By Scott King
36 years into the AIDS epidemic, there are approximately 35 million dead. Taking a cue from the Stephen Spielberg masterclass, I would like to shine a cinemascope light on one beautiful soul we lost to this terrible plague.
I met James when I was 18. 18! I think it was my third trip to the queer bar.
I was not scared. It was 1999. He was dressed in all black, very chic, including some fabulous Prada cowboy boots. His straight friend brought me over to the table. He had grown up in my hometown but had escaped right after high school for the big city lights. I was hypnotized by him. More than anything, I wanted to touch him. Gently.
So we did. He taught me how to roll a blunt. He taught me how to kiss without sucking his face off. For some reason, I had my guitar with me. I played for him. He kissed me, gently, and said, “You are so beautiful. And I mean this has nothing to do with this,” he said, tapping my body to show that he meant the compliment for my soul, not my corporeal shell. “It’s you. It’s you. It’s you that is beautiful. Never lose that.”
Not to be vain or anything, but I knew exactly what he meant. We had a Bonnie and Clyde Romeo and Juliet type of romance all throughout my senior year of high school. He was in and out of town trying to live his life and reconnect with his family. He would leave notes, love letters, on the windshield of my car. It was dangerous, exciting, and beautiful. It was ours.
The exigencies of life pulled us apart. I wasn’t so dumb as to erase his number from my address book that I took to college. I called him after 9/11 to make sure he was okay. We reconnected, then drifted apart again. It was all good.
Then, in 2008, when I was in Vermont for grad school, I received a DM on Facebook. It was James. One of my Burlington gays had been chatting with him, and James had seen me in dude’s friends list. He was so excited that he had hung up on that poor lonely homosexual up in Burlington, who now hated me. It was worth it.
James and I chatted for hours, running out of breath like children excited to tell you about their day. Among other things, James told me that he had tested positive in 2002. He told me all about it, and he seemed to be doing okay. It took me aback, but I took it in stride.
After a couple of weeks on DM, I made the smart decision to drive down to Poughkeepsie and see him. It was like my teenage dreams come true into full adult stud life.
Nothing had changed, it had only gotten better. We were both gorgeous and beautiful, and we took lots of pics. I couldn’t believe it was real.
I graduated law school and moved back down south to study for the bar exam. J was in and out of Tennessee visiting his mother and trying to get better with the doctors. I could tell that he was going downhill and not really following doctor’s orders. Even if I’d had more energy and free time, I don’t know if there’s anything I could have done for him. James was still the dreamer – I jokingly referred to him as an escape artist – that I had met in 1999. That was who he was. It was alluring and endearing, but it was also frustrating.
I let go. I let him live out his final months as he wished.
I did, however, get to see him in the hospital on Valentine’s Day 2010. He had lost about 40 lbs. from his lean frame. The nurses had shaved his beard into a mustache, so he looked like the very first AIDS patient. I walked into the room and said hello and brought him flowers.
I sat and told him that I had passed the bar and was moving to Atlanta. “Oh my God! You LOOK like a lawyer,” he said. “If I wasn’t about to die, I’d climb out of this bed and …”
I started laughing, and then tears welled up. “Aww,” he said. “Don’t be a little bitch. Come here and give me some sugar.”
Even though he was a couple days away from death, his spirit was still in there. I was in awe.
James died two days later in bed at his mom’s trailer.
In 36 years, 35 million lights have been extinguished by AIDS. James’s light was but one of them.
He still burns deeply inside of me.