I just finished watching The Normal Heart on TV. While I saw the play about two years ago at the Arena Stage in Washington DC and had read the real-life story that it was based on, And The Band Played On, by Randy Shilts, I was unprepared for how powerful the HBO movie was. I remember the early days of AIDS but turned away from the death and disease as many men did.
There was a man I became close to in my 20’s who was 11 years my senior. Ken and I met at a personal growth workshop that was popular at the time. He was a men’s clothing executive in New York. We became close friends. I always knew that Ken wanted to sleep with me. Finally, once towards the end of our friendship, we did sleep together. It was terrible sex. I remember that he tasted of cigarettes, and I hated that smell and taste on his breath. He wanted to fuck me, and I said no. At that point in my sexual life, I had been fucked once when I was 17 and found it incredibly painful, swearing that I would never do it again. This was before anyone talked about condoms. I’ve thought back often about what might have happened if Ken had fucked me that afternoon in his apartment. After our one sexual encounter, our friendship rapidly faded. A few years later, I learned that Ken had died of AIDS when an old friend called me about his memorial service. She had become close to him and cared for him as he got sicker. He died at age 46 of complications from AIDS in 1992.
There were others. Steve and I were both planning to attend a men’s workshop in Nappa Valley, in California, and he had agreed to host me in his apartment in San Francisco the night before the workshop started. I remember Steve as a gorgeous, dark, hairy, sexy man. I can still see his handsome face and body in my mind all these years later. We had sex in his apartment on my one night in San Francisco. I remember wondering what he saw in me. I didn’t think that I measured up to him in hotness. He was one of those handsome men who could have had any man he wanted. A few years later, I heard Steve had AIDS. I never heard about him again and assumed that he dies of AIDS.
Lastly, my friend Ron. Beautiful Ron, who always called me ‘sweety.’ I met Ron through his boyfriend at the time, a dancer that I had worked with in summer stock. When I moved to New York City for college, I got in touch with Ron about a part-time job. I was 18 years old, and Ron was probably in his early to mid-30s at the time. I worked for Ron part-time as a graphic designer, a half-day a week for almost a year, and we quickly became close friends.
Ron took me to Studio 54 several times. He was so tall and handsome that the crowd parted as we walked up to Studio 54 and the man at the door, whose name I remember as Mark lifted up the velvet rope and let us pass. Ron was handsome, always horny, and who random sex came easy to. Ron used to go off to backroom bars for, as he called it, ‘a little nookie.’ Ron and I had sex only once. I only learned in bed with Ron that the beautiful head of curly hair was a hairpiece from Hair Club for Men. I knew by that time that his perpetual tan, which brought out his bright blue eyes, came out of a tube. The sex with Ron was not great. Like Ken, our sleeping together was the beginning of the end of our friendship. Ron and I began to drift apart in the mid-1980s, and then he just disappeared. I learned later that Ron moved to Florida with a partner and died there a few years later. While I never heard that Ron died of AIDS, he hooked up so often, in the baths, or the backroom bars on the upper west side of NYC near his apartment, that I assume that HIV/AIDS was the cause of Ron’s death.
Watching the Normal Heart reminded me of how absent I was during those terrible years. I turned away from the disease and the suffering, only to try and look back these past two years and see clearly what occurred and what I had missed.
Larry Kramer, as everyone knows, went on to found Act Up. The world that was asleep needed to be woken up by Act Up and the raw anger of that period. The Normal Heart was based on the true story of what happened during the early days of the AIDS crisis.
All of our leaders were silent. President Reagan, silent. Mayor Edward Koch, silent. The CDC and NIH, silent. It is criminal the silence that occurred in the early days of AIDS.
I was glad to see that Larry Kramer wrote the screenplay and that it was directed by Ryan Murphy. It was powerfully written, directed, and acted. I found it moving and heartbreaking.