In mid-September, President Reagan actually mentions AIDS in a public speech where he vows to make the epidemic a priority. There is great hope in the gay community, as the issue has finally gone all the way to the “top”. Anticipation of change and financial aid is higher than ever.
Asher and James decide to put together a celebration of hope, something to direct people’s attention toward positivity and away from the death and fear that have been constant shadows in the city for far too long now. After all, there are things to celebrate despite all of the hopelessness and sorrow. The community has grown stronger than ever and due to safe sex education; transmission of the disease has decreased.
With a generous donation from Louise and Avery, the boys rent a large hotel lobby for the event and begin getting the word out via the community’s many channels. Some of their activist friends suggest making it a fundraiser, but Asher is adamant-he wants this to be simply a celebration, a fun evening of music, dancing, food, drink and camaraderie.
Plenty of people step up to donate their talents and time to help get the event off the ground. Despite all of the excitement, James’ priority is still making sure that the patients are getting what they need, including meals, help shopping, cooking, dog walking and transportation to doctor appointments. Toby is a great help with these things as he always has been and this leaves Asher free to promote the event as widely as he can.
The day before, a huge group of volunteers arrives at the hotel to decorate, blow up balloons and prepare any food that can be made ahead of time. Asher stops in to check on the progress and is overwhelmed with the number of people helping out. He immediately finds James to hear the details.
“Hi, honey,” James says, kissing him. “Isn’t this amazing?”
“Yes. Who are all of these people and where did you find them?”
James spreads his arms out. “Everywhere. More and more of them just kept showing up asking what they could do.”
Asher looks over the group. Most of them are friends, but there are some that he definitely doesn’t recognize. His face grows worried.
“What?” James asks.
“How many people are going to show up tomorrow? What if there isn’t enough food…”
“Don’t worry about it! Everything will be fine!”
Philly, who has grown light-headed from blowing up so many balloons, takes a seat nearby.
“What’s he worried about now?” he asks James.
“Too many people showing up.”
“That’s not a problem, honey! That’s a good thing!”
“See?” James says. “Now go on home. I’ll be there soon!”
Asher does as he is told. He has slowly been getting back to his studying and has plenty of reading to catch up on.
The following evening, everything runs like clockwork. The lobby is filled to capacity with mostly gay men, but their “sisters in arms”-the lesbians-have been showing support for them in growing numbers and many are here tonight.
A DJ is spinning records and music fills the air as volunteer waiters pass around trays of hors d’oeuvres. Maura, Dan and Toby, along with Louise and Avery are sitting down at a table together. Not being involved in the community and seeing so many men visibly suffering from the disease is sobering for Avery. There are many men here tonight who are rail thin and pale, the sores of Kaposi’s sarcoma mark their faces and bodies. He is still not comfortable being around them, not only because they are gay, but because he is afraid of AIDS. Dan, too, is unaccustomed to being around so many gay men, but he instantly admires their fun and happy enthusiasm while feeling incredibly sad for the sick ones.
“Hey, girl,” Philly says to Louise, dancing over to their table. He kisses her cheek. “You look beautiful! All of you do-even you Avery!”
Avery laughs and Louise takes his hand.
“Maybe you’ll dance with me later,” Philly teases him. “You might even like it!”
They watch as he dances away and joins the others who are moving to the sounds of the Bronski Beat’s seminal hit “Smalltown Boy”.
James is circulating the room, making sure everyone has food and a drink while Asher sits biting his thumbnail and worrying.
“Would you stop it?” James scolds him. “This is supposed to be fun, remember?”
“Dance with me. Come on!”
In the hotel kitchen, vats of spaghetti and meatballs are bubbling, garlic bread is toasting in the oven, salads are being dressed and cupcakes frosted. The all-volunteer cooks are having a blast dancing to their own boom box as they begin dishing up the food. Plates begin making their way out to the tables and Asher watches nervously. He doesn’t know why he is so concerned except that he wants this night to be perfect without any hitches or disappointments. He goes up to the DJ and asks him to stop the music, much to everyone’s dismay.
“Sorry,” Asher says into the microphone. “I won’t take long.”
James rushes to his side.
“First of all, let me say welcome! We have all been fighting so hard-first for our rights and now our very survival. So many of us are not here tonight, dead from a disease that no one wants to hear about. Why should they care about a disease that kills gay men?”
James puts his arm around Asher’s shoulders.
“But we pushed and will keep on pushing until there is a cure! We will fight to end discrimination against those with ARC, fight for new definitions and diagnoses so that treatment can be available to everyone that needs it. We will fight for funding for aggressive studies and new treatments. For answers! We will fight LaRouche and Jerry Falwell and everyone else that wants to tell us that we do not have a right to live.”
The crowd is cheering; James is getting misty-eyed.
“But tonight we stop fighting, just for one night. Tonight we enjoy ourselves, forget about sickness and death, panic, uncertainty and hate. I remember when Harvey was assassinated. I remember the pain, the anger, the candlelight march down to City Hall. Many of you were there, just as I was. Harvey fought for us and I know that he would have been very proud of you all. I look around this room and I see a group of people that refuse to give up, refuse to step back into the closet, just as he asked us not to. James and I have been so lucky to be a part of this community. So lucky to be with all of you here tonight. We love you all and thank you for your support!”
Asher waits for the applause and yelling to die down before ending his speech.
“One last thing: I want to acknowledge and thank Louise and Avery Booth for putting up the money to rent this place for the evening; Maura and Louise for the selfless support and kindness that they have shown our community from the very beginning and Toby, Maura’s son, who has sacrificed so much of his teenage years to help us get food to you, visit patients and help in any way he can. He’s going to make one hell of nurse!”
Asher begins clapping heartily and James, along with everyone else, joins him. As Asher steps away from the mike, James takes it.
“Everyone, please enjoy yourselves! Food is coming out of the kitchen thanks to our awesome volunteers. Please take a few minutes to eat and relax. And don’t forget to pick up the pamphlets and other info that we have by the door. There’s also free condoms, so please be safe! I know that safe sex seems like a step backwards, but it’s how we’re gonna save each other now. Thanks for coming out everyone and enjoy!” He then turns to Asher. “Come on, sweetie! Let’s eat!”
Finally, Asher begins to relax and enjoy himself. The sight of everyone dancing and laughing, hugging and kissing one another, especially the sick ones, is everything that he wanted this evening to be.
“This is really good,” James says, twirling spaghetti onto his fork.
Asher smiles. It is strange. James has been the one so distressed with genuine concern and worry over the community, but as soon as Asher expresses worry, James always changes his demeanor and becomes carefree. He probably doesn’t even know that he does it, but Asher is grateful. He takes James’ free hand and brings it to his mouth, kissing it.
“Thanks,” he says.
“For being you. For loving me.”
“Aww! How could I not?” James leans over and kisses Asher on the lips. “I do love you!”
“I love you, too.”
At close to midnight, Louise, Avery, Maura and Dan leave. Toby wants to stay behind to help clean up, so once again, Maura leaves him in the care of Asher and James.
“Everything turned out perfectly,” Toby tells them.
“It did, didn’t it?” Asher marvels.
Toby watches the thinning crowd on the dance floor. He doesn’t know why he likes being around these men so much. He knows that his mother wonders if he is gay and the truth is that he doesn’t know. He does think some of them are attractive. They’re certainly nice and fun and most have a great sense of humor and style. He cannot deny that he has fantasized about being with one or two of them, but he has also done the same about some of the girls that he knows at school.
At the end of the evening, many people stay to clean up and secure the leftover food which they will take out tomorrow to the patients that couldn’t make it to the party. Asher pulls his car up front and the food is loaded in. James and Toby say goodbye to everyone and jump in as well, waving to a group of men standing outside.
“That was so fun!” James says. “It was great to see everyone, especially the sick ones like Joey, Luke, Brian, Bobby…” His voice trails off and he sighs, knowing that none of them have long to live. “We gave them a good night.”
“Yes, we did.”
They drop Toby off at home. Their apartment is quiet; even Freud gives them a silent meow as they enter. The answering machine is flashing. James walks past it and gets a drink of water and then he and Asher go straight to bed. They lie in each other’s arms knowing that in the morning, everything will start all over again, but for the next few hours there is peace.