30 Years of AIDS
As we note the 30-year mark in the ongoing battle against HIV/AIDS, it seemed an appropriate time to publish this short story. I dedicate this to all of my friends, gone, but not forgotten, as well as those still fighting.
Jeffrey gazed up at the ceiling and, again, he began to count. It didn’t matter that he’d counted them before, or that he knew the number of holes by heart — 3,016. It also didn’t matter that he always counted the same square, never changing. The number of holes was constant; as constant as his mother sitting numbly in her chair, stumbling through her crossword. What mattered most to Jeffrey was that he knew it. And since he knew it, it could never be taken away.
He sighed, though no one heard it, and thought of Kevin. Blond, handsome, studly Kevin. How had everything gone so wrong? Jeffrey’s mind raced over the details of their relationship, sifting through the rubble for clues. The beginning, middle, end.
No one thing stood out as wrong or imminent or foreboding. When Jeffrey’s suspicions were confirmed and it did end, there were the expected rows, and tearful apologies, and scenes in restaurants. But no one could have foreseen the agonizing pain that would come to Jeffrey. He’d gotten through it, eventually, and now Jeffrey was alone. Sadly alone.
He filled his time well, though. Going through his Rolodex and renewing friendships. Making dinner plans, and festive theatre outings, and endless gym workouts–anything to stay away from that apartment. The reminders. The memories.
Jeffrey wasn’t sure why he missed Kevin. He had always known that he would leave. There was no way to hold such perfection for very long. And their relationship hadn’t been that great. They bickered. They fought. They made up. And the making up, well, that might have been the reason they stayed together. Kevin and Jeffrey always had fantastic sex. From that first moment when they’d met at Probe, sweaty and shirtless, sex had never been a problem. In fact, it seemed that the sex was even better after a fight, when it was tinged with anger. So they fought a lot.
There were legitimate reasons for their fighting, however, besides the erotic. Jealousy was a factor. And roving eyes. Then there was the time that Jeffrey had worn Kevin’s favorite Tommy Hilfiger without asking and, of course, spilled Merlot all over it. There had been hell to pay for that one. And Jeffrey had relished it. But he was not relishing this.
Again Jeffrey’s eyes drifted towards the ceiling. This had all been years ago. Jeffrey had had numerous lovers since then, and some had meant much more to him than Kevin ever had. But then again, no one else had given Jeffrey the present Kevin had either.
Anton flounced in at that moment, giving Jeffrey a peck before launching into an extended monologue about his travails at the cosmetics counter at Bloomie’s, where he worked. Joan eventually tired of Anton and left the room, leaving her crossword puzzle behind.
Anton sank into her vacated seat. “I thought she’d never leave,” he sighed. “That old bag is gonna get moss on her ass if she don’t be careful. She been here all day?” He glanced at Jeffrey for a reply but got none. “I know she’s your mother, sweetheart, but she drives me bonkers. Lord, the two of you are a pair.”
As Jeffrey averted his eyes, Anton picked up Joan’s puzzle and proceeded to work on it. “Ooo, she’ll have a heart attack when she comes back to find this thing finished!”
His eyes closing, Jeffrey shut Anton out and thought back again to Kevin. Where was he now? He’d be — let’s see, Jeffrey was 41 so Kevin — just turned 40. If he was even still alive. Jeffrey had thrown away Kevin’s last letter without reading it. He knew what it would say; the same tired mantra shit Kevin had been spouting ever since getting into 12 step. Taking responsibility for his actions, making amends — blah, blah, blah. Could something Kevin say really change anything? Jeffrey had been through enough and, now that he’d come out the other side, certainly wouldn’t take Kevin back. And so he’d tossed the letter into the trash with the other junk mail, with their canned pleas for charity and kindness.
Jeffrey didn’t feel very charitable for that matter, or kind. And why should he? He was the one, after all, stuck here. It wasn’t Kevin. Although it should’ve been.
The doctor came in around seven thirty, whispered something to Joan, and the two stepped outside. Jeffrey could sense Anton shrug.
The nurse walked in and checked the tubes again. Why did she even bother? Jeffrey knew that he didn’t have long, and as pissed as he was that it was ending, he also knew that there was no chance he’d ever move again. It was too advanced, they’d said. Comes on quickly and then — bam!
Only a week ago, Jeffrey had been able to form words with his mouth. Only four days ago he’d been able to squeeze his mother’s finger to reassure her. Only two days since he’d been able to blink once for “yes”, twice for “no.”
But that was all gone now. Jeffrey’s eyes still traveled the room, but not at his will anymore. The disease had taken that away, too.
“He doesn’t know what’s going on at all,” the nurse said to Anton.
“He sure looks like he does.”
“It’s just the morphine. He’s probably just dreaming. Dreaming wonderful things.”
And he was. Jeffrey’s mind floated back to that early summer day at Ginger Rogers beach when the guys had built this huge ornate sandcastle to honor the God of Summer. They’d spent all day on it, carefully following Jeffrey’s detailed blueprint. They laughed and carried on, enjoying the sun on their backs and the smell of the fresh, salty air. Just as they were finishing, Shirley MacLaine strolled by with a friend, acceding to the boys request to stop and take pictures with the troop and their creation.
The snapshots from that day show Shirley, in all her wigged glory; a mountainous Sleeping Beauty castle, complete with colored flags and drawbridge; and seven beautiful boys in sexy variations of the same Speedo. All with big smiles and gleaming teeth.
The biggest smile of all, however, belongs to Jeffrey.
But then, that was back in 1982. Back before Kevin. Back before AIDS. Back when Jeffrey was whole.