Richard was the handsomest man in New York. Anyone who knew him would tell you the same thing. The few snapshots I have of him aren’t compelling evidence. He had the kind of beauty an amateur’s camera can’t capture. And he was already sick when they were taken, although nobody knew, not even Richard.
We were both writers, had both gone to the same college, were both thirty and fearless and original and poised to do something great in the world, we thought. Like everyone else, I had a big crush on Richard. To know him was to want things with him: private jokes, correspondence, leather vests, lumberjack shirts that would never look as good on you. But Richard was impressively taken. He lived in a Soho loft with a tall millionaire, striking, older, masculine, distant — a figure of fantasy very much in keeping with Richard’s improbable personal gifts. I rarely saw the boyfriend. He didn’t have a job, he had investments and a place on Fire Island. Evenings he was always going somewhere in a tuxedo or leather while Richard and I went off to William Burroughs readings.
The summer before I moved to San Francisco, Richard became distant, edgy. Work wasn’t going well, he said. And some people can’t deal with separation, so they separate from it, I said. Asshole, said Richard, hugging me good-bye.
A letter came just after I’d found a job and a studio apartment in the Mission. He’d waited till I was gone to tell me he had — well, whatever he called it, it wasn’t “AIDS.” The acronym was so new it felt fake and forced and silly, like when the kid next-door says to call her Esmeralda. What he had was KS, the gay cancer. Half of the people diagnosed with it had already died.
I called right away, annoying Richard. Was I just going to panic like everyone else? He’d had a respiratory tract problem but antibiotics cleared it up. One little spot in his mouth wasn’t going to hurt him. He was fine, he repeated before we hung up. He didn’t sound any different. One little spot in his mouth. Maybe he would be one of the other half.
I called every week and started getting the answering machine and no call back. But then distance notoriously unravels the friendships of men, which so depend on hockey games or camping trips or sex parties, where you focus on something that is not each other. Women know how to have phone friendships. Men need a reason to call, a topic.
One day my phone rang, someone named Paul, a voice I didn’t know, formal and strained. He was returning my calls to Richard ______, did he have the right person? I ran a quick mental scan: Paul… tall, rich, Fire Island, ah yes, the lover/daddy. Was everything all right? No, Richard wasn’t well. It’s hard to get bad news from a stranger; you don’t know what you can ask. Was he in the hospital? Not anymore. Could he come to the phone? No. And if I wanted to see him, I’d better come now, Paul said.
Richard spoke his last sentence the first day I was there. I could see something had changed — I don’t mean what the disease had done to him. Yes, physically he was unrecognizable. But in his eyes, beneath all that, there he was: the old Richard, the loving, unguarded man he’d been a year ago. The worry and the tension, the hiding, were gone. He was enjoying his life again. Somehow his Paul had done that for him.
• By bringing him home. Moonsuits, meals left outside the door, nurses refusing to touch much less bathe him — a hospital was the worst place to be in those days. What could they do for you anyway? So I stayed on, not really competent at anything that might help but unwilling to leave Paul alone with this catastrophe erupting in his life and living room.
• By being Richard’s family. When Richard told his parents what he had and that he was gay, a double coming-out common enough then, they moved to Miami. His sister came to visit twice, but would come no further than the door. We would rotate the sofa so Richard could see her and smile in her direction. She stood in tears by the door calling inanities like “How are you feeling?” across the room, which Richard couldn’t answer anyway. Her love for him was overmatched by her fear of him.
• By being unafraid — which may sound unremarkable now, but ran counter to every instinct, was almost insane. There was no HIV yet, no test, no idea how anyone got AIDS, only the horrific twin deductions any logical child could come to: that it was, A, contagious, and B, fatal. For the first two days I washed my hands whenever I touched Richard or anything he touched. Paul offered no judgment; he offered gloves. Meanwhile he held Richard, kissed Richard, slept in the same bed with him, and by the third day had shamed the fear out of me. Loved it out of me, really.
One night I talked Paul into getting out. He needed a break, and Richard would be fine with me. He wouldn’t go till he’d given Richard his bedtime pills. It was late by then, but this was the city that never sleeps. There’s always the Mineshaft, Paul said, as he left with his big black toybag. Richard nodded off, and so did I, over my book.
I woke up to a low ghastly rattle that rolled through the loft like fugitive hooves. Richard lay staring and rigid, shaking violently head to toe. The awful clacking and shuddering from the bed where he lay made the blood knot up in my veins. I saw something in him that hadn’t been there before — terror — and I realized all this had only seemed possible, his dying I mean, because he had made it so easy, by keeping his own dread at bay for our sakes. Death is fearsome; you can think yourself into a cold sweat contemplating your own; but no sight in this world is so terrifying as the face of a creature Death has in its jaws. Richard protected us from that for as long as he could, and now that he’d shown me that face I wanted to bail and run.
I dialed all the numbers Paul had left me. I don’t think I found him, he just came home, called maybe by something else. He stood and watched Richard a moment, taking off his coat. I saw Richard’s eyes turn on him, just his eyes; those were all that were still in his power to move. It was winter and a long wind screamed down Broome Street, licking the tall windows like there was something inside it wanted.
Paul said nothing to me but climbed up on top of the covers, straddling Richard with his knees till their faces were level and he could look into his eyes. “It’s my fault,” Paul said, in a clear strong voice. “You’re all right. I gave you two white pills instead of one because I was going out. This will go away. It’s my fault. Don’t be afraid.”
How did he know to say that? How did he know it was true? I could see Richard believed him. His jaw relaxed and his hands unclenched and that horrible look ebbed away. An hour or so and his quaking stopped. Paul said Richard was hungry and thirsty so we spooned some water and jello between his lips. If Paul had told me to eat glass or go join a monastery, I would have, that night. I had seen him come home from the Mineshaft and a god enter into him and speak with his voice.
February has the fewest days but is the longest month of a New York winter. The heat went out in the building one night and stuttered on and off unpredictably.
Richard’s last night came soon. People died quickly then. Horrifically, and you didn’t have time to catch your breath. But it might’ve been easier on them than what we did to keep them around five, ten, fifteen years later.
I was awakened in the dead of night, abruptly, by I didn’t know what. An awareness, not that something was wrong, but a sense something was fixed, corrected, was working again. Maybe the furnace had kicked back on.
Then I knew what had changed. Richard’s breathing, grown so labored that it clattered like hail on the roof, had stopped. The bedroom had no door. I went in. Paul sat in bed beside him, wakened like me not by a noise but an absence.
He called the doctor and got an answering service. He called Richard’s sister. We didn’t decide it, we just both had the instinct that Richard needed to be washed, so we bathed and dressed him. I don’t think you’re supposed to do that for thirty-year-old corpses. The coroner’s men who came in the morning said nothing about it, if that’s who they were. Later I learned Richard’s parents had the body transported for a funeral Paul wasn’t told about. But Richard’s teary sister told him and he was allowed to stand quietly in the back of the church.
We changed the sheets and remade the bed, but it was still the bed Richard died in. I went for a walk so I could cry, big heaving sobs I hadn’t dared to release before. Nobody minds if you sob on the street in New York. People look like they’re deciding whether to sob themselves or hold off till another day.
I brought food back and we ate in silence. The dog wanted to know if we could spare some attention for him now. I made up my cot. I didn’t know where Paul would want to sleep. In that bed? “Can you sleep with me?” he said. I wondered if it was wrong. I agonized a long moment. But grief can be like an arranged marriage. We were rough with each other. Safety was our last consideration. Then we kissed and slept like dead men.
How could I go back to my silly soap-opera-writing life? I composed an understated little notice for Paul to send to Richard’s friends. He admired it and was thankful and we both got choked up. He gave me some names and phone numbers, good people he knew in San Francisco who would show me around the city. I called the first name on the list and he took me to Hamburger Mary’s, which I’d never heard of. It took a year, might’ve been two, before I moved in with him. We were together for twenty years.
In short, I came back to a much larger, clearer life than the one I had left. Leather had changed, along with its place in my life. For me, the bar vests, the chaps, the contests, the hanky codes and dress codes and time-honored prohibitions were like antique remnants of another life. There were only two sexual identities now: alive and not. My way of being a leatherman for almost the next ten years was to be an AIDS activist, and an intermittent five-hour demon with dick and rope.
Paul never went back to his dashing millionaire’s life either. Bad things happened; loss likes to follow loss. Bad investments, false friends. Cocaine. Bankruptcy. The beautiful loft was sold to pay off debts. I can’t remember where I was or whether it was a call or a letter that came telling me Paul was moving west. He’d decided to go back to school. He was going to be a nurse.
His friends were dumbfounded, incredulous. Rich, useless, tennis-playing Paul — a nurse? I might have been the only one who knew his calling had found him long before, and he was just deciding to answer it. Paul has had a distinguished career in nursing. He’s still at it today, just the other side of the Golden Gate Bridge.
What changed Paul and me changed us all. AIDS is an immune disease: your body forgets to protect you from things it used to keep out. We were all a little bit that way, those of us not crippled by fear. The walls came down and anybody’s life was our business — man, woman, trans, black, brown, white. We marched with little old ladies, professors, sorrowing mothers from the projects. We smuggled drugs in from Mexico and Japan. None of them worked and we knew they might not, but we also knew that doing something was better than doing nothing. Everything that didn’t work brought us closer to the day when something would work for somebody, somewhere.
Daily you hear the bitter complaints of people terrified of sex because of AIDS, HIV, sundry other diseases. What I’m trying to tell you is that for some of us, it worked the other way. Because of AIDS we became unafraid of sex, of each other, of dying. There was no hiding and no defense from the things you thought you could never do: you had to do them anyway. It made a serious people of us.
Paul gave me one of Richard’s sweaters to keep. It never fit me the way it fit Richard. It was a magic thing when he wore it. I kept it many years, then finally donated it to a program for homeless youth in the Castro where I was volunteering. I saw it twice on the street after that — it had to be the same one, so unstylish and plain and old-fashioned — on a crazy young meth addict trying to get his act together.
Paying it forward can mean a sweater, a hand in need, an alliance, a story. We can take better care of each other than we do. We did it before. All it takes is believing your life is my business and mine is yours, and that we belong to each other beneath our names.
April 3, 2014