Today the dentist bonded the edges of my teeth. Three of them were chipped, and my night guard has holes in it. It was two hours of fussing and grinding and feeling like there was a flood and then a desert in my mouth. The experience is horrendous, and I have a newfound respect for the women and men who endure that particular torture for the sake of vanity.
After my teeth are repaired, the dentist tends to my night guard and we discuss the holes I’d ground into it. I ask him if this is normal as my night guard is less than two years old, and typically they last nearly a decade. He asks me if I am experiencing undue stress. Pointing at the holes, I show him that this is exactly what stress looks like, but I can’t fix this kind of stress, and I don’t want to spend hours in the chair again. I don’t want to lose my teeth. I’m looking to him for a solution.
“I’ve never been under this much stress before” I confess.
“You’ve never lived through a pandemic before” he tries reassuring me.
“Yes I have. You just didn’t notice.”
Perhaps that’s some of what I’m ready to feel. Because I’m not a woman who deals with her feelings in the moment. I have things to do, so when the crisis is over, I’m ready to examine things. Maybe it’s time for me to recognize that this is familiar.
When I was the age my son is now, I was having girls night in with Steven and Frank, occasionally Tony too. We’d drink sweet wine with our pizza, wear green masks, and do our nails. Our dogs Baby and Killer would run around the apartment; we’d smoke light cigarettes and gossip about the people who came through the salon they owned. We’d lament the disappearing men and whisper about who was and was not positive.
I am a woman who spent the end of her teens and the first half of her twenties watching a community disappear.
We watched the die-ins as activists lay on the streets in Westwood. We were rapt when ACT UP brought the ashes of victims of AIDS to the White House lawn. Even in our terror, we learned how to plan a funeral for every religion and how to talk to a grieving mother – send the straight girl to the front of the line in case the family showed. And back then, I was very much a girl.
In a fruitless attempt to regain control of my world, I delivered meals to homebound people with AIDS via Project Angel Food. This was when they were a half dozen people in a church basement. I changed my route because the old man who always yelled at me was really just lonely, and if I delivered to him last and lingered to chat, he didn’t yell. That’s when I found out he wasn’t yet 30.
Frank died with my secrets just before I was 23. I was the only person at the funeral Frank’s father didn’t spew venom at. I was straight. Frank’s family was Catholic and Panamanian.
The next year, another friend, Gene, would have that same skeletal look. I found myself chanting ohm with a group of beautiful strangers while Gene overdosed and beat the virus to the punch. For the next 15 years, Steven and his new partner Robert would hold my secrets and then my babies until his death when I was a new mother. Steven knew babies and his friendship was, once again, a special gift as I entered motherhood.
Here I am just halfway through this lifetime having outlived the men that ushered me out of childhood and into my newly adult life.
But that last pandemic didn’t have to be so deadly. Someone should have touched and hugged those men (and women too). Pastors and Preachers and Rabbis didn’t have to talk about loving the sinner and hating the sin because we all know that love and yearning for human connection cannot possibly be a sin. All of those parents turning their backs on their children, that was the real sin, and no one is alive to forgive them. The only thing worse than being gay during the height of the AIDS pandemic was to be black and gay.
This is not our first pandemic. This is not the first time our leaders killed us with the lie that there are good Americans and Others.
Had we acknowledged our humanness and provided condoms, needle exchanges, and education, how many people might have lived? How many mothers wouldn’t have collapsed when they had to bury their sons? Ronald Reagan was HIV’s strongest ally, refusing to discuss even the existence of the virus while actively working to dismantle the few freedoms granted to gay citizens.
Had we acknowledged in 2020 that a plague was spreading worldwide, how many of us would have lived? What if we didn’t blame China? What if we were protective of Asian Americans? How many more people would be alive today? News networks that would never dream of airing the n word ran clips of Trump saying K*ng Flu and worse ad nauseam, and of course, there were four years of the way he said China.
Yesterday six Asian women were slaughtered in Georgia. We all helped Trump kill those women. We all let that happen.
This pandemic is just like the other pandemic. The Megachurches and mega donations put angry old men in power. The first plague had a B List Actor in the White House losing his mind to Alzheimer’s, and this plague featured a fiscally and morally bankrupt reality show host who never had a brain in his head to lose.
We aren’t meant to live this way. Our marriages were never supposed to be our sole relationships. Our children were supposed to have privacy and independent lives. We were supposed to attend weddings and funerals and birthday parties too. Our parents were supposed to get hugs.
Mr G and I took a walk the last week and our almost two year old neighbor told us that for her birthday the thing she really wants is friends.