The first person I met in New York City was introduced to me by a concert pianist who had accompanied a ballet class I'd taken
at the Bates Dance Festival in the summer of 1989. I told her I was moving to
New York City the next month and was a little afraid of the transition from
college life to city life and not knowing a soul. She tried to assuage my
initial fears, telling me she would introduce me to some of her friends as soon
as I arrived in New York.
My first week in the city, I called her from my hellhole of a sublet on the Lower East Side. I told her that I wanted to meet some people and was feeling pretty lonely. She told me her best friend was over having dinner and asked if I would like to come up and meet him. She also didn't fail to mention that he was very good looking, a talented musician, and single. Oh great, I thought, a blind date in New York.
When I arrived at her apartment, sure enough, there was her best friend, Kevin Oldham, sitting at the living-room piano playing some Mozart. Beautiful, talented Kevin. A charmer. Funny, too. We talked, flirted, played the game of "I like you, do you like me" over dinner, and eventually made a date for that weekend. What blossomed from that evening was not a great love affair (much to Kevin's disappointment) but one of the most saving friendships of my early years in New York.
Four months after we met, I went over to Kevin's apartment to listen to his latest composition before heading out for dinner (nobody eats at home in New York). Kevin explained that we had to stop by his ex-lover's apartment to drop off some medicine he needed for a cold. "When is Tom going to get better?" I asked. "It seems like he's been sick for so long."
"Tom isn't going to get any better, Michael. He has AIDS. It's full-blown."
Of course: Tom had AIDS. How could I have been so naive? It was right there in front of me, and I couldn't see it. I had no sooner made that realization when Kevin said matter-of-factly, "I've been on AZT for six months now. I think we should be going."
I went home that evening and cried.
The following summer, Tom succumbed to tuberculosis at the NYU Medical Center. I saw him in his last days. He was hooked up to a ventilator, his chest heaving to the pulse of the steel and rubber lung beside his bed. I went to my first memorial service ever that summer. It was nothing like the Irish wakes we had back in Massachusetts. Everyone talked about Tom and shared funny stories about his life and memories they cherished. I just listened, not knowing Tom when he wasn't in a hospital bed. Kevin was the most visibly upset at the service. We all knew he was not doing well, and I worried that the next memories I might have to share with a bunch of strangers would be at his memorial service.
I wonder now if that's why I pulled away from Kevin and the friendship we had together. I never visited Kevin for the next year and only talked to him on the telephone, a fact I can only blame on being too busy or having too much work. But I'm just making excuses. I don't think I could face the physical and emotional decay that accompanied his illness.
A few years later, I read an article in New York Newsday that said he had composed a new symphony for the Kansas City Orchestra from his hospital bed while he battled pneumonia. The article glorified his struggle with AIDS and his continuing desire to compose great music. I was struck by the photograph in the sidebar. It was a recent photo, I suppose. His skin hung off his bones, and his hair had thinned down to where it barely covered his scalp. It didn't look like the same person I remember. Kevin was beautiful -- tall, muscular, blond, invincible -- nothing like the person in the newspaper. I resolved to call him after I read the article, but got sidetracked, as usual.
A few months later, I ran home from work in a panic because I had a performance that night and had forgotten my sweatpants. I tapped the blinking red button on our answering machine as I charged through the laundry pile looking for something remotely clean to wear. I heard my friend Karen's voice echoing through the room as the tape played. I swear to God, a chill ran up my spine and my face went hot. I hadn't talked to her for over a year and our only connection was Kevin. Her speech was calculated and precise. She had obviously left the same message on other people's answering machines -- she was now at the F's in her address book.
Simply, Kevin was dead. In fact, he had died two days earlier and nobody told me.
I am so sick of friends telling me they are HIV-positive or sick. I am so sick of hospitals and the way they smell like death. I can't stand the fact that I know what words like Prednizone, Thorazine, and Hickman catheter mean and what they do. Why is it, at the age of twenty-eight, that my friends are dead, dying, waiting to die, or wondering if they'll be next. I'm confused when I hear people say that it's "their fault for sleeping around," or for "being gay," or for "not being careful." I have friends who have contracted HIV from their first sexual experience as teenagers or college students -- male and female. They never knew what "experimenting" was; they only know now they're lethal and have been from their first sexual experience. How can you place blame on that? They can't image what it's like to not associate sex with death.
In the summer of 1994, my lover and I buried our two best friends within months of each other. Although neither one knew the other, to me they were inextricably tied together. Gerald found out he was HIV-positive when he went into the hospital with what he thought was fatigue and a flu. It was pneumonia. He went in and out of the hospital four times over the next year and lost fifty-five pounds. He died a year after he was diagnosed, at the age of thirty-six. His body was covered with Kaposi's sarcoma lesions. He lived in his bed for the last two months of his life.
Billy battled his HIV-positive diagnosis for ten long years, but he had to give up. His body couldn't take all of the medication he was being given. He finally said, "No more." I remember the time Billy and I sat on the beach in Cape Cod and he talked to me about what it was like to be thirty-four years old and getting ready to die. How he hated the way his body looked being bloated from the medication, how he couldn't walk in bare feet because of the thinness of his skin, how he was angry all the time. His last wish was to go home to Louisiana with his mom and dad, but he was too sick to travel. Somehow his family made arrangements with a hospital in New York to get him on a special medical flight that would take him home. Billy died two days later with his family by his side.
I read that the progress scientists are making in HIV/AIDS research is akin to "one step forward and two steps back." I even read this week that they found a vaccine for one strain of HIV, the only problem is if they find a more potent vaccine in the future, this current vaccine will have already made the body immune to the new treatment. I get confused. It takes several readings to understand all the medical crap that is published. I feel like I should at least make an attempt to understand it. But how does that help my friends? I feel like I should be spending my free time calling or visiting people I've lost touch with. I just don't know if I can go through the process of watching another friend die. I'm just so damn tired of it.
I want to chew nails when I hear the religious right talk about AIDS being a good thing, about AIDS giving them a better quality of life because it kills trash like queers and drug addicts. I want to get five minutes in a room with Pat Robertson, Newt Gingrich, Rush Limbaugh, Jesse Helms, Carolyn Cosby and the Maine Concerned Families, and all the other xenophobic idiots and tape their mouths shut and force them to listen to a different angry voice.
I get so idealistic sometimes I want to puke. I saw a T-shirt the other day with this incredibly sentimental slogan on it. I'm trying to find a store that sells them because I want one for myself. On the front it says, "All I want is a cure and my friends back."
Michael Foley '89 spoke this text as part of "Yes, You Will be Tested on This Material," a dance he and two colleagues, Colleen Thomas and Franz Ottl, performed with Bates student dancers at the College last December. Foley is a teacher and dancer with The Doug Elkins Dance Company in New York City. This fall, he is serving a one-semester appointment on the Bates faculty, teaching dance and choreography.
© 1996 Bates College.
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Last modified: 3/20/97 by RLP