I lost contact with Brandon today . I picked up the phone, dialled his number... and got the frozen-voiced operator's message idiotically looping "Out of service, out of service...." A silent voice inside had been waiting for this, but the actual event just floored me. Underlying the robotic drone, the message came through loud and clear: my best friend's gone.
One thirty-seven Jarvis Street, #512, my first apartment in Toronto. A bright-eyed, naive young would-be scribe, moving into the only place he could afford, a tiny room scarcely bigger than a closet, with bathroom, kitchen and living room communal. The community? An utterly eccentric group of transients, college students, ex-hippies and layabouts - a vibrantly surreal assortment of the urban set living one paycheque away from the abyss. In the midst of this, Brandon, my next-door neighbour. A tough 27-year-old Sri Lankan obsessed with video games and Detective comic books. An accomplished art director. A kindred spirit in a lonely town. We hit it off immediately, diving into the flophouse activities of the building with the unchecked bravado of two people sure their stays would be short.
He had a medical marijuana card that we enjoyed immensely. We never spoke about the reason for it, preferring to nourish the illusion of a heaven-sent gift. I think he truly enjoyed being able to knock on my door, burning joint in hand. It was one of the few luxuries he could sustain as he fought for his life.
"The problem." That was what he always called it, refusing to give the plague its proper name. The problem had first appeared two years ago, at the height of his success. A golden child of the city's arts scene, at 25 the city's youngest art director. A fiancée. A posh waterfront condo. Until nausea made it impossible for him to continue working. Until hospitalization revealed the true illness. Causing his fiancée to end things. Causing the selling of his home and virtually everything he owned. Causing a suicide attempt.
Not that Brandon would ever succumb to self-pity. The same ambition that had driven him to the heights of his profession had now been turned against the plague. He would beat this, and if he couldn't, at least he'd laugh in its face. Twenty-minute coughing fits? "Hey, if the pot doesn't kill it, booze surely will! Let's get a drink!" Forced dependence on welfare? "Hey, man, I'm making up for college days I never had!" Kidney failure, so I watched my best friend get sicker and more bloated for six days, then undergo absolutely agonizing peritoneal dialysis to rid himself of the week's waste? "Look at the bright side, bub. I don't ever have to use the john again!" The worse it got, the more we ignored it. More drinks at Irish pubs, more naughty strip clubs, more joints, more music, more life.
I looked at him and saw an older mirror image. He looked at me and saw the younger brother he never had. We both knew time was short, and neither of us would acknowledge our third friend, the buddy who witnessed every confidence, every laugh, every 2 am tear - jolly Mr. HIV.
Because to acknowledge him would be to open a floodgate. To acknowledge him would be to see the plague in all its horror: a life-destroyer, a pariah-maker. To acknowledge that would be admitting just how badly our culture had failed him, one of its golden boys. How it had fawned over him in health but in sickness had betrayed his love, stolen his possessions and cornered him into the life of a lonely invalid at age 27. How it had chewed up one of its truest subjects like an old shoe and tossed him onto the quarantine heap: keep away at all costs. They told my brother he wouldn't live past his 30th birthday, gave him some dope and threw him onto the streets. This is the reality of AIDS in Toronto.
Eventually, I moved out of apartment 512. My life was on the upswing, and I had a girlfriend... but the real reason was that the effect our third friend was having on Brandon threatened to blacken my entire field of vision. By that time, Brandon needed help to keep his balance going down the stairs. His bones had become brittle, you see. He'd also begun selling his posessions to pay the rent. Finally, he refused to meet me. I understood. He was a kindred spirit. I'd also want my friends to remember me the way I was, not bedridden, puking and plagued. Not at the mercy of some illness. Not some ravaged victim of societal isolation.
Now he's gone off to join the ranks of the invisibles, the throngs of urban dwellers without a phone, without a home, adrift in the abyss. Wandering through the twilight preceding the big sleep. I miss him.