The men in San Francisco were already dying when they stood in lines at sandwich stands and theatres. Watching movies with lesioned eyes, they complained to each other of steadily failing eyesight. Outside, down the way, somewhere on Castro, some guy stuck Polaroids and a warning to a shop window, telling others that there was some kind of illness out there, that it was waiting for them, that some of them already had it. The bodies of the San Franciscan men warmed under the California sunset as they stared at tiny pictures of the man plastered on the shop window, his mouth wide-stretched at the corners, hinged open to show his tongue, the inside of his jaw and throat, already swollen from thrush. They could not believe, did not believe, they were already dying.
I cannot help but wonder if D. knew he was dying the last time he visited me. We stood in front of tall grass and stared at the sun, made small talk about the present while trying to make sense of the past. Arid conversation only proved that we had absolutely zero to discuss, that talking was useless. All that needed saying lost meaning the moment he stood on a tiny slab of concrete ahead of a knock at the tail end of summer. He reserved speech for the most important moments and smiled constantly, settled a room with a flash of his teeth. I have reason to believe the visit was casual, time spent with an old friend because his job had allowed for a week’s worth of vacation. Only two weeks later, I would stand outside of his hospital room hours after a medical team pronounced him dead.
In 1982, men spilled into hospitals with fevers over 103 and purple blotches all over their bodies. The doctors wanted samples, not to ensure their patients were in good health, but to uncover the next medical phenomenon. They did not know that their patient’s incision wounds would not heal, that they would remain open, rot, and fester, that the bodies of these men were incapable of healing themselves. Paul Monette knew, and in his memoir, while detailing the nineteen months in which he watched his partner die from AIDS complications, he stressed how death can change one’s understanding of the world. Life and all it encompasses becomes pithy alongside the imminence of death; time becomes immaterial to life itself.
D. and I had nothing but time between us. We talked on the phone until sleep took either one of us, let the receiver decide whose turn it was to hang up. This, I thought then, was what eternity must feel like. I was wrong. Remembering is eternal. When I think about his wake, I think of his gray skin offset by the soft blue of his casket. My mother, however, tells me that he looked immaculate—coffee skin, navy blue suit, a saxophone imprinted on the casket lining. He was swollen though, full of fluid, with the give of a perfectly ripened grape. I never wanted to see the body. Seeing him up-close, dull and lifeless, I could not will myself to accept the fact of his death.
When I realized D. had robbed my house, I could not accept that either. I tried to imagine him foraging neatly through my apartment, picking out items that might suit him or at least produce a couple dollars at a pawn shop. In my imagination, he left the front door only slightly cracked, allowed the intimate space of my everyday a little privacy. A neighbor told my mother and I that she saw a young man in a Broncos jersey casually walking down the stairs of our apartment the day of the robbery and I remembered seeing him in the same jersey a few weeks prior. For years, I thought the robbery must have been rooted in resentment. I remember telling him, after ending our relationship, “That part of my life is over now. I have closed that chapter.” Yet when I visited him years later and found my gaming console and stereo set in his bedroom, I continued to deny the truth presenting itself so clearly to me. When I found out he was dying of pneumonia, and what would become a staph infection in his lungs, I also denied what was so present and clear.
During AIDS’s first wave, some medical professionals, in informal reports and catalogs, noted that their patients’ downward spirals appeared to begin when they developed PCP, Pneumocystis Pneumonia. In those who are immunosuppressed, PCP is considered a harbinger of death, especially for HIV and AIDS patients. The lungs become inflamed, full of fluid, and increasingly susceptible to opportunistic infections from pathogens as a yeast-like fungus attacks the spongy tissue.
When D. confessed that he had a staph infection in his lungs, the rumors edged but quickly subsided. Despite the hush, I knew his condition was fatal. And on my way to see his body newly dead, the rumors regained strength, “All of us knew all along,” a good friend said, “but we never said anything, and we would not. We loved him either way.” I failed to understand what her comment meant specifically. Had they always speculated that D. had AIDS or had they always assumed he was gay?
I hoped they had not counted on his morality. I counted on an eternity, not a sudden punctuation to the years. When that same friend arrived in my driveway wailing, I knew it was time to see D. before the rest had a chance. During the drive to the hospital, I thought maybe if I never closed the chapter of my life that was my relationship with D., I would still be able to see him upright and not on his back in a box. So, in order to escape my self-imposed guilt, I stood aside as my mother, my friend, and her mother all wore gowns and gloves and walked beside what would become the resting place of someone I once knew. I remained in the hospital hallway and listened to the dirge of medical machinery. The sky was blue and cloudless. This, I thought, is how you steal time from life; this is how you stop mortality, by leaving quickly and quietly in the softest part of the night, right before dawn.
Once, when I was neck-deep in AIDS research, I watched a film in which a Los Angeles man recounted his late lover’s final moments. In search of a hospital that would save his lover, he sped through red lights and honking cars, his lover still from a grand mal seizure, mouth slack. Together they rode, hand in hand, racing against time. But the lover had already died with the first red light. Those men knew how fickle a collection of months could be, but they loved like it was endless. The surviving lover said that he could feel his partner’s pain while he sped through the Los Angeles streets. No explanation, no science, just the fact of love—that is how he knew death was coming for his lover before it announced itself.
I was sick the night of D.’s death. During the empty summers of my undergraduate studies, I decided to live with my mother in a neat, ranch-style house bordered by waist-level bushes. After reminiscing with family, I staggered through the house, mentioned visiting the emergency room but decided against it, and thrashed throughout the night until I fell asleep. When I woke to several missed calls and voicemails, I knew that D. had died.
The men in San Francisco did not understand the illness that struck them or their lovers. They gathered on sun-warm green grass, in theatres, and in lines for sandwiches on the way to beaches for sunsets and kisses and to toss flowers to each other. They grabbed life by the throat until it gave them what they needed. D.’s family and friends buried him in a cemetery wide with hills, situated around a lake and a flock of geese. They buried him across the street from my home where I spoke to him on the phone for hours, the same home he broke into. I never visited his grave. I moved to another city without looking in its direction.
Stephen Foster Smith (he/him) is a black, gay creative nonfiction writer who resides in Atlanta, Georgia. Aside from his identity as a writer, he is an elementary school teacher. Quick, short musings are available at www.thediscursiveself.com