Toward the very end, my brother Marty, who was gay, became an AIDS counselor, doing community volunteer work in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., with prisoners and migrant workers, educating them on Safer Sex. Being of use like that, he said, he was happier than at any other time in his life.
Though he had a series of male “roommates,” Marty was never “out” and he hadn’t actually told me he was gay. Until one day, a few months after our mom died from a peculiar home accident, he stopped by my apartment and said he was “sick” — a suspicious blotch had appeared on his butt. That was how he — and I — found out he had AIDS. He was in such denial, he had never even been tested.
Like former President George Bush, my brother Marty could barely utter the word gay aloud. Admitting it to others was even more difficult. That is what it means to be closeted, so deeply closeted you might lie to yourself as well as those who love you the most. These days, while thankfully there are fewer and fewer closets, I see more and more anti-gay backlash.
What Marty always said was that he was “too busy” to settle down. And he was. Busy, that is. Despite two advanced college degrees, one in history and one in education, he had gone into what I, the lapsed vegetarian, called “hamburger management” for Wendy’s after a Shore restaurant-inn venture went belly-up. He had an aptitude for training high school students, taking slip-shod teenagers and making them into mensches. That was the thwarted teacher in him, and he won managerial awards that way.
When I think of Marty now, I do not view him as the monster that he and others of his preference are sometimes made into by those with narrow notions of masculinity. It pains me to see “homosexuals” painted as sinners, perverts, the embodiment of evil.
Particularly when homosexuality is as American as apple pie. The 15th president of the United States, James Buchanan, almost certainly was gay. Finally, prize-winning historian James W. Loewen, author of “Lies My Teacher Told Me,” has outed President James Buchanan, who served as chief executive during tumultuous events on the eve of the Civil War, and had more pre-White House domestic and international expertise than all of the current crop of presidential wannabes put together. In Prof. Loewen’s newest book, “Lies Across America: What Our Historic Sites Get Wrong,” the scholar asserts that Buchanan’s long-time living companion, William Rufus King, was referred to as “Aunt Fancy” by that era’s Beltway crowd. Apparently, Buchanan’s sexual orientation was widely rumored around Washington, to the point that King was called “Mrs. Buchanan.”
President James Buchanan was, as they say, a life-long bachelor. That, of course, is code. As usual, the truth is cloaked in historical distortion. You must read between the lines, and connect the dots. “As a young man,” writes “Historic Traveler’s” Lisa Manhart, Buchanan “committed an unspecified indiscretion that angered his intended bride, and she broke off their engagement. When she died of an illness a few months later, her family forbade him to attend her funeral. Buchanan was devastated, and he disappeared for a time. In the absence of a Mrs. Buchanan, his niece Harriet Lane served as his hostess … often entertaining guests by playing the piano. When Buchanan moved into the White House as president in 1857, she assumed the social duties of first lady.”
While Secretary of State in 1848, James Buchanan had purchased Wheatland, his 22-acre country estate in Lancaster, Penn., attracted to the “privacy, quiet, and beauty of its rural beauty,” Manhart notes, and there, he would eventually lead “the life of a country gentleman.” The Pennsylvania native was born April 23, 1791, second of 11 children. After graduating from Dickinson College in Carlisle at age 18, Buchanan studied law in Lancaster, and plunged into local politics. Voters elected him state representative in 1814, and he served two terms in the new capital of Harrisburg. Buchanan took his next step up the political ladder in 1820 when he was elected to the first of four terms in the House of Representatives as a Federalist and then, as the Federalist party disintegrated, a fifth term as a Democrat in 1828. President Andrew Jackson appointed him as minister to Russia, where he served in 1832 and 1833. In December of 1833 he was elected to the Senate, where he served until he was appointed Secretary of State under President James K. Polk in 1845.
Can you imagine President James Buchanan functioning effectively in today’s tabloid times, his most intimate secrets “Drudged-up” and served to America as smutty breakfast fare?
Meanwhile, none of the gay men or women I know have asked for special consideration, or “extra” protection under the law. Ever. They just quietly live their lives. Some are relatively stable couples. It’s been said that all crimes are hate crimes, and perhaps there’s something to that semantic tap-dance. But people are attacked, and tormented, and killed, just for being gay. Homophobia is real. It exists. When I was a newlywed, the exceptionally handsome man I was married to was beaten up by five punks on the street. They thought he was gay. He was coming home from a concert. For days, he had a bloody heel-mark-shaped bruise on his cheek where they had tried to kick his face in. “Faggot,” they yelled as they punched and kicked him, “you bleeping faggot.”
Yet, unlike a sizeable percentage of “straight” American men, he had never had a homosexual experience.
When you hate someone, remember there is always a human being, some mother’s son, some father’s daughter, on the other side of that abstraction.
Someone like my brother … or yours.
My brother was a gentle man. He never hurt anyone in his life. The men he loved were adults, not children. He never beat or tortured or abused anyone — nor did Marty’s ex-lover Frank, or Frank’s lover Bill, or their friend Luigi. Or any of the dozens of gay men that I have known, some as close friends. Many of them dead now. My brother and his friends got their kicks from dinner parties and Opera and “Jesus Christ, Superstar,” and playing Canasta. Big whoop.
Do I know what really went on in their bedrooms? Honestly, no. But then I read about yet another priest charged with seducing altar boys, or an adulterous rabbi charged with masterminding his wife’s murder, or the “hetero” TV star who dons a bra and barks like a dog before sinking his teeth into his partner’s shoulder. So who really knows anyone, anywhere? Ever?
I know my brother liked computer fantasy games. I know he had Sound Blaster. I know when he was younger he tried to write science fiction. I know whenever he left a message for me on the telephone, he never said his name — just “CALL YOUR BROTHER.”
And now I can’t.
Nuked into Oblivion
“Be brave, honey,” I prayed into the phone, as much for myself as for him, after my brother cried out nothing was left of his bone marrow, how afraid he was. What a ghastly course of treatment he had chosen for himself. Macho to the end, he asked for, and got, the maximum dose of chemo for his “very aggressive” — like one more small crazed country practicing ethnic cleansing — case of Kaposi’s Sarcoma, which, before AIDS, only afflicted old men of Mediterranean extraction wearing undershirts in the sun.
“Be brave, honey,” I prayed into the phone, not even bothering to invoke that holocaust of hope, that alphabet of despair, the AZT, the DDI, the DDC — hideously perverse miracles. Those drugs of death danced his bone marrow to destruction, rendering it inert, useless, beyond help of blood transfusions, increasingly frequent yet so increasingly ineffectual that he could no longer tolerate even his two cats’ pathetic gestures of affection, so they had turned half feral. And didn’t the shaman warn if you don’t cure what starts on the skin it will likely kill you from within?
“Be brave, honey,” I prayed into the phone, “I love you.” Rushing to complete my work, too late, so I could join him for this crisis, too late, we all expected he’d survive, too late, especially Jeffrey, his $26,000-a-month personal physician who gave him 24 more weeks to live (the doctor doubtlessly counting on plans for a house in the Hamptons).
Who knew he’d die in 24 hours, my candles fluttering futilely, except for the one red one that went out after spattering my bedroom wall, like blood, while his soul fled at 3 a.m. from that dingy hospital, fled that angry, anguished and finally frail body nuked into oblivion by so-called medical science? Oh, stop me; sometimes I still search for his shadow, the shadow of his proud flesh, the red flesh that would not heal — seared into the brick wall of his apartment … like Hiroshima.
My Brother Visits to Rescue Me
Finally my brother appears to me in a dream. His hair is shocking white. Short, not the dark bristly crewcut of his beaten youth — for he was beaten by our father with a strap. Or the dyed failed pompadour of his misplaced life. But almost the flattened dignity of a Roman senator’s pewter helmet. My brother sits across from me, ever so peacefully, on a bamboo chair in the tropical living room of my new house he never got to see.
This is his first visit here. I am pleased. I have been waiting for some kind of reunion. Your hair has turned white overnight, I tell him. He has stopped dyeing his hair. He is not dying any more. The logic of dream-speak. Though I am ever Big Sister, he Little Brother — don’t fight, kids — it’s true. I accept his presence like a gift. Yes, my brother sits across from me in my living room, 16 months after he died. I believe in possibilities like these.
And so it feels like not a breath or a heartbeat has passed since his last visit to my old place, after Christmas. Unwittingly, we had both bought each other rings. Mine had an aquamarine nestled between twin gold hearts. His, a star sapphire set in platinum I got at auction. Now, in the room with me, thank God, he seems whole, healed. At least, on the outside, in this dream. No AIDS. No KS. No rage. No cold waxy pallor in a Poughkeepsie morgue. Just two grownups talking, people who obviously care about each other, glad to be together again. It can be a little lonely on holidays with no family left.
Suddenly, to my side, the largest palmetto bug I’ve ever seen in my life scuttles across the floor. It is huge, evil, a horrific mutation like some Claymation monster from a Japanese movie. It manages to look like an insect but vaguely penile, too. How glad I am it came while my brother is here. Bugs have always appeared to me in nightmares since childhood — bugmares — my old Asbury Park bedroom filled with grotesque locusts the size of birds, their wings beating in a symphony of fear.
As the palmetto bug comes closer to me, I cry out to him either aloud or in my mind, “HELP ME; PLEASE GET RID OF IT.” And in a flash, my brother, who decades ago hid behind a tree while these bad boys tormented me, in a flash my brother transforms himself into a long lean lithe lizard, leaps down, and starts stalking.
My Brother’s Brain
My little brother’s brain rests in a transparent box near my desk — mute, bloodless, contained — all I have left of him. No, he wasn’t an Einstein, arcane cranial contents coveted, kidnapped, sequestered after his demise. My brother’s Theory of Relativity was different: The family as matrix of pathology — as in his lament, “Mommy, HER mound of mashed potatoes is bigger!”
And I do not mean his crenellated lobes lie marinating in formaldehyde, either, but that a half-dozen computer discs, password missing, access denied, contain his last meanderings of consciousness, the Lost Boy’s array of games, tunes, sound effects, random notions, furtive jottings, a secret language entirely his own, with no Rosetta Stone in sight.
In life we weren’t close enough. He died alone, at 3 a.m., in a small city, a strange hospital, in a locked ward away from other patients. Two pairs of gloves, and still no one among the doctors and nurses wanted to touch him. No one could. The only tenderness he could tolerate, he paid for. Too late, I arrive — the day after my ego sought to delay his death for my convenience. I reunite with his corpse in the morgue.
He’s cold, pale marble with a beard. I barely recognize him, kiss his clammy forehead without thought of contamination: Blood is Stronger than Fear. “I wouldn’t do that if I were you,” warns the funeral director, whisking him away on a gurney. Two days later, my brother reappears, ashes in a cardboard box, diminished in size, yet homeopathically potent, rides in the car’s seat next to me the whole way from Poughkeepsie to Philly, where he spends the next two weeks in some badly-needed posthumous R&R on my rose-tiled English dining-room sideboard, as we engage in silent but spirited debate on the nature and/or duration of the after-life.
I’m a believer, remind him our own father described death as The Ultimate Adventure. While Marty, the fast-food manger with two master’s degrees, must think of Heaven as Hamburger Heaven, a gargantuan pair of Golden Arches with a rapidly aggregating sign, “Three septillion souls,” and counting.
Who are we to judge?