This is the awful truth.
Hundreds of the people you knew back then are dead.
And you survived. And as long as you live, this will haunt you.
As long as you live, you will think back to the clubs you went to that year. You will think back to how you stood by the bar, preened your moustache a little bit, puffed out your chest, flashed your showgirl smile to say, hey look at me, see me over here.
You waited (but never for very long) until one of the guys came to tell you how much he loved your eye lashes or your smile or your ass, and then together you’d head somewhere out of the way. A corner, a room, a bathroom stall.
It was easy.
You were easy.
It was fun.
This fun will haunt you later. On lonesome nights, when you’re driving on the freeway or taking a shower alone, the ghosts will come back to you, the ones whose photographs appeared on the drugstore walls, with their bruise-like lesions and pale skin, who were there one day and then— poof—gone the next, incinerated, embalmed, shipped home across the country away from their lovers and back to their mothers for a respectable funeral amongst people who did not know them or respect their way of life.
It will haunt you thinking of how many of those men vanished in the course of those years. It will haunt you remembering how it was only dumb luck that kept you alive. You’ll say a prayer on those lonesome nights to a God you’re not sure you even believe in.
You’ll thank him for sparing you.
You hardly remember most of the people who died now, just that they were once a warm breath on your neck, a whisper in your ear, laughter in the alleyway, a late night boogie in the club. They sported tight jeans or khakis, poured you a beer or handed you a joint, held you tight or didn’t hold you at all. Some dressed up in women’s clothes, others in uniform. They were bearded, shaved, straight, bi, transvestite. They were smiles or angry voices. They were on top, beneath you, behind you, in front of you, with their welcoming mouths, their hard or soft bodies, their frustrated or happy or scared or sweet words. They spoke of politics and pop culture. They voted for Reagan or loved Carter, made fun of Jerry Brown, wanted to be mayor, wanted to screw the mayor, signed their death warrants there in the clubs and bathhouses.
They were the same as you, mostly.
But they ended so differently.
You made the decision to move to San Francisco on a cold November day in 1980. You were living with your parents in New Hampshire, working for a nonprofit that provided meals to the old and the sick and the poor. All your friends were married by then. Most had kids.
It was good Christian work you were doing, and you’d made your mother proud, but it was a dead-end job, and you had no money in the bank, no friends in that town, only secret and fleeting lovers. You were sure you’d die alone.
But you’d read enough newspapers to know the deal: if you were a gay man, San Francisco was the place. You could be yourself there.
Go West Young Man, you heard.
Out there, people would greet you with arms open. You could be yourself. You wouldn’t have to pick up men in the woods near the college, wouldn’t have to risk your father spying on you as you went into the trees. You wouldn’t have your mother asking you if you wanted to be set up with her friends’ daughters.
You were twenty-nine. Your life would begin. You thought of it as a baptism.
Your brother was supportive. He had a friend out there, a guy he knew from college named Mickey. On the phone— your infant niece crying in the background of their Manhattan apartment—your tired brother said, “It’ll be good. Mickey will take care of you. I promise.”
He gave you Mickey’s number and you called it, and Mickey sounded excited to meet you.
He said, “I have a friend who could give you a job in the financial district. You could learn to be a trader. You can live with me for a bit, get your feet wet, and you can get a little studio in the Mission or the Haight or the Castro once you save up some money. Oh, the Castro. You’ll screw all the beautiful boys in the city. You’ll love it.”
You knew he was right.
It was your turn.
Your mother had not been feeling well. They found a lump on her breast. She tried to hide it from you until you told her you were leaving, and then your father got angry. He threw the words out at you:
Don’t desert us.
He said, “You can’t leave when your mother needs you.”
You knew this meant that he didn’t want to have to care for her. He was afraid to have the responsibility. He had work to do, and your brother would be of no use. He had that new baby.
But you were sick of being the dependable one, and the offer was on the table with Mickey, and every time you looked at your mother, instead of thinking that your time left with her was short, you kept thinking that life itself was short, and you hadn’t lived yet.
It was your turn.
You broke your mother’s heart, left her on the first of the year, stayed for her first treatment, held her hand as she vomited in the bathroom, and then packed your bag. You had a job lined up. You had a place to stay. Nothing was going to stop you.
The day before you left, you apologized to her.
She said, “I have your Dad to worry about me. He’ll come through. You’ll see. That’s the best part of marriage. You always have someone.”
“I’ll never get married,” you said, for the first time saying aloud the truth of it. “But I just hope one day I’ll have somebody.”
She answered, “Oh, honey, maybe you will get married. Maybe this thing you’re doing out there, maybe this is just a phase. There’s this girl I know—”
“I hope it’s not a phase,” you snapped. She looked at you.
“I’m sorry,” you said.
You left your mother sleeping the next day, put a note for your dad telling him what medications to give her when she woke, walked down the street to get the bus, took it to the state capital, and hitchhiked west from there.
You had stuffed a handgun in your suitcase, the one your grandfather had bought you when you were twelve saying, “You’re too much of a pussy to learn to use it, but don’t say I didn’t try to toughen you up.” You would use it to protect yourself while you crossed Kansas and Nevada. You worried that one of the truckers who picked you up on the road might notice you were different. People always could tell. You’d been called gay, queer, faggot, homo all your life. But these cross-country truckers did not seem to notice. They called you “Pal” or “Man” or “Buddy” if they spoke to you at all. When you reached the fog of the San Francisco Bay, you threw the gun in the water, as if it were a murder weapon that could be traced back to you. You didn’t need it anymore, because, in San Francisco, it was all love all the time.
Those first few weeks in the city were the best of your life, the only time you remember thinking, “I’m actually happy. Right now I’m insanely happy.”
You made sense to yourself.
“Couch is yours for as long as you need it, man,” Mickey said. He had the look of a mobster—overweight and Italian and balding, but he was always kind.
His lover Sam was the one you longed for. Sam was a lanky man with bright blue eyes, who worked as a nurse at the hospital. Sam had a place of his own, but he stayed at Mickey’s more than half the time. When he was at Mickey’s, he fawned over you like you were his child. He said, “You just have the look of a guy people want to take care of.”
You started your job right away. You were supposed to be looking for a place after work, but Mickey said, “No urgency. Honestly, just buy some groceries sometimes, and we’re good.”
And so you partied every night. Even though your job required you to wake early to keep up with the East Coast markets, this didn’t stop you from going out each night.
You said things like, “Sleep is for the weak. You only live once.”
You said, “I can sleep when I’m dead.”
Before your first paycheck came in, you’d already maxed out your credit card. You ate, you drank, you bought rounds at the bar. You knew you should be saving for a deposit on an apartment, but you were used to living paycheck to paycheck, so spending money came easy to you. You’d walk past the nonprofits and soup kitchens, and see the poor guys working inside, the idealists making nothing for their efforts, and you’d think, “Suckers.” You knew you should feel guilty for getting the job in finance, but instead you just felt lucky that you’d escaped their sad lives.
You’d come home to Mickey’s apartment in the early hours, not even bothering to open up the pullout couch most times. You’d fall asleep in your boxers with a blanket around you, until Sam woke in the morning for his shift at the hospital and stepped around you to prepare coffee and then came to you on the couch and whispered, like your mother used to, “Get up and go shower now or you’ll be late for work.” You threw off the covers and rose from the bed, seeing, as you walked into the bathroom, Mickey sleeping naked on top of his covers, his penis erect, his body hairy and doughy. You wondered what Sam saw in him.
On Saturdays Sam would spend the night, and on Sundays he’d prepare a roast or turkey. He’d chop up a storm of carrots and potatoes to go with it, and would lean his body over the stove as you watched. He’d know you were watching and he’d play it up, do a Julia Child voice for you until you were laughing hard.
On one of the first Sundays you were there, he walked to the couch and lay down with Mickey. They were entwined, and soon the two of them were laughing hard about somebody you didn’t know. You could see that Mickey’s hand went nonchalantly to Sam’s groin.
You sat on the floor in front of the fireplace they never turned on, stared at it imagining the fire that would most certainly be roaring at your parents’ house at that moment. You felt a bit homesick for winter then, for your family.
But then Sam reached toward you, though he was too far away to pull you in. He held your hand and said, “You okay, Nate?” You found something soft in his voice, something sweet, like your mother without her judgment. And soon the room smelled aromatic, of beef and onions, and you realized this was what you’d waited for all your life.
And, as easily as he took your hand, Sam dropped it, and without a word, Mickey and Sam both went into the bathroom to take a shower together, leaving you alone. You could hear them back there, just a couple in the shower together. Pass the soap. Hey, pass my razor. This temperature okay?
You had never even thought such intimacy would be possible for guys like you, but now here it was in front of you, two men together, and you longed to have it to yourself. You longed to have and hold somebody.
But when Sam wasn’t staying over, Mickey went out. You heard him talking on the phone sometimes, making plans with God knows who. You suspected he was playing around.
You didn’t tell Sam, though you wanted to. You knew it would change nothing. You’d once heard someone say, “Life is short. Love is hard. Monogamy is for women.”
One night, Sam showed up when Mickey was out. “Is he expecting you?” you asked.
Sam shrugged. “Guess not.”
You made him some tea and expected him to ask more questions. You took his hand. You wanted to comfort him.
He let you hold that hand for a moment, and then he dropped it and took a sip of his tea and said, “Anyway, how’s your Mom?”
You told him the news of her recovery, all that you knew about it.
He said, “You going to see her?”
You said, “I can’t get time off work.”
“It’s hard to face someone who is sick,” he said, grabbing your hand again, more comfortable being the comforter than the comforted. “But she’s family. When they’re gone, they’re gone.” His own mother had been dead for years.
Neil Young’s “My My, Hey Hey” was playing on the stereo. You heard the line It’s better to burn out than to fade away flow through the apartment.
Maybe you were just trying to make him think you were fearless, but you said, “I don’t want to end up old and sick. I don’t want to go through cancer. I don’t want wrinkles. I’d rather jump off the Bay Bridge, feel the rush, and be done with it.”
You would never that say afterwards, when the photos of the ghosts started appearing on the glass door of the pharmacy, when the men started whispering in the clubs about how quickly the men had declined.
In the first half of 1981, it was just a few who died. You read about them in the little papers Mickey tossed on the kitchen table. As the year rolled on, more joined them. They died silently, quickly, mysteriously. They had had come to California from Florida, Alaska, Nebraska, New York. Little towns and the big cities. They’d come here for the same reason you had. To live. To breathe. To be themselves.
But their fate was different.
The disease later seeped into regular conversations, and not just in the gay community. The talk was everywhere. You heard it at work, saw it on the news. Pneumonia. Cancer. Gay Cancer. The doctors didn’t know what it was at first, not really. The public health professionals were stumped. They conducted interviews and scoured the city for clues and warned men like you to stay home, to stop going to the bathhouses until the threat was over, to be careful.
As if you would listen.
Sam saw the ghosts when he was working the hospital. He came home one night, removed his scrubs, and stripped to his underwear. He shook his head. “You should see what these guys are getting. You should see how they look. It’s crazy, man.”
He draped the scrubs over the couch where you would sleep that night. You didn’t dare touch them to move them away. You wondered if gay cancer could crawl over fabric, seep into cushions, enter through your skin.
Later, when Sam was dressed again in sweats and one of Mickey’s T-shirts, you asked him to remove his scrubs, and he did. And then he sat his long body down at the kitchen table and opened a beer and, looking like an old high school football coach, he said, “It’s the poppers. That’s what the doctors at the hospital are saying. The goddamned poppers.”
“The poppers?” you said.
“They take them for the orgasms.” He latched eyes with you.
You’d taken them yourself. You were terrified now. “Really? That’s what’s causing this?” you said. At least if it was the poppers, then you couldn’t catch it from the couch.
He could tell from your face that you’d tried the poppers. He reached for you.
“I used to be like you. I used to try everything out there. I know how it can be. Drugs and sex. Sex and drugs. But just don’t.”
You told him you wouldn’t. Of course, you wouldn’t. Now that you knew, you’d avoid them.
But you did the poppers again even after he told you this. Just once more. You played with fire.
Because you, you were immune. You were twenty- nine years old, breathless, heroic, untouchable, in love with life, in love with yourself for the first time ever.
They hid it from you for as long as they could. They hid the facts—that Mickey’s cough was pneumonia, and that Sam had spotted a purple bruise on Mickey’s neck and another near his penis.
They hid it because they knew what it meant, and they were scared. They let you go on with your life and pretend all was calm. They whispered in bed about what they were going to do, how they would handle it, but did not ask you to move out. They did not ask for privacy. Sam gave up his apartment, took over two of Mickey’s closets, and still they said nothing.
When they finally told you, it was weeks later. They sat you down on a Sunday afternoon and told you he had it. By then, you’d been fully exposed. You’d drunk out of the same beer bottles, shared a cigarette, shit in the same toilet as Mickey had.
You wanted to scream, to yell, to hit Mickey, to hit Sam, but you just nodded and silently absorbed the words.
Mickey was dying.
Sam sobbed as he told you.
You were suddenly disgusted to be in that apartment, to watch them hold each other.
“Stay,” they both said. “We love you.”
Get the hell out, was what you heard. Run as fast as you can.
And so you finally moved out, and you did it in anger. Anger about their secret. Anger about their deception. You would not stay and help, would not stay and watch Mickey die, expose yourself to what he had anymore.
It was summer by then, and the city was enveloped in a fog that never rose, dense and so cool that sometimes you longed for the summers back home and you bought a car so you could leave San Francisco and drive into the Central Valley or to the vineyards whenever you wanted out, so you could get some sun and heat, so it would feel like summer.
When you moved out, you sublet a studio apartment from a guy you knew. He was leaving the city. Leaving for good. He asked for no deposit. You talked over the lease. You put Mickey and Sam out of your mind as best you could. You lived alone for the first time in your life. You forgot to set your alarms. Overslept daily. Showed up late at work.
Got warnings from your boss.
“You need to focus, Nate, or you won’t last much longer,” your boss shouted loudly enough for everybody else on the floor to hear. He soon began to take notes on everything you did that was wrong. He built a case against you, so if he wanted to fire you, he could. You could see others in the surrounding cubicles looking at you from afar. They knew you were gay, and you could see their fear that you were going to bring the cancer to them, that you might be dying yourself. You loosened your tie so they could see your neck was free of lesions, so they could see you were clean and still healthy. You tried to focus on your work. You went out to the clubs and went home with men. You hated to be alone.
After you left Mickey’s place, you never visited, though you always felt guilty about it. You did not knock on their door, did not bring food, did not meet them at the Mexican dive bar when Sam’s note arrived in the mail informing you that it was Mickey’s birthday, his 40th, his last birthday. You stayed home that night, still wearing your tie, drinking that bottle of wine, thinking you would leave any minute for the party but eventually not going, not wanting to face Mickey and see what had become of him. Not wanting to face Sam.
And you did not go visit Mickey in the hospital a few weeks later during his last stretch.
People at work in the lunchroom, people who did not know Mickey, did not know anybody like Mickey, were saying that this disease had been sent by God to kill all the fags.
“Good riddance,” one of the guys said. “Wipe those motherfuckers off the face of the earth.” You could tell he hadn’t forgotten who you were. He knew that you were one of them. You could tell he was warning you to go away.
In the bar you went to most often, one of the bartenders leaned toward you and said he’d heard it had been sent by the CIA. There were all sorts of theories. You wanted to believe that God had sent it, that Mickey had deserved it for not treating Sam right, but you knew plenty of people had done worse things and were still alive and happy.
Your mother had cancer, and she sure didn’t deserve it.
And then, finally on a day in November, a friend of Sam’s was on the phone.
“Is this Nate?” he said.
“Yeah,” you answered.
“Mickey’s gone,” he said.
He was gone. Like, snap.
You wanted to cry.
He was gone and you wanted to scream.
You composed yourself. “How’s Sam?” you asked.
“How do you think?” said the guy.
“I’m sorry,” you said.
He gave you the location of the funeral home, told you there would be a potluck for friends afterwards, if you wanted to make something, told you Mickey’s family from Indiana was boycotting. They wouldn’t even come.
You said, “The bastards,” even though you would not go either. You would not line up in the funeral home with the other men in your suit and tie. You told yourself you hadn’t really known Mickey anyway. You’d lived with him for those few months, but you were not a real friend. You did not belong. You called Sam and said you were sorry, so sorry, but you already had planned to fly across the country to see your mother, that she was still sick. You said you could not change your ticket.
And then you went to the travel agent’s office and booked that flight, so it would not be a lie, and then swung by the pharmacy on the way home to see if Mickey’s picture was up yet with the rest of the ghosts, but it was as if he were still in purgatory.
You flew across the country a few days later. Back in New Hampshire, your mother’s hair, which had fallen out in the spring (she showed you pictures), was growing back slowly, and she looked smart and stylish with the short hair, though older than you had ever remembered.
You let her hold you to her body there in the airport in Manchester, and you could feel her padded bra where her breasts had been, and you realized nobody had or would ever love you the way she did. At dinner, she told you that the doctor said she was doing better than expected, that there was a good chance she was going to survive.
You blinked back tears.
She said, “You look older than I remember.”
You said, “I feel older.”
You didn’t tell her about Mickey or Sam or anything else, but she’d seen the news and she was scared of what was happening and she said, “I wish you’d stay home. It’s not safe out there.”
You didn’t tell her that you felt the same way, that you suspected you wouldn’t spend another winter in San Francisco, that you were thinking you might come back home, get a little house in the mountains, work at a bank, go to your parents’ house on Sundays.
You kissed her goodbye at the end of the weekend and got back on that plane. You’d need to work a few more months, save up some money. And then you’d leave.
Back in the Castro, you didn’t go out much. The one time you went to try to pick someone up, you heard the Jesus freaks you’d see on the streets sometimes, yelling, “The wrath of God has come to you,” and you kind of believed it, and retreated to your apartment.
The feeling came back then, the feeling you’d had your whole life, the feeling that you were wrong to be who you were, that you God hated you, that you deserved the shit that came to you.
Sam called on a day in December. He had heard you had a car now. He wanted a ride to the mountains.
“Take me to Tahoe,” he said. “I want to get out of the city for a bit.”
And so you picked him up three days later on a street corner in the Mission. You waited for him to get in the car, locked the doors, and then sped out of that city and over the Oakland Hills and all the way across the Central Valley, across the land where folks grew the food you’d eat next spring. You could almost taste the tomatoes and avocadoes and the tacos you could buy in the Mission. You imagined putting in your order. Dos tacos. Una cerveza por favor.
As you drove, you told him the things you needed to say. You said you felt guilty for not going to see Mickey in the end, and for abandoning them both. You said you had been busy and distracted with your mother. You said you had written a resignation note, that you were going home and live in your hometown and get a job at a bank.
“You’re leaving?” said Sam. “Shit.”
“I don’t know if I can stay,” you said. “I’m not like you. I’m not faithful and I can’t bear shit.”
He stared at the road, and told you about the end. He said that when Mickey started to forget things, when the dementia set in and he became just a breathing body, he would go walking in the streets just to escape his bedside, just to have some air. Sometimes just walked away.
You were both quiet for a while. He rolled down his window and lit a cigarette and smoked.
As you got closer to the mountains, he said, “Go if you have to go, Nate. Run if you have to run, but remember the trip back east doesn’t compare to the trip out west. It’s bland and it’s dirty and all the towns are cheesy and dingy, and who wants chicken fried fucking steak? And there’s no Pacific to look forward to.”
You pulled over by the side of the road to put on the chains for your tires. You knew Sam couldn’t or wouldn’t get out of the car to help, that he was frozen to his seat. You put those chains on, and you checked them, and then you got back in the car without saying anything more, and you began to climb towards the healing mountain air and the cold of that Sierra winter, knowing that you and Sam could climb one of those peaks today, just climb and climb, or you could rent some skis and fly down it. There was powder up there.
Or the two of you could turn around and be back to the Bay in a few hours, scout out a table in the Mission and eat a burrito, and there would be some beautiful boys there, happy boys, and they would smile at you, and they would sing to you, and you could all drink outside in the garden and laugh and smoke, far away from this snow, from this ice, and not feel the cold one bit.
“1981” by Amy Kinner appeared in Issue 37 of Berkeley Fiction Review
Amy Kinner’s writing has appeared in Redivider, Green Briar Review, WomenArts Quarterly, and Blue Monday Review. She is a healthcare researcher and a graduate of the UC Berkeley School of Public Health. She lives in Maine and has recently completed her first novel.