I want to tell you about my friend Eli. Heʼs 22; he's been incarcerated since he was 20, for theft and credit card and check fraud; and heʼll get out in 2016, when he's 25. Now heʼll get out HIV-positive. Eliʼs mom was HIV-positive when she had him, so she put him up for adoption. He was raised by two gay friends of mine, a couple, married before marriage was an option, but theyʼre still together. I think they tied the knot officially last year. But a few years ago, when Eli was only 18, they sent him back to the streets. He is persona non grata in their home. I donʼt understand this, so as friends, we have parted ways. We were not super-close, but now there is an ocean between us, with a hurricane in the center named Eli.
Eli reminds me of me. He was such a sissy boy growing up, but I think it was an affect. It never seemed sincere. His gayness was almost built to please his adoptive parents. Mine was built to please adult lovers. He had baby fat until he got busted. Prison shreds you. Prison will give you the sweats. Now heʼs toned up, with a blond goatee shaped from the ruins of young adulthood. His new manʼs body and facial hair are all telltale signs that heʼs growing up in prison. He wrote me a letter that was so incredibly desperate that I had to visit him there. It turns out that he tried to commit suicide, so they moved him from Wallkill to Fishkill. Wallkill is atrocious. Itʼs not worse than Cape Vincent up north, where they warehouse young men worse than cattle on the bloodiest farm. At Cape Vincent young men are dogs who fight for scraps. But Wallkill has nothing, really nothing, for the incarcerated youth living inside its walls.
When you step into any prison, the din begins. People are packed tight, trying to have an intimate conversation with their visitors while another couple less than two feet away is fighting about their baby, or a brother and sister about the health of their mom. The din. The buzz. It never leaves your ears the entire time. I remember it from L.A. County jail, Twin Towers, the many cells I shared. It never stops ringing like the worst hall clock or school bell, sounding off day and night.
He wrote me because he now has HIV, and they moved him to Fishkill Correctional Facility. When he found out, he tried to commit suicide with a bed sheet. That got him. The state has a health facility inside Fishkill Correctional, the old Mattewan Hospital for the Criminally Insane. If you killed somebody, you went to Attica. If you killed and ate them, you went to Mattewan. A few months before the prison switch, his lymph nodes had swollen to the size of river rocks. They thought he had cancer, so they sent him up for an MRI. They gave him an HIV swab test, but that turned out to be a false negative because he had yet to build up antibodies. The swab failed him. But later on they gave him another swab, and that one turned out to be the ticket. After the swab they give you the needle. They stick it to you and pull it out of you. They draw the numbers. And if your number is up, your number is up. Eliʼs was way up. After a few months they put him on an antiretroviral. He is already sleeping more than he should, he has a history of suicide and depression, and his AVR lists depression as a side effect. But good luck getting things to change. In prison one size fits all, until it doesn't. And if the virus responds, they feel they have done their job. But if the patient commits suicide, it was other issues, not the ARV they just gave him.
He does not participate much, but there is a dog training school and a vocational rehab program in Fishkill. He says he doesn't have enough time to be allowed to play with the dogs for any length. What does that mean, enough time to play with a dog? I donʼt ask. He tells me he thinks he got HIV from oral sex inside the joint. I donʼt buy it. I think he got it from the closet-case 40-something he got sent up for. The older guy who took him out, then let him pay using an alias and phony plastic. The older guy. The 40-something. The closet case. The third daddy who lost his mind, lost his wife and kids, and lost his good job all for a few wild nights with Eli. Then he dumped him like a bad check for being a boy. A crazy man-boy. A boy-man just like I was. A thief, a miscreant, a wise guy, a tough talker, a scrapper, even a survivor against all the odds.
Will he sleep the rest of his life with a knife under his pillow like I do? Will he learn to hold a shotgun like Lillian Gish in Night of the Hunter? Or will he hold it like John Wayne in The Searchers? Is there a difference? Will he just grow up into the shreds of a man, compartmentalized and marginalized to bits, or will he go straight? In Don Carpenterʼs novel Hard Rain Falling there is one of the greatest homosexual love scenes ever committed to words, and very few have read them. The scene takes place in prison, and the love story evolves in the backdrop of a heterosexual manʼs broken life, a life spent in youth prisons and pool halls in the Pacific Northwest, a life filled with rage. This is how I imagine the sexual evolution of Eli.
In 2016, when America goes for the vote, Eli will be just getting out. He will need housing and a job. He will need more compassion than anyone has every shown him in his entire life. He will need to be with someone for a while. He will need to make the transition into the world. But that cold downstate air will bite back. I see him sucking on a cigarette, squinting his eyes against the snow, waiting at the train station in Beacon or crossing over to Newburgh alone. He will have a new body, facial hair, a mind like a race horse, the desire to fuck and drink and run with the bulls. He is not alone, but he will feel alone. And he will need a good coat.
Never miss a thing. Sign up for up-to-the-minute breaking news alerts delivered straight to your inbox. Learn more