The Famous Murderer

An encounter with AIDS

Jo Salas
The Memoirist

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Photo by kids&me Germany on Unsplash

Steven* was the first person I knew with AIDS.

I found out he was ill when I read a small item in the newspaper during one of my infrequent visits back to New Zealand. The article said that Steven Stein had been arrested at the airport for trying to bring angel dust into the country. Charges had been dropped out of compassion because he was dying of AIDS.

It was the early 80s and AIDS was new. Effective treatment was years in the future.

I read the story aloud to Ray and Jenny. The three of us were sitting on beanbag chairs drinking plum wine.

“Is it really our Steven?” Ray asked, taking the paper to read it himself. “Christ. Poor guy.” Ray was as handsome as he’d been as a teenager. Jenny was thin and athletic, ordinary at first glance and then beautiful as you really looked at her.

“Ray, we have to see him,” I said. We hadn’t been close to Steven for more than twenty years. Like me, he’d left New Zealand years before to live in New York. But we inhabited different worlds and were barely in touch. I was a mother, a writer, a small town-dweller. Steven lived a rich gay man’s city life. I could not imagine him mortally ill.

It took only three phone calls to find him: Wellington is such a small place.

“Do I look like I’m dying?” Steven said sarcastically after he’d let us into the little lace-curtained house in the suburbs where he was staying. One of the friends who’d helped us find him had explained that Steven had come home to see his sister’s new baby but she’d refused to let him in her house, fearing contagion. His mother didn’t want him either.

His family’s behavior seemed brutal. And yet I too felt a primitive fear at being in the presence of this disease for the first time. It was like meeting a famous murderer.

“Well, do sit down,” Steven said, leading us into the neat living room. His dark New York clothes seemed out of place.

“Are you staying with friends?” I asked. I didn’t want to make him tell us the story of his rejection by his mother and sister but I wondered whose house this was.

He waved his hand around the room. “It’s a couple in the gay men’s network.” They were strangers. Steven had contacted them in his panicked search for somewhere to stay and they’d taken him in. He was too sick for a hotel.

But he didn’t seem as deathly ill as we had expected although he was gray in the face and gaunt. His hair was gray too. He looked very different from the last time I had seen him, three years earlier in New York City. In my occasional longing to see someone from my past and my distant homeland, I’d tracked him down and we’d arranged to meet.

I found him outside Carnegie Hall, facing the other way down 57th Street. From the back, his hands in his pockets, Steven appeared exactly as I remembered him from our teens when we had spent almost every day in each other’s company. He turned and his wide smile was the same too. He took me to a quiet bar with a few expensively dressed New Yorkers murmuring and laughing. I felt out of place with my cotton dress and unvarnished toenails. Over champagne — I pretended to find it normal to drink champagne in the afternoon — he described his life of wealth and esoteric urban pleasures. Steven had gone far beyond the tame vices that Wellington in the sixties had had to offer. I thought he was hoping to impress or shock me, the way he used to. As before, he undercut the effect with his ingenuous good nature.

I listened, recognizing the old Steven, enjoying him, looking forward to a revival of our friendship. He asked almost nothing about my life. When it was time to leave he made it clear, not unkindly, that he considered me boringly lost to motherhood and wholesome living and was not interested in maintaining contact. I said goodbye, calibrating my casualness to his.

In high school we had spent a pivotal year together, Steven, Ray, and I, and our friend Angela, a silken-skinned redhead who had been expelled from two schools before she came to ours. Angela exuded a rank sexuality that frightened many people, including my parents who wished I’d chosen a different best friend. Ray with his dreamboat looks was the object of romantic longing from the girls and sneers from the muscly, beer-drinking boys. Angela and I prided ourselves on liking Ray for his mind, not his gorgeousness. Angela and the flagrant Steven were openly wicked, Ray and I well-behaved but eccentric in relation to our sports-loving, pop-music-listening contemporaries. We forged a four-person tribe within which we could be as weird as we pleased without being lonely. We congratulated ourselves on our fellowship.

In those days in New Zealand, high school students did not own cars. But Steven did. We would walk straight out of the school building while our sheep-like peers shuffled along to their next class. Reveling in our freedom and the perfection of each other’s company, we wandered the coastal roads, stopping to picnic on a beach or under pine trees, slipping back into school in time for the last class of the day.

One day a man in a suit interrupted our fish and chips on the beach to ask us, shouting over the roar of the surf, why we were not in school.

“We’re allowed to leave the school grounds at lunchtime,” shouted back Angela, smiling brilliantly. It was true, though this permission was not meant to include beaches 15 miles away.

We forgot about him, but when we returned an hour later the assistant headmaster was waiting for us at the school gate, spluttering with fury. The man in the suit had recognized our school uniforms and reported us. We rolled our eyes at each other as Mr. Willoughby herded us into the waiting room outside his office. Leaving the door ajar so we could listen and squirm, he tried calling each of our parents, reaching only my mother since none of the other parents spent their days at home.

“I am sorry to inform you that your daughter has been apprehended in truancy,” we heard him say.

We were all suspended for two days. Our disgrace confirmed the general suspicion that Steven and Angela were bad, and a bad influence on Ray and me.

None of our parents understood that we were essential to each other’s education. Angela, for instance, taught me how to flirt, and Steven taught all of us about homosexuality. His steady boyfriend was Wellington’s best-known radio DJ. Steven read us the DJ’s fan letters from young girls and reported on orgiastic parties with visiting movie stars. “Peter O’Toole?” Angela and I echoed in astonishment, revising our romantic image. We knew it was also quite possible that Steven was not telling the truth.

Steven’s debauchery fascinated me, but it was his warmth that kept my friendship. He was not as smart or literate as the rest of us but we forgave his lack of brains because of his sense of humor and his affectionate generosity — praising successes that he did not share, bringing us random little gifts. There was a certain courage in his obliviousness to prejudice, as a Jew and a homosexual. He had a physical appeal, too, which Angela and I discussed privately. We found him both repellent and attractive, with his knowing charm, his ease of stroking and caressing, his bad skin and stink of cigars and garlic. Sometimes he would kiss one of us, cheerfully omnivorous. When he brought his satyr’s thick lips close his smell was overpowering.

There was no kissing between Steven and Ray. They respected each other’s divergent sexual interests. But Ray was seen by others as Steven’s prey. “You — bloody — queer,” hissed Wayne Badgett as Ray and I passed by him in the school corridor. Wayne was a rugby halfback, raw-boned and mindless.

“Um…I’m not, actually,” Ray said. My hands itched to strangle Wayne. Steven would have stung him back but Ray had no weapons against such hostility.

Occasionally we hung out at our homes, though we preferred neutral ground. The commonality that sustained us was undermined by the sharp differences between our families. Steven’s was wealthy and European, the homes of his divorced parents decorated with modern art and angular furniture. His parents themselves were invisible, known to us only as sources of money for Steven. He was unconstrained by parental rules or concerns. No one queried him, so he claimed, if he arrived home at six in the morning, his neck gouged with love bites which I covered with make-up when he got to school.

The only family member who mattered to him was his younger sister Claudia, petite and perfect with her sophisticated clothes and precocious confidence. They were as close as Hansel and Gretel.

Angela and her coarse-voiced mother lived in a council house, ugly and cold. I didn’t like seeing Angela there, preferring to imagine her in a setting more appropriate to her personal splendor. Ray’s widowed mother was a scientist who urged us to call her by her first name. I studied her, a model of womanhood quite different from my mother and her friends.

I was the only one who lived with two married parents and a crush of sisters and brothers. Angela, especially, was drawn to my family’s appearance of normality, not knowing that the solid walls of my house hid its own form of misery. I couldn’t tell her because I didn’t know it myself. It was the air I breathed. But when I saw Steven and his sister together I was filled with an inchoate envy for their harmony and unashamed love, for their pride in each other, for their independence from parents, for the glamour of having only one sibling instead of five.

I didn’t know Claudia as an adult. I had heard that she was no longer enchanting. Certainly the bond between Claudia and her brother had changed if she could turn him, mortally ill, from her door.

Steven’s Wellington refuge was drab and excessively tidy, like a great-aunt’s house, except for the poster with the back view of a leather-jacketed man sitting on a fire hydrant, legs splayed wide. Ray and I sat on a couch facing Steven. I hadn’t seen Ray much since those high school days, but we’d stayed in touch through letters and my occasional visits. Angela had disappeared from our lives altogether, although I suppose we would have found her if she was dying.

I was comforted by Ray’s faint warmth beside me as we cast about for pathways into conversation. It was not easy. Steven said nothing about his illness. He seemed to want us to collude in his claim to health and rejected the tender sympathy we had so uselessly brought. I was curious about his idiotic choice to smuggle drugs but it seemed impossible to ask. Nor did he appear interested in us. We talked across a ravine of unacknowledged experience. Steven’s voice was the same, mocking, cool. Occasionally he stumbled for a word.

Stacked by the wall was a pile of new baby toys.

“Claudia won’t let me give them to the baby,” said Steven. She had allowed Steven to see his niece but only inside a car, with the windows almost closed. Steven managed to preserve his tone of irony, almost amusement. I imagined sorrow, rage, longing, but they were hidden from us.

“How’s your work going?” asked Ray, steering away from the edge.

“I’m retired,” he said. He was only thirty-eight, as we all were. “I made a lot of money selling art and I retired to Hawaii. Here, look.”

He pointed to a photo album with a gaudy sunset on the cover. We turned the pages obediently although I soon saw that it would tell us nothing about Steven’s life. Photos of a flat tropical landscape, half-hidden houses, sandy roads. No people. I thought it was a mistake to have visited him. I had hoped for a sign of the old complicity, the spark that had made us all so delighted with each other as teenagers. It wasn’t there. Not a flicker.

Beside the photo album on the coffee table was a teething ring. Every now and then Steven picked it up and chewed on it. He explained that his tongue was swollen with fluid and the teething ring helped to relieve it. Otherwise it got difficult to talk.

We waited for him to chew. His eyes watered and he spat into a tissue. Ray and I looked politely at the photo album.

“Let me show you the house,” said Steven, wiping his mouth. We followed him, glad for any action. The other rooms were like the living room, small and tidy. He led us finally into the bedroom where his hosts slept. Suspended from the ceiling above the candlewick bedspread was a large leather contraption hung about with chains and buckles. I couldn’t picture how it worked. An array of whips stood in a corner. With a glint of the old Steven, he watched to see if we were shocked. The bizarreness of sadomasochism in such dainty surroundings seemed comical at first. But Steven stood there grinning with the aura of his mortality around him and my amusement left me.

We said goodbye. Steven and Ray shook hands. I hugged him. I didn’t want to be like his sister and his mother, afraid to touch him.

“Come and see me when you’re passing through Hawaii,” said Steven. His voice was without warmth. I didn’t think he would be pleased if I dropped in on his Molokai hideaway. Besides, how long was he going to live there? Or anywhere. Ray and I drove home in silence.

A year later I heard that Steven had died. I dreamt about his long-ago kisses and felt again the animal fear of death.

In my mind I framed a letter to his sister: “Dear Claudia, I am so sorry for your loss. I remember how much you and Steven loved each other. Ray and I saw him last year in Wellington but it was not us that he wanted.” I never wrote it, though.

* All names and some identifying details have been changed.

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Jo Salas
The Memoirist

I write about what I see, what I remember, what I want others to know. My published fiction and nonfiction is listed at www.josalas.com.