The Death of Death
When I heard about Tim’s death everything came rushing back. Forty-five years old, gym body, pretty face, life in New York. He’d been waiting in line. I didn’t know him well, but what little I’d heard was all too familiar.
He and his lover, Paul, met at a leather bar, had what I’d always assumed was an open relationship, and traveled back and forth from South Beach to Chelsea. It made more sense when I remembered they’d just taken an extended vacation in Europe and planned to leave Manhattan for a while; East Hampton would be their "temporary home." I’d almost forgotten about that closet-sickness tale.
I’d seen them just last Christmas, at a small gathering of friends. Tim hardly said a word, just smiled and refilled drinks and looked like he wanted to be elsewhere. I envied his waistline and discipline and had the notion that it was finally safe to equate beauty with health. Lovely surface thoughts. Sometimes a song on the radio is so wonderful you forget it’s not really in the room.
Paul and I finally spoke on the phone, and he was anxious to give me the intimate details of his lover’s end. Tim dropped dead of heart failure while making soup. He didn’t have AIDS or HIV, and his doctor had just given him a clean bill of health. His death was that rare, shocking fatality that sometimes happens in life. We just never expected to live in that place. Death didn’t scare us after that guy in the commercial talked about high cholesterol or Mom started forgetting her grocery list. We kept it near us by never lifting the veil.
For gay men over 40, death comes in twos. Thirty years ago it lay over the streets like ice, people slipping under daily. Men scratched from beneath the surface, and we couldn’t do anything but stare. New York City was warm bedrooms submerged in masculine, sensual evaporation. Homes were filled with shoes and wardrobes and tiled bathrooms and always new renovations. The prints and recessed lighting were overly adored like lilies.
Death is back, but it’s a prequel. At Tim’s service elegantly dressed men and women sipped red wine and chatted and mourned with the undertow. They checked their coats and talked about the cold and left together in taxis. Familiarity filled the room, but not from the funerals that once lined our datebooks. The memory in my head was from childhood, when family relatives died. Protocol skipped a generation.
I’m now at the age where friends die of cancer and strokes and heart failure. Formal, polite death that’s respectful in its inconvenience. In my twenties, Manhattan flipped over like the Poseidon. A few people held onto table tops and climbed the Christmas tree and reached the bottom of the ship. The storm approaching now was forecast before the tidal wave.
My youth is now a story. AIDS still lines the streets, but some people are only listeners. While an estimated 18,000 people in the United States die of AIDS each year (almost 600,000 since the epidemic began), AIDS is on the periphery of gay life. HIV is alive and well, literally.
Because of men like Jack Mackenroth it’s even celebrated. The forty-one-year-old HIV-positive fashion designer and model is a poster boy for sex first, awareness next. Mackenroth received an HIV-positive diagnosis in 1990, the same year that Keith Haring died of AIDS, and three years after President Reagan first said the word "AIDS" in public. By that year, an estimated 8 million people worldwide were living with HIV, and, in the United States, approximately 100,000 people had died of the disease. That’s roughly the same amount of U.S. men who died in Vietnam. In 1990 it would have been just as impossible to imagine a man like Jack Mackenroth, fabulously fit and rarely dressed, gracing magazine covers as an object of lust, as it would have been to remember a time when four letters didn’t numb your fingertips.
I’ve never witnessed a good war, but I’ve experienced one that is just. When an alien force attacks your body, you fight to the death. The only kingdom at stake holds your cells. There were no volunteer soldiers in the war against AIDS; everyone got drafted. It held its own cruel Lottery, and connections didn’t keep you safe. Your youth and social circles and looks all worked against you.
We had our protestors too. They swore at men in gay uniform, said they deserved to suffer and die for and because of their cause. They preached these things as neighborhoods vanished. There was no call to arms, no Houses of Congress standing behind the President to join in solidarity. You were allowed, encouraged even, to root for the other side. If you hated the soldier, no one questioned your patriotism, your love of mankind, your belief in God and Country. More often than not, the fallen were young gay men who’d left unhappy homes in search of a better life.
There’s never been an official victory, and the cease fire is tepid. Men still live in prisons for spitting on officers, and the 1987 U.S. travel ban against HIV-positive men and women was only lifted last year. Still, at some point in the 1990s, casualties were fewer and vets started living full lives. We have our own World AIDS Day, and our own parade. The Ticker Tape confetti trickles down from brownstones and sifts like snow in the Emerald Forest.
My mother used to tell me stories of World War Two, and how her older sister had boyfriends who’d leave their small town and never come back. I pictured a beautiful young girl wearing a pink skirt in a room full of swirling lights. She’d be wearing socks and saddle shoes, her black hair in pigtails. At first she’d be dancing with a crowd of men in uniform, all dark-haired and handsome. One by one they’d kiss her goodbye, always with a smile on their face because they’d be returning to a better world. Then the jukebox would skip on a song, everything dimming on the letter in the girl’s hand. She’d stare with cold tears at a front door that remained shut.
Sometimes I look around a crowded room and wonder how many people are visiting AIDS in adjusted lighting. It now has its own music and costumes and the drama of time. It’s only real in footprints. Even I’m no longer a reliable narrator, as memory likes to fill in holes with any piece that heightens the narrative. At some point everything forms a beginning, middle, and end.
As the men who didn’t die of AIDS get ready for life before death, most people don’t understand their existence. They’re scattered about in a city that lost its center. There’s Steve on the Upper West Side, who was 49 in 1995, HIV-positive, and who walked in that home of gin martinis and discos and then collected photographs of the lovers who no longer walked with him. He’s turning elderly in the same apartment in which I met him, where fear kept me away, and he’s never suffered anything more serious than a cold. There’s Mike from the Village, 44 when we met at the Chelsea Gym in the ’90s, who took me out one evening to tell me that he’d watched every man from his youth die. Mike was Negative for reasons as bewildering as the guy who walks away from a helicopter crash without a scratch. His current lover, Robert, he told me, had a few years. They’re both still alive; same apartment, same room, same entirely different view overlooking Christopher Street.
There’s my friend Dan, 54, who sat me aside one Saturday night and forced me to look at photo albums of his bar mitzvah days. In every shot he pointed at the relatives now deceased; not for maudlin reasons, just to keep me informed of life’s sad timeline. When we got to the albums of his twenties, he did the same thing. This time the men he pointed at were barely adults; some of the boys were drinking and laughing and making faces at the camera; some were lined up on the beach in sexy bathing suits, the boys of summer on pre-war-torn shores; some of them smoked and a lot of them had mustaches and puffy hair. "Dead, dead, dead," came out of his mouth with barely a beat and an irony never allowed to breathe.
There’s 50-year-old Tom Judson, the former porn star and Broadway performer who does a one-man show in which he talks about, among other things, his longtime lover who died of AIDS. I saw his show a couple of months ago, and when he got to that section, it wasn’t shock I felt, or fear, or anger. It was sentiment. There was no one to share it with anymore, this thing of bittersweet water. AIDS wasn’t onstage anymore; the actor was. I thought of men in retirement homes staring at TV’s. The children who know our war stories grow up to get their own. I walked home alone that night afraid of getting old.