“Wanting, Always Wanting: An AIDS Memoir” by Julie R. Enszer

Coral Reef, Andy Maguire

We become our deaths.
Our names disappear and our lovers leave town,
heartbroken, crazy
but we are the ones who die.
We are the forgotten
burning in the streets
hands out, screaming,
This is not all I am.
I had something else in mind to do.
-Dorothy Allison

I.

In 1990, I volunteered at the gay and lesbian community center in the metropolitan Detroit area; in 1992, I became its second employee. Writing that sentence is vexed for many reasons. The location of the center in the close-in, northern suburb of Ferndale angered gay and lesbian African-Americans who wanted the center in the city of Detroit, where for years Black activists agitated for gay and lesbian rights and from which the initial funding came. We always said that the center served metropolitan Detroit, and there was always the unspoken knowledge that it did not and could not really serve African-Americans when it was outside of the city. We called it the gay and lesbian center because the acronym LGBTQIA+ had not been formed yet; we had discussions about inclusion of bisexual and transgender people during my time at the center, but the name persisted and now it feels like an anachronism. Then and now, I chafe at the word “employee,” the word of management, the word that separates workers from one another, the word that resists collectivization, solidarity, and shared commitments. We were in the cradle of militant union activism, walking in the same streets as Jimmy Hoffa and Myra Wolfgang. More than mere nuances, however, the fact of volunteering then working at a gay and lesbian center in 1992 was bold and audacious. At this time, gay men and lesbians still were afraid to identify publicly—people lost jobs, friends, family, religious communities and more for speaking openly as lesbians, gay men, bisexual, transgender, and/or queer people.

The real consequences of speaking openly as queer were compounded by the fears and hysteria of HIV and AIDS. AIDS shaped our daily lives, our sexualities, our experiences. Yet because we were in the Midwest, we counted ourselves lucky, even grateful, to not be affected by AIDS in the same extreme ways as folks on the coasts, particularly gay men in New York, Washington, DC, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. At the same time, we did not know what the future would hold, how broad and devastating the epidemic would be. Would anyone survive? Would AIDS result in the complete end of gay men and gay male culture? During the years that I worked at the community center, two gay men on staff died of AIDS, in addition, board members died, volunteers died, friends died, and my sister died (not from AIDS but in a car accident). I was twenty-two in 1992. Death was all around me. Working at the community center was only my second or third job after college; I thought it was usual, even ordinary, for people who you worked with every day to die.

II.

Until the community center, my life was, to my chagrin then and now, usual and ordinary. I came out in 1987 as a lesbian-feminist in college, at the University of Michigan, surrounded by other young lesbians and gay men who had escaped from their hometowns to the academic bastion of liberalism. We skulked to the gay bars in town titillated by the older gay men and lesbians who seemed like regulars, who swaggered in their certainty of who they were in their pride of that place. The lines on their faces told different stories, but we looked away. We danced at Gay Night at the local dance club with brave friends, curious about homosexuality with the tired line, “I’m straight, of course, but my friend is . . . ,” their words falling off confronted with the need to say “gay.” We organized kiss-ins and Coming Out Day celebrations. We were campus activists, reading coming out narratives, nurturing militant politics, listening to whispers, anger, rages about AIDS.

Wide-eyed, from a small town, I had been searching for lesbians since I was thirteen. In college, I found them, resonating with me like the symphony orchestra tuning to the oboe’s A 440. Everything around me verberating, adjusting up and down to play that perfect, clear note. I fell in love with my roommate. It was such a cliché. For the first time, I thought this is what best friends are—close, intimate, sexually charged. I understood the excitement, the affinity, the shared emotions, and dialogue. I fell in love hard, even as she told me repeatedly, I am not a lesbian. She, worldly and savvy, had known lesbians and gay men in boarding school, even dipped into the honeypot herself, but said it just was not for her; she was heterosexual. She was definitive. I wondered if I were somehow different would she would be a lesbian; I wondered if somewhere in the future she would fall in love with a woman. At the time, though, I was grateful to have a best friend. We settled into friendship—friends, not lovers, close friends, best friends.

After university, I moved to Detroit for a job and one led to another to another then the job at the center, so I bought a home, a big old Victorian near the old baseball stadium. The bedrooms filled with roommates (necessary for the big heating bills in winter) and friends and projects. For a spell, the woman who ran the local gay and lesbian monthly newspaper lived in the house. We all worked with her in the intensive weeks of page design, paste up, delivery to the printer and distribution. Then my former roommate, my best friend, disillusioned with academia, left her PhD program and moved to Detroit and lived with me for a number of months in the old Victorian.

I would say those were the best months of my life, except everyone was dying. Not everyone, of course, but that is how it feels in my memory. The beautiful men around me becoming sick or afraid of becoming sick. At college, the professors had spoken in whispered tones about people being ill, about colleagues and friends who had AIDS or died of AIDS. Suddenly, in my mid-twenties, I was now whispering about death, too, and hugging people for longer, imploring them to be careful, be safe, take care of their health. Yes, we filled that house with laughter and screeches and screams and giggles and guffaws, but when I remember the house, I remember whispering at the dining room table, on the couches, on the porch. I remember the intimate quiet moments when we cherished a fragile life that was slipping away all around us.

And when all of these people were dying around me, when we were whispering like old people about medication and symptoms and hospital stays, when we were measuring time in inches not feet and certainly not miles, when we owned black dresses like our grandmothers, when we kept the dresses clean and black stockings fresh in our drawers, when we had practical black shoes for funerals and returned to work after because we were out of bereavement days, out of sick days, out of vacation days, when we wrote obituaries and attended funerals, my best friend was there. Until she was not. Until she left.

Over time, I have reflected on her leaving. On my own anger and jealousy. On my sense of abandonment. She moved away from the deaths of AIDS. I wanted to go with her but lacked the courage to leave my job, sell the house, believe in something new. Grief was my mistress; I could not leave her dark tunnel. The griefs were not only deaths. There were other griefs as well, other losses, other moments of mourning: the losses from homophobia—losses of family and friends who denounced the queers, loss from murders outside bars, murders near people’s homes. I watched it all in my twenties and became fearful myself. Afraid of death, fearful of attack, concerned about the future. It seemed reasonable we would all die miserable deaths—and in the end no one would care. Leaving seemed a reasonable response for my best friend. She was young and healthy and straight. I was trapped in Detroit by my deviance; she could leave. She did and I was left with the believe that she departed because the grief was too much to bear.

I would like to make myself a heroine in this story; a heroic out lesbian, surviving, thumbing my nose constantly at society. I would like to be the heroic one and write her as the weak one who left because the grief was overwhelming. I hold on to that narrative, now for twenty-five years, because it lessens the pain, because it is the only narrative I have. 

Of course, this is the most usual story in all of literature: lost young love. After she left our Victorian house, the hardscrabble streets of Detroit, the communal living of our early twenties, queerness, the gay pandemic, after she left me, she married a man. As she always said she would.

III.

Maggie Nelson posits that the living imagine what “the dead would have wanted were they not dead.” The dead, she argues are “finished with wanting.” She is wrong. The dead are still wanting. Still wanting to live, still wanting a boyfriend, still wanting to finish law school, to work as a lawyer, still wanting to meet and fall in love, still wanting to know what it is like to be long married, still wanting to know if there was someone better, if they should have broken up, still wanting to know if we ever got rid of Ronald Reagan and George Bush (they do not even know to say the George Bush the first, though they would want to know that there was another), still wanting better health care, still wanting new drugs, still wanting to laugh, still wanting to cry, still wanting to see how it all turns out. Still wanting—there are so many desires in the world, I cannot imagine them all.

I have never met anyone who was dying who was ready for life to be over. Everyone I know who has died wanted more, more time, more days, more life. Sometimes in the summer, when the days are long and hot and humid in Florida, where I live now, I think that it would be nice to tune it all out. To go away. To not want any more. Still I know the wanting would return, the wanting to know: what happens in the next election, will the lesbians sustain Sinister Wisdom as I want them to? What great book will be published next year? What new book will change my life? 

We are all wanting. Wanting to know the future, wanting to understand our lives, wanting to know our truth. Some days in Florida when the heat presses down on one’s chest with its hot, sticky weight, I see my dead around me. They tell me their wants, they whisper, they holler, they cry, they scream, they laugh. They want to be here with me; they want to be here in the world. Yes, Maggie was wrong; the dead are still wanting; wanting and afraid, afraid of being forgotten, afraid of being the one burning on the streets, hands out, screaming. They want to be remembered.

IV.

The man my best friend married as she always said she would? Lovely. He is a lovely man. I love him, and I hate him as I always knew I would.

The young woman I was, with people dying around me, in the center of a health crisis, fades in 2020 into a middle-aged lesbian, married, frumpy. The young woman I was—angry, fierce, separatist, grief-stricken, and pining for a woman who would not return my sexual love and desire—that woman recedes into the past. People I know today do not see her on my skin. We are no longer heart-broken, crazy.

Now that I’m fifty, when casually speaking of people who are sick (I WROTE THIS well before COVID-19), people ask me, Have you ever spent time in a hospital? Have you ever seen sick people? I want to tell them all I know of hospitals, all I know of sickness, of the death I have seen. I do not tell them anything. I nod and smile, not revealing the past, recognizing it is not written on my body, knowing that our names disappear as our lovers leave town. I pretend for the sake of polite conversation to not have been shaped by a plague with people dying all around. I pretend my life is usual, my encounters with death minimal and in the proper order of things. People assume the only deaths I know are my grandparents, perhaps a parent. I do not tell them all I know of death.

Occasionally, rage slips out. When I teach a class about the history of AIDS and the willful way that the president looked away, when tears well up in my throat. When someone mentions the brilliance of Freddy Mercury and I am spitting with rage about how he did not come out. How he lied and denied. It shocks people: this nice middle-aged lady so angry about something so long ago. They shake their heads. I bite my tongue.

My best friend and college roommate is living out west with her husband—a lovely man as I said. For the past two years, she has been living with breast cancer and its treatments. We text. I visit. I am reminded anew of those years between 1992 and the switch, the magic moment: the triple cocktail, protease inhibitors. Is there any cocktail in our future to lessen the pain?

After three decades, there is no secret upside to the plague, no forgiveness in my heart for people who looked away.I want to say to my best friend, I prepared you for this. Though I did not. Nothing prepares you for the illness that visits your own body. I refuse redemption. I want to say to her, I could have been with you through this. A devoted lover and partner facing illness. I want to not be honest. I know the truth: even if we had been together as lovers, we would not have had the power to stay together. Remember, she is not lesbian.

How did we survive? I cannot remember. AIDS provided me no special preparation for future illnesses and deaths. I remember, We become our deaths. I remember disappearance, denial, forgetting. Here I am carrying death inside me; here I am taking it out, holding it up. Here I am living. Living as a lesbian again and again, embodying the deaths of so many, remembering their lives. Here I am hands out, screaming. This is not all I am. I had something else in mind to do. I am like the men loved and lost, wanting, wanting more, holding something else in mind to do even as I do all of the things every day that make a life. In that wanting is perhaps how we survive.

✶✶✶✶

Julie R. Enszer, PhD, is the author of four poetry collections, including Avowed, and the editor of The Complete Works of Pat Parker, and Sister Love: The Letters of Audre Lorde and Pat Parker 1974-1989. In 2022, she has two books forthcoming, OutWrite: The Speeches that Shaped LGBTQ Literary Culture and Fire-Rimmed Eden: Selected Poems by Lynn Lonidier. Enszer edits and publishes Sinister Wisdom, a multicultural lesbian literary and art journal.