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Personal Essays

UNTITLED, CIRCA 1987, COURTESY OF THE ESTATE OF LOUIS FULGONI

Memorare

While AIDS is still a major killer around the world, it has become a manageable condition for most HIV-positive Americans. Bearing witness to a time when the mortal threat was closer to home.

Louis Fulgoni was my partner in a small publishing company that we operated out of a one-room office on Union Square in the late 1980s. I was the editor and Louis was the art director—or as he would say, “Tim does the words and I do the pictures.” I did the words all right, and yet sometimes, even now, they fail me. Almost 20 years later, I still grieve his loss.

I kept the office for a while after Louis died of complications from AIDS in July of 1989, but it felt empty and vaguely haunted. In his absence, I was hesitant to rearrange the place, but neither could I bear working in a sarcophagus day after day. When the lease was up, I decided to move to a different office building nearby.

While cleaning things out for the move, I ran into one of the other tenants on our floor. Frank was a young, married sculptor who had an enviably steady stream of attractive women—perhaps models, perhaps not—coming in and out of his studio. The exact nature of their visits had been a regular topic of wicked speculation between Louis and me.

Frank invited me in, for the first time in the several years we had been neighbors. Over coffee, I mentioned in passing that my fiancé and I had postponed our wedding plans amid the uncertainty of Louis’s final illness. Frank nearly choked on his espresso. He fixed me with an incredulous stare.

“But, you’re not gay?” he blurted out. “I thought. You and Louis. I mean.”

“No,” I said. “We were just good friends and we enjoyed working together, that’s all.”

He looked down into his cup and started to apologize for prying. I told him not to worry, that it was a perfectly understandable assumption. But in truth, his mistake took me by surprise. I suddenly realized that many people were probably under the same impression about Louis and me. If they’re not lovers, Frank and the others must have wondered, what the hell are they?

I thanked Frank for the coffee and walked back down the hallway to finish packing. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.

 

Louis and I had met a decade earlier through his lover and companion of several years, Michael, who headed a tenants’ rights organization where I worked editing propaganda at the time. This was around 1980, shortly before AIDS smashed the illusion that a sexual revolution without limits or consequences could prevail indefinitely. A gay man who was well into his forties by the time I met him, Louis told stories that made erotic adventurism seem, if not risk-free, pretty inviting.

The rebel in me was intrigued by the freedom and vitality of gay culture back then. There was just one problem—I wasn’t attracted to men. During an especially confused phase, I became a semi-regular at a lesbian bar.

Louis and I laughed about that later. Over countless dinners he whipped up after work at the Chelsea apartment where he and Michael lived, we laughed a lot.

Although Louis never overtly played the role of mentor—such pretension was alien to his nature—he taught me many things. Having cast aside a decade-long career as a commercial artist in advertising and television to concentrate on his own work, he was a caustic observer of the absurdities of corporate striving. His father, a stern Italian-American patriarch, had been a slave-driving hotel chef and a secret fan of Mussolini. Louis, in turn, held no brief for autocrats of any stripe, be they officious bosses, greedy landlords or windbag politicians. He once saw Ed Koch working a crowd outside Radio City Music Hall and called him a fascist, loudly, after some highly publicized provocation by the mayor. For once (in Louis’s version, at least), Koch was speechless.

Louis didn’t suffer lesser fools gladly, either. Among those unfortunates were some of our more difficult customers. His withering glances and terse responses in their presence weren’t very good for business, but they were of a piece with the mercurial, essential Fulgoni.

His work—not just the masks, but also a steady output of paintings and prints steeped in tantric imagery—was looser and more urgently playful than ever.

Between those ice storms, working with Louis was an eye-opener. He brought a sense of play to designing the otherwise mundane publications we produced on a shoestring, mostly for community groups and other poorly funded but altruistic clients. And he took the same spontaneous tack in his artwork, notably in a series of neo-primitive masks he crafted in the final years of his life.

During downtime in the office, I would watch Louis at his drafting table, cutting and assembling the mask elements—corrugated cardboard, gauze, toothpicks and other found materials—like pieces in some free-associated, three-dimensional puzzle. With this puzzle, though, the result was not predetermined. I got the feeling Louis was often as surprised as I was by the sometimes whimsical, often fierce expressions on the faces of the finished masks.

I envied that looseness. As a writer, I’d never had the sentences and paragraphs fall into place with such apparent ease. But as Louis was fond of pointing out, even a piece that took him 20 minutes to create was informed by years of experience.

This was an abstract concept to me then. I’m just beginning to understand it now.

 

Despite our difference in age, Louis and I had a lot in common. Coincidentally, both of us were born and raised on Staten Island and we even attended the same Catholic elementary school, albeit in different generations. Louis was 22 years older than me, yet we remembered some of the same teachers—brittle, angry Sisters of Charity shrouded in black-and-white habits, immutable as Easter Island icons.

The Church would have called us both “fallen away” Catholics, but Louis’s fall was more sensational than mine. Keenly aware of his sexual orientation from an early age, he recalled fantasizing about the well-muscled, loincloth-clad Jesus on the crucifix behind the altar. (“It’s a hot religion,” Louis often said.) Growing up in an era when the closet door was bolted for all but the most courageous or foolhardy, he had to live as a kind of sexual outlaw.

After high school, Louis made the leap off Staten Island and attended the School of Visual Arts, where he studied painting and illustration. With the Mediterranean looks and sturdy build of a character actor in a Scorsese movie, Louis never lacked opportunities for extracurricular activity, even in the repressed gay scene of 1950s Manhattan. Years later, he would revel in the hedonistic playground that was New York after Stonewall.

That brief, wide-open era lasted throughout the ‘70s and just beyond. It must have seemed the best of times. Considering what followed, it surely was.

 

For Louis, the harbinger was a bout of Pneumocystis pneumonia that hit him hard in 1987. He was bedridden for weeks, but massive doses of antibiotics eventually did the trick. Soon he was back in the office, working part-time, newly diagnosed as HIV-positive.

His doctor put him on a regimen of AZT, one of the few AIDS treatments then available. Although researchers would ultimately dismiss the drug as useless, it seemed to bolster Louis’s defenses. Within three months, he had outwardly regained his health, which held for the next two years.

Louis ate well and moderated his alcohol and marijuana intake. He was determined, however, that disease would not define him. If he became more prolific as an artist, it was not with any air of desperation. Instead, he seemed liberated. His work—not just the masks, but also a steady output of paintings and prints steeped in tantric imagery—was looser and more urgently playful than ever.

I wandered in at one point and glanced in his direction. What I saw stopped me cold: a middle-aged man who suddenly looked tired, old and shrunken.

Inevitably, many others in Louis’s circle fell ill (though Michael, fortunately, remains healthy to this day). Some of them found solace in their own creative impulses. Louis’s friend Tony, an aspiring actor, plummeted into depression after his diagnosis but emerged with renewed energy as part of a theater troupe composed entirely of people with AIDS. Their performances looked sickness and death in the eye, defying fear with a mixture of courage and camp.

That spirit was manifest offstage, as well. One summer night in a loft downtown, I joined Louis, Tony and other actors from the troupe at a bacchanal that lasted far into the witching hours. Some of the partygoers were visibly ill. One emaciated man said he had checked himself out of the hospital for the night and showed off his IV shunt to prove it. But the music was loud, the smoke was thick and there was a giddy feeling in the crowd that reminded me of childhood nights when I kept myself awake with the dread of facing the nuns at school the next day. If we just stay up, everyone seemed collectively to believe, maybe the morning will never arrive.

I would later recall that party and other, more prosaic moments—like sitting on the Barcelona chair in Louis’s living room, smoking and making idle conversation with him and Tony—and I’d be startled by the realization that I was among the few surviving participants, or indeed the only one. The endless rave had been an illusion; all the bravery in the world couldn’t hold back the cold light of dawn.

 

On New Year’s Day, 1989, Louis and Michael hosted a packed open house at their apartment. Louis prepared a gourmet fondue and several other elaborate dishes. When the guests arrived, he was still wearing the jeans and white T-shirt he had thrown on when he started cooking that morning.

The fondue pot was set up in Louis’s studio, a converted spare bedroom. He spent most of the party in there, stirring the rich molten Gruyere to keep it from curdling. I wandered in at one point and glanced in his direction. What I saw stopped me cold: a middle-aged man who suddenly looked tired, old and shrunken inside the shirt that hung from his bony shoulders.

In the following months, Louis began to have trouble keeping food down. He lost more weight, and chronic diarrhea left him weak and dehydrated. After multiple rounds of testing, he was diagnosed with Cryptosporidium, an intestinal parasite that can be dangerous for anyone but is potentially lethal for people with compromised immunity.

By April, Louis had already been hospitalized twice for severe dehydration, and the doctor advised admitting him again. At first, he was placed in NYU Medical Center’s Cooperative Care unit, a hotel-like wing for ambulatory patients that had become the temporary home of many gay men in the early stages of wasting from AIDS. As his primary caregiver, Michael was allowed to stay in the room. But there was no hiding Louis’s severely depleted state. After a week or so, the staff determined that he needed a feeding tube, which could only be provided in a regular hospital room.

One morning, an orderly arrived with a wheelchair to move him. Michael and I followed, rehearsing the doctor’s assurances that Louis could return to the hotel wing once his weight stabilized. It didn’t help. Our procession through the bland white hospital corridors had the distinct, antiseptic scent of a last mile.

 

The indignities piled on as spring turned into brutal summer. The parasite was relentless, and Louis’s determination gradually gave way to stoicism. His expression became vacant much of the time, giving him the look of a man resigning himself to an abyss.

In June, grasping at hope one last time, we plotted to secure an experimental, unapproved treatment that was said to be effective against Cryptosporidium. Through the AIDS-drug underground that thrived at that desperate time, we made contact with a sympathetic doctor in Belgium. She would soon be passing through New York and was willing to smuggle in a supply of the medication for Louis. A week later, during her layover at JFK, she handed me a gift-wrapped box containing the illicit pills. On the train back to Manhattan, I cradled the parcel like a baby in my arms.

With his doctor looking the other way, Louis started taking the new medication. His symptoms seemed to abate slightly after two or three weeks, and a test confirmed that the Crypto count in his gut had marginally decreased. Buoyed by the news, he recovered a measure of his fighting spirit. He even asked for some decent solid food. I brought in a pasta dish from an Italian restaurant in Kips Bay.

Louis nibbled at the penne alla vodka and set down the takeout container. “Not very good, is it?” he said, ever the critical gourmand.

Night by night, Louis grew more corporeal. The ravages of ill health fell away with amazing speed, as though time had not only changed direction but accelerated.

I stayed well past the end of visiting hours that night, and we watched a Bette Davis movie on the tiny television suspended above Louis’s bed. Drinking out of Dixie cups, Michael and I polished off a bottle of Chianti that we had stashed in a drawer and forgotten. Louis got tired and faded in and out, but he seemed almost jolly when he was awake.

It was nearly 11 when I left. I got off the hospital elevator with the guarded sense that we had bought some more time. I was wrong.

At a client’s office the next morning, I received an urgent message: Louis was struggling to breathe. When I arrived at the hospital half an hour later, he was wearing an oxygen mask but his chest was still heaving and there was panic in his eyes. Michael and I and a few close friends and relatives took turns holding his hand. Within the hour, he was on a ventilator in intensive care, heavily sedated.

For more than a week in the ICU, Louis was repeatedly probed and punctured as one organ after another failed. He never regained consciousness, except once, the night before he died, when he momentarily opened his eyes and scanned the faces around him. He seemed to be saying goodbye, or imploring us to forget ourselves and finally let him rest.

And then he was gone.

 

The dreams started a few nights later. In the first one, Louis was a frail, nearly transparent figure set apart from the living as if by some celestial law of segregation. I had a woozy sense that the whole business about his death had been a huge bureaucratic mix-up at the hospital. It could all be cleared up with a few phone calls in the morning.

“I’ll let them know you’re alive,” I told him. “Hang in there.”

Night by night, Louis grew more corporeal. The ravages of ill health fell away with amazing speed, as though time had not only changed direction but accelerated. His gaunt cheeks filled out and his sallow complexion recovered its olive glow. His haunted eyes came alive again with wit and sparkle. Instead of wearing a flimsy hospital gown, he was dressed for action: jeans, bomber jacket, white silk scarf and jaunty black beret. He was himself again, risen and restored.

The tone of the dreams shifted from funereal to festive. They became a great floating party. Unlike that real-life loft extravaganza we’d hoped would never stop, this dream-party actually did feel endless. It picked up each night exactly where it had left off the night before.

One night, in the middle of the wildest, loudest bash of them all, Louis sat down next to me and put his arm around my shoulders. He shouted into my ear so that I could hear him above the din.

“I’m OK now,” he said. “Really. You don’t have to worry anymore.”

As an agnostic and a skeptic, I surprise myself with the quasi-religious notion that Louis’s message of reassurance was more than a dream. I want to believe that he really was OK, if only because his suffering was over at last, and that he found a way to tell me so. I’d like to think the bond of friendship and loyalty we shared was strong enough to transcend the barrier between life and death, between memory and forgetting.

This much is certain: It was Louis Fulgoni’s final appearance in my nocturnal theater of the absurd. The party ended that night, never to resume.