Killing Me Softly With His Song
As published by the Virginia Writer's Club in their 2023 Journal.
“Wow!” The roof deck of Jimmy and Tom’s Victorian rowhouse offered a splendid view of Dupont Circle.
Jimmy and I bonded the night we’d auditioned for A Funny Thing Happened on The Way To the Forum.
At twenty-one, Jimmy, an artist/actor, had it all: a loving partner, a lovely home, and oodles of talent. His smile was more potent than a mermaid on shore leave. The mere sight of him chased my blues away faster than Ragtime played on a funky jazz saxophone.
“If you weren’t so damn nice, I’d hate you,” I confessed.
The Washington Post, in 1977, reported in an article written by Robert F. Levey, that Dupont Circle, with its quaint shops and brick townhouses, had become the city’s gay residential mecca. He stressed in the article that gays of both sexes and straights lived side by side peaceably.
“I need to tell you something.” My friend, Calvin, grabbed my hand and pushed through the crowd of protesters overflowing the barricades around the Lincoln Memorial. We’d been marching up and down the federal city to raise money for AIDS research.
In a grove of trees nearby, he knelt on the damp ground. Pulling a syringe from his fanny pack, Calvin jabbed the needle into his arm. “I’m HIV positive.”
I stared into his glistening brown eyes as the poppy-orange sun smeared crimson and slipped behind the purple band of evening. He was only twenty-five, same as me. Extensively traveled, he’d grown up in a world of privilege as a diplomat’s son in Mexico. I hung on his every word as he regaled me with stories of his international sex-capades.
“My chauffeur seduced me on my fifteenth birthday,” Calvin recalled. “Now, he’s dying.”
The harsh white light of the streetlamp broke through a scarlet maple’s branches, mapping the landscape of his face with future lesions. Being diagnosed with HIV meant one thing in 1985. Death was inevitable.
In June 1981, the U.S Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published an article about a mysterious infection that had overcome five young, previously healthy men, all of whom died before the article went to print.
“Please don’t make a fuss,” Calvin insisted when I escorted him to NIH for his weekly treatment. “I volunteered to be an NIH guinea pig. Dr. Fauci’s brilliant. I’m one of the lucky ones.” Dr. Anthony Fauci played a critical role in HIV/AIDS research in the 1980’s. His groundbreaking contribution to the disease helped scientists understand how HIV destroyed the body's natural defense system and progressed to AIDS.
The American Psychiatric Association announced in 1974 that homosexuality was not a mental illness. During the 1970’s half of the United States eliminated sodomy statutes and most large cities included gays under civil rights protections.
Michael was entering as I was exiting Safeway. Bam!
Retrieving my pint of French Vanilla ice cream, he swept his blond bang off his forehead. Our eyes locked. From the pleading slant of his eyebrows, I surmised that he was beautiful but broken. An investment banker, he’d explained that he’d recently escaped an abusive long-term. relationship with his ex, a psychiatrist. “I’m in AA,” he declared nobly. My partner of seven years had just walked out on me, and I was versed in heartbreak and survival. We met for dinner at Child Harrold’s a few nights later. He said he’d recognized me from Woodward & Lothrop Department Store where I worked as a fashion stylist. Working in a conservative firm, he envied the openly gay atmosphere of my workplace. He was right. I was lucky.
Six years into his career as a linguist for the National Security Agency in 1980, Jamie Shoemaker was called into the office. His department superiors questioned him.
“We understand that you’re leading a gay lifestyle.”
“Well,” Jamie replied, “I didn’t think I was leading it, but yes, I’m gay.” Immediately, he was separated from his fellow employees for four months until HR called him into the office and fired him on the grounds of Gross Indecency.
“My law firm is holding my job,” Calvin assured me, attempting to ease my fears of employer retribution. Fluent in five languages, he was an asset to the international law firm he worked for. Fortunately, his boss, he informed me, though closeted, was gay and protective of his protégé.
“Just think, I’m a part of history.” Calvin was proud of his role in AIDS research at NIH.
It had been six months since that night at the Lincoln Memorial. Sunkissed and vivacious, Calvin had displayed no signs of the virus. A year later, I sat holding his hand as he braced himself for another experimental test. His face was peppered with lesions. No amount of makeup could mask the vulgarity of Kaposi sarcoma.
Kaposi sarcoma is a type of skin cancer. It forms skin lesions along blood vessels and lymph nodes. It can be red, brown, or purple in color and occurs in the later stages of HIV when the T4 cell count is low, and the immune system is weak.
When I wasn’t on stage, I’d stand in the wings during our run of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, marveling at Jimmy’s intricately chiseled features. Under the spotlights, he seemed an angelic illusion.
“Just lucky, I guess,” he’d say, brushing any compliment about his looks away.
“I detest final performance,” I admitted. “I’ll miss you.” “I’m not going anywhere,” he assured me.
In 1982, a journalist asked then-President Ronald Reagan’s press secretary if the president was tracking the spread of the HIV, which at that point was 600 reported cases. The press secretary responded to the reporter. “I don’t have it, do you?” The press pool laughed as the secretary admitted, “I don’t know anything about it.”
“You’re a high school dream,” Michael whispered.
I had no idea what he meant as I gazed into his shimmering silver eyes, but it pushed my romantic button and I teared up.
The shafts of moonlight slicing through the tree, laden with cherry blossoms, created an iridescent halo around his head. Skipping ripples on the Tidal Basin’s surface, the crisp March wind snapped my coat collar, and I clung close to him as we strolled against its force toward the Jefferson Memorial, blinking through the balletic branches. Luck had not passed me by.
Hours later, I stepped out of Michael’s bathroom and gasped at the sight of him stretched across the bare floor. Lithe and sinewy, his nude perfection against the polished maple took my breath away. Unbuttoning my oxford button-down, he kissed my neck, my chest, my lips.
By 1983, as reports of AIDS climbed to 1,450, more than three in four Americans had heard or read about the disease, according to a Gallup poll. Of those who were familiar with the disease, 43% believed it would reach epidemic proportions, and that they were more pessimistic (45%) than optimistic (33%) about whether a cure would soon be found.
I was surprised to see Jimmy sitting in the NIH waiting room. Both of us volunteered at NIH and Whitman Walker AIDS Clinic but had never worked together.
“They brought Tom in last night.” I dropped onto the sofa next to him and he wrapped his arms around me, a dry-land lifeguard struggling to rescue a victim drowning in a thrashing crisis.
AIDS predominantly affected men who had sex with men and, as a result, severely hindered the US gay rights movement, which was still in its infancy. Among the Americans who reported knowing a gay person, more than one in five (21%) said they had become less comfortable around that person since learning about AIDS.
Calvin nodded to a small, fragile girl, with the drawn face of an elderly woman, and dropped onto a bench by a dour-faced lady that he introduced as the girl’s mother. We were in a park outside the hospital where I was visiting Calvin.
I offered my hand, but she didn’t notice because her attention was on her daughter, cautiously kicking a socker ball in the grass beyond the terrace.
“Perhaps she’ll feel better tomorrow.” I smiled. Calvin winced. “This is the best day she’s had in months.” The woman glared at me.
“The girl’s positive,” Calvin whispered after they’d gone.
I can’t remember when Calvin and I drifted to sleep in the warn sunshine. What I do recall is being jolted awake when the alarm on the machine attached to him bleated and buzzed.
“Calvin. Calvin.” Unresponsive. I scanned the garden. Everyone was gone.
Barreling through the automatic doors. I yelled, “Help! Help!”
Within seconds, a nurse flew through the doors. Click. Ping. Ding. She adjusted the levers and Calvin, a wireless marionette strewn across the bench, bounced back to life.
According to Gallup’s 1987 poll, roughly half of Americans agreed that it was people’s own fault if they got AIDS (51%) and that most people with AIDS only had themselves to blame (46%). Forty-four percent of Americans polled in 1988 believed that AIDS might be God’s punishment for immoral sexual behavior.
I’d decided early on to look the patient in the eye as if he was still that handsome lad in the photo on his nightstand. Out of respect, I dressed up for them. Patiently, I read their favorite stories until they fell asleep, mopped their foreheads when feverish, and held their hands when Death’s shadow crossed the floor.
Jimmy sat on a low sofa in the solarium. Thin as a willow reed, his once flawless complexion now riddled with purple lesions and his breathing labored, he slumped against me. I held him, a shrunken man-child, until the nurse arrived with a wheelchair.
“I’m a widow now,” I remember he choked out, his lovely tenor stripped dry and hoarse. He followed Tom two weeks later, a smile stretched across his bony face.
In 1989, most Americans (60%) felt that people with AIDS should carry a card noting their virus status. One in three (33%) believed that employers should be allowed to fire those who were infected. Twenty-one percent said that persons with AIDS should be isolated from the rest of society.
Come Sunday, Michael and I’d brunch for hours on his terrace. His scent, a mix of bergamot, lemon, rosemary, and fried bacon, was intoxicating. Soaking in one another’s fascination, sharing sections of the New York Times and the Washington Post, we wallowed in our sacred contentment. However, it wasn’t meant to last. After several months of bliss, my fear of being abandoned, of being deserted by a lover as my ex had dumped me, without warning, choked my common sense and strangled the intuition that had opened my heart to Michael. I bucked against the tremendous flood of feelings he stirred in me. Not again. Never again.
“It’s too soon,” I replied when Michael asked me to move in with him.
He pleaded his case. “But I love you.”
“But I’m not in love with you,” I lied.
The virus lurked in tropical regions of central Africa and made several incursions into the American continent before becoming a global pandemic. HIV most likely killed a young man in St. Louis in 1969, just one month after the Stonewall Riots. A Norwegian sailor died from AIDS in 1976 after he most likely contracted the virus while traveling in Africa.
Although we lived a mile from one another, it had been five years since I’d seen Michael. We fell easily into conversation and ended up chatting for hours over dinner at The Fox and Hound.
“Do you know how rare this thing we have is, this closeness?” Michael asked, innocent as a six-year-old.
He’s right. I was such a fool to let him go.
The following Friday, I knocked on his door. “Surprise!” Flying high on Dutch courage, I pushed him into the plush down sofa cushions. Kissing, tugging, and caressing, we sang a salacious spiritual as we danced the tarantella on our backs.
Breaking away, he rolled out of my arms. “I’m HIV positive.” His words, strung on a rusty string of air, hung above our heads, a busted neon sign.
Devastated, my heart leapt over the cliff of reason. My hands were shaking so fiercely, I struggled to zip up my pants. “Oh Michael.” That’s all I said. No attempt at comforting him as I had the AIDS patients I visited.
“I love you Jer.” Sincerity was as natural to Michael as a flame’s heat.
I wanted to tell him how frightened I was. I wanted to tell him that I loved him, but I didn’t. A coward, I ran.
Ninety percent of rebound relationships fail within the first few months, states Marriage.com.
Guilt ridden for having walked away from Michael, exhausted from attending countless funerals, and holding the chilly hands of passing patients, I was desperate for a break. So, I phoned my ex-roommate, Biff. “Let’s paint the town pink!”
Recently, he’d rented an apartment in the hope that his lover, a cop weighted down by Catholic guilt heavier than Jacob Marley’s chain, would join him. A week later, the guy broke his promise and Biff’s heart.
The night a blur, we ended at Badlands. Biff and I bounced around the dance floor, working our boozy, sweaty selves into a sexual frenzy that we’d been avoiding for years. “Come on!” He dragged me out of the bar and into a downpour. A clap of thunder startled us, and we ducked under a weeping willow in someone’s back garden.
The glow from a nearby porch light streamed through the lacy branches, dashing magic on our glistening bodies. Pressing me against the trunk of the tree, Biff whispered in my ear, still throbbing from the house music that blared from Badland’s speakers, “I love you.”
Loved me? Loved me? Who could love a coward like me?
I stared into his cornflower blue eyes. “I’m negative,” I whispered.
Assuring me was negative as well, he plunged his tongue into my ear.
Washington, still as a tomb after the storm, glistened in the moonlight. Taking my hand, Biff walked us up 16th Street toward my building, The Envoy. When we got to the crest of the hill, he jerked his hand away. “I can’t do this. I…love you, but…” Swiping a tear from his cheek, he tore down the street, disappearing into a dark alley.
I trudged up the grand marble staircase to my apartment where I once lived happily for five years with my college sweetheart until he dumped me for one of my friends. Had it been an illusion? Am I cursed?
I clicked the kitchen light on. A gift from the gods, they sat side by side on the counter, a bottle of white wine and Biff’s old prescription of Klonopin.
Stuffing a fistful of pills in my mouth, I uncorked the bottle.
I felt nothing as I stumbled into the bedroom. Then, abruptly, my body, a two-ton tanker, buckled my knees. Shaking violently, I grabbed hold of the bedpost. My legs wobbly and my head, a fired-up freight train, I slammed hard against the mattress.
“Let go. Let go,” a sensuous voice sang from the dark.
With trembling hand, I speed-dialed Biff’s number. In what seemed like seconds, he burst into my bedroom, grabbed me by the shoulders and slammed me against the wall. “Damn you!” he bellowed, “You tried to kill the person I love most in this world.”
According to the Williams Institute, 24% and 29%, respectively, of first suicide attempts occur at the age of 26 or older. Lack of connection to the LGBTQ community may negatively impact homosexuals more intensely.
“Why?” Calvin asked, his brow taught with concern.
“Because I’m so confused.” I wanted to scream and yell and stamp my foot because my world, our world, was spinning in a toilet bowl of anguish. Invisible, we were drowning in a cesspool of bureaucracy, and political opposition steeped in hatred. It was incomprehensible that people hated us. Plus, I was riddled with survivor’s guilt. Jerry Falwell and Anita Bryant strode confidently into the spotlight with their anti-gay rhetoric. Mr. Reagan, the President of the United States, didn’t address the matter. Battered and bruised, our carcasses were ravaged by wild dogs. Friends, acquaintances, and co-workers were dropping at an alarming rate. My twenty-five-year-old hormones raged but my head hemorrhaged fear and doubt. There was no safe port in the storm.
I’d had it up to here with the sick and the dying. I’d attended too many memorial services and had sung too many hymns. The stink of hospitals, hospices, and funeral homes were tattooed onto my brain, scorching my sensitive nature. I was twenty-five going on ninety facing a life alone. I envisioned a future littered with loneliness and despair. I was scarred by resentment, scared of living, fearful of death, and sentimental for what never was and what never would be.
I was waiting for the elevator after I left Calvin when a wave of melancholia crashed against me, and I retraced my steps back into the ward. Calvin was parked in the hall outside his door, enveloped in a cluster of tubes.
We said nothing. We were beyond words. I walked into his arms, and we stood there holding one another, the beep of his lifeline keeping time. When the nurse called the next day to inform me of his passing, I dropped the receiver and crumbled to the floor. “Are you all right, Mr. Long?” I heard her yell as the phone banged against the cabinet door.
According to the dating site Match, 34% of the 5,500 singles they surveyed claimed to have fallen in love at first sight.
I was rushing in and Michael out of Dr. Gerald’s office. Pow!
We hugged each other for a long time, feasting on happy memories. I now realized it had been love at first sight for both of us.
“Wait for me,” I said when the nurse called me back.
Good news from the doctor. I had tested negative for the AIDS virus. The receptionist handed me a note when I returned to the empty waiting room:
My high school dream,
When I’d heard Michael had passed, I fell to my knees and bawled. Regretful. Sorry. I’d never told him I loved him, and I truly, truly, truly did.
Silence=Death. Silence=Death. My silence equaled death.
The winter blizzard of 1987 dumped fourteen inches of snow on the Nation’s Capital in twenty-four hours. The city came to a complete halt. Because DC was challenged with few snowfalls, it never invested in snowplows. Everyone was complaining but me. I loved it. Buttoning my coat up to my chin, I walked out into the blizzard. The wind slapping my back and the sleet pelting my face, I felt alive. The hurt proved I had survived.
A friend phoned. “Come out and play. It’s snowing men! Hallelujah!”
I joined him at Badlands. The joint reeked of animal instinct. Armed and dangerous, the hunters milled about, Lipizzaner stallions high stepping in the strobe light slashing their features into abstract triangles. Not a single mammal was safe on this safari. A stranger, tall, blond, and willowy as I remember, asked me to dance and I followed him into the beehive. No sooner had we eased our way onto the dance floor, than Biff butted in front of the guy and pressed against me.
Baby-powder fresh with skin polished pure with ivory soap, his scent lingered in my nostrils, a comforting fragrance breaking through poppers-laced air thick with smoke from the dry-ice machine. His touch was firm and sure and mine, inescapable.
I woke up the next morning, my head light as a feather, and eased out of Biff’s arms.
Glancing down at him, his muscular body curled in a warm nest of linen, he appeared Christ-like in his contorted innocence. Dressing as quietly as I could, I peered out at the city, dusted in a fresh layer of white. Breathtakingly lovely, my heart skipped a beat. With Biff’s favorite fountain pen, I wrote a message on the notepad by his typewriter.
Goodbye. I’ll always love you.
The city at five a.m. was all mine, not a human in sight. The snow, untouched by stomping boots or spinning tires, lay before me, offering me her virginal best and I wept before her beauty. Gently breaking through the crusted surface of clarity, I trudged up the hill, my face to the sun, my shadow falling behind me.