Mom volunteered at The Healing Place, where her organizational and phone-answering skills were a big help to me. And I reciprocated, continued to help out answering the phone and talking to walk-in visitors at her own Center for A Course in Miracles, a storefront on 17th St. in Sellwood. I did “shifts” late Tuesday and Thursday afternoons in the front office, which led into a larger meeting room in the back. Volunteers had painted the walls a soft lavender (Mom’s favorite color) including the exposed furnace and pipes.
I sometimes stayed after my shift for her Tuesday early evening study group. One evening in the spring of 1994, I decided to stay for the Thursday group instead. I went out for a quick sandwich, walked back slowly in the growing dusk, and found the group had just convened in a circle when I arrived, the long narrow room lit only by candlelight. Peering, I could make out a few familiar faces, but more who weren’t known to me. Some sat on meditation cushions, some on folding chairs. A few more women than men, all ages from teen to elderly. One older fellow with short gray hair and a short gray beard sat on a folding chair next to Mom, casting frequent frankly-admiring glances her way.
After a brief silent meditation Mom asked a student to read from the Course. This group had progressed nearly to the end of the daily lessons. They also had progressed to doing some serious soul-searching, and that’s why they were in this study group. Mom insisted on serious soul-searching for advancing students. She called on a young woman near me, while throwing me a bright smile in the dim light. “Amelia, will you read?”
Amelia, her blonde hair hanging in smoothly brushed curtains which hid her face, tilted her book toward a candle and read.
“Lesson 325: All things I think I see reflect ideas.
…What I see reflects a process in my mind which starts with my idea of what I want. From there, the mind makes up an image of the thing the mind desires, judges valuable, and therefore seeks to find. These images are then projected outward, looked upon, esteemed as real, and guarded as one’s own. From insane wishes comes an insane world. From judgment comes a world condemned. And from forgiving thoughts a gentle world comes forth, with mercy for the holy Children of God, to offer a kindly home where they can rest a while before they journey on and help their brothers walk ahead with them and find the way to Heaven and to God.”
Mom asked people to explore further, unpack the elements of their desires and fears. “Let’s start with Desire for Connection. What’s behind that desire? What feelings?”
A deep voice on the other side of the room called out, “Loneliness.”
In the dimness of flickering candlelight, my eyes fell on his necklace, a silver peace symbol superimposed on a heavy turquoise cross—women wore such ornate jewelry, not men. But then, the necklace went well with his shiny-soft fitted purple shirt. Gay, I thought.
Silver Necklace didn’t speak up again until we had moved on to talk about Fear of Solitude.
Mom started the conversation. “What are the fears that come up related to Solitude?”
From across the room, the same deep voice. “Dark thoughts,” Silver Necklace said. I narrowed my eyes and let them go out of focus, waiting for his aura to appear. In the dim light he appeared subtly radiant, his aura a lovely, shimmering violet. The most sensitive and wisest of colors; intuitive, visionary, artistic, magical.
When the group broke up, I wandered over to where Silver Necklace still sat on his meditation cushion. He looked up at me. “Hi, I’m Alexander. And you are…?”
“Mom, I mean Frances’ daughter, Judy. I help out here at the Center.” His smile, as radiant as his aura, brilliant against his smooth, café-au-lait skin.
Mom came over and gave Alex three kisses on the top of his head. “He likes head kisses,” she said.
“And hugs.” Alex rose easily from his cushion. “That’s what I stayed for.”
Mom wrapped her arms around his waist and rested her head on his chest. Alex laid his cheek against the top of her head.
“I just adore your lovely mom.”
* * *
That spring, Alex usually dropped in during my Tuesday “shifts” at Mom’s Center. Our conversations centered on his questions about the Course, and how it applied in everyday life.
One Tuesday afternoon Alex unfolded his lanky frame from the folding chair and stretched hugely. “I want to get some coffee. Wanna come?”
I gathered my things. “I need some coffee too. It’s sure been a quiet afternoon here. Must be the weather.” Typical Oregon rain, an invisible silvery shimmer, but capable of drenching anyone who underestimated it as “just a little shower.” We put on our rain jackets and walked down to the bakery on Bybee Avenue.
“Decaf,” I ordered, “and milk, not cream.”
“Decaf already?” Alex said. His dark eyes danced with amusement. Even small things seemed to entertain him.
“Caffeine keeps me awake,” I said. “I can’t stay up all night and still function the next day, the way I did in college.”
He ordered regular coffee, with cream, and leaned back in the booth.
“Your mom tells me you have healing power.”
Blood pounded in my ears. “She says that, yes, because I healed from metastatic cancer ten years ago or so. But that was me. I don’t know how to do it for someone else.”
The waitress, a curvaceous girl who looked barely high-school age, delivered coffee and decaf in heavy old-fashioned mugs, and small white pitchers of milk and cream.
I poured milk in my coffee. “I wish I did. My brother has metastatic melanoma. I’d heal him in an instant if I knew how, but I’m not a healer, I know that. For me, healing was an internal matter, healing my mind. With help from…the Divine.”
“Kind of a miracle, then, wasn’t it?” His eyes sparkled with amusement again. “Of course, you had nothing to do with it.”
“Of course.” I smiled.
“So,” I said, changing the subject. “Tell me where you came from. You mentioned you lived in New York? Surely you weren’t born there.” His caramel skin, dark eyes and curly dark hair…Italian? Black Irish? No, not with the dark eyes.
“Born in Brazil. My parents brought me to Florida when I was a kid. A real culture shock. In Brazil, people are warmer, more friendly, colorful, social. They’re always outdoors, playing sports or at the beach, out every night dancing, schmoozing.”
“Schmoozing? That’s a Portuguese word?”
He leaned back, grinning. “Balada would be better—it means music, singing, night life, dancing. No, ‘schmoozing’ is New York City. Headed north as soon as I graduated high school. I didn’t come out until I got to New York City. Left there ten or twelve years ago. Let’s see…1984? Ten years. San Francisco had an even more lively gay scene going on. Not that New York wasn’t lively, and gay.”
“So, why did you move to Portland, if you were having so much fun in San Francisco?”
The sparkle dimmed. He looked down, thick black eyelashes shielding his eyes, poured cream into his coffee, gave it a long, slow stir, tasted, and set the cup down with a sigh. “The life there turned kind of…scary.”
“Scary? You mean…?”
“Some of my friends were getting sick. Really bad sick. And then I heard some of my friends in New York City had been getting sick, too.”
“Oh my God! You were there. Must have been unbelievably terrifying to experience the HIV epidemic on the front lines.”
“Yes, awful—everyone was getting this really, really savage flu. And a kind of pneumonia, a rare kind.”
“Pneumocystic…” I said.
“Who knew? Then, all of that was just a mystery, a disturbing mystery. And then the KS—Kaposi’s Sarcoma—gay cancer.”
He looked down at his hands, I looked too, saw a couple of dark lesions. He pulled his long sleeves down over the spots and put his hands in his lap. Oh my God. Does he have KS? HIV? AIDS? Had he been tested? Those questions all seemed too personal. He’ll tell me, in due time. He’s not ready yet.
He shuddered. “Because only gay people were getting that kind of pneumonia or cancer, The Advocate started to call the whole syndrome the ‘gay disease.’”
“But that’s absurd,” I said.
“Turned out to be the virus. Some people thought it might be a government plot to wipe out gay people. Like, putting some kind of designer germs in drinks in gay bars.”
“That can’t be true. I don’t believe in government conspiracy theories.”
“Well, I do. The police used to raid gay bars and rough people up if they felt like it. Haven’t you heard about Stonewall?”
“Seems like I remember something…late Sixties, wasn’t it? New York City? Riots?”
“Riots. But it started a whole movement. Now we have Gay Pride parades. More and more people are coming out of the closet.”
“Haven’t you been openly out? At least since New York City?”
“Not on purpose, at least not around here. New York’s an easier place to be out, or San Francisco. Big cities have gay communities.”
He wrapped his arms around himself as if he were cold, and rocked back and forth. “Yes, but now I’ve changed my life. No more gay bars. And after seeing how sick my friends are, I’m celibate. I’ve been celibate for six or seven years, since I moved to Portland.”
“Is that long enough? Can the virus hibernate?” I thought of my hairdresser Charlie, who had been celibate for ten years, finally got tested, and was HIV positive. Charlie was my only up close-and-personal connection to the AIDS epidemic, but I’d read enough about AIDS to know how brutal and devastating it could be. Charlie was on medication of some kind now, and we both fervently believed he would survive. Nevertheless, I watched him closely, fearful I might see some weight loss, or lesions, or weakness. Swinging between Desire and Fear. But Charlie never canceled an appointment. If he felt sick, he had told me, he stayed in his PJs all day, watched soaps, and ate chicken soup with crackers until he felt better.
Maybe Alex could…
“You could be asymptomatic and celibate for a long time,” Alex said, “then find out the virus has been there all along.”
“Celibacy must be a hard life.”
“Not when the alternative is puking and coughing, night sweats and fevers and delirium and losing so much weight your bones stick out through your skin.”
I winced. Tried to picture beautiful Alex as a barely-alive skeleton. “Okay, I get it. Celibacy is your new life. That, and spiritual work? How’d you get involved in A Course in Miracles?”
Alex leaned forward. “I heard about your mom, and her Center, and started dropping by just to talk to her. Then I joined one of her study groups.”
“So, has the Course helped you?”
He turned his coffee mug in his hands. “I’m not sure when, or how, but I notice that I’m more at peace now, more able to accept things as they are rather than judge them as good or bad, right or wrong.”
“Did the Course teach you that?”
“Not directly. Your mom helped, but her teaching is more about process, how to consciously dissolve patterns of victimhood and unforgiveness. And Fear and Desire—the way we feel so crazy, constantly bouncing back and forth between those two. I guess we all do it. She teaches us how to find the centered, balanced inner state between fear and desire. The place that’s entirely neutral, free of judgment.”
I guess we all do it, I thought. Yes, true for me. I should sit in on that group more often.
Right now I was bouncing between fear for Alex’s health status, and desire for him to be perfectly fine and fit.
I tried to think what a centered, peaceful place might be. Someplace free of judgment or expectations or attachments. Maybe All is well. Yes, I’d go with that.
The waitress came by with two coffee pots, one with an orange plastic spout and one with black. She lifted her far-too-tweezed and penciled blonde eyebrows and held up the pots. “Sure,” I said, and pushed my mug toward her. She filled it from the orange pot, then filled Alex’s from the black one. Twitched her barely-covered little ass back to the counter. Alex didn’t notice her at all.
“Some people think Mom’s a little nuts, with some of her beliefs,” I said. “What you get from her, what would you call it?”
“Love,” Alex said. “I call it Love. That’s what I experience with your delightful mother. She could be a blooming lunatic and it would be fine with me. She knows how to love unconditionally.”
* * *
Over that summer of 1994, Alex and I became friends. He painted exquisite water color miniatures of local flora and fauna and the Willamette River, and made ceramic pottery and jewelry to sell in his booth at the Saturday Market. Alex and I talked and gossiped about people we both knew in the art world, laughed until we couldn’t stop. Bizarre people especially fascinated us, because, of course, we thought we were not. And of course, I hadn’t yet actually been in Alex’s house, let alone his adjoining studio.
* * *
Nearly two months had passed. Something had changed—I hadn’t seen Alex for awhile.
One afternoon late that fall, Alex stopped by my house for one of our occasional sessions of “tea and dish.” We settled in our usual place at the kitchen table.
“I haven’t seen you for awhile. It’s been…weeks,” I said. “Are you all right? Still going to Mom’s study group?”
His mouth twitched at the corners, but it wasn’t a smile. “I am.”
“Do you still get something from her that you need?”
“I do,” Alex said. “So far.”
He looked at his hands, turned them over and examined the backs, looked at the dark KS spots that had multiplied lately. I narrowed my eyes, saw his aura pop into view. Muddy. Without his usual radiance. A muddy aura meant the person was sour, in a bad mood, anxious, sick, confused, depressed, or just in a world of hurt. The aura was filling up with toxic energy from toxic emotions.
When he looked up, his thick lashes were clumped with dampness. “But now I need more,” he said. “I finally went for my blood test the other day.”
All my senses went on full alert, antennae vibrating.
“Positive,” he said. “For the virus.”
The word clanged around my kitchen like a heavy shiny metal PlusSign that bounced off the cabinets and stove and refrigerator, finally landed on the table, shimmered to a stop and came to rest between us, a malignant humming burning cross.
Long moments passed before my eyes could come back into focus.
“Positive.” The only thing I could think to say. “That means…”
Alex stretched out his long legs under the table and leaned back. “It means I have the virus, and I’m going to die. But not right away. I get to suffer first.”
“You mean there’s nothing…”
“Not really,” he said. “There are new drugs, experimental drugs, and some coming in from Mexico, but the drugs make people sick too, sometimes even sicker. And they don’t promise a cure, just a delay.”
“But my friend Charlie, he’s taking AZT…”
“I don’t want to take it. From what I hear, AZT is what actually turns HIV into AIDS. Lowers the immune system so much you get ‘Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome.’ Some friends of mine are taking the new ‘cocktail’ of several drugs, but I’m suspicious of that, too.”
“So, it’s okay. I don’t have full-fledged AIDS yet, that would be when the PCP and fevers start. So far, it’s just these damn KS spots. I’ve known for awhile now that if I ever got tested, it would probably be positive.” He flashed that smile. “I managed to be a pretty bad boy in my youth, in New York and San Francisco. Moving to Portland and being celibate may have bought me a few extra years for good behavior.”
I thought about Charlie, how he had put off being tested for ten years, but suspected, that whole time, that he would test positive. Which he had.
“Have you told Mom?”
“Yes. You probably know how she responded.”
“She said she doesn’t do healing.”
“Yes, she told me she wouldn’t involve herself with me in that way, it would just give energy to the reality of the virus, which she won’t do.”
I flashed, said without thinking, “That’s crap!” There it was again, Mom’s determination to completely deny anything she deemed to be not of God, anything less than perfect health and happiness. I loved her attitude but alternately, hated it. Wanted her to believe I was perfectly well and healed, when I was sick. But part of me—my lower self—wanted my mama, wanted her to wring her hands and hover when I was sick, suffer with me. Which she had never done, even when I was a child. “Too sick to go to school?” she’d say. “Then get in my bed with the blinds down, no radio or books. No snacks. Just chicken soup and crackers, for lunch.” She’d rub vile-smelling Musterole on my chest, then she’d disappear. I always got well fast, sometimes immediately.
His white teeth.
“Don’t get all anxious about it, she’s just being Frances.”
“Okay, yes she’s just being Frances, but I get so pissed off by that damn detachment of hers. She has the ability to deny anything.”
That was all about my stuff, my main issue with my mother. That was little Judy, wanting her mama instead of a guru who worked her own kinds of miracles. I wanted her to be in the muck with Alex and me, banging back and forth between Fear and Desire. And I wanted her to be detached and not believe in any of our drama, just seeing Alex as whole and healed, period. Make him a miracle, somehow.
Alex looked down at his hands again. “Well, they say Denial can be a powerful healing strategy. Wish I had some Denial, myself.” He held up his hands, backs toward me, and I had to look, his long graceful fingers, the spreading red-black lesions on that gorgeous caramel skin. “This mess growing on my hands is just too real,” he said.
My heart had speeded up, skipping a beat here and there. I could feel it throbbing in my neck, off-kilter. I took deep breaths, calmed myself, waited for the normal rhythm to resume. Alex stood and took a turn around the kitchen, circled the wood-block island, stretched and moved his head in a circle until I heard definite cracks that made me wince.
I got up from the kitchen table and added a couple more Earl Gray teabags to the teapot, refilled it with boiling water from the teakettle, brought it back to the table, and sat down. Waited for Alex to sit and get comfortable again.
I leaned forward, forcing him to look into my eyes. “How can I help?” I asked.
“Just by being yourself,” he said. “You’ve become a great comfort to me. Frances is my spiritual teacher, but you are special in your own way. I don’t know how fast this will go, but if I knew you would be around, be there to talk to sometimes, the way we do now but more often…it would help a lot.”
Tears pressed against my eyeballs. “It would be my pleasure.”
“We can hang out while I work. You’d need to come to my house, my studio. Do you mind?”
“Mind! Of course I don’t mind.” I loved this man like a brother. I blinked away the tears. “My pleasure,” I repeated.
Alexander had just asked me to be part of his support system, the spiritual part, the part that might actually help him to heal. My brother Tim had asked for the same thing, and I had gladly agreed. But Tim had another agenda, too. He wanted me to somehow use my “healing powers” to heal him.
Could Alex have such a secret agenda, too?