Someone Like Me
Part IV of an Ongoing Chronicle of the First Fifteen Years of the AIDS Pandemic
by Bruce Ward
In the summer of 1984, I went to stay with my parents in Honolulu. My dad had landed a two-year contract as a civilian radar specialist with the military, and I had the opportunity to visit for part of the summer.
I was just coming into my own: twenty-six years old, weightlifting regularly, and beginning to enjoy my sexual freedom. Having been a GMHC Buddy, I was well aware of the safer sex guidelines—even in 1984, before a virus was discovered, the rule of thumb was: “On Me, not In Me.”—and I rigidly conformed to them. But that did not prevent me from my mission to safely bed as many hot guys as possible. And here in Hawaii, there was a whole new slew of healthy, tanned, hot men—both native and tourist—who I knew just had to be waiting for me. And I went out every night, looking for them.
I knew the cruising routine well—how to appear just slightly aloof, to seem interested enough to pique curiosity in the one I chose, but not so interested that I appeared desperate. I knew the expression: closed mouth with a slight smirk, turn my head away, slowly rotate back just in time to lock eyes with my trophy, and then change the smirk to just a tiny bit of a grin. And a nod. And wait for him to come to me.
I would zoom in on one, just one, from the time I entered the bar. I was not one to leave with just anybody; if the right one wasn’t there, I would go home alone. After all, I could pick and choose my knight in shining armor.
In my case, the perfect man was not one of the “A-gays”, the “beautiful” people, the disco and party queens. No, the men who attracted me were the most unattainable: the cool, aloof, possibly nervous, square-jawed jock in the corner, the one you would least likely expect to see, in the year 1984, in a gay bar. Someone like me. Or the someone I thought I wanted to be.
At night, I would revel in my newly-found freedom, with my new-found friends, usually at Hula’s or Hamburger Mary’s on Kuhio Avenue, Waikiki gay central. Many times I would close Hula’s at 2 a.m. and then go to the after-hours bar nearby, until 4.
After two weeks of being seen recurrently (i.e. every night) at the bars, I was becoming a “regular.” I was practically a haole (a white, non-Polynesian American living on the island). I was invited to house parties and even joined a hiking group.
And then, one night, he appeared. Actually, the flirtation with my hero had begun earlier in the summer, when we first noticed each other at Hula’s. He was in the army, stationed about an hour inland. He told me he was going back to Arkansas or some such place at the end of the summer, where he was going to marry his fiancée, and inherit her substantial dowry.
He was the hottest guy I had ever seen. Rugged, clean-cut, but with a slightly crooked nose that, together with his full, slightly sneering upper lip, gave him an edginess that was mesmerizing. He had a short buzzed military haircut, but not a “hi & tite.” Sexy, sleepy brown doe eyes. Broad-shouldered and muscled, but not the cartoonish grotesquery of the steroid monsters. This was all natural. Masculine without trying. Big hands, easygoing manner. Deep voice with a hint of drawl—not from the deep South, but possibly from the southern part of a southern Midwestern state. This man did not need to work at it, did not need to convince. Unlike myself, whose appearance of confidence felt like a posture, a façade, a mask that camouflaged the real insecurities, the real anxieties, the true identity.
For even though I was still in the beginning stages of accepting myself as a desirable sexual being in this new world where I could finally be free, finally be “myself”—I always, always, had that nagging voice inside telling me: You’re not hot enough. You’re not sexy enough. Your dick isn’t big enough. Your abs aren’t flat enough. You’re already too old. You got a late start. You’re too much of a romantic to ever really give in to this hedonistic lifestyle that’s expected of you, and you’re too different, too sensitive to pull off real indifference, you’re too neurotic and compulsive to ever have a real relationship.
This man was out of my league. But then he gave me that look, and I knew he wanted me. And that’s all I needed.
On that first night in the bar, he was my equal in the cruising department, matching me stare for stare. I may actually have even gone to him. He was clearly not going to budge from his position by the back door, one combat-booted foot placed casually behind him on the wall. I was determined not to let this guy go without at least a clear indication that I was not intimidated by him, as everyone else there was.
During the next three weeks, the connection escalated from head nods to conversations to sharing coke in the bar’s bathroom, to furtive, intense, all-too-quick make-out sessions. Now, a month later, we continued to advance towards the fated, much-anticipated climax.
He made it clear that I would be with him that night. I couldn’t believe this was actually about to happen. This was the perfect man. And he chose to be with me. He chose me. Me.
I started planning our life together. I would convince him to ditch his girlfriend back home (and her considerable dowry) and spend the rest of his life with me.
Or at least one memorable night.
One gloriously hot, no-holds-barred, beautifully free, self-validating night.
And, in an instant, my life changed.
Want to start from the beginning? Link to the first column: https://aumag.org/2020/05/25/last-dance/.
Bruce Ward has been writing about the AIDS epidemic since its inception, and a recently completed memoir chronicles the early years. His plays, Lazarus Syndrome, Decade: Life in the ’80s, and other full-length plays, have been produced throughout the U.S. Bruce was the first Director of the CDC National AIDS Hotline from 1986–1988, and he was honored by POZ magazine as one of 2015’s POZ 100. He is A&U’s Drama Editor..