Wednesday, November 25, 2009

My Perfect Date with an AIDS-afflicted Felon

This blog originally appeared on IN COLD BLOG, a true-crime blog where I am a regular contributor.



I’m driving north on Florida State Route 75. It’s August and the flat land stretching out on either side of the highway looks baked. The slash pines, palms, and cypress trees stand like stalwart sentinels against the blistering sun: brave.

The car hums along, the whirr of the air conditioning compressor keeping me company. I’m too jazzed to listen to music.

I’m on my way to a date with Jim. It’s been a while since I’ve seen him, since he moved from the Tampa Bay area up north to Raiford, which is a good three hours away. I can’t blame Jim for the move (it wasn’t his choice), but it’s been hard not being able to see him the past month. Oh sure, we’ve written and Jim’s a great one for letters, especially since he can draw hilarious caricatures of the people he’s meeting in his new home.

But there’s a disturbing edge to his letters, too, and I know some of these people have been less than kind to Jim. The name-calling, for one thing, breaks my heart. But thank God Jim has a sense of humor, otherwise I don’t know how he’d get through each day.

I know he’s been hanging on for this date, which we’ve had planned for a while.

Finally, an afternoon with Jim. I didn’t know, four months ago, that I would grow to love him so quickly.

I drive on, the broad expanses of rough grass and hearty trees being replaced every so often by strip malls and towns with names like Ocala. The pavement shimmers before me in the heat. My tires hum. An armadillo hurries alongside the road. A mosquito splats against the windshield, leaving a swath of blood.

***

I remember the first time I met Jim. It was another blistering summer day (funny how in my memories of the two years I lived in Florida, it’s always summer, even when the memory took place in December or February). Jim and I had been set up and these kinds of dates always put me on edge: they never worked out.

When Jim answered the door, I was sure that this set-up date would work out like all the others: completely inappropriate. Other people never seemed to have the capacity to pick someone out for myself that I would choose on my own.

And this guy who opened the door immediately put me on my guard. I mean, I enjoy a good drag show at the local bar as much as the next guy, but here in Brandon, Florida (a suburb of Tampa, full of kids, trimmed lawns, and swimming pools), a smart little black dress and pearls just seemed out of place, especially on a very handsome blond man with great blue eyes and a nice, tight build.

But there was Jim, all smiles and beckoning me to come inside. I went into the little bungalow he lived in with a roommate (who was at work). The place was typical Florida, one-story, stucco, with a schefflera bush in the front yard, and that peculiar, tougher-than-nails, fire-ant infested grass on the front lawn. Inside, pastel walls and beige furniture completed the picture. The Golden Girls could have used the place for a set.

And there was Jim, smiling at me in his sensible matron’s outfit and just putting the finish creases on a little ironing he was doing just before I rang the bell. The whole scene made me think of a cross between June Cleaver and RuPaul.

I wasn’t sure what to say. But that really didn’t matter, because Jim was more than ready to take over (once he’d made certain I had a fruity cocktail in my hand, even though it wasn’t yet noon), telling me all about his recent move down here from Chicago (I had the same story to tell, but I wasn’t to learn until much later how very different our respective moves to the sunshine state were), his love for Barbra (need I add a last name here?), and how his health was improving under the abundant Florida sun.

I learned fast that day that clothes don’t always make the man and that Jim would turn out to be one of the bravest men I’d ever met.

***

It’s been a long drive and I’m glad to finally be pulling up in front of Jim’s new home. Raiford, Florida is north central Florida…typical of the state, but not the kind of look one usually associates with Florida (white sand beaches, aqua-marine waters, palm trees swaying in the salty breeze): Raiford is kind of grim and parched looking, especially the wide open spaces where Jim’s new home sits. It’s surrounded by dry brown grass…stretching infinitely to a blazing blue sky, where the sun beats down, relentless.

A tall fence surrounds Jim’s new home, with no nod to adornment (Jim, with his graphic design background and his love for the visual arts, I’m sure, did not approve). This fence was made of foreboding chain link and twice the height of a good-sized man, topped with razor-sharp circles of barbed wire. The only thing that looks halfway decent is the curving arch over the entrance drive and the stone monument just beside it. The arch tells visitors, in curving steel, that this is the Florida State Prison. The stone monument spells it out further: Department of Corrections, Florida State Prison.

This is where they send the big boys: the felons.

I can’t imagine Jim inside. He’s been hanging on for our date.

I can’t wait to see him.

***

When Jim and I went on our first date (after our getting-acquainted morning cocktail hour at his house) we went to Ft. DeSoto beach, a beautiful stretch of white sand just off of St. Petersburg Beach. Because it’s in a state park, the beach is backed up not by high-rises with balconies overlooking the Gulf of Mexico, but with a view that nature intended. Instead of bricks and mortar (and the attendant Florida tourists), Ft. DeSoto beach has only sand dunes, sea grass, and mangroves as a backdrop. It’s another blazing hot day and I’ve brought lunch for Jim and me (with a thermos full of mai tais…Jim’s favorite) and we spend the entire afternoon listening to the waves roll in and watching a matronly pair wade along the shoreline, net bags in hand, collecting starfish and shells.

Jim tells me about the last job he had before he went on this extended period of unemployment and how he worked as a graphic designer. He tells me about what led to his dismissal: picking up a stranger one night and bringing him back to his workplace. Out of lube, and always imaginative, Jim went into his supervisor’s cube and found some very creative use for the waxy (and slippery) substance those in the cosmetology trade call lipstick. The couple made quite a mess, not the least of which was Jim’s being fired the next day.

Jim was like that: a little imp, unable to play by the rules.

Life has a way of getting the attention of those who go against its conventions by biting them in the ass.

***

Getting into the Florida State Prison is a lot easier than getting out, but there are some obstacles. In order to arrange for my date with Jim, I had to go through the chaplain, who put me on the very short list of visitors who could come and visit him (not that there was a long list of admirers waiting to be put on that list; only Jim’s parents so far had come to check him out in his new digs—and they had made the trip all the way from Downer’s Grove, Illinois). Once inside the prison, I had to go through an anteroom, where I had to sign in and then subject myself to being frisked, right down to removing my boots to ensure I wasn’t securing a file in the heel or something. I understood the precautions, silly as they were. Yet Jim was in no shape to escape, even if I had somehow managed to smuggle in everything he would need to slip through Raiford’s well-guarded walls.

Security wasn’t as tight for my last couple of dates with Jim, which had taken place at the Hillsborough County Jail. There, things weren’t as grim, or as lonely. I would line up with a whole room full of chattering visitors, get checked in, and then be off to converse with Jim through a wall of Plexiglas, under the admiring eyes of some of the other inmates. Jealousy is such a petty thing, and particularly annoying when you’re trying to have an intimate moment with your date, while those behind him wonder what it would take to make you their bitch.

But that was before Jim’s case was adjudicated and they sent him north, to the state prison. That was before Jim began to get really sick.

***

Now, a guard down a colorless hallway leads me to the prison infirmary. I know this will be my last date with Jim and it’s hard not to recall all the laughs we shared before he was caught (he had violated his parole in Illinois, where he had been convicted of grand theft auto) at various beaches along the Gulf of Mexico, in Cuban restaurants, just listening to music at my apartment.

It’s also hard not to remember the additional details that brought him here: how, in a fit of depression, he had set fire to his roommate’s house. What did he have to be depressed about, anyway? He was only dying from AIDS (this was in the early 1990s and the drug cocktails that would keep many of his brethren living full lives were still on the horizon), isolated, and on the run from the law. Why be sad when he could number his only friends (me) at the number one? Why be sad when my friendship was not borne out of a common love for the arts and sarcastic observations about life, but instead courtesy of the Tampa Aids Network, where I had volunteered to be an AIDS buddy and was assigned to Jim?

I wasn’t sure I wanted to see Jim. He had written me, before he was confined to the infirmary, about how the other inmates taunted him and called him Spot, because of the Kaposi’s sarcoma lesions that covered him from head to toe (and continued, even now, to eat his fragile body and soul alive). I didn’t know what to expect. The last time I had seen him, he was still vibrant, still Jim: a little blond man with a quick smile and bottomless kindness.

I knew he had deteriorated…and I knew it was going to be bad.

***

Jim was alone in the room of the infirmary where they had done, I suppose, what they could to ensure his comfort. Other beds awaited other inmates, with maladies less deadly, I hoped, than Jim’s.

And there he was. Asleep. He looked frail and vulnerable, not at all what you’d imagine if you thought of the terms “convicted felon” or “state pen inmate.” His face, once tanned and vibrant, was covered with purple sores. My Jim had turned into a monster in the short time that had elapsed since we last saw one another.

He turned to me and opened his eyes. At least his eyes, blue as those waters we once sat beside, had stayed the same. It took him a minute or two to recognize me, but when he did, he smiled. I moved close to the bed and took his hand. With my other hand, I touched his forehead, where a fever raced around inside, hot as the air outside these prison walls.

I don’t remember what we talked about on our last date. Probably not much; Jim drifted in and out of sleep while I stood beside him, sometimes even in the middle of a sentence: mine or even his own. He did manage to tell me about his parents’ visit the day before, how his mother had collapsed in grief the moment she saw him.

I wanted this last time of ours together to be meaningful. But what, really, is there to say, at life’s end? I leaned in close and kissed him, my cheek brushing up against one of the lesions. It felt crusty.

The only thing left to say, really, at the end of life, or even the end of a perfect date are three words: “I love you.” Jim whispered back, “I love you, too,” and then he fell asleep.

I crept away.

Jim died the next day. The chaplain very kindly told me, when he called, that he thought Jim had hung on long enough to see me. I hung up the phone and slipped outside to my patio and looked across the surface of the pond just steps away. A wind rippled across the deep green water, making the grass at the water’s edge sway. A white ibis pecked at something along the shore.

I thought of a silly drawing Jim had sent me a couple months ago. It was a colored pencil caricature of a fat middle-aged woman I had written about; she was naked and riding a surfboard. Jim had called it “Amelia’s Hawaiian Adventure.”

The picture made me laugh when all I really wanted to do was cry. But my eyes were dry. Maybe it was just Jim’s influence as he looked down, trying to replace grief with hilarity. I laughed until I was almost breathless and had to sit down, cross-legged, on the concrete.

Finally my laughs turned to sobs and I faced away from the pond and toward the sliding glass doors. The glass was bright with sun and I swore I could see Jim reflected there. He mouthed some words and I strained to read them through my tears. “Glad you could drop by.” I swallowed, containing myself and think: me too, Jim. Someone else might think our last date was kind of sucky, but for me it was perfect. After all, a perfect date is marked by a timeless connection and an intimacy borne of true love. Maybe I didn’t get the chance to bring you flowers or candy, but this date we had…well, it will be the one that will always stand out in my mind as my best, because I like to think that I sent you off, free, with the words “I love you,” lingering in your mind.

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