The One Who Didn’t Die
Just to be clear: no, of course I’m not the only survivor to speak of, even in our small self-selected group. That’s not what this is about. And yes, of course I have survivor’s guilt. Who doesn’t? Again, not what this is about.
I’ve been heard to say (certainly more than once: I’m always happy to quote myself, and I’ve been flourishing this particular line for decades now) that everyone I slept with before the age of thirty is dead. Blessedly, that isn’t literally true, but it’s more than a metaphorical bludgeon. At the back end of the ’80s, a friend said that we were too young to be going to so many funerals. He was right, and a year later I was reading a eulogy at his. That’s how it went.
Truthfully, I don’t know how I came through. I was exactly the right age to be caught by HIV, moving in exactly the right circles, living exactly the lifestyle. I wasn’t even as careful as I knew how to be, once we’d caught on to the danger; I trusted friends, sometimes I even trusted strangers. I was luckier than I deserved, perhaps. Many of my cohort were not.
Look up “cohort” in the dictionary and it will talk to you about a Roman military unit, comprising six centuries; about a group of people banded together; and about supporters or companions. No, and yes, and yes. That last is labelled “derogatory”, but you could derogate us as much as you liked, we wouldn’t have cared. We were Quin’s posse, his entourage, his people. He wasn’t our mentor, any more than he was our pimp; we slept with him and each other, as we learned from him and each other, but none of that was primary. What mattered was himself: the mind behind those shuttered eyes, the whim of steel and the searing wit, the house built of books that had apparently been built to welcome us. The talk, the music, the adventures indoors and out; the gift he had for finding stray people and weaving them into a coherent whole, greater than the sum of all its disparate parts. We were great together, delighted with him and ourselves and one another, the way we flocked and the way we scattered.
So when the time came, when Quin came out of hospital once more and declared that he wasn’t going back in again, that he meant to live out whatever remained of his time at home, of course we rallied around. He couldn’t have planned it that way, but nevertheless: this was clearly what we were for.
For a year, then — for the most intense and extraordinary year of my life — we were his housekeepers and his nurses, his errand-boys and his constant companions. There were a dozen of us at the core, and a wide fringe of part-timers we could call on at need; we always had at least one at his bedside and another somewhere in the house, cooking or cleaning, doing the laundry, double-checking the meds. Sometimes we were a party the way we used to be, thronging in Quin’s room, flirting or arguing or telling the interrupted stories of our lives. Sometimes we were a vigil, reading our quiet way through those inexhaustible books, sharing his silence as greedily as we would share his voice, so long as he could use it.
He grew quieter in time, sleeping more and moving less. We kept him clean and pain-free, fed him our patent consommé when he could swallow nothing else (essence of beef, protein by the spoonful; there was always a pot on the back of the stove, simmering its way ever denser, ever richer) and talked to him day or night for so long as he showed any sign of wakefulness.
And in the end of course he died, as he was bound to; and we did everything that was necessary for the dead Quin as we had for the living, and then we found our awkward, stumbling, individual ways back into our own lives again.
And this really isn’t about that either. I was then and am still a fiction writer. I like to say that I live down the dirty end of genre, where fantasy and science fiction meet crime and horror. I also used to say that no, of course I didn’t use my own life or my own friends in my stories; that was the point of writing so far from the real world, that I got to escape the “write what you know” paradigm and play in the worlds of what I didn’t know, what no one knew, what I was free to invent wholesale. It wasn’t true, of course — any act of fiction is an act of autobiography, we give ourselves away with every word — but it made a convenient cover. A fiction, if you like.
And then Quin died, and I found myself adding ghost stories to the catalogue of genres that I embraced.
Back sometime in my teens I was watching a documentary about the JFK assassination, and they showed the notorious Zapruder footage over and over and over again, and I was very aware of and more than a little disturbed by the knowledge that I was actually watching a man die in real time, over and over and over again. I was never going to be a documentary-maker, and even so I remember thinking very clearly that I would not have made that choice, that even a man whose death is so very public is entitled to — not privacy, exactly, but at least to die only once in any given context.
And then Quin died his very particular slow death, and when he was dead I needed some way to address that, and I started writing ghost stories.
Writers … appropriate. It’s what we do. It’s in the job description, pretty much: we take other people’s experiences, emotions, opinions, and rework them to suit our own purposes. If my best friend is telling me his most private distress, some part of my mind will log that and keep it for later, in case it proves useful down the road. I can’t actually turn that off, and I don’t apologise for it; it’s the nature of the beast. But generally it seems only courteous to disguise the source, when you can. I wouldn’t expect my best friend to spot himself, or the use I made of his distress.
Sometimes, though, the source is too obvious to disguise. Anyone who knew me in the ’90s would know where these stories were coming from, the dying man and his carers. So I went the other way, plain and direct, and made it my way of honouring Quin and mourning him and doing what I could to explain him to a world that had lost the best of itself.
And soon enough it dawned on me that I was doing that thing I had sworn I never would do, showing a man’s death again and again and again, story after story. I didn’t always call him Quin, but I usually did; and whether I was killing my friend time after time or merely watching him die over and over, it came to the same thing in the end. It came to a body in a bed, and the rest of us stood around.
I even played Quin one season, in a one-act play I was commissioned to write; the producer felt it wasn’t fair to hire a real actor simply to be the body in the bed for three weeks, with not a line to utter and no chance of professional notice. So I did that, and tried to avoid finding any meaning in it, letting it mean anything at all. Tried to.
But here was the man and his death once more, coming back again and again, night after night — and really, that’s the point. That’s what it’s all about: that you can’t keep dying without coming back. Turns out, the more often you kill a man in fiction, the more strongly he returns. Which seems only fair, really: that of us all, Quin should be the one who didn’t die. Who doesn’t die. I think he’s earned that much.