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The Art of Losing

Loss Within Loss: Artists in the Age of AIDS, ed. Edmund White (University of Wisconsin, 2002)

Loss Within Loss: Artists in the Age of AIDS, ed. Edmund White (University of Wisconsin, 2002)

There is always the Mozart story out there: someone died young with a whole lifetime already achieved. Then there are the rest: those who slowly, over perhaps three score years and ten, built up bodies of work informed by experience. Beethoven? If he’d died in his thirties, there would for all intents and purposes be no Beethoven. Verdi? My father used to shake his head with wonder when he told me how Verdi had composed Falstaff at the age of eighty. I loved the story of Verdi, because it seemed to me that the only way one could tolerate time was to believe that life was getting steadily better, to imagine growing rich in the mind even as the body went creaky.

There are elements of youth that are hard for any of us to let go, but a true artist, I thought, achieved not only the immortality of his work, but also the persistent burgeoning of his genius. When I decided to be a writer, it was my idea to arrive at fulfillment simply by continuing myself indefinitely. I was a kid, and patient. There were so many days left. I was shocked when it turned out that there weren’t necessarily so many days, that there might in fact be almost no time at all. All around me, artists whose enterprise required thousands of hours started dropping a hundred hours in. If you weren’t Mozart, you had no chance; there would never be a Falstaff again. The brilliance of maturity was a thing of the past. I watched artists struggling to pack into their dense work not only the experience they had had but also the experiences they had once expected to have, and now wouldn’t: people dying in the throes of their own potential. Nipped in the bud, many of these young sick people were bereft of voices before they knew what their voices were. It is all very well to mourn the distinguished men whose genius had manifested itself early, the ones interrupted halfway through; but I weep at the tomb of the unknown soldiers, the ones whose work, hardly begun, would with just a decade or two more have become something that we cannot imagine well enough to miss. We mourn the dinosaurs who perished in a sudden ice age, but our dead young artists are not pterodactyls; they are dragons whose would-be accomplishments never passed beyond the barrier of myth. We do not have enough information to begin to catalog the losses imposed on us. Writing panegyrics for individual artists whose names we know, we forget how much actually went with the acquired immuno-deficiency syndrome. Here is the tragedy: we have no idea what passed. We are never told what might have been.

The crisis consumed us. We got used to living with fear, and its chill effect changed everything for us: how we lived, what we made, and, of course, how we loved. Though some remarkable art was inspired by the intensity of ever-present accumulating deaths, we mostly lost in the battle against fear. Terror freezes creativity, and none of us had the purchase on gladness that should be the essence of young work. Coming of age in AIDS’s cold climate, I lived with a perpetual residual neuropathy, a compromised mind. There are so many people who would have been my friends if they had not died before I had a chance to meet them, much less love them. There are so many who would have inspired me in my own work and thoughts. There are so many who would have changed the world. Who can forgive these losses? How is it that they failed to break the heart of God, when they broke the hearts even of those among us who were spared the plague?

I first heard of AIDS (GRID at the time) in the office of my ophthalmologist, Dr. Maurice G. Poster, at 71 Park Avenue South on a Wednesday afternoon in 1981 at about 4:45. I was in eleventh grade, and had just decided to wear contact lenses instead of glasses, so it was before I cut my hair shorter and after I got my Frye boots. It was then I’d resolved that I wanted to be attractive, and it was indeed that quest for attractiveness (a quest whose object I had not yet defined to myself) that had led me to the waiting room of Dr. Poster, who specialized in soft contact lenses for people with sensitive eyes. I do not have a good visual memory, but I can recall in living sepia that waiting room, the other myopic people reading copies of National Geographic, the nurses coming out from time to time to escort someone with dilated pupils to the doctor’s room. I remember the brownish sofas and the yellowed lampshades and the hush that obtains in waiting rooms even when the patients are not particularly ill. I had leafed through several magazines and had haphazardly picked up a copy of Time. There, I happened on a brief description of a mysterious illness that killed Haitians and homosexuals.

The gay part didn’t entirely surprise me. There were already so many bad things about being gay that the additional information that some people were dying from it seemed almost logical to me. On the other hand, I found the mortality of the Haitians somewhat bewildering. I couldn’t think of any Haitians I knew; I’d had a protected liberal New York childhood and though I had black friends, they were all American blacks with approximately middle-class lives. My mother said, when I asked her later that day, that there were lots of Haitians in New York. She mentioned Mr. Leon (as we called him), who worked in the garage and drove a big Cadillac with a license plate that said MRLEON. I wondered whether Leon was going to disappear any time soon. Leon was in general grumpy and a little scary and I had always suspected that he did cultish voodoo with strangled chickens in some hidden part of the Bronx, but on good days he had a huge gold-toothed smile, and though he made me nervous, he was also the first person who ever called me Mr. Solomon (perhaps just because he’d forgotten my name, but when I was seven it made me feel wildly important). I had known him for a long time and I was sorry to think of him going. I was sorrier still about the gays of my life: my art history teacher and a pair of old family friends whom I thought of as surrogate uncles. Why would any illness be threatening Leon, Mr. Yates, and Willie and Elmer? The logic of it kept me up night after night, ruminating.

I remember wondering what I was going to do. I was not ready at the time to opt out of safe virginity. Still, it was a considerable disappointment that I would never be able to have sex with a man, though I had already sort of decided that I would never have sex with a man anyway, since gay men were social outcasts, sad figures, lonely, prone to undignified aging, childless, and null. I had, a few months earlier, been approached by a man (he told me his name was Dwayne, and showed me his credit card to prove it) while I was walking the family dog, and he had been unusually aggressive, taking my hand and putting it in his trousers. Dwayne lived in the big new building that had gone up on the corner of 72nd and Third. I had acutely wanted, for a few seconds at least, to go home with him, but I couldn’t bear the fact that we might have to walk past the building where I lived and the doormen who knew me; and I knew that it would be complicated for the dog, who didn’t really like new places, and that my parents would wonder what had happened to me, and that Dwayne might be a crazed ax-murderer. I left Dwayne and his pederastic ambitions on the corner. I hoped at that time that with practice and a little coaching, I would learn how to have sex with women, and I thought that not having sex with men was a good opening measure. I knew that women’s sexuality scared me; I hoped that that would pass, as my childhood fear of the color orange had passed. I knew that I found men attractive, but I didn’t find homosexuality itself attractive. Well, it was a puzzle. I’d perhaps never have sex at all; I had a spinster great aunt who had lived a good life in the world, and it seemed to me that one could do worse than she had done. This illness described in the pages of Time seemed to me relatively insignificant in this grand scheme of things, though I felt awfully sad for Leon and Mr. Yates and Willie and Elmer.

In the months that followed, I scanned newspapers for mentions of this illness. It fascinated me and scared me, and it also seemed to add to the alluring madness and evil and sensuality and pleasure of men loving men. I thought about the people who had done forbidden things and were now paying the price, and the images were curiously erotic. Everything was even more forbidden, even more dangerous, even more fascinating than I had dared to suppose. I didn’t know much about sexually transmitted diseases (then called venereal diseases), and the question of what bodily fluids mixed with what other bodily fluids under what circumstances was one that no one in the press had yet thought to ask. What I understood was simply the fatal consequence of difference, and I wondered what other illness might strike some other world within my world. The groups it affected might be as haphazard as the legionnaires who had suffered Legionnaire’s Disease. I concentrated on fear of the erratic to distract myself from terror of the erotic.

The first time I had sex was later that year, in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where I was a summer intern. By that time, I knew a lot more about venereal diseases, though much of it was vague and some of it was wrong. I had sex with one of the museum guards, in the medieval sculpture court, after the museum was closed. I wanted him to do the things he wanted to do to me, but I did not allow it. Instead of violating the limitations imposed by the possibility of disease, I violated the security regulations of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and maintained some bodily integrity. As I reached that eternally memorable, never-equaled release, I saw saints and angels gazing down on me with expressions of pure benevolence. I was suddenly terrified by this sculpture that had witnessed my giving way to temptation (Christ on his Cross, in the far corner of the room, had resisted temptation — and was much admired for it, I knew). I pulled up my khakis and I ran from that place as though there were eight winds at my back.

During my undergraduate years, I prayed a lot. It was kind of an abstract notion for me, since I didn’t really believe in God and hadn’t grown up with anything much like faith. I prayed to my own future, that it not allow me to turn into one of those people who wore tight jeans and smoked cigarettes and were snidely girlish and died. I had a series of girlfriends with whom I didn’t really have sex, though with one I felt excitement and with another I felt an adoration never equaled since. I had lots of gay friends, and I envied them their public freedom and wildness, though I never wanted to participate in it. My friendships were emotional, intellectual, monumental, physical in the embrace — but not sexual. I was safe against my will, so I was promiscuous in keeping with my yearning. Was promiscuity itself not a violation of the code of restraint and ethics to which AIDS made us subject? I often met men, really often, maybe six times a day, and had some kind of contact with them. I would let them suck me or feel me. Under duress, I would touch them. No fucking ever. I sucked once or twice but was too upset afterward. It was not about love or even about desire; the guys were often old or ugly or both. I expected that I would die from it, but I couldn’t manage to believe that enough to change what I did.

I wondered what it would be like to be Brett, a year ahead of me in college, gay as Christmas, friends with James or Max (who were not really out of the closet but who were a lot closer to out than I was). Brett’s mother was gay too, and they both had that strange and kind of ugly red hair. Brett was off having sex with everyone and taking drugs and talking about it. I found him vulgar and alarming and fascinating. He was a good singer and really cynical and came from Texas, and he had a garish limp-wristedness that didn’t seem to bother him much. He tried to cheer on everyone whom he thought might be gay; he was a kind of mascot for gayness. I also wondered about what it would be like to be Hugh, haughty and imperious and beautiful, who was gay as though it were a birthright, who was so bitter, and so nasty, and who regarded the rest of us struggling with our identities as ludicrous and faintly embarrassing — if he regarded us at all. It was a time of wondering. I wondered, also, who would die. I retained with some pride an unconvincing facade of relatively unscathed asexuality.

Senior year, I went to see a sexual surrogate from the back page ads of New York magazine because I wanted to practice having sex with girls and felt I should get the basics down before trying the experiment at home. That went better than I’d anticipated, and I kind of liked my surrogate, a blond southern woman who eventually told me that she’d been a prostitute for a while but that her real thing was necrophilia. She told me I was pretty good and alive and reminded her of whoring days, but that a lot of the guys she met were “kind of like dead people but so sweaty. And a lot of them are gays who are just not going to manage to put it in me, no matter how much they want that.” We talked about whether she was afraid of AIDS, and she said she assumed she’d been exposed and if she was gonna go she was just gonna go. We used condoms together, though who was being protected from what was never really clear. I was glad for what I’d learned with her, but I couldn’t yet translate it into a convincing passion.

Shortly after the end of college, I told a good friend all about my sexual history and she had said, “Listen, it doesn’t matter that much whether it’s girls or boys. It really matters whether it’s inside or outside, and whether it’s with people you know or with total strangers. And it really matters whether it’s totally safe.” By the time I was in graduate school, there were tests for HIV; and you had to be crazy to take risks. My mother spoke only occasionally about grandchildren, about having a family, about all the ways she would have liked my sexuality to fall in line with hers. She spoke to me instead about how scary it was to be gay — scary now not only because one would grow old alone and unloved, but also because one would not grow old at all. I went to get a test and I expected bad news and I thought that I might deal with it by killing myself. When I heard I was negative, I thought they must have made a mistake; I’d been careful, but I’d been careful with two thousand people, and I couldn’t see how that was careful. I went to a party in New York at around that time and met a friend of a friend, a cheery fellow, Nick, who was cute as a button. “I just thought you should know,” another friend whispered, watching us flirt, “that he’s positive.” I was shocked — this guy was about twenty, and well educated, and if I had known enough so soon, hadn’t he known enough too? A little later I heard that Brett had AIDS. I hadn’t seen him in years, but I thanked whatever God I had once beseeched for freedom that I had been too repressed to do damage to myself when I had wanted so badly to do all the dangerous things. Time passed.

I was not in a gay world when I started living with Michael, my first serious boyfriend, a year later. I was not infected. He and I knew about the epidemic mostly from the press, since we had no ill friends. Nonetheless, AIDS was one of the dominant realities of our life. I took the test again and again to make sure about the results, and I waited for the bomb to go off. Friends of mine had joined ACT UP. I was living in England then; I never went to ACT UP events, but I watched the protests happen.

I never once had sex with anyone the way I wanted. I never once did everything I wanted when and as I wanted. I was unacquainted with that reckless abandon that sounded like it had been so much fun a generation earlier. All the struggle to be frank and open about sexuality — and for what?

When Michael and I broke up, I was released back into peril. I remet a friend from grad school, Mark, some eight months later, the week my mother died. He was someone I’d almost slept with when I was in grad school, but at that time he’d been sharing an apartment with the guy with whom I was in love, and in my doe-eyed grad school way, I had chosen to pine after the roommate instead of seizing the moment with Mark. I’d afterward regretted the lost opportunity, since the roommate was repressed as all England, and Mark was hotly available. When I met Mark again, when my mother was newly dead and I wanted to die myself, I was exhilarated by his sexual energy. He lived on all the edges. He’d grown up in South Africa and was now attracted exclusively to inner-city black men, whom he picked up at night in neighborhoods where I was afraid to drive by day. He let them do anything to him. He was bruised with that, and he was also HIV-positive. I kind of wanted to be him.

I fell in love with a friend of his (I liked his friends), and we all went away for a weekend in Montauk. We were all the same out there until I dropped a glass in the bottom of our rowboat and Mark stepped on it. Blood came out of his foot and began to pool on the bottom of the boat. “Jump,” he said to us. “Jump!” he said again, and I realized that there was broken glass all over the bottom of the boat, that I could have cut my foot too, that our bloods could have mixed. I jumped. So did the other guy. We swam as if there were piranhas in Long Island Sound. From the shore, we watched Mark picking up the pieces of broken glass and dumping them over the side of the boat. On the safe soft sand, I felt a wave of nausea. I hadn’t thought to jump myself. If Mark hadn’t told me to jump, I could have died. You needed a life preserver in the boat, not out of it.

I went out, then, with Talcott, and after that with Carolina. I loved these women and I loved the escape from everything I disliked about being gay. I loved too how far we were outside the bleak world of AIDS. But I felt as though I had abandoned my comrades — as though this route I was taking had become, ironically, the easy way out.

Brett died. I’d never liked him much and had never much respected him, and though I bore him no malice, I felt sorry more for friends who had been fond of him than for him. At the time, I thought he was the first of a cascade of losses, and that made me very sad. I involved myself in the cause. I gave money to all the AIDS charities. I marched. I worried about my friends, and about people who weren’t even friends. I mourned for the tens of thousands dead. I read about and wrote about the breakdown of the community. I made friends with people who were ill and waited to be called on, waited to stand by their deathbeds. I knew a thousand people who were positive. I said, dramatically, when one of them was difficult, “But he’s dying,” and I thought that was true. I went on like that for years. I heard that this person had converted, or that one, and I reached out to them and tried to give comfort. I hoped that if I learned how they lived, I’d be able to live when my turn came, and that if I helped them as they died, I’d be able to die when it was my day to go. I gave money to AmFar and GMHC as a talisman against my own demise.

I remet Hugh, the haughty guy from college, and he was now an artist and keen to be friends. That chill austerity of his was gone. He joked, “Well, maybe HIV has made me nicer” — as though he didn’t remember that he had been absolutely and deliberately and grandly the least nice person in the world. I thought it was tragic. I don’t think he was a great artist, but his art became all of what he had learned from being ill. That slight sadistic superiority remained, mediated now by a touching empathy. I was glad and sorry to see that art, and to know that it was about a process never fully realized, though what fascinated me in Hugh was still the horrible way he had been rather than the poignant way he was, the alive part of him and not the dying part.

I went through a depression and had unprotected sex a bunch of times during it. Even at the bottom of my emotional pit, I had to be the top if I was being unsafe because to be unprotected and the bottom seemed too much like suicide. All I wanted was to tempt fate, to give the gods a chance to knock me off if they’d really decided I wasn’t worth it. I gave them ample opportunity and I thought, when the depression cleared, that I’d be dying soon. Then I tested negative again. The routine for the test, the forms to fill out, the vial with the purple top into which my blood spurted, the waiting, the phone calls, the paralytic fear between giving the blood and getting the result — it was a commonplace of my life. I took a test every year or so. I lived in terror of the tests even when I knew there was nothing to fear, because they were to my mind still tests of how angry fate was on a given day. I lived a life of tempered passions, mostly. When I got into a relationship I always went in for an extra test. Unfathomably, I was always fine.

I never bothered with safe sex in relationships; that much real intimacy I insisted on having. I was terrified that I was going to make girlfriends ill with the illness I didn’t have, that doctors told me I didn’t have, but — who could be so sure? I was terrified of my fluids. I worried less with boyfriends; our risk seemed mutual, part of a covenant that neither party should have entered. I met Søren and had a grand romance for two years, until I walked in on him as he was having unsafe sex with a stranger. I broke his nose and his jaw with my bare hands, and, feral with rage, bit a chunk of flesh out of his cheek. That was all about AIDS. I remember all that rage, all that blood, drenching his clothes and mine. Then I met brilliant, cherry-lipped, full-bosomed Julie, and fell really in love, and nearly married her. Shortly after that plan failed, I met Ernö. Eventually, we moved in together. Later, he rediscovered God and took up the cause of Christ, renouncing the body that had given us both so much pleasure.

The losses for which I prepared myself never happened. My friends were too young or too cautious or too lucky. The positive guy, Nick, Mr. Cute-as-a-Button, eventually got on protease inhibitors and he’s still cute-as-a-button. Mark is doing fine. Mr. Yates is still teaching art history at my high school. Willie and Elmer eventually died in their eighties of old age. Leon is still working in my father’s garage. The guys who were in on my house share one summer, my HIV-positive friends, are also on the meds of our time, and they look great. The rest of my crowd — well, they aren’t even positive. If I hadn’t been so cautious, so constantly restrained, would I have died? Would we all have died? Would it have been worth it, to forget ourselves entirely? In fantasy, it would have been worth it; in reality — who could even think it?