Leaving a Mark
(after Felix Gonzalez-Torres)
There is a billboard. A white bed in a white room, rumpled white sheets, and white pillows, in a white room. The pillows have deep hollows, impressions, where a heavy head would lay in its comfort. But the bed is empty. White.
“Is that an ad for 400 thread-count,” asks a fellow student. We are in a shabby corner of 90’s Brooklyn, on a high-school field trip, going somewhere, I forget. This is all I remember about any of this trip, except for the Spring New York air, the urine and the black tar tang of the river brack, of a climb into the crown of Liberty herself.
I can’t stop staring at the image. I feel its loss. I somehow know the people who aren’t there, without ever seeing them. But it is a false knowing. I am 16.
Felix Gonzalez-Torres created this billboard to honor his lover, Ross Laycock, who died of AIDS-related complications. He said of his work, “Above all else, it is about leaving a mark that I existed: I was here. I was hungry. I was defeated. I was happy. I was sad. I was in love. I was afraid. I was hopeful. I had an idea." Felix died four years later, from "AIDS-related complications".
In the gay community we have our first stories, like any other: first kiss, first love, our 'first time', but we have others ones, too: our coming out, our second 'first time', our first hate crime, and our first death from AIDS. Mine was Michael, who lived across the hall in my college dorm, who came over at three in the morning to ask if he could cuddle, just cuddle, nothing more. Who had smelly hobbit feet. Who went to class donning an apron that said, “Kiss Me. I’m Irish.” Who wrote me unrequited love poems and left them on my empty pillow. Scrubby fuzz on his chin, gap-teethed, grinning, when he drank gin in a plastic flask, urging to us all the virtues of pure democracy. Five years later he was found dead in his hotel room in Washington DC. Working as an aide for a Georgia state senator’s campaign. His body lay in the middle of the king, legs together, arms at his side, little plastic baggies, a spoon, a rolled up twenty. He had been diagnosed three weeks before. It was the 90's. We thought AIDS was a death sentence, and Michael decided to finish the line himself.
My generation was that in-between: after the education and before the hesitant sigh of relief, before Atripla and Videx and Emtriva and Zerit and Ziagen and Retrovir, before PREP and Truvida and ARV. We had condoms and celebrities, PSAs and polished hair. And the word death. Death. In pink helvetica. In essence, we were terrified to have sex. But we were alive. We were safe. We did everything safe. I prided myself on doing everything safe.
My roommate is also of my generation. He went to art school--a writer, a painter. Then, he stopped. Now, he cooks. Rice, spicy noodles, curries that tear away the tops of the tongue, and meat. Lots of meat. Busies his hands. Hums to himself to block out other noises.
He didn’t want to know. Whatever the virus was cooking in his guts, he pretended wasn't there, the hiss inside, in his ears. He sang louder, in clubs with their bass thicker than the blood he never tested, in squealing bars, in cloudy porn shoot bedrooms. Then, another image, an abacus of him dying, six T-cells, 98 pounds, two weeks to live, a countdown, beads sliding along string, a litany of Latin syllables mapped over his body, his throat, his skin, his stomach waging war with the hiss that folded out of sound and into a breath heavier than any sex he ever had. In the generation before us, Irwan was supposed to die. But he didn't.
Torres created many works about the absence of his lover. One was a giant pile of Hershey Kisses, in the corner of the gallery, the glinting silver chocolate bulbs, Ross' favorite, each glint a cue in the dint. The viewer was instructed to take. Eat. Then toss the wrapper in another pile, a smaller one. Little silver scraps. Rubbed to tiny balls by the pointed fingers of those very much alive.
Now, in the ground, then, on the bed, which
were you walked on the more?
Irwan quit making art after his diagnosis. That is, save one work. A small painting, on wood, the top of a pill box, in a hospital pink background, with the first letters of each day, one on each flap: M, T, W, T, F, S, S. The hiss. I wondered with indignation why he quit making art. I feel the answer lies in this last painting, somewhere, in the names of days. I stare at the little boxes with their letters, planned, filled with pills, his life. His only way to life. A different kind of death.
Michael’s head pressed the hotel bed’s pillow, did it not? With no lover next to him. Imagine the photograph. A bed. A pillow. A billboard never made. Is it easier to know the impression of two? Is it more painful to see the hollow of one? One without the other makes the one alone, unknown. Is that the hiss?
The pillbox. It tells me. Art has changed. The reminder is not the loss, but that we now are alive. What of this difference? Pillow to pillbox, death to some kind of life. Can art leave a mark on behalf of lives not gone, but unseen? Is that where the suffering lives on? An AIDS-related complication.
I did everything safe. I am healthy. I have pride. I have been in the crown of Liberty herself. And the view from there is lonely. I crawl onto my bed and impress my whole body, pitch my head into the pillow, dig in deep. My false knowing. I have pointed the finger, many times. And I am sorry.
Miah Jeffra is a writer, artist and educator hailing from Baltimore and living in San Francisco. A 2014 Lambda Literary Fellow, Miah's work has most recently appeared in The North Atlantic Review, A Cappella Zoo, Edge, Fifth Wednesday, Educe and Fourteen Hills. His novel, Highlandtown, is the 2012 winner of the Clark-Gross Award. He is Artistic Director for ShadowLab, a social justice arts collective.