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My Generation
Jenifer Levin

Late 20th Century


In the future that was no longer his, he would have had a dog. Something like a mastiff, with oversized black-padded paws and a baritone bark. Instead we gazed achingly through pet store windows, autumn and marathons over, chill pervading city streets more thoroughly than the Christmas lights, our lips smudging glass. We strolled. Talked swimming and running. Medical truths went unspoken. He told me that, during Ironman, he had stopped long enough to lay down by the roadside among orange peels and crushed paper cups and watch a lava-bright sun set over Kona. Stars in the Pacific appear early, more brightly above ocean islands, in different configurations than he was accustomed to back east.

He could not hold his weight but liked to eat breakfast each day at the same diner, and so we did: eggs over easy, orange juice, coffee, toast and hash browns. There was something both comforting and sensual about the way the fork-pierced, yellow-orange yolk spilled onto crust. Jam came in thumb-sized plastic containers. The waitress there was kind.

He spoke to me of love. I was going through the bitter ending of another absurd and disastrous affair -- predictable! -- women! -- and I later sobbed selfishly in his small, sad apartment. He warned against the dangers of isolation. Told me I could stay, and he would take care of me, would comfort me, for a while. His head seemed enormous that day, engorged with tumor, eyes swollen almost shut, once-magnificent body an attached, wasted string. This morning when I woke up, he said, I felt so frail, so light. As if I could fly. The next day, he did.


Reilly told me once he could live very happily in his head, and therefore he wanted to live as long as possible. It was our human duty to fight illness and death, he said, by any means possible, even if that meant being sustained by machines. Lying there on an upper East side sofa, hooked to the oxygen tank, he'd take trips to Switzerland. Mozambique. Ulan Bator. Hardcover and paperback books lined pastel walls. The curtains were straight, clean, European. They framed panes and buildings and a sky that, beyond the smog, seemed endless.

His mom was a shriveled little prissy Irish biddy, who didn't know much about queers and hated whatever she did know, but Reilly was her only child, and a son, the high-polished apple of her eye. I mean, he was her boy, her boy -- and by God her boy was dying, and she'd be damned to eternal and literal hell if she'd let him die alone.

I gave him a back rub. Mom rubbed his feet. Reilly cried silently. The tank hissed rhythmically that day, for hours the only sound in the stale, feverish air of a dying man's home. Towards evening, he whispered into my ear: Remember the valleys of Mongolia? Himalayan snows, when we escaped with His Holiness? That time in Laos -- the Plain of Jars?

There were so many others, too many, all gone. This was the fate of my queer generation. You expect the losses to mount as you grow older -- but for us, the losses were catastrophic early on, and those of us remaining entered middle age, in many ways, as hollowed-out survivors. I was not, am not, a political creature. Grief is just grief, in the end.

But one other death I especially recall: This a very young boy-man whose end was merciless, terrible, unnecessary. The friend of a friend. We all went sledding upstate one winter, and tearing downhill I broke my thumb on the ice-strewn base of a tree. Helping me tape it up later, he was quite dainty and solicitous. I gave him a colorfully embroidered baseball cap, which he loved. He wore it every day in the hospital. .And then this sweet boy -- who had only been fucked a few times, who had not been alive long enough to really hurt anyone badly, and who, more often than not, looked like a pretty little puppy dog panting for love around men -- died screaming, delirious and in terrifying pain. When breathing stopped, his eyes were open beneath the cap's soiled rim, frozen in an upward gaze, pupils fixed in horror.

I confess that this particular demise seemed vacant and pointless. The kind that made you long to ask some deity: Well, bubba, what exactly was that one for?


These things happened so long ago, in the first decade of plague. Before miraculous drug regimes. So most of those boys are gone.

I hear echoes of their laughter in my own son's voice, but know that these are just echoes. His generation is not mine. His has its own struggles, triumphs, losses, many yet to unfold.

As years pass, though, and as the end of life begins to seem oddly closer than life's beginning, I have often pictured the impossible: My friends, still alive, growing old like me.

It is nothing but a wish.

Yet there are times when I recognize one of them, the best and most brilliant of my generation, joking or walking, running, swimming, dancing -- in city pools, bicycle lanes, at Columbus Circle, on West 14th Street, hailing cabs, among red and black and green-clad holiday crowds in Chinatown or in Central Park -- passing shadows, still young and hale. And I race with increasingly middle-aged legs and lungs to catch up, until a turn of the head, a gesture on the part of the pursued, unveils the lie: it is not one of them, but some other. I pursue the wraiths of memory only, spectres of maturity unfulfilled, battles fought and lost. Yet in advancing age, I know this too: That age itself is defined by a compilation of scars, each scar a memory. Touch the scar, feel the pain. And whomever you have loved, you see them everywhere.

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