My Roommate is Dying


My roommate is dying. His body has cancer due to the complications of being treated for HIV, and the way it and the medication for it has ravaged his body for the last thirty years.

When I met Bil, he was still a vibrant gay man. He had a bit of a belly and a fierce beard, along with the quick, sharp tongue wielded by the kind of gay man you want to be friends with (and not get on his bad side). He called it as he saw it, and it was this sort of mannerism that drew me to him instantly. He knew fierce. He knew fabulous. He knew how to mix a goddamned drink.

In the last year that I’ve known him, though, it’s become apparent that so much has changed. He was diagnosed with squamous cell carcinoma in his throat over a year ago. Treatments, doctors, and chemo drove him and his partner in search of other options than what they could find in Denver, Colorado, where Bil and I met. He reached out to me shortly after my move to Portland, Oregon and wondered what it was like to live up here. I told him it was like a piece of Eden on Earth, with a lot more weird than perhaps anyone truly understands, but that it was a good place. The trees, the energy, the softness of the air all would be a comfort to him after living for years at the high and dry altitude of Denver. He said that his treatment options were greater up here, and that he and his partner Brandon were looking to move. Portland, at least on paper, had a lot to offer them both, and as they made their decision to take the leap, I caught a sense of what was coming. We made plans to meet up once they got here. I braced myself for what I might see in a man who was facing some medical challenges, but that I didn’t fully understand, or completely appreciate from a distance. Photos on Facebook and text messages are often very, very cropped, revealing only the images and thoughts we can handle others knowing.

When I did see Bil, in the flesh, it was as a man changed from everything I had known about him when we first met and took off on a hike through the foothills of Denver. There before me stood a man who had aged thirty years. Gone was the spark from his eyes, the smile lines on his face had softened as his skin hung, slightly sallow. Instead of confident steps of power and poise, now he shuffled around, slightly hunched. He’d lost well over fifty pounds. He could barely eat. All of this took place in one earthly rotation around the sun. That’s all. One year. I was in shock, and swallowed hard as I struggled to keep the warm grin of welcome upon my face when I first saw him.

I stood there, unsure how to respond, not quite stable on my own feet as he told me that he could feel the gentle step-back of his own small social circle as they collectively prepared for his death. Immediately, I realized that I was on the verge of doing the same thing, and I gritted my teeth. He mentioned this, as if only in passing, and then slid me a hard cider, one of the only alcoholic beverages his body could handle and that he could actually taste. The radiation treatment had killed not only his salivary glands but also his taste buds in his mouth. The cancer was spotted in his throat, to start, but now has started its journey throughout his body. He knows he only has a limited amount of time. I know my time to get to know him is shortened too. As the gravity of his health and situation sank in, I resolved myself to not pull back. I can’t be that guy.

A breakup with the man I moved to Portland to be with had thrown a wrench into my life plans in this new town. I struggled to find work, but when I did, it happened a just the moment when the two of them were considering moving out of their apartment and into a home of their own. Bil and Brandon both recognized that my life had taken a tumble upon my landing up here in the Pacific Northwest, and that extending an offer for affordable shelter was the decent thing to do. At first, I was overwhelmed by their kindness and generosity. Now, though, as I have settled into my room in their house, and the schedule of life with these two has found its own pace and rhythm, I know that I am intimately involved in the end of Bill’s life due to HIV. I lost my first partner from complications due to AIDS over sixteen years ago. It seems so strange, especially in 2014, to once again be witness to the passing of yet another creative, vibrant, imaginative, powerful, thoughtful, insightful person because of this virus. Though the stories are light years apart, they have that one common thread. They both represent lives that have taken a drastic trajectory change because of one tiny, microscopic half-living entity within their bodies.

Bil, to me, is a representative of the gay community that recalls the time prior to HIV. He is of the old guard of queer men. He lived it. New York City, Washington, D.C., Miami, Florida. He was neck-deep in it, with all of the debauchery and foolishness that anyone of my generation or younger looks back upon with a strange nostalgia and longing for. It was messy. It was dark. The palpable force of sex and danger and feeling of release when all of the weight and strain of closet-life was dropped for an evening was, in many ways, as intoxicating as the drugs and alcohol that much of that life was steeped in. It was on the verge of society, often a life that could end you up in jail or worse, depending on where you were and who you were caught with. Back then, it was a crazy life on the fringe.

We’ve come a long, long way from those days. We’ve become more open, more visible, and more present than ever before. Our political and financial power is a force of its own. The one thing, however, that we cannot manage to shake off, that one link of chain that holds us back from being as sexually liberated as we want, HIV, is still a clear and present entity within our community. In recent times, though, the medical sciences have developed what could be the tool to break that bind, the device that will set us sexually free. Today, in what feels like an attempt at recapturing that old free-for-all life again, science has given us PrEP.

It seems to me that PrEP – Pre-exposure prophylactic medication used to inhibit the transmission of HIV – attempts to renegotiate the way in which gay men interact on this side of the dawn of HIV. Marketed as another tool in the prevention of the spread of HIV, what it really suggests is that it could take the place of a condom, or any other form of prophylaxis, and usher in the return of uninhibited sex between men – a return to the “glory days” of the late seventies and early eighties. In some ways, it seeks to soothe the ache among the collective gay culture to be able to have sex and be sexually expressive among ourselves without needing the burden of sexual responsibility that was foisted upon us with the advent of HIV. The magic bullet exists and is something that the community at large is now embracing.

I wonder, though, what this means for people like Bil. What does it mean for us to have a return to those golden days of crazy, drug-addled nights of unfettered passion, when we could put our penis in anything we like without fear, and if anything did pass between us, it was a mere antibiotic or cream or shot and that was that? I can’t help but feel like it’s a total disrespect towards the lives of those who are still among us, and dealing with the ravages of the last thirty-six years of HIV, least of all those who manage to hang on after all the treatments and medicines and other toxic, often near-lethal chemicals they ingested and subscribed to (at a fiscal cost that is utterly mind-blowing). Now, because of science, we get to move past these men, that generation, and let the past years of loss and sadness drift into the pages of books and on shelves in our well-appointed post-HIV homes? Now we get to get on with having fun, and stop worrying about a little nothing virus that is nothing more than an inconvenience, much like diabetes or hypertension? Somehow this just doesn’t seem fair, or right, or just. Not to me.

I find myself also, maybe selfishly, wondering how I can square this new science, this new wonder-drug with the ghosts of those who died, or will die, from AIDS-related illnesses, including my former lover, and now my new roommate? What is this sense of hand-wringing and worry? Will I wake up one day and be alone with my worry and sense of sexual responsibility while the rest of my community is out having one gay old time just like ‘back in the day?’

While he’s able to share, I find myself enraptured in the stories that Bil shares about his life prior to HIV, prior to cancer, prior to this last go-round in this body of his. What he’s seen, done, experienced, and lived through is more than I will ever get a chance at. While he is here, and while I am here, I know I will be hearing him recount more. He will reflect on the life he had, and I will watch this man, once so full of fire and passion, now wasted away to a paper-thin shell, become more and more full of despair and loneliness. He is watching and experiencing the community that he was once a full-fledged and welcomed member of simply turn their collective backs on him, and perhaps others like him, as they go off in pursuit of their own sexual revolution.

thomas-palmer Thomas Palmer
A writer, runner, thinker, hiker, and lover of all things chocolate, he currently works part-time as a public transit employee while he works on his next writing project.

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