My brother died of AIDS in the third great wave of AIDS deaths, back in the early l990s. By then they knew what AIDS was. Not, however, during the first wave, the mystery sickness attacking gay men in San Francisco. And even during the second wave, the epidemic of the late 1980s, the “thin disease” of Ugandans that took out entire villages, many things were unclear. Keith was diagnosed after a disastrous week-end with us in New York to see shows (he couldn’t walk the three blocks to City Center and made us call a cab; I didn’t understand)—and in the Jerome Robbins Revue he coughed so loudly and incessantly all the people in front of us turned around to glare. On Monday he gave up and went to the hospital to receive his death sentence.
Why was I so slow to catch on? It’s not as if I didn’t know he was gay. And I knew far more about AIDS than most straight boys because I’d been in Rwanda for two years, when that was considered the epicenter of the epidemic (an ape bit a person and the virus changed form—so they said), and back when it wasn’t even clear you couldn’t get it from mosquitoes. Absolutely no prostitutes, even with a condom, that part was clear; they had a 99% infection rate, I’d read. I thought about that all one weekend in Kampala, still (in the mid-80s) full of bullet holes and bombed-out shops, and swarming with hookers.
Plus I’d been tested twice, just because, by a researcher at the embassy. I had a Tutsi girlfriend; once the condom had slipped. I remember being convinced I had it; I spent one nightmarish week until the test came back negative, and a slightly unsettled six months until it came back negative again. And because a French friend had read there was a correlation between Hepatitis B and AIDS, I went immediately to get the first two of a series of three vaccines in Germany; the third I carried with me on ice in the Air France to Kigali.
So why, knowing all this, did it take me so long to figure things out with Keith? Perhaps unwillingness to think the worst could befall me and mine? Still, it did. When he was diagnosed, he was told he had two years to live. He thought he was dying right then and there: he held up his once-beefy leg (Keith was built like a fire hydrant, and for a time was all muscle, but then went to seed via chocolate and Big Macs) and announced, somewhat melodramatically (but if you can’t be melodramatic when you’ve been told you have a soon-to-be fatal disease, then when?): “I am wasting away!”
“No,” I said. “At least, not now. The doctor told me you had two years.” He looked at me unconvinced, and I went and got the doctor from the hallway, a young good-looking guy with whom, I realized, Keith was a bit in love, the way women are in love with the OB-GYN who delivers their baby, to repeat what he had told me.
Under the circumstances, two years seemed a long time. They were off by two months in Keith’s favor: he ended up dying a month after his 40th birthday.
During these two years, Keith turned into a vampire, perhaps a fitting state for someone whose sickness was in every one of his body products, but mostly in his blood. When he was diagnosed, they gave him massive transfusions of blood full of T-cells and white blood corpuscles, and he came out of the hospital full of energy. There followed six months or so of his old life of cello playing, Gregorian chant, and sex. He re-constituted the dungeon in the cellar whose contents my mother had carted away while he was gone, all without comment in either direction—the leather slings, the chains, the metal balls. Now, after the transfusion, it all came back, bought and installed anew. And when Keith was finally dying for real two years later, it was carted away again (this time I did it), in black plastic garbage bags, to the dump.
Six months after his first transfusion, he began to flag: voilà, a visit to the hospital, more blood, and rejuvenation. And so it went, over and over, for the remainder of his time on Earth: the gradual slowing and graying, the visit to the hospital, fresh blood, his exit with the spring back in his step and the bloom in his cheeks.
The terminology of all this had its strange poetry. His drugs sounded like pesticides: AZT is the one I remember. And he was vulnerable to strange growths in his throat—one sounded like a bird: thrush—and of course plain old pneumonia, already a rather mellifluous word. They’d send down a tube to clip out part of his lungs to test things out. But all the drugs were ultimately themselves lethal, so the question was not whether he would succumb, but when, and to what: the illness itself? An opportunistic infection? The cure?
Nous sommes tous les morts en permission, as Lenin is supposed to have said, via the French of Jean-Paul Belmondo in Godard’s Breathless: We are all on temporary leave from death. When you know the drugs you’re taking to prolong your life is itself lethal, this phrase takes on new meaning.
And later he began to hallucinate. But that is another story, and this too was all long ago, though in the same country.