It seemed like we were getting somewhere. You were sitting there, atrophied legs crossed and foot twitching nervously. Your bony clavicles were jutting from beneath your skin like some kind of carefully crafted relief sculpture. Even though you were young and sick--and mostly difficult and defiant--there was something delicate about you. I felt myself wanting to protect you.
I was patient. You let me peel back each layer of that outward onion skin until both of us sat there with eyes glistening. This was a lot, you told me. More than a notion, you'd said. And I agreed because that part was true. It was more than a notion and it is a lot. But still, I told you, if anyone could handle it, you could. That's what I said and when I did your cheekbones rose high on your face, exaggerated by your nonexistent body fat composition.
There is a stigma attached to HIV and AIDS. You didn't say that and neither did I, but we both knew that it was the elephant in the room. A bully of an elephant, too. Pinning your chest to the ground and leaving your cachectic limbs flailing underneath. For a few moments I tried to clarify the differences between being HIV positive versus an AIDS designation but the more I talked the more the words felt empty and pointless. Like they fanned the flames of these warped ideas that kept people hiding and afraid. Another line drawn between the awful and the awfuller. Another reason to be judged depending upon where you fell. From the look on your face, I knew that none of that resonated with you anyway. To you, it is all as one and the same. Bad. And shameful. And the consequence of a life in the shadows.
Because that's what the stigma tells you.
See, that's when I identified that it wasn't just them. You, too, were giving life to that stigma. Seeing it in your own reflection as a reminder of poor choices, or even worse, just unworthiness of something better or more full. You, a same-gender loving man represented those spotted, nameless, hopeless images of the early AIDS epidemic. The ones who had it coming. See, this version was your lot in life. This. Not that robust, laughing, living Magic Johnson version.
You brought him up first, not me. I never bring up Magic. But you did and when you did, you said to me with a somber shrug, "He's rich." And I peeled back another layer of onion skin and replied to you, "So are you."
You froze on those words. Watching my mouth to see if I was serious and I let you because I was.
"What are you afraid of?" I finally asked.
You blinked in slow motion; I noticed your long, fine eyelashes for the first time. With your head toward the window you gazed off somewhere distant. The room fell silent. And I let it.
"What am I afraid of?" you repeated.
"I'm afraid of the dark. That's what I'm afraid of."
I watched you to see what you meant by this, but your face was still pointed toward the Atlanta skyline. When you turned back toward me, I understood.
"You know what? I think we're all kind of afraid of the dark, sometimes. At least I am."
"Do you think Magic Johnson is?"
"Yeah. Do you think he's afraid of the dark?"
"I think we all have a dark that we fear, don't you?"
You didn't answer that. Instead you skipped to another question which was fine with me. "You know what I wish?"
"What's that?" I asked.
"I wish I could have been like Magic when I found out. With money and a wife instead of alone and in love with a man who didn't even care enough to check on me. And a family that don't like my lifestyle."
I paused and let that sink in before speaking. "You know what? I bet you Magic wishes some things, too."
"I think everybody wishes something. Everybody."
I know this because I spent the rest of the day wishing I had some other kind of magic that might stop you from being so afraid of this darkness that you live in.
Welcome to Monday.