I still remember the first time that I saw him. He was beautiful. Tall, black hair, tanned skin, broad, muscled, with a gorgeous smile. I remember blinking repeatedly to make sure that I wasn't dreaming and I wasn't. I turned to my new "best friend" Angel and asked in a harsh whisper "Who is that?"
Angel rolled his eyes. "That's just Justin. He a friend of mine. C'mon I'll introduce you."
I remember how I hesitated to step forward, how my palms started to sweat. I just knew that I was going to make a fool out of myself. I wasn't "Smooth Vicktor" like I am now. I was a freshman in high school, still running from my truth. I was just "Dorky Veronica" back then.
Angel turned and looked at me, "It ain't like you got a chance. He's gay anyway."
I remember, even now, how Angel saying those words didn't bring me relief but only made me feel like I had MORE of a chance than ever.
I understand more now and I wish that Justin was still alive so that he could see me become the man that he always saw inside. Justin was the first person to call me "Vic" because he said I just didn't look like a "Ronnie" which is what I had people calling me senior year.
Justin was beautiful and talented. Fun. Justin could have been a Tony Award winner he was so fantastic. But Justin had a serious problem.
Ian was Justin's unfaithful partner. Ian slept with everyone and everything. Never used a condom and never got checked.
Neither did Justin.
Despite my constant harping of him. Despite me always dragging him with me whenever I got tested in high school or in college. Despite the flood of text messages, emails and voicemails from me, Ryan and Angel, Justin never got tested.
By the time he did, it was too late. He didn't have HIV, he had full-blown AIDS.
They put him on medication and while having HIV and AIDS is not the death sentence today that it used to be, for Justin, it was.
And the absolute tragic irony is, Ian is still alive, though Justin contracted the disease from him.
I was at work when I got the phone call from a furiously angry Puerto Rican. Angel was going off in Spanish, his mouth forming rapid words and spewing them forth in a rage, most of which I didn't catch. And then I heard it:
Then Justin told me that the doctors said it was AIDS, not HIV...full blown AIDS.
I didn't hear anything else that Angel said. My heart was shattered, all I heard was white noise. It couldn't be possible. Not my Justin. Justin and I were supposed to eventually get married one day, we were supposed to have kids. Even back then I'd told him that all he had to do was wait for me to become a gay man and we'd be set.
I remember when I called his cell phone. That conversation and the last one I ever had with him are locked in my brain and plays in a continuous loop in my mind, just like my first and last conversation with Christopher. I'm amazed at how my mind works and horrified that it would remember things that I'd rather forget as well.
Justin: (pause) Oh, hey Vic.
Justin: So I guess Angel told you.
Justin: I don't need you lecturing me Vic. Seriously.
Me: (softly) Why didn't YOU tell me?
Me: Why the hell did I have to find out from fucking Angel of all people?
Justin: But you love Angel!
Me: Yeah. But I love you more! Why the FUCK didn't YOU TELL ME JUSTIN?!
Justin: I COULDN'T!
Justin: Because I can't stand to hurt you Vic! I can't bear the disappointment. And because I didn't want to hear you cry.
Me: Well too fucking bad for you then huh? (sniffs) Why couldn't you have just gotten tested when I told you? How dare you do this to me. To us. Our group can't stand to lose any more people. You can't do this Justin. You can't have AIDS okay? (sobs) You just can't.
What followed after that was a lot of crying on my part and a lot of apologizing on Justin's. I'd been angry with him before, this wasn't the first time and it wouldn't be the last.
I read up on everything that I could find about AIDS, I signed every petition, marched, wrote about and started to pray, for the first time in years, that the same God that had let my fiance pass away from brain cancer wasn't a complete bastard and would save my friend instead. I started going back to church, thinking that if I did, maybe, just maybe, God, Allah, YHVH (Jehovah), would take pity on me and save my best friend, my soul mate, and he'd be completely cured.
Because I'd read stories about people suddenly not having it any more. I knew that Magic Johnson had had HIV for like over a decade or more and he was still around and working and to my mind, Justin was a much better person than Magic.
Then I got the phone call, Justin had gotten pneumonia from his sister's girlfriend and he was in the hospital and if I wanted to see my friend, I need to get an emergency passport and get over to England as quick as I could.
I remember my brain shutting down. I remember scrambling for money, for identification, trying to pack in a hurry, trying against all hope to pray and believe for a miracle. I remember being told that since Justin wasn't a family member I couldn't get the emergency passport, but I could get an express one in a week and pay an extra couple hundred dollars. I remember telling them money was no object and Skyping with the boys that night.
The cry that ripped out of me when I saw Justin, model beautiful Justin looking frail and helpless still echoes in my brain sometimes. I hadn't seen him for over a year by that point and his mother told me that not all of it was because of the "inconvenient diagnosis." She said Justin hadn't been eating, that he'd been stressing and that he'd started dating Link, another guy who had HIV. She was fairly certain that they'd used condoms but "couldn't be sure."
Our last conversation with each other was two days later, because three days after Justin went in the hospital he stopped fighting and passed away. It was short and I never would have thought that my friend would stop fighting, but our last conversation, while it rips my heart to ribbons of despair and agonizing loneliness many times, also makes me smile.
Me: So he's totally gay and just won't admit it.
Justin: And you're going to make him?
Me: Me and Little Big Vic, you know I take him with me everywhere I go.
Justin: That guy is dangerous, he almost brought me to my knees when I saw him
Me: That's his job, to bring sexy gay men to their knees.
(we both laugh)
Justin: So when I get to Heaven I'll look out for Vivianna and Christopher okay?
Me: Oh Justin, please, you're going to be fine.
Justin: Vee, seriously, I'm going to die soon-
Me: Shut the fuck up Justin!
Justin: Grow the hell up Veronica!
Justin: (sigh) Look, Vee, Vic, shit...I don't want to die, but I'm being realistic here, everyone's already said their goodbyes to me, everyone except you and honestly, I don't want to be another Christopher for you. I want you to say goodbye to me. I need you to say goodbye to me.
Me: Fuck you asshole.
Justin: That works too.
(we both laugh)
Me: Goddammit Justin, I'm going to miss you. What the hell am I supposed to do without you?
Justin: Well, you'll be a whole lot less fashionable. You'll fall back into utter dreariness and be completely boring.
Me: Smart ass.
Justin: Seriously Vic. You're going to be fine. I think you're going to finally start living for yourself and stop living through me. You're going to fall in love again, get married, have kids, get the hell away from your awful family. Laugh, because you love to laugh. You'll start singing again, you'll get the goddamn surgery so you can dance again and knowing you, you'll create some amazing charity to raise money for AIDS in my memory and add it to your list of ways to save the world.
Me: You make me sound like Wonder Woman.
Justin: Wonder Woman was a wimp. You're totally Superman.
Me: I love you.
Justin: Not half as much as I love you.
Me: Wait for me?
Justin: On the other side baby.
I lost my friend last year.
It was heartbreaking and I thought about joining him. He was with Christopher, my fiance', and Vivianna our daughter. They were probably in Heaven having fun. Dancing and singing and eating lots of inappropriate foods. I wanted to be with them.
But I know that Justin was right. Because I did get an idea for a charity to help find a cure for AIDS that's in his memory. I did get away from my horrible biological family and found a new family that loves and supports me. I did fall in love again. Then fell out of love and then found someone who makes my heart soar just thinking about him. Someone who makes me a better me and accepts me warts and all, and actually loves my possessive and sometimes jealous personality, someone that I feel like Justin handpicked for me with the help of Christopher, my dear friend Mores, my cousins Valerie and Tabitha, and my daughter Vivianna.
I'm laughing again and just recently started to sing again.
Getting married and having kids is definitely on my horizon.
And saving the world? That wonderful list that Justin teased me about. Well, it actually exists.
The HIV virus and the AIDS disease is a horrible bastard that I am determined to fight and win against, just like that stupid cancer disease. Cancer is a horrible luck of the draw.
HIV and AIDS can be avoided however.
Use a condom.
Wrap it up. Always, always, use a condom. Even if you trust the person, until you get that piece of paper that says you're both negative and there's a commitment in place, use a condom.
Because I want to cut AIDS down at its knees. I want to take the bastard out. And if I can get you and others to be safe, we can starve that horrible disease where it is and not give it another person, another family, another friend, another brother, another son, another daughter, another sister or grandson or granddaughter or cousin or niece or nephew...if you're safe and I'm safe and everyone's safe, then one day, and hopefully one day soon, World AIDS Day will be a day of remembering those we lost before and also celebrating that there are no new cases and that there is a cure for those who had it before.
I promised my friend I'd save the world, so I'm starting with you.
-Vicktor Aleksandr B.