Reprise: When you think you’re going to live forever…

When I was in college, that’s exactly what I thought. Then I finished school and started working, and people around me kept reinforcing the idea of prolonged youth.

Do you babysit? You look like such a conscientious teenager!

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I’m actually a really inattentive adult—got a liquor cabinet?… I’m in!

And then the epidemic came…

Like I said in that lovely two part interview George conducted the other day, I have a tendency to be flip. I never did babysit for any of the people who asked after my availability when I lived in Beachwood Canyon. I was too busy working fourteen hour days on a succession of low budget movies. But, now that I’ve got your attention, I couldn’t just segue today into something frivolous after talking about Larry Kramer yesterday.

That’s me, when I lived in the Hollywood Hills, and many of my friends had started to sicken (and later to die) from a disease called HIV/AIDS – or, to be more accurate, to die from complications caused by AIDS (as, obviously, it’s what the syndrome leaves you prey to, not AIDS itself, that kills you). We were in our mid-twenties to mid-thirties in that most terrible decade; gay, straight, one of my friends was a hemophiliac. I only know one long-term survivor like Mr. Kramer. All the rest are dead. Dead before they turned thirty-five. By the early nineties there was an anti-viral “cocktail” people took. The weight loss was staggering (I think from the disease), the skin turning leathery (most likely the “cocktail”.) I remember one of my friends turned a deep olive green. A few weeks before he died we went to one of the fanciest restaurants in town, now it’s called Providence, then it was called Patina. We strolled in, a group of us, dressed to the nines. He pushed a wheeled IV that dripped something into his bloodstream that made his eyes hooded and caused his speech to emerge with an unfamiliar deliberateness, as if each word had a weight, like a gold bar, that needed to be laboriously lifted into the air. And this is among the many reasons I love Los Angeles; the maître d’ placed us at the most beautiful table—the service was quiet, decorous, and subtle. I still remember the light in the room and the half-smile that played at his lips through the night.

He died at home. His parents had flown in from Florida, his best friend was sleeping, curled up on the foot of his bed. The other day I had lunch with one of the group who had gone to dinner with him that last time he went out on the town. She had set the table to look like a still life. Our friend would have approved. Although when she mentioned, as we were unloading a box of opened kitty litter from her car, that the pale granular stuff resembled his ashes… Maybe not.

photo(6)We are older now. The weird tragic urgency, the memory of a generation of men dying young has faded for many. But not for those who still fight. And for that reason we thank heaven for Mr. Kramer. He has written this:

Q. Is it a novel, or historical fiction, or something else?

A. I want to call it a book, but Jonathan [Galassi, president of the publishing house] wants to call it a novel. I think he’s probably right because it makes a lot of claims, and some of them are substantiated more than others, and I don’t want to be forced to have to defend everything…

27 comments

  1. What a heartfelt, fascinating memory you’ve shared. In was in my 20s in the 80s and the epidemic was scary although I was not personally affected by friends who suffered. My best friend was trying to come out of the closet, but he decided to permanently deal with the decision by ending his life. Sigh.
    Have you read Mark Doty’s poetry? I love his book of poetry called ‘Atlantis’ which deals with his partner who died in the 80s from AIDS. I highly recommend it.

  2. Heather in Arles

    Cindy, I am also sorry to hear this.
    Ms V, I am still getting caught up with your posts from yesterday as I want to take my time with them. But I was very moved by what you wrote here. Thank you for your honesty. I know what a good friend you are and am certain that you were a great comfort to those who were suffering and their friends and loved ones.

    • I probably shouldn’t be responding to any comments after 5 hours of sleep. But it seemed to me that in end stages, when we’re told the suffering is blunted by drugs, or even just the body’s natural painkillers; dehydration, refusing food—and the assertion for we who were not ill is hard to believe because the body as it shuts down appears to entail the most searing metamorphosis—for the dying the most important thing seemed to be some sort of communication. A glance, a touch. I think in the end (for all of us) the knowledge of love given and received is the most important thing of all.

      • Heather in Arles

        So beautifully put. It makes sense to me. My Mom has said how in Buddhism the most important thing is for someone to pass in peace and peace and love are so very closely related…

  3. Dearest V
    I have a friend, a long time survivor. The kind that Edmund White recalls – of himself one assumes – in ‘The Farewell Symphony’, that was left standing playing on alone as everyone else left the stage.
    Though not an unhappy person, anything but, he has, as he remarks himself, been living every year as though it were his last for three decades.
    He says it has hardened his soul but softened his heart… A sentiment I think I only partly understand.
    What the epidemic, or the study or war, or the terror of all kinds reminds me is how fragile our apparently safe, feather-bedded lives are.
    As my grandmother never tired of reminding me, ‘we are only three generations from cholera’. More scarily my mother spend nearly two years of her childhood in a tuberculosis sanitorium.
    One day, anaesthetised into impotence through our overuse antibiotics, the little pillules that stand between us all and a state of effective collective imuno deficiency will be gone. What then?
    Yours ever
    The Perfumed Dandy

    • Hardened his soul but softened his heart—I get that. My love to him.
      I am reading something light by Edmund White right now! “Inside a Pearl: My Years in Paris.” It’s chatty, revealing, a little gossipy…in other words, perfect.
      We are amazingly fortunate as a species. It is frightening to hear about the antibiotic resistance developing. I think what I’ve read about the research occurring now is something about modifying the new antibiotics so they will bind with receptor sites within the cell that have mutated, thus causing the resistance. I think the pharmaceutical companies (who hadn’t been funding research in this area for years) are heavily back into R&D. Or they better be!!!
      Hang tough with a soft heart,
      V

  4. Very moving. Several people I knew died in the 80s but I had two darling friends who died in the 90s. For me, in London, that was the worst decade. My life is so much poorer without them. Thank you, as they say in blogland, for sharing your story.

  5. George Kaplan

    Such a beautiful post, simple and elegant and heartfelt. Many of us believe when young that our Youth will last forever, that nothing could ever pierce the imaginary impermeable shell we perceive surrounding us; until bit by bit the illusion drops away and the truth of our essential fragility is revealed. It may be something like the epidemic stealing our friends away or it may be an illness affecting us or some other occurrence even the actions of our fellow Humans and the horrors that this World is prey to, and it can be damnably hard to deal with that. Some develop a new, no less imaginary, armour one so thick, so heavy that it squeezes the life out of their Hearts and bestows upon then a fantasy of infallibility, for others the World is so harsh, so bewildering that they are able to do nothing but fade into the shadows. This post is about the painful Beauty of feeling loss and counting the cost but perservering, about remembering and continuing to Love, and to know beyond all else that there is always Hope. Things that were once insurmountable or deadly can be surmounted and (at least partially) defeated. The Heart Transcends.
    Thank You, Vickie.

  6. Your touching story brings back memories. I had a gay friend, now gone, who starting hanging around with a woman of unusual proclivities. This was before the epidemic. At lunch once, he and she spoke opening and comically about some of the things they had done the night before. Later, he was confronted by some of his straight friends who asked, “What’s up with that woman?” His response, which is still quoted at parties, was, “What difference does it make? It’s all friction and suction.”

  7. I’ve always been frustrated by things like this, which did so much damage when all that was needed was a little bit of knowledge in order to avoid. And certain segments of society use the illness in their defamation of gay people, in their accusations and exclusions, as a step-stool onto their high horses. It’s just too sad, all the way around. Thank you for your sensitivity. I’ve never read Mr. Kramer, but will have to look him up now.

    • Mr. K is great. Really fiery. I saw the most recent production of The Normal Heart on HBO and I was angry and weeping all over again. As for high horses… Don’t get me started on people who slap a religious label on their damned ignorance and try to foist their “beliefs” on the populace at large. Calm. Calm. I am remaining calm… 😉 .

  8. Moved to South Africa from the UK in the 80’s and the pandemic hadn’t really hit Africa at that stage….but when it did, people were dropping like flies, and it was staggering.
    The funeral business was the business to be in. I kid you not.
    Down here, it was, by far, heterosexual deaths that were the majority; promiscuity being a lot more widespread among black Africans than white it seemed.
    Typical of such, black truck drivers using prostitutes while on the road, crossing the borders of neighboring countries then returning to infect their wives.
    Wives would then give birth to HIV/AIDS infected children and the cycle would continue.
    This was the orphan generation where in so many instances kids were raised by grandparents once their own parents succumbed to this mystery disease.
    When it was discovered the virus could be transmitted via breast milk the powderd milk business took off. However, NOT breastfeeding a child was a ‘dead’ giveaway for a new mother and to not breastfeed risked bringing down the wrath and ultimately, being ostracized by family, friends, and neighbours. You can guess what many young mums opted to do?.
    Then of course there were the claims that having unprotected sex with a virgin or old woman was a cure for AIDS.
    Yes, superstitious nonsense like this was rampant and South Africa
    for a time became the child rape capital of the world.

    The reluctance/refusal to roll out anti retrovirals by the Thabo Mbeki government is cited as being the cause of death of untold hundreds of thousands and was one of the major reasons he was ousted from the Presidency.
    lol( sic) not that Jacob Zuma was really any better in this regard claiming publicly that after having unprotected sex it was okay, because he had showered straight afterwards. Sigh…….

    • Ark! I’m sorry I missed this, my kid came home from college and things have been a little wild. I know that South Africa has the highest rate of AIDS infection in the world, and the denialism (is that a word?) is terrifying. On a cheerier note, your book is next in my queue! xox, V

      • Things are nowhere near as bad as they were, thank goodness. Retro virals have played a large part in this as has education.
        The current generation are a lot more savvy.
        Let’s hope that a cure will one day be found.

        Hope you enjoy the book.

  9. Such happy and sad memories we all seem to have of our friends. They died from a disease we should be able to prevent. I still wonder why there is no vaccination to prevent HIV/AIDS yet we spend billions on rubbish. A childhood friend of mine loved to play act with me and my girlfriend. As adults, he told me he was gay. In his twenties he became a dancer in NYC, about which he was very excited. Not long after, he was diagnosed, then taken from us with this dreadful disease. He is only the first of several friends, both gay and straight to have died from AIDS. Somehow I like to believe that their struggle helped others get better treatment and that our vivid memories of them allow them to live forever. I know they will live in mine.

    • Constance, please see my apology above. I’m sorry it’s taken me so long to reply. The struggle was a terrible thing to witness… I only hope that this generation doesn’t become complacent about prevention. Truvada may be a miracle drug and block infection, but it’s also an anti-viral which is hell on the body in the long run. Here’s to your friends, may their spirits burn bright in your memory. Love, V

      • But complacent it is. Highest transmission rates since the 80’s. I imagine it has to do with the survival rates.
        I grew up in fear. When I was a boy being gay meant getting aids. In other words it meant that one way or another, eventually, one’s cheeks would sink. One’s lips would turn purple. We’d become emaciated. Then at our funerals people would whisper things in each other’s ears. Unkind things.
        That whole period was the making of me. No wonder I’m the way I am.

      • Holy hell, I imagine that’s because of the new preventative medication. I’m sorry to hear about the transmission rates, Truvada is pretty damn harsh in itself.
        As for you, my darling friend, whatever shaped you, you are beloved.

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