_Gentle Scott, your story is our story
Do you see?
That is our connection -- our reflection
In your mortal struggle for love and holiness
Be strong in spirit
-- Shirah, age 24
_On Monday night, November 30, 1987, with the memory of Thanksgiving weekend, family and food still fresh in my mind, I took the #1 subway uptown to the 72nd Street station. As I exited the train and stepped onto the subway platform, I noticed a newsstand that was gated up and closed for the night. Yet I could still see the front page of the day's unsold New York Daily News and New York Post behind the gates. As I dug my hands deep into the pockets of my favorite ripped jeans, my eyes were drawn to the letters written in boldface and black ink, staring straight back at me:
I looked the other way.
With my face bowed to the ground, I took a deep breath, told myself this would be the only time I would ever do this and headed for the fifth floor walk-up on Columbus Avenue and 70th Street where a man I had met only a few weeks before and barely knew would meet me in the vestibule of his building. With a crooked smile and squeeze of my buttocks, he would lead me up the narrow and winding stairwell to the little room on the top floor, with the makeshift loft bed and bare bulb hanging from the ceiling. He would then persuade me to have unsafe sex.
For the following six weeks I performed the same ritual. Once a week, six more times, I took the #1 train uptown, hands in pockets, neck bent and face concealed on the long walk to his apartment, always telling myself that this would be the last time I would ever do this.
"Just this once," I'd say to myself. "I promise the next time I'll be safer and learn to say "no" -- convincingly. And he'll believe me. And he'll respect me. And I'll have grown. I promise. Next time. Next time."
And always, as I passed that newsstand, gated up and closed for the night, I looked the other way.
I hated the long forsaken walks toward Columbus and 70th. I hated the broken banister at the top of the stairs. I hated the brown couch against the wall by the window and the music he played and the jeans he always wore, strategically ripped at the crotch. I hated his crooked smile and his pock-marked face and his half-grown beard. Mostly, though, I hated how unsafe I felt every time he called me "Partner."
But this was the first time I was ever "with" another man. The first time any man had ever broken the sacred boundary of personal space I successfully encased around me; my sanctuary from society's guilty verdict handed down to me for experiencing disparate feelings that seemed aberrant, unnatural and wrong. It was the first time anyone had ever said, "I know your secret. It's safe with me."
And it thrilled me.
I loved the ominous way he smelled, and the shifty way he stood too close to me and the dangerous feeling of his bare flesh against mine.
And I hated myself for loving these things. So I turned my head and looked the other way.
"I think we should talk...about...you know...AIDS," I said.
"Okay," he said.
"Do you...know about it?"
"Yeah," he assured me. "I have many friends who've died."
I sat down on the brown couch as he reached for a photo album. He sat down next to me and opened it to a page with pictures of bearded men with beer bellies posing in front of their motorcycles. And as he pointed to the ones who had died, I thought to myself, "This is good. He knows about AIDS so I don't have to find out for myself. I can trust his knowledge. I can trust him."
"So have you been...tested?" I asked as I looked away from the book.
"Many times," he said. "Every six months, in fact."
I studied the strange circles under his eyes and the blotches in his skin and the scars on his face and wondered how they all got there. Then, timidly I asked, "Why every six months?"
He explained that he was born with syphilis and often needed to get a check-up, and while at the clinic the doctors would give him an HIV antibody test. I believed him. Because I wanted to believe him.
As I looked out the window into the dark and cold of that late November night I thought to myself, "That's it! I had the conversation about AIDS and I survived it," never once turning back to look him fully in the face and ask if his test results for HIV were negative or positive.
Once a week I took the #1 subway uptown to the apartment at the top of the stairs. To the stifled conversations. To the lure of our aloneness. To the self-imposed shame of sexual capitulation. Once a week, surrendering to his menacing advances, I would try to deny my feelings of being in danger and search for clues that he really did care for me. And that maybe one day, he could even love me. And once a week, lying next to his body, as he reached his arm over my head, I would listen for the sound of plastic, for the unwrapping of a condom from its packet. Sometimes I would hear it; sometimes I wouldn't. But each time with a strange mixture of longing and fear I would say to myself, "This is the last time," and turn my head and look the other way.
* * *
It would be eight more years before I could answer a teenager named Staci sitting in the front row of one of my lectures, who in the middle of hearing me tell my story, with tears streaming down her face and acceptance in her voice, screamed out, "Why, Scott, why?"
It took that many years for me to learn to say, "Because I didn't know you then. Because I didn't know my story would hurt you so. And because I didn't know I was worthy of being so loved by someone I barely know."
And it would be years after my unsafe encounter that I would run into "my partner's" neighbor on a street in the West Village. We talked about those weeks back in the winter of 1987.
"I used to come over when I heard you next door," Jordan said. "I wanted to tell you to leave. I wanted to put a sign over his head that read, "AIDS! GET OUT!" But I couldn't get your attention. You were always looking down."
"I didn't want any witnesses that I was ever there," I answered. "I didn't want to even admit it to myself." And then I asked him, "Do you think it would have made any difference?"
"Probably not," he answered. "You were like a moth in a flame. You seemed to have some sort of death wish back then."
"Not a death wish," I responded. "But certainly a lack of a life wish."
I looked straight into Jordan's eyes for the first time, paused for a second and then spoke.
"Did he infect you too?"
"I'm pretty sure it was him," he answered.
My alluring stranger-turned-partner on 70th and Columbus died of AIDS two years ago.
Jordan died of AIDS two months ago.
"That's it! I had the conversation about AIDS and I survived it"
I am still here.
When I was a teenager, I had an eighteen year-old friend who was a soldier in the Israeli army. Hila used to share with me some of her feelings about the possibility of fighting in a war, and about the possibility of fighting for her life. "You must always remember from whence you came," she would say.
"Why, Hila, why?" I would ask.
"Because...you can never defend your future if you can't honor your past."
There are no more witnesses to the events of the winter of 1987. No one left to unravel my lies and reveal my secrets. No one to betray my confidences or tell my story. No one...except me.
And so I share my story as a way of honoring and bearing witness to my past. I share my story in order to stare HIV in the face and find the courage to defend and embrace my future. And finally, I share my story so that when I take the #1 subway uptown and pass that newsstand, gated up and closed for the night, I no longer look the other way.
© 1997 by Scott Fried
Published by Scott Fried, PO Box 112 Old Chelsea Station, New York, NY 10113.
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