7am, November 20, 1990
This is an excerpt from my novel ‘Ties that Bind’ about the relationship of two brothers who are both living with HIV, each in their very own way.
7am, November 20, 1990
At 7:00 A.M. on November 20, 1990, my father phoned. His voice lacked its usual strength and decisiveness. He spoke slowly, sounding a bit dazed, as if he couldn’t believe his own words. He told me that Vincent was in the hospital. He had pneumonia and… Dad paused, the way he used to when he was reading us a story—except that this time he wasn’t trying to heighten the suspense, though he succeeded in doing exactly that—Vincent was seropositive.
“What? Vincent seropositive! That can’t be right!”
“He says he slept with a man twice, a fellow student. According to him, it happened before he realized what he was doing. How could he have had unprotected sex? Everyone knows what the risks are these days. Both of my sons seropositive… I just can’t believe it.”
Vincent was gay! Why had he never told me? It’s something we could have shared. There had been enough opportunities for him to confide in me—my joking remarks about cute guys, my relationship with Tom or, for that matter, my entire lifestyle—but not once had he ever taken advantage of them. He must have been laughing up his sleeve when I described the bars and discos that he must have gone to himself dozens of times.
Only recently I’d been telling Vincent how much my life had changed since the sword of Damocles had been hanging over my head. He must have suspected then that he was infected. How could he have not said anything? How could he have gone on deceiving me?
“Why didn’t he tell us, Eric? Why didn’t he give us a chance? If I’d known, I could have kept it from happening.”
“By warning him, by doing something. We’ll have to do all we can now to make sure he doesn’t get sick.”
“But Dad, he’s already sick. He has pneumonia, he’s seropositive, and he probably has AIDS.”
“No! They didn’t use that word. They didn’t use that word at all!”
That same day I took a plane from Paris to the Netherlands and went straight to the hospital to see Vincent. There was an elderly man in the bed beside him. The first thing I asked Vincent was if he had AIDS, but he put his finger to his lips: He didn’t want the old man to know. So I climbed up on Vincent’s bed and pulled the curtain around us, creating a kind of tent: a wigwam made out of white sheets.
“Yes, I do have AIDS. You never suspected, did you?” He lay back against the mound of pillows with a triumphant smile.
“Vincent, why didn’t you tell me you were gay?”
“The good news would have too much for dear old Dad.”
“I wouldn’t have told him if you didn’t want me to.”
“Of course you would have, you can never keep a secret.”
“But no one in our family had a problem with it. I told them I was gay when I was fourteen, and they didn’t bat an eyelash. Dad and Anna think of Tom as a son-in-law.”
“Yeah, because it’s you. You’re the oldest. It’s different in my case. Dad wouldn’t have been able to bear the disappointment of having two gay sons.”
“So how do you think he feels now?”
“Hey, who’s the patient here? How do you think I feel?”
“How do you feel?”
“Fine.” He had to laugh. I’d never seen Vincent so cheerful. His diagnosis had apparently not sent him into a depression. On the contrary, it was as if a heavy burden had been lifted from his shoulders.
“Doesn’t it bother you to think that you might not live to a ripe old age?”
“’The thing is, I can’t feel sorry for myself. I hope I’ve got a couple of good years left. Four, maybe five. Hey, Eric, you and I now have a tie that binds us together.”
“Haven’t we always had a family tie?”
“Of course, but now we’re bound together even more closely. Just think, we’ll be able to go to the doctor together, Eric. And to gay bars!”
His cheeriness was catching. The strange brother I had never really known had vanished. In his place was a brother with whom I now shared a lot of important things. I was pleased with the new contact between us. It was an unexpected gift. But a temporary one, on loan.