On Love in SF During the Early Years of the AIDS Epidemic

The love I shared with a man in San Francisco during these hard years still lingers with me — decades later.

I woke up this morning on World AIDS Day thinking about a guy I dated in 1983. His name was Tom, and he lived just around the corner from my Castro District flat. We would flirt as we passed each other on our way to or from work until we finally stopped and had a conversation. Then, we made a date to see a movie and began a very casual year-long relationship.

Tom helped cultivate a relationship built around the foundation of kindness.

Tom was so sweet and always had the biggest smile for me. But, he was also private and could be very emotional at times. He was the type of guy that would show up on my doorstep to drop off a cup of coffee from Cafe Flore on his way to work. While we dated, I worked nights cooking at a restaurant in San Francisco’s Cow Hollow neighborhood. So our schedules created a very casual relationship. He’d spend the night at my place a few times a week; we’d have dinner and catch a movie when we could. 

The AIDS epidemic was hitting our community at an uncontrollable rate. So, with a suggestion from a friend, I volunteered to help cook breakfast for AIDS patients in an old Victorian building in the lower Haight. More often than not, when I arrived, no one was hungry. So I’d sit in the kitchen or on the back porch contemplating the solemn mood and the rest of my day. That was occasionally interrupted by a moan of pain from one of the rooms. Looking back now, I don’t think I cooked one meal on my visits there. 

I needed to do more and signed up to become a Shanti Project peer support volunteer. The Shanti Project is a community-based organization helping to support people diagnosed with HIV/AIDS during the epidemic’s early, most traumatic days. The organization helped make a difference between facing life’s most difficult challenges alone or with one person by your side. I took my service dutifully and promised myself to be the best support I could.

Tom helped cultivate a relationship built around the foundation of kindness. We both wanted to spend our time together just being loving to each other. And since our schedules were so opposite, we made the extra effort. Though the darkness of the AIDS epidemic surrounded us, we rarely spoke of it when we spent time together. We didn’t ask or know each other’s status, though we were passionate; our sexual relationship did not include the exchange of body fluids.

When I looked into Tom’s eyes, I could see the answer to the never-spoken question of whether he was positive or negative. I never asked because I didn’t want to know. I didn’t want to hear it. So, I just pulled him closer and held him tighter.

I ended up with three clients through the Shanti Project. They were grateful for my visits, and the one-on-one time we would spend together. I was there to listen. I was there to comfort them. At first, I thought one of my clients hated me. He was always angry when I was there and would tell me that I didn’t even need to come back. I did, though, and began to realize it wasn’t me he was mad at —  it was his fear of dying and the pain he was going through that utterly exhausted him. It was AIDS.

What an uncertain time in my life. Tom and I eventually split, though we continued to be friends and see each other in the neighborhood. And I began considering moving to New York, hoping to escape all the darkness that surrounded me. But, instead, I landed smack dab in the middle of all of it again: leaving the Castro District for Greenwich Village. A block away from the Christopher Street Piers on West 10th and the West Side Highway. 

Tom and I lost contact after my move to New York City, though I thought of him often. Then, while moving things around in my apartment a few years ago, I came across a box full of cards, letters, and photos Tom had given me. So much love bubbled up from the box when I lifted that lid. I can still see him lying in bed next to me, looking at me with his beautiful blue eyes and smiling the biggest smile.

1 Comment

  • DewDrop

    What a beautiful tribute to Tom. Thank you for allowing us just a small glimpse of what kindness can mean to those most deserving, yet often dismissed by those uncaring.

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