Prologue: Is There a Future? April 1993
In 1989, not long after my partner Wally and I took the HIV test, the pain in my back--which had been a chronic, low-level problem--became acute. I went to a chiropractor I'd seen before, a rough-and-tumble kind of guy with a strange, cluttered little office on a shady part of Main Street in the Vermont town where we lived then. Dr. Crack, as I thought of him, was his own secretary, and furnished his office with all manner of cast-offs and inspirational posters, along with many implements of vague and mysterious use. In general, he did not inspire confidence. He snapped me around with considerable force, and though I felt much better after being treated by him, I also felt a mounting sense of nervousness about the degree of force he used. One day the crack my neck made as he whipped it into place was so loud that I resolved to see the new-age doctor my friends had spoken so highly of instead. She had cured one friend of a nervous tic in the eye simply by massaging a spot on her spine; others swore by her gentler style of manipulation.
On my first visit, as I lay on my stomach in a room full of ferns and charts marking the locations of chakras and pressure points, she touched one vertebra which throbbed, seemed almost to ring, painfully, like a struck tuning fork. I felt she'd touched the very center of the pain in my sacrum, the weak spot where my ache originated. When I told her this, she said that the particular vertebra she was touching represented "faith in the future."
Under her tentative touches--delivered with less pressure than one would use to push an elevator button--my back simply got worse, but her diagnosis was sopenetratingly accurate that I never forgot it. After a while, I went back to Dr. Crack, and my back got better, but not the rupture in my faith.
The test results had come back negative for me, positive for Wally, but it didn't seem to matter so much which of us carried the antibodies for the virus. We'd been together eight years; we'd surrounded ourselves with a house and animals and garden, tokens of permanency; our continuance was assumed, an essential aspect of life. That we would continue to be, and to be together, had about it the unquestioned nature of a given, the tacit starting point from which the rest of our living proceeded. The news was as devastating as if I'd been told I was positive myself. In retrospect, I think of two different metaphors for the way it affected me.
The virus seemed to me, first, like a kind of solvent which dissolved the future, our future, a little at a time. It was like a dark stain, a floating, inky transparency hovering over Wally's body, and its intention was to erase the time ahead of us, to make that time, each day, a little smaller.
And then I thought of us as standing on a kind of sandbar, the present a narrow strip of land which had seemed, previously, enormous, without any clear limits. Oh, there was a limit out there, somewhere, of course, but not anywhere in sight. But the virus was a kind of chill, violent current, one which was eroding, at who knew what speed, the ground upon which we stood. If you watched, you could see the edges crumbling.
Four years have passed. For two of them, we lived with the knowledge of Wally's immune status, though he was blessedly asymptomatic; for the last two years, we have lived with AIDS.
Hishas not been the now-typical pattern of dizzying descents into opportunistic infections followed by recoveries. Instead, he's suffered a gradual, steady decline, an increasing weakness which, a few months ago, took a sharp turn for the worse. He is more-or-less confined to bed now, with a few forays up and out in his wheelchair; he is physically quite weak, though alert and responsive, and every day I am grateful he's with me, though I will admit that I also rail and struggle against the limitations his health places upon us. As he is less capable, less present, I do battle with my own sense of loss at the same time as I try not to let the present disappear under the grief of those disappearances, and the anticipatory grief of a future disappearance.
And I struggle, as well, with the way the last four years have forced me to rethink my sense of the nature of the future.
Because the truth was I'd"never" really believed in a future, always had trouble imagining ongoingness, a place in the unfolding chain of things. I was raised on apocalypse. My grandmother--whose Tennessee fundamentalism reduced not a jot her generosity or spiritual grace--used to read me passages from the Book of Revelation and talk about the immanence of the Last Days. The hymns we sang figured this world as a veil of appearances, and sermons in church characterized the human world as a flimsy screen behind which the world's real actors enacted the struggles and dramas of a loftier realm. Not struggles, exactly, since the outcome was foreknown: the lake of fire and the fiery pit, the eternal chorus of the saved--but dramatic in the sense of scale, or scope. How large and mighty was the music of our salvation!
When the Hog Farm commune came to my town in an old school bus painted in Day-Glo colors swirled like a Tibetan mandala, the people who came tumbling out into the park had about them the aura of a new world. Their patchouli and bells and handmade sandals were only the outward signs of a new point of view. We'd see things more clearly, with the doors of perception cleansed; fresh vision would yield new harmony, transformation. I was an adolescent, quickly outgrowing religion when this new sense of the apocalyptic replaced it with the late sixties' faith in the immanence of Revolution, a belief that was not without its own religious tinge and implication. Everything promised that the world could not stay the same; the foundations of order were quavering, both the orders of the social arena and of consciousness itself. I couldn't articulate much about the nature of the future I felt was in the offing,but I could feel it in the drift of sitar music across a downtown sidewalk, late summer afternoons, and in the pages of our local "underground" newspaper, "The Oracle," with its sinuous letterhead as richly complicated as the twining smoke of the Nepalese rope incense I used to burn. I was sure that certain sorts of preparation were ridiculously beside the point. Imagine buying, say, life insurance, or investing in a retirement plan, when the world as we'd always known it was burning?
One sort of apocalyptic scenario has replaced another: endings ecological or nuclear, scenarios of depleted ozone or global starvation, or, finally, epidemic. All my life I've lived with a future which constantly diminishes, but never vanishes.
Apocalypse is played out now on a personal scale; it is not in the sky above us, but in our bed.
In the museums we used to visit on family vacations when I was a kid, I used to love those rooms which displayed collections of minerals in a kind of closet or chamber which would, at the push of a button, darken. Then ultraviolet lights would begin to glow and
Mark Doty's seven books of poetry and three books of nonfiction prose have been honored with such distinctions as the National Book Critics Circle Award, the PEN/Martha Albrand Award, the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, a Whiting Writers' Award, a Lila WallaceReader's Digest Writers' Award, and, in the United Kingdom, the T. S. Eliot Prize. He has received fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Ingram Merrill Foundation, and the Dorothy and Lewis B. Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers at the New York Public Library. He is a professor at the University of Houston and lives in New York City.