Winner, Christopher Hewitt Award for Fiction
After the Cure
by Stephen S. Mills
My fingers were always the perfect size for ribbon making: for cutting, looping, and pinning, or at least that’s what Charlie always said. But maybe he told me this so I’d do all the ribbons, and he could sit back and watch old movies. Of course that was before he was too sick to watch anything. Couldn’t concentrate even on a movie he’d seen a million times.
The first months we were together, he’d bring me a VHS of a Hitchcock movie each time we went out, and I knew I had to watch it before I’d see him again. It was a homework assignment. He was bound to ask about it and not just, “How’d you like Rear Window?” No, he would ask specifics like I was taking a film history course: “What scene did Hitchcock appear in?” or “What did you think of Hitchcock using his knowledge of silent film to capture the neighbors?” Each correct answer got me closer to him. Another crack in his shield.
Charlie’s hands were bigger than mine when he clasped them around me or led me to the bedroom. His hands were perfect for lovemaking, but not for ribbon making. He could do it, but it took him twice as long, and he complained the whole time: “Why do we need more ribbons?”
It was 1991 when the whole ribbon thing started. Some artists here in New York came up with it. It meant something. Meant we were all in this together: infected or not. I took to the idea quickly. Made boxes of them. Always ready.
It wasn’t easy to ignore in the beginning. Not here in New York anyway. Not for us gays. Billie was the first. I remember him at Thanksgiving sitting in my cramped apartment on 18th. He was beautiful. Twenty-two. Dark hair. Green eyes. Just a touch of muscle in his arms. If I hadn’t just met Charlie, I would have been flirting like crazy, but I was at the start of something. I knew it.
But Billie was gorgeous. He had this laugh that filled the whole room. Bounced off walls. Rattled the dishes in the china cabinet. Probably drove the neighbors crazy: What are those fags doing? But we loved him immediately. He was one of us. Beautiful at Thanksgiving and dead in the spring.
You know the stories from the early days. It’s been documented. Recorded. Exhausted. But it’s not the same as seeing it. Your friends vanishing. Your enemies too. People always forget that: the good and the bad die. We all die. Some of us horrible deaths.
In those years, my apartment became a headquarters for information: the latest treatments, the latest rally or protest, and, of course, ribbons. Charlie always laughed and said, “You have enough ribbons to pin all of New York.” Some days he was probably right.
Later after Charlie got it, pill bottles filled the apartment. There’s a lot out there about caring for a dying person and even how to grieve, but most things don’t mention the smell. How your apartment becomes like a hospital. Everything that strange mix of cleaning products and bodily fluids: piss, shit, mucus, blood. They don’t tell you that the smell stays. Sticks in clothing, drapes, rugs, couches, pillows. It’s there long after the person is gone. They don’t tell you that because there’s no preparing for it. There’s no coming back from it.
Charlie’s gone now. Been gone fifteen years and he was lucky. Lucky for those days. But luck is all relative. Am I lucky? I never got it. Is that luck?
* * *
I kept fighting even after Charlie died and after things got better. Less dying. Hell, people were living fairly normal lives, but there wasn’t a cure. I focused on that. I raised money for every walk, ride, skip, hop, or jump. I begged my friends and family to donate every drop they could, and they did at first. Then there were the polite notes of decline. People’s own lives, worries, and money issues getting in the way of even a small donation.
They got tired too. Tired of me asking. Tired of hearing about sickness and death. I understood on some level. People move on. We adapt. We were out of crisis mode.
I kept my attention on New York. On the gay community. I volunteered as a tester.Gave advice to young men on how to be safe. Held their hands when I told them they were positive. Promised them I’d keep going. Keep fighting. I always wore a ribbon. A new one each week. The red needs to be vibrant. The loop just perfect. The pin hidden as much as possible. There’s an etiquette.
When the news broke about the cure. I didn’t believe it. There’d been rumors for years that some European doctors were getting close, and I guess I knew, on some level, it would happen. I read article after article trying to understand. I know it sounds wrong, but part of me didn’t want it to be true. I ignored the phone calls for days. Didn’t leave my apartment, and when I couldn’t stand to read another newspaper, I watched Hitchcock movies and thought of Charlie. What would Charlie think? Of a cure? Of me sitting here with mixed feelings?
In those early years together, I often watched him watching the movie rather than keeping my eyes on the screen. He wasn’t drop dead gorgeous, but he had a simple handsomeness about him and an intensity in his eyes. I admired his ability to focus on just one thing. When one of his favorite movies was playing, he was there inside that world. Even when he got sick and when friends started dying, he held onto that world as long as he could. When his focus and concentration went, that’s when he gave up.
I tried to be Charlie in those first days after the cure. But I never had the concentration he did. My mind races constantly. Little soothes it.
When I couldn’t stand to watch the television anymore, I went to the closet and got out my ribbons. I dumped their red bodies on the table and began to count. I had 654 ribbons left. That’s enough to wear a new one each week for over twelve years. They filled my kitchen table, piled on top of each other. A few tumbling to the floor.
I still can’t bring myself to part with them. I don’t know what my life looks like without a red ribbon. My closet is full of clothes all with the same puncture wound. A wound that can’t heal.
We talked of a cure in the early days. Even as people died, we kept thinking it’s got to come quickly. This is too bad to not have an end in sight. But then it kept going. Sure it changed. People lived longer. More information came out. Some of the stigma faded. But it was always there. Part of us. Part of me.
You’d think I’d be used to things vanishing by now.
Stephen S. Mills is the author of the Lambda Award-winning book He Do the Gay Man in Different Voices (Sibling Rivalry Press, 2012). He earned his MFA from Florida State University. His work has appeared in The Antioch Review, PANK, The Los Angeles Review, Knockout, Assaracus, The Rumpus, and others. His second poetry collection, A History of the Unmarried (Sibling Rivalry Press), will be released in September 2014. He lives in New York City. For more information, log on to: www.stephensmills.com.
When we announced our winners last year for the first annual Christopher Hewitt Award, we wrote that the award was our way of recognizing and encouraging work that “not only builds upon the legacy of thirty years of literature about our community, but also helps to enrich and expand our ideas of what ‘literature’ and ‘community’ mean when we speak about AIDS in the new millennium.”
All that, and the work needed to be really, really good. It seemed a bit lofty to expect all of those qualities to emerge from a contest, let alone from any single contribution, but the entries this year reminded us that good writing really can—and should—open up new possibilities for a genre. It was clear to our judges that what makes great contemporary writing about HIV/AIDS stand out from the crowd is just that: It’s contemporary. It feels fresh and vital, willfully undermining our old stories about illness and reflecting instead a complex global reality, in which diagnosis doesn’t have to equal tragedy and finding a cure turns out not to be a simple victory.
Nick Hadikwa Mwaluko, winner in the Creative Nonfiction category, takes an eviscerating look at current personal and political strife for gay and transgender Africans with HIV and moves towards introspection, asking, “In a world committed to making queer Africans crazy, when I finally look beyond my world, beyond circumstance in search of identity, have I done everything in my power to meet this moment?”
Stephen Mead’s poem “Building Immunities” uses gorgeous, fickle syntax and distilled meaning (“…I dreamed, / river-willed, stirring stillness: / you again, you—”) to imagine a reunion between partners in a world not in which AIDS never existed, but in which lovers have suffered and are stronger for it: “recharged despite the carnage of life.”
Halfway through Stephen S. Mills’s short story “After the Cure,” a scene shift happens that takes the narrator from detailing his near-obsessive making of red ribbons in the nineties to an imagined world in the near future in which there really is a “cure.” In strict literary terms, this qualifies “After the Cure” as science fiction, which Robert A. Heinlein once described as “realistic speculation about possible future events, based solidly on adequate knowledge of the real world, past and present.” In this case, Mills’s knowledge includes the wisdom to recognize that after years of activism and long-term survival, gaining a cure will also mean losing a whole way of looking at ourselves and the world around us.
We think you’ll enjoy these three pieces as much as our judges did. They give us hope about the future of writing on HIV/AIDS. And we think they’re really, really good.