Longform

THE END OF THE LINE

part 1 of 2
A light snow was falling as Richard Games entered the Catholic church on Palm Sunday. He dipped his fingers in holy water and crossed himself. Near the front of the sanctuary he knelt and crossed himself again. Then he rose, moved to his seat and began to pray.

Bowing his gaunt head and clasping his hands, he asked for the strength to get through another day...another week. The virus he carries is so demanding that it is all he can do to get out of bed each morning. But someone needs to keep the prayer candles burning for those who live with AIDS--and those who have died from it.

For Vern, the first of the friends that he would usher into the next world. For his beloved Danny. For 112 friends and lovers whose faces and voices he'll never see and hear again...at least not on this side of the abyss.

And there surely are more casualties among the thousands of men he's had sex with over the past thirty years. Hardly a month passes that he doesn't hear of another acquaintance dying. He's afraid to call or send Christmas cards to out-of-town friends; he doesn't want to hear a mechanical voice tell him the line has been disconnected or have the card returned with a "no forwarding address" stamp. He'd rather not know. It saps his strength for his own fight.

Yet as he knelt and prayed, he knew that the cross he bears is to live longer than so many of his generation of gays. To bear witness to the past as a warning to the future.

The rituals are important, one of the chief reasons he converted to Catholicism four years ago. It is as if by ritual he can force the days to come and go, one following the next. Forever.

He doesn't mind that he performs these rituals in a church that considers the act of homosexuality a mortal sin. To him, this is no more a contradiction than the photographs of homosexual lovers that hang near the dozen crucifixes in his tiny apartment. At confession he asks the priests for forgiveness of his sins, but making love to other men is not one of them. That is between him and his God.

He is far more disturbed by the cruelty of a few parishioners who sometimes move when he sits down in their pew. Always one to speak his mind, he told the church secretary earlier in the week that he would be changing to a parish with more gays in the congregation. He would attend the church for the last time on Palm Sunday, he said, only so that he could say goodbye to Father Darrell Schaffer.

"It's not everyone, Ric," the secretary said. But the few were enough to make him feel unwelcome and that, too, saps the energy he needs to live.

Six months ago, after yet another friend died, he despaired. Calling Father Dan Bohte, the priest who'd confirmed him three months after Ric tested positive for HIV in March 1990, he begged for an explanation. "Why am I still alive?"

"That is not your question to ask," Father Bohte gently chided. "Just accept it. Maybe you still have something to do or say, and your task here is not yet complete."
Father Bohte was right. As a new member of Mayor Wellington Webb's HIV Resources Council, Ric uses what little energy he has challenging the bureaucracies that have sprung up around AIDS services. And he worries that the emphasis on safe sex is waning, particularly among young gays. He has seen them at the Denver bathhouses, eschewing safe sex for the passion of the moment. For some of them, the more than 200,000 Americans who have died from AIDS are mere statistics.

The young men remind Ric of himself and other members of the generation that led the gay revolution of the Seventies. In the pride of their youth, they, too, believed they were immortal. Now it is up to him, at 46, and to other survivors of that era to remember those who have gone before.

Waiting for mass to begin, Ric picked up the program for Holy Week. One of the day's readings from Isaiah seemed particularly appropriate. "My face I did not shield from buffets and spitting. The Lord God is my help, therefore I am not disgraced..."

At the altar, Father Schaffer prepared the bread and wine for the Eucharist. The congregation rose and moved to the aisles.

As Ric walked slowly toward the priest, he reminded himself not to cry, knowing that he would probably fail.

Ric was sixteen years old the first time he had sex. A businessman cruised him in an adult bookstore, and they wound up in a by-the-hour hotel room for the rest of the afternoon. At school in Wisconsin, he dated women and made love to several as he struggled to fit in, but he always preferred men. He dreamed of someday visiting San Francisco's Castro district, one of the few places in the mid-Sixties where being openly gay was accepted.