I remember watching that documentary, my roommates and I. We were three broke dancers, working together in a small modern dance company. I was young, female and straight. They were young, male and gay. And in love. I was their third wheel, but we did everything together: Eat, work, travel, fight, play.
It was 1986, or 1987, I forget which, exactly. But we were sprawled on the floor after a long day of ballet classes and rehearsals, massaging sore muscles, watching one of those news magazine shows. On this particular day, the subject was AIDS. The tone was alarmist and it scared us all silly. I remember watching, and thinking, Oh, shit. You mean I could get it, too?
What I didn’t know, as I was watching, was that my roommates, Darryl and Gary, were keeping a secret from me: They had just discovered that they were both HIV positive. Gary got sick, again and again and again, but somehow made it through. Today he is alive and thriving and running a dance company.
Darryl —funny, sweet, smart, cranky, outrageously talented — was dead within the decade.
This was the theme of my young adulthood: Losing men that I loved as brothers, men that I worked with, argued with, shared dressing rooms with, sweated with, performed with, united in our obsession over our one great love—dance.
Not so long ago, I was chatting with a friend who is a dance critic. We talked about all the talented dancers and choreographers folks who’d been lost to AIDS. As she saw it, there is a void in dance choreography because so many young men didn’t make it out of the plague. AIDS was –and still is—a thief of youth. And talent. I can’t help but wonder what if. What if there were no AIDS? What if they’d all lived?
This is what it’s like to come of age during the time of the plague: Hearing rumors of a strange disease that seemed to strike only gay men, leaving them emaciated and riddled with strange purple lesions. Running into friends, seeing how thin they’d become, and then hearing not much later, that they’d died at 23, 24, 25, 26…
Sitting in a Manhattan hospital’s emergency room, waiting for a friend with a dislocated shoulder. Noticing a man, gaunt, haunted, being helped out of a wheelchair. Looks exchanged, with a wordless sense of knowing: Dead man walking.
I think of that time, and I think of this pervasive sense of foreboding, fear, dread. Not knowing when, and whom, the plague would strike. No one liked to use the word, but when you heard that Raymond or Gary or Curtis or Wilbert was sick, you knew what the deal was. And when they invariably died, their parents would print in their obituaries, “He died after a long illness.”
But not naming it didn’t take away its power, didn’t — couldn’t — stop it from killing, wiping out a generation of talented black men. It only cloaked it in shame, prevented folks from finding comfort in the arms of friends. Most of my friends died without me ever having visited them in the hospital. Because I didn’t know.
Russell was different. Russell was a gift. We met in the ‘90s, not long after I’d retired from dance, in a yoga class. We were paired together in class, twisting each other in knots. We were friends at first sight. After class, he told me, casually, so casually, that he had AIDS. Ours was a friendship nurtured around hospital visits and the rare lunch when he felt well enough to hang out. We hadn’t known each other for long, but our bond was sweet and intense.
He told me how he got infected: How he’d always been monogamous, fiercely committed to his partner, but that his boyfriend had strayed. How he’d screamed at him, “You’re going to give me AIDS!” Then he showed me a picture of what he looked like, pre-plague . I was shocked. I didn’t recognize the man in the picture. AIDS and meds had stolen his beauty, straightening his curls, erasing his muscles. Even his hair color was different.
Sometimes, when Russell and I got together, I’d end up crying. I couldn’t help myself. It was rough seeing him get really sick, bounce back, and then get sick again, not knowing if each time in the hospital would be the last time. (And of course, it was much, much harder on him.) But at least I got to go through it, with him. There is beauty in showing up for the people you love.
Looking back now, I think that by spending time with him, listening to him laughing about the benefits of medical marijuana and what he wanted to do in the afterlife, I was able to work through my grief for all the others that I’d lost.
Russell died in ’96, nearly ten years after I’d watched that documentary with Darryl and Gary. We’d made a pact that once he’d crossed over, if he could, he’d come back and give me a sign. The night before his funeral, I dreamed about him. We were sitting on a couch, talking about all the folks who came to send him off. He was so happy. Joyful. I like to think that was his way of reaching out to me.
The next year, I participated in the AIDS ride, biking 470 miles from Minneapolis to Chicago. Even after a professional dance career where I’d spent years dancing through injuries, this was by far the hardest thing I’d ever done. But whenever I wanted to give up, or found myself whining about bike butt and sore knees, I thought about Russell and Darryl and all the others, and what they went through because of this disease. And I shut the fuck up.
Teresa Wiltz is the Root’s senior culture writer. Follow her on Twitter.