I’d eagerly anticipated my family’s move from Montana to Hawaii in 1978 as a chance to reinvent myself, only to discover that most locals hated haoles, the Hawaiian word for white people. (An appropriate response, by the way, given the way the islands were raped and pillaged and bullied into adopting Victorian morals and clothing.) To be a target for my sexuality and my skin color made me lonelier and more depressed than I’d ever felt in my life. I turned to food and sexual fantasies involving Sam Elliot and Burt Reynolds for comfort.
My father encouraged me to join the local swim club to lose weight and make friends. As a deeply closeted teen, the act of wearing a Speedo among a group of hostile boys was a constant source of distress. But two things happened. The first is that I turned out to be a talented, but not great, swimmer – I started winning a few races and these successes boosted my self-confidence. The second is that a swimmer named Michael Oishi decided to take me under his wing.
It’s important to understand Michael’s place in the social order of Maui in 1979. Michael didn’t possess any of the obvious attributes that one associates with popularity. He wasn’t particularly good looking. He wasn’t an exceptional athlete – he specialized in the backstroke, but he always brought up the rear in his heats. His father was the public school superintendent, but it was a career that wasn’t especially glamorous or lucrative – its benefit to Michael’s status was negligible at best.
What made Michael popular was that he understood that knowledge is power. He forged relationships in which gossip flowed freely and these friendships spanned all classes and races and genders. And they weren’t limited to just Maui. Off-island swim meets were opportunities to sustain a web of information that now remind me of the way Tony Soprano kept tabs on his empire.
Michael quickly assessed my value when I joined Maui Swim Club. I attended Seabury Hall, the predominantly white prep school on the island, and so I had access to information that was outside his normal sphere of influence. Michael may have teased me for being a rich haole, but he also enjoyed the outrageous stories I told him: the celebrity’s kid who dealt drugs; the bisexual love triangle that involved three goth dilettantes who were rumored to be devil worshippers. I gave good dirt and Michael welcomed me into his circle.
I was no longer ostracized.
Our coach decided to form a Boy Scouts troop when Michael and I were sixteen. Michael chose not to participate, probably because it would have diminished his brand – wholesomeness is a quality that impresses adults, not adolescents. I joined because our coach convinced me I could become an Eagle Scout by the time I graduated, making me a more desirable college applicant. My younger brother was strong-armed into the troop because he’d recently been caught growing marijuana in our backyard.
Our inaugural badge was for cycling, earned the hard way after our first attempt was cut short by a tropical storm and our fathers had to rescue us in the dead of night. For our second badge, our coach decided on an overnight camping trip to Seven Sacred Pools, a series of volcanic pools that flow down a steep hillside and eventually empty into the ocean. To everyone’s surprise Michael asked to join us, perhaps realizing that a night of fireside chat might yield useful intel.
We made our way to the campsite in cars loaded with Spam and sleeping bags and guava soda, one of the boys in charge of the tattered Penthouse magazines that had accompanied us to many swim meets. Our coach gave us permission to go swimming after we set up our tents, but he warned us to be careful because the sun was just then starting to set.
There’s a kind of darkness that only exists in the remote rain forests of Hawaii. It’s beautiful – ink-black, velvety, luscious – but it’s also disorienting and can quickly turn terrifying if you let it get inside your head. The moonless night closed in around us as we splashed in the last two pools, the only illumination coming from the distant fires that had been lit by our coach and a group of European backpackers who’d set up camp near us.
One of the boys suggested we swim through the underwater tunnel that connected the last pools. I declined because it was so dark and I was prone to claustrophobia under the best of circumstances. One by one, the rest of the boys swam through the tunnel – two or three minutes of silent anticipation for those of us on the surface, the only sound coming from the soft cascade of water. One by one, each boy emerged in the lower pool gasping for air and whooping triumphantly.
And then it was Michael’s turn. The two or three minutes of silence turned into five or six. At first we assumed Michael was playing a joke on us – that he’d emerged in the lower pool and was silently treading water, a smile on his face while he listened to us call out his name.
Then we realized he wasn’t pranking us. Matthew, the best swimmer on our team, went back through the tunnel and quickly returned to the surface to yell that Michael was stuck inside.
At this point, nearly forty years later, the only thing I can tell you with any authority is that I didn’t go into the tunnel to help rescue Michael, and that I still feel shame over my decision. I can’t tell you if it was Matthew or another swimmer, or one of the Europeans, who eventually pulled Michael’s body out of the water.
I think it was one of the Europeans who brought Michael to shore and began performing CPR on him. We crowded around our limp friend, all of us dripping wet and shivering, flashlights illuminating our faces like a scene from a horror movie. Eventually our coach took over CPR duties – his face filled with determination, the quiet rhythm of his efforts hypnotic.
But it was too late. One of the Europeans tried to get our coach to stop trying to resuscitate Michael when it became apparent – ten minutes later? – that he was dead. But our coach continued, even as the other boys and I exchanged horrified glances: is this really happening?
Eventually paramedics arrived, the red lights of the ambulance casting an eerie pall from the top of the pools. It dawned on me that one of the Europeans must have driven to nearby Hana to alert the emergency crew. Had he been gone for ten minutes? Twenty? Time and space seemed to have contracted – my first experience with the way catastrophe affects our universe in ways that can’t be explained by Einstein.
Michael’s body was taken to Hana and we followed in our cars. After we arrived, our coach took us to a tiny church that was open in the middle of the night. All of us boys kneeled in front of the alter, still damp and shivering, none of us sure what we were supposed to do. I stared at our coach while he prayed, his eyes shut tight and his body slightly hunched. I didn’t realize it at the time, but now I know I was watching a man who’d just been shattered – a good, kind man who’d failed to protect one of his swimmers, each of whom he viewed with the same affection he showed his own children.
Some of our fathers, including mine, came to Hana to retrieve us. Significantly, my father and I had been on the outs for months – he’d recently had an affair that would eventually become the catalyst for my parents’ divorce. But when he showed up and I saw the horror on his face, I realized how much he loved me. His urgent hug was both an apology for the way he’d behaved and an expression of great relief that his sons were alive.
A few days later Michael’s family and many friends crowded the Catholic church in Kahului. The grief was profound – even boys shed tears.
A few weeks later our coach announced he was disbanding the Scout troop and no one protested his decision.
I often wonder what would have happened if Michael had emerged in the lower pool. Would we have made our way back to the campsite, famished and anticipating the Spam and guava soda that awaited us? Would he have gently teased me for not braving the tunnel? Would we have decided to sleep outside the tents, staring up at the Milky Way while the smell of a dying fire enveloped us?
I imagine my school year would have started out completely differently. I probably wouldn’t have gotten into a fight on the first day with a boy named Harlon – Michael would have brokered peace between us, in effect telling everyone that the haole was off-limits. I would have sat by Michael at lunch and we would have shared rides to swim practice after school. Maybe during one of the rides I would have shared how my parents’ marriage was disintegrating and how anxious I felt at home. Maybe I would have found enough courage to hint that I wasn’t interested in girls.
I like to imagine that Michael and I would have kept in touch while we attended college in different states. Eventually I would have told him I was gay and his good-natured ribbing would have been his way of telling me he accepted me – I’m sure the stories I would have told him about my subculture would have been of great interest to him.
Maybe our friendship would have reached the level where he would have invited me to his wedding. Maybe his bride-to-be would have been a woman he knew from Hawaii, a friend of the family whose parents had conspired with Michael’s for years to get the two together.
Maybe Michael would have returned to Maui and become a successful salesman, eventually using his talents to become a local politician. Or maybe he would have become a teacher like his parents. I’m sure his students would have loved him. I’m sure he would have started receiving letters from his former protégés telling him how much they appreciated his role in their lives.
Maybe one day I would have had the chance to thank Michael for the way he befriended me when we were teenagers. Maybe I would have told him this while both of us were slightly drunk from a second or third beer. Maybe I would have told him how he helped correct the course of my life, how his friendship had helped instill in me the belief that I could be myself and still be accepted.
Of course, all of this is predicated on the idea that Michael didn’t drown.
Such is the paradox of time travel.
Ted was a member of the AIDS support group I attended for three years in the early 90s, a dire period when doctors had abandoned the promise of AZT, but before the first drug cocktails started saving lives. I’m not sure how old Ted was – I was in my twenties and Ted seemed a lot older than me, but then again AIDS has a way of prematurely aging people. I’m also not sure what Ted did for a living before he went on permanent disability. We tended not to talk much about careers in our support group, for obvious reasons.
There were usually a half dozen men and women at any given meeting and it tended to be the same people. There was Louise, who didn’t have HIV – she suffered from chronic Epstein-Barr syndrome, a disease that had some similarities to the virus that infected the rest of us. There was a German man named Heinz whose chauffeur always sat away from the circle and never said a word. There was Stache, a bookkeeper from Trinidad who owned a small empire of rental properties. There was Randall, a young man my age whose sexuality was hard to pin down but who we suspected had been a hustler – his unnaturally bright eyes also suggested the possibility of a drug problem. There was Lori, who told us in a little girl’s voice that her husband’s bisexuality was only discovered after he died. There was John, a very private, straight-acting leather daddy whose knowledge of HIV was so vast that we called him Dr. John.
And then there was Ted. Ted was flamboyant and he shared the intimate details of his life with the same relish he had prying into other people’s affairs. It was inevitable that Ted and Dr. John despised each other, even as they became the mother and father figures of our little group. Their arguments were legendary, fueled by a belief that their approaches to dying were the right ways.
I don’t think they ever realized that they were actually flip sides of the same morbid coin.
Ted eventually went on hospice and we were told that he was going to die in the next few days. I asked one of the group leaders if I might go say goodbye to Ted and a visit was arranged for the following night. I passed through Ted’s living room, where his brother looked up from the Bible he was reading and acknowledged my arrival with silent disapproval. When I reached the bedroom, the Russian nurse gently nudged Ted, who opened his eyes and smiled with recognition – you came.
I was unprepared for how skeletal he’d become or how he was now covered with the large, dark cysts of Karposi’s sarcoma. I held his hand and told him he didn’t need to talk. After a few moments of silence, Ted whispered that his brother had told him he was surrounded by demons and that he was going to hell after he died. Ted started crying and told me he was terrified.
I’d never before felt such blinding rage. My first instinct was to go into the living room and attack Ted’s brother with a wrath that wouldn’t have been out of place in the Old Testament he was reading. Instead, I remained at Ted’s side. I caressed his gaunt face and told him God loved him. And then I leaned over and kissed him on the lips.
It’s important to note that at this time I’d renounced my homosexuality for six years after becoming a born-again Christian. I attended an ex-gay ministry and I’d spent thousands of dollars on Christian therapists who tried to convince me I’d turned out gay because of my spiritual deficiencies. I had a girlfriend named Carol and we were seriously talking about marriage. I told everyone I was straight, even when my private thoughts and desires still registered a Kinsey 6. I warned all of my friends and family members who weren’t born-again Christians that they were going to hell if they didn’t accept Jesus as their Lord and Savior.
In other words, there wasn’t that much separating me from Ted’s brother, whose response to me had been based on the assumption that I was one of Ted’s faggot friends.
But in that moment when I kissed Ted, my only goal was to help a man whose fear of death filled the bedroom. As I lifted my head and stared into Ted’s eyes, I witnessed that fear dissipate as if we’d just exorcised it. Ted remained silent for a moment before telling me he must not be that sick because he’d just felt a stir in his groin.
We both laughed. And then I told Ted I loved him. He nodded and slipped back into an opioid fog. And then I said goodbye to the Russian nurse and let myself out without saying a word to Ted’s brother. I went home and called my girlfriend to tell her what I’d just done. And then to my surprise, she told me she was glad I’d kissed Ted.
Ted died two days later. There was no memorial other than a moment of silence at the beginning of the support group the following Tuesday. Ted’s brother had him cremated and disposed of the ashes without any fanfare. For some reason I think they were scattered in Missouri.
It was definitely somewhere Ted would have hated.
I realize now the danger in writing about AIDS. In addition to the many metaphors that Susan Sontag described being applied to the disease, there’s the tendency to make martyrs of the people who’ve died from it. As if to prove this point, I’ve written about Ted and our support group in a way that curries sympathy while at the same time making us immune to criticism.
And so I add this amendment to Ted’s section: we could be a petty, self-involved bunch. Louise, the woman with Epstein Barr, was often the target of ridicule – her disease was not ours and we sometimes cruelly dismissed the ways she tried to find connections with us, even though she was a harmless soul just trying to make sense of her suffering. Heinz’s difficulty with English was used against him for cheap laughs until he finally stopped coming – our envy of his wealth and access to the best health care had reduced us to childish malice. Randall was cavalier toward his diagnosis – we regarded the many ways he didn’t take care of himself as acts of stupidity, not bravery. Lori’s surprise announcement that she’d figured out she was a lesbian, and her subsequent embrace of ACT UP, weren’t taken seriously – we’d waited impatiently for her to get angry at her dead husband for misleading and infecting her, but when she didn’t we withdrew from her.
I was going to end Ted’s section with the revelation that everyone in the group was now dead except for me and Louise, the woman who wasn’t even HIV positive. What a cheap stunt that would have been. I would have grabbed your sympathy and run off without giving you a chance to do anything with it. In a way, I would have dragged you into the impotence I feel toward my disease – the mixed feelings I have toward being a long-term survivor, an ambivalence that holds the danger of making me seem ungrateful for being alive.
Survivor is just another metaphor that seeks to make everyone comfortable. It doesn’t leave any room for confusion – why am I alive and not the others? Instead, it becomes a symbol that shares DNA with the American fantasy that anyone can succeed if they just try hard enough. Survivor doesn’t allow for fear. It demands that I confirm the widely-held idea that AIDS is a manageable condition, a triumph over the devastation of the 80s and early 90s, even as studies are starting to show that it’s likely I’ll develop serious neurological disorders as I get older despite a viral load that’s undetectable.
I’m trapped by metaphors that actually trap both of us. I can only exist as a survivor now. And if for some reason that changes, I’ll become a martyr to this disease. In either case, the way I can manipulate sympathy leaves me feeling exhausted – the way I feel after I’ve watched a sentimental commercial whose only aim is to make me buy a portable printer.
You must feel exhausted too – the way a child instinctively resents the patronizing answers given by adults to complex questions, all in the name of protecting innocence.
I’m suddenly struck with the notion that I failed to convey just how certain I was that I was going to die from AIDS. We were all certain we were going to die. AZT offered a brief moment of hope and then that hope was pulled away.
I found out I was HIV positive when I was twenty years old on the same day Rock Hudson died. I can’t tell you how many times I hesitated writing that sentence because it seems like the kind of detail a not-very-talented novelist includes in the kind of book that starts with the sentence all of us were already dead but we didn’t know it. The nurse who told me I was HIV positive started sobbing so hard that all I could do in my shock was push a box of Kleenex across her desk.
Another detail that seems contrived. Do with it what you will.
I also failed to convey how crushing this certainty of death was. I held my breath for years, fanatically watching my T-cell count the way a broker follows foreign money markets. Each small dip was calamitous, wiping out any bit of optimism I’d gained from remaining healthy.
Every birthday was my last. Same with holidays. Every family get-together was tinged with sadness and regret, even as we forced ourselves to make every minute count. Each goodbye became goodbye.
What happens when you live your life that way for almost a decade? What happens when you spend the entirety of your twenties, a period when most young people blithely assume they have all the time in the world, knowing you’re going to die a death so horrible it seems invented by the most sadistic mind who ever lived?
Do you embrace life with zeal? Savor each moment greedily?
Or do you become like Winston in 1984 after he’s been to Room 101?
When my sister-in-law Deb was pregnant, we decided I would come to Billings, Montana, where she and my brother lived, right before she gave birth. I was to be the first relative to hold their child.
That’s how close we were.
Unfortunately, my car was stolen the week before her due date and I had to take a Greyhound bus, which I quickly discovered was the means by which the mentally ill and the homeless traveled. Somewhere between Salt Lake City and Boise, a group of juvenile delinquents got on board with the two adults who were shepherding them to some kind of camp in Wyoming. I stopped sleeping at that point, even though there was still another twenty hours to Billings.
I remember feeling at the time that this bus trip was going to become a metaphor for something, but because the meaning didn’t reveal itself immediately, I forgot about it.
The night Deb went into labor, I drove her and Tim to the hospital and returned home to find their cat meowing at me sadly – perhaps she’d thought we’d abandoned her. While I waited for my brother to call after the baby had been born, I kept replaying Vince Guaraldi’s theme when the children are ice skating at the beginning of the special. There’s something so sad and beautiful about the song – it produces nostalgia that somehow breaks free and inspires a tentative hopefulness.
It’s exactly the kind of music you want to be listening to when something momentous is about to happen.
Alyssa was born late the next morning and I rushed to the hospital to hold my niece. The joy I shared with Deb and Tim was so pure that it felt like I’d taken some kind of illegal drug.
When Deb’s parents arrived from Wyoming I realized how important my being the first relative to hold Alyssa had been – the honor usually bestowed to the child’s maternal grandmother had been usurped. Not that Deb’s mother showed any disappointment. Deb’s parents had long accepted that the relationship I had with their daughter had taken on unusual proportions, partly because we’d all been preparing for my death, partly because my devotion to her knew no bounds. As an example, shortly after I’d decided to come back out of the closet, Deb had flown to Los Angeles to spend a long weekend with me because she knew I was struggling deeply after a decade of believing my sexuality was evil.
Not that her visit was heavy. We went shopping for a new wardrobe for me, both of us agreeing that turtle necks didn’t do me any favors. We ate sushi and got buzzed drinking Kirin beer. We watched a Cary Grant movie and agreed that he was the most handsome man who ever lived. We bought lottery tickets. She helped me organize my finances.
In other words, Deb provided exactly what I needed at that moment in my life.
Six months after the birth of Alyssa, Deb planned a solo trip to San Diego, where I had just moved in with my now husband Joe. She wanted to be the first person in our family to meet the man who’d won my affection. A week before she was supposed to arrive, Deb called to say that she’d have to postpone the trip because she and the baby had taken ill. I was sympathetic and hid my disappointment. I told her to come when she was better.
That was the last time I spoke to her.
A few weeks later, my mother called me in the middle of the night and told me to put Joe on the phone. In my confusion, I knew something terrible had happened, but I couldn’t imagine what it was. I watched as horror registered on Joe’s face. I kept asking him what happened.
What happened is this: Deb had taken Alyssa to visit her parents in Wyoming. Her father was depressed and she thought time with the baby he adored would improve his mood. Deb’s father had struggled with depression for as long as I’d known him – in fact, we had both taken the same antidepressant, an old tricyclic that has long since fallen out of fashion. After she’d been gone a week, Tim, stressed by her absence and a new mortgage and a job that had proven more stressful than he’d anticipated, asked her to come home. The two had fought but Deb ultimately told him he could come pick them up that Friday after he got off work.
Tim arrived at his in-law’s house and found it dark, but when he peered into the garage and saw their car, he became overwhelmed with a sense of doom. He broke into the house through the sliding glass door in the back and discovered all of them in his in-law’s bedroom: Deb’s father had shot his wife, Alyssa, Deb, and then himself. After the police showed up, they took my brother to the station, initially believing he was the one who’d committed the murders. Tim was still in custody when my mom called me.
Deb is gone, frozen forever at the age of thirty, encased in beautiful amber. And all I can do is revere her the way the devout bow before a statue of Mary. All of her imperfections have been burnished away as if by an Instagram filter that bestows deification. I always thought I was honoring her memory this way, but now I realize I’ve taken away her humanity. She was very likely the best person I’ll ever know, but she had flaws. Out of love for her, I’ve made her a metaphor: a saintly young (white) woman whose life was tragically cut short. This metaphor is powerful – so powerful it can overcome Ali McGraw’s performance in Love Story.
Deb would be pissed.
To really honor her, I need to let go of this idealized version of her, but my fear is that I’d be letting go of her forever. Even now as I write this essay, I try to remember the things that made her human, but I can’t even allow myself the freedom to do so.
Deb would be pissed.
Deb often told me I was more of a brother to her than her real brother, a man who’d struggled with addiction all his adult life and who’d never been able to hold down a job. The narrative that had been imposed on Deb’s brother was that he was lazy and unreliable and expected everything to be handed to him.
Perhaps this narrative was accurate, but it leaves out the fact that Deb’s father had always burdened his son with harsh, unrealistic expectations. This narrative leaves out the way Deb’s father so clearly preferred Deb and put her on a pedestal – it’s not surprising that the only argument the two had was over Deb moving in with my brother, a violation of her father’s Catholic faith that would make her impure. In the same way that we now talk about white privilege, Deb didn’t entirely understand how her father’s devotion had come at her brother’s expense.
Does this make her more human?
Or is it just a tiny shard of glass on a vast, smooth beach that sits beneath a cloudless blue sky?
I realize now that the awful Greyhound bus trip I’d taken to Montana for Alyssa’s birth had been a metaphor. We’re all just trying to reach destinations filled with joy and happiness, but the journeys there are often longer than we anticipate and we’re forced to share space with an ever-shifting number of unstable passengers. We have to stay alert or there’s a very real chance someone is going to steal our belongings, if not shank us with a broken bottle of Mountain Dew.
The tricky part of the metaphor is determining whether I’m the hero on the bus or one of the strangers rifling through the hero’s duffle bag.
I realize now I’m both.
The people I’ve written about are dead. They can’t rebut anything. They can’t call me out for any inaccuracies or misleading sentences. If they were alive, it’s quite possible they wouldn’t recognize themselves.
I fully acknowledge this, just as I fully acknowledge that I’ve left things out.
I could have written about some of the other men I’ve known who died from AIDS. Ted wasn’t the only one whose death had an impact on me.
I could have written about Hal and how I was certain he was the one-night-stand who infected me. How I met him years after our tryst when he was dying, and how he didn’t remember me and I didn’t remind him of our night together.
Some would call our reconnecting a coincidence, but for someone as superstitious as me it seemed like fate.
I didn’t write about Hal because in those last months before he died something profound happened between us. It wasn’t sexual or even romantic – I was still painfully closeted, and he was dealing with his own spiritual fears about his sexuality – but it became a kind of relationship that I haven’t experienced with anyone else: a Venn diagram with so many overlapping circles that I can’t make out its center. This relationship still confuses me and I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to sort out its true meaning.
All I can tell you is that after Hal died his roommate asked me if I wanted anything of Hal’s as a keepsake. As we were standing in front of Hal’s closet, staring at his belongings that now seemed as lifeless as the person who’d owned them, I tried to decide which objects, if any, I wanted. I considered taking one of his headshots, a reminder of Hal’s vitality in his youth and his doomed ambitions to become an opera singer. There were other photos, all of them taken pre-AIDS. That they also showed Hal in good health didn’t bring me comfort; instead, I felt like I was watching the first act of a horror movie, where the monster is still yet unseen, circling around the edges of our characters’ world, just waiting for the opportunity to bring about destruction.
In the end, I took three button-down shirts that didn’t quite fit me. As I was putting the shirts in a plastic bag, the roommate held up Hal’s toupee and said that he was going to throw it away.
I took the toupee, along with the three button-down shirts that didn’t quite fit me.
I never unpacked the plastic bag.
Is that a metaphor for anything?
Or is it just a strange, meaningless anecdote that leaves us trapped inside an interrogation room, staring at a two-way mirror that only shows us our own reflection?
Why didn’t I engage in any hypothesizing about Deb the way I imagined Michael’s entire life?
There’s actually a simple answer for that: whenever I try to think about what Deb’s life would have been like had she not been murdered, the short leash of my still-fresh grief pulls me back. I can practically feel my head whip and, like a stupid dog, I’m always surprised.
Just the other night, I had a vivid dream that I’d found Deb and it turned out she hadn’t been murdered – that she’d faked her death for reasons that couldn’t be revealed.
I’ve had this dream before.
In my dream, I started crying with relief that she was alive. When I woke up, my pillow was soaked with real tears.
Both still surprise me. Like a stupid dog.
I realize now I could keep offering correctives to what I’ve written, but these efforts would never achieve their aim.
Another metaphor: Sisyphus.
I realize now that the end result of this essay may very well be that I’ve constructed a whole series of shrines that evoke a religion whose only follower is me.
Whose only priest is me.
But can I absolve myself? Can I administer last rites to myself?
Such is the paradox of time travel.
And somewhere, Michael, Ted, and Deb are pissed.
About the Author
Patrick Tobin is a screenwriter who lives in California with his husband and son. His stories and essays have appeared in Agni, Kenyon Review, Prism International, Grain, and Florida Review.