After two pot brownies, my friend Alex was in fine form at the party we were at. Minus the pot brownies, this was a pretty staid group of people, but once Alex got a little high, all bets were off. “You’re so attractive. You make me moist!” he bellowed at some mortified straight man. My head spun only to find Alex talking to said straight man and his girlfriend. Alex was propositioning them for a threesome but qualified it to the girl by saying it was only to get into her boyfriend’s pants. I decided the straight couple needed to be rescued from Alex and went over. “You’ll have to excuse Alex, he’s had a stroke, and he’s had two brownies.” “The stroke didn’t take away my sight and I know an attractive man when I see one,” Alex said, taking one more glance at the straight man as I pulled him away. “Do you want to sniff my diaper?”
Alex was indeed wearing a diaper, and was just the kind of man who let everybody know it. It was a badge of honor for all that he had been through. He’d already been living with HIV since the early 80’s, since before HIV had a name. His bowels and bladder didn’t always give him much warning. I remember the day I received a call from our mutual friend David in September, telling me that Alex had had a stroke and was in the emergency room at the General.
I got to the hospital and found Alex. The right side of his body was paralyzed, including his face. His mouth drooped on the right side and his speech was slurred. He looked up at me as I knelt to kiss his forehead. “They say I might not ever walk again,” he said, enunciating as best he could. “We’ll get through this Alex. You’ll walk again, I know it, “ I countered. “Damn right I’ll walk again. There are still men to fuck.”
Alex didn’t see the inside of his apartment again for four long months. After being in the emergency room for a torturous week until they could find him a room, and then two weeks in that hospital room, he was transferred to a rehabilitation centre. While I watered the plants in Alex’s apartment and collected his mail, Alex engaged in the arduous task of learning to use the right side of his body. His doctors warned that another stroke was not an impossibility. He battled through and was released from the rehab center just before Christmas. And that’s when he completely broke down.
Alex was henceforth differently-abled, if you will. He required a brace to walk, to walk ever so carefully. His right arm was still immobile. We had dinner together every Saturday night once he returned home. We would order pizza and I would read the latest essay I’d written for this blog to him. He was the one person to hear my essays before I posted them, and my short essay would launch us into an examination of our sex lives. Alex never allowed for bitterness, but I remember the Saturday night that he looked at me and asked, with tears in his eyes, “Will a man ever want to be with me again?”
I remembered, long ago, in my mid-twenties, being at the New York City Pride Parade. I recall only two moments from that parade, and both of them left a deep impression on the young gay man that I was. The first moment was when the float passed by on which there were men who had fought at Stonewall on that fateful night in ’69, when our history changed forever. These men were old, with canes and in wheelchairs. They had been there, and they were here with us now. As they floated down the street, I realized I’d just witnessed history. My history. The whooping from the crowd told me that everyone around me was sharing the exact same feeling.
The second moment that I recall was when a gay group in wheelchairs passed by. Young and old, of every race, their presence hit me. It became all too clear, all at once, that our society neglects to recognize the disabled as sexual. And here they were, claiming their orientation, refusing to be left in the shadows or on the sidelines. As with the men who had fought at Stonewell, I knew I was witnessing something that I did not feel much of within my own belly: I was witnessing what looked like courage, and I found it beautiful.
After Alex had his stroke, I did some research – on Xtube. I found an instructional video for sex workers on how to best cater to the needs of their disabled clientele. And then I found a video by a man who suffered from some type of palsy. He was jacking off and I so wanted to be there with him. His pits, his cock, his absolute engagement were hot – his palsy did not matter. I wrote him a message telling him how amazing his vid was and posted a comment on his profile. I didn’t hear back from him.
Alex is improving. He’s walking without a brace, and he’s getting movement back in his right arm and hand. He’s even venturing forth to the Eagle again. More than that, he got picked up recently and took the man back to his place. But he called me to tell me that it didn’t work. His body did not want to cooperate with his desire. He was momentarily bereft. He is not supposed to take Viagra, but to hell with it – he ordered some online and his doctor is turning a blind eye for him. Alex is a force to be reckoned with.
Last night, I hit the streets of the village to go get a pack of cancer-causing smokes. I began to think about the ways we are all disabled. For some of us, it is visible to others. But for many, it’s invisible. It’s the disease that’s eating us from the inside. It’s the mental anguish that we mask so as to appear normal. Among the many casualties of illness or disability is our sexuality. Always, we are fighting to reclaim it, from external forces, or internal.
As I walked down the steps from the tobacco shop, I noticed a young man in a motorized wheelchair. He couldn’t have been more than twenty-four. He, like the man in the Xtube video I had watched, appeared to suffer from a palsy. He was alone on the street, in this Gay Village, and he looked bewildered, lost. He did not see me see him. And he was gorgeous. My instinct was to reach out to him. I wanted to make love to him. I wanted to let him know that if he was in the Village seeking comfort from the men who walked by, he would find it. I wanted to take his cock in my mouth. I wanted to enter him and fill him with light so that he shone like a nuclear reactor. I wanted to believe that my feelings were not born of pity or fear that by the grace of god, that could be me. I wanted to apologize to him if these thoughts were in any way construed as condescending or patronizing. I wanted to tell him that even though I am so-called able-bodied, that I have struggled since childhood with an illness that I rarely discuss, an illness that constantly thwarts my sexuality, an illness that no one can see, but that I experience so profoundly. I wanted......But instead, seeing him carry on down the sidewalk, I too continued on my way. But oh how I wanted....
When Alex first got home from rehab, he was sternly warned against walking too far from home. And to walk, especially in the beginning, was laborious for Alex. But secretly, one day, Alex walked from his apartment to the nearest tattoo parlour. The next Saturday night, he surprised with me his tattoo. On the inside of his left forearm, he’d had the word “Courage” inscribed in glorious script. I wondered, like the Cowardly Lion from the Wizard of Oz, if I would ever have the courage to both come back from an illness, or to even get and stay sick, and still reclaim myself and my sexuality. In my twenties, I thought that the perfect man was the one with the six-pack abs. But Alex’s courage to face disability and still move forward changed that. I think that having just turned forty, I am maybe, just maybe, growing up.