If you live long enough, you may sense an errand in the maze of you, an invoice scented with some foreign urgency may cross the smooth desktop of your later days. A spring whose source is deep within the cleft rock of you floods your dreams, soaking your repose with the anxiety reserved for those who have cared much but done less. You visit the dark pantheon of your past and try to explain to departed friends that you miss them and surely they don’t mind the dust and weeds that hide their markers. That is why I decided to join SMARTride10 and the 600 cyclists who covered 165 miles from Miami to Key West in two days. I didn’t have an answer when asked several months ago why I had signed up for this and what satisfaction I’d gain other than the raising of funds to support agencies that ameliorate the lives of those living with HIV/AIDS in south Florida. It wasn’t until the closing miles of the ride, that my mind opened a file containing the memory of another place and another set of pedals.
In the early 80s, I pedaled one of a long row of Lifecycles at my gym flanked by the kind of friends you gossiped with but didn’t sleep with. We observed the comings and goings of men we desired, noted the stretch of their shorts and the dizzying weight they lifted. The most beautiful among the men for whom we lusted was Dean whose workouts were punctuated by an incessant stream of admirers who screwed up the courage needed to greet this god with hopes that their words might inspire some reciprocity. As polite as he was gorgeous, Dean never dismissed anyone, even when those waiting for facetime with him formed a small line of courtiers. Benevolent in receipt of their fumbled attempts to dazzle, Dean would flash the smile that broke a thousand hearts and surely is the cause of global warming. While on route to the gym, you didn’t plan your exercise, you simply wondered if Dean would be there and would he see you and nod hello. When he did, you saw heaven. When he didn’t, the winter was longer.
When a friend leaned over from his Lifecycle to mine and asked me if I had noticed that Dean had been missing for a week, I said yes, and I speculated that he had been scooped up by a prince or a mogul who would keep him in a gilded cage with servants to feed him macaroons and curry him for evenings of pleasure at the hands of his master. Suddenly Dean returned to our gym, but without his smile. He was pale and appeared to have received a shock of some sort. A week later the news of his death seemed to burn down the gym around our row of Lifecycles. For quite some time, no one wanted to mount the one most often chosen by Dean. Others among us followed him, and our row of Lifecycles seemed to me to be the target of a firing squad that would surely select me as the next to die. Miss a day at the gym, and the rumors were instantaneous. Miss a week, and the rumors were more often than not true. I remember a very handsome couple, supposedly Colt models. One died and we saw his lover weeping in the back seat of a car headed to the funeral, his face gaunt, we guessed, with grief, but a week later he also was gone. And then, the swift horror of those days approached me. Close friends of many years, fellow priests who had been with me in Rome and lived on the other coast wrote to say they were not well. And then, there would be the call from their more recent friends and caregivers, saying that if I wanted to say goodbye to Mark, I’d better call tonight. If you want to say goodbye to Chris, do it soon because the morphine will start on Wednesday. Hello, you don’t know me, but I’m calling for Michael. You are on the list he gave me. I’m sorry to have to tell you. I’m sorry to be the one to tell you. I’m sorry. He often spoke of you.
Sometimes, a final conversation and then the hardest thing imaginable: the click of the phone at the end of the conversation. I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t be the one to say the last word. It was Mark and Chris and Michael who made the phone click at the end of those calls. They had more courage than did I. Making silly jokes through labored breathing, they let me off the hook, and I’d stare at the phone and think of a hundred things I should have said.
And then, I tried to forget them. I had to. I got back on the Lifecycle and made the jokes that men make when there is no other choice. I hated the fact that the families of my friends credited pneumonia or cancer as the cause of their deaths, too embarrassed to let people know the truth. Their obituaries were as false as the mortician’s art.
I rode the 165 miles of SMARTride10 for Mark, Chris and Michael who did not live to meet my husband whose entire out gay life has been overshadowed by HIV/AIDS. I repeat many old stories that make him roll his eyes when I launch into them because I’ve told them too often, but when I speak of departed friends, he knows I have taken him to hallowed ground and he is silently patient while we go there.
I could have joined one of the many teams of riders who trained together and supported each other’s fund-raising efforts, concocting gorgeous matching outfits, and looking like a sleek flock of spandexed showgirls gliding along the dreamy highway that connects the Florida Keys. Instead, I did it alone. I guess I hoped that in solitude somewhere along the road, I’d hear Mark or Chris or Michael forgive me for having lived and for having found love and happiness. 165 miles and $3,150 donated by generous and supportive friends seem to me to be payment enough for today. If next year finds us still without a vaccine or a cure, I will do it again, but not alone. I would like you with me. This year I repaired the graves of my friends. Next year, let’s decorate.
For more information about SMARTride10 and who benefits from every penny of the record $1,047, 514 raised this year, and how you can participate as rider or crew, please check out thesmartride.org.