A few years ago, I received an email from a reader, which included a request. He asked me to consider writing a character who was HIV-positive, like himself, because he very rarely saw his story represented in the MM romances he read.
It was something I'd wanted to do for a long time, but I hadn't been able to go there, because it hit too close to home. I lost one of my best friends to complications from the AIDS virus in the mid-nineties. Even though decades have passed, I still feel that loss as if it happened last week. But when I got that email, I knew it was time for me to face this subject.
I'm occasionally moved to tears while writing emotional parts of my books, but I've never cried harder than when I wrote the following scene. This is from Who I Used to Be, book 12 in the Firsts and Forever Series. Later on, a character in the book is diagnosed with HIV. But in this scene, the two main characters, Zachary and TJ, are visiting the AIDS Memorial Grove in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park. The names and a few identifying details have been changed, but this scene is drawn directly from my life. My friend and his brother are memorialized in the Grove. I'll include a few photos of this place, which is absolutely sacred to me, at the end of this post:
When we finally returned to the car, he hesitated, then turned to look at me. “There’s something I do every time I come to Golden Gate Park. I almost hate to mention it, because we’ve been having so much fun and it’s…well, it’s beautiful and important, but it’s also pretty sobering.”
“The AIDS Memorial Grove?” I guessed.
He nodded. “Two people who meant the world to me are memorialized in the Circle of Friends. I always make a point of paying my respects.”
“We have to do that,” I said.
It wasn’t far from the lake, but we chose to drive. TJ parked on the street and we walked up to the grove hand-in-hand. The sun was just beginning to set, and we had the place to ourselves. The ring of redwood trees around the memorial cast long shadows. Nestled between them, the memorial was carved out in concrete and stone. It was surrounded by thick, lush landscaping that seemed to shelter and protect the names within.
A lump formed in my throat as TJ led me to a spot he obviously knew well and knelt down. I knelt with him. Name after name after name radiated out from a central point, like ripples in a pond. He brushed his fingers over letters etched into one of the inner rings and said, “John Robertson was my best friend. He died just two months after his brother David.” He reached out and ran his fingers over another nearby name, and a tear splashed onto the memorial. “When I got out of prison, I moved to San Francisco not knowing a soul. I ended up answering a ‘roommate wanted’ ad on a community bulletin board in the Castro. John and I became best friends almost immediately.
“The whole time I knew him, he was dying of AIDS. It was a different time back then, in the mid-nineties. The disease was a death sentence, not like now. John was considered a long-term survivor, because he’d lived with it for seven years when I met him, but his health was deteriorating fast and he knew it. My God though, the way he embraced every day, every minute! He lived more in the two years I knew him than most people do in eighty. He celebrated anything and everything. He was passionate and joyful, and I was so damn lucky to know him.
“I became close friends with his brother, too. He moved in with us the last six months of his life. John not only had to watch his brother die, he also had to see the fate that awaited him.”
TJ paused for a moment and took a deep breath. “David was skin and bones at the end. His cheeks were hollow, and his eyes were sunken. It was such an effort to speak, and he was in a wheelchair because he was too weak to walk. But he’d still crack jokes, and he’d try to make other people smile. David had this hot pink scarf with gold thread running through it. He’d have me tie it around his head, and then he’d ask me, ‘Do I look fabulous, Trevor James Dean?’ He loved my full name and insisted on using it. I always told him he looked beautiful, and that made him happy. He was wearing his scarf when he died. John and I buried him with it.”
Tears streamed down his face. TJ took another moment before continuing, so quietly, “And then…then the light went out in Johnnie’s eyes. It was like, once his brother was gone, my best friend stopped fighting. He knew death was chasing him, and he quit running.”
TJ swallowed hard and said, “When he caught the flu, we both knew it was the beginning of the end. He hadn’t deteriorated the way his brother did, but he’d always had asthma so his lungs weren’t very strong to begin with. The disease reminded me of a predator, zeroing in on his weakness, his vulnerability. When he caught the flu, he couldn’t recover. His lungs just gave out.
“I remember standing at his bedside in the hospital, watching what was left of my best friend. I knew death was coming for him that night. I felt it. I was holding his hand when he died. One minute he was there, and the next he just wasn’t anymore. I don’t know what I expected. Maybe something dramatic, the way it is in the movies. But there was nothing. He just went away.”
He pushed to his feet, and I went with him, clutching his hand. TJ whispered, “His name was John Aaron Robertson. He was thirty-six years old when he died, and he was kind, and he was gorgeous inside and out, and he was amazing. He loved his friends, and he loved life like no one I’ve ever met before or after. He was way too fucking young to die, and the world got a little colder and grayer and less beautiful when he left it.” TJ stooped down, kissed his fingertips, and pressed them to John’s name. He did the same for David, then stood up and took a deep, shaky breath.
I pulled him into my arms and we held each other for a long time. When we finally let go a little, he rested his forehead against mine and reached up with both hands to brush the tears from my cheeks. He said softly, “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to make you cry. I just wanted to tell their story. I think that’s important. As long as their memory lives on, they’re not gone. Not really.”
This is the AIDS Memorial Grove.
If you're ever in San Francisco, please stop by and pay your respects to the scores of people memorialized in the Grove, including my friend. His name was Jim. He was thirty-six years old when he died, and he was kind, and he was gorgeous inside and out, and he was amazing. He loved his friends, and he loved life like no one I’ve ever met before or after. He was way too fucking young to die, and the world got a little colder and grayer and less beautiful when he left it.