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In the Absence of Security: A Memoir

 

If I should die tonight
Though it be far before my time
I won't die blue
Cause I've known you
-Marvin Gaye

There are several reasons I feel one might say I should not write this memoir. Initially, there is the time factor. My aim is to chronicle a series of events all of which occurred almost two years ago; yet I, frankly, do not consider myself a sophisticated enough observer to accurately recount the details of these events with the exquisite precision they deserve. Also, there is the fact that the principal person in this memoir is an individual I never really knew; that I write of a person I encountered only a few times prior to his death. (Can one write a memoir of a person one did not know intimately?) And, of course, there is my own closeness to the central facets of this memoir: the twin dramas of Disease and Death. To clarify, the disease this person died from AIDS is inherently close to me, a subject permeating practically everything I write about.
There are several reasons I fear one might say I should not write this memoir. Then again, I remain enchanted by Marvin Gaye's 'If I Should Die Tonight' confession; so, here, my dear, it is.

-i-

I met Frank in September. He would be dead by the following March. He died on my birthday. Of course, I had no way of knowing this would be the sequence of events on the occasion of our meeting.
We met at a reception given partially in his honour for being one of the new university Fellowship recipients. The reception was attended by representatives from the university administration, various faculty members and current Fellows like myself. We recepted in the Great Room of the Alumni Centre, nestled in the heart of the University of Missouri, nestled in the heartland.
I attended the affair with Gwenyth, my colleague and friend. After a glass or two of Merlot, I was feeling particularly witty and charming; thus, I disengaged myself from Gwenyth and inserted myself within the confines of a social circle comprised of the Provost and a few of his minions.
At the predetermined time, Dr. Provost assumed his position at the podium and introduced all in attendance to the new Fellows. As their names were read allowed, I scanned the room, looking for something (read: someone) of interest.


And from the Department of English, Frank, Ridgel Fellow, boomed Dr. Provost's stentorian voice.
I was immediately brought back to the occasion at hand. English was my field! And a Ridgel Fellow?! I had to see this person whom the Provost was speaking of. I had to know which individual among us had received the Fellowship named after the university's first African-American student, a man who had to sue the university to admit him.


To my right, a hand waved. Or perhaps it beckoned, I don't know. In any case, my attention was instantly riveted to this individual's presence. Not because of his elf-like stature, nor because of the less-than-casual way he had clad himself in jeans, in direct defiance of the unsaid dress code for social functions such as this. No, I gazed at this person, this Frank Vincent, Ridgel Fellow, because he was . . . well . . . white. At least he certainly looked so from my vantage point. And judging from the necks craning throughout the Great Room, and the expressions of curiosity coloring everyone's faces, I was not alone in my thinking.
And what did Frank do as the smattering of polite applause welcomed him into the folds of the University of Missouri and we all gawked at him, wondering if he had lied on his fellowship application by stating he was a minority, a prerequisite for the fellowship, when he, apparently, was anything but? He who stood slightly apart from the rest of us, close to the plate-glass window, his face bleached of worry and/or distress? What did he do? He smiled. Holding his half-full glass of Chardonnay with enviable ease, Frank smiled, his mien utterly aglow.


As Dr. Provost continued reading the liturgy of names, I snuck glances at Frank; and each time, without fail, he positively beamed.
"I'm going to meet Frank," I announced to Gwenyth. Dr. Provost had dispensed with the reading of the names. A great swell of applause thundered throughout the Great Room. The new Fellows looked appropriately pleased with themselves. The other Fellows looked at their watches, thinking of the pile of work waiting for them in their respective residences. The faculty and administration looked with consternation in the direction of the rapidly diminishing collection of wine bottles atop the serving banquette.
"I haven't heard of him. But he's in The Department," said Gwenyth, referring to the English Department not as "our" department, but as 'the' department, a practice everyone in The Department adopted.
"I haven't heard of him either. And it's time to rectify that."
Without further word, Gwenyth and I traversed the lushly piled carpet, passing the leisurely dripping ice sculpture fashioned in a block lettered ÄMU", passing the various social dyads, triads and quads, finally settling ourselves in front of the heretofore unheard of Frank.
He looked at us and 'I swear 'even his eyes were smiling'. My attention, however, was not focused solely on his eyes. Instead, I gawked at the origin of his effervescent smile. His mouth. More specifically, what was inside of it -- a set of severely neglected teeth, badly in need of immediate drilling, capping, and cleaning.
Apparently nonplussed by this orthodontic nightmare, he continued smiling, as if waiting for Da Vinci to rise from his slumber, snatch down the ageing portrait of that famous jeune fille, and replace it with the more appealing countenance of Frank, Ridgel Fellow.
"Hello."
The word seemed to escape from his lips
. I glanced at Gwenyth in an effort to gauge which of us would go first. "Hi," she ventured." We heard you're in The Department. So are we. My name is Gwenyth and this is Chris."
Effortlessly increasing the wattage in his smile, Frank extended an assured hand to each of us. "It's a pleasure to meet you," he asserted.
For the next half hour, until the conclusion of the reception, I remained in Frank's presence. Realising, as I am sure he did as well, that I was in the presence of a gay man, I did the inevitable. I sized him up: The hair which hadn't seen a comb for weeks, maybe months; the alert, dancing blue eyes; that smile (!); the open-necked white T-shirt; the faded through wear, not by design, blue jeans; the Doc Marten boots. I was intrigued by the slow, careful cadence of his voice as he explained he was from Southwest Missouri and had applied to the graduate program in creative writing because someone had told him his poetry was "pretty good."
When Gwenyth returned, announcing the need for our departure, I said to him: "I've enjoyed chatting with you. I'm sure I'll see you around The Department."
"Okay. And hey, I'm going out tonight. Maybe I'll contact you," he stated, discreetly alluding to the local gay hotspot, Contacts.
"Hmm. Maybe I'll drop by if I finish grading papers."
As Gwenyth and I exited the Great Room, I glanced back at him once more: The hair, the eyes, that smile (!). It was at that precise moment that I came to the unequivocal, unalterable realisation that I was not attracted to Frank.

-ii-

I did not see him much in The Department. This was no surprise, as his focus was creative writing and mine literature. He went to his assembly of seminars and I skipped the majority of mine. He wrote, I was to learn later, poems that pulsated with the power of his presence, his reality, while I slept. As it were, we were two ships not passing.
One night in early October, a month after our introduction, I went to a meeting of the Gay and Lesbian Graduate Student Association (GLGSA). We were planning the dance which would conclude the local community's commemoration of National Coming Out Week. We had just dispensed with the distribution of duties when in walked Frank, smiling. Tara, the chair of GLGSA, informed him that the meeting was over, yet we would appreciate his help at the dance. He said he would be glad to assist and, shortly thereafter, we adjourned.

I saw him next at the dance. He arrived about forty minutes after we let the public in, after we had decorated, set the DJ and refreshments up, and collected the money. I was a little perturbed that he was not there to help. Not to mention, he didn't bother apologising for his tardiness by using the social convention of explaining that his previous engagement -- whatever it, she, or he was -- had kept him. No, he merely drifted in, clad in the same faded jeans (but wearing the ubiquitous smile) and strolled right past us, without paying, to the dance floor.
After the dance, he conveniently disappeared while the GLGSA began to clean up. I quickly followed suit.

The last time I saw Frank was by chance; that is, if there is such a thing as a purely inadvertent encounter. Our paths crossed in front of the campus library one brisk December day. The conversation was brief, the typical banter of graduate students. "How're your classes going?" "Fine, yours?" "Okay, but I'll be glad when they're over." (Shared laughter.) "Me, too!"
I asked him how he was enjoying his writing lab appointment, a requirement of first-year graduate students. I had served my time there the previous semester and loathed it, due to the overbearing presence of its director, a woman universally disliked in The Department. "I hate it and Madame Directress has lost her mind if she thinks I'm coming there today," Frank, the Mattachino, declared.
We both laughed.
"Well," he said, without looking at a watch, "I have to go. I'll see you later, Chris." Noting that he didn't share his destination with me, I said: "Yeah, I'll see you."
I never did.

 
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