Adam McCauley was one of the fallen, one of the taken. In dreams he appeared to me in dark alleyways picking up lucky pennies from the ground, or strolling care-free upon the Chicago River like a miracle boy. Not once did he come to me, sickly, in a hospital gown with IVs sprouting from his arms. Not ever. And because I never got the chance to attend his funeral or witness his passing with my own eyes, it was easy to imagine that dear Adam was simply somewhere else.
One evening in the late 1980s, the two of us were slouched in a booth at a 24-hour Golden Nugget Pancake House, tired from a night of dancing at a local club. As we were both approaching thirty, we were often the oldest kids on the dance floor but we didn’t care. We loved the freedom of dancing. Dancing was like flying, and flying was like, well… it doesn’t get better than flying, does it?
We were chowing down when Adam told me, “Frank, if I ever get AIDS, I’m going to kill myself. There’s no way I’m going to let a disease like that dismantle my body piece by piece. No way on earth.” At the time, we were eating pancakes slathered syrup, and somehow with a mouth full of pancakes, I found it hard to imagine that bad things ever happened in the world. That anyone ever really died.
“Well, I mean, don’t you think you should cross that bridge when you come to it?” I said.
“I’m crossing that bridge now, while I still have enough brain cells left in my head,” he said.
“They’ll probably find a cure in about five years, give or take. And by then it’ll be a mute point.”
Adam looked at me sideways. “I think you mean a moot point.”
“No, I mean a mute point — one you can’t even hear.” We laughed. Then we were silent for a while as we both dug deep into our buttery stacks of pancakes, chewing slowly.
“And besides,” he said, “I’m not really asking for your opinion. I’m just giving you a heads-up. I’m a nurse so I think I know what I’m talking about. I’ve seen people die of AIDS and it ain’t pretty.”
“Okay, okay, I get it. You don’t have to hurt my little feelings,” I said. “But if you do kill yourself, promise you’ll call me first.” My friend said neither yeah or nay. But it was such a hypothetical question anyway as it was still early in the AIDS crisis. We didn’t know how the virus was multiplying. We had no clue the plague would linger for three decades and then some. We didn’t see how the beast was gaining on us, was almost at our doors.
Adam and I were lovers for six amazing years. We lived in different apartments because we liked our intimacy but we also liked our space. When he tested HIV positive, we tried to keep things normal but they slowly because abnormal with time. We spent fewer and fewer nights sleeping together in the same bed. His choice. He went out to movies a lot less because he was so tired. His choice. Sadly, this was before preventive cocktails were invented.
One day I called him at home to find the line was disconnected. Then I called the hospital where he worked and they put me on hold for a very long time. Then a voice simply announced: “Adam McCauley has expired.” Click. I was in shock. How could that be?
And Adam remained expired for the next twenty years until one strange night when the phone rang and Adam — or someone pretending to be Adam — called me on the phone to tell me he was alive again.
My name is Frank Ikura. Never Frankie, always Frank. Ikura, like the sushi, the one with the salty orange fish eggs on top that squirt salty goodness into your mouth when you bite them. I’m Japanese American; Adam was Irish American.
He had tousled red hair and reminded me of Paul Bunyan in a good way. My hair was buzzed short in a “high and tight” military style and I have a fireplug build. Teddybearish, some would say. Adam always called me a cuddle monster. I don’t deny it.
The gun man opened fire during a monolog by actress Sherry Watson. By the time the shooter was done, five people were dead.
After Adam passed, I started working at a nonprofit called A Future Without Guns which focused on solving the handgun problem in the U.S. This was a cause close to both Adam and myself. I also did a weekly column called “Can I Be Frank With You?” My by-line of Frank Ikura was printed just under the title, so readers didn’t miss the pun. From a recent column:
Just this past week, Chicago had its first gun shooting in a live theater, as opposed to yet another movie theater. It was during the anticipated opening of “They Shoot Horses, Don’t They” at LiveWire Theatre. The gun man opened fire during a monolog by actress Sherry Watson. By the time the shooter was done, five people were dead including: Ms. Watson, the shooter himself, and three audience members. It’s been noted he used hollow point bullets.
What was striking to me — if I can be Frank with you — was the response from Trudy Loveless, the new communications director for Gun Libertarians of America (the GLA). She said: “Our hearts go out to the loved ones of the deceased, but we know guns don’t kill people. People kill people. My liberal colleagues will be crying out for stricter background checks on the mental health of gun buyers. But that’s no magic bullet. Oops. No pun intended.”
Why such Dr. Seuss-like messages from the GLA continue to go unchallenged is a mystery to me, but I’d like to hereby challenge them. And I’d like to share with them this startling fact: People without guns rarely shoot anyone. (If Trudy Loveless is reading this, I would love to meet with you over a cup of coffee to discuss further.)
* * *
So there was that one strange night I was talking about.
That night all the TV stations were airing specials commemorating the 35th anniversary of the AIDS crisis. On my huge flatscreen TV, I watched as a sea of faces of AIDS victims scrolled across my screen. A single French horn played a wandering, mournful tune underneath. Six notes in search of a song. The faces were of all ages, ethnicities, and genders. Some faces reflected lives lived with grace and wonder; some faces were less optimistic, hinting at trouble to come. I always watched these montages on the off-chance I might see a photo of Adam.
It bothered me we never got a chance to say our proper goodbyes.
I must’ve fallen asleep on the futon because the next thing I was aware of was the sound of my cell. My ringtone had an outer-space quality to it. It reminded me of the sound a dying star might make as it sends out its final beams of light. Reaching clumsily in the general direction of the ring, I glanced at the caller ID: “Unknown Caller.” Probably a wrong number, I thought.
“I gave at the office,” I said to whoever was calling.
“Frank? Is this Frank Ikura? It’s me,” said a male voice. The phone connection was terrible. The other voice sounded like it was underwater.
“Sorry, thought you were trying to sell me life insurance. Who’s me?”
“Are you sitting down?”
“No, actually I’m lying down. Do you have any idea how late it is?”
“It’s Adam McCauley. Do you even remember me? It’s been twenty years. I’m alive. I mean…I used to be dead, but I’m alive again. Trust me I can explain everything, but it’s a long story. You’ll definitely want to be sitting down when I tell you.”
FROM THE DISORDERLY MIND
OF THE ALLEGED ADAM MCCAULEY
I remember coughing a lot that night. It was a cough that came from somewhere deep in inside me. Every time I hacked, my ribs hurt and I thought I was going to die. My mother said I was just being dramatic. Still she was scared enough to have an ambulance take me to Illinois Masonic. As a rule, my mother did not care much for gay people, but she was my mother first. I was rushed into the ICU.
“Mom, if I don’t make it…I want you to know that I love you…and that I forgive you.”
“Forgive me for what, Adam?”
“Never mind. Just take care of yourself,” I said. “God knows Helen won’t be much help in that department.” Helen was my wayward sister.
In the end, it was that cough that took my life. At the tender age of 31, I expired.
People spend a lot of time fearing death, but it isn’t hard to die. Dying is like falling off a cliff. It’s reminds me a bit of laundry. You spend all that time dreading doing it, and then you do it and it wasn’t really that bad. Living, on the other hand, is like signing up for a water aerobics class and getting a mountain climbing class instead.
When AIDS came for me, the trusty hospital machines that monitored my body for signs of life stopped humming, stopped believing in me. I remember my mother throwing herself across my body, crying. My friend Tony reached for my hand and squeezing it. And then I remember my soul rising up toward the ceiling like a patch of London fog, chilled and misty.
They say when you die, there’s a tunnel of light, but what I saw was a movie theater with only one seat in it. I took my seat. And here’s where they got it right: your life really does flash before your eyes. But the images don’t really flash. They move quickly but slow enough so that you can make out all the awful things you did wrong in your life. All the lessons that went unlearned.
In the first year after my death, I did nothing but watch that movie. It made my head spin to see thirty years of living crammed into one motion picture. Thank goodness for buttered popcorn and grape soda. In the second year after my death, I did nothing but view possible families to be born into, strange new circumstances to consider, possible countries of origin, etc.
At least that’s how it was for me. I can’t speak for anyone else.
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