Why I wrote a book about AIDS with such a silly title.

It has become painfully obvious that the title of my book, Sally Field Can Play The Transsexual, or I Was Cursed By Polly Holliday has prevented many potential readers from exploring the book’s subject. Skipping over those readers that are just afraid of the subjects the book tackles, the first indication I had that the book was not reaching its core audience was in the frequent criticism I have received for using the word transsexual to describe a trans-gendered person. Most of us know that this is no longer considered proper terminology. Most of the people who level this criticism are unaware that the majority of the book, and all of the action regarding the trans character, occurs in the mid-1990’s, when the term transsexual was largely considered appropriate. But what really brought the issue of reach home for me was when an old friend and AIDS activist who has followed this blog with some regularity suddenly used social media to tell me, “I had no idea your book was about AIDS. I would have never guessed it from the title.”

The view of a quiet beach between the Pines and Grove

The view of a quiet beach between the Pines and Grove

To be honest, despite my editor's warning, I never considered that so many readers would literally judge a book by its cover.  Instead, I began this process with a series of goals in mind.  One was to look openly at how AIDS has traumatized the sexual reality of many gay men.  The second was to remember all the bittersweet lessons that I had learned at the side of the dying. Taking a page from Tony Kushner, I had no interest in writing a book in which the experience of AIDS offered no redemption for those living in and among it. And I wanted to honor many of my friends, who even at the worst of their physical decline, found a way to maintain a sense of humor, however dark, to the bitter end. The last and perhaps most important was to help foster discussion about the need for new treatment and prevention options such a PrEP.

In focusing on the second item in the list, my memory of those I lost is not all bleak.  As an example, in the summer of 1993, I was on Fire Island working as a lifeguard.   My friend Chuck, (known as Francine by many of the Cherry Grove patrons of the beach sundries shop where he worked part-time), had asked me to meet him in the Pines for dinner and to walk him back on the beach.  He, like many of my ill friends had moved to the island for the summer. He hadn’t been very active (other than work), but that day he was feeling good and wanted to walk the beach.  He knew it would be strenuous. He took a water taxi to the Botel, where we ate, and then I walked with him on the beach back to the Grove.  The meal was lovely, and he kept me laughing all night, as he usually did.  But I could tell he was tired long before we began the walk home.

If you have never visited, it is important to note that the walk from The Pines to Cherry Grove takes about 30 minutes, if you use the well-traveled path through the woods.  The beach walk is slower and much more strenuous.  Once you begin the walk you have to either finish or go back.  There are not roads and there is no boat to ferry you unless you are in one of the two communities.  Chuck did not make it a third of the way back before he had to sit and rest.  It took about an hour to reach the halfway mark and he said something like, “I’m sorry, I really thought I could do this.” 

Map shows distance between Pines and Grove

Map shows distance between Pines and Grove

I said something like, “Don’t apologize.  There is nothing like this view, it may be taxing on your body but I’m sure it is healing for your soul.  We can just sit and enjoy it until you are ready.”  After 25 years I make no claim to the veracity of these quotes, they are generally the best version of what I can remember.  As he rested we mostly gossiped and made jokes at other people’s expense. Then, we got up, traveled a bit, but we stopped talking as we walked, both of us paid close attention his footing and strength.  At one point,  I took a deep breath and looked out toward the sea and sky.  That’s when Chuck fell face first into the sand.  I gasped, and he started laughing.  At first I thought he was crying, but as I knelt I realized he was laughing. 

“What’s so funny?” I asked. 

“No matter what,” he said,” this trip was worth it just to hear you gasp like an old southern matron.” He was scraped and bruised, but nothing major.

The rest of the way I didn’t wait for him to ask for help, I just propped him up and helped him walk.  As we climbed back onto the boardwalk in the Grove,  he joked that the way I was helping him walk was a close to being carried over a threshold as he would ever get.  Without really thinking I bent down and scooped him up, surprised at how light he was.  It caught him off guard, and as I began to carry him home he would shout to others on the board walk, “Look at me, I am practically a Fire Island Bride!!!” At one point he whispered to me, “What a shame I’m just not that into the groom.  But at least he’s younger than me!” Then for the world to hear he exclaimed, “You’re getting blue balls for you wedding night, honey!”

“Naw,” I said. “One I drop you across the threshold, I’m headed home through the meat rack.  You’re getting jilted for yours.”

Then he yelled at some other stranger on the boardwalk, “A slut!  Can you believe I married a slut!”

I was laughing so hard I had to put him down.  In our laughter Chuck had found the strength to walk on his own again.   Getting him from restaurant to bed took over three hours that night.  He didn’t complain once.  Even at his weakest he insisted on finding ta reason for humor.  Less than eighteen months later, the day he died, he made everyone in his room laugh.  But a mutual friend has dibs on telling that story.

I have hundreds of stories like this, memories laughing with sick men who were facing the worst possible future. Mostly I just remember the laughter but can’t recall the joke.  To me, as I look back, this humor is the truest measure of the courage of my lost friends.  It is the thing that I was taught that has allowed me to face the worst and keep going.  And these stories are what I want and like to remember about that time.  It is the main reason why my book carries its moniker, and why humor is such an important part of the story. 

Leslie Smith1 Comment