There I was, laid out on the steps of the Philadelphia Art Museum, having rollerbladed for several miles around theĀ Schuylkill River.

I hadn’t done that activity in several months, and it showed. At the end of my sprint, I was lying there, literally gasping for air. I had pulled off my wrist guards and waist strap, so as not to be encumbered by anything extraneous that might be between my body and the air. My lower back throbbed and ached with pain. My t-shirt was soaked through with sweat from 40 minutes of toil. More sweat kept running down into my eyes, but I didn’t have the energy to wipe it away, so I just kept them closed.

There was a band playing there, with a large crowd, and I hated that. All the more to distract me from my single focus, which was to just breathe.

The situation was all the worse when a rather large lady came and sat next to me, and then lit up a cigarette. I was too busy staring up at the sky to notice it at first, but the smoke, along with the smell of her perfume, eventually wafted over, choking me, and pulling my concentration away from my recovery.

As I looked over at this lady, who was puffing merrily on her Newport cigarette, I began to think of something mean to say to her before leaving. I settled on the first line that floated to the front of my brain: “u bitch. I just got done this workout and you’re gonna make me choke on your cigarette?” Fair enough; it would get the point across while being sufficiently rude, so as to induce both guilt and hurt.

As I swung my legs around and sat up, she took notice of me for seemingly the first time. “Hi, would you like a ribbon?” she asked, holding one out in my direction.

“No thanks, I’m leaving,” I spat out, as I re-sheathed my water bottle and began to pull my wrist guards back on. “Oh, I’m sorry if I disturbed you,” she said. “No problem,” I replied, not looking at her. My first statement must have sounded, characteristically, more snippy and harsh than I meant, because she apologized again.

My curiosity got the best of me. “What is this event?” I asked. Turns out it was the 11th Candlelight Vigil, in honor of those who had passed due to HIV/AIDS. The woman explained to me that many of the people in the crowd were from intervention programs and safe houses, and were struggling with drug abuse and/or AIDS themselves.

Then I told her something I had only discussed once before in my entire life. I explained to her that my uncle had died of AIDS over a decade ago. His name was Gary. I didn’t know him well, but I know that he was the only adult besides my father who I remember hoisting me onto his shoulders, and the first to give me a sip of beer. (It was Coors, and very nasty. Still is today.)

Gary didn’t get AIDS from drug use, though. He was gay, which, inexplicably, was something that I just knew about him. It certainly was never discussed by the adults in front of us. He and his “friend” lived alone in a house across town. Eventually, after observing Gary’s steadily deteriorating physical state, I remember inferring that he also had that disease. The link, then, was made in my mind: gay = AIDS = leper = death.

I gleaned only one snippet of conversation about Gary. My mother said once: “I TOLD him that he had to stop doing that! He said to me, ‘well what am I supposed to do, stop living?’Please!

This was the late 80’s. And when Gary died, there no funeral, at least not for us kids. He just sort of went away.

Shortly after his death, my family moved into his old house. My parents also never discussed in front of us the fact that it had been his.

“Let me ask you something,” the lady said, breaking into my thoughts. She leaned over in my direction. “Have you been tested?” No, I haven’t, and so we discussed that too. I explained that I’ve been in a relationship for three years now. How do I turn around one day and say, “babe, I love you, we need to get tested”? We laughed and bandied about several probable responses, such as “Why? Who you been fuckin’?” and “Why? Who you think I been fuckin’?”

After a few more minutes of conversation, I said it was time for me to go. She held out a red ribbon. I took it, slapped it onto my chest, and skated off into the deep, red dusk.

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3 Responses to Encounters

  1. hopehouse says:

    Do you realise that you will probably remember this lady for much, much longer than you will a lot of others who have spent comparatively more time in your life?
    Makes me question the presence of so many in my life. People can become like “clutter”, I sometimes feel the need to just sweep them away.

  2. Aaron W. Benson says:

    I’ll probably remember her in vague, general sense, not in any specific way. I generally only remember people for the tangible ways in which they helped me improve myself — not because of who they are.

  3. Susie says:

    Thanks for — well for lack of a less touchy-feely term — for sharing. Your story is well told and really powerful.

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