Two weeks ago, right around the time the world was commemorating the 30th anniversary of the first verified case of AIDS, a good friend of mine died of the disease. He was 32.
It was a surreal experience to see the news media flooded with stories of how AIDS has become a manageable disease thanks to drug cocktails and read survivor stories of those who lived through the worst of the AIDS epidemic while at the same time grieving for my friend, whose HIV positive status I didn't learn about until after his death, despite being his roommate and friend of over a decade.
What was being remembered as a historical moment by the rest of country was happening to me for the first time. For months, my friend had been sick, all the while insisting it was a bad case of the flu. He lied about going to the doctor. He lied about having medication. He simply got sicker and weaker every time I saw him, which became less and less as he holed up in his room, silently dying, fully aware of what it was that was killing him.
I moved out to my own apartment about a month before he died and it was up to our fellow roommate to be the one to pass by the bedroom door one day, hear the labored breathing, break in and see our friend's condition and call an ambulance.
I kept up with the news of his condition by phone and then saw my friend post a new photo to his Facebook profile -- an image of him intubated in the hospital, distorted in iPhoto. The photo's ironic title: The Metamorphinosis.
And then he was gone. People always talk about "incalculable grief," but in the days that followed I did nothing but tabulate up the feelings and memories my friend's death brought up. Why did he keep his virus a secret? Was he suicidal or did he simply avoid treatment to avoid the truth until it was too late? Was it the cost of medical expenses that kept him from going to the doctor or the fear of accepting he was HIV positive? If he was in denial, whom else did he infect?
But mostly I felt the loss of someone whose life had mirrored mine. We first became friends in New York, at 19, with a date to see "Beautiful Thing" at the Cherry Lane Theatre. Years later, we rediscovered each other at East Village haunt, I.C. Guys, where future Scissor Sister Jake Shears danced on the bar for tips. When my friend, now a successful TV producer, told me he was moving to L.A., I was elated that one of my own would be out here in the City of Angels.
I don't know I will ever understand why my friend didn't get treatment for his disease, but his case isn't an isolated one. The CDC reports that HIV infection rates continue to rise among gay men and have been steadily increasing since the mid-90s. AIDS has killed 279,000 gay men since the epidemic began and 30 years after the fact, it's easy to pretend that we're not still dying.
But we are.