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The Photograph

November 2000

Between 1992 and 1996, four volumes of WITNESS were published by AIDS Project Los Angeles' Writers Workshop. A selection from each edition is reprinted here.

HERE IS HIS PICTURE. Go ahead. Hold it. When you touch it and look at his eyes in the photo and see that wide open smile, his head thrown back a little, you can hear him laugh. Just by holding his picture you can hear him laugh that way. Even if you never heard him before. That's how I met him, laughing. I want you to know him this way.

I am still waiting for the minister to say something about AIDS at this service. Some acknowledgement of what killed my friend. But there is none. He only mentions that he has never met the deceased, but his parents are fine people who have attended his services for years.

I'm sure they are fine people. I think they are brave, his mother and father. They took turns staying with their son in the hospital in New York. I don't think they had ever been out of Ohio. But they are scared too. They haven't told anyone. Never mentioned the fact that their son died of AIDS.

His mother is standing next to the open casket. Some shiny metal tomb. I am sure not to look at the body of my friend. She keeps mentioning that she is not sure she picked out the right outfit for him. She is still wet from crying and she wants me to look over at him. To tell her it is okay. What he is wearing here. How she has dressed him. I pretend to look. My eye catches the wig. I feel in my pocket for the photo. I can feel it against my chest.

I begin to think of a mother dressing her son for his first day of school. Tying his shoes. Buttoning his new shirt collar. Pushing back his hair with her moist palm. That is what mothers do.

I am angry now, though, that she has dressed him for this occasion. This funeral. I am angry that he is displayed. Draped like a mannequin for some cheap sale at a department store. But she is his mother. That is her son. Who am I to say? I can tell she wants to push back his hair with her moist palm. But she knows it is not his hair.

Here. Hold this picture. I tell his younger brother. You can hear him laugh. He wants to know if his brother had AIDS. I know he already knows. He is sixteen. Yes, I say. I am not able to lie about this. I don't want to. I want to tell everyone here that he died of AIDS. I want to slam the lid of the coffin shut. Not to hide the disease or the death, but to hide the body that is not the man in this picture.

I want to hear people tell stories about him. Like the time he was modeling a pair of platform shoes he designed when he was in the seventh grade and the heels fell apart and he broke both of his ankles. Or the time in college when he and his black lover ran across campus naked with whipped cream and chocolate syrup poured all over their bodies to demonstrate their interracial love. Or the time he came to my college fraternity house dressed like Twiggy.

I can't stand the quiet. I want them all to hold this picture. I want them all to hear him laugh.

I say I will meet them later at the house. I cannot stand the thought of lunchmeat and cookies and the quiet murmurs of distant cousins of his who barely knew him. But I will go, so they don't forget the man I knew.

Look, I say, to the woman who is sitting next to me on the couch as she eats a piece of cake. Hold this picture. You can hear him laugh. You can hear him laugh even if you've never heard him laugh before.

She is slow to put down her cake and hold the photo. But when she does, she smiles. She can hear him laugh. We both begin to laugh. Me and this stranger with this photograph of him.

This is where he lives. Here in this laugh.

Here. Go ahead. Hold it.

This article has been reprinted at The Body with the permission of AIDS Project Los Angeles (APLA).

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This article was provided by AIDS Project Los Angeles. It is a part of the publication Positive Living.
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