By the time I was ready to make my move…Bobby Jack had passed out.
Last week, I was planning to join LGBT writers at the Saints & Sinners Literary Festival in New Orleans. I was excited that I’d been invited to read a piece of my writing. As the festival grew closer and COVID-19 expanded from epidemic to pandemic and people were getting sick and dying while the president sat on his fat ass and fiddled, I couldn’t help but see eerie parallels to another killer virus. I’m sure some of you have too. Of course, we don’t see the extreme indifference, cruelty, shame, and suffering surrounding COVID-19 as we did with AIDS. Nevertheless, the new virus inspired me to write a piece for the festival about the AIDS virus and I want to share it here. I call it One Kiss.
There were no balloons or flowers in the stark white room at Roanoke Memorial Hospital. No caring nurse had taped cute “get well” cards to the walls. There was instead a big red warning sign plastered on the door of the room, like something outside a lab in a sci-fi movie. Bobby Jack’s mother gave me a hug when I entered, thankful to see a friendly face and grateful for an opportunity to escape to the hospital cafeteria for a cup of coffee and a cigarette.
I wasn’t prepared for the sight of my best friend wheezing beneath a clear plastic oxygen mask, so I opened the can of tennis balls I’d brought along. For a brief moment the familiar smell of rubber and wool filled the antiseptic room. I placed a bright yellow ball in Bobby Jack’s hand and wrapped his fingers around its fuzzy nap. Then I wrapped my hands around his. Unable to speak, he just stared up at me with his big dark brown eyes. Jackrabbit eyes I called them because that’s what they looked like to me, opened real wide and never moving, never blinking, whenever he was startled or worried.
“We’ll play just as soon as you get out of here,” I said.
Tennis had always been the thing that bonded us together and provided an acceptable reason for two boys to spend so much time together. On the court, he pretended to be John McEnroe because he had curly hair and liked to wear a headband. I bleached my hair blonde with lemon juice and hydrogen peroxide and hit a two-handed backhand like my tennis idol Bjorn Borg. The funny thing was that Bobby Jack was stoic and polite while I was the one who cussed and threw my racquet when I botched an easy overhead or double faulted at a key moment.
Bobby Jack knew he’d never set foot on a tennis court again. Nonetheless, he kept holding the tennis ball and I kept squeezing his hand, too afraid of the mysterious AIDS virus destroying his body to do the one thing I wanted most and that was to give him a kiss.
The first time I wanted to kiss Bobby Jack was after the Homecoming Dance in our junior year of high school. My date had been all hair and perfume and I’d munched on her chrysanthemum corsage for laughs and to distract her because I most certainly didn’t want to kiss her. After we dropped off our dates, Bobby Jack and I got in the old yellow Thunderbird he shared with his brother to go driving around and drink some beer. The car had a killer sound system and we listened to Meatloaf’s Bat out of Hell on cassette tape, talking way into the wee hours about our desires to get out of bumblefuck southwestern Virginia.
It would have been easy to kiss him. Even Meatloaf on the car stereo was urging me on to first base. But I couldn’t. Something held me back. To make such a move and be rejected would have been devastating. And even though I felt certain he felt the same way, it was still too risky. I had a plan—high grades, a varsity letter in tennis, president of the Honor Society, and stellar teacher recommendations—to propel me into a top-notch university. Nothing could disrupt that plan.
The second time I almost kissed him was two years later at the university where I had gone to study history. It had been one of those magnificent orange and blue fall afternoons and Bobby Jack and I had spent it dressed in coats and ties and drinking bourbon and Cokes at a football game with brothers of dear old Theta Chi where I was a pledge. Now we were drunk and eating pizza while sitting on the floor of my dorm room.
After a few months away from home, I was shedding my provincial skin and becoming someone new, someone adventuresome who listened to the B-52s and could craft bongs from beer cans. Hell, I had even slept with a few girls. How hard was it going to be to kiss my friend? By the time I was ready to make my move, though, Bobby Jack had passed out. The moment passed. I put a pillow under his head and climbed into my bed alone. The next morning we went for bagels and then he drove back to his college. Life went on. I kissed some boys. He kissed some boys.
I watched him now struggling to breathe. If I had kissed him would things have turned out differently? Would we have become boyfriends? Traveled to see the green grass of Wimbledon and the red clay of Roland-Garros like we planned? Moreover, could it have saved him from the path of the virus on its relentless march south through the valleys of Virginia?
We sat in silence in that cold hospital room, holding hands until a nurse came in, took the tennis ball and shooed me out. Bobby Jack died soon thereafter. It was the summer of 1987 and we were 26 years old.
One kiss. It should have been so easy.
Rich Barnett is the author of The Discreet Charms of a Bourgeois Beach Town, and Fun with Dick and James.