Prologue and Chapter 1

As If Death Summoned

 

Prologue

In the Victorian Alps, some 150 miles north of Melbourne, there lies a vast plateau at 6,000 feet called the Bogong High Plains. Part of the Great Dividing Range of Australia, it stands isolated and austere, composed of rock and heath and grasslands. The region was once sacred to the aboriginal Yiatmathong people. They would climb its higher elevations to escape the antipodean summers’ heat and to listen to their ancestors’ songs carried on the winds. The Europeans who followed were more accustomed to the sacred being enclosed within a building, and with their arrival, the aboriginal people were soon decimated, their ancestors’ songs lost, and the land, once sacred, became grazing ranges for the White Fellas’ sheep and cattle.

In 1936, three men—Mick Hull, Howard Michell and Cleve Cole—attempted the first winter crossing of the high plains. Overtaken by a blizzard, they became lost and wandered for five days in sub-freezing temperatures. Hull and Michell survived the ordeal, but Cole died from exposure. A hut was constructed two years later in his memory as shelter for others caught in the area’s changeable weather. In the decades since, there have been reports of a lone figure seen wandering over the heath lands. When approached, he vanishes and no trace of him can be found.

I am haunted by dreams of the Bogong High Plains…

 

 

Chapter 1: Déjà vu, all over again

10:00 p.m., Friday, February 24, 1995, Providence Hospital, Portland, Oregon

 

I’ve been here before: Walking down the corridor of some hospital, bracing myself for what I know is coming, pacing myself for what I know will be required. At the nurses' station, they direct me to the second floor waiting room where I find Sandy, arms crossed as if holding herself together. She’s staring out the window at the city’s night lights, sees my reflection in the glass and turns, her face tight with anxiety.

"How is he?" I ask.

Eyes red, she shakes her head—"Not good”—then puts a hand to her face and her shoulders begin shaking. I reach out and we fold into an embrace. She sobs once. Be strong. Be strong, I want to tell her. I need you to be strong.

We hold each other until she pulls away, removing a handkerchief from her jeans. "Let's sit down," I say. It’s almost ten p.m. and we’re by ourselves. I’m grateful for this at least. I don’t feel like sharing a room with other grief-shattered people this night.

"How was the conference?" she asks, wiping her eyes.

"Fine. It was fine. Thanks for getting word to me. I was able to catch an early flight out of Dulles. How long have you been here?"

She looks exhausted as she checks her watch. "Since four. I came in with him."

"What do the doctors say?"

"Not much. They've managed to stabilize him...they think. They say now it's wait and see. Probably won't know until morning. And even if he does…" Her voice trails off.

“Right. So, what happened?”

She fills me in, talking seems to relieve her. I listen, thinking of the one in the ICU with drips and tubes sprawling from him like some high-tech marionette.

When she finishes, I say, "You look beat. Why don't you go home. I'll stay."

"I don't know. I should be here in case…"

"I'll call if there's any change. I promise. There's nothing you can do now. And I'm sure Fernando must be worried about you. You know how caring and considerate cats are."

She looks up and I’m grateful to see her cracked smile. "Like you care about Fernando."

"But I do. I do." Fernando and I had taken an immediate and mutual dislike to each other upon our first meeting, and our relationship only deteriorated from there. "Go home," I urge. "You need to get out of here." I’m glad she doesn’t resist.

"Call me if—"

"I'll call. I promise."

And soon I have the room to myself. Just me and a few dozen ghosts. I slump into a chair, swearing under my breath, "Damn, damn, damn..." I had promised myself when I returned from Australia I wouldn't go through this ever again: Never again keep a midnight vigil in some hospital, awaiting the inevitable. There had been too many. I had promised myself…

And here I was.

By my own diagnosis, I am borderline burnout. And I should know. I'm a mental health specialist. Fortunately, one's own mental health is not a prerequisite for the job. It's been almost a year since I returned to the States, in January 1994, exhausted and drained of life. Aside from brief visits, I had been away for twelve years, first living in Japan, then Australia. Mom was happy to have me home, the Prodigal Son returned. That first night back I would have preferred just going to bed and sleeping for the next month, but she had killed the fatted calf and made a huge dinner of it, invited Sis and her homophobic husband, and chattered happily, managing to forget the circumstances that had brought me back.

We sat around the dining room table, I with no appetite, force-feeding myself to be polite, catching up on all the news. Family news. News of people I went to school with. News of people at church. Mom was a fount of unwanted information. Silently, I listened and ate as she went on and on.

"Oh, and did I write that Carol’s been diagnosed with breast cancer?"

Carol was my age. We had dated during high school, back in those early, preconscious days.

"No," I said. “I don’t think so.” More information I didn't need right then.

"Yes," she sighed, adjusting her bubbly mood to the weight of the news. "It's serious, I'm afraid. But that’s a part of life. Eventually, you reach that age where your friends start getting sick and dying."

My sister and her husband were stunned at Mom’s comment. Even Dad caught it.

I said, "Mom, my friends have been getting sick and dying for the last ten years."

Thirty-one by last count, as my plane lifted off from Melbourne. It was the thirty-first death that was bringing me home. She started to speak, then, realizing what she’d said, nodded and resumed eating.

And yet, in spite of my exhaustion, in spite of my burnout, in spite of my resolutions on that long flight back to the U.S., within a month I was sitting in a ventricle of the heart of the epidemic, volunteering for more action.

Dad expressed concern about this. He and I had been outside in his yard on a late winter's day, pruning his trees and preparing his garden for spring's return. Some people are easy to be with when grieving, people you can be comfortably silent with. Dad is one of them. Clipping dead branches, he offered, “Are you sure about this?” He meant volunteering. Hadn't I had enough of this AIDS? Maybe it was time for me to get on with my life. To realize there was more to life than death.

I turned the soil for his garden bed. "No. I’m not sure. But I'm not sure I have a choice." To his bemused look, I said, "I remember you telling me how the day after Pearl Harbor, you and your brothers went down to the Army office and signed up.”

And after he served his three years, he had the chance to return to being a civilian again, to marry and get on with his life. And he signed up for yet another tour of duty. Why?  I once asked. He’d hated the military, hated the regimentation, the fighting, the food. But there was a war on, you see, and the war dominated those years, shaping his generation, infusing every aspect of their lives, and overrode any personal plans. He could not not be part of it.

"That's kind of the way it is with me now," I told him. "This epidemic is my war." He nodded, saying nothing further, and we returned to our work.

War was the right analogy, and I knew I was suffering battle fatigue even when I showed up to volunteer at Columbia AIDS Project, or CAP for short. Originally, for a brief time, it had been called Columbia River AIDS Project, until someone noted the regrettable acronym. Fortunately, those were the early days, before they could afford letterhead.

There are people you instinctively know do not appreciate humor. I knew this instinctively about Charles Philpott, CAP’s volunteer coordinator. We were about serious matters here. About life and death, where there is no room for humor. Levity is to be discouraged lest people misunderstand how terribly serious we are here.

Charles was prim, proper, somewhat prissy, and very, very neat. His cubicle screamed Obsessive-Compulsive. Papers stacked neatly. Books and binders arranged neatly by size. Everything neatly in order, not one renegade paper clip out of place. I sat in his cubicle, hesitant to move for fear of disturbing the artificial order of things. He was polite, with that air of social politeness usually reserved for church, as if his tone had been selected like his tie that morning. One could almost see his mental checklist:

Establish rapport with prospective volunteer (Check).

Express appreciation for candidate's willingness to volunteer (Check.)

Evince—I'm sure the word for Charles would be “evince”—a personal interest in said candidate (Check).

That done, he opened a desk drawer labeled New Applications, removed a file, and handed me a number of forms. "You'll need to complete and return these to me as the first step in becoming a volunteer."

He walked me through the forms I should take away, “study,” sign and return. There was the basic four-page volunteer application, a two-page medical history, a twelve-page personality profile, confidentiality statement, list of all the volunteer positions available at the agency, release form requesting a police background check—It hadn't been this difficult to gain Australian citizenship.

I shuffled through the papers as he kept talking.

"Then there will be several trainings our volunteers take prior to working with our clients." Our volunteers. Our clients. It all sounded terribly possessive. There would be a three-hour orientation to the agency, its mission, its services, policies and procedures; a required two-hour diversity training workshop; and then program-specific trainings on blood borne pathogens, HIV 101, home care, self-care, homophobia...

"I just hope I get to volunteer before the epidemic's over," I joked, forgetting my earlier judgment that levity here would not be appreciated.

He offered a polite smile. "I'm sure you will."

"I did bring along my résumé," I said, pulling it out of my daypack.

"Oh good. That will be helpful," said Charles, receiving it from me—a slight frown at the dog-eared corner. Tsk. Tsk. "I will still need you to complete the application, even if the information is already included in your résumé." Charles knew that little boxes on forms were not created without a purpose. Bureaucracy, taking its cue from nature, abhors a vacuum. As he told me this, he skimmed the résumé, his eyes stopping on something of interest. Australia. Victorian AIDS Council. Founding member. Developed and coordinated care teams. Designed HIV prevention campaign. Master’s degree and background in mental health.

"I see you already have experience," he said, continuing to read. "Australia. You lived there for ten years?"

"Yes."

"I've always wanted to travel there. Did you like it?"

"Yes." Was this part of the interview?

"How did you come to live in Australia?" His interest was piqued, almost in spite of himself. I wondered if he was concerned about professional boundaries.

I paused. "It's a long story." Translation: I don't want to talk about it. Charles kept looking at me. "I fell in love with an Australian." He seemed, what, surprised? I shrugged. "It happens."

"Ah. So, what brought you back?"

"He died."

"Of?"

"Yes."

"Oh, I am sorry."

I looked away. "Me, too."

He studied me in a new light. I knew what he thought he saw. He offered delicately, "Perhaps you'd like to sign up for our client services. I mean, while you're here and all."

I turned back to him. "Thanks, but I don’t have AIDS." I just look like shit. It seemed I was having to explain this to everyone since I'd returned. To Mom and Dad. To Sis and homophobic hubby. To old friends. To volunteer coordinators. Not that I cared what people thought. I had gotten over that long ago with Gray. Everyone just assumed I, too, was positive. Let them think what they will. I'm not dying. I'm already dead.

"We happen to have a position open for a mental health specialist."

"Thanks, but I'm not looking for a job here. I just came to volunteer some hours."

"You already have a job?"

"No."

"You've got the right credentials and experience. We've been trying to fill this position for over three months."

"I really don't think I'm—"

"Let me call our client services manager." He was so insistent, I wondered if he was getting a commission. "Would you be willing at least to meet her?"

Now, sitting in this hospital waiting room a year later, I realize I should have said, No. No, thank you. Really, no. But then, I would never have met Sandy. Or Steve, or Cal, or Lukas, or…

I was directed to the client services manager’s office where I found a hefty woman with short hair, dressed in jeans, banded-collar shirt, and vest, holding a thick file. As a program manager, she had moved up the food chain from a cubicle. Her office was a shamble, resembling a paper-recycling center. Folders strewn about. File drawers gaping open. Stacks of papers everywhere, all suggesting creative chaos—or maybe just chaos. An autographed poster of k.d. lang was tacked on one wall, on another a poster of planet Earth (We all live downstream). After Charles’ cubicle, this immediately put me at ease.

As I came to her door, she shouted, "Three weeks!" I looked behind me to see who she was shouting at, and found that it was me. "Three weeks I worked to find this guy a place to stay. I pulled strings. I bribed the housing authority. I nearly prostituted myself with the HUD case manager to get this guy off the streets. And now I learn he’s taken off to LA!" She threw the file on the desk, placing her fists on her hips, shaking her head. "I just want to kill him before AIDS does."

Then she held out her hand and smiled. "Hi. I'm Sandy. Don't mind me. I'm just venting. It's Monday." She had a strong, masculine grip, making me glad I wasn't her client, wherever he was. I introduced myself and handed her the photocopy Charles made of my résumé so he could keep the original, which I was certain he had by now filed away. We sat down and she quickly ran through it, saying, "Charles says you just came back from Australia. You look like shit. Rough flight?"

"I've been back a month now."

"Oh." I knew what I looked like: dark circles under my eyes, pale skin, gaunt and skinny. No wonder Charles thought I was a client.

"How come Australia?"

"My partner...was Australian."

She nodded once—"Sorry"—and returned to studying my résumé. I’d found this attitude before among those working on the front lines of the epidemic, a lack of sentimentality. Perhaps it was a shield, a carapace over our hearts, protecting us from feeling too much, too deeply. I suspect it's the same during wartime: There are casualties. It's a given. So, quickly bury the dead and move on to the next battle. Keep moving. Don't think too much about what you've lost. We'll grieve when it's over. We promise to grieve when it's over.

"We could really use you,” she said. “You have both the mental health background and the HIV experience we need."

I smiled through my fatigue. "I'm not exactly a poster boy for mental health right now."

She shrugged. "Who is? Especially in this work."

It was then I met Steve. He poked his head in the door. Charles must have told him about me. "Hi!" He was a handsome man in his mid-thirties, about my age, with the outgoing, bright-eyed manner of an Eagle Scout. Sandy introduced him as the HIV prevention program manager. He was friendly, immediately likable, and, as I would find in months to come, habitually excited. Right now, he was excited about the mental health specialist position.

"This is the third time we've advertised for it. None of the people we've interviewed had what we're looking for."

"You should consider it," said Sandy. "It's easier to become an employee here than a volunteer. Fewer forms to fill out."

"We're working with Charles on that," said Steve. "We lose people all the time."

Then they talked about how they needed someone with my background and experience for both of their programs.

"I could use your help with the care teams," said Sandy. "Father Paul is in charge of them—a wonderful human being, a prince of a guy, our own in-house saint, but not the most organized person in the world. He needs help coordinating the program and training the volunteers."

"And I need someone who can help my team design prevention programs," said Steve. "Someone who understands human behavior and behavior change."

Do I understand human behavior? I once thought I did. Now humanity seems increasingly alien, or perhaps it’s my own humanity that’s so alien. Steve continued speaking excitedly about the position. Clean, wholesome, decent were words that came to mind as I studied him. And enthusiastic. He exuded enthusiasm. One of those guys you know was on the cheerleading team in high school. This was a wonderful opportunity, he said. I would be playing a really significant role in this epidemic. It was critical they have a mental health specialist at the agency.

"Really," agreed Sandy. "You should see all the dysfunctional people and personality disorders we have to deal with on a day-to-day basis—And then of course, some of the clients are pretty strange, too." Both of them laughed, and I found myself smiling. They were easy to be around.

"I assume you're talking about FY," said Steve.

Sandy explained, "That's our finance director. Franklin Youngson III. He signs all his memos FY, which could be for his initials. Steve thinks it stands for Fiscal Year. I think it's short for Fuck You, which represents Franklin’s attitude to the staff. The ED keeps him on because he’s good with numbers and has saved the agency several times. Still, we're weighing the cost.”

"I don't know." I was wavering, feeling my bedrock resolution sinking out from under me. "I don't think I'm in the right mental space to give you what you need."

"Maybe this is what you need," said Steve. "You know, something to take your mind off...whatever you need to take your mind off of." I suspect Charles had also told him why I returned to the States. Then he glanced at his watch. "I've got to get back to my meeting." He stood and we shook hands. "Please, think about it. We really do need you."

Once he left, I said to Sandy, "His enthusiasm is infectious."

She eyed me. "Yeah, well, be careful. That's not all that's infectious about him."

"Oh." I felt an immediate sinking in my stomach. Why am I still surprised?

"By the way, that's no breach of confidentiality. Steve’s very open about his status. About half the guys who work here are positive, though only a few have symptoms yet. And then, too, Steve already has a partner."

"Oh, I'm not interested in a relationship,” I said. “And besides, he's really not my type—you know, good looking, charming, intelligent." And I realized that's exactly how I'd describe Gray. No, I wasn't interested in a relationship. Not then. Perhaps not ever again.

Sandy looked at her watch. “It's almost noon. Hungry?"

"Not really."

"Good. You'll be a cheap lunch date. It's my treat."

"Thanks, but—"

"No, really, I want to talk to you some more. I'm going to wine 'n dine you until I convince you why you need to join us."

Out of courtesy, I agreed to lunch, and in a manner befitting a non-profit agency, Sandy wined and dined me at the nearby Subway sandwich shop.