AIDS: On re-reading Borrowed Time

July 3, 2003 by Stan Persky  
Filed under Books

Paul Monette, Borrowed Time: An AIDS Memoir (Avon, 1988)

I only have to re-open the pages of Paul Monette’s Borrowed Time: An Aids Memoir, as I did recently, and a lot of it comes back. From the chilling first sentence–"I don’t know if I will live to finish this"–the aura of dread that for years permeated every minute of the time of that plague era returns in force, sending a shudder through my body. The memory leaves me off-centre, with a survivor’s mixed feelings of guilt and gratitude, and also, a sense of being curiously obsolete for possessing personal recollections of what to others can only be an increasingly distant matter of history. Some 20 years after the inception of Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS), and after or in the midst of subsequent, if lesser, epidemics (Ebola, West Nile and the SARS viruses), how can I explain what it was like then? Strange to have lived through–strictly by chance–a plague in my own lifetime. Strange that its location in people’s minds, including my own, is now displaced, both temporally and geographically. Strange that in one sense AIDS is "over," but hasn’t at all ended, neither "here," in North America and Europe, where it continues to afflict particular ethnic and sub-cultural groups, such as intravenous drug users, nor there. "There" is now Africa, where AIDS rages in catastrophic proportions, with literally millions of people on the verge of death, simply, as far as I can tell, because "we," the rich world, won’t give "them," the impoverished world, the drugs they need and can’t afford.

How to give an idea of what it was like then? Through our records of the plague, our dispatches from the front. There is, not surprisingly, a lot of very good writing about AIDS, from novelist Edmund White’s fictionalized memoir, The Farewell Symphony (Random House, 1997) to activist-scholar Douglas Crimp’s militant essays, Melancholia and Moralism (MIT, 2002). The amount of good writing is not surprising in the sense that a sizeable number of talented, literate men, their minds "wonderfully concentrated," as Samuel Johnson put it, by the prospect of death, applied their intelligence to providing a description of the plague. Even works that are justifiably criticized–journalist Randy Shilts’ best-selling And the Band Played On (St. Martin’s, 1987) and Larry Kramer’s shrilly-pitched Reports from the Holocaust (St. Martin’s, 1989) come to mind–offer moments of legitimate illumination. But of all the books written in the midst of the plague, Paul Monette’s Borrowed Time is the one that had the greatest impact on me.

The circumstances of Monette’s grief-stricken tale are simple enough. Set in the mid-1980s, Monette and his friend, Roger Horwitz, lovers for a decade, are practically poster-boys for the joys of middle-aged gay domesticity. There’s "a stucco 1930s cottage high in a box canyon above [Hollywood's] Sunset Strip" in which they live, "a view of the city lights through the coral tree out front and between the olive and eucalyptus across the way," while out back "is a garden court shaded by Chinese elms and a blue-bottom pool that catches the sun from eleven to three," and a terrace for dinners with friends down from San Francisco. There’s a used, bawky, black Jaguar automobile (upscale successor to a Mercedes), holidays to Greece or the California foreshore at Big Sur, understanding parents with a house in swanky Palm Springs, fashionable restaurants, an assortment of therapists and agents, attendence at benefit dinners put on by the gay community where Roger, a lawyer, and Paul can afford to sponsor a table, and the occasional movie star, prominent producer, or famous writer who passes through the scene of their domestic life.

But there’s a darker side to this middle-class homosexual idyll. Monette, a once promising poet and novelist, the author of Taking Care of Mrs. Carroll (1978) and The Gold Diggers (1979), finds himself, five or six years later, at age 40, in something of a literary slide, stalled on a novel and reduced to writing sit-com movie scripts. There’s a hint of recent past trouble in an otherwise monogamous relationship. And there’s the rumour of the plague.

Monette recalls the "shadowy nonfacts," "the most fragmented of rumours" of the early 1980s. He remembers noting in his diary in December 1981, "ambiguous reports of a ‘gay cancer,’" then adds, "but I know I didn’t have the slightest picture of the thing. Cancer of the what? I would have asked, if anyone had known anything." A couple of months later, in early 1982, driving to Palm Springs to visit Roger’s parents, Paul reads aloud from the gay magazine The Advocate an article titled "Is Sex Making Us Sick?" As Monette notes, "There was the slightest edge of irony in the query, an urban cool that seems almost bucolic now in its innocence. But the article didn’t mince words," providing the first in-depth reporting he’d seen–it wasn’t yet mentioned in the Los Angeles Times–of a mysterious–was it fatal?–disease that targetted gay men.

"I remember exactly what was going through my mind while I was reading," Monette writes a half-dozen years later. "I was simply relieved… because the article appeared to be saying that there was a grim progression toward this undefined catastrophe, a set of preconditions–chronic hepatitis, repeated bouts of syphilis, exotic parasites. No wonder my first baseline response was to feel safe. It was them–by which I meant the fast-lane Fire Island crowd, the Sutro Baths, the world of High Eros. Not us."

It wasn’t "us," not yet. Nor was it yet known that the disease didn’t present a neat set of preconditions. Not until a year and a half later, in autumn 1983, did Monette get a call from his best friend, Cesar, a teacher in San Francisco, who reported a swollen gland in his groin that he was going to get biopsied before the school semester began again. "AIDS didn’t even cross my mind, though cancer did," Monette recalls. "Half joking, Cesar wondered aloud if he dared disturb our happy friendship with bad news. ‘If it’s bad,’ I said, ‘we’ll handle it, okay?’" Paul and Roger were busy getting ready for their annual trip to Big Sur. Paul put the thought away. After all, "even though he went to the baths a couple of times a week, Cesar wasn’t into anything weird–or that’s how I might have put it at that stage of my own denial. No hepatitis, no history of VD, built tall and fierce–of course he was safe." But days after their return from Big Sur, Paul arrived home one evening and "Roger met me gravely at the door. ‘There’s a message from Cesar,’ he said. ‘It’s not good.’ Numbly I played back the answering machine, where so much appalling mistery would be left on tape over the years to come, as if a record were crying out to be kept. ‘I have a little bit of bad news.’ Cesar’s voice sounded strained, almost embarrassed." Monette spends the evening working his way through a tangle of telephone calls, bracing himself for cancer news, before he reaches a mutual acquaintance named Tom. "The lymph nodes, of course–a hypocondriac knows all there is to know about the sites of malignancy. Already I was figuring what the treatments might be… I had Cesar practically cured by the time I reached Tom… But as usual with me in crisis, I was jabbering and wouldn’t let Tom get a word in. Finally he broke through: ‘He’s got it.’ ‘Got what?’" Monette asks, but he knows at that instant that "it" is something other than a curable cancer.

The best thing about Monette’s narrative is simply its accurate accumulation of mundane details. It is like a careful description of weather–a gathering storm–or a slowly advancing, but relentless, artillery barrage, closing in on your little foxhole. Though life will soon be as alien as "living on the moon," Monette’s text respects the reality of his experience sufficiently that there is no vain striving to rise above it, to claim that he’s anything more than a precise instance of something larger. Roger and Paul are ordinary, middle-class gay men, accustomed to the privileges available to them, not even necessarily the sort of gay men I especially like. They’re politically liberal but not more than that, fussily self-absorbed (aren’t we all?), "out" in homosexual terms, but not too out. All of that is part of the unheroic attraction of Borrowed Time.

Since Monette’s book is a chronicle of a doom foretold, the inevitable happens: Cesar’s condition deteriorates, Roger falls ill, is diagnosed with the deadly syndrome, and in turn, Paul tests positive for the virus. Among their circle of friends and acquaintances, more and more of them are struck down by what is clearly a plague. We know all this from the very beginning, as in a Greek tragedy where the chorus opens the drama with a recitation of the plot. Monette, looking back on the wreckage of life, ponders the difficulty of knowing where to start. "The world around me is defined now by its endings and its closures–the date on the grave that follows the hyphen. Roger Horwitz, my beloved friend, died of complications of AIDS on October 22, 1986… That is the only real date anymore, casting its ice shadow over all the secular holidays lovers mark their calendars by," he says in the first pages.

Further, "the fact is, no one knows where to start with AIDS. Now, in the seventh year of the calamity"–the time at which Borrowed Time is being written–"my friends in L.A. can hardly recall what it felt like any longer, the time before the sickness. Yet we all watched the toll mount in New York, then in San Francisco, for years before it ever touched us here. It comes like a slowly dawning horror. At first you are equipped with a hundred different amulets to keep it far away. Then someone you know goes into the hospital, and suddenly you are at high noon in full battle gear."

Once Roger is hospitalized at the University of California at Los Angeles, their life together, with sporadic respites over the next year and a half, increasingly revolves around various rooms and wards at UCLA hospital. Henceforth, they live on time borrowed from the future they will not have. But there’s more than one sense of time here. For gay men of their generation, there’s the "lost time" of having been in the closet, the years before the declaration of public homosexuality in 1969. Making up for that lost time perhaps explaims part of the gay sexual frenzy of the 1970s, a reaction to the recognition that what was once absolutely forbidden can be transformed into a state in which everything is permitted. Nor is time here only borrowed from the future. Recounting an earlier journey to Greece, Monette observes that "people who travel have dreamlike moments where they borrow time from the past, but it’s not out-of-body at all. The echo of the ancient image, warrior or monk, is in you."

Finally, time borrowed from the past is the substance of writing. "I can see us so vividly side by side in bed–reading, dozing, roaming–always coming around again to that evening anchorage… At the time I thought there were no more layers of innocence to peel… I cannot say what pagan god it was, but I’d gotten in the habit, last thing at night, of praying: Thank you for this. I’d be tucked up against my little friend, perfectly still, and thanking the darkness for the time we’d had–the ten years, the house, the dog, the work. I did, I counted my blessings… I knew what I had and what I stood to lose. I held it cradled in my arms, eyes open even as I slept. The night watch from the cliffs at Thera, clear along the moon all the way to Africa." Thera was the Greek island city they had visited, destroyed by a volcano in 1500 B.C., perhaps the source of Plato’s myth of Atlantis. A couple of fresco paintings from its civilization survived, and like Monette, I’ve seen them in the museum in Athens. I have a postcard.

The rest of Borrowed Time, recounted in tones both measured and frenetic, is a mixture of inconsolable sorrow, political rage at governments and media slow to do what they could have done to reduce the ravages of the plague, moments of hyperventilating panic and claustrophobia, and eventually, exhaustion and "the desolate waking to life alone–this calamity that is all mine, that will not end till I do."

Living in Vancouver, I was on the periphery of AIDS, literally on the epidemiological margins of a fatal viral epidemic, transmitted mainly through sexual intercourse between gay men, whose epicentres were in New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and other North American cities that contained smaller but sizeable homosexual populations. But even being on the edge of the plague was close enough to feel the horror, become hysterical in the middle of an afternoon, wake up in a sweat from nightmares (and wonder if it was those symptomatic "night sweats"), visit dying friends on the 8th floor of St. Paul’s Hospital in Vancouver or a bleak Berlin apartment, attend countless meetings that Monette describes as "boredom in a good cause," remember the dead at memorial services. Close enough to read Borrowed Time the first time, in 1988, with terror. Monette’s account was not so different from the plagues referred to by Boccaccio in The Decameron, or described in Dafoe’s Journal of the Plague Year and Albert Camus’ The Plague.

I remember calculating my degree of risk by means of a primitive equation I’d made up: acts plus number of sexual partners minus precautions taken, over geographical location multiplied by time, equalled risk of exposure. That is, if you were the recipient in acts of anal intercourse, and had had sex with many people without using condoms, and if you lived in one of the plague’s epicentres at the time of the critical mass dissemination of the virus (the early 1970s), the odds were against you. I had lived in San Francisco for five years or so before moving to Vancouver in the mid-1960s, just before the main period of the virus’ silent spread, so my comparative safety was simply a bio-geographical accident. The same was true of my bedroom behaviour. It was only at the insistence of a sensible friend in the early 1980s that I began to obey the protocols of a safer sex, so again, it was more a matter of chance than prescience that provided whatever protection I enjoyed.

The Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) was attended by two particular cruelties. Its incubation period could be as long as a decade, so the "safer sex" procedures soon undertaken by gay communities (which successfully reduced new infections) would have no bearing on whether or not you had acquired the virus years before. Second, there were no available medications for AIDS other than those to alleviate the accompanying "opportunistic" infections that a deficient immune system invited. From the mid-80s–the time of Roger Horwitz’s death–there were experimental drug protocols, and Monette, with his histrionic energy, chutzpah, and middle-class gay privilege, was quick to enroll his friend in available programs, but to no avail. Nothing worked. Protease inhibitor drugs, which don’t cure AIDS but prolong life significantly, wouldn’t be available for years.

In 1989, the year after Monette’s Borrowed Time appeared and as a half-million mostly American gay men continued to die, I wrote, in a book called Buddy’s, a fantasy about "How the Plague Ended": "It hadn’t ended with a magic bullet, a cure, or even imperfect treatments." It ended, in gay communities, because self-education had dramatically reduced the rate of lethal transmission. "It ended, so it was said, because we had changed. And the change had changed us, in ways that were not yet apparent." And at the end, "we didn’t even feel relief. Perhaps we permitted ourselves to take note of our exhaustion." But "what next?" We couldn’t yet turn our attention back to everyday catastrophes. There were still committees to sit on, hotlines to staff, the dead to bury, memorials, demonstrations, and the rest. "Yet, we would continue to desire. We had not ceased grieving… we would continue to cry our eyes out. We would find ourselves numbly staring at the ocean on a muggy afternoon, then come to, recalling a dinner engagement. Gradually, it would become a memory, like the curling, yellow-edged pages of an old newspaper exposed to the air. But when it ended, we barely noticed." As it turned out, that effort to imagine an end of the plague, at least for the limited "us" that comprised gay men in North America–an attempt to provide a bit of somber political hope–was not that far off the mark. There were "imperfect treatments," but today, more than a decade after my fantasy of it ending, gay friends remark to each other on the eery disappearance of the mention of AIDS in the media, or even among ourselves.

Both the failure of governments and media to respond to AIDS and the efforts of scientists to develop effective medications sparked the politics of AIDS. There were two half-truths promulgated by gay activists, crucial to engendering support for a stricken community, but which can now be viewed in a more balanced retrospective light. The first was the slogan, AIDS is not a gay disease, but one that can strike anybody. That is of course true in a literal sense but, in reality, the virus was introduced into a primarily gay male population and, as epidemiologists learned, quickly and "efficiently" disseminated and contained within that aggregate, aided in part by that population’s sexual practices at the time. What "leakage" there was of the virus (through blood transfusion, shared use of needles, and heterosexual transmission via bisexual men) was limited, and the grave anticipations of AIDS decimating the "heterosexual community" in North America never happened. Like others, I knew that at the time, but in the face of charges by evil Christian fundamentalists that "AIDS was God’s punishment" of homosexuals, the claim that anyone could come down with AIDS was a useful political fiction.

The other half-truth concerned sites of transmission and "promiscuity," and became a point of contention within gay communities as well as outside, because it touched on one of the central premises of gay liberation. What public homosexuality proposed at the beginning of the 1970s was that the whole question of sexuality was up for grabs. Conventional–i.e., conservative heterosexual–notions about who one slept with, how many sexual partners one had, the motives for sexual activity, and much more, were all subject to challenge. At the time, homosexuality was news from the front-lines of human relationships. The sub-text of its challenge to conventional sexuality–especially to the shibboleth that sex was primarily reproductive or creational, rather than recreational–was a broader attack on institutional arrangements in bourgeois society. At least that was the case among radical adherents in Gay Liberation Front groups (I was one of the founders of the GLF Vancouver branch). As with other revolutionary proposals, there were excesses, in this case, of sexual activity, as became evident in mounting statistics of venereal diseases, hepatitis, and amoebic infections. When AIDS struck, a decade after public homosexuality, the response was often a barely disguised homophobia. "Promiscuity," it was claimed, violated a law of nature; homosexuals had brought the plague upon themselves.

In practical terms, gay bathhouses, which facilitated sexual encounters, were targetted as dangerous sites of AIDS transmission. Even some gay men themselves called for the temporary closure of such establishments. But for many gay activists, who had adopted the slogan "Silence=death," such proposals amounted to a betrayal of the principles of the gay movement. Hence, their insistence that the vital issue wasn’t the number of partners or the circumstances of sexual encounters, but the practice of safer methods of sex. Again, while it is literally true that transmission of the virus could occur in a single act of "unprotected" sex, it was simply an epidemiological fact that the number of partners and the circumstances of the encounters were factors in the rate of transmission. Though insistence on prudence against accusations of promiscuity wasn’t the whole truth, again, its political function was understandable.

If "Silence=death" was a call to act-up against delinquent authorities (Act-Up was the name of a prominent AIDS activist movement), then one form of acting out, namely, shouting at governments, media and even at each other equalled a kind of resistance. With respect to the latter, failure to toe the party line could get you labelled as a traitor. I remember one local incident, now almost comic in retrospect, in which I found myself on the wrong side of the line. Through my old friend John Dixon (he was also my colleague in the philosophy department at the college where we worked), I was a member of the board of the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association (BCCLA), over which Dixon presided, and which was actively engaged in issues involving people with AIDS. One of Dixon’s contributions was a book, Catastrophic Rights (New Star, 1993), arguing for the civil right to access to experimental drugs for those struck by catastrophic illness. I was also a member of the board of the local AIDS organization, one of those voluntary jobs that seemed to have more to do with bureaucracy, budgets and "boredom in a good cause" than the visible saving of lives. One simply signed up and, indeed, doing so did some good.

At one particularly untimely moment in the midst of the plague, the local conservative government of the day proposed a quarantine law. The proposal was in response to tuberculosis cases and had been innocently requested by the Vancouver public health officer, someone Dixon and I knew to be an intelligent and reasonable medical official. The initial draft of the law, however, was so loosely written that it was reasonable for an already beleagured gay community to see the spectre of concentration camps. The BCCLA, like other groups, opposed the initial draft, but rather than using the occasion to mount a political outcry against an insensitive regime, we successfully lobbied the government to redraft the bill to remove the threat to people with AIDS, which they did. Of course, no good deed goes unpunished, as one of my friends wryly says. For supporting the redrafted measure, Dixon and I were called onto the carpet of a gay community meeting one evening and afforded the opportunity to be the target of a couple of hours of angry remonstrance. An intransigent slogan of "No quarantine" was obviously a simpler battlecry than the complexities of moderate legalese. As it turned out–BCCLA, as usual, formed a watchdog committee to monitor the effects of the legislation–no one with AIDS was ever threatened with quarantine. That minor fact didn’t prevent the appearance of vitriolic, scurrilous articles in the gay press (even in gay newspapers that I wrote for), as much as five years after the fact, questioning the state of my soul. Few self-delusions are more convincing than righteous anger.

Meanwhile, the wounded continued to die. In outposts at the margins of the plague, unlike the blitzed epicentres, the deaths may have been epidemiologically proportional to location, but still, those dying were not strangers to us. Fred Gilbertson was an obese man in his 30s, a friend of mine from writing groups and the gay newspaper for which we both wrote. His interests included politics, theology and a demi-monde of sexuality with which I was also familiar. He had been a "character" in my book, Buddy’s, and unlike some of the other friends I’d written about, he enjoyed his appearance as a semi-fictional figure, taking it, as intended, as a mark of respect for him. For him, the course of AIDS progressed swiftly. A year after his jovial appearance in my book, when I visited him at St. Paul’s Hospital near the end, he was physically shrunken, breathing through an oxygen mask, and without illusions as to his fate. A few months later (I was writing an epilogue for the paperback edition of my book), he was dead.

Other people were acquaintances. Dixon and I spent some time with Kevin Brown, the president of the Vancouver Persons With Aids organization, working on medical and welfare issues for the disabled. Brown was one of the many people whose lives became more focused, as he told me when I interviewed him for a newspaper article, as a result of AIDS. Suddenly, because of the disease, he had become a spokesperson and discovered in himself a reasoned, gentle, articulateness. Another person whom I slightly knew was Jon Gates, a social democratic activist. Even as he was dying, he had foreseen that the epicentre of AIDS would shift to Third World countries, and he campaigned to make drugs available to the destitute parts of the world years before the crisis in Africa was dimly perceived by the rest of us. A fellow member of the AIDS Vancouver board was a psychologist named David. On the last day of his life he held a farewell garden party for his friends and acquaintances. I was one of several people he had asked to provide drugs for his suicide, which he committed later that day among a circle of intimates. There were others, of course. I attended memorial ceremonies for Warren Knechtel, a faun-like photographer; for literature professor Rob Dunham; for political activist Maurice Flood. All people I knew. All gone. Now, as the poet Milosz says, "all they can do is make use of me… of my hand holding the pen, to return among the living for a brief moment."

Paul Monette did "live to finish" Borrowed Time and, as it turned out, quite a bit more. His memoir was accompanied by a suite of poems, Love Alone (1988), in which he could rage against the dying of the light in another key. Two novels, Afterlife (1990) and Halfway Home (1991), and an autobiography, Becoming A Man (1992), followed. Finally, there was a volume of essays, Last Watch of the Night (1995), published in the year of his death, at age 50.

Re-reading Borrowed Time, the terror of the first reading gives way to measured grief. Grief, as Monette says, "that will not end till I do."

Berlin, July 3, 2003

Stan Persky teaches philosophy at Capilano University in N. Vancouver, B.C.. His most recent book is Reading the 21st Century: Books of the Decade, 2000-2009 (McGill-Queen's UP, 2011).
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