A mostly autobiographical short story
Don’t pick that up, he said. His pace quickened. That’s when I saw my buddy Peter and a few other boys I barely recognized sitting on the wall. The barely recognizable boys were all from the continuation school down the street from our school.
Hey Peter! I got out as my Uncle Charlie shuffled me down the alley in double-time.
I heard Peter mumble something and the group of boys laughed behind us.
I turned around and realized that there were two naked men on the cover of the magazine.
When I was 8 years old I played Pop Warner football. I was one of many too-small-for-my-helmet kids. Mostly we ran around and bumped into each other. It was fun and it was manly.
I remember one Saturday, my Uncle Charlie picked me up after a game so I could spend the rest of the weekend with him. I loved weekends with him. His apartment had a pool and it was a cootie-free zone. We’d hang out by the pool during the day and the men treated me like I mattered.
Andy would invariably ask, did you score any goals today, kid?
Eric would correct him, he plays football, not soccer.
So what? Soccer is football isn’t it? Isn’t it?
I play defense, Uncle Andy.
Ohhhh, so you don’t let the other boys score. Bad Rudy!
I would protest, but that’s what I’m supposed to do! And everyone would laugh. I didn’t get it.
I called them all Uncle something. They’d ask me about girls (gross), sports (my favorite thing in all the things on the planet), and even music and movies (they taught and I learned). They made me feel important. But mostly, those men always made me feel safe.
At night there was always something going on; a party, a movie, or even just staying up all night eating junk food and talking about what we were going to do the next day. Whatever we did, one thing that was always involved: lots and lots of laughter.
Sunday mornings I would run into Uncle Charlie’s room and jump on his bed, landing between him and his roommate. He’s MY Uncle Charlie, I would say as I pushed Eric away.
No, he’s MY Carlos, Eric would say and reach over me to find Uncle Charlie just out of reach because of my awesome strength.
We’d do this a few times until I hurt from laughing. I was so happy. I never wanted to leave Uncle Charlie’s apartment.
We walked home a different way, avoiding Peter and the boys. By now I was a teenager and I understood that Uncle Charlie was gay. His former roommate wasn’t his roommate at all. And he wasn’t his boyfriend anymore either. That ship had sailed years ago when Eric found gawd and decided he needed to be cured of his dreaded gayness.
Why aren’t we taking the alley home, it’s shorter?
Oh, I just wanted to stretch my legs a little longer.
As much as Gramma nagged him I believed that.
We were both living with Gramma now. Me, because Dad needed a break; Uncle Charlie, because he was sick.
I was never an easy child to raise. Shrinks will tell you that motherless children are always a handful and I was especially so. Between the drugs, the sex, the skipping school, the shit grades, and the running away, Dad gave me a choice: boys’ home or Gramma’s house. Neither was all that enticing, but at least Uncle Charlie was living with her now. Plus, it was a block closer to my girlfriend’s house.
Uncle Charlie moved in a couple of months before me. HIV positive. You couldn’t tell from looking at him that he was sick, so it was hard to wrap my immature mind around the reality that he was dying. It’s amazing how quickly that changed.
When we got home, he followed me into my room and asked if I knew the boys on the wall.
One of them is my buddy Peter. We hang out at school sometimes. I don’t know the other guys.
I could tell by the look on his face that he was measuring very carefully the words he was about to speak.
Mijo, the magazine in the alley was put there on purpose, he said wearily.
Well, it was a gay magazine and those boys were waiting for someone gay to pick it up so they could jump him.
The words that came out of his mouth all lined up and formed a complete sentence, but I did not understand. And he could tell.
Mijo, I don’t know if your friends-
Suddenly, it hit me.
They’re not my friends, I only know Peter from school and his mom likes me more than she likes him!
I started for the door, but Uncle Charlie grabbed me. No, you’re not going back there, he said. Okay, I said, can I call my dad? Of course you can, he said.
Dad showed up ten minutes later red faced and carrying the heavy end of a pool cue. Those little fuckers were gone by the time I got there, he said. Here, he said handing my Uncle Charlie the magazine, in case you’re lonely later. Dad looked at me and winked.
That night I lay in bed thinking about all those weekends I spent at Uncle Charlie’s. Those men always made me feel safe. It never occurred to me that maybe they created that insulated world because they knew that away from it, their safety was always a bit more precarious than it was for the rest of us.
She saw him standing there up, against a wall outside his apartment door. He was canoodling with someone.
She caught herself thinking, I’m so glad my mijo found some — wait, is that a…
As she got closer she realized what she was seeing was not a man and a woman locked in an embrace.
Get your hands off my son! She screamed at the man. She ran towards them and attacked.
Do you love Gramma because you have to?
Uncle Charlie chuckled at that. No. I really do love her. She raised me and your dad all on her own at a time when being a single mother was a huge no-no.
I thought about his words. He could see that I was drawing parallels with my own mom. I hadn’t heard from my mom in a few years. It wasn’t that she was a horrible person, she just didn’t want to be a mother.
You want to talk about it? He asked.
Talk about what?
He just smiled and said, nothing I guess. You want to tell me about the little red haired girl?
He knew her name was Jen, but he thought he was being clever with his Charlie Brown reference. It made me feel like he liked her. That made me happy.
Her family thinks I’m bad for her.
Me? I’m an angel!
He laughed and said, well your dad thinks she’s the reason you get into so much trouble.
He’s wrong! I was doing stupid shit before I met her.
Well he shouldn’t say that about her!
Maybe not, but do you really want your defense of her to be that you were a dipshit even before you met her? He laughed and said, what’s that say about her hooking up with a dipshit?
All I could do was laugh and agree with him. He just doesn’t know her, tio.
I know, mijo, I know. You love who you want to love, I’ll always support you. Just be careful and don’t make your dad a grandpa before you’re old enough to get a job.
When Eric left my Uncle Charlie to get help from the church for his gayness, my Gramma was hoping it would be a catalyst for her son to do the same.
No man has caused more confusion and needless emotional distress than Jesus.
For years after Eric left, my Uncle Charlie struggled to reconcile his faith with his sexuality. It hit him especially hard when Eric got married. To a woman. Because he was cured of his icky gayness.
When my Uncle Charlie was initially diagnosed with HIV I know there was a part of him that felt it was a result of his sinful nature. It took years, but eventually he realized that love is never a sin.
Years after Eric left him for gawd, my Uncle Charlie fell in love with a gorgeous man from Costa Rica named Jaime (pronounced hi-meh). He was Antonio-Banderas-in-Evita hot. Whenever I was out with the two of them I got to watch beautiful women deal with something they clearly were not used to: rejection.
They created a home together in a cool little place in Los Feliz. It wasn’t the apartment with all the men, but it still felt like home to me. Jaime and Uncle Charlie would play some canciones on the record player while they cooked up things I can’t pronounce but can still smell, all the while talking with their hands as much as their voices in an aural dance bouncing from English to Spanish and back again without ever missing a beat.
He was happy.
Then he was sick.
And Jaime was gone because fuck this shit.
When I was about nine, I saw a Queen concert on cable. I was mesmerized by Freddie’s stage presence. I knew that I wanted to be that when I grew up. Not just a singer, not some mere rock star, I wanted to be bigger than life and able to hold the world in the palm of my hand. That’s what Freddie Mercury was — bigger than the world around him.
He died three years after my Uncle Charlie.
When I look and I find I still love you
My Uncle Charlie got it in his head that he would be the first HIV positive person to complete the LA Marathon. The way he looked, I figured he could just roll out of bed and run it tomorrow. To my dismay, it wasn’t that simple. There was actual training and I was expected to help with that.
I am NOT running with you.
I don’t want you to run with me, I want you to ride with me as I run.
On a bike?
Wow, it’s hard to believe you’re flunking out of high school.
I mean, I don’t have a bike!
I do. You can ride it and help me keep pace.
I figured that would be easy enough. I mean, it’s riding a bike for fuck’s sake.
Gramma lived on 7th Street just off Euclid Avenue. Euclid Avenue ran north and south, uphill as you headed north getting steeper every block. My Uncle Charlie chose Euclid as his training grounds. It’s 2014 and my legs still haven’t fully recovered.
Weekends were the worst because there was no respite. No school to pretend to attend, no weekend visits to a parent, no sleepovers. Just an early bike ride until my legs cramped and some dude with some disease that’s supposed to be killing him running backwards in front of me calling me a pussy.
Then one day it just stopped.
Not this morning, mijo. I’m just not feeling all that great.
No early morning ride, no pained legs, no feigning death on 24th Street.
I get to sleep in? Thank you chubby baby Jesus!
Then it turned into a few days, then a week. And I noticed that he seemed to be losing a little weight. Not a lot at first, but the muscle was just not as there as it used to be.
There would be no more training for the LA Marathon.
I grew up worshiping the Magic Johnson-era Showtime Lakers. Magic retired three weeks before Freddie Mercury died.
I have acquired the HIV virus, he said. The words, the way he said them, sounded weird. All these years later he’s healthy and alive. Sometimes I think to myself, if only my Uncle Charlie could have held on just a little longer, fought just a little harder…
And it’s hard not to think about so much wasted. So much unnecessary death. So much beauty tossed by the wayside.
I’d like to go back one time on the roller coaster ride when life was just a game
By the time the end came, the world had discovered that this disease was not just something affecting the gay community. AIDS Projects were popping up nationwide, Ryan White was in the news, and celebrities like Elizabeth Taylor and Sir Elton John were pushing it to the forefront of the conversation. Finally.
Uncle Charlie knew that it was too late for him, but he had faith that one day AIDS would go the way of so many heinous diseases that have robbed so many of so much.
When it came time to say goodbye I sat at his bedside. He was loose skin over blue veins and bone. Because of our closeness there really wasn’t much that hadn’t already been said so I just sat there as he stroked my hand and looked at me.
You are as much mine as you are your dad’s.
Go easy on him. Just because he doesn’t talk much doesn’t mean he doesn’t love you.
That little red haired girl of yours loves you like crazy so be good to her.
I was a little caught off guard by that but I said, I will.
I mean it. Don’t ever let anyone tell you who to love. Not ever.
I wasn’t in the room when he died. He didn’t want me, or anyone but my Dad with him. They talked about their life together. They forgave each other for sins real and perceived. A couple of times we could hear them laughing through the bedroom walls. When it became obvious that it was time, my Dad took my Uncle Charlie in his arms and just held onto him.
It was quiet for a long, long time. My Dad finally came out of Uncle Charlie’s room, bloodshot eyes, drying blood on his shirt where Uncle Charlie had coughed up his last breath, and this look on his face like a kid waking up from a terrible dream.