Sunland Years

I don’t remember exactly, but I think it was the spring of 1984.  I was seventeen; if it was after April, I was eighteen.  That’s an exciting age — it is full of possibilities and unbridled optimism; for a white, middle-class American boy about to graduate from high school the only obstacle to a bright future is a lack of imagination.  Those were “the good ol’ days” — the days before sex could kill you.

At that age, having sex was pretty much all I ever thought about.  So that Friday night, in the old Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Community Services Center on Highland that for some reason always smelled like cat urine, I hurried up the stairs and down the dingy, poorly lit hallway with the threadbare carpeting to Youth Rap, already late, and quietly surveilled the room for the boy from Temple City I was dating at the time.  I found him halfway back from the speaker looking so damn fine sitting there Indian-style on the floor in his parachute pants and Vans slip-ons, snuck up behind him and kissed him on the back of his neck, then took up a spot next to him; as he reached out and took my hand in his I said, “who is this queen and what’s she droning on and on about?” Annoyed, he shushed me and said without looking at me or ever taking his eyes off the guy who was speaking, “there’s this thing that can kill us if we fuck, they call it AIDS.”

Yah right,” I scoffed dismissively, “you sound like the priests from my high school… you can’t die from having sex!  They always told me,” I continued as I turned over my right hand that he was holding in his left, “that if I jacked-off I’d get hair on my palms — either I’m doing it wrong or they lied.”  He ignored me and strained his head to listen more intently to the speaker. What the hell, I thought, I’ll listen too.

There are moments in your life that you remember with absolute clarity; it’s as if someone had filmed them and you are watching them back in your head.  Sitting there, holding his hand, it was the first time either of us had heard the term AIDS.

Eight years later, at the age of 26, he died — of AIDS.

We were kids… well, young adults.  We didn’t have the vocabulary to talk about what was going on around us and, in some cases, happening to us. In order to cope, my friends and I gave AIDS the name “Pablo.”  That way when we wanted or needed to talk about it, we could just talk about what an asshole Pablo was.  We could relate to an asshole named Pablo; we could not relate to a disease called AIDS.

For about two years after that, I did nothing but go to work, go home, buy cigarettes at the 7-11 across the street, and sit up chain smoking till 3 am every night teaching myself to program and writing computer code.  I became a hermit, living in a city called Sunland, about as far north as you can get in LA and still be considered “in” Los Angeles, convinced I was furthering my IT career when what hindsight tells me I was doing was grieving.  And hiding.  Not just hiding to avoid potential infection and harm (or worse), but hiding from a world of people that were dying around me.  I was subconsciously protecting myself from the pain of so much death and loss.  Sunland is the outskirts of the outskirts.  You’ve heard people talk, disparagingly, about the San Fernando Valley? Well, Sunland is beyond that!  The only thing you’ll find to the north is a mountain range (the Angeles National Forest), with the Mojave Desert just beyond.

Sunland-1.8

I wasn’t aware of it, but I was making every effort to be as far away from the bright lights and dance floors of Boys Town as I could.  I had no friends.  Er, well, scratch that — I had one, my best friend from high school, straight, who rented my spare bedroom and helped code most of the scheduling and work order modules of a facility management system we created; usually around 2 in the morning we’d escape the glow of our screens and the clackity-clack of our keyboards and go foraging for food at an all-night taco truck in a seedy part of town.  But computer programming and tacos aside, I realize with the benefit of hindsight afforded me now by age and wisdom, or just age, that I had sent myself into exile.  AIDS isn’t, and never was, a “gay disease;” but for a gay man in his twenties in the early 90’s it sure felt like one.  Whatever it is that makes us do things subconsciously, my “inner dialogue” had me convinced that the best way to avoid all the sickness and death and unrelenting heartache and existential despair was to avoid anything remotely associated with the gay community.

I should point out here that I didn’t go back “in the closet.”  During this time in my life, I still, proudly and openly, identified as a gay man.  I just wanted nothing to do with gay people, or gay places.  That all changed in 1994 when two long-time gay friends staged an “intervention” of sorts by luring me out to dinner one Saturday night then suggesting we pop into a gay bar (the infamous Woody’s Hyperion in Silverlake) for a nightcap afterwards.  Their evil plan succeeded beyond their wildest imaginations — within six months I’d left Sunland and moved to Silverlake, a block from Woody’s!

The rest is, as they say, history, and a rather sordid history at that!  Though it would be another four years before I began dating seriously again.

Back during the Sunland years one thing that might have made a difference to me was a vaccine for AIDS.  I say that because what I feared most was the horrible deaths I had a bedside seat for.  I feel “wrong” calling them horrible — I say horrible because I can’t think of an adjective strong enough, graphic enough, emotional enough to describe watching someone your own age die as a twenty-something, and not from a bad car accident or falling off a ladder onto a upturned pitchfork, but from a “virus” you cannot even see.  Short of a cure, something that would render the virus less deadly would have been welcomed with open arms, and rolled-up sleeves.  Medical science did eventually produce an effective treatment; HIV/AIDS is no longer a death sentence. 

Many, too many, succumbed to this modern-day plague.  Some, like me, got lucky and did not, though I live in the wake of its swath of destruction everyday — bearing wounds physical, and psychological — always mindful of the hard won bittersweet legacy of that time when you really could die from fucking.

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