Right now I’m watching old movies that everyone talks about but that I’ve never seen, so I finally caught up with “Harold and Maude.” (1971) The idea was simple: a young man (Bud Cort) is very rich but emotionally frozen. He meets an old woman (Ruth Gordon) who is a concentration camp survivor now dedicated to the joy of living. She changes his attitude. It’s interesting to me particularly given that with Tim Barrus I’ve organized a book manuscript, “Orpheus in the Catacombs,” about adolescent boys with AIDS, who might be despairing and empty if Tim didn’t keep them so busy. Some people question why I should pay any attention to them, given that I’m a seventy-year-old straight white female living far away. Not that I don’t know anything about boys, having been a high school teacher. Why do people insist on these demographic pigeon holes?
Instead of doing a review of the movie, I thought it might be fun (hey, it’s spring) to write some little vignettes between a boy and an old woman and see what happens. But get braced. I never know what will come out.
She was making a pie when he came into the farmhouse kitchen and threw himself dramatically down at the table. She pursed her lips. Some crisis again. She didn’t say anything. How long was this phase going to last, anyway? Why hadn’t he shown up earlier so she could have made him peel the apples? Her arthritis was bothering.
“Can I tell you something, Grannie?” He rubbed his face with his hands, then rubbed his buzz-cut head. He was a little sunburned and it stung a bit. But in a good way.
“Mmmrph.” That was grannie: non-committal.
“I’m in love.” She stopped rolling out her pie crust for a second. This was more interesting than usual.
“Oh, who with?”
She didn’t miss a beat, the rolling pin going briskly back and forth. She yanked the flat disc of dough sideways and fluttered a bit more flour onto it. Though she gave him plenty of time, the boy was silent. Finally she got too curious.
“Do anything about it?”
“What?? What could I do? I’m gay but being gay around here is death. I’ll get beat up every chance they get!”
“That’s not what I meant.” He didn’t get it. “Have you made love yet?” He looked so startled she was pretty sure not. “Be careful to use condoms.”
He began to weep. “It means I’m a freak. I won’t have a life.”
She reached into the cupboard for her bottle of brandy. It was the secret of her apple pie. She never let anyone know about it. Then she took out two small glasses that were really the jars that spreadable cheese had come in and poured them each a jolt. This was going to take a while.
She was writing when one of the boys from the neighborhood came in the patio slider door without knocking. He worked for her in the yard and had gotten much too familiar. She was just turning the corner on the plot of this story — needed a really strong motivation for . . .
“Can it wait?”
“No.” Tragic voice. Body language signaling a lot of distress. Torn t-shirt, ragged jeans, bare feet. She knew he had nice clothes but didn’t care to wear them. She wrote a few quick words in the margin, in hopes of recapturing where she had been.
“If you were gay and you wanted to have a life, where would you go?”
“What’s the matter with here?”
“I HATE here! I despise here.”
“You mean your parents are here.”
She looked at him sharply. “I’m straight.”
“But EXPERIENCED !! You’re EXPERIENCED !!!”
“Go to San Francisco.”
“What would I do there?”
“Don’t be stupid. Get a job. Look around. See what you can figure out. Try some experiments. I can’t live your life for you. Everyone takes their own risks. Figure out your limits, move ‘em if you need to. If you die, so what? What makes you so special? Boys die all the time. A LOT of people die all the time.” She lit a cigarette. “So what?”
Shocked, he rose — tragically, dramatically — and stalked out.
She went back to her story.
She hated visiting the hospice. It was too easy to see herself there. She had seen two sisters to their end there. Both cancer. Their parents had died before there was such a thing as a hospice, and that was worse, so she didn’t begrudge the existence of a hospice and knew they did good work. It’s just that this was her sister’s grandson and he was dying too soon. They weren’t sure how he had caught HIV — drugs, sex? They didn’t ask. What good would that do?
At first she had read up on the whole problem, worldwide, until she reeled with the enormity of it. African nations were collapsing because there were no living parents for so many children and the children had it, too. Would the continent be depopulated? Certainly it was destabilized. Asia was next. And all the time the rest of the world dithered and tut-tutted but never grabbed the big pharma honchos or the world aid organizations by the throats and shook them until they did something. It wasn’t even a real disease: no infection, no parasites, just a little code flaw that destroyed all defenses.
There were four beds in the room, three of them occupied. (Four patients yesterday.) An effort had been made to keep the younger men together but they didn’t have enough energy to interact much. The television ran — doesn’t television always run in every hospital room on the planet — but no one watched it. She had no idea what they were thinking as they stared at the ceiling. Well, two stared. One’s eyes were closed. The sheets were colored. The art on the walls was pretty landscapes. The boys were clean and shaven.
“How are you today?” she asked and took the boy’s hand. He shook his head a little, rustling the unwrinkled pillow slip. Then he must have thought he was being rejecting, and he smiled at her in a forlorn little upturned curve that made her wish he hadn’t. She was trapped between wishing he would just hurry up and die and wishing that he would NEVER die, the same as she had wished for her sisters. And where was this boy’s father? She had no idea. The niece who was the boy’s mother had died in a car crash not so long ago. Some people thought she did it deliberately when she heard about her son. “No guts,” she thought to herself. “That niece of mine had no guts.” Although, she reflected, the crash scene probably revealed . . . She smiled bitterly.
“What’s funny?” asked the boy. “I could use a joke.”