by Norman Belanger
Carey calls me. Since the latest outbreak, and self-quarantine, he now uses the phone to talk. We have conversations on the phone, like in the old days.
“How you holding up?” he asks. A glass with ice tinkles. He’s already into the vodka, and it’s barely 11 a.m.
“Meh. How are you guys?”
“Please. Both of us working from home. He’s driving me nuts. Everything smells like bleach. Do not mess with a Virgo during a Mercury in retrograde.” In the background, the vacuum cleaner roars to life. Carey sighs. “And since he’s read some Twitter tweet about the death of facial hair in the era of the mask, he’s bullshit. The new beard balm our company launched is not moving. No one is buying. He’s freaking out.”
“Ugh.” That’s all the sympathy I can muster.
“If you ever have to spend the end of days with Van, do yourself a favor and shoot yourself instead.”
“Is it the end of days?” I have yet to shower or clean the apartment. It doesn’t seem to make much sense to tidy the magazines.
“Who knows? After watching CNN for five fucking straight days I feel doomed.” He takes a healthy swig of his drink.
“Let’s just hope alcohol has some medicinal uses.”
“Amen twisted sister.” He’s sloshed.
“Love you too.”
I tell him, again, about my recent date with a kid named Kenny, a few weeks ago pre-quarantine. The good thing about Carey is that he is frequently drunk, which means I get to tell the same stories over and over, and it’s still news to him. Kenny was a little weasel. In the middle of our date, when he asked me if I was “clean,” I told him my HIV status. He freaked out, bolted. That rejection brought up a déjà vu of emotions for me, and now that we are living again in a time of disease, it’s amplified. That old fear. The shame. The anxious wariness. The concepts of clean and dirty. In so many ways, this time of COVID now feels like such a replay of those early AIDS days.
Carey says, “Now that it’s not just a bunch of fags and Haitian immigrants who are doing the dying, maybe the response will be different this time.”
“The other day, I’m walking through Cambridge Commons. It’s impossible to understand how such a lovely spring afternoon could feel so foreboding.”
“Foreboding. Exactly. That’s the word.”
“Blue sky, cloudless, beautiful. Sunlight bouncing off every shiny surface. The first daffodils trembling in the breeze. And yet——no kids playing in the playground, no sounds of their laughter and incessant happy chirping, no lovers kissing on the new green grass. No traffic sounds. No city noise.”
“Sunday quiet, every day.”
“A woman coming in the other direction had her head down, lost in her own thoughts. You see a lot of that now. When she looked up, saw me, I made a smile, I nodded. She stopped, stepped off the sidewalk, and crossed the street. Maintaining social distance. Made me feel weird, I guess.”
“We’re all possibly contaminated. If you aren’t wearing a mask and gloves 24/7, it’s like you’re socially barebacking. Taboo.”
“The mask is the new condom.”
He laughs. “How is this affecting your social life? Weren’t you just getting your feet wet again in the dating pool?”
“Social life? No more Grindr. No more dating. No more going out. But honestly, after Kenny, I kind of got turned off with meeting guys that way. These young guys don’t get it.”
“Can you believe we went to all those ACT UP rallies just so smug kids can call us Boomer?”
“Yea,” he slurs, “fuck them all.”
“We’re totally Gen X.”
And we laugh. But this generation, like ours, will have their history shaped by the events happening now, as we were in our time when AIDS was the fear that gripped us. This government will do too little too late, like before, while people will become needlessly infected and die. People will lack the information they need to protect themselves. This generation will see their friends and their lovers get sick. They will know the fear that we knew.
I say, “You know, in spite of my bitching about being single, and over 50, this all sort of puts my shit into perspective. There are bigger issues than one old lonely guy, worse things than being alone in quarantine.”
“Like being with the wrong person?”
“A Kenny would make me ballistic in three days. How would Robert and I have fared in all of this? Hard to tell. Maybe a little thing like a new virus would have exposed all the cracks we thought were sealed? Mere speculation now. But being alone is not the worst.”
“At the moment, it sounds like heaven to me,” his voice lowers, “you know I love Van. I do, I really, really do——but I’d sell him for a handful of magic beans right now.”
“It is weird though, how this feels so eerily familiar.”
“You mean like the old days? When all we had were Jerry Falwell and Nancy Reagan, pretending we didn’t exist?”
“Yea. It brings up all of that.”
“Tell me about it.”
“I keep thinking about the day I got my diagnosis.” I say. “My biggest worry was how am I going to tell my mother? It’d kill her. She still hadn’t gotten over Rock Hudson.”
Carey sighs deeply. “I can’t even imagine. My mother will not accept Van’s ‘minority status,’ as she calls it. What did you do next?”
“What did I do? You know, I can’t even remember. I think it was snowing when I left the doctor’s office. I remember walking in the new falling snow and thinking how beautiful it was, how ironic that life should be so beautiful, when we’re dying a little every day.”
“You do skew poetic. It’s one of the things we love about you.”
“Hmmm. I know I went home, opened a bottle of scotch, and sat by the fireplace all night, just me and a Duraflame log and the snow coming down.”
“Whatever happened to James?”
“He dumped me. The minute I told him. His exact words: ‘I can’t believe this is happening to me.’ That was the last I heard of him.”
“What a dick.”
“We were lucky,” Carey says, adjusting himself on the couch. “We survived. That’s something.”
“Ironic. Here we are again.”
“Exactly. Here we are again.”
“Listen, the husband is making faces at me, and I better scoot. Talk to you tomorrow?”
We hang up, and I get ready to head out to the store to pick up a few things. My face covering sits on the counter, a converted piece of fabric from one of my old ACT UP T-shirts, black, with “Don’t Panic” on the front. It’s a relic, a fashion statement from a long ago era, now re-purposed for the new fashion statement: we’re all possibly contaminated; we’re all of us unclean.
Norman Belanger is a queer writer who lives in the Boston area with an old hifi, a stack of jazz records, and piles of books. When he isn’t writing or being a curmudgeon, he might be found in Provincetown gazing at the night sky. His works of creative nonfiction have been featured in POZ, Sibling Rivalry Press, TransNational Queer Underground, and Barren Magazine.