Paul Monette's Fiercely Honest AIDS Memoir

The author candidly writes about the death of his partner, Roger Horwitz.

borrowed time excerpt

Author, poet, and activist Paul Monette was well-known for his essays about gay relationships. His most famous works, Borrowed Time and Becoming a Man, relate to the struggles he's faced—the former detailing his tragic love story with Roger Horwitz, who died in 1986 from complications related to AIDS. 

At the time of Horwitz's death, the medical community was just beginning to understand the magnitude of this mysterious disease. Monette's honest words paint a portrait of love and tragedy—tragedy that he and others in the gay community faced during such an uncertain time. Although Monette also died due to complications from AIDS in 1995, his stories will remain with us forever. 

Read on for an excerpt from Borrowed Time, and then download the book. 




Borrowed Time

By Paul Monette

I don’t know if I will live to finish this. Doubtless there’s a streak of self-importance in such an assertion, but who’s counting? Maybe it’s just that I’ve watched too many sicken in a month and die by Christmas; so that a fatal sort of realism comforts me more than magic. All I know is this: The virus ticks in me. And it doesn’t care a whit about our categories—when is fullblown, what’s AIDS-related, what is just sick and tired? No one has solved the puzzle of its timing. I take my drug from Tijuana twice a day. The very friends who tell me how vigorous I look, how well I seem, are the first to assure me of the imminent medical breakthrough. What they don’t seem to understand is, I used up all my optimism keeping my friend alive. Now that he’s gone, the cup of my own health is neither half full nor half empty. Just half.

Equally difficult, of course, is knowing where to start. The world around me is defined now by its endings and its closures—the date on the grave that follows the hyphen. Roger Horwitz, my beloved friend, died of complications of AIDS on October 22, 1986, nineteen months and ten days after his diagnosis. That is the only real date anymore, casting its ice shadow over all the secular holidays lovers mark their calendars by. Until that long night in October, it didn’t seem possible that any day could supplant the brute equinox of March 12—the day of Roger’s diagnosis in 1985, the day we began to live on the moon.

The fact is, no one knows where to start with AIDS. Now, in the seventh year of the calamity, my friends in L.A. can hardly recall what it felt like any longer, the time before the sickness. Yet we all watched the toll mount in New York, then in San Francisco, for years before it ever touched us here. It comes like a slowly dawning horror. At first you are equipped with a hundred different amulets to keep it far away. Then someone you know goes into the hospital, and suddenly you are at high noon in full battle gear. They have neglected to tell you that you will be issued no weapons of any sort. So you cobble together a weapon out of anything that lies at hand, like a prisoner honing a spoon handle into a stiletto. You fight tough, you fight dirty, but you cannot fight dirtier than it.

I remember a Saturday in February 1982, driving Route 10 to Palm Springs with Roger to visit his parents for the weekend. While Roger drove, I read aloud an article from The Advocate: “Is Sex Making Us Sick?” There was the slightest edge of irony in the query, an urban cool that seems almost bucolic now in its innocence. But the article didn’t mince words. It was the first in-depth reporting I’d read that laid out the shadowy nonfacts of what till then had been the most fragmented of rumors. The first cases were reported to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) only six months before, but they weren’t in the newspapers, not in L.A. I note in my diary in December ’81 ambiguous reports of a “gay cancer,” but I know I didn’t have the slightest picture of the thing. Cancer of the what? I would have asked, if anyone had known anything.

I remember exactly what was going through my mind while I was reading, though I can’t now recall the details of the piece. I was thinking: How is this not me? Trying to find a pattern I was exempt from. It was a brand of denial I would watch grow exponentially during the next few years, but at the time I was simply relieved. Because the article appeared to be saying that there was a grim progression toward this undefined catastrophe, a set of preconditions—chronic hepatitis, repeated bouts of syphilis, exotic parasites. No wonder my first baseline response was to feel safe. It was them—by which I meant the fast-lane Fire Island crowd, the Sutro Baths, the world of High Eros.

Not us.

I grabbed for that relief because we’d been through a rough patch the previous autumn. Till then Roger had always enjoyed a sort of no-nonsense good health: not an abuser of anything, with a constitutional aversion to hypochondria, and not wed to his mirror save for a minor alarm as to the growing dimensions of his bald spot. In the seven years we’d been together I scarcely remember him having a cold or taking an aspirin. Yet in October ’81 he had struggled with a peculiar bout of intestinal flu. Nothing special showed up in any of the blood tests, but over a period of weeks he experienced persistent symptoms that didn’t neatly connect: pains in his legs, diarrhea, general malaise. I hadn’t been feeling notably bad myself, but on the other hand I was a textbook hypochondriac, and I figured if Rog was harboring some kind of bug, so was I.

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  • Paul Monette and Roger HorwitzPhoto Credit: Alchetron

The two of us finally went to a gay doctor in the Valley for a further set of blood tests. It’s a curious phenomenon among gay middle-class men that anything faintly venereal had better be taken to a doctor who’s “on the bus.” Is it a sense of fellow feeling perhaps, or a way of avoiding embarrassment? Do we really believe that only a doctor who’s our kind can heal us of the afflictions that attach somehow to our secret hearts? There is so much magic to medicine. Of course we didn’t know then that those few physicians with a large gay clientele were about to be swamped beyond all capacity to cope.

The tests came back positive for amoebiasis. Roger and I began the highly toxic treatment to kill the amoeba, involving two separate drugs and what seems in memory thirty pills a day for six weeks, till the middle of January. It was the first time I’d ever experienced the phenomenon of the cure making you sicker. By the end of treatment we were both weak and had lost weight, and for a couple of months afterward were susceptible to colds and minor infections.

It was only after the treatment was over that a friend of ours, diagnosed with amoebas by the same doctor, took his slide to the lab at UCLA for a second opinion. And that was my first encounter with lab error. The doctor at UCLA explained that the slide had been misread; the squiggles that looked like amoebas were in fact benign. The doctor shook his head and grumbled about “these guys who do their own lab work.” Roger then retrieved his slide, took it over to UCLA and was told the same: no amoebas. We had just spent six weeks methodically ingesting poison for no reason at all.

So it wasn’t the Advocate story that sent up the red flag for us. We’d been shaken by the amoeba business, and from that point on we operated at a new level of sexual caution. What is now called safe sex did not use to be so clearly defined. The concept didn’t exist. But it was quickly becoming apparent, even then, that we couldn’t wait for somebody else to define the parameters. Thus every gay man I know has had to come to a point of personal definition by way of avoiding the chaos of sexually transmitted diseases, or STD as we call them in the trade. There was obviously no one moment of conscious decision, a bolt of clarity on the shimmering freeway west of San Bernardino, but I think of that day when I think of the sea change. The party was going to have to stop. The evidence was too ominous: We were making ourselves sick.

Not that Roger and I were the life of the party. Roger especially didn’t march to the different drum of so many men, so little time, the motto and anthem of the sunstruck summers of the mid-to-late seventies. He’d managed not to carry away from his adolescence the mark of too much repression, or indeed the yearning to make up for lost time. In ten years he had perhaps half a dozen contacts outside the main frame of our relationship, mostly when he was out of town on business. He was comfortable with relative monogamy, even at a time when certain quarters of the gay world found the whole idea trivial and bourgeois. I realize that in the world of the heterosexual there is a generalized lip service paid to exclusive monogamy, a notion most vividly honored in the breach. I leave the matter of morality to those with the gift of tongues; it was difficult enough for us to fashion a sexual ethics just for us. In any case, I was the one in the relationship who suffered from lost time. I was the one who would go after a sexual encounter as if it were an ice cream cone—casual, quick, good-bye.

But as I say, who’s counting? I only want to make it plain to start with that we got very alert and very careful as far back as the winter of ’82. That gut need for safety took hold and lingered, even as we got better again and strong. Thus I’m not entirely sure what I thought on another afternoon a year and a half later, when a friend of ours back from New York reported a conversation he’d had with a research man from Sloan-Kettering.

“He thinks all it takes is one exposure,” Charlie said, this after months of articles about the significance of repeated exposure. More tenaciously than ever, we all wanted to believe the whole deepening tragedy was centered on those at the sexual frontiers who were fucking their brains out. The rest of us were fashioning our own little Puritan forts, as we struggled to convince ourselves that a clean slate would hold the nightmare at bay.

Yet with caution as our watchword starting in February of ’82, Roger was diagnosed with AIDS three years later. So the turning over of new leaves was not to be on everybody’s side. A lot of us were already ticking and didn’t even know. The magic circle my generation is trying to stay within the borders of is only as real as the random past. Perhaps the young can live in the magic circle, but only if those of us who are ticking will tell our story. Otherwise it goes on being us and them forever, built like a wall higher and higher, till you no longer think to wonder if you are walling it out or in.

For us the knowing began in earnest on the first of September, 1983. I’d had a call a couple of days before from my closest friend, Cesar Albini, who’d just returned to San Francisco after a summer touring Europe with a group of students. He said he’d been having trouble walking because of a swollen gland in his groin, and he was going to the hospital to have it biopsied. He reassured me he was feeling fine and wasn’t expecting anything ominous, but figured he’d check it out before school started again. AIDS didn’t even cross my mind, though cancer did. Half joking, Cesar wondered aloud if he dared disturb our happy friendship with bad news.

“If it’s bad,” I said, “we’ll handle it, okay?”

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