Never Forget Your First
by Paul A. Aguilar
On June 5, 1981, just two weeks before my high school graduation and my eighteenth birthday, the CDC published a report about a rare lung infection, Pneumocystis carinii pneumonia (PCP), in five young, previously healthy, gay men in Los Angeles.
On June 6, the San Francisco Chronicle covered the story. I paid it very little attention as I was more focused on what I was going to wear to prom (white tails, if you must know) and saying farewell to those dear friends who had been so accepting of me throughout junior high and high school. All of us excited and hopeful about what our futures held. Little did I know how dramatic a turn my future would take.
Most of that summer was spent with my best friend (more of a little sister really), Solveig, and I playing week-long gin rummy tournaments (the first to reach 2,000 points), coloring in Altair Designs books, and taking long walks up and down Haight Street window shopping and visiting with the various merchants most of who knew us and our families on a first name basis. Hours and hours were spent at Coffee, Tea, and Spice, Mendelsohn’s, Far Out Fabrics, The Booksmith, Elite Hair Design, Headlines, and “Rock and Bowl” at Park Bowl.
The first infected person either of us knew was our friend, Jerry. Jerry and his partner, Bob, ran a framing business out of Mendelsohn’s and Far Out Fabrics. Whenever we had a photo or piece of art we wanted to really pop when framed, we went to Jerry and Bob.
A couple of weeks into our summer vacation, Sol had told me that Jerry had been admitted to SFGH Ward 86 (this was just before it had become known as “the AIDS ward”), and that he was very sick. I asked her if there was anything we could do to help. As has always been her way, Sol suggested we bring him and Bob some of her famous homemade chocolate chip cookies to cheer him up. We spent the morning baking the cookies and packing them in a basket along with a variety of cheery items purchased at Mendelsohn’s and Headlines. When we were satisfied with our creation, we hopped on the 33 Ashbury bus and headed out toward SF General Hospital.
When we arrived at Ward 86, we saw nurses and doctors entering Jerry’s room covered head to toe in scrubs, gowns, booties, head caps, gloves, face guards and face masks. All you could see were their eyes. It was like a scene straight out of The Andromeda Strain, a popular sci-fi movie from a few years earlier. When we looked through the window of the door to his room, there was Jerry surrounded by a plastic tent, hooked up to IV’s, an oxygen mask obscuring his once infectious smile, looking more like one of the Holocaust survivors that I had seen in films in Mr. Biagini’s history class.
Sitting in the chair next to him was his partner, Bob. His normally jovial, round, mustachioed face looking worn and tear-streaked. When he saw us through the glass, he came out to the hallway. After removing all of his protective garb, he thanked us for coming and gave each of us a huge hug. Bob went on to explain how grateful he was that we had come. It seems that very few of their other friends had done so, no doubt frightened by what they had read and heard from various news sources. He went on to tell us that the doctors were saying that it wasn’t looking too good for Jerry and that they didn’t know how much time he had left. The words caught in his throat and we could see how hard Bob was struggling to keep from losing it altogether. We asked if we could go in and say hi and give him the cookies, card, balloon and stuffed animal that accompanied them.
“He would love that.” he replied, “but you’ll have to wear these,” gesturing to the collection of protective garb stacked by the door to Jerry’s room. I remember thinking to myself how frightened Jerry must have felt having everyone around dressed in what was something just shy of a hazmat suit and how it just added to the feeling of helplessness. Since nothing was known about this new disease it was hospital policy that there was no skin to skin contact with any of the patients, for fear of spreading the disease.
We donned the gear and entered the room. After some gentle prodding from Bob, Jerry roused from his fitful nap and opened his eyes. At first, he had trouble focusing and looked like a scared puppy in a cage at the pound. After a few moments, he was able to focus. He couldn’t really speak due to the oxygen mask, but his eyes lit up when he saw us and the get well gift we brought.
Our visit wasn’t long, maybe ten to fifteen minutes at the most. As we were leaving, we told Jerry to hang in there, that he was sorely missed and that he’d better get back to work before Bob made a complete mess of everything. I don’t know why I was moved to do this, maybe it’s because I never really liked being told what I could or couldn’t do or maybe it was the nascent caregiver in me, but right before we left I took my gloves off reached out and took Jerry’s hand in mine. Our eyes locked in that moment as I said, “Stay strong” or something along those lines.
There were tears in Jerry’s eyes as we left. That was the last time we saw Jerry alive.
Five years later, I would discover that I too, had contacted HIV and was told that I had maybe five years left to live. That was twenty-nine years ago.
Paul A. Aguilar is a fifth generation native San Franciscan. He grew up in Ashbury Heights during the seventies and eighties. He is a long-term thriver, having tested HIV positive in 1989. This essay received second runner-up honors in the 2018 Christopher Hewitt Award literary contest.