For the first time in our continuing series on Grief, Faith and Culture, we touch on culture. In a world where Don't Ask Don't Tell
has been repealed, where same sex marriage is legal in more states
every year, and where being HIV+ is no longer a death sentence, the GLBT
community has become a force for change. Our guest blogger today is a
renowned author and his story is a touching memoir to a friend who died
of AIDS. The loss of his friend inspired Rick Reed to write a romance
called Caregiver and today's article gives us a peek
inside the GLBT culture which spent two decades bowed beneath the weight
of a death sentence called AIDS. ~ Charity Gallardo, Blog Coordinator
driving north on Florida State Route 75. It’s August and the flat land
stretching out on either side of the highway looks baked. The slash
pines, palms, and cypress trees stand like stalwart sentinels against
the blistering sun: brave.
The car hums along, the whirr of the air conditioning compressor keeping me company. I’m too jazzed to listen to music.
on my way to a date with Jim. It’s been a while since I’ve seen him,
since he moved from the Tampa Bay area up north to Raiford, which is a
good three hours away. I can’t blame Jim for the move (it wasn’t his
choice), but it’s been hard not being able to see him the past month. Oh
sure, we’ve written and Jim’s a great one for letters, especially since
he can draw hilarious caricatures of the people he’s meeting in his new
But there’s a disturbing edge to his letters, too, and I
know some of these people have been less than kind to Jim. The
name-calling, for one thing, breaks my heart. But thank God Jim has a
sense of humor, otherwise I don’t know how he’d get through each day.
I know he’s been hanging on for this date, which we’ve had planned for a while.
Finally, an afternoon with Jim. I didn’t know, four months ago, that I would grow to love him so quickly.
drive on, the broad expanses of rough grass and hearty trees being
replaced every so often by strip malls and towns with names like Ocala.
The pavement shimmers before me in the heat. My tires hum. An armadillo
hurries alongside the road. A mosquito splats against the windshield,
leaving a swath of blood.
remember the first time I met Jim. It was another blistering summer day
(funny how in my memories of the two years I lived in Florida, it’s
always summer, even when the memory took place in December or February).
Jim and I had been set up and these kinds of dates always put me on
edge: they never worked out.
When Jim answered the door, I was
sure that this set-up date would work out like all the others:
completely inappropriate. Other people never seemed to have the capacity
to pick someone out for myself that I would choose on my own.
this guy who opened the door immediately put me on my guard. I mean, I
enjoy a good drag show at the local bar as much as the next guy, but
here in Brandon, Florida (a suburb of Tampa, full of kids, trimmed
lawns, and swimming pools), a smart little black dress and pearls just
seemed out of place, especially on a very handsome blond man with great
blue eyes and a nice, tight build.
But there was Jim, all smiles
and beckoning me to come inside. I went into the little bungalow he
lived in with a roommate (who was at work). The place was typical
Florida, one-story, stucco, with a schefflera bush in the front yard,
and that peculiar, tougher-than-nails, fire-ant infested grass on the
front lawn. Inside, pastel walls and beige furniture completed the
picture. The Golden Girls could have used the place for a set.
there was Jim, smiling at me in his sensible matron’s outfit and just
putting the finish creases on a little ironing he was doing just before I
rang the bell. The whole scene made me think of a cross between June
Cleaver and RuPaul.
I wasn’t sure what to say. But that really
didn’t matter, because Jim was more than ready to take over (once he’d
made certain I had a fruity cocktail in my hand, even though it wasn’t
yet noon), telling me all about his recent move down here from Chicago
(I had the same story to tell, but I wasn’t to learn until much later
how very different our respective moves to the sunshine state were), his
love for Barbra (need I add a last name here?), and how his health was
improving under the abundant Florida sun.
I learned fast that day
that clothes don’t always make the man and that Jim would turn out to be
one of the bravest men I’d ever met.
been a long drive and I’m glad to finally be pulling up in front of
Jim’s new home. Raiford, Florida is north central Florida…typical of the
state, but not the kind of look one usually associates with Florida
(white sand beaches, aquamarine waters, palm trees swaying in the salty
breeze): Raiford is kind of grim and parched looking, especially the
wide open spaces where Jim’s new home sits. It’s surrounded by dry brown
grass…stretching infinitely to a blazing blue sky, where the sun beats
A tall fence surrounds Jim’s new home, with no
nod to adornment (Jim, with his graphic design background and his love
for the visual arts, I’m sure, did not approve). This fence was made of
foreboding chain link and twice the height of a good-sized man, topped
with razor-sharp circles of barbed wire. The only thing that looks
halfway decent is the curving arch over the entrance drive and the stone
monument just beside it. The arch tells visitors, in curving steel,
that this is the Florida State Prison. The stone monument spells it out
further: Department of Corrections, Florida State Prison.
This is where they send the big boys: the felons.
I can’t imagine Jim inside. He’s been hanging on for our date.
I can’t wait to see him.
Jim and I went on our first date (after our getting-acquainted morning
cocktail hour at his house) we went to Ft. DeSoto beach, a beautiful
stretch of white sand just off of St. Petersburg Beach. Because it’s in a
state park, the beach is backed up not by high-rises with balconies
overlooking the Gulf of Mexico, but with a view that nature intended.
Instead of bricks and mortar (and the attendant Florida tourists), Ft.
DeSoto beach has only sand dunes, sea grass, and mangroves as a
backdrop. It’s another blazing hot day and I’ve brought lunch for Jim
and me (with a thermos full of mai tais…Jim’s favorite) and we spend the
entire afternoon listening to the waves roll in and watching a matronly
pair wade along the shoreline, net bags in hand, collecting starfish
Jim tells me about the last job he had before he went
on this extended period of unemployment and how he worked as a graphic
designer. He tells me about what led to his dismissal: picking up a
stranger one night and bringing him back to his workplace.
Jim was like that: a little imp, unable to play by the rules.
Life has a way of biting those who go against its conventions by biting them in the rear.
into the Florida State Prison is a lot easier than getting out, but
there are some obstacles. In order to arrange for my date with Jim, I
had to go through the chaplain, who put me on the very short list of
visitors who could come and visit him (not that there was a long list of
admirers waiting to be put on that list; only Jim’s family so far had
come to check him out in his new digs—and they had made the trip all the
way from Downer’s Grove, Illinois). Once inside the prison, I had to go
through an anteroom, where I had to sign in and then subject myself to
being frisked, right down to removing my boots to ensure I wasn’t
securing a file in the heel or something. I understood the precautions,
silly as they were. Yet Jim was in no shape to escape, even if I had
somehow managed to smuggle in everything he would need to slip through
Raiford’s well-guarded walls.
Security wasn’t as tight for my last
couple of dates with Jim, which had taken place at the Hillsborough
County Jail. There, things weren’t as grim, or as lonely. I would line
up with a whole room full of chattering visitors, get checked in, and
then be off to converse with Jim through a wall of Plexiglas, under the
admiring eyes of some of the other inmates. Jealousy is such a petty
thing, and particularly annoying when you’re trying to have an intimate
moment with your date.
But that was before Jim’s case was
adjudicated and they sent him north, to the state prison. That was
before Jim began to get really sick.
a guard leads me down a colorless hallway to the prison infirmary. I
know this will be my last date with Jim and it’s hard not to recall all
the laughs we shared before he was caught (he had violated his parole in
Illinois, where he had been convicted of grand theft auto) at various
beaches along the Gulf of Mexico, in Cuban restaurants, just listening
to music at my apartment.
It’s also hard not to remember the
additional details that brought him here: how, in a fit of depression,
he had set fire to his roommate’s house. What did he have to be
depressed about, anyway? He was only dying from AIDS (this was in the
early 1990s and the drug cocktails that would keep many of his brethren
living full lives were still on the horizon), isolated, and on the run
from the law. Why be sad when he could number his only friends (me) at
the number one? Why be sad when my friendship was not borne out of a
common love for the arts and sarcastic observations about life, but
instead courtesy of the Tampa Aids Network, where I had volunteered to
be an AIDS buddy and was assigned to Jim?
I wasn’t sure I wanted
to see Jim. He had written me, before he was confined to the infirmary,
about how the other inmates taunted him and called him Spot, because of
the Kaposi’s sarcoma lesions that covered him from head to toe (and
continued, even now, to eat his fragile body and soul alive). I didn’t
know what to expect. The last time I had seen him, he was still vibrant,
still Jim: a little blond man with a quick smile and bottomless
I knew he had deteriorated…and I knew it was going to be bad.
was alone in the room of the infirmary where they had done, I suppose,
what they could to ensure his comfort. Other beds awaited other inmates,
with maladies less deadly, I hoped, than Jim’s.
And there he was.
Asleep. He looked frail and vulnerable, not at all what you’d imagine
if you thought of the terms “convicted felon” or “state pen inmate.” His
face, once tanned and vibrant, was covered with purple sores. My Jim
had turned into a monster in the short time that had elapsed since we
last saw one another.
He turned to me and opened his eyes. At
least his eyes, blue as those waters we once sat beside, had stayed the
same. It took him a minute or two to recognize me, but when he did, he
smiled. I moved close to the bed and took his hand. With my other hand, I
touched his forehead, where a fever raced around inside, hot as the air
outside these prison walls.
I don’t remember what we talked about
on our last date. Probably not much; Jim drifted in and out of sleep
while I stood beside him, sometimes even in the middle of a sentence:
mine or even his own. He did manage to tell me about his parents’ visit
the day before, how his mother had collapsed in grief the moment she saw
I wanted this last time of ours together to be meaningful.
But what, really, is there to say, at life’s end? I leaned in close and
kissed him, my cheek brushing up against one of the lesions. It felt
The only thing left to say, really, at the end of life, or
even the end of a perfect date are three words: “I love you.” Jim
whispered back, “I love you, too,” and then he fell asleep.
I crept away.
died the next day. The chaplain very kindly told me, when he called,
that he thought Jim had hung on long enough to see me. I hung up the
phone and slipped outside to my patio and looked across the surface of
the pond just steps away. A wind rippled across the deep green water,
making the grass at the water’s edge sway. A white ibis pecked at
something along the shore.
I thought of a silly drawing Jim had
sent me a couple months ago. It was a colored pencil caricature of a fat
middle-aged woman I had written about; she was naked and riding a
surfboard. Jim had called it “Amelia’s Hawaiian Adventure.”
picture made me laugh when all I really wanted to do was cry. But my
eyes were dry. Maybe it was just Jim’s influence as he looked down,
trying to replace grief with hilarity. I laughed until I was almost
breathless and had to sit down, cross-legged, on the concrete.
my laughs turned to sobs and I faced away from the pond and toward the
sliding glass doors. The glass was bright with sun and I swore I could
see Jim reflected there. He mouthed some words and I strained to read
them through my tears. “Glad you could drop by.” I swallowed, containing
myself and think: me too, Jim.
Someone else might think our last
date was kind of sucky, but for me it was perfect. After all, a perfect
date is marked by a timeless connection and an intimacy borne of true
love. Maybe I didn’t get the chance to bring you flowers or candy, but
this date we had…well, it will be the one that will always stand out in
my mind as my best, because I like to think that I sent you off, free,
with the words “I love you,” lingering in your mind.
R. Reed is the author of dozens of published novels, novellas, and
short stories. He is a two-time EPIC eBook Award winner (for ORIENTATION
and THE BLUE MOON CAFE). His work has caught the attention of Unzipped
magazine, “The Stephen King of gay horror,”; Lambda Literary, “A writer
that doesn’t disappoint,”; and Dark Scribe magazine, “an established
brand—perhaps the most reliable contemporary author for thrillers that
cross over between the gay fiction market and speculative fiction.” He
lives in Seattle.
CAREGIVER is available at Amazon and Dreamspinner Press.