In the mid eighties, after my beloved boyfriend died, I became, for the first time in my life, sexually promiscuous. It was how I moved through my grief, by sleeping with men I didn’t know. Through nightclubs and Madonna and sex in parking lots, from England to Rome to South America. I had sex with a priest, my therapist, an architect, and a stock broker.
Then the talk of the Gay Cancer came – a disease apparently only gay people got, that was the talk in the beginning. So us – the straight people sleeping with people we didn’t know – we were safe, because we weren’t like them. Right?
Before my sexual escapades, when my beloved was still alive, and just before HIV, I shared a home in Philadelphia with a gay man and a gay woman. Elie brought her friends home who all looked like her, in their manly undershirts and keys dangling from their pants, their hair cropped short and they went to the top floor of the old trinity house and played a lot of Joan Aarmatrading really loud.
“I’m eating the bear, I’m eating the bear, I’m eating the bear”…
I was so naive then, I thought all gay women looked the same until she took me to sneakers, a gay bar off Market Street.
Paul brought home men in drag – sequined and smelling like sweat and cheap perfume. He had the bedroom above me, so I heard the clomping of their stiletto heels while I yelled one night, “take your shoes off, I’m trying to sleep!”
And they yelled back, “I can’t, honey, it’s part of my ensemble.”
I had gone to high school with Paul and after my marriage broke up, I met him again when I went to an apartment sharing service he ran in the city. He said if I was comfortable with gay, I could rent their third bedroom. Gay felt so much more like home than the suburbs I had just escaped from.
I remembered Paul in high school, his long body gliding through the halls with the pink lockers in Medford, New Jersey, his beautiful voice, his long fingers on the strings of his guitar. His hips seemed to have a swimming lane of their own, and he seemed to glide in between classrooms, his arms like long, delicate wings.
I immediately said yes. Yes, I’ll take the room.
I didn’t know when I said yes that Paul was fucking his way through grief, I didn’t recognize it, because my boyfriend was still alive and my body was still a sacred temple to me.
I didn’t know until one day when I found Paul in the kitchen staring at a photo and telling me his beloved mother had died a few years ago.
Paul was pouring whiskey into his coffee, holding a photograph of a blue car that was unrecognizable as a car. Just an accordion of metal, a small piece of turquoise. He told me his mother had been in that car. He poured more whiskey into his coffee. He brought two men in dresses home that night and had a threesome.
We were renting from a man who lived in Germany, and each month we gave our rent to Paul and he mailed it to the landlord, and then one day, after a particularly difficult weekend with too many men in dresses and umbrellas parading up and down the stairs in our shared home, there was a knock at the door.
It was our landlord, in from Germany, and he asked us where Paul was, and where the rent was. Paul hadn’t paid it for a year.
Paul wasn’t home, and never came home after that. He must have heard the landlord was in town and that we would discover he took all that rent and bought a shiny sports car. Who knows where he was by then.
We sold Paul’s guitars, which paid for some of the back rent, we moved out of the home, and I moved in with two straight nurses on Walnut Street. A part of me missed the loud music, the stiletto heels, and Paul.
I saw him around town every now and then, and when he saw me, he hid in doorways, or turned and went the other way.
My boyfriend died, I started putting whiskey in my coffee and having sex with people I didn’t know. I wasn’t trying to block out the image of a mangled car, but I couldn’t bear the memory of him in a coffin, in an outfit he would never wear, his lips sewn shut, or that his hands would never touch my body again.
The Gay Cancer came. The gay cancer turned into AIDS and HIV, and it’s the forgotten epidemic. Of the 75.7 million people worldwide have been infected with HIV, 32.7 million (roughly 43%) have died.
I thought Paul would die of AIDS. I thought I would, too, but after a year of my sexually risky behavior, I fell in love, and my behavior changed, and I got lucky.
I was reading the paper one day, when I saw the police had captured the serial killer who was killing gay men over AIDS. He was going home with them, then brutally killing them.
Paul was the last person he killed. Through Paul, they were able to crack the case.
I don’t know how long I held the Philadelphia Inquirer that day, my hands trembling.
It reminded me that we are all broken and all repairing, just not in sync with each other, and sometimes it takes years to understand how grief manifests in all of us.
Whenever I see a man gliding in his body across a room, I think of Paul. And whenever I hear a Joan Armatrading song, I think of that whole era, Elie and her girlfriends, and the Joan Armatrading song that gave me permission to leave my marriage and follow the man I loved. Joan’s butter voice singing…”I have a lover who loves me, how can I break such a heart? But with you I gave my attention right from the start.”
I think what I wanted to say this morning is let’s honor each other, including the fucked up behaviors, those who are different, because we are all grieving something, just not in the same way.
Some of us survive the risky behaviors that come with grief, and others weren’t so lucky. Thirty-two million people worldwide have died from HIV.
Thirty-two million.
When we talk of pandemics, let’s not skip over that. Let’s not pretend what came between the 1918 and 2020 didn’t happen.
It happened.
But for the grace of luck and god, it could have been any of us.