by Nels P. Highberg
In 2016, standing in front of the painting Love Forever by Boris Torres, I first saw their lipodystrophy, the redistribution of fat on the body, a side effect of the early antiretroviral medications created in the mid-1990s to combat the effects of HIV disease was. Look at the bulges on the back of their necks and the proportion of the stomach on the man at the left compared to the rest of his body. I knew men who lived with this, and it was nothing compared to the horrific side effects of AZT years earlier (e.g., anemia, cardiomyopathy, numbness in the hands and feet). Antiretrovirals offered the first signs that it might be possible to actually live with HIV. Still, lipodystrophy became another way living with HIV that marked the body.
The painting was part of an extensive, meaningful exhibition at the Bronx Museum of the Arts called Art AIDS America that originated at the Tacoma Art Museum and gathered works created in the decades since the first mentions of what came to be known as AIDS in 1981. Torres was one of many artists I encountered for the first time. Many artworks in the exhibition contained a cacophony of images that parallel the feeling of being bombarded by so much information (and misinformation) about HIV and AIDS as medical, social, and political forces. But not Torres, at least in this work. The wide brushstrokes are so thick. It does not take many of them to fill a canvas just under four feet tall and five feet wide.
Their heaviness aligns with the heft of their bodies and their resilient presence. Thirty years ago, I had a college professor who always saw water as a symbol of rebirth, missing or ignoring our eye rolls whenever they brought it up, but it does seem to be an apropos interpretation here. Their nudity is on display but not sexualized. The water is not chillingly still, nor do waves pummel the men. They don’t hunch over but stand tall. The one on the left sees the viewer yet pauses. Will the men be challenged? Will they encounter disgust? Will the viewer smile and join them? Or ignore them? In the instant Torres captures, none of that matters. The men simply stand there, alive.
It was October, just a few weeks before the election and a few months after my husband of over twenty years died instantly and unexpectedly of hypertensive and atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease. Now, I realize I was deep in shock at the time, though I thought I was accepting reality, attempting to live the life I had by doing things like go into New York City from my home in Connecticut to see art exhibits, using life insurance to buy museum memberships and exhibition catalogs. The therapist I began seeing in 2017 diagnosed me with PTSD stemming not just from my husband’s death but from the loss of friends and lovers in college from AIDS.
It took me a long time to accept that diagnosis. My father had PTSD from serving in Vietnam, which is where he was the day I was born in 1969. I never will know all that happened to him because he died of glioblastoma caused by the United States’ use of Agent Orange in the war before, during, and after his service. That is PTSD. I suffered the loss of a husband and the loss of friends, but those losses were normal, just things that happened to anyone. After all, marriage is supposed to last until death do you part. Except for divorce, marriage lasts until one of you dies and one of you survives. My loss was normal, not traumatic.
I still waffle at that diagnosis, especially in 2020 when everyone is living in the middle of a pandemic (except for those who will not survive it). I look at these men and wonder if I should focus on the illness that marks their bodies or the life that emanates from their presence. It’s easy to acknowledge one viewpoint and follow it quickly with a “but” that recognizes the other, creating a Möbius strip that can become dizzying with its constant looping.
That actually characterizes my entire history with my own body, one of constant ambivalence. I never played a sport growing up, not the town’s little league or anything in school, but I loved theatre, the costumes, the blocking of movement around the stage, the exaggerated facial expressions played to the back row. For college, I moved from my small town to Houston and found an intellectual home in classrooms filled with more students than were enrolled in my entire school. In just a few weeks, I had laid claim to nooks around campus where I could read without being disturbed. As for my physical needs, I found men in the dance clubs and adult bookstores spread throughout the city.
It was 1988. We knew enough by then to have sex without contracting HIV, at least in theory. Doctors had been wrong before. Logically, the rules made sense: no ejaculation within the body means HIV would not be able to get in either. But was it that simple? Is simple even the right way to describe HIV, fluids, bodies? And would it really be possible to keep body fluids where they should be encounter after encounter, month after month, year after year? Turns out all the worry about a virus made everything else about sex a surprise, all the emotions, all the psychological anxiety, all the questions. It’s now 2020, and my doctor tells me each year I am HIV-negative. I am alive. There’s just another virus to worry about. The Möbius strip continues its looping.
I keep The Collected Poems of Frank O’Hara next to my reading chair in my home office. He’s another gay man who died too young, struck by a dune buggy on a Fire Island beach in the middle of the night during the summer of 1966. He was forty years old. But, oh, the life he celebrated in his poetry! In the years before the Stonewall riots ushered in contemporary LGBTQ+ rights movements and led to increased visibility of queer bodies, he wrote of the pleasures men could find in each other. “Lebanon” consists of six quatrains. The first and third lines of each odd-numbered stanza and the second and fourth lines of each even-numbered one ends with “lips.” The obsessive focus on this one detail of a particular man loops and builds until O’Hara concludes, “my breath will find its altar in those lips.”
Joy resides in parts of the body and in its entirety. In one of many poems he simply titled, “Poem,” O’Hara begins, “When I am feeling depressed and anxious sullen / all you have to do is take your clothes off / and all is wiped away.” The freedom — physical and psychological — of being undressed is where I try to allow my mind to return when I look at Love Forever. There is musculature. There is skin. There is warmth. There is always more.
Nels P. Highberg is Associate Professor of English and Modern Languages at the University of Hartford. His essays have appeared inConcho River Review, Riding Light Review, Duende, and Intima: A Journal of Narrative Medicine. In 2020, he received an Artistic Excellence Award from the Connecticut Office of the Arts.