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It Happened Here
Jaime Gill

It’s Pride month again. Yeah, we get a whole month now. Doesn’t that make your head spin?

Yesterday I walked down Fifth Avenue on my way to meet a friend for lunch. I felt like Bowie in that film where he’s a marooned alien struggling to understand this strange new planet. Thirty-five years ago, I was protesting with my Act-Up comrades on this street, trying to barge our way into Saint Patrick’s while people shouted insults from the sidewalks. Now, every other shop window’s festooned with rainbow flags and posters advertising exclusive pride luggage sets, t-shirts and toiletries. Even the Saks window display could burn out your retinas if you stared at it directly. I didn’t feel pride so much as an old bitterness. Where was all this wonderful, profitable solidarity when we most needed it?

If you’d been walking with me, you’d have called me churlish and asked how I ended up turning into this grumpy old man. You were always the Tigger to my Eeyore. And you’d definitely have liked the rainbows. Your art was always so goddamn loud.

Do you remember the opening night of your exhibition? Of course, you do. I doubt anyone present ever forgot it, let alone the star of the show.

We hadn’t seen each other since the breakup, so you probably didn’t expect me to show my face on that drizzly October night. That’s one reason I went, smiling politely while choking back my envy. You hadn’t just hobbled on without me - you’d soared. Twenty-three years old and you already had a solo exhibition in Soho, while I hadn’t sold a single sculpture in all of 1981.

I skulked at the back of the gallery with two friends, next to cheap speakers playing Talking Heads or Kraftwerk or something similarly obvious. The three of us drank warm wine and sniped about the fashion victim crowd and your garish art.

When you walked in - late, obviously - with Mary-Ann Tolliver, the New York fucking Times art critic, I almost puked. You looked right through me, just before a sycophant mob swallowed you.

The wine tasted like vinegar.

God help me, but when you fell down, I briefly suspected some kind of attention-grabbing stunt. It was only when I reluctantly stalked over to see what the commotion was that I saw the whites of your eyes as you thrashed. That’s when I knew how bad it was. All that had happened between us fell away as I dropped to my knees and tried to hold you still so you wouldn’t hurt yourself.

When the paramedics arrived, they put on latex gloves. I didn’t understand until I overheard one whisper “gay cancer” to the other.

I followed your ambulance by taxi, twitching with panic. I’d heard rumors of this new gay disease whispered in dingy bars for months, but I’d dismissed them as propaganda from Reagan’s moral majority mob.

We had a lot to learn, didn’t we? Me. You. The world.

You were unconscious for twenty-seven hours. Nobody else visited, so I stayed by your bedside. Your so-called friends never showed up, spooked by the gossip from the exhibition. Your fucking family hung up on me when I called them long-distance.

After you’d woken and I’d filled you in on what happened you asked me a question I wasn’t expecting. “Why did we break up?”

I couldn’t quite remember. Something to do with my jealousy and your irresponsibility. It all seemed so flimsy.

You explained everything that had happened over the last six months, all the relentless, doctor-mystifying sicknesses you hadn’t told another soul. No wonder I hadn’t seen you around. I’d already spotted the lesions through your hospital gown but didn’t know about your fevers or the fact your eyes were failing.

“I can’t see enough to paint any more,” you said in the smallest voice I’d ever heard you use, followed by a short, sad bark of a laugh. “I can’t even see your face properly.”

“You can touch it.” You didn’t need to know the doctors had warned me against that.

Your fingers found my wet cheeks. I lay my head on your sharp ribs and listened to your still-strong heart.

Lying there, I didn’t think I’d get to take you home again. I didn't dare dream we’d get two more precarious years together. How could I have known how stubbornly, how indignantly, you’d fight to stay alive. I don’t remember how many times we were told you might not survive another month during our return trips to the hospital, but I do remember what you once said in the cab back home. “Fuck death. I’m giving that bitch the fight of her life.”

We weren’t exactly lovers again - we were something new and more. We were all each other had in a world turned cruel. I watched so many men forge these strange, beautiful new relationships during the plague years, through all the agonies and funerals.

I’d never felt proud or ashamed of being gay before, any more than I’d felt proud or ashamed of being from Iowa. They were accidents of birth, nothing I could take credit or blame for. That changed when it became us versus the world.

You were too sick to join the protests by the time we got ourselves organized, but you loved  hearing about them when I got back. I’d usually be in some strange state of exhaustion, elation and anger, and would describe the wild variety of queers who’d marched. I’d list them in those cartoon names we used to use - screamers, closet cases, diesel dykes, trannies, hustlers, leather clones, drag queens, muscle marys, normies, club kids – and we’d joke that the whole glorious circus had come to town and gone to war just for you. People who’d previously had nothing in common, who’d normally never have been seen dead in the same bars - we marched and fought together. We drew on the strength we’d built up through miserable adolescences and forced the world to give a shit about queer lives. There was a gallows humor hilarity to it all. It was a riot, in every sense. It was something to be proud of.

I was proud of you, too, Michael. When I think of our two snatched years together, do you know what I remember most? Not the hospital visits, the indignities, the bureaucracy, or that terrible final week. Those memories are all still there, scars still raw enough that I wince if I poke at them. I haven’t forgotten the puke or shit, or the night sweats that left you so drenched by morning that we’d joke about your wet dreams getting out of hand. But that grim rigmarole wasn’t surprising, not once the disease had bared its hideous teeth. What was surprising – what was miraculous - was the joy you grabbed from those jaws.

There were times we laughed harder than we ever had before. Harder than I ever have since, I think. Do you remember when you fell in the shower and pulled down the curtain? By the time I’d run to find out what happened, you’d managed to wrap the curtain around your bony, mottled body, transforming it into a transparent plastic frock. You told me to wheel you down to the Guggenheim, you were taking up performance art. How did we laugh so much through all that pain?

I wonder if you remember it all the same way?

I’m thinking about of all this even more than usual because I just found out Mary-Ann Tolliver has died. Her Times obituary talks as much about you as it does her, which I know would delight you, you incorrigible gatecrasher. They say she owned four of your paintings, each worth more than half a million. You got famous over the years, and I have two of your pieces, so I guess you made me rich.

You’d tell me to sell them and take that trip to Italy we used to plan, even after we both knew you’d never leave New York again. On bright mornings, we’d open the windows wide enough to let the sun shine on the backs of our necks, close our eyes, and we’d pretend we were walking around Florence. The thinner you got, the colder you got, so you liked the sun’s soft touch on you. We’d fantasize about hunting through Florentine museums for lesser-known works by Bronzino and Caravaggio, your flamboyant favorites.

But, no, I won’t sell your paintings. I’ve already been so much luckier than you, much luckier than most. I’m going to die of the old age stolen from so many. Besides, I love them too much. I’m looking at one right now, hanging over our bookshelves. Yeah, I’m still in our old apartment. I never had the heart to move.

In the painting, a dancing man dissolves in joyous swirls of purples, greens and reds. I still think it's garish – but, then, so were you. You were too much, Michael, and I loved that about you.

 

God, I miss you.

 

Jaime Gill is a British-born writer living in Cambodia, published in Litro, Fiction Attic, GoodLife Review, Berlin Literary Review, Literally Stories and more. He won the 2024 Honeybee Literature Prize for short story and Berlin Review’s 2024 Best Flash Fiction award. Other stories were finalists for awards including New Writers 2024, the Bridport Prize, and the Bath Short Story Award. Learn more at www.jaimegill.comwww.twitter.com/jaimegill or www.instagram.com/mrjaimegill.

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