A glittering stream of small headlights pass below the window of my 9th floor hotel room. The sound of traffic is so present that the place seems built over the highway. Soft, bass heavy waves and hissing, plaintive drones slide through the room, invoking a feelings of monotonous velocity and destinations not yet reached. If I close my eyes I swear freightliners and big Texas cars are passing under the bed.
The window, a wall of glass really, does not open. Brown Iron slats cross the surface and seem there to keep me in as much as to support the glass. I push my eye as close to the glass as possible, looking down, to see how far below the ground actually is. Just before arriving here, I learned that my friend Ben jumped from a building in downtown Portland. Tonight, in this high room, I can’t stop wondering what he felt, there on the edge, at the very last moments, the dark street below rocking with his movements... What sound does a living body make as it falls through space? Is there a plaintive drone produced by its velocity? And the impact? What sound ? and what silence after? Below, out on I-35, headlights slip away into vast, dark Texas with the windy sound of wheels on hard road.
Ben came to my porch on an autumn night with a bottle of wine. I don’t remember much of the initial talk - vague and over-used words covering our physical assessments of each other. But soon the conversation was real and we were two strangers curious about each other. He said he’d stay but just to talk and cuddle - that’s what he needed most. I believe that really was his only intention and holding each other was more intimate than the sex we ended up having. He’d just come from Chicago. I remember his stories of gambling; hints of some serious debauchery; portraits of Chicago characters. He talked of growing up in poor white areas of Portland (a fact that surprised me – I’d been taken in by his convincing Chicago affectations.) He spun out some Libertarian nonsense, some muddled Christian musings; some class shame and some poor boy pride. He talked like the words had been building up for weeks until the early, hungover light sent us to sleep.
In people like Ben contradictions collide and spark a convulsive, fascinating light –a match in their own darkness. Ben’s love and affection were bright and buoyant; his private appetites were dark and alienating. He was a talented actor, especially off stage. His best roles included the wily poker shark; the smart backwoods boy who ran off to the city; the sensitive critic; and, most convincingly, the irresistible, indulgence provoking devil. He played this role with a wide, bright grin that bit through my will power as easily as a tooth passes through the skin of an apple. I can conjure him so easily, holding court with cards in hand; buying the round that was sure to fuck you up; providing drugs; flashing a dark, glossy look of invitation. Mephistopheles on a bar stool – as if wielding temptation over others gave him mastery over the Devil’s influence on his own life.
(photo by Mike Palmieri)
Ben wept when me told me he’d been diagnosed with HIV. He said, after all he’d done, he knew it would happen but he was still so afraid. Lying against me, the bones of his upper body seemed to contract and expand, slightly, but violently with every sob.
Not long before this, Mike and I had been editing The Battle of AmFAR (Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman’s film on the history of the AIDS foundation formed by Elizabeth Taylor and Matilda Krim.) Ben was living with us then. He was mysteriously sick while we edited and nearly bedridden in the room next to our workspace. Repeated soundbites from the film bled through walls while he suffered chills, fever, rashes, nausea, and exhaustion. He certainly heard every explanation of how HIV works a hundred times, along with the constant repetition of the words plague, death toll, terror, and devastation. Small mercy – he didn’t know what was happening to him even if the film did. I realized all of this while he cried on my shoulder.
The most common response to sharing an HIV+ diagnosis is “It’s not the death sentence it used to be.” Friends, doctors, strangers all use these exact words. And the words are true, though to my mind, they are far more comforting to the recipient of the news than to the recipient of the virus. When I was diagnosed Ben didn’t say those words to me. He came to my rescue with love and guidance but still said “When I was diagnosed I felt it confirmed the way I’d always see myself dying – alone, broken, in a gutter.” By this time he was responding to meds and, ironically, HIV had steered him clear of heavy drugs and sexual excess. But there he was, pronouncing a self-imposed death sentence with a quiet familiarity that was chilling to hear. I didn’t have ask if he still felt that way. And I knew he wouldn’t die of some complication brought on by AIDS. HIV in his case was just an opportunistic infection. If Ben didn’t survive it would be due to the disease of self-loathing.
Not long after, he met a sweet guy with a similar past and they fell into that dangerous, seemingly life sustaining kind of love. They moved and drifted happily away into a new life, until, of course, the Devil came knocking with addiction in one hand and shame in the other. The affair came undone and left him bouncing between the homes of friends and the beds of strangers willing to indulge his worst appetites. Then I received a text that simply said “I feel like giving up.” I called him, and here’s the sickening irony of the whole thing – we talked about how he felt he had no ground beneath his feet. I thought I’d talked him into a better space, but Ben was an actor till the end and I didn’t suspect what he was about to do. In jumping, he returned to the ground he’d lost and the gutter he’d chosen as his fate. And the gutter took his body, but at least the ground covers it now.
Ben my friend, my brother by virus if not by blood, it’s raining in Austin and I wish you were here with me now. You should have been getting flirtatious Texan smiles from local guys because you had a role in one of the films at the Gay Lesbian Film Festival. You should have been out dancing with us tonight, forgetting your pain among the music and sweat and mud at the Star Gayzer Music Festival. Most of all, you should never have had to suffer the pain that took you. I raise a plastic cup of cheap beer in your honor, Ben. I think of Lucinda Williams singing “ Did an angel whisper in your ear... in those long last moments?” I take a long drink to give the Devil his due.
(photo by Mike Palmieri - all other images of Ben taken from his MySpace page)