World AIDS Day 2008

Wonderland (AIDS Suite)

To all the cowards and voyeurs, there are no more tickets to the funeral – Diamanda Galas

A photograph: Terry in a white t-shirt, faded jeans, legs crossed, a copy of Playboy in his hand circa 1977. Sunlight rainbows through the window of his San Francisco apartment, it's the Castro, where every day is a party and rubbers are for sissies at the Sutro Baths. Who was he trying to fool with that girly mag? Maybe he just liked to read the articles, or maybe it was Iggy Pop’s big cock, waving from the stage of a Stooges’ concert. I had that same issue, purloined from my dad’s stash, pages wrinkled from cum shots, but not on those pristine girls, who enjoyed backgammon, horseback riding and had perfectly shaved pussies.

Terry wrote letters in blue ink on snowy white stationary, and my mother cried over them in the post office parking lot. I was never privy, couldn’t find her hiding place. I have a picture of Terry and my mother, young, in the woods, arms draped around each other’s shoulders. He came out to her first, softened the blow for my confession. She handled it like a pro, but those letters… what did he say in those letters that made tears rain on the fur collar of that long gray coat she wore? Lost them, doesn’t remember, wouldn’t say if she did. I could see fire dancing in her eyes.

A litany: Bulldog, Handball, Jaguar, Glory Holes. Terry knew Harvey Milk, saw him the day before he was assassinated, agreed to disagree over the baths, which Harvey hated and Terry frequented. In 1978, Harvey gunned down in city hall, followed by riot, vigil and silence. Supervisor soothsayer, predicted bullets to his brain. Could he see what else was coming? The season of marches and death upon them all, the bathhouses clouded with “gay cancer,” the first acronym, GRID, transmuted to a word that once meant care, but became letters for extinction. AIDS.

While Ronnie-Rayguns exchanged arms for hostages and the Red Cross sat on its dirty hands, Terry fell out a window trying to break into his locked apartment. Down he went, eight stories, a service shaft, his fall slowed by pipes and wires he ripped through like a hot knife. The doctors gave him pint after pint of freshly squeezed blood, cold and untested, along with the standard issue “miracle he survived.” All the bruises would eventually fade save one. The KS calling card, a kiss of death, on his lower torso. The how and why ceased to matter in a spiral of red tape. Persecution, crucifixion, homicide, genocide.

A vague memory: Terry packing to leave, escaping the long, slow death of being gay in the South, heading west to Oz. When he decided it was safe to return, he moved into the same apartment in Atlanta he’d abandoned a decade before. Made it love nest. I lost track of all the boyfriends, until Jeff finally stuck. The bad news came in a long distance call, a last cackle from the Wicked Witch who installed herself as mayor and wielded a deadly wand over a once Emerald City. Terry and Jeff, those brave front boys, holding hands, promising to go down together. Pills stockpiled in medicine cabinet and bedside table never used. Jeff would go first, quick and unplanned, the disease excising its right to take you fast or let you linger in agony. I was on the phone with Terry as they took Jeff’s body out of the apartment, too stunned to cry. He would be banned from the funeral.

The day before he died -- withered in a hospital bed, slipping in and out of delirium, Jeff gone a year -- Terry heard voices, saw shadows moving, lamented he’d never go dancing again. I promised to bring him the tape of a disco song he’d heard on the radio, but never got the chance. I have it on my shelf, dusty and un-played. He left while I sat in grid-locked traffic after a frantic summons. That night, I kept another promise and swept his apartment clean of porn, bags full of fuzzy and fading '70s and '80s movies, where cum dripped unchecked from every orifice, not a rubber in sight. He forgot the nudie photos, found by my grandmother, an angel bare-assed in chaps, haloed by unearthly light.

At the memorial, everyone speaking in contained voices, I let mine crack with tears, opened the door for my mother and grandmother to sob, got dirty looks from his friends for bringing down an otherwise lighthearted remembrance. Before Terry, I’d always had the stiff-upper lip inherited from English genes, now I cry easily at death, even stranger’s, and Terry’s gone 10 years and AIDS is pandemic, still not a cure in sight. I still have the picture of Terry in the San Francisco apartment, the one he dreamed about as he drove cross-country, leaving Atlanta, next stop wonderland.

-- Collin Kelley, 2004


heaven be with us all

word veri (no joke: raggipil)
Rachel Mallino said…
thanks for sharing this, Collin - it's extremely touching.
Radish King said…
True and still true. Beautiful.
Anonymous said…
This is one of the greatest poems you've ever written. I hope its in the next book.

Coll, my chest actually aches as I read this. Gorgeous, sublime, dead-on.
Thank you.
RIP Terry. And all you beautiful boys.
Maggie May said…
What I look for in poetry is an expression of someone's truth in a form so beautiful or powerful or mysterious that I am enthralled. You did that here. I read every word hungrily. This is brave and deadpan and completely important and heartbreaking and infuriating. I really love this poem, and hate the story it tells.
I'm sorry you lost him that way.
Karen J. Weyant said…
Beautiful. Just Beautiful.
Pris said…
I just left Lisa's blog about Terry to find this. No words...just incredible sadness at these losses.
Anonymous said…
What a tour de force. My heart hurts from reading it, but I'm also blown away by the raw honesty and powerful language.

Thanks for sharing it here, on this day.
Unknown said…
collin, what a tender and heartbreaking poem this is. there are tears in my eyes for terry right now. and for you, his friend.

you've taken the (slightly hokey) "aids day" thing and transformed it. thank you. i've read a lot of posts about aids this week, and none of them are anything like this, anywhere near its brilliance.
This is powerful. Brillant work, Collin!
Anonymous said…
I published my first scientific paper in 1986 - as a mere lad of 19 - on some enantioselective methods for modifying the gp120 antigen of HIV-1... at the time it seemed like a vaccine was maybe 5 years away. The US Army actually did viral assays for us, since they had a big supply of HIV-1. The arrogance at the time was "never mind a mere cure, we can harness this virus and use it as a vector for gene therapies!" Now it's 22 years later, and in spite of probably the biggest research effort EVER for a single disease, there's still no real cure in sight.

Back in the mid and late 80s, an AIDS vaccine was considered such a Holy Grail that it was quite easy to get grant money to study it; research groups used to try to find a way to link whatever they were doing to HIV or AIDS just to hop on the gravy train, and actually good developments came out of those inadvertent studies.

I've transitioned away from that area myself, but my feeling now is that, in many ways, AIDS is sort of a persistent background thing, more n the vein of sickle-cell anemia or malaria... a nasty disease, but treatable as a chronic condition, and generally not *visibly* fatal (that is, people who can afford therapy don't die...)

I don't know how to "spike" interest in the disease again, to give it that aura of emergency it had in the 80s and early 90s. Maybe the promise of a giant amount of money, a prize - that worked for Fermat's Last Theorem - some tangible accolade to spark new biotech startups and get some fresh thinking going?
Wow, what a piece of writing! You made him real and alive for me. My heart is heavier now - and so it should be.
Christine Swint said…
Stunning and tragic. Beautiful writing, Collin.

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