À La Carte: The Properties of Mercury
I refuse to trivialize them by calling them “Hallmark moments,” those times when something unexpected rips open the solid, mental door of my emotional panic room and liberates feelings imprisoned behind it.
Bohemian Rhapsody triggered one of those. I couldn’t take my eyes off Rami Malek’s Freddie Mercury. His strut, his swagger. His body taut and muscled, yet fluid; a body in motion demanding my undivided attention. I often partied at gay bars, admired buff bodies in the second skin of tight t-shirts, the then new fashion statement of wearing running shoes, the eye-catching contour along the button-downs or zippers of jeans. I looked, didn’t touch, never felt threatened, and always had a dance partner.
In the movie, the scene that oiled the rusty hinges of my closeted grief showed Rami/Freddie leaving a medical clinic. Pale green blended the hallway with the lighting and coated a bench where a lone patient primly sat. I couldn’t decide if he was contemplating the reality of his diagnosis or waiting for death to appear in its tangible, stereotypic form, a skeleton in a hooded robe with a scythe. When Rami/Freddie walked by, the pallid blonde man, marked by a Kaposi’s sarcoma on his forehead, softly issued, “Aaaa Oooo,” a trademark Mercury crowd rouser. Freddie answered softly, a gentle acknowledgment: “Aaaa Oooo.”
* * *
And then it began. I remember leaning against the sink in the ICU, preparing, yet again, for the loss of another young patient. I stood next to an Infectious Disease doctor who competed with me at feeling useless. “How many more do we have to lose?” I asked. I pulled a coarse paper towel from the dispenser and wiped away my tears.
“I don’t know.”
When I watched the movie, I relived the moment I saw a friend, who had been my student and who became a colleague, walk through the sunlight fragmenting the hospital atrium. Isolated strands of gray broke through thick, close-cropped black hair. He wore a shirt, with a button-down collar, pressed slacks, and a simple gold bracelet. Nothing ostentatious, nothing reminiscent of the young man who, after a weekend of clubbing, raved about the bodies of the men he met. “They had bodies of death,” he laughed, never realizing the irony of foreshadowing. No amount of make-up could cover the Kaposi’s, that’s what we called them then, on his nose. It bloomed with the deep purple and distinct outline of an O’Keefe flower.
“Hey, wait up,” I hollered.
He stopped in the sunlight. I wanted to remember him that way, ablaze in nature’s glory.
“How are you doing? Give me a hug.” We embraced. His body shuddered against me. I realized he was crying.
“Nobody ever hugs me anymore.”
Fear unleashes cruelty in even the best people.
The movie continued. I saw the subtle signs of Freddie’s decline and his compulsion to live every day as he wished. I thought of the patients who died, whose names I shamefully can’t remember. Gowns and gloves became mandatory attire caring for AIDs patients, when just twenty-four hours before we knew what we knew, I went home with their blood and sweat on my hands. I was too young or too stupid to be afraid. All I saw were people I might have been dancing next to the previous weekend.
There are no pretty words for that.