LavaboBy Christopher Gorman
In the spring of 1981 an article appeared in The New York Times about a mysterious deterioration of the immune system that physicians across the United States were observing in the sexually active homosexual community. I read the chilling article on the Long Island Rail Road in the time it took the train to travel between Syosset and Kew Gardens. The day was unusually warm for spring, and the air-conditioning was not working. Sweat appeared on my upper lip and forehead. It trickled down my neck and soaked my shirt. Between Kew Gardens and Penn Station, I stared blankly out of the dirty train window -- past the billboards and factories of Queens (where I was born in 1955) to the familiar skyline of my beloved Manhattan in the too-fast-approaching distance. I tried to forget the article in The New York Times, but I could not forget it. Destiny had arrived before I had arrived at my destination.
In the steamy bowels of Penn Station I stuffed The New York Times into an already overflowing trash can, then disappeared into the crowd that surged upward to Seventh Avenue.
That evening I mixed drinks and opened bottles of beer at Uncle Charlie's North, a neighborhood gay bar on the Upper East Side. The men sat before me, puffing their Marlboro's and silently sipping their drinks. The party was over. Throughout the long night one would occasionally whisper to another, "Did you read the article?"
A regular patron asked for his usual scotch and water. "Water from Lourdes -- if you've got any." I knew he'd read the article.
Similar articles continued to appear all that summer, in the Advocate, Newsweek, New York, and Time. They discussed it on the Today show and Live at Five and Nightline. We discussed it at Don't Tell Mama and the Ice Palace and the Works. All summer I prayed to be spared this scourge, this punishment, this ultimate shame. I visited churches and lit candles like an old woman praying for her alcoholic son.
One Friday afternoon in July, after applying for a position at Saks Fifth Avenue, I ducked into the comforting darkness of St. Patrick's Cathedral. I pushed past tourists and fanatics, moving purposefully toward the cool sanctuary of the Lady Chapel behind the main altar. I emptied my pockets of loose change and subway tokens and lit four votive candles in front of a familiar statue of the Blessed Mother. Taking my petition to the highest levels of power, I prayed to Mary to intercede on my behalf. "Oh, Mary, conceived without sin, pray for us who have recourse to thee." I prayed, I begged, and I bargained. No more missing mass on Sundays and holy days. No more cruising Bloomingdale's. No more gossiping. No more amyl. My hands were clasped tightly together. My forehead rested on my hands. This was my approximation of Jesus in Gethsemane. After many agonizing minutes I lifted my head. Looking at my hands, I played an old game from childhood. "Here is the church, here is the steeple, open the doors and see all the --"
Oh my God! What is this? Blood! Blood on my palms, blood on the pew, blood on the marble floor. I wiped my hand on my trousers, then examined them. In the center of each palm was a deep, painless puncture. How did this happen? Where? At the employment office at Saks? I looked up to the Blessed Mother. She stared ahead with a look of no concern. Leaping up out of the bloody pew, I jammed my hands in to my pant pockets and fled. Past the crypt where the dead cardinals are interred, past the statues of St. Patrick and St. Theresa of the Roses, running past the confessional with the red light on above, past the bust of Pope John XXIII -- emerging at last from the shadows of the cathedral into the blessed sunshine.
Weary office workers moved up and down Fifth Avenue like ants on a picnic blanket. Foolishly, I looked for a familiar face, but recognized no one. I looked once again at my hands. Jesus, Mary, and Joseph! The wounds in my palms had gone straight through my hands. Blood so red it was practically purple oozed from the gaping holes.
"I am in big trouble," I thought as I ran to the subway. "Does this mean I can't go to Fire Island tomorrow?"
In my apartment in Queens, my best friend has helped me bandage my hands. He is a flight attendant for New York Air, first aid is part of their training. We are standing in the tiny bathroom I have painted cranberry red. Around the sink are cotton swabs, bottles of rubbing alcohol and hydrogen peroxide, gauze, iodine, Band-Aids, and a styptic pencil. My mysterious wounds are clean, have stopped bleeding, and are bandaged as perfectly as an airline attendant and a former Boy Scout of America could manage.
Afterward, we settle down on the sofa to watch The Dukes of Hazzard together. John Schneider looks particularly handsome in this episode, and I decide it would be foolish not to go to Fire Island the next morning.
"You're bleeding," I hear a strange voice say. I am lying on the beach at Fire Island in a red Speedo. "You're bleeding." I open my eyes and squint into the sun hanging over the stage-left corner of the Atlantic Ocean. A blindingly handsome young man wearing a bathing suit the size of a ticket stub is staring down at my side, perplexed. Propping myself up on my elbows, I nervously look at my side. Blood is trickling from a tear in the skin directly below my rib cage. "Thank you!" I improvise. "I had my appendix out last week and the stitches were removed yesterday. I'll be fine." The stranger moves on down the beach in the direction of Calvin Klein's house.
I lurch toward the ocean like a broken doll, my legs weak, my head spinning. I hear my Irish grandmother say, "Salt water is good for wounds." She believed that every year on August 15, the Feast of Assumption, the ocean acquired miraculous powers to heal. On that day every summer she would force her fifteen grandchildren into the waves at Rockaway Beach. This is not August 15, but I am desperate for healing and I plunge into the dangerous surf.
The waves knock me down and a powerful undertow threatens to pull me back to Ireland. In the tumult of sand and sea, I scrub my side, hoping to wash the blood, this nightmare, away. After several minutes, I crawl out of the ocean like a frightened child. Confused, I scan the beach for my grandmother, but she has long since abandoned her room at the shore for the smaller confines of a plot at Calvary.
The blood has stopped flowing from my side and I can see a wound six inches long. I don't even look at my feet; the blood on the sand tells me that I already know. Heaven has answered my prayers of summer: I have received the stigmata, the wounds of the crucified Christ.
I had fervently prayed for this experience as a young boy. Excluded from serving as an altar boy because I attended public school, I imagined that the stigmata would impress Monsignor McCarthy sufficiently to make an exception in my case. Chosen by God for this extreme honor, I would be the best altar boy they ever had at Our Lady Queen of Martyrs Church. I would be interviewed in The Long Island Catholic and my family would not have to stand in line at the World's Fair to see the Pieta. I stopped praying for the stigmata when Sean Livingston taught me to masturbate in the eighth grade. After that, I didn't want to be an altar boy anymore.
I stand against a scrub pine in the dunes on Fire Island. I am smoking a cigarette I got from the last guy. My hands and feet are bandaged, my Dreamgirls T-shirt hides the wound in my side. The almost full moon finds me like a spotlight. I pass the night in this secret place filled with other men who cannot sleep. Beautiful men who do not yet know they are dying. I couple with them, one after the other, dancing under the stars. We are watched by owls and raccoons and all the saints of heaven. We are lit by the moon. Bodily fluids soak into my bandages and mix with my blood. I am infected with what I fear most. It is finished.
Walking home in the early-morning light, I see a baby deer, a fawn, alone on the boardwalk. "Where is your mother, Bambi?" I whisper. The fawn hobbles away, afraid of me.
I arrive at the house where I am staying and close the gate quietly behind me. I enter the sandy house and move slowly through the dark hallway in the direction of the bathroom. It is time to clean my wounds.
ChristopherBy Don Scotti
And now, fellow traveler, what shall I do?
And how, sweet companion, how dare I go forth?
And why, fairer brother, is time measured so?
And who, tell me, who can fill this heart, this void?
This article was provided by AIDS Project Los Angeles. It is a part of the publication Positive Living.