The Emotions Issue: James Withers

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While we’re on the subject of emotions, we’d like to turn the floor over to a loverly gentleman named James Withers. Don’t know Mr. Withers (pictured, dressed as an elf…for some reason)?

Well, we don’t really know him either, but he wrote to us saying he’s contributed to Genre and wanted to know if we were interested in a little somethin’ somethin’.

Now, those of you who know us know that we’re always interested in a little somethin’ somethin’, so we told Withers to pitch us something for the then forthcoming The Emotions Issue. He did and this is it. (See how easy we are?)

After the jump, see what Withers has to say about losing his friend Michael to the ultimate baddie: AIDS.

(PS: If you’re down with Withers’ piece, you should check out his blog: What the world does not need.)

You had to wipe your feet before you got into Michael’s car. Sure, he had AIDS, didn’t have many friends, was scared about dying, and had not come out to his family about his sexuality or illness, but none of that meant his car had to be dirty. I can only imagine the headache: it’s hard to keep a car as clean as Michael’s in Texas.

Friends berated me for moving to Texas, but what was a brother to do? I was unemployed and a job was offered. Like any snobby northerner, I had visions of the country’s fourth largest city as a wasteland: cattle walking the streets, a cultural life not above the Grand Ole Opry. None of this proved to be true, of course.

Settling in, I heard the old activist call and turned into a political queen. There may not have been any rainbow towels in my bathroom, but I did attend Queer Nation meetings. (oh the furious anger we had!). After gathering to discuss Houston’s AIDS funding – of which there was little – I decided to start working with the Houston AIDS Foundation.

As part of the deal, all potential volunteers must take a weekend of training: a two-day retreat that essentially consisted of getting in touch with their “emotions”, whatever that means. In one exercise we wrote the names of the people important to us and were then told to rip the slip up and discard it in the trash. Our trainer asked us how we felt. Some people felt sad. Others alone. Still others wanted to cry. I’m a bit of a literalist, so I didn’t feel too much (sue me for not having an emotional connection to paper), but kept that idea to myself and said something to show that I had been properly moved so we could move on.

And so we did. We were assigned partners to befriend – a dubious situation, to say the least – but I actually did befriend my partner: the car loving Michael.

Our first meeting was tense because he offered very little information about himself. All he wanted was someone to hang out with. Maybe go to a movie or dinner. His illness, essentially the reason why we are talking to each other, was not part of our conversation. He told me he had a buddy, but was relieved when he left town. “He kept asking me all of these questions,” Michael said.

Despite my literal ways, his meaning was crystal: no questions. He would offer information on his own time. So, with the game plan set, we did what he wanted. There were dozens of movies, but to this day I remember, Deep Cover. In this undercover drama a junkie female character tries to impress a man by telling him she just had an HIV test that came out negative. The line brought a laugh from the audience, including me. Michael? He wasn’t laughing so hard.

Like all routines, however, ours came to an end. His energy started to ebb and even walking to his front door was a chore. As the sick days became norm, he grew more and more anxious about what his coworkers were saying about him. He lived in fear.

Eventually my workday ended with a trip to Michael’s apartment, helping out with a few chores, and sitting with him as the television droned on. New routine or not, Michael still kept his own counsel. Every now and then, however, he would pull a layer off.

“Do you have a key to my apartment,” he asked one night.

“No. Why?”

“Well we need to get you one because you will have to get rid of all of my porn if I get sick and my family comes.” The auteur William Higgins was his favorite – something we had in common.

Another night he asked me to write down the phone numbers of his brother and sister – his family lived in Tallahassee, Florida. Sometimes I would get to his place and his Bible would be in full view next to a half-eaten meal.

“My sister is looking for an AIDS specialist in Tallahassee,” he said a different evening.

I tried to remain cool. “Really. So she knows? You thinking about going back home.”

“Yeah. My mom doesn’t know though.”

And so he returned home. His siblings knew what was going on, but his parents were kept in the dark. I helped him pack. We joked about how all of his good porn was going to waste. “Can’t have my mom find this!” Michael laughed pointing to a magazine with a rather well endowed gentleman.

About nine months later his sister called. Michael had died.

No doubt I was going to the funeral. I went to his family’s home and it was packed. His car was parked in the front, as spotless as ever, as if he had just polished it the night before. Inside the house matrons were dressed in their Sunday best. Quiet voices and the occasional slight laugh. His sister took me by the hand and brought me to an older man who was sitting on a living room chair. Dressed in a three-piece suit that I had seen many of my North Carolina uncles wear, he looked up.

She introduced us, “Daddy, this is James.”

Michael’s father stood up and extended his hand. “I want to thank you for taking care of my son.”

Soon I was Michael’s “Houston friend” and was treated with a deference reserved for a lover. Michael would have been appalled by this assumption, because I wasn’t his type. Not butch enough.

His mother came up to me after the funeral. She was short and I had to lean down to hear her.

“I lost Michael, but I think of you as a son,” she said.

I mumbled my thanks, but knew I had to leave because the bawling was about to begin. And it did, the moment I got in my car.