A story about AIDSBY BECCI ROBBINS
He has full-blown AIDS," she said. The sound of it, like air escaping.
Full. Blown. AIDS.
The social worker handed over his file, a single sheet of paper with some handwritten notes on it, mostly addresses and phone numbers, which I scanned for clues to what might be coming.
Mark was 41. He had been in Columbia only a few months, since being forced to leave his home in Los Angeles after having grown too ill to care for himself. With nowhere else to go, he had moved in with his sister, who was stationed at Fort Jackson.
It was far from an ideal living arrangement. "Dysfunctional" was the term the social worker kept using. The sister was often gone; Mark was increasingly bedridden. She had an alcohol problem; he had a coke habit. She resented Mark's intrusion on her life; he, in turn, was humiliated, lonely and raging mad.
After she had left him alone for three days, knowing he was too sick to make it down to the kitchen, Mark had called Palmetto AIDS Life Support Services to ask that someone be sent over to make sure he didn't "starve to goddamn death" in his upstairs room.
As a PALSS volunteer, that was to be my job. To make sure Mark didn't starve to goddamn death.
The first visit happened on a Saturday, a clear October morning chilled with the first hint of fall. The neighborhood where Mark lived was deserted. Empty yards. Silent streets. Shades drawn tight. From the outside, his apartment was unremarkable, the way government houses are, one more box at the end of a dull row.
The woman who opened the door was wearing Army fatigues and aviator sunglasses with the shades flipped up.
"Hi. I'm Carol," she said, "Mark's sister."
She showed me inside and gestured toward the staircase. "He's up there," she said, stopping to look me over. She thought about saying something, then decided against it.
"I'm going to work," she said instead, closing the door behind her.
I found Mark in a small, nearly bare room. He was sitting on the edge of his bed, a tray of tea steaming at his feet, a low sun slanting through the blinds casting bars across his face.
He smiled and rose to embrace me, apologizing for not having dressed yet. Through the cotton bathrobe his ribs felt like a cage.
We pulled away from each other, grinning awkwardly, neither of us sure about what happened next.
"You're just a kid," he said. "How old are you? Twenty?"
"Twenty-eight," I said. "But, yes, just a kid."
At 41, he looked like an old man. He was stooped, bent into sharp angles of elbows and knees. Haggard. Worn thin. Used up.
Still, he was a striking figure, tall with bright orange hair, which he wore cut short into spikes that fanned out from his head like some DayGlo halo. His nails were long and buffed to a high gloss. He wore a gold ring in his left earlobe.
His skin was transparent, shot through with a stringy pattern of bruise-colored veins. There was a lesion on his face. Another on his neck. I tried not to stare.
He had a watery gaze, his pale eyes rimmed with loose, red lids, which he blinked the way he did everything else -- slowly, with deliberation.
Slowly, he bent to pour the tea. We perched on his bed -- there was nowhere else to sit -- and, balancing cups on our knees, began to talk.
Actually, he talked; I listened. Early on I realized that it wasn't starving to death that worried Mark; he was afraid of disappearing. My job was simply to reflect him back. I was to be his witness.
He told me about growing up in a small Texas town, about a father who was gone most of the time and a mother who was distant, rigid, a cold manipulator. He'd never really known his sister, who was several years older. They were, the four of them, familiar strangers sharing a single roof.
As soon as he was able, Mark left home and moved to San Francisco, a place that had assumed mythical proportions in his head. The city turned out to be more than he had dared to hope, and he was dizzy with possibility. For the first time in his life he didn't feel lonely, didn't feel "like a freakin' freak."
After a few years there, he moved to Los Angeles. By his account, it didn't take him long before he'd managed to grab it all: good job, big house, outrageous parties, boyfriends galore. "I had it made," he said.
His lavish lifestyle had him running in circles where drugs and sex and pushing the envelope were all part of the game. But somewhere along the way his fast life came unglued.
Before he knew it, he found himself in the grip of a powerful cocaine addiction. Out of control, he watched himself sell off his possessions -- his beloved things -- to support his habit.
Then he discovered that one of his boyfriends had infected him. He had it.
"It all went just like that," Mark said, snapping his fingers. "Now look what's left. I've got nothing. Zero. Nada. Zip."
Rocking slowly, back and forth, back and forth on the bed, he whispered, "I can't stand living here. I wish there was somewhere to go."
Mark was not alone in his unhappiness. His sister, overwhelmed by the constant demands of this angry person she was supposed to love, wanted out. She felt put out, ripped off by the raw deal.
"I didn't ask for this," she said. "It's not like I had much of a choice, you know. I'm doing this because he is family. But that doesn't mean I have to like it. Or him."
She hated the thought of Mark "slow rotting" in that upstairs room, stinking up her house with his decay. To get even, she cashed his disability checks and spent the money on tequila and Bingo at the NCO Club. That's what Mark said, anyway. Called her a "selfish little lesbian."
She was at least the latter. That the two of them were both gay amused Mark. He wondered at the statistical improbability of his family equation, asking me once, "How often do you suppose it happens that one family turns out a faggot and a dyke?"
As it turned out, my first visit to Mark's house was also the last. From then on, I would see him only in the hospital, where he was admitted for longer and longer stays to treat a cascading series of illnesses.
Against his doctor's advice, he was released for a few days to go to Texas for Thanksgiving. It was a desperate last attempt to reconnect with his parents in ways they never had.
His last remaining fantasy was that they all might come together as a real family -- for him -- for once. He clung to the hope that his mother and father, seeing that their son was dying, would reach out and gather him in.
But the trip was a disaster. Mark's parents -- stunned by their son's garish disease -- had nothing to say, nothing to give, not even the customary peck on the cheek.
Knowing that it would be the last time he would see them, he arrived in Texas bearing Christmas gifts that he had picked with care. For his mother he had bought a pair of leather gloves.
"She didn't even try them on," Mark said. "She couldn't even give me that."
The trip exhausted him. Not only was he crushed by his parents' chilly reception, but the strain of travel -- the airports, the crowds, the cabs, the luggage -- took its toll.
Upon his return to Columbia, he went straight into the hospital. In the next weeks he would spiral deeper and deeper into illness. By Christmas he was close to the edge, wishbone-thin and haunted by hallucinations.
Slowly, he began to turn inside. Whole visits he would spend with his face to the wall. Sometimes he cried. Sometimes he raged. More and more, he began to talk about God.
"I'm not afraid of dying," he insisted. "I'm afraid of this."
This: A room on the 6th floor of Providence Hospital. Stale air. Strangers' voices outside in the hall. Nurses moving about his room, putting tubes in his arms, notes in his chart, changing the channels on TV. Regis and Kathie Lee, the Jeffersons and Judge Wapner, Vanna, turning letter after letter and smiling and glittering and clapping.
This. "I hate this shit," he said on one of my last visits. Mustering all the strength trapped in his tight body, he threw his dinner tray against the wall. Pearls of tapioca pudding slid their happy holiday selves down the back of the door, settling near the peas and carrots on the floor. Chicken bones splayed out across the linoleum.
Surprised at his own theatrics, he started to laugh, and then howl, attracting the attention of the nurse. She wasn't pleased about the mess, but smiled in spite of herself.
Taking advantage of her good humor, I loaded Mark into a wheelchair to take him for a spin, even though it was against the rules. It was late, and the hospital was quiet.
Once we had escaped into the hallway, he said he wanted a cigarette. To my disapprovingly look, he snapped, "What's it going to do, kill me?"
We wheeled into the elevator and went down to the outside courtyard, gray and slick with a misting rain. We sat there, he in his chair, me propped against the wall, while he got his nicotine fix.
All of his adult life had been given over to the ritual of addiction -- the delicious forbidden. His last remaining vice was smoking cigarettes, which he did with adolescent defiance.
He lifted the pack from his pocket with such tenderness, sucked down the smoke with such pleasure, that I wanted a cigarette too, even though I don't smoke. We sat in the courtyard, me gagging, he blowing smoke rings and telling all the dirty jokes he could remember, until we got cold.
On the way back to his room, we stole from the empty lobby all the poinsettias that would fit on his lap and footrest. We lined them along his window sill, where they fluttered and wilted in the rising heat.
Mark's final venture from the hospital was on Christmas Eve. He'd gotten it into his head that he was going to attend midnight services at Trinity, and set about planning what he would wear. For days, he talked about little else.
By some miracle, he managed to convince the powers that be at Providence Hospital to release him for the evening.
He arrived at the church dressed to the nines, wrapped in a long, black coat and purple scarf. As he made his way down the aisle, supported on one side by his sister, on the other by her girlfriend, he was radiant.
We crushed into a pew together. None of us had been to church in a very long time. With intense, burning eyes, Mark took it all in: the candles, the robes, the stained glass and carved wood, the faces around him soft in prayer.
We held hands. His were soft and warm. I could feel his heartbeat in his fingers.
Halfway through the service, Mark excused himself to go the restroom. When he didn't return, we assumed he had stayed at the back of the church.
Later we learned he had collapsed on the bathroom floor. While he lay bleeding, just outside the door the congregation sang songs of praise.
The last time I saw Mark, he didn't know I was there. It was January, the dead of winter.
"The doctors say he isn't going to make it though the night," Mark's sister said when I passed her in the hospital corridor. "You know the smell of death? That's what it smells like in there."
Mark was incoherent, lying drenched in sweat, fists clenched, intensely engaged in a conversation with who knows? It sounded like a business deal.
"Yes," he said. "They will be there in the morning. No problem." Pause. "I told you they will be there. Have I ever let you down?"
I sat next to his bed, waiting for him to come back. From where? I wanted to ask him whether the trips he took were in his head or out across the universe. Or were those places one and the same? It was a conversation we would never have.
That last night, I watched him curled under those sterile, stiff sheets -- and waited. I ate the lemon drops from his bedstand. Wandered to the window and looked down into the empty courtyard. Waited. Studied his face. Matched my breathing to his. Waited.
But he was already gone. It was my turn, now, to try to make sense of it all.
On the fifth anniversary of his death, it still makes no sense. But I have sifted through to some truths. They are age-old, but now they are mine, and I am grateful.
In giving, I got back -- more than I gave. My life is richer for having known Mark. More than ever, I believe in family. And I now know that family means more than blood ties.
Slowly, he began to turn inside. Whole visits he would spend with his face to the wall. Sometimes he raged. More and more, he began to talk about God.