What I Learned from My Partners, All AIDS Widowers

The men in my life and the men who had been in their lives

by John Francis Leonard

Photo by Alina Oswald

Every relationship has something to teach us. In my life, I’ve had three serious relationships, a lot of misses, but three hits (so to speak). None of them has been easy, at times they operated in a circus of dysfunction, but they taught me something I didn’t know, or needed to know, about myself. They were like a mirror sometimes and the person I saw in its reflection was not always my best self. But they gave me a lot too. I ultimately learned how to love myself and forgive others the mistakes I have also been guilty of.

Below the surface, these men had nothing in common. Cosmetically, there was one thing—they were all successful, driven men in their own way. Another unifying factor was their age and my search for a father figure—but that’s a whole different column for a whole different magazine. When I look back now, the most striking similarity between the three was the fact that they had each lost the great love of their lives, the man who came before me, to AIDS. This relationship had been the last serious one any of those men had before they became involved with me. Needless to say, that experience, that tragic loss, defined my relationship with them in many ways. If I look at it the wrong way, I was always in the shadow of my predecessor. But that’s not how I choose to look at it now; it’s not a lens that distorts my clarity of vision. Rather than be shut down by these experiences, although there were pieces of each that would remain closed to me, they gave me a chance. My life would have been so much less rich in experience without them all. Both they, and yes, the men who came before me.

Charles was my first love, and love blew me away. I was twenty-three and living in New York City when we met and I’ll never forget the exact moment I first looked at his handsome face. I was literally dumbstruck, went weak in the knees—all the clichés I’d thought were so ridiculous. It wasn’t an easy relationship by any stretch; it was tumultuous, off as often as it was on. I’ll never feel love, nor passion like that again; I assiduously avoided it in the following two relationships because it almost destroyed us both. Well, maybe not. Maybe it was the love we felt that sustained us. We were both a mess at the time. I was developing a serious drug habit and was self-medicating a mental illness that I would not get a handle on, much less have diagnosed, until I was almost forty. It didn’t take a psychiatrist to figure out that Charles himself was in the throes of depression. A punishing work schedule and the pursuit of his Master’s degree didn’t help. The one thing that made him sadder than anything else was the death of his lover Pedro a few years earlier. It affected him deeply. Ultimately, Charles couldn’t stay faithful and I couldn’t stay out of rehab. We each had our poison. One night after one of our intense sexual couplings as we lay in his bed, Charles opened up about Pedro. He even told me that his great love had passed away from AIDS in the very bed in which we lay while Charles nursed him. While it freaked me out at the time, I now find it touching. It goes a long way in explaining how Charles hurt me so deeply while he loved me so dearly. I still can’t have a civil conversation with the man to this day, however; he’s the only one of the three I don’t stay in contact with. It’s easy to discount it by remembering what a jerk he could be, but I prefer to remember the love he managed to give after so much loss.

At twenty-seven, Stephen came into my life after a move West to Denver, a city I loved and where I achieved my earliest success. To be perfectly frank and honest, I’ll say that Stephen and I weren’t a great love story, we were a business relationship, literally and figuratively. Our financial and living arrangements went years beyond our actual time as a couple. He and I were both avoiding love. Me, because of my previous experience with the condition; he, because of the loss of the great love of his life to AIDS. Stephen, as all the men in my life were (and still often are), was a good deal older. Stephen was no walk in the park, but neither was I. My life at the time was driven by money and social position, and he offered both. What he was was a very difficult man to live with, but he was also something more important. He was an incredibly generous man who simply loved to watch his partner enjoy the things to which he had become accustomed. Any of his many friends will testify to this. There’s not been a year in over twenty that Stephen has forgotten my birthday; gone are the lavish gifts, but he always remembers on the exact day to wish me well. Stephen never, ever talked about his lost love, Danny. He simply wasn’t discussed. The few times he did were when a friend of his partner’s that we came upon socially brought him up, and that was rare. I only learned of his passing away in the house in which we lived when I came across a kitchen cupboard full of prescriptions and hospital supplies when preparing a lunch for a group of friends. I knew instinctively what they were there for and Stephen’s business partner and roommate confirmed my suspicions. I was filled in on the details but informed that it wasn’t discussed; it was too painful. I always respected that. It went a long way in explaining Stephen’s lavish, indulgent lifestyle. Enjoy it today, because you might not live till tomorrow. Not only that, make sure that those closest to you do the same. Neither of us were perfect, but Stephen and I do stay in touch, and while he was no treat to live with, I’m privileged to call him a friend.

My relationship with Randy was much like that with Stephen; there was a financial disparity and our time as roommates of a sort far exceeded our conjugal bliss. He offered me a new chance at life. I couldn’t grow anymore, working for and with Stephen, but didn’t want to leave such a lucrative business behind. But, I was at the end of my tether with both Stephen and his business partner. They wanted far too much control of my personal life. It was time to move on. There never was a nicer person than Randy, but we took on too much in our personal lives in a short span of years for our relationship to survive. We both were diagnosed as HIV-positive; Randy suffered from renal failure due to a hereditary disease, and we moved from Denver to L.A. (a city I loathed) in 2003. All that was exacerbated by Randy’s high-pressure, if lucrative, job. He took on the burden of our financial upkeep, which was also a big stressor. Oh, and I decided to have a long overdue psychiatric breakdown; it was one thing after another. Randy had his moments, but he always remained one of the kindest people I’ve known. Of all three relationships, I feel that his lost lover, Tim, cast the widest shadow. Again, it wasn’t often discussed, but I felt it deeply. I encouraged him often to remember him. I hung a beautiful pen-and-ink rendering of the Dakota, Central Park West’s beautiful landmark building, that had been drawn by Tim, a successful architect in his time. Randy soon removed it from the wall and packed it away. I encouraged him to display Tim’s photograph on the mantle, but to no avail. Encouragingly, I was able to get Randy to open up and share his memories of Tim, including his last years, over our time together.

It would be easy for me to look at the dysfunction and strife of these three relationships, but that wouldn’t tell the whole story. Every relationship is its own lesson and is shaped by those that came before. Each of these three men had a profound impact on my life. Each of their former loves, though I never met them, did as well. They shaped the men I would come to be involved with as they in turn shaped me. Not all of them were great love stories, maybe none was, but I loved each in my own way.

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 fifteen years and he is currently at work on his first novel, Fools Rush In. His fiction has been published in the ImageOutWrite literary journal and he is a literary critic for Lambda Literary. Follow him on Twitter @JohnFrancisleo2.