Longform

THE END OF THE LINE

Page 4 of 5

"No one would want to have sex with you," one of the men laughed. Ric smiled. "Oh Gawd, no," he shrieked in his best drag-queen falsetto. "That would be worse than death."
Still, many of Ric's gay friends were dropping out of the fast lane and into monogamous relationships. And in the spring of 1983, Ric himself fell in love.

It was Thursday night at the Ballpark. Ric, who was there so often he'd become something of a one-man welcoming committee, spotted a new face in the crowd. Its owner stood apart from the festivities. Ric went over and asked why.

"I never get fucked," the man said sadly.
"Honey," Ric said, "in here, everybody gets fucked." And proceeded to prove his point.

The man was Ed, a 46-year-old accountant with a Denver firm who was new to the bathhouse scene. When he called Ric a week later, it was obvious that there was a greater connection between them than the sex.

In June Ric moved from his Capitol Hill apartment into Ed's place at the corner of Tenth and Logan, with its view of downtown and the Rockies. There the two men settled into the routines of a faithful couple--grocery shopping, movies, quiet nights at home reading. Driving home from work one night, Ric thought about how happy he was that someone would be waiting for him. He surprised himself by admitting that he could spend the rest of his life with Ed.

He didn't get to. They were making love one night in October when Ed suddenly tensed and stopped breathing. Panicked, Ric slapped his lover repeatedly, screaming his name. He couldn't remember to dial 911 but called his boss, who called for the ambulance.

It arrived too late. Ed had suffered a massive heart attack and died on the way to the hospital, leaving behind a mother, a sister, two sons from a previous marriage and his grieving lover. In a way, though, Ed was lucky. He wouldn't have to witness the tragedy that was about to strike the men he loved.

On November 21, 1983, the Centers for Disease Control reported 2,803 cases of AIDS in America; 1,146 people had died. But there was only one death that had meaning to Ric: Ed's. He was consumed with grief and cried for days. After burying Ed in Michigan, Ric returned to Denver and moved into a smaller apartment in the same building. He liked the building and had many friends there, but it was too much to walk into the apartment he'd shared with Ed, knowing that he wouldn't be there.

When he finally emerged from his cocoon, it was to lose himself in LSD and the bodies of strangers at the Ballpark. He would trip for days at a time; lovers came and went in a swirl of faces and voices.

Meanwhile, AIDS cases were starting to add up in Denver. Ric would hardly have noticed--except that bathhouse attendants were falling ill or simply disappearing. It took the death of one such worker to bring Ric back from one grief, only to replace it with one even more devastating.

Vern, an attendant at Empire Tubs since Ric began coming to Denver, was rumored to have the disease. He was an older man, the sort of guy who liked his booze and sex whenever his shift was over.

One evening someone overheard Vern at the symphony telling a friend that he had pneumocystis carinii. Confronted by other friends later, he denied having HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. But he continued to waste away, losing more than thirty pounds in a few months.

Over breakfast at a downtown restaurant one morning, the subject of Vern's health became the focus of conversation. Someone argued that Vern would have told them if he had AIDS. After all, many of them had known him as a lover.

But Ric knew that even in the tight-knit gay community, AIDS meant ostracism and a lonely wait for an ugly death. "No, he wouldn't," Ric told the group. "He's afraid that we'd be the kind of people who would leave him if we knew."

The gathering grew uncomfortably quiet. It was hard to acknowledge such a sad truth, but Ric was right. The question loomed large: If the time came, who was going to be there for them?

One day Vern disappeared. Ric and his friends frantically searched the bathhouses, the parks, the gay bars. When Vern showed up two weeks later, he told them he'd driven to Idaho intending to stay but had returned to Denver in order to die with friends.

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Steve Jackson