It’s World AIDS Day. Today, I remember my friend Alan, who died in 1996. I can’t believe he’s been gone for over 20 years.
Many people lost whole swaths of friends. A whole generation of young men was wiped out – decimated – gone from the face of the earth. But by the time I reached adulthood, things had started to change – so Alan was the first and only friend I knew was sick. And the first and only one who died.
I often think that if he had lived just a little longer… I can’t know, but I can speculate that he might have been saved by medical advances – drug cocktails and such, which were just coming into use around that time. What would it have taken? Weeks, months? A year? Maybe he’d still be around today – he’d only be in his mid-sixties.
Alan was a gentleman and a gentle man. Southern boy, actor, writer, artist, a bookseller and a lover of books. His partner had died some years before, so he was grieving and would always grieve until the end of his too-short life.
The first time I met Alan, we were acting in a Shakespeare play together off-off-Broadway. I was a last minute replacement, and my big scene was followed by a quick descent from a tall, black platform… in doublet and hose… carrying handfuls of props… during a blackout between scenes.
On my first day of rehearsal, Alan volunteered to be my “spotter” and help me down during the blackout. I remember one of the first things he said to me in his soft southern drawl: something along the lines of “I tend to get really sweaty in this costume – I hope I don’t have a strong odor.” He didn’t, at all – but it was so like him to worry about something like that.
For the rest of the run, all I had to do was scoot off the platform, and Alan would be there waiting in the dark, ready to catch me and lower me safely to the ground.
I didn’t know Alan for long – just around two years. In that time, we did a number of plays together. Every now and then I’d stop by his place in Hell’s Kitchen (back when it really was hellish) – a walk-up where he had an old-fashioned converted transient apartment, with a raised bathtub that doubled as the kitchen sink. We’d talk plays and books and auditions, and he’d make tea. Sometimes he’d talk of his partner and how he missed him. Sometimes I cat-sat for him when he was away or in the hospital.
At least, I think I did. I think he had a cat. Memory plays tricks now.
One other thing: Alan was obsessed with beauty pageants, and he once showed me the box of paper dolls he’d made out of tracing paper, copied from paper doll books. Many of them shared the same facial features but wore different outfits – and he’d imbued each one with a full, rich, inner life and distinct characterizations known only to him. This is hard to describe – I’m not sure I understand it myself, since I never saw it – but he told me how he’d sometimes hold pageants for them, and he’d made paper sashes and crowns to award to each pageant’s winner. He kept long lists of who won, and when. I remember him showing them to me. He started out almost shyly, but as he told me more and more, he became… how to describe it? Entranced. He was really proud of them, and they meant something special to him.
I didn’t fully understand it, but I knew I was in the presence of something… holy. A pure creative soul, who’d found a medium of expression unique to him, truly from his soul: his own preoccupations, his own experience. And he’d made them in spite of – maybe in quiet defiance of – what boys in the south, especially, were supposed to do, were supposed to be interested in.
I remember looking into the box and seeing dozens of these delicate, slight beings, almost as light as air, easily ruffled by a breath.
He confided in me that he was HIV-positive very early on in our friendship, probably backstage at the first show we did together, but as his health always seemed to be steady, I wasn’t afraid for him. It just seemed that he’d continue on living with HIV and doing plays and being Alan.
And then he didn’t.
It happened suddenly, unless he was really sick for awhile and he didn’t tell us. I wouldn’t be surprised if he didn’t want to worry anyone. A call came that he was in the hospital, and was very bad. Then he rallied a bit and we all relaxed a bit.
And then he was worse again.
And then he was gone.
A few months later, a group of his friends gathered later to scatter his ashes off what was then the Christopher Street Pier. Alan loved New York and always wanted to be here, so it was fitting.
I was there at the ceremony, but I’d somehow gotten confused and told my friend Mary the wrong meeting time. Of course, we had no cellphones in 1996 (remember those days?) and so I was only later that I checked my answering service (again: 1996) and realized that it was my fault she missed our brief ceremony entirely. I’m still sorry about that, Mary.
It was a sunny day. The water was sparkling. There weren’t many words left to say.
Before that, though, we had a memorial service for Alan at a theater we’d performed in. His father and sister came up from the south for the memorial. Everyone who knew him, everyone who did shows with him – we all loved him. How could you not?
We had his art on display and read some of his writing aloud to the many who gathered.
I hope we paid him a fitting tribute.
One of the pieces we read, and the most moving to me, was from Brian Friel’s play Dancing at Lughnasa. It was one of the last plays Alan performed in – maybe the last play. Memory plays those tricks, which is part of what Lughnasa is about.
Alan played Michael, and we see the play through his memories. I still remember his voice speaking the last speech, in the last scene of the play:
(Now fade in a very softly, just audible, the music – “It is Time to Say Goodnight” * [not from the radio speaker].) And as MICHAEL continues everybody sways very slightly from side to side – even the grinning kites. The movement is so minimal that we cannot be quite certain if it is happening or if we imagine it.)
MICHAEL: And so, when I cast my mind back to that summer of 1936, different kinds of memories offer themselves to me. But there is one memory of that Lughnasa time that visits me most often; and what fascinates me about that memory is that is owes nothing to fact. In that memory atmosphere is more real than incident and everything is simultaneously actual and illusory. I that memory, too, the air is nostalgic with the music of the thirties. It drifts in from somewhere far away — a mirage of sound – a dream music that is both heard and imagined; that seems to be both itself and its own echo; a sound so alluring and so mesmeric that the afternoon is bewitched, maybe haunted, by it. And what is so strange about that memory is that everybody seems to be floating on those sweet sounds, moving rhythmically, languorously, in complete isolation; responding more to the mood of the music than to its beat. When I remember it, I think of it as dancing. Dancing with eyes half closed because to open them would break the spell. Dancing as if language had surrendered to movement — as if this ritual, this wordless ceremony, was now the way to speak, to whisper private and sacred things, to be in touch with some otherness. Dancing as if the very heart of life and all its hopes might be found in those assuaging notes and those hushed rhythms and in those silent and hypnotic movements. Dancing as if language no longer existed because words were no longer necessary.