Everything she had

Against the backdrop of an AIDS conference, one public health expert decides to accept a dangerous gift of love.

By Virginia Vitzthum

Published May 4, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

Like all horrors, AIDS is a stage. Real-life morality tales, passion plays, and a theater of protest have swirled around the retrovirus ever since Andy Warhol began to fret about "gay cancer" in his diaries. At first, men young as soldiers were thrown straight from disco and bathhouse to hospital and hospice, bewildered by the swift decimation. Soon a chorus of the bereaved and the terrified were screaming, "Attention must be paid," while the president played the villain as the fool. Selling viciousness as cluelessness was Reagan's particular genius: His morning in America passed right over a plague killing gay men, but he never seemed as vengefully homophobic as his heirs in the current Congress. It was more as if he simply had his hands full with "Russia bad," "Wall Street good," and what moon was in the White House.

The government's slow response allowed AIDS into more and more lives, where it kept on provoking extremes of choice. Healthy people with sick lovers faced the un-gray options of full-time nursing or fleeing the preview of their own deterioration. In 1986, I first heard of infected young hustlers fucking as many unwitting johns as they could on their way to the grave. It struck me as a genuinely fresh spin on evil.

Other HIV-positive people were moved to martyrdom. My friend L.J., a public health expert from Mississippi, saw several people undergo a "spiritual awakening" when they contracted the virus. "You can almost see the halo," says the agnostic L.J. He met one of these radiant souls in 1988 at the second International Gay and Lesbian Health Conference on AIDS in Boston. In this story I call her Beverly.

L.J.'s the kind of Southerner who twangs his "how y'all doin'" a few notches past natural. The self-mockery helps him get away with saying "bitch" or "faggot" around the politically fierce wolves he runs with; it also hides his streak of saintliness. I'm surprised how devout, how star-struck he sounds when he talks about Beverly. He's kept a file on her that includes stories about her from People and Time, stories she wrote for smaller magazines, and her 1991 obituary.

L.J. had already given his talk on needle-exchange programs and was feeling irritable and alienated after a few days at the conference. He was riding up to his hotel room one evening when Beverly stepped onto the elevator. "This tiny angel of a woman looked me in the eyes and said 'Hi' in this gorgeous Southern accent," he recounts. "I just knew she wasn't gay. I was surrounded by strident activists and she seemed quiet, gentle, sweet." To keep the contact alive, he guessed her home state -- Arkansas. It's Georgia, she said, but not bad. She agreed to have a drink with him.

Beverly reluctantly told L.J. her story in the hotel bar. "I spill my guts for a living," she said, "so I'd rather keep it light right now." A cute, Southern, 29-year-old married white woman who contracted AIDS via transfusion during childbirth, no less, she was a PR dream for the movement, or as she put it, "a palatable poster child for AIDS." When delivering her second child, she said, she began hemorrhaging so badly that she would have died had the hospital not poured into her blood they knew was untested. They also gave her a complete hysterectomy. She had come to Boston as a member of ACT-UP, collapsing in a "die-in" during the FDA commissioner's speech. She also spoke as president of the National Association of People With AIDS.

When she told L.J. that she sued the hospital for infecting her, he teased, "isn't that a little tacky? They did save your life, sweetie." Beverly loved the flirting and his lightness. When they parted a few hours later, she suggested they go to the Boston Museum of Art the next day.

L.J. was very drawn to her, but he was also feeling more pity than he'd let on. One story in particular haunted him as he fell asleep that night. Beverly's neighbors had rallied around her in sympathy, she said, but the day after she and her daughter went swimming, the community pool was closed for repairs. "It just ripped my heart," says L.J. "At a time when she really needed people to give to her without flinching, they were rejecting her, putting up barriers."

The next day was warm and sunny, and they walked with all the couples along the Charles River. Beverly told L.J. she expected to live about a year. She was already sick and thin, exhausted from the disease and the medications. Her energy surged when they got to the museum, however -- Beverly knew almost every painting from the art books in her hometown library. She pushed herself to painting after painting, marveling at their beauty "in person," and stopping to rest at every bench. "She was meeting and saying goodbye to those pictures," L.J. recounts. "I felt privileged to see them through her eyes, but it was overwhelmingly sad, too."

They took a cab back to the hotel so Beverly could rest, and L.J. invited her to take her nap in his room. They lay down together on his hotel bed, and Beverly launched into a sarcastic lament: "Here I am in a man's hotel room, but what good does it do me? I've had all my plumbing yanked out, I don't even know if anything down there works anymore." She told L.J. that her husband had withdrawn from her even before she contracted AIDS and had her "plumbing yanked." He hadn't touched her since she became pregnant with their first child five years earlier. They lived in the farmhouse her husband had grown up in; Beverly theorized that she reminded him of his mother after she began having children.

Beverly said she felt barren, empty, like she didn't have a sexual bone in her body. "It was almost like an apology," L.J. remembers. He asked if he could hold her and she said, "yeah, that'd be real nice." He wrapped her in his arms from behind, both of them on their sides. He started caressing her hair, her arm, her back; she'd stopped wearing a bra because she'd lost so much weight. They were not speaking or looking at each other while he touched her. "I was trying to give her the pleasure that had been denied," L.J. says. He rotated her toward him onto her back a little and slipped his hand inside her drawstring pants. "She'd been going on and on about how nothing worked, but she was dripping wet," he says. L.J. caressed her slow, rhythmic, then faster until she came, and they fell asleep spooned. After they awoke, she left to spend the night in the hotel room she was sharing with several men and women who also had AIDS. "The tops of the dressers in that room looked like a pharmacy," L.J. remembers.

The next day, Beverly brought toothbrush and toothpaste to L.J.'s room. She brushed right before they kissed for the first time because she had thrush. "You won't catch it, you'll just fight it off," she assured him as she apologized for her damaged body. All the symptoms didn't keep L.J.'s affection and pity from manifesting as lust. "I didn't have to overcome a mental barrier to be physical with her," he explains. "It wasn't just, 'Oh, this will make her feel good.'" He undressed her, then himself and they made out lazily for hours. "She was so tired and weak she'd doze off in the middle and I'd doze with her, like cats."

Eventually, Beverly rolled on top and straddled L.J. and asked if he had any condoms. (Incredibly, in a hotel hosting an AIDS conference, neither of them did.) The two experts discussed the medical research, which in 1988 indicated that female-to-male transmission was rare. Beverly said, "Look, I have AIDS, you don't. This is up to you." L.J. remembers that he stayed hard throughout these negotiations. They stopped talking, resumed kissing, and he rolled her over onto her back.

As L.J. pushed gently into her, Beverly looked up and said, "I'm giving you everything I have." I can't help but shiver when L.J. relates this, but he seems surprised that I assume a reference to contagion. He says he heard only gratitude, abandon, and the same hunger that had pushed her through the museum. L.J. was not thinking about getting AIDS while he made love to her, but he was thinking, "this is the last time she'll ever have sex." Explaining why he didn't take the five minutes to go buy a condom, he says, "I wanted to be a part of her. Don't read that literally to mean I wanted AIDS, it's that the intimacy was more important than the sex. I wanted to prove I was willing to embrace her without reservation."

Again, Beverly left to sleep in her own room, though L.J. begged her to stay. "If I spend the night with you," she told him sadly, "that makes it real." The next day, they exchanged numbers and said goodbye quickly. They never saw each other again. Beverly would call from speaking tours every few months and say in a weak coquette's voice: "Tell me the story about how we met in Boston." L.J. said he didn't understand the request at first -- "I thought she was having some kind of memory loss from the AIDS." He was halfway through the retelling the first time before he realized she was masturbating. "I would leave out the sadder parts and just talk about how I'd touched her."

They never said goodbye, L.J. says, because "saying goodbye was about AIDS." Only once did Beverly refer directly to her condition: She asked L.J. a year or so after Boston if he'd had an AIDS test. He said yes (he's tested negative every year since), and she yelled at him, "How could you?" He joked her out of her anger, warning, "if I get AIDS, baby, I'm going to sue you for all that hospital money."

Her reaction confused L.J. then, but it makes sense now. Together they'd carved out a piece of her life where she wasn't dying -- no pity, no condom, no husband, no transfusion, no goodbye. When she told L.J. she was giving him everything, she meant it the way any young lover does. His AIDS test broke the unstated rules of their affair. It made it real.

Virginia Vitzthum

Virginia Vitzthum is a writer living in New York.

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