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Joe Westmoreland Joe Westmoreland

Love and Drugs in the Darkest Days of AIDS

We were young misfits in 1980s San Francisco, taking care of our friend, who was dying, and waiting for our own diagnoses. We were doing, selling, stealing drugs, staying as high we could. Looking back, I cringe. Yet we did the best we could.

5 Substance

It was the spring of 1986 in San Francisco. My best friend, Qalbee, was dying and the rest of us were doing drugs, stealing drugs, selling drugs and freaking out.

Qalbee and I had been friends since high school, 12 years earlier. We’d moved from Kansas City to New Orleans, where we lived for almost a year and a half. Then we moved to San Francisco and lived together for a couple of years before branching out and expanding our worlds. Qalbee’s real name was Ed but he changed it to Qalbee (“divine heart”) when he briefly joined a Sufi order of meditation. He had thick curly dark-red hair, light blue eyes, a toned body and a magnetic personality. You either loved him or didn’t want to be near him.

Even though we were doing so many drugs and drinking so much, and having lots of various types of sex, I still think of that as an innocent time. We were a group of friends, misfits, some kicked out of the house for being gay, others from split families. We were all on our own at an early age and somehow found one another. But we were floundering, trying to find our way. We didn’t know what we wanted to do with our lives yet.

And while Qalbee was dying, we really didn’t know what to do, except hang out with him. Another friend, Jose, had died two months earlier. Other guys who we knew were getting sick. The only thing that seemed certain was that we were probably next in line.

When Qalbee was first in San Francisco General Hospital, he was having convulsions, turning blue and spitting up blood. The doctor asked us what kind of drugs he’d been on. We were hesitant to tell him because we thought we might get busted. He said he didn’t care that we did drugs but he needed to know which ones in case they were causing a bad reaction.

Then the doctor told us that he knew about as much as we did about what was going on. That made us realize what a serious moment we were in. No one at all knew what to do.

After that, we banded together. We took shifts taking care of Qalbee, keeping him company, helping his boyfriend, Jeffrey. I remember watching Jeffrey carry Qalbee to the bathroom. Qalbee’s body had shrunk. He was so small. He reminded me of the statue of the Pieta with Jesus draped over Mary’s lap.

That night half of us—Nette, Jeffrey and boyfriends Mark and Danny—went to see Johnny Rotten’s band P.I.L. in concert. Hugh, Gary, Amy and I stayed at the house. We lounged on the bed with Qalbee until he was too tired. Then we’d take turns sitting with him while he nodded in and out.

Jeffrey sold coke and was very generous with it. We did some when he got back. That’s when the famous (among us) incident happened with Amy taking the last round of coke we had, in a little paper bindle. We looked all over for it. Then we started getting suspicious of Amy. We confronted her.

Looking back, it’s almost hysterically funny that Amy would look me in the eyes and say, “Do you really think I’d take that coke? As long as we’ve been friends and you think I’m lying?” I said matter-of-factly, “Yes.”

Then she got up and went into the kitchen and yelled, “Here it is! I found it! It must have stuck to the bottom of my shoe.” There was enough for one more line each. We were mad at her but didn’t care because we’d thought we were all out. We still got to have one last moment of relief.

Now it’s all so obvious that most of us were addicted. Later, of the survivors, at least half of us wound up in recovery, rehab or both.

Even though we were doing so many drugs, I still think of that as an innocent time. We were misfits, some kicked out of the house for being gay, others from split families. We were on our own at an early age and somehow found one another.

Qalbee’s bedroom was small and had a window, a dresser, a chair by the bed and worn-out wall-to-wall carpeting. Thanks to the visiting nurses and Jeffrey, his room was always clean and neat.

There was a brown glass bottle on the dresser. It looked like an antique cough syrup bottle. There was a large spoon next to it. It was his morphine. Qalbee had always loved heroin so it felt perfect that in his last days, when he was in a lot of pain, he could have a spoonful of morphine whenever he wanted.

One night I stuck my head in to see how he was doing. He patted the bed next to him, so I stretched out beside him, lying on my side, face to face. His quilt and blankets were pulled up to his chin. He had a small teddy bear named “Oatmeal” next to his head. I asked him if he wanted me to move it and he said no.

He pointed to the brown glass bottle of morphine. “Tell them not to take it,” he said. He was weak and his mouth was dry. I asked him what he meant. “Mark and Danny. Tell them not to take any more.” He told me that Mark and Danny had been coming in and taking swigs but now that he was starting to get low on it, they had to stop. He asked me to promise to talk to them. I told him I would.

After a while, Qalbee fell asleep so I went out into the kitchen. Mark and Danny were there. We all had a crush on them. They were cute and sexy. They wore vintage preppy ‘60s clothes and rode mopeds. They were sweet guys and fun to be with.

It was hard for me to talk to them about taking Qalbee’s morphine. We were all doing drugs. They weren’t doing any more than I was—except they were dipping into his morphine that he needed.

We went into the small porch behind the kitchen. I told them that Qalbee didn’t want them to take any more morphine. I felt so awkward at first, like I was busting them. They got defensive and said, “But he told us it was OK.” I told them that maybe it had been, but it wasn’t OK any more. They said they wouldn’t do it any more and that was the last we talked about it.

Looking back, I now cringe at the thought that someone would behave like that with a friend dying from AIDS. But today we know so much more, encyclopedias more, than we did back then. We even have better drugs to deal with pain and grieving—prescription drugs that would make us feel better than cocaine—and we wouldn’t have to worry about running out or coming up with so much money to get more.

Qalbee pointed to the brown glass bottle of morphine. “Tell Mark and Danny not to take any more.” He told me that they had been taking swigs but now that he was starting to get low on it, they had to stop.

Now, whenever I see my friends Amy, Nette, and Hugh, who were there those nights in 1986, we always end up talking about it. Even though it was so long ago, it still feels like it happened yesterday. The wounds are still raw. Amy is a psychiatric nurse with a son in college, Nette works as a food stylist and has a daughter in high school, Hugh manages a large nonprofit company. We’re not the floundering kids we were back then.

It’s not that we’re trying to make sense of it because there is no sense to be made. It’s more like we need to reassure each other that, yes, it all really happened. We’re not imagining it. We lived through it even though Qalbee, Jeffrey, Mark, Gary and others did not.

I recently asked them to describe (for this piece) how they feel about it. Everyone had the same initial reaction, but Amy said it best, “A knot in my stomach. Shame, intense pain and guilt, embarrassment, self-hatred. I remember wanting the drug first and foremost.”

Hugh said, “We were overwhelmed, flooded with feelings, trying to cope, and being called upon to treat as normal and predictable events far removed from our experience and understanding.”

Nette agreed. “The only way for me to get through all of my friends and roommates dying was to escape with drugs. We were all self-medicating in our own way and any way we could,” she said. “I want my daughter to know about it and understand how people deal with pain, suffering and grief. It isn’t the norm for people our age to have experienced that much death without going to war or living in the medieval ages.”

Now we try to be as present as we can for one another. That’s what helps me most, telling me what’s going on in the outside world, and a little gossip. When my energy is low and I have visitors, their love helps me get through the rough times.

Since I was diagnosed with AIDS in 1995, I’ve had my share of pain medications around my apartment. A couple of my friends couldn’t resist the temptation and dipped into my pills. When I realized what was going on, I talked to them about it and they stopped. It was just as uncomfortable as the time with Mark and Danny. The difference is I was taking pain meds because of painful peripheral neuropathy, not for getting high.

I can walk with minimal pain when I take Percocet and Oxycontin on a regular schedule. I don’t get high from them because they’re doing their job blocking my pain. I’ve also been sober a long time and am not interested in getting high. I like being in the present with a clear head. But I’m still dependent on drugs.

I’ve had a few close calls of my own with death since I first got sick. From my hospital bed I’ve looked out and seen my friends with worried looks. They keep asking if there’s anything they can do, but there really isn’t. Except to be there with me.

I know that when you have a friend in the hospital, it’s frustrating not to be able to make them better. You have to surrender control, which is hard to do when you’re scared or worried. So I get it when my friends sit by my bed and stare at me, go out in the hospital hall to ask the nurses questions about my care and quiz me about what the doctors have told me since they were there last. That’s about all you can do.

That’s the perfect time to have a drink, or two, or three, to smoke pot and/or take an extra pain pill. It numbs the emotional pain. But these days most of my friends don’t drink a lot or do many drugs. We’ve all tried that to kill the pain, and it worked for a little while, then stopped. Now we try to be as present as we can for one another. That’s what helps more than anything, telling me what’s going on in the outside world, and a little gossip. When my energy is low and I have visitors, their love energizes me and helps me get through the rough times.

Thinking back to Qalbee’s death, I remember feeling so much love in his bedroom, like the smaller his body got, the bigger his spirit became. We may have been doing a lot of drugs to get through the nightmare, but the most important thing is that we were there with one another, holding on for dear life.

Joe Westmoreland is a writer in New York City. He is the author of the novel Tramps Like Us. His fiction has also been published in The Best American Gay Fiction of 1996 and other anthologies, and he was also a columnist for POZ magazine.