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This is the emotional reality of outliving the AIDS epidemic

This is the emotional reality of outliving the AIDS epidemic

Ralph Bruneau explores the emotional impact of surviving the worst years of the AIDS epidemic

Walking the dog in Griffith Park. So beautiful. Love the day. Love my dog. Love my life.

I see a bruise on my leg. An irregular shape, small, purple with a bit of black. How did that happen? I don’t remember hitting it on anything.

Time stops.

I’m in Manhattan. I’m walking into the hospital room to see my ex for the first time since he broke us off and I moved to Los Angeles. I walk in the room, shaking, scared. I have been warned about what I will see.

I feel, though, completely unprepared for what I do see. He’s in the bathroom at the sink, hospital gown open in the back exposing clusters of purple/black lesions. His back is bony, pale and covered with them. My heart clenches. Tears fill my eyes.

Time within time stops.

I’m standing behind this man, the first man I ever loved, his beautiful, strong, perfectly muscled back in front of me. I bend him over and make love to him while looking lovingly and lustily at this back and shoulders. I grab the hair at the base of his neck and kiss and bite that back forcefully, lovingly.

Time Stops.

I gasp and squeeze shut my eyes. I’m home. I’m safe. It’s almost 30 years later. This isn’t Kaposi Sarcoma. It’s a bruise. I’m OK. I’m not OK. I will never be fully OK.

Ralph Bruneau
Ralph Bruneau (Photo: Supplied)

Tom’s belt

I pull his belt out of the closet. It still fits. Worn and tattered brown leather, tarnished silver, turquoise. So not me. So Tom.

Time stops.

I’m in his Manhattan apartment sleeping on the couch to be safe from ‘catching AIDS.’ None of his family would come, stay, and provide the 24-hour care needed for him to be released from the hospital. I’m here with my first love and my first breakup. It doesn’t matter now that/if he loves/loved me. We are beyond that.

In the hours while he sleeps I do the thing we do when men are dying. I throw away his porn, his toys, his cockrings. I de-gay his apartment. I see this belt. This belt he wore almost every day. I take it and put it with my things.

I can’t lose him.

I can’t lose all vestige of him/us.

I need this transitional object. I need this talisman to traverse this hell into whatever life lies beyond all the loss and grief.

Tom's belt
Tom’s belt (Photo: Supplied)

‘Pain is present and historical all at once’

It’s Folsom Europe. Friends, sexy men, my husband.

I’m in the Holocaust Museum in Berlin.

I walk through the hallways filled with photographs, letters, and ephemera. This is what’s left of millions of lives. I see this letter:

‘Think of me with love, as I do you. Final greetings, kisses to both of you. I end.’

Time stops.

I’m walking through panel after panel after panel of the AIDS quilt. Photographs, letters, ephemera. This is what’s left of my generation of gay men. I start heaving. Tears and snot pouring down my face. I’m red with pain and vulnerability.

Time stops.

I gasp and heave. Tears and snot pouring down my face. I’m here. I’m in Berlin. No. I’m not. I’m in NY. I’m in LA.

The pain is present and historical all at once.

I sit and bury my face in my hands. I’m OK. I’m not OK. I will never be fully OK.

The emotional shrapnel of AIDS

This is what trauma looks and feels like.

Trauma is not bound by time, place, or context.

A professor once likened it to a hand grenade being detonated in the brain with bits of shrapnel embedded and unable to move through the neural network to healing.

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about our communal trauma. How it affects our ability to connect sexually and relationally. How it demands ‘safe space’. How it impacts our ability to negotiate a scene without being activated into fight/flight/freeze responses.

It’s helped to write and organize my thoughts into articles and trainings about consent, trauma, safety. I am a ‘Wounded Healer’. My history, my pain, my injury, this is what enables my empathy. I’m proud of my wounds. They make me valuable.

But, like bedsores on aging flesh, these wounds are closer to the surface and more likely to outbreak than when I was younger, more guarded, perhaps, more resilient.

It’s OK. I’m OK. I will never be fully OK and that’s OK.

My mind forgets.

My body remembers.

Ralph Bruneau was IML 2017 (International Mr. Leather). He lives in Los Angeles, US. @IML39

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