Try as I may, getting through this story is not something of an easy feat. Unlike many stories, this one does not start at the beginning. I would like to say “it was a dark stormy night upon hearing the bleak news, thunderous clashing outside matching the thunderous crashing of my heart…” It would certainly be more poetic, but no such luck. Unfortunately it was South Florida in early spring and it was sunny and bright. Annoyingly sunny, and always bright littered with people walking around in sun-dried skin with sun-dried brains, their leather hides nothing but casing for blank smiles of pearly whites as fake as the color in their hair.
In 2001 I had returned to Austin, Texas to visit the subject of this tale who I often referred to as “my closest living relative.” He was nonjudgmental comfort on subtle levels I didn’t even know existed. On that one particular visit he and his boyfriend at the time, Brian, sat me down on the brown overstuffed sectional and announced that Jeb was HIV positive. I took it with grace, or as much grace as drunk poet could. Inside I was eaten with shock, hurt, confusion…
Well, not really ‘confusion,’ everyone in the room was “well experienced” – I’m not even going to try and skirt around that bit of obviousness. There sat some bewilderment since Jeb was always proclaiming safe sex. How things could have changed in the year and a half since my move to where he and Brian sitting me down and announcing his new HIV status was where the grip of shock originated. With that roaring through my head, every other word of the conversation digressed to that of an adult in a Charlie Brown cartoon – muffled honks heard through an ear filled with water. Between the moments of forgetting to breathe my ears kept trying to reach through the liquid to collect some words, thoughts, meaning, direction, anything. I could hear how everything was being presented in a variety of upbeat phrases to the point I was half expecting a tambourine with ribbons to be brought out at any moment. Everyone around the coffee table knew that I, ‘James the Worry-Wart’ would live up to his name and both of them were trying desperately to stop that inevitability from taking root.
As Brian and Jeb retired to bed, I stepped outside for a cigarette. I was just a roommate there merely a year and a half before and now, I was… something, a friend maybe. Obviously something more than a friend because they told me the truth upfront and right away. I appreciated so much being told in person, something I knew was difficult on Jeb’s mentality, but completely comforting to me as how he spoke was much more soothing than what he spoke. He wasn’t like me – I speak through the face, he spoke through the eyes and it was important to see them in person for this. Maybe “comforting” and “soothing” aren’t the right words to write because after my cigarette I stayed outside for two hours in tears alternating between drags of more tobacco and swigs of Jack Daniels. It was so “Texas Roadhouse” I could die. Except I wasn’t dying… I mean… fuck. I didn’t even know what was appropriate to think anymore.
Just to be clear regarding the over-dramatics of it all, it wasn’t the fact he was HIV positive that was cutting me harshly. HIV was a subject I had been comfortable around for the three years (at that time) I had been out, especially as ‘year one’ was working at the bathhouse where he and I met as workmates. Rather, it was the fact that I knew Jeb… and Jeb would be Jeb. I thought this was all going to end with a lot of pride and stubbornness. I was overrun with future projections, the specifics of which I was unable to grasp – vacant pictures of his future arrogant antics plastered across my line of sight to the point where I could not emotionally hold it together anymore. So upon the wood and steel park bench on the small front porch of 1416 Yorkshire, James the Worry-Wart wept for the future’s past yet to occur.
Of course in the morning, all was well. But I did the one thing a coward could always be trusted to do: I ran away. My failed relationship with a manipulative ‘untouchable’ sociopath named Tim had officially ended as he moved to Melbourne Beach, Florida from Atlanta, Georgia where I had moved to after spending ‘year one’ in Austin. A few days earlier we had gone our separate ways after a heated break-up when he fucked a guy that was considered “off limits” and I, of course, was not allowed retort or compensate in kind. Once in Texas, it’s hard to diffuse Tim’s infallible child-like numbness when my best friend comes out as newly POZ. So it was with an extreme weakened emotional state I allowed my “ex” to go above and beyond to win me over, driving with me in my truck back to his new home in Florida. Of course, this was before he admitted he fucked a drug dealer there. He hoped we could all be friends (that didn’t happen). I knew the story before I heard it. I knew him. But in a moment of frustrated exhaustion from my own spiral, I jumped at the chance to get out of that house, out of the city and re-calibrate my mind. Regrettably, Tim was the only truck-and-driver that showed up for the job.
I was riddled with guilt at the bad decision. So every year or so since 2001 I would fly back to Austin to check on my friend. It was usually under the guise of my love of the city, but somehow Jeb knew better. It didn’t matter what the reason, the days would be spent on small amounts of LSD talking for upwards of 14 hours straight, only to drink the evening away, pass out, and repeat the process the next day until the evening before my departing flight. Then we would eat somewhere nice, laughing about something in the news, dissect a movie we watched, or philosophize about whatever environment we found ourselves in at the time. Later we would perform our regular routine of getting drunk and watching late night infomercials. It was far more entertaining than it should have been. The last of the trips, Jeb was declining in health at an alarming rate. His hands were shaking, his eyesight was failing, and his avoidance of me was suspiciously obvious. I knew why. I didn’t want to say why.
After much discussion with myself, everyone in my head agreed that in a year’s time I was going to move back to Austin. That was going to be a very important year as I needed to gear myself up in the heart and in the mind. My body was not doing well either as there is nothing to do in Florida on an isolated beach when your boyfriend is a traveling salesman but eat, drink, and sleep. The depression of being stuck there without sustainable human contact made me immobile and the alcohol consumption was taking a chunk of my paycheck. I stopped weighing myself at the large scale at the closest Publix (grocery store) when I hit 325 pounds. I probably gained an additional 20-30 pounds since then. There was tension at my job because it’s Florida and everything there is illogical on every level. This inability to relate to the locals made me feel mentally and emotionally alienated while being physically alienated at home removed from the world. The drinking became heavier, and the ordering of artery-clogging foods with more regularity. This spiral of animosity toward my living situation with Tim was turning into one large whiskey and carbohydrate coffin.
After the last visit with Jeb, that changed. There was a purpose outside of the remote island of spinning lunacy. That year Tim and I moved to Ft. Lauderdale, much to my surprise. I decided to use that time wisely and ended up losing over a hundred and fifty pounds. I stopped drinking (as much), and started to get my finances in order. I had developed decent eating habits and a regular exercise schedule, and started to catch myself up on the world around me with news, blogs, and information about what was happening in not Florida. My own blog turned from depressing cries for help to entertaining satire (or at least I and three other people were entertained). I was not going to run away again. I was preparing myself for battle, even if that battle was going to be with Jeb himself.
Then the phone call.
Tim answers the house phone and says it’s Brian from Austin. He and Jeb had separated about a year after the diagnosis which is annoyingly typical of situations where one partner becomes positive while the other is not. I took the cordless phone into the bathroom for privacy, staring at the hideous ‘always dirty’ tile Tim insisted on installing in his increasing delusional state, and like the purchase of the house itself, was acquired without my input or knowledge. Even now I cannot remember the words Brian used, I just remember putting the phone to my ear and focusing on one spec of dirt, coloring maybe (who could tell) that snapped into focus while the rest of the tile drifted to haze. I was barely grasping failing badly… taken to the hospital… It was all being presented so fast… about a year at most… I couldn’t digest any of it properly even though Brian presented everything in a clear, precise, and pinpoint manner.
It wasn’t so much denial that swam around the folds of my brain as it was the delay in translation needed to be massaged until I was able to absorb it properly. Brian can be dramatic, and he drinks, so much of the theatrics could be nothing more than a perpetuated sense of drama brought on by a stressful afternoon and a couple of bottles of wine. It was good, however that he was able to be clear, precise, and pinpoint.
Wait. Brian was never clear, precise, or pinpoint! My doubts of the messenger were slapped with the reality of my own eyes from the last stay in Austin. It had been almost a year later. What do you think a smoking, drinking, DJ is going to look like after all this time? Try as I wanted to find fault with Brian’s voice and presentation, in my heart I knew he would not have called for any other reason but to tell me the truth.
Jeb and I never talked on the phone. We would be nonstop chatty bitches in person but we just couldn’t be “phone people.” It was necessary to have each other’s presence in order to enjoy ourselves, otherwise it was like torture (for me at least) reminding ourselves of a friendship we were missing out on. We would email every once in a while, and even that stopped as I refused to write anything to his personalized address of “@honkynigga.com”. So our normal process would be my writing on my blog and he reading it, then referencing it later when we talked in person. I didn’t know this at the time, but he would read everything. He would annoyingly make his friends read everything. He would make his friends talk about what they read and discuss opinion. I pictured it was a grown-up ‘Jeb’ version of a little girl’s tea party. But the only regular communication we had was in person. That is how we worked. However, it was time for a chat on the phone.
I was expecting to leave a message but for some odd reason, he answered his cell phone. We talked for a few awkward ‘we never do this what do we talk about’ minutes. When the subject of his health came up, he simply stated, “I’m absolutely fine. Don’t worry about me. You just enjoy Florida.” Okay, he’s on his deathbed, I thought. There was no way in hell Jeb would ever tell me to enjoy Florida. He knew my disgust of the state. That was his code.
Message received, loud and clear. And with the click of the phone disconnecting, the grand trump card I had been waiting seven years for had finally been dealt – the card that says “If this happens, I’m moving to Austin.” No questions asked, nothing to be discussed. I know that it’s difficult in the dating world to be partners with someone who holds another, non-romantic relationship on a higher cloud than the one you’re in. I think the acceptance of that was one of the reasons I stayed with Tim so long. Jeb was my only family who I loved more than my own person, and people have this sort of loyalty to family – a loyalty I failed at once. I walked out of the bathroom after what seemed like hours and looked at Tim who was on the couch and I said, “I’m moving back to Austin.” No questions asked.
Tim was jealous of several of my ‘hot’ friends in Austin, so of course he was not going to let me move by myself like I would have chosen to do. He immediately made arrangements to sell the house (this was about a year before the housing bust). The working class area that he moved us into in Ft, Lauderdale made it difficult to sell the home as the prices and taxes in the area jumped to the point where it exceeded the financial capabilities of anyone who was actually ‘working class.’ Tim’s schizophrenia (undiagnosed at that point) had already taken hold of his life and everything about him was in a constant state of decay and nonsense. He had lost most of his teeth and couldn’t hold a steady conversation, he was constructing several different get-rich-quick business schemes to solve problems that didn’t exist, he would walk the dog and return with stories of how angels appeared to him… you know, going crazy. I had no clue if Tim was still doing drugs or if his mind was just deteriorating on its own at an alarming rate (I tried to spend as little time with the man as possible) but either way, I was looking forward to being safely near people I trusted… but he wanted to move to Austin with me, even though I didn’t ask him to. I sincerely thought he needed to go back home to his parents.
The day he sold the house was a great day for me, as it was for the Central American immigrant family who signed with an adjustable interest rate mortgage (in a year’s time I’m sure they were regretting that). We finally had a moving schedule and I was able to get everything packed up in a matter of days. A month after selling, we loaded up the U-Haul and my truck to the hitch. After eight years away, I was finally heading back to Austin… because I love the city, of course.
James P. Perez © 2014