There were always people I didn’t know in my house. A friend was explaining to me once that her cat was super unfriendly because she never had people in her home, so when she did the cat would panic and act like a psycho. I’m like a housecat who grew up in a house filled with people, I was always on peoples’ laps, I was always a part of sing-alongs, every adult was an aunty or an uncle, and while I recognized that my parents were mom and dad, there was little distinction to what they could provide as opposed to other adults in my life. They would send me to neighbors’ houses when they didn’t have dinner for me, I’d sleep on friends’ couches when my parents were moving from one apartment to another, and I felt loved by every person who came into our home.
My parents were also very free with love, by which I mean, they were very sexually experimental with all of the other adults coming and going from our apartment. We’d have squatters sometimes – sometimes they’d sleep in the living room and sometimes they’d sleep three-to-a-bed with my parents. This was part of the free love hippie mentality to which they subscribed. They found there to be no danger in sharing love with the world.
In the 1990’s people really started talking about some of the physical side effects of the free love movement and one of them was much scarier and much more stigmatized than the rest. Suddenly, there was this virus that exists only to punish the heathens who dared engage in sexual freedom. It targeted gay men, according to the media, and villainized the entire gay rights movement. Suddenly, the government was telling us that God was punishing us for our lifestyles. In 1990 we saw a child, with HIV+-transfused blood die from this virus. It was no longer just for the gay, just for the hippies, just for the drug-users.
By the end of 1996, there were an estimated 23 million people living with HIV and my father was one of them. He wasn’t sick long, which was something I’m supposed to refer to as a blessing. But suddenly, my free-spirited mother found her revolution and her own free spirit to blame for the death of her partner and she became any entirely new woman.
I like to tell her stories of my dad to try to break this down.
When I was seven years old, my mother was working as a waitress and my dad used to bring me into her diner and I’d rotate around all the tables eating the scraps from the people who had left without cleaning their plates. There was no stigma about it, it was economical and the food would be thrown out anyway. He’d sit at the counter drinking cup after cup of coffee keeping lookout for my mom’s manager, Mister Bob, and we’d have secret code words in case he came out.
If Mister Bob came out from behind the counter, heading towards the restaurant floor, my dad would lean back in his chair, stretch his arms exaggeratedly above his had and exclaim to nobody in particular, “WHAT A DAY!” This usually prompted Mister Bob to take a beat and commiserate while I plopped on the floor with my trucks and resumed play, appearing to have never touched the plates on the tables.
We developed different secret code words for all of our little adventures. If we were working in the book shop and he thought someone was stealing he’d yell out for me, “AYY, WHERE YA AT KID?” and I’d echo back, from wherever I was, “POLISHING THE GUNS, POP!” He thought this deterred thieves, we were never robbed, and it was a fun game for me. This was a win win win. Plus I had this whole fun language and deception that just we shared. Not even my ma was in on it.
If we were up late, sitting on the porch, smoking a doobie, and Carol came home. He’d quickly tell me, “…and that’s how a deaf pianist became the most famous pianist of all time.” Luckily for us, Carol couldn’t tell the difference between the smell of patchouli, nag champa, and cannabis.
In 1996, I was 19 years old and still living with my parents. I had technically completed high school, obtaining a GED after doing a couple of years of coursework to prepare. But I was aimless. I was sitting with my dad on the porch and he casually mentioned that he “has that virus we keep hearing about…. you know, the Tom Hanks movie thing…..” and then passed over a little roach.
We hadn’t prepared my response to this bit, I didn’t know what to say, but I did know that Tom Hanks died in the end of that movie. And so did my dad. There was no script for it, I was unprepared for it, and my mother has still not recovered.