Thomas had no choice but to come out to me when I was fourteen. I had skipped school at lunch and went home after a rough morning of being gossiped about and found him locked in his room with the lawyer who’d represented him in his fight to become my legal guardian. As a doomed feeling ran throughout my body, I begged for him to be careful with every sincere fiber of love that I had for him. I overreacted and threatened that if he were to ever be irresponsible enough to die of AIDS, he would not only be responsible for his death, but mine also because I would kill myself. My threat wasn’t a ploy to keep him straight – that would have been impossible because he never was. It was simply the only way that I could think of to weigh down his transition into an entirely gay lifestyle, which at the time was a lifestyle being mercilessly wiped out by a deadly epidemic.
Thomas laughed, seeing my warning as a sweet gesture of love from his adoring little sister. “Don’t worry,” he said. “I won’t get AIDS and die!”
That was 1990 and I was fourteen; Thomas was twenty. Now, Thomas has had full-blown AIDS for three years and has lived with HIV since 2001 – his infection the product of the city’s doomed, apocalyptic fervor after the September 11th attacks – a period Thomas always remembered as a fun time, a time when it was good to be alive, and great to be gay. “While straight people settled down with the person next to them and had babies,” he joked, “us gays threw away our condom shackles and rode bareback into the sunset one last time with every boy we met.”
It wasn’t funny to me. We were all each other had – it was just the two of us – and he let himself get sick. He let us get sick.
I was ten, and Thomas was sixteen when our parents were killed in a bombing in Tehran. Dad worked there as a U.S. diplomat, and Mom was there on vacation for a week, celebrating his 45th birthday with him. Between the money that our dad was born into, our trust funds, our inheritance – which was everything – and the money that we were to receive from the government until we each turned eighteen, Thomas and I were left financially well off. We were put into the provisional custody of our paternal aunt – an aging actress and wannabe socialite who thought she was Auntie Mame reincarnated – but once Thomas turned eighteen, he took her to court and fought for custody of me. Thomas afforded a top lawyer with his trust money and was able to prove that our aunt was using me, and our inheritance, to keep up her luxurious way of life, and he won me from her.
We took our parents’ home off the market, and settled back in on the Upper West Side. Thomas rehired our housekeeper and, although he was always around for me, he found a great nanny-tutor, Claire, to help me get through school. Claire was a few years older than Thomas, and a student at Columbia when she started. I’d always dreamed of her and Thomas conveniently becoming an item, like opposite sex friends did on waning television shows in their final seasons did, but that wasn’t in the cards. Nevertheless, they did have a close friendship – close enough for him to feel safe about coming out to her first. Then she moved to California after I graduated high school.
I couldn’t have imagined being raised by any one other than Thomas. He was patient, loving, understanding and supportive. He was funny, outgoing, stylish, admired, envied and crushed on by my girlfriends. He was the perfect surrogate for a budding teenage girl with a huge void in her life and he was my greatest enthusiast.
When Thomas found me lost in a sea of white rappers like Vanilla Ice, Marky Mark and the Beastie Boys, he ignored the fact that we were a sibling generation apart and introduced me to Siouxie and the Banshees. In no time, I became Siouxie Sioux. Then came Roxy Music, Ultravox, the Cure, The The, David Bowie, Joy Division, the Bolshoi, Bauhaus, the Cult and, most importantly, Depeche Mode.
Thomas’ musical interest hadn’t changed much when it was my turn to introduce him to bands like the Pixies, Nirvana, Jane’s Addiction, Smashing Pumpkins – all whom he’d learned to appreciate after initially labeling them as rip-offs. Rip-off of what, he could never say. I even got him to listen to some nonviolent, and non-homophobic, rap – which was hard to come by at the time – such as Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul and Digable Planets.
After graduating high school, and with no plans for college, Thomas, a fixture on the New York club scene, started taking me out with him, something he didn’t consider doing while I was in school, worried that it would distract me from my education. He took me to Webster Hall where we danced, shoegazing to The Smith’s “How Soon Is Now?” We became active spectators in the Limelight scene when Michael Alig – whom Thomas called Barnum Bailey, and the rest of the club kids, his Ringlings – was arrested for murdering one of the club’s many drug dealers. We moved on to the Palladium and then Twilo, all of which I found to be extremely gay – gay enough that Thomas felt compelled to take control of my wardrobe decisions.
“Stop treating my like your fag hag,” I screamed at Thomas, drunk, and fucked up on pills as he held my hand, forcing me to dance to Crystal Water’s “Relax.” I remember RuPaul was there that night, standing high over us like a blonde, life-size, black Barbie on stilts. At Thomas’ request, she bent down and told me that I looked fabulous – like that should have been reason enough for me to “chill out” – which only provoked me more.
Our argument got heated, bringing out a side of Thomas that I’d never seen before. “You’re either sitting down bored, or complaining about wanting to leave! I’m sorry if there are not enough straight guys here, but it’s a gay night! Deal with it!”
He was right. But, I wasn’t going deal with it and stopped going out with him socially.
After he tested positive, he stopped going out, too. I cried for months as I watched his body struggle to adapt to the brutal medications that he was expected to take indefinitely. I wanted someone to blame, someone to stand trial for what was happening to Thomas, but he couldn’t pinpoint who had passed the disease onto him, or when he even got it. He claimed to have been with too many people to count – many without names and many who’d disappeared – and said that he could have gotten the disease from anyone, opening my eyes to the insatiably promiscuous side of him that I had refused to admit existed.
Soon, we were more codependent on one another than ever. As products of the hysteria attached to the disease in the late 80’s and early 90’s, we couldn’t help but prepare for the worst, despite all the advancements in medicine. Our therapist suggested that we go on a vacation, somewhere tropical, maybe live abroad for some time, but we hated the rest of the world after what had happened to our parents and, therefore, never felt compelled to travel in a world that we saw as ugly.
Instead, we chose to live a narrow existence. We hid out at home, smoked pot, drank wine, listened to music and watched old movies, specifically ones with Shelley Winters (Thomas’ favorite) or Robert Mitchum (my favorite). We watched The Night of the Hunter, starring both, almost daily for months – the parallels between us and the young brother and sister in the story made it our favorite movie of all time.
I devoted my life to Thomas. I obsessed over his CD4 count. I worried neurotically with every cough, cut, and feeling of fatigue that he had. I memorized the exact sizes and locations of his birthmarks and moles, obsessing over their every transformation for months – years. I learned trivial things such as the origins of the disease, about how it leapt from hunted primates onto humans in sub-Saharan Africa to its transmission from person to person in the densely populated towns in the surrounding area. I was on high alert all the time, my life too preoccupied with his disease to share with anyone else, while Thomas, once his body grew accustomed to his medications, began to live again.
He partied without perspective, staying out all night on meth and having more anonymous sex than he had before. There was no room for me in the sordid places that he was going so I stayed home, alone for years, eventually growing so tired of my life that I milked it out of desperation for something else and put together a hard luck letter to go with my application to New York University.
Thomas was momentarily back home nights and in a “committed relationship” with his new boyfriend, Kirk – a fake tanned, muscular, HIV positive, alpha male with a landscaped coat of body hair – who refused to say his age. It was an open sexual relationship that provided nothing less than threesomes, something that Thomas foolishly thought made them more committed than those who cruised for men on their own.
I couldn’t hide my disbelief, disgust and disappointment when Thomas managed to compromise the progress of his suppressive therapy by contracting hepatitis C from another HIV positive twenty year-old in 2003 – someone who should have learned a lesson from everyone that had come before him, including Thomas. It was as if everything, all of the world’s preventative measures, had been in vain.
“You can’t go into battle and not expect to come out with scars,” Thomas quipped. “Kirk caught syphilis a month ago.”
I couldn’t believe that I’d been relegated to the type of person he could talk to like that. “Fuck Kirk! I don’t ever want to see him in our house again!”
“Does that go for me too?”
It did, but I couldn’t say it. He was all that I had, and everything else seemed frightening.
The more that Thomas went out, the more I resented gay men and their hedonistic delusions. I wasn’t afraid to admit that I hated what their omnipresent lifestyle in the city did to their communities – past and present – and I hated what it had done to Thomas, and I hated what it was doing to me. I hated them. And, sadly, as much as he had been an integral part of my being, my knight, my paternal protector, and my maternal nurturer – I hated Thomas more than them all for being so irresponsible with us.
Frustrated with the self-serving nature of his way of life, it was inevitable that I would break away from Thomas and try to make the most of my life. I got into NYU, planned to major in Gender and Sexuality Studies once I declared a major, and moved into a newly renovated apartment on the Lower East Side. I didn’t make a lot of friends the first semester – the students were a lot younger than I – but I managed to meet some men outside of school.
I’d had such an aversion to sex after Thomas’ positive HIV status that I forgot how enjoyable it could be. In high school, I remembered hearing grumblings about my alleged promiscuousness – the girls tagged me “rich slut,” behind my back – and after high school, I had my share of one night stands when clubbing with Thomas under the heavy influence of cocaine and ecstasy. Nothing ever amounted to a relationship, not even friendships, for whatever reasons, but they were nonetheless fun.
Deacon, or Professor Dunn, was my first real relationship. I was almost a decade older than most girls in his Composition class, so it was obvious why he felt okay about inviting me to a reading with him. I asked if they served alcohol, he told me that they did, and I drank through the entire reading. On the way to my apartment, I jerked him off in the cab and we slept together that night. Spring Break was in a week, so I skipped the next couple of his classes, hoping to ride out what had happened between us until school was back in session, but Deacon wouldn’t allow it. He canceled his trip home to Texas and stayed holed up with me in my apartment throughout the break.
Before Deacon, I’d made it a point to seek out relationships with men who weren’t much of an investment, making it easier for me to keep my distance, but I fell hard for him. I registered for his Comp II course the following semester and, despite my reservations, went upstate with him for a romantic ski weekend, alone. It hurt me when, once it got warmer, he made himself busier and stopped coming around as much.
Thomas told me that Deacon was probably cheating on me, and suggested that I act uninterested whenever he called. “If you make yourself unavailable, he’ll become obsessed with you.”
I felt that if Deacon was seeing someone else, and didn’t want me, then I didn’t want him. But, I couldn’t deny the competitive streak in me. However intangible and insignificant the prize, I had to win.
“I’ll do anything,” Deacon begged inside a Starbucks on campus. Although, I knew that he wouldn’t, he’d threatened to manipulate my grades unless I met with him. “Just give me a chance to be good to you.”
I bluffed and said that I knew he was seeing other people and, without denying any infidelities, he apologized, admitted that he’d made bad decisions, and offered to commit to me.
“It doesn’t matter, Deacon. I’m perfectly fine on my own.”
“But, I love you. I’m in love with you.”
Boys, as Thomas liked to say.
We slept together a few more times after that, but once grades were in, and I made sure that I’d merited an A- in his class, I broke things off with him before he could make anymore bad decisions where I was involved. Over the summer, things changed drastically, leaving Deacon with no opportunity to continue his chase.
I moved back to the Upper West Side after Thomas got really ill. He didn’t tell me that he’d been diagnosed with full-blown AIDS, but as his next of kin, the hospital contacted me and explained everything. He was laid up for two months, during which he slipped into a coma for three days and was considered dead by a handful of cynical nurses with seen-it-all delusions.
My life stopped with his coma. The thought of those who’d been living for decades with the disease as if it were just another chronic medical condition, while my brother laid dying like a patient in the 1980’s, made me angry. It was then that I recommitted myself to him, wholeheartedly. Both of us were sick again and, if need be, both of us were dying.
When he came to and was somewhat back on his feet, we had wills drawn up. I made him promise not to leave money to anything that had to do with gay men – no gay bars or clubs, gay non-profits, nothing where gay men were involved or could benefit. Africa was where I was leaving my money, and I advised him to do the same.
“What about the gay men in Africa,” he joked. “They’re persecuted for even thinking gay thoughts.”
“No gay men anywhere, foreign or domestic.”
Thomas eventually regained his health and was released from the hospital. I took time off from school to be with him and kept meticulous track of his ailments – rashes, bowel issues and anything else that was attributed to the side affects of his new medications. He still went out a couple of nights a week, and occasionally came back home with a treatable STD, but strangely, the progresses in his health were astronomical. His CD4 was above five hundred, which his doctor exaggeratingly claimed cleared him of the AIDS, but we knew that that was far from the case. He still had the disease, and the disease – unless there was a medical breakthrough – still had him. It still had us.
“Why?” I asked Thomas, truly wanting to know, after he’d stayed out all night. “Why be reckless when so much danger is involved? And with our lives, no less?”
“It’s the nature of the beast, I guess.”
“Can you tell me one good thing that’s come out of it? Anything beneficial?”
Thomas was like a crude, elderly man. “I’m not afraid of rats like you are.” He laughed as memories flooded back to him in an instant. “If you’d only seen some of the dark, dank and shady places where I’d hooked up.”
Within a couple of years, his body was resisting the drugs again, and his CD4 count dropped below two hundred. He stopped going out, and stayed home until he caught the flu and, once lesions began to appear, had to be hospitalized – his immune system no longer strong enough to fight off the illness.
Thomas was dying, for real this time, and we both knew it.
We made a home out of his room, and a neighborhood of the hospital. The courtyard was Riverside Park, the cafeteria was our local restaurant and bar – depending on the time of day – the hospital’s major units were broken up into the city’s boroughs that we’d never been to, and the rest of the hospital became the everyday streets of New York, filled with people anonymously going about their day to day.
“Remember when we were kids?” Thomas asked, lying in bed, barely conscious. “When Mom and Dad were still alive, and I would always tell you that you were lucky to be a girl?”
“Well, I don’t know why I said that. Being a girl sounds like it sucks. Who wants to be devoted to one guy all their life?” He laughed so hard he coughed up on himself and passed gas. His spit was foamy white, his throat dry. I held a cup of water up to his mouth for him to drink and wiped the spill from his chin and neck. “I bet that if I’d been given the opportunity to come out to them when they were alive, Mom and Dad would have loved and accepted me.”
“They totally would have.”
He held my hand and apologized to me. “Sometimes I only did what I did to push you into making something of your life, independently of me.”
Thomas’ confession had me in tears, freeing me of enough resentment to go deep inside myself, in search of a faith that had died with our parents long ago. I begged for him to be allowed stay; then, out of desperation, played a card that he made me swear to never reveal, no matter what. “Doesn’t seem fair to take away a third one out of a family of four,” I silently said, looking up, deep into the long, fluorescent lights. I waited for the bulbs to either go out or explode, anything to give me a sign that someone was listening, but no one was. Whoever was supposed to care, didn’t give a shit. Which was why Thomas made me swear all those years ago to never use our parents’ death as justification as to why we couldn’t deal. Because we can, he admonished at the time, and we will.
“See what you made me do,” I cried out, disappointed in myself and frustrated with feeling so helpless, as Thomas stared at me, out of it, unaware of the prayer that I’d put out into the universe. “I hate this fucking shit. All of it! You and your friends, you’re all selfish fuckers. Fuckers!”
“I didn’t raise you to feel so much hate,” he said to me. “So stop it. Now.”
“Or else, what?”
“Irene, you hate the disease all you want, but don’t hate the victims.” He thought about something and laughed. “Straight women and gay men need each other. You’re a welcomed distraction that counteracts the sexual impulses of us homos. We’d go extinct, otherwise, and women everywhere wouldn’t know what to do with themselves. You wouldn’t know how to look, what to listen to, what to do.” He grinned. “You’d just be sitting there on a hill or something, wearing an old curtain that you thought would look pretty as a dress, hair down to your ankles and Teva sandals on your feet, staring at a dude – yes, a dude – dressed head to toe in Merrell clothes, with dreadlocks and a goatee, and listens to Rusted Root. Urgh, so sad.”
I laughed until I was overcome with the thought of living the rest of my life without his humor and started to cry hysterically. “If I’m so important then why are you dying?”
Thomas passed away in his sleep that night before he could answer my question and was cremated the following morning. He requested that there not be a ceremony and that his ashes to be released from our rooftop on a windy day so that he could cover more ground as he traveled throughout the city that he loved one last time. I released his ashes from the rooftop in increments – a cup every couple of hours – and kept a cup of his ashes for myself in a jewelry box that I’d made for him in my high school ceramics class. The box read in glittery cursive, “To Gorgeous, Love Sis.”
When I finally shared the news with family and friends, they seemed confounded, brainwashed like everyone else, presuming that modern day medicine should have saved his life.
“This wasn’t supposed to happen,” they insisted.
“Why not me?” former lovers cried.
Previously published in Broome Street Review.
Chuck Nwoke was born in Nigeria and raised in Houston. He’s been published by Litro Magazine, Akashic Books, Huffington Post, Bull, Salon, Good Men Project, and will be in the forthcoming Streetlight Magazine. He lives in Brooklyn, NY, with his family and their shoes, and is currently seeking representation for his novel and story collection. Find him on Twitter at @chucknwoke.