Island. And Tom and Toshio and Chuck and Roger and Luke and Sidney and Harold and Lupe and Fran.
Everyone was getting up to talk about how wonderful Bobby was. How he was the best cook they’d ever met. How at work he would always help out the newcomers. (That comment delivered by a young woman clearly in love with him. Who wasn’t? Besides his family.) And then all the stories about his political activism and his being on the swim team. An older woman who lived in his building was rolled to the front in her wheelchair to tell how Bobby went shopping for her every week.
I could see that Bobby’s parents were simultaneously miserable and entranced by the show. We were all telling our stories, not just to forget the pain and the anger, but to make Bobby’s parents and two evil sisters regret for the rest of their lives their treatment of the son and brother they had never gotten to know. We were loving it.
Joseph was magnificent. He pulled himself together and made it through the evening without falling apart. He wore Bobby’s leather vest, the one with the birds painted on it. That was hard for me. I remember the winter Bobby painted them. He’d been miserable and wanted some color back in his life. A black leather vest covered with tropical birds.
For days I’d been planning what I wanted to say. I wanted to tell the truth: how Bobby and I had met fifteen years ago in a laundromat and become fast friends; how I’d loved Bobby, even though he was one of the most notorious liars I’d ever met, telling us stories about growing up poor on a farm in the Midwest when in reality his father owned a big car dealership. (I was the one who grew up poor, in Brooklyn.) Or lying to us for three years, saying he’d tested negative for HIV. And I was going to talk about all the mornings he’d called me at work to tell me he’d gone to his favorite sex club again — and lied to Joseph again.
Everyone else could say how wonderful Bobby was to Joseph — cooking for him, helping him out when he opened his own business — but I was going to tell the truth. And I would ask why such a talented painter spent the last three years of his life working as a computer programmer in a Wall Street law office. And why such a beautiful man was still having sex in public bathrooms two or three times a week, still trying to fill an empty place inside, where death rushed in like air into a vacuum. And why such a healing, nurturing, friendly guy was — dead. Plain old DEAD. A word nobody ever used.
So I stood up, prepared to say all of that. But then I looked at Joseph sitting in the first row, wearing Bobby’s vest, the vest Bobby told him a customer had left at the restaurant where he worked (the vest I knew one of Bobby’s tricks had left behind in their apartment). And I looked at Bobby’s family: his frightened parents, his three sisters, each wearing a different version of his face — flat, round, golden.
Because I’d been Bobby’s friend longer than anyone else, and because we’d been roommates for five years, I had part share in being the widow, and everyone was wondering what I would do. I didn’t do anything. Instead, I told the story about Bobby in the hospital, still wanting a cigarette in his oxygen tent. I had everyone laughing, because we all knew how much he’d loved cigarettes, or whatever it was that he was loving at any given moment. And I ended by saying that I knew he was still with us, probably hovering up in the corner. And that I hoped, wherever he was going next, they had cigarettes and cheesecake and the bittersweet-chocolate ice cream he loved. I left out “and Puerto Ricans with big dicks.”