Courage and Joy in the Age of AIDS – James Finn – The Blog


When I bent over to stick the floppy disk in the drive, Craig touched my neck. I almost forgot to cover my mouth before I cleared my throat. Guilt prickled up the hair on my arms. I pointed at his keyboard. “Could I just, um …”

“You’ve got glitter under your collar,” he said, rolling back in his desk chair to get out of my way.

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“What?”

He held up his hand, forefinger and thumb stuck together. “Your neck. Fairy dust. See?”

“Oops, damn it!” I opened up a command shell with my right hand, loosened my tie with my left, and tried to reach around and get rid of the evidence.

Craig stood up and snagged a tissue out of the hand-embroidered box on his pin-tidy desk — the box beside the framed photo I’d never had the courage to ask him about. I was typing, “a:/update.bat” when he reached over. “Here,” he clucked. “Let me. You can’t see what you’re doing.”

I looked up to find his face closer to me than it ever had been before. I tried not to stare at the blotches. His breath smelled like old mushrooms. I suppressed a shudder.

“Relax, sweetie,” Craig told me as attacked my nape with the tissue. Almost got it. There! All done.” He sat back down. I thought I saw his emaciated chest heaving. I wondered if he was out of breath.

“Thanks,” I murmured as I glanced down at the amber-screen CRT. Then I apologized. “The updates take about ten minutes. Sorry.”

“Don’t be! I was getting a paperwork headache. Sit down. Relax.” He pointed toward his coffee nook. “Tea? I’ve got got Thai jasmine and Earl Grey.”

“Thanks. Just back from that Chinese place on the corner. I swam in tea, I’m afraid.”

“Oh, right. So… the glitter? You must have been naughty last night. I don’t see any bags under your eyes. Ah, to be young and healthy!”

I smiled. “Yeah, the Limelight. They had a special party. Some fundraiser. I didn’t stay out too late. I was in bed by one. Almost.”

He sighed, then whispered, “Fabulous!” He started to say something else, but a coughing fit strangled him. I looked away until he had it under control. “Did you dance?” he finally asked, as if nothing had just happened. “What did you wear? Anybody else there I’d know? I haven’t been out in so long!”

Craig was ten years older than me, and he was dying. Every day, I passed his office and peeked in, wondering if he’d be gone. Every time I talked to him, I was afraid I’d sniffle or cough without meaning to — and kill him.

Every day, he’d see me in the corridor and call out, “Good morning, cutie. What’s cookin’?”

My students loved him. Said he worked his ass off for them. Fought for them. Inspired them.

Me? Can I tell you the truth? He scared the hell out of me. No, I wasn’t afraid he was going to give me HIV. I knew better. I was terrified to watch a man in his thirties die.

“Does he like Chinese?” Craig asked.

His question pulled me out the thoughts I was lost in. I looked up. His eyes were soft and wet. His face glowed with concern. For me. “Your lunch?” he repeated. “Did Stephen come eat with you again? Does he like Chinese?”

“Oh, right. Yeah, he does, er did. Both.” I was stuttering and worried that I was making a fool out of myself.

“Did you guys go to the club together last night?” he asked, one eyebrow lifting. “A date?”

“Sort of? It was his idea. He had an extra ticket, or something like that. How did you know?”

“A little birdy might have told me,” he laughed. “See? I told you he liked you!”

My stomach did the little flip it does when I’m nervous. “Um, maybe? I don’t think so. He’s out of my league, man. Seriously. We have lunch together sometimes because… I don’t know. Just because. He doesn’t like me like that.”

“That’s not what the birdy tells me. Have some confidence! Dude, you’re cute. You’re nice. You have a job. I don’t know what league you think he’s in, but you’re in the majors.”

I felt myself blushing. I didn’t say anything, just glanced down at his desk. The photo caught my eye again. Craig was young in it. I barely recognized him with smooth skin, a tan, and dense looking muscles. A cute guy’s arms were wrapped around him, and they looked like they were two seconds away from kissing.

I knew who the guy was to him. That’s why I was afraid to ask.

“His name was Danny,” whispered Craig. “I was out of his league too, or at least I thought I was. Until he got down on one knee and asked me to spend the rest of my life with him.”

I winced.

“It’s OK,” Craig said. We had almost 7 years. It wasn’t as long a lifetime as we planned, but it was a lifetime. His lifetime, anyway. And most of the rest of mine.”

I stood up and looked at his monitor. I needed to be gone. I needed not to be having this conversation, but the update wasn’t half over.

“It’s OK, man,” he said. “Don’t be sad for me. Please? Sit down. Smile. We’re both here right now, we’ve both got work to do. We’re both helping people who need help. I’m exactly where I want to be, doing exactly what I want to do. You don’t have to be sorry or afraid or whatever it is you’re feeling right now.”

My mouth dropped open and stayed open as I sat back down. I didn’t know what to say except, “How do you do it? I don’t understand. Where does your courage come from?”

“You think I’m brave?”

I shrugged. “You come to work every day. I see you sitting here shaking with fever. I hear you coughing all the way down in my office. I see you so exhausted by 5 that you can barely stumble downstairs to catch your cab home. If that’s not courage, I don’t know what it is.”

“Maybe I’m just stubborn and stupid?” he said. “Or maybe …” He looked down at the picture.

“It’s courage,” I insisted. “I don’t think I could do it. I don’t … I worry. I wonder what I’ll be like if I get it. If I have it. Some people just lie down and die; I’ve seen it.”

He looked up. “If I didn’t come to work every day, I’d be sharing the apartment with Danny’s ghost. And he’d be asking me what the fuck I was doing sitting home. And I wouldn’t have an answer for him.”

I tried to keep my voice normal. “Um… yeah. Sure.”

He laughed at me. “Don’t take me so literally, cutie. The dementia hasn’t gotten to me yet.” He grinned at me, sneaky and funny, and for a half second, I saw the guy Danny must have seen.

“I’m going to keep on doing what I do,” Craig said, “because it makes me happy. Because when I help our clients work out their own problems living with HIV, then I’ve DONE something. Do you understand what I mean?”

“I guess. I mean, that’s kind of why I work here too, besides like, needing to pay the rent and eat.”

“It’s not just happiness. It’s more than that. If I can make other people happy, if I can increase the sum of total happiness in the world, then my own suffering doesn’t hurt as much. Does that make sense?”

I drew in a painful breath. “I hope so. I don’t know. I really don’t know.”

“So, dancing last night? Was it awesome? Did you get lost in it? Did you forget who you were for a while and just melt into the music? Does that ever happen to you?”

“Yeah. Yeah, it does. How did you know?”

“That damn birdy’s a gossip, dude. What can I say?”

I laughed.

“But you know that feeling, that euphoria that come from losing yourself? That joy?”

“I think so. Yeah. I do.”

“Cool, well, dancing to trance isn’t the only way to find it. Joy is mysterious. Working here is part of the mystery for me.”

“That’s a lot to think about.”

“So don’t think about it. Go live. Go call Stephen and ask him out on a real date.”

“Now you’re changing the subject!”

“Nope. Same subject. It’s all about bravery and joy, man. Why do you think I set you up with him? He likes you like that. The birdy knows.”

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