Burning in hell
August 10 , 2005

I've been thinking all week about a friend of mine I haven't seen in some years now, who left my life just about this time of the year.  

His name was Mark. 

Mark and I knew each other for twelve years, from the time we were sweet young things—infants playing at adulthood. Mark was a sweet young thing: big brown eyes and an innocent and trusting soul. He'd do my hair and instead of the usual dishing, we got into some soulful conversations. Okay, we did the usual dishing, too, but mostly became the scandal of the salons for the serious talks we had. So when Mark got tired of salons and asked if I wouldn't mind coming to his house for the hair sessions, I did. We had even more soulful conversations after that. He'd tell me how he longed to see his family, but how he didn't go up north for visits often. He'd been raised in a really strict and narrowly-focused religious sect, and his family all pretty much believed he was going to burn in hell for moving to L.A. and living his lifestyle. His mom was okay—she did think he would burn in hell, but she wanted to see her baby boy and welcomed him home. But his step dad pretty much preached to him the whole time, emphasizing how doomed his soul was doomed and how he would burn. 

"How can he say that? How can he believe that?" I asked in outrage.  

"That's just the way they believe." 

"I'm sorry, but I can't believe in a God like that, who would make someone gay, then punish them for His own handiwork. I cannot believe a merciful God would do that." 

"Maybe you're right," Mark would say mildly. I knew I'd said too much and shut up. 

Once or twice he confessed to me that deep inside he believed he was damned, too. He'd been raised that way. Kind of hard to shake it.  

I don't think Mark played the field much, but his longtime live-in did. All I know for sure is that one day, he said, "We've broken up and he's moved out." That was all I could get out of him. I don't know if Mark became HIV positive through his lover's amours or his own—because we never really discussed the fact that he was HIV positive. See, this was in the bad old days, the worst days of The Plague, when persecution was still a real possibility. Doctors didn't know much about AIDS, no drugs had been developed to keep it in remission. AIDS gave only the promise of a young death back then. I knew a number of gay friends who didn't discuss their HIV even with other gay friends. You just never knew who would go into a panic and cut you dead. People were fired from their jobs, driven out of their homes and neighborhoods and schools. It was ugly. 

Sometimes we'd talk all around the issue, Mark and me, about the stringent health regime he was on, how there a lot of nasty stuff circulating out there, how you couldn't know if some little bug would turn fatal, about how he'd given up dating. Our eyes would meet and I'd swear he knew that I knew. I should have just had the courage to say, "I know and I'm okay with it." But I didn't. I kept going back to the same thought: I'm intruding. It's his disease. It's his decision to share or not to share. Maybe that was just my rationalization because I lacked the courage to confront it head on.  

One of those regrets I'll always carry. You need to say the things that are important when you have the chance, no matter what they are. 

Anyway, Mark got sick. "A bad case of the flu, but I'm going to be okay." A bad case of the flu was often the first sign in those ugly days that full blown AIDS had arrived. Many who had AIDS never made it past this stage, but Mark had been taking really good care of himself and he pulled through. He told me to come over on Saturday and he'd cut my hair. His first Saturday of having people over and getting back to work.  

For some reason I completely spaced out that day. I looked up and it was a half hour after the time I'd said I'd be there and it would take me the better part of a half hour to get there. I called Mark to grovel and apologize. Choked up, he said, "I thought you'd decided not to risk it after I'd been so sick." I said, "I would never do that to you, sweetheart. I would never do that." "I'm glad," he said, the relief pouring out of his voice. "I've got someone coming in twenty minutes, you want to do it late today?" "I don't want you to tire yourself out your first day back. Let's do it next Saturday." So we set up a time.  

I didn't talk to him during the week because I knew I'd see him on Saturday. Another regret I'll carry.  

I set out for Mark's good and early. As I drove through a patch of the Marina—really, one of the blandest places you can imagine, with a tacky coffee shop on one side and a not-great hotel on the other, and loaded with angry ant traffic—I suddenly got swept up in the most remarkable emotion, a sensation of pure joy, coming out of nowhere, sparked by nothing that I could determine: a synapse in my brain opened and poured forth the sweet juice of life. The world seemed to pulse with it:live this moment, and this moment, and this moment . . .  

I was so excited. I couldn't wait to get to Mark's and tell him about that remarkable sensation. When I got there a middle-aged woman answered the door. A middle-aged man hovered over her shoulder. The woman had dark circles under her eyes and an air of heaviness, utter exhaustion, as if she'd been beaten and could barely stand. "Is Mark here?" I asked uncertainly.  

"I'm his mother," she said. "We're just cleaning out his apartment. Mark passed away last Wednesday night."  


"He thought he'd beaten that pneumonia, but he hadn't. It came on very fast and they couldn't save him."  

"He was such a wonderful man," I said. 

Her shoulders sagged, the man standing behind her flexed his jaw a few times and stepped away from the door, out of my line of sight, and I realized—this woman and this man thought her baby boy was burning in hell. "It's nice of you to say so," she said. "I guess I should have called the people in his address book, but I didn't have the heart. Maybe later." I don't know if she ever did because none of us ever got that call. I can't say as I blame her, but I also couldn't help wondering if I would have ever known what happened to Mark if I hadn't missed seeing him the Saturday before—or if I would have just called to a disconnected phone, gone to an apartment cleaned out and rented to someone else.  

So I drove back home, sobbing, and I passed that same patch of road where I'd had the remarkable feeling of joy. I thought bitterly of what a farce it had been, what an illusion. But the feeling still waited by the side of the road, a tiny flutter of remembrance and echo of feeling, and realization thumped me on the side of the head. That was the message, dummy, delivered before I knew he was dead so I would know it for what it was later on: Mark was not burning in hell. He was not.


Copyright © 2010 P.J. Thompson