“We still have time.”

Experiencing the 1980s’ AIDS crisis through larp, sobbing with relief at a funeral, dancing, dragging, and kissing a stranger out of love for the story

Just a Little Lovin’ is a Nordic larp about the first years of the AIDS epidemic as it hits the gay scene in New York in the early 80s. I took part as Nate, (Drag) Queen of Manhattan.

In character as the Queen of Manhattan (Petter Karlsson)

Like many of the players of this year’s game, I’m feeling quite drained, or overwhelmed, or something like saturated, sated, bled through. I’m a bit monochrome right now, almost, like I’m sore and weak after having felt so much in such a short time. It’s very special. I haven’t felt like this in a long time, and it’s usually only ever been after a long weekend with a lover or a perfect experience of community at a convention of close friends.

I’ve got this sense that I’ve stolen a true glimpse of the past, or at least a past that could have been. We’ve created something real, and beautiful, and momentous. I don’t know how to handle that. It’s immense pride and I already feel nostalgic for it. In the most literal sense — I’m starting to feel the pangs of loss that are nostalgia. It’s exactly the right emotion I need to be feeling right now. Beauty, loss, sorrow, pride, admiration, longing, pining for something.

My game was, like everyone’s, driven by my character and his relations, but there’s also something very particular to Nate. I cannot believe the sense of being statuesque and trying my very best to be above the fray. Like Oscar Wilde said, we’re all lying in the gutter — this horrible, unfair, silent crisis — but some of us are looking at the stars.

We were those people. Some of us got to be the stars, too, and the others got to watch them become stars. The lanterns drifting up and away from us, somehow defiant in death. Being ugly and diseased and then escaping in beauty, which is not how you die of AIDS, but what every single one of these people deserved.

As Nate I was very much a watcher, performer, commentator. Like some of the other characters Nate was from a different age, sort of like a glacier that was receding. Nate existed as an embodiment of longing. The kind of longing for eternal glamour, beauty, a world protected from the worst of it by sheer will and determination. He couldn’t have that in the end, but he tried his best to be that dream. I wrote in a letter addressed to my character that he didn’t care about the past, didn’t care much for the present, but lived for forever. Diamonds, which unlike men linger. Nate got to linger, but he vanished in the end.

Nate also had a present. He was deeply engrained and lived — finally, and only for the last maybe ten years of his life — in the community. He helped create some of it. Club Diamond was for him a bastion, or some kind of last redoubt, where people like Francis, a young gay man from a terrible background, could come and grow in relative safety. That’s how he wanted to think of it, and it was close to being true.

When Nate’s lover Sinclair died suddenly of a “mysterious cancer”, his denialism became increasingly impossible to maintain. He was yanked into the reality of the world. In Act One he had said that he admired the Saratoga cancer survivors who also played a role in the game. He quipped without apparent irony:

“They are the only people here who have ever experienced something real.”

Nate tried his best not to. Or rather, he wanted the real to be an expression of his will. Not something that happened to him or happened to people. For the longest time he denied at least silently that the HIV crisis was going on. That too became untenable.

Between the beginning of 1982 and the end of that year’s Fourth of July party which was the main setting for the story, Nate went from mourning the present, which was tarnished and being destroyed, to accepting it. He did so by accepting Walther, a man of his age but otherwise incomparably different, and the reality of Walther’s love into his life. I’d said in a scene with the lead character, Mr T — a perfect embodiment of a successful gay man played by an strikingly handsome Swedish player — and his inner circle that I hoped these people could tether me, so I wouldn’t get “whisked away.” I don’t know how I felt about that or why I said it. I guess I was trying to fix — moor — myself to the present.

Walt and Nate’s story is bittersweet. If Nate wasn’t already positive when they met he became so in 1982–1983. It was inevitable to him ever since Sinclair died and it wasn’t something he could handle. Somehow he got to escape it, I feel, because he got to spend his last years in communion with Walter, and because Nate died in 1987 or 1988 that love got to live on longer than him. It is unfair and horrible, but that’s the best he could have hoped for. Walter and Nate were the best he could possibly have hoped for, and it was amazing and overwhelmingly so.

I pine for them. I long for them to have happened and I want them to luster on as long as they possible could. I think my opposite player feels the same. At the final funeral we held each other so tight and whispered four words again and again to each other, with a horrible sense of relief:

We still have time. We still have time. We still have time.

We stole it from death. Even as players, we managed to find the time to do a improvised, thrown-together wedding. We still had time. Those seven minutes — I kept checking Nate’s gaudy watch — were enough for that to happen.

Gaudy watch and campy pride

Nate’s story arc feels tragic. I guess it was. It also wasn’t all bad. experiencing it and creating it as a player gave me a taste of being beautiful and admired in a way I have never been before. It’s a foreign and different and dreamlike kind of beauty you feel as a drag queen of his time and age. It’s made me look at myself, literally, in a different light. I haven’t seen myself on stage and I’m not sure I want to see those pictures just yet, but I got to see myself before the shows and after. Before meeting the crowd before the show and after having the most intense encounters with Mr T and Walter. I got to stand as a statue and lie half-undressed, makeup smeared, and look at myself in that big, gorgeous mirror in the dressing room.

It was bizarre and I don’t know how to square that image of myself with what I otherwise am. Nate might be someone I might have been, had I been born when he was. I don’t know how I feel about that. It feels dangerous and horrifying, but the appeal of his life and his aesthetic is still there.

I am so, so proud and grateful that Nate as Queen and Nate as man reverberated with the scene so much. I’ve almost never felt as respected, admired and acknowledged. This is the second time this year that I’ve received more praise for a character than I have received for other accomplishments ever before. It is, quite frankly, amazing and it makes me immensely proud. The appreciation many of the players have expressed to me just fills me with pride and joy. This was my first true Nordic larp after 13 years in the Knudepunkt scene. I’ve never felt as genuinely part of the community as I do right now. Thank you to the players. Thank you for pulling me in and tethering me to you.

From on the inspired vision of Hanne Grasmo and Tor Kjetil Edland, and the guidance and tutelage of the organizers, we’ve been able to create something truly beautiful and truly true. It’s given me things I never thought I would. I’ve seen things I never thought I’d seen and that will live with me forever. It lusters on in memory, even now after the game has ended. So do the men and women of the age we portrayed.

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