The first of a four-part blog series about Bridge Across the Ocean, Randy Boyd’s second novel, and a Lambda Literary Award Finalist for Best Small Press Title
I am curious to know where my feet stand—
and what this is flooding me, childhood or manhood—
and the hunger that crosses the bridge between.—Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass
So goes the epigraph of Bridge Across the Ocean, my second novel, first published in 2000, but inspired by events in my life that took place in 1988. Twenty years ago, at the age of 26, I officially tested positive for HIV/AIDS. Reality dictated it was a death sentence, a very public one at that. Two months after the Test, I needed a break from that reality. I took off for the warm sandy beaches of Cancun, Mexico, hoping for some much needed R&R. It was a solo flight. I was alone but not for long.
No man living with AIDS is an island, even when he tries to escape to one in his mind.
A day into my trip, a handsome young man wearing sunglasses passed by me, smiled and said hi, then proceeded to the nearby beach, where he spread out his towel and settled in for the morning. I followed and stepped into a dream. For the rest of the vacation, I was in starring in my own movie: black gay man with AIDS befriends a straight white teenage jock god he knows he can never have (and his younger brother!)
For one week, I wanted my biggest decision to be how much sunscreen to use or what pair of shorts to wear. You know, a change of pace from: what miracle can keep me alive and save me from this nightmare of death by AIDS? Instead, it was a week of: what am I going to do about these two gorgeous young brothers who are glued to me and hanging on my every word like I’m the god? Why me?
In retrospect, they were two suburban teenage boys with their single mother in a resort full of drunk adults twice their age. They had a choice of hanging with mom, who gushed on them, or taking a cultural field trip in their minds and hanging with their first-ever, real live black man, who just happened to look like a professional athlete.
“Yeah.” Rob laughed. “Skeeter and I both thought you were a pro athlete when we first saw you. Pretty stupid of us, huh?”
“Because I’m gay?”—Bridge Across the Ocean
When the boys discovered my sexual orientation, their exotic field trip took a shocking twist. Not only are we exploring the strange and curious world of the cool black dude, the cool black dude is also a homo! Talk about double the adventure! But while I may have resembled a pro jock providing a virtual tour of All Things Black, in truth, I was just an amateur human being who had turned his life around for the better, mentally and physically, as a result of a death sentence.
“I was learning to love myself and never felt better, mentally or physically, which was much more an affirmation of life than any virus in my body.”—Bridge Across the Ocean
Of course, when you’re on a beach in a foreign country, trying to get away from being a newly-minted leper, you don’t follow up “Hi, my name is Randy and I’m from LA” with “I just tested positive for the modern day plague, nice to meet you, Mom with your two lovely boys, the oldest of which, by the way, reminds me of all the straight white jock gods I craved in adolescence, which I’m still kinda in, more or less.”
I kept my health private (so did everyone else, come to think of it), and got to know the Velardes (their fictional names). In addition to being in great physical shape, I was feeling pretty good about myself and my life. When not working, I was either at the gym shoring up my physical defenses against disease, or I was somewhere else shoring up my emotional defenses against disease (therapy, learning to love myself, Louise Hay’s Hay Rides, etc.). In the early years, science didn’t offer much for Persons with AIDS. For many of us, exercising our bodies and our minds was the only real lifeline. As a result, the Velardes met a bright, confident, strong, intelligent, physically fit, “articulate” young black man in Cancun.
“The boys really look up to you,” said the mom. “Last night in the hut, they couldn’t stop talking about you. I think it’s really nice of you to let them be around you.”—Bridge Across the Ocean
What the Velardes didn’t know was: that was only part of who I was. I was also a young black man who was battle-fatigued and scared to death of dying and soon. There was no known scientific way out of this. In Cancun, I wanted to get away from life, not get caught up in a family drama with me at the center. I didn’t venture all the way to the Yucatan Peninsula to confront the demons of my youth (while still in my youth, at that). But to the lost and lonely little boy inside my soul, the straight white jock gods were the winners in life and I was a Loser.
“Even in all their unrestrained frolicking, [the straight white jock gods] still managed to capture the career, the wife, the family, defining success and the all-American experience for the rest of us.”—Bridge Across the Ocean
I understood that “Rob Velarde” and I were not having sexual relations or becoming lovers from the moment I met him. But I was hoping for some kind of miracle. What kind? Where from? Involving what? Meaning? I wasn’t sure. I just knew I needed a miracle, the same way I needed a miracle to keep me alive, the kinds of miracle you never thought possible and reside beyond your wildest dreams. But those miracles happen because life is so much bigger and much more miraculous than any single soul could possibly imagine.
When my feet landed on the warm sandy beaches of Cancun, I had lived on this earth for 26 years. I spent my childhood years trying to survive a violent and loveless world with no real ally. I spent my adolescent years trying to survive a hostile school environment while feeling like an unlovable, big black fag who was too retarded to be the great athlete he should be. I spent my college years running away to California, where I tried to be the happy-go-lucky, articulate, non-threatening, nonsexual, Negro cheerguy. My post grad years were spent, well, dealing with AIDS, which infected my life one month outta college. My mindset from that moment forward: keep AIDS a secret until absolutely necessary and act like nothing’s wrong (and I’m just getting fit because I love myself! and I love to work out!)
That was the prequel to Bridge Across the Ocean. Cut to the official HIV test in 1988, then cut to me landing in Cancun, a socially-retarded young black man trying to get a grip on life and take a moment to breath … and oh, by the way, to make the trip more trippy, here’s two young jock gods you won’t be able to live with or without. They’re gonna hero-worship you on the last vacation your dying ass is ever gonna take.
What else does a desperate man hope for but a miracle: my own straight white jock god who falls in love with me, because unlike the jocks of my day, this jock god sees a great person in me. He doesn’t call me fag like the gods of my day, the ones who severed my adolescent heart, then laughed about it. Rob Verlarde was different. I was gonna die soon. Why can’t a guy have two miracles in one lifetime? Why can’t we be platonic “boyfriends” until he’s no longer a minor, then buddies for life? I wanted to live and I wanted my miracles. It’s all meant to be! We were seeing UFO’s in the Caribbean sky. Anything was possible.
My therapist called it “grabbing at straws.” He was right. A drowning man will grab any floating object, even a straw, to save himself.
Twenty years after Cancun and the death sentence that preceded the trip, I no longer feel as if I’m drowning. And I’m not dying of AIDS, I’m living with AIDS. I crossed the bridge. I made it to the other side. At times, the water still gets deep and throws me off balance, but the 46-year-old man is much better at handling the occasional flood than the 26-year-old kid I used to be. And I no longer grab at straws, or unavailable heterosexual white jock boys of any age. The pedestal was toppled. Picture the bronze statue of Saddam falling in Baghdad. Now, no descendant of the great apes stands on a pedestal in my mind.
The journey to manhood was long, winding and challenging. Some of that journey is documented in Bridge Across the Ocean and my other writings. The road wasn’t easy, but now I know exactly where my feet stand: in a world where no human monkey is better than any other human monkey. More to the point: we are all equally clueless about what makes the world go ’round and why we even exist at all.
- The first of a four-part blog series about Bridge Across the Ocean, Randy Boyd’s second novel, and a Lambda Literary Award Finalist for Best Small Press Title
Bridge Across the Ocean @ 20: A four-part series
1 – Bridge Across the Ocean @ 20
2 – Bridge to somewhere: where the boys are today
3 – What is a lesbian? 1988-2008
4 – Young jock offers oral sex for magazine subscription