"It’s time to start Cubby’s gay education.”
This pronouncement was made the other night by my housemate, who is also named Michael and who we call Papa Bear in order to avoid confusion, and because he likes to pretend it annoys him. Cubby is what we call New Guy, because, well, that’s what he is.
Cubby’s gay education involves watching every gay-themed movie ever made, all of which Papa Bear has in his extensive DVD collection. Cubby is too young to have seen most of them the first time around, and as he came out late in life, he’s even missed most of the recent ones too, so there’s a lot to catch up on.
Papa Bear decided to start him off with Jeffrey, the 1995 film based on Paul Rudnick’s 1993 play about a gay man in New York navigating the dating world now that HIV is a factor. Cubby was seven when the film came out. I was 27. Papa Bear was 37.
I actually saw the play version of Jeffrey, as I lived in New York at the time and I think every gay man in the city saw it at some point because we were all really, really tired of being sad about AIDS and a comedy about the subject was something we very much needed. I remember laughing a lot.
I laughed a lot watching the movie the other night, too. Rudnick’s writing is sharp and witty. Jeffrey is a neurotic mess. Patrick Stewart as sarcastic interior designer Sterling is particularly delightful. And it brought back a lot of memories of living in New York during that time.
Sterling’s lover in the film is Darius, a dancer with a small role in Cats. Darius is HIV-positive, and in the film’s most powerful moment, he dies shortly after collapsing during an outing to the theater with Sterling.
That seems sudden,” Cubby remarked when it happened. “He was fine a minute ago.”
“That’s how it was,” I said. “People were okay one day, then gone the next.”
Later, while we were getting ready for bed, Cubby said, “Are you okay? You seem sad.”
I was sad. But I didn’t know how to explain it to him. “I remember sitting in the theater watching the play the movie is based on,” I told him. “I was 25, and I remember wondering where I would be when I was 50, or if I would even get to be 50.”
“And now you’re 50,” he reminded me. “You made it.”
“I did,” I agreed. “But a lot of people didn’t.”
I found myself starting to cry. Cubby, startled, put his arms around me. “It’s just a movie,” he said.
It was just a movie. But for a lot of us, it was also our lives on that screen. I remember my first HIV test like it was yesterday—the number assigned in place of a name, the instructions to call back three long weeks later for the results, the agonizing wait to hear the news. I remember the first time a potential boyfriend said he was positive, and wondering if I could deal with his eventual death (because back then that was the expected/usual outcome). I remember the unprotected encounter and the fear that a momentary bad decision might result in a much worse permanent one. And I still wrestle with the peculiar mixture of relief and guilt that comes with being one of the lucky ones.
Cubby is not immune to the worry of HIV. But like most men of his age, for him it’s primarily a health issue best avoided but, if it happens, treatable. It isn’t the death sentence it was to men of my generation. It isn’t the looming shadow that made making even simple decisions like whether or not to go on a date with someone seem monumentally difficult. He laughed at Jeffrey’s fears, as he should have, but it was because he found them ridiculous given what he knows about HIV now, not because, like me and Papa Bear, he saw himself reflected on screen and after almost 30 years had found the distance necessary to find it amusing.
“I’m glad you didn’t have to experience any of that,” I told him.
He hugged me. “And I’m sorry you did.”
Because of our age difference, I know that Cubby does worry that he will likely say goodbye to me sooner than he would like to, that he will probably spend time living with a memory while he makes a new life for himself. What he won’t have to live with, though, is the fear of losing everyone around you to something seemingly unstoppable, wondering who it will take next, and when it will be your turn. And for that I am grateful. ▼
Michael Thomas Ford is a much-published Lambda Literary award-winning author.