Too Young to Die
Meet the new grief, same as the old grief
by John Francis Leonard
I thought I was immune to grief by now, but I was wrong. As a young man through many of the years of the AIDS pandemic, living in its epicenter, I was no stranger to death. Life cut short in its prime was a recurring theme. Doesn’t this buy one some immunity, at least from death’s sharpest pain? So many friends gone now, I assumed losing another would be a matter of course, sad, but not as painful as it once was. Perhaps I kept people at some remove for years now, never letting down my guard, afraid of getting hurt too badly. But life, and love, have a way of sneaking up on us when we least expect it. There’s beauty in this insidiousness, the way love adapts to your limitations. You could say that it mutates, almost like the virus itself.
I met Tony at my part-time job. He was a beautiful, Italian-American boy in his early twenties. We had so little in common on the surface. Tony was straight, had a girlfriend, sometimes more than one at a time. He loved hard rock and was an avid hunter and fisherman. Much to my irritation, he was also a conservative who voted for Trump. He was also half my age. Of course his beauty caught my eye. His dark brown hair, his chiseled jaw, his beautiful brown eyes. Not to be lascivious, but he had an ass that could make a grown man weep at its beauty. I can’t remember now what initially drew us together, but we hit it off. Tony hit it off with everyone. He was guileless, child-like in his enthusiasm, with a heart of gold. He just drew you in. I’ve never been one to chase after straight boys. Why give them the satisfaction? Besides, I had always lived in a major city. There was a beautiful gay man to fill every need, every desire for the masculine and strong. Now I lived in a suburb of a small city. Confident, good-looking gay men were rarer than hen’s teeth.
The thing about Tony that I learned as we began to spend time together was that he craved approval. He loved feeling desired and hearing how attractive he was. It was almost pathological, this insecurity, and it made him an outrageous flirt. I was determined not to let him know just how attracted I was to him but on the other hand, took full advantage, I’m only human. Slowly but surely this led to a physical relationship, which I know he enjoyed too. I was patient, I took my time. But sex, believe it or not, was never the end game for either of us. No, what we enjoyed the most was the intimacy. Holding hands and cuddling as we lay in my bed watching TV. A couple nights a week, he’d come over after work. I’d always cook him a meal and then we’d watch TV, most recently binge-watching Breaking Bad. We told each other everything. But Tony had his demons, demons he tried to quiet with a copious amount of drugs. He never had a limit. Having struggled with drug abuse in the past, I tried to warn him a thousand times. I tried to get him to at least slow down, but to no avail.
Last week, I got an urgent text from a coworker to call him. He gave me devastating news. Not surprising news, given Tony’s proclivities, but news that was deeply shocking nonetheless. A day ago, in the morning, my coworker informed me, Tony had snorted heroin, heroin laced with the powerful narcotic fentanyl. Up to 100 more times powerful than morphine, fentanyl has been responsible for an epidemic of deaths in heroin users across the country. Later that day, Tony was found unresponsive by his girlfriend and a close buddy and was unable to be revived at a local hospital. He was only twenty-four-years old, stunning in his physical beauty and even more beautiful on the inside.
As with all the deaths I saw from AIDS at an early age, my first reaction was to try to make sense of it all. For the time being, however, I am clouded by my grief. I’ll never lay next to him in my bed again holding hands and feeling his touch, a touch both tentative and passionate. I feel very isolated in my small town, all my close friends are in large coastal cities, and I have few friends here, gay or otherwise. I’ve let very few new men come into my life whom I’ve felt as close to. Ours may have been an unlikely friendship, but it was one that was very dear to me. I loved him. He used to tell me he loved me, not that he was in love, mind you, but that he loved me in his own special way. I could never say it back and I regret that now. I thought that I was tough, that I had a thick skin when it came to losing those who were close to me. I was so wrong.
John Francis Leonard is an advocate and writer, as well as a voracious reader of literature, which helps to feed his love of the English language. He has been living with HIV for thirteen years and he is currently at work on his first novel, Fools Rush In. His fiction has been published in the ImageOutWrite literary journal. Follow him on Twitter @JohnFrancisleo2.