The doctor explains the process of injecting silicone, a substance, he explains, that has been used to correct facial defects for approximately 40 years. He‘ll use a new, highly purified, medical-grade silicone, Silikon 1000. He points on my face as if it’s a piece of canvas. “I‘ll fill this in and extend it here.”
“Okay,” I say. “I just don’t want to look like Siegfried. Or Roy.”
“We haven‘t had one single complaint,” he gushes. I’ll bring in my high school yearbook photo, I think to myself.
What would my dead friends say? What about David, who was blanketed with big dark-purple lesions on his entire body, including almost every inch of his photogenic face? Or Billy, who was partially paralyzed and entirely blind by the time he died? Or Victor, who spent his final days on fire with fever while suffering from relentless diarrhea? Or Jim, who ended his life babbling incoherently as a result of dementia? Or Larry, who was confined to a wheelchair because of some mysterious muscle deterioration? What would they, none of whom celebrated a 40th birthday, have to say about this need I have to repair my flaccid face? I feel indescribably shallow.
My friend Robert Chesley, the acclaimed queer playwright, spent his final days parading around San Francisco‘s Castro district, defiantly shirtless, proudly displaying the lesions that decorated his body. Taking it one slogan further than “We’re here, we‘re queer, get used to it,” Bob said, “I’m here, I‘m queer, I’ve got AIDS, get over it.” It was a message he was sending to the straights who might be gawking but also to his gay brothers who wished AIDS would go away. If there had been a quick fix for Bob‘s AIDS lesions, I wonder, would he have considered it, relinquishing the power he obviously found in embracing the demon? I feel like such a pussy.
One might have assumed that the plague years had taught us something about the transitory superficiality of beauty. As we sat at the bedsides of our dying friends, some of them virtually unrecognizable, how many of us realized that it wasn’t their physical beauty that made them lovable, but their spirits, their courage and wit? Ironically, however, as protease inhibitors have mostly banished the uglier manifestations of AIDS for the lucky ones (the white, insured and living in America), the gay man‘s hallmark obsession with physical perfection has intensified. Not only do we not want to look sick; we aspire to look fabulous. Courtesy of steroids and weight training, gay men have traded that emaciated AIDS look of the ’80s for determinedly buffed bods that became the AIDS look of the ‘90s and persisted through the turn of the century. (That fab look can also carry a dangerous implicit message: “He can’t be HIV-positive if he looks that good.”) Understandably in this beauty-conscious climate, when faces started to fall, there was panic.
After signing in for my first procedure, I am escorted to the room where the magic will take place. Within a few minutes, the maestro appears, even more upbeat than I‘d remembered. Suddenly he holds a magnifying mirror up to my face and begins making marks with a black pen. Then he launches into a rap about the sand entering the oyster making a pearl. This is undoubtedly an analogy, entirely lost on me, which has something to do with the silicone; I’m wondering if I‘ll be able to figure out a way to change the age on my driver’s license.
Fabian, the doctor‘s assistant, performs his tasks with the high-voltage fluidity of a Vegas showgirl on opening night. Together, they numb my face. So far, it’s less invasive than a visit to the dentist. I am left alone for eight minutes while my face freezes. For whatever reason, I begin to cry, feeling silly and pathetic. But most of all, and this is a recurring motif, I feel alone, missing my dead brothers, awash in memories of their faces, their laughs, their immortal humanness. These cathartic episodes never last more than a few minutes, and I‘ve fully recovered when the good doctor returns for my prickings.
Although I feel nothing, the doctor makes injection after injection with determined dexterity while Fabian dutifully assists. Within a few minutes, it is over.
I had arranged for my daughter to spend the weekend with trusted members of our extended family. While I don’t like deceiving Tia, I decide not to burden her with too much information. But part of me wonders if I‘m avoiding an opportunity to spell out Daddy’s delicate condition.
My devoted friend Jim takes me downtown to the Omni Hotel to recover -- a night of reminiscences and room service. After we find our suite, I madly search the halls for the ice machine, and after faithfully taking my herbal remedies to ward off bruising, I flop onto the bed and apply ice packs to my face.
When the swelling calms down, there is a marked difference in my appearance. My face is full and robust-looking; my skin stretches smoothly over the silicone. I already feel considerably less defaced by AIDS, and I‘m only a third of the way into the procedure. There are two more treatments coming up.