Originally published in The New York Times Magazine, July 1995
Here we are, in this car, at this moment, at this place we hoped never to be. I don’t know which of us seems more lost and defeated. His seat belt buckled, Steve stares out the window. I think to myself wearily, we haven’t even gotten home yet and we’ve already moved to a new place. We are itinerants, our old lives wiped out, the future stretching no more than a few miles. We have new identities, new language, new names. He is planning for the next stop. I am in charge of driving.
I cannot help retracing our steps, frantically searching for something of intense personal value, lost within a space of a few minutes, a few city blocks. We walked from the parking garage, through the heavy office doors and into the waiting room, where we stopped for a moment. A nurse brought us into a tiny, overheated room, and we waited anxiously, as if stuck in a broken-down elevator, for the door to open.
We had led our lives this way for four years: on a grim treasure hunt across his body, following the natural history of HIV disease, with one clue leading to another. From AZT to ddC to 3TC. T-cell count to T-cell count. From the symptom-free period to early signs of immune-system breakdown. All the while, treading in the safety zone of the not-yet-sick and dodging an actual AIDS diagnosis. Now, the hunt was over. We knew time was probably up.
The doctor appeared and began leafing through Steve’s file nonchalantly, as if she were looking for a telephone number. He peeked over her shoulder. “So, am I in the land of AIDS?” He said it playfully, covering for fear, as if he were guessing at a riddle.
With a childlike sense of denial that seemed rational at the time, I furiously prayed to my dead friend Carol to stop time and magically raise the T-cell numbers. My daydream was interrupted by the doctor. She was speaking very, very slowly. “You…are…in the land…of AIDS….”
Although perfectly aware that Steve could cross over into AIDS someday—200 T-cells being the diagnostic marker—for years I’d found strength and pride in pronouncing, “He is HIV-positive—asymptomatic.” HIV sounded clinical, yet survivable. It rolled fluidly off my tongue. “AIDS”, though, is like a mouthful of plaster—a death sentence stuck in the sympathetic bailiff’s throat. I cannot bear to say it to his face.
On Castro Street, later, I run into a friend, Glen, whom I haven’t seen in over a year. He dropped out of sight, he explains, when he fell in love with a man who was HIV-positive. Glen, a survivor of dozens of friends’ AIDS deaths, was HIV-negative, like me. But he determined to give it up for his lover: his sacrifice would symbolize the purest romantic commitment and ensure that he would follow him to the grave. Glen tried to get infected through unprotected sex, he admits, but it didn’t work. Against the odds, he remained HIV-negative. The boyfriend, meanwhile, fell in love with someone else. And Glen, in a more traditional response to his problems, took an overdose of sleeping pills. He called 911 before he passed out.
I don’t know if I’m more stunned by his story or by my response to it—completely unfazed. I intimately understand the mad logic that drives someone to such extremes. The powerlessness I feel against the virus can be so frustrating I sometimes think I would try anything, as Glen did, to stop it. But, become HIV-infected? No. It’s not simply that Steve and I have made a promise to each other, with the healthy partner pledging to help the ill one. But that the separation between HIV-negative and HIV-positive is the separation between two people heightened to an extraordinary intensity. We can never be truly united. We can never fully understand one another—even in love, even in illness, even in death.
I very much doubt, in any event, that there is a person with AIDS who would wish the disease on someone he or she loved. Healthy partners, friends, and family represent, for many, the future they may not have. Steve isn’t joking when he insists that I drive our car. In case there is an accident, I will have the airbag and the best chance of surviving. My future is very important to him, he tells me. By this, he means not only that I will share my life with him but that his legacy will live with me. In my long and healthy life, there is hope for him.
Here we are, in the last aisle, at the end of the row, at this place we do not really wish to be. We had bought circus tickets weeks before. Exhausted and uninterested after the doctor’s appointment, we had nevertheless been unable to think of a good reason not to use them. Huddled together for warmth, we hold hands beneath our crossed legs. Ushers close the canvas door flaps, music comes up, a spotlight snaps on. The show begins.
A corps of acrobats emerges from the darkness dressed in sparkling green leotards and head caps. Like caterpillars nibbling at a leaf, they gently pull away pieces of the green flooring. Trampolines are stretched seamlessly underneath. The acrobats line up, sprint, and the moment they hit the trampolines, fly into space. One after another, they are transformed into birds, twisting, spinning, defying gravity as they climb higher and higher. Sometimes their leaps are so high, they have ages to dive in a thrilling, slow-motion free fall. It seems as if I have a lifetime to watch. But each finishes in a flash, replaced in midair by another. As the act reaches its climax, two acrobats vault at once from opposite sides, their bodies dangerously—and flawlessly—interweaving.
I watch the gorgeous birds flying. It is so beautiful—painfully beautiful, like looking into the sun—I have to shut my eyes. In their elegant leaps into space and falls to earth, time is infinite in the moment. I can see everything, ineffably, at once.
I turn to Steve, perched uncomfortably on the hard wooden bench: his future clipped, the years spinning by, his exquisite body falling. And his life strikes me not simply as tragic, but—like the acrobat’s leap—as sublime, breathtaking: speeded up, a series of complex twists and turns, of beauty and pain, courage and fear, skill and daring. I realize I cannot save Steve. Nor can I only watch. But I can throw my body into midair with his, gracefully flying.