This is an extract from ‘Two Empty Chairs’, the book I wrote in 2005 about my struggles with HIV.
Victor would be forty-five years old today. What would he look like at forty-five? It’s hard for me to imagine him as a middle-aged man. For me he’ll always be a boy of thirty-one, a lost boy, a boy I lost.
I’m not a very sentimental sort of person. There were years that I didn’t even remember his birthday. But this morning I suddenly felt an enormous need to speak to him, to tell him for the zillionth time how I can still remember exactly what it was like the day he was born. I was staying with our grandparents in The Hague and I was playing outside in my new short sleeved shirt, it was a beautiful summer day. I was playing on my scooter when my youngest aunt, who became his godmother, walked up to me. She was wearing a white dress with big red flowers printed on it, and her gold charm bracelet jingled as she grabbed the handle bars of my scooter and congratulated me on the birth of my second little brother. I still remember being so happy that I started riding my scooter as fast as I could, over the sidewalk, around the corner, down the street and back again. He knew the story backwards and forwards but I always wanted to tell it to him again. Then he could act as if he were hearing it for the first time, just to please me (and to please himself, too).
I can’t congratulate him any more, of course. Anyone who doesn’t make it get a flower on his grave, tops. But I’m not big on visiting cemeteries. Tombstones leave me cold.
The ferocity of my feelings surprises me – even now, after thirteen years. But it’s not even now, it’s suddenly now.
In the last three and a half years I’ve used Victor’s death of Aids as a test to see whether my feelings about the past have really disappeared. I would think about it and wait to see what came to the surface. Nothing. I could still clearly remember the moment in the hospital at three o’clock in the morning, the closed eyes that had just been looking up at me imploringly, the hand already growing cold. But I felt nothing. No sadness, no outrage, no longing. “It’s gone,” I thought with satisfaction. “The past is erased forever.”
I could still remember it all, but it was as if I had heard it through the grapevine – like the Dispute of the Hooks and the Cods, a historic event that you know once took place but that has no other meaning for you.
I used to repeat the test on a regular basis, and to my great relief I found that it was still gone. Having an empty hard disk like that was inconvenient, too. Sometimes it was extremely impractical. But that was the price I had to pay for the freedom of a now that was no longer stuck between the past and the future.
Last year I started worrying again about little things – a jacket that I probably shouldn’t have bought, a bit of writing that was long overdue, an account of something that could have been more nuanced. I became anxious about nothing. I began to be my old self again. I didn’t accept it in its full intensity and hoped it would just go away. But it didn’t go away. My tears this morning were for Victor, whom I missed, and because the anesthetic turned out to have been only temporary. I cried because I’ve recovered. At least, I have.