Dear M — I am supposed to be writing about World AIDS Day, but all I can think about is you.
Today also happens to be September 11, the 20th anniversary of the attacks. The President and a couple of former ones are here to mourn. The blue lights where the towers should be are back on, reaching for the heavens. The names of the dead, all 2977, are read aloud. “Never forget,” we’re told.
I am supposed to be writing about World AIDS Day; it’s the 40th anniversary of the epidemic. We don’t get the presidents mourning though. None of the names of our 106,776 dead in New York City alone are read aloud. We still don’t have a vaccine or a cure. But we have a day, and that red ribbon.
I’m 56 years old now, more than double the age you were when you died of AIDS, murdered by neglect and indifference. I am supposed to be writing about World AIDS Day, but all I can think about is you. We met soon after we each graduated college. I remember our first kiss when you whispered, “I’m positive.” We kept kissing even as tears streamed down our faces. I remember the time you called me from the hospital; I don’t remember which of your many stays it was — maybe your third? You were afraid you’d end up alone at the end and I promised you I would be with you when you died. Another time you were in the hospital, I came to pick you up and we brazenly jerked off in your hospital bed as you changed out of your gown before you were discharged. We weren’t even boyfriends, but we were so young, so horny, so desperate for some exultation our lives sorely lacked. We were gripped with fear and pulsing with anger. Our sky was falling and no one was paying attention. What better fuck you to our situation than ejaculating onto a hospital bed? I am supposed to be writing about World AIDS Day, but all I can think about is you. How many times did we make plans in the hopes we’d finally enjoy ourselves, enjoy our city, our youth, only to be forced to cancel them because you were too sick or felt too weak; that new drug AZT you were taking caused you to feel even worse. I am supposed to be writing about World AIDS Day, but all I can think about is you. I owe you an apology. I didn’t do either of the things you requested when you died. You told me to make sure I keep on living, to do all the things you wouldn’t get to do. You told me, “Live large.” I haven’t done that, not really. After you died, my stride shortened; the space I occupied contracted. I also, ashamedly, reneged on my promise that I would remember you fully living. You made me promise to remember you as fabulous not sick, stylish not skeletal; you told me to keep you alive. I am supposed to be writing about World AIDS Day, but all I can think about is you.
You were young, talented, beautiful (inside and out), we were friends, fuck buddies. You could be mischievous and sometimes mean. I admonished you once that you were acting inappropriately — you said, “Fuck appropriate, I don’t want to be appropriate.” You swiftly cut me down to my suburban size. I am supposed to be writing about World AIDS Day, but all I can think about is you. For today, I will leave it to others to raise the still much-needed awareness about the disease; to highlight all the support organizations, to explain that U=U, to opine on the need for cheaper and more widespread use of PrEP, to eloquently stress the urgent need to stamp out the stigma around HIV and AIDS. I miss you, my friend. I am sorry we aren’t mourning you as a nation the way you deserve, that there aren’t dramatic lights aimed your way. I am supposed to be writing about World AIDS Day. The day we raise awareness. So here I go: Never forget the individual, unique, fabulous souls we lost; and remember them at their most vital. Never forget that our long-term survivors are still in our care. Never forget that we veterans — those of us who lived through the AIDS war — now walk among you with grief, PTSD and survivor guilt. Never forget that AIDS is, in fact, one of America’s forever wars. Never forget M.
Richie Jackson is the author of Gay Like Me: A Father Writes to His Son, published by HarperCollins. He is an award-winning Broadway, television, and film producer who most recently produced the Tony Award-nominated Harvey Fierstein’s Torch Song on Broadway. He executive produced Showtime’s Nurse Jackie for seven seasons and co-executive produced the film Shortbus, written and directed by John Cameron Mitchell. He and his husband, Jordan Roth, live in New York City with their two sons.