Champions By Michael Reinken

San Francisco June 1985.

I woke up that morning completely exhausted. I had sweated a lot during the night and my pillow was soaked by the time I woke up. It was hot and I have trouble sleeping in hotel beds anyways. I looked around at the hotel room. Everything looked normal, as it should be. Everything seemed right with the world, life was going as it should. So why did I feel like the world as I knew it was completely out of control? I looked over to the lump next to me in the queen size bed. Eddie lay facing me. He had a little spot of drool on the corner of his mouth. I smiled to myself and wiped it away with my hand. I did it with reflex. I looked down at the spit on my finger with amazement. What is a sign that you truly love someone? An expensive gift? Some sort of generous gesture? No, I think being able to wipe someone's spit away from their face and not being disgusted is pure, unconditional love. That's just my thought, though.
Eddie grunted at the disturbance and turned away from me, resuming his snoring. I got up from bed and went to open the blinds. When I opened the blinds, the skyline of San Francisco greeted me. The world looked so peaceful that summer, Sunday morning. I could already see a group of people downstairs underneath the window getting ready to go to the parade. Rainbow flags had been taped to poles on the street during the night. I looked back at Eddie. Why had I come here? I had no problem with being gay, far from it. I had left my self hate back in New Mexico, with my family. But I had always been fine with going to the parade in Los Angeles. It wasn't as big as the one in San Francisco, but it was fine. Besides, I wasn't crazy about the parade anyways. All it did was reinforce the stereotype of gay people to straight people. All the media ever showed on TV was drag queens and topless lesbians on motorcycles. I sat down on the side of the bed, and stroked Eddie's curly black hair softly. I knew exactly why I was here. Eddie wasn't a demanding person, far from it. He had asked me to come here with him, and I had agreed. Only after he had said those chilling words that I was still struggling with. "John, this is going to be my last pride" he had told me. And that's how I found out that Eddie, my best friend, had AIDS.

Gay pride had always been Eddie's thing. In fact, it was at a pride parade that I met him. It was 1982. I had just moved to LA a few months before from the small town where I grew up in New Mexico. I was nineteen and, like so many other gay men, had migrated to the closest big city I could think of. I hadn't come out, really. I had been found out. My whole childhood my parents had been emotionally vacant. The only emotion they ever showed was towards each other, and that was usually anger or rage. They went through all the normal functions of parenting. They drove me to school, fed me, and made sure I had clean clothes. But it was all with robotic motion. Than when I was fifteen, on the verge of divorce, my parents decided to try marriage counseling at the local church. It was than that they were "born again." My parents accepted Jesus as their Lord and Savior. So overnight grace was said before dinner, seven o'clock every night became "bible time", and every Sunday was church. I found my parents new found faith ridiculous. But I went along with it, if that meant they'd leave me alone. It was right after my nineteenth birthday when my mom, while snooping in my room, found a porno magazine. And it wasn't Playboy. My parents weren't the violent types. They didn't beat me and throw me out onto the street. My father just shook his head and said "Jesus is going to be very disapointed." All my mother could say was "It's a sin! You know it's a sin, right?" I assured her that I, indeed, knew the bible considered it a sin. With this she looked at my father, shrugged her shoulders, than turned back to me. "The reverand will know what to do. He'll fix you"
By that time I was tired, and ready to leave. I packed my bags that night, left, and didn't look back. I had no problem being gay. And I'm sure that if I'd stayed, my parents would have at least grudgingly tolerated it. But I didn't have the patience or desire to stay and educate them. So I left for Los Angeles.
So that's how I found myself at the Gay Freedom Day Parade that cloudy, June day in 1982. I hadn't really wanted to go, but I wanted to experience gay life a little more. I had just started a new job at a boutique and my co-worker, a lesbian named Amy, had insisted I go. "It'll be fun" she insisted, "how can you say no to hot studs prancing around in hot pants"
Well, it did seem like a nice way to enter gay life. Plus the hotpants didn't sound so bad, so here I was. I clapped and cheered with everyone else as the proccession of floats and people went by; Parents of Gays and Lesbians, California Gay Teachers, Gay Latinos Unite, The Gay and Lesbian Liberation Committee...the list went on and on of the groups marching. I never admitted it to anyone, but that day was like the beginning of my new life. For the first time, I was in a crowd of people just like me celebrating our way of life.
As the Lesbian Mothers group marched by, I glanced around the crowd and that's when I spotted him. It would be hard not to. The only word to describe Eddie that day He was wearing mini short cut offs, a super small black t-shirt with the phrase "Faggots Do It Better", and black sunglasses. He had his curly black hair hidden underneath a baseball cap. Out of the mostly white crowd, his dark olive complexion glowed. He clapped, cheered, jumped up and down, raised his hands in the air....I wasn't aware that a person could pocess so much energy. But he cheered for every single group that marched by. I turned to Amy and said "I'm going to move over there to get a better view." She nodded her head without looking and continued to clap and cheer. I squirmed my way over to where Eddie was standing until I was standing right next to him. He glanced at me as I walked up next to him, but kept his eyes on the parade.
The parade lasted for another twenty minutes. After it was over, people began to drift towards a big festival being held in the park. Eddie began to walk with the throng of people making their way towards the festival. I strolled up next to him, desperate to want to start a conversation. The truth is, I didn't even have a sexual interest in Eddie. There was just something about him that I couldn't resist. Haven't you ever wanted to meet somebody so badly, for no apparent or obvious reason? That day, I needed to talk to him.
"Great parade" I mumbled as I walked beside him.
He looked over at me, not aware that I had walked up beside him. He regarded me for a second, than smiled. He had a big dimple in his left cheek. "It was awesome!" he exclaimed. He looked at me again. "You're first"
"Yeah, basically" I replied, "sorta my first gay event. How about you? Was this you're first pride parade"
"Well, sort of" he answered, "when I was seventeen my ex-boyfriend and I hitchhiked to San Francisco, but we only stayed for part of it"
"Oh, I've always wanted to visit San Francisco" I said, "what's it like"
When I asked this,. he turned to me excitedly. "Oh, it's magic!" he replied. "There's this entire gay neighborhood called the Castro. Imagine a part of the city with nothing but gay people. Isn't that amazing"
I nodded my head. That was pretty amazing. Being in a crowd with other gays was something, but living in a section of the city with them? Sounded kind of like a ghetto to me, but I didn't tell Eddie that. "That is pretty cool"
Eddie stopped walking and turned towards me. I turned towards him and he stared at me for a second. Than he extended his hand and said "I'm Eduardo Adolpho Garcia, and I'm you're new friend"
I laughed at his forwardness. But he didn't seemed to be kidding in the least. I liked his assertiveness. I grasped his hand and shook. "John Erikson" I said, "nice to meet you."

I got dressed, but let Eddie sleep in. It wasn't that he was feeling bad. He wasn't sick...yet. But I had felt him tossing and turning during the night. So I let him sleep while I went down to the cafe downstairs and got us each a cup of coffee. When I got back to the room, he was still asleep. I looked at the clock and decided I'd better wake him up in a minute. But until than, I sat down on the chair by the TV and thought. How had this happened to me? How had this happend to us? Not just me and Eddie, but everyone. It had all started with a few people. A rare cancer found in a couple of gay men had turned into a nationwide epedemic that was killing an entire generation of gay men. A shadow had descended upon the gay community that had never been seen before. I had read in the Advocate that year that AIDS groups were now marching in every major parade. All around me, men were dying. At first they were always far enough that they didn't directly affect my life; a friend of a friend, an aquaintance...never anyone I loved. Soon, they were friends, men I knew by name and talked too: Robbie, Daniel, Aaron, William, Pedro, Stephen, Hector. I had seen the men, the men who rotted to death. I knew what was ahead for Eddie, and I couldn't accept it. I made an oath that this would be the best day of Eddie's life. No talk about T-Cell counts or FDA drug tests. Just partying and being proud.
I looked up and saw that Eddie had awoken. He was sitting up in bed and smiling at me. "You look so depressed" he stated in his lispy voice. Men like Eddie bugged other gay men. His feminine traits and features made them uneasy. I could never imagine Eddie without them. I didn't see being able to pass as straight as a gift, I was just being myself.
I laughed drly. "Do I?" I asked.
Eddie sighed exasperatedly and got out of bed. He walked over to me and crouched down on the floor in front of me. "Please" he asked me softly, "please don't be sad today"
I smiled and used all my strength and will to not cry. I would not cry in front of Eddie. He needed someone to be strong for him. And I was more than willing to be that person. "I promise" I stated firmly.
Eddie let out a sigh and got up. "Augh, it's so dark in here" he said as he rolled up the blinds. "I'm not dying yet!" He skipped over to the stereo we had brought and pressed play. The Madonna tape we had been listening to the night before began to play.
As Material Girl blared out of the stereo, Eddie jumped on the bed and began to sing along. I fell on the floor and laughed hard as he jumped up and down exclaiming "Cuz everybody's living in a material world and I am a material girl!" He leaned over me and pulled me up onto the bed. "Dance with me!" he yelled over the music. I shook my head no and tried to climb off the bed. Eddie rolled his eyes and tightened his grip on me. "What the fuck is your problem?" he asked. "It's just me"
I obliged and began to dance with him. My dance skills were very bad. But Eddie didn't seem to mind in the least. "Yeah John, get into the groove!" he yelled as I air grinded him from the back.
After our dance we got dressed. "The parade is starting in twenty minutes!" I said as Eddie finished combing his hair.
"Augh, do you want your parade escort looking like shit or not?" Eddie snapped as he added the finishing touches to his hair style. The one thing that bugged me about Eddie was how it took him forever to get ready. But in a few months, it all wouldn't matter. So I let him take as long as he wanted to get ready.
We walked out of the hotel, and joined the huge crowd of people making their way to Market Street for the parade. All types of people were in the crowd that day: drag queens; big burly guys in leather; average everyday gay guys; lesbians with a backwards cap trying to look tough; gay parents with their kids; gay men with their straight female friends. The diversity at gay events never seized to amaze me. As we found a good spot on the sidewalk, I also began to notice another group that was very visible that day. "I guess wheelchairs are in vogue this year" Eddie laughed softly as a procession of AIDS pateints wheeled by in wheelchairs. I smiled weakly, and we both looked down for a second. I remembered the day Eddie had told me he was positive. I had screamed. I had punched my fist into a wall. I had shaken Eddie and demanded to know who had infected him. He had just smiled as tears rolled down his eyes and hugged me tight. I had cried into his shoulder and begged him not to die. He didn't say anything. He had just rubbed my back soothingly.
Since Eddie had been diagnosed, all I had seen him do was console other people: his mother, his friends, me. Since the day he had told me, he had never once broken down or cried. I wanted him to come to me, but I knew he needed space.
Soon the parade started and we all began to cheer excitedly. The first contingion was the Dykes on Bikes. Eddie cheered and blew kisses as those butch lesbians on their big motorcycles rode by. A young, femme girl riding with her butch girlfriend blew a kiss back to Eddie as they drove by. Eddie caught the kiss in the air and placed it on his cheek. I laughed and put my arm around his waist.
Group after group, float after float marched by. And each was as spectacular as the next. When PFLAG, the Parents and Family of Lesbians and Gays walked by, people cheered and cried. Many wished that their own parents were marching that day to support them. But these men and women were surrogate parents to us all. Eddie and I held our hands out as they walked by, and many of the parents squeezed our hands. One woman holding a sign declaring "I'm proud of my gay son" kissed our hands. Next came the San Francsico Gay and Lesbian Youth Organization. We cheered on as these young adults, some as young as fourteen, marched by. Than came the San Francisco AIDS Project. The crowd grew less jubulant and many people bowed their heads. Soon the whole crowd gew silent. This was one of the largest groups to march that year. I looked over at Eddie and he had a solemn look on his face, but only for a moment. Than he looked up and began to clap. Than he began to cheer, loudly. People around us looked at him as if he was crazy. I looked down in embarassment. How could he clap and cheer? But soon his cheering became contagious. Everyone began to cheer. People from the Project came through the crowd collection money, and I put twenty dollars into one of their buckets. Eddie put fifty. More and more marched that day; group after group paraded by with their floats and banners. A lot of people scoff at pride parades and their display of flamboyance and stereotypes. But unless you're gay and experience the pride parade, you won't know what I'm talking about. A straight person would never understand admiration I felt as a troop of drag queens marched by. But I felt it, and so did Eddie. He leaned over the street barrier and offered his cheek for a kiss. A gorgeous drag queen in glitter make-up and a purple feather boa walked over and planted a big one on his cheek. Eddie came back to my side and glowed with the big glitter lip print on his cheek. I laughed and wiped a bit of the smudge away.
Soon, too soon, the parade came to an end. Everyone cheered on the last float of the day marched by. Than it was over. Everyone still smiled, but with a bit of sadness. This was the one day a year where we could be proud without fear. We were the majority, the rightous that day. And it felt great.
The crowd began to make their way to the big festival in front of city hall. Eddie and I walked along with the rest of the crowd. As we walked along Market Street, we were both silent. The magic of the parade still fresh in our minds.
I glanced around me at all the different faces. A big poster on a street lamp caught my eye. It was of a young hunk seductively holding a condom as he looked at you. Above him it read: STOP AIDS. PLAY SAFE. The city, the government, even the gay community had ignored AIDS until it was killing thousands. Now they thought a few PSA posters was going to stop it.
When we arrived at the festival, it was past one. The sun was high in the sky and it was hot. Eddie said he was feeling a little fatigue, so I bought him a bottle of water. We walked around, looking at all the different booths. There was a lot to buy. It seemed as if everything from jewelry to leather to pottery was on sale. A lot of organizations that had marched in the parade also had informational booths. We wandered through the crowd for a while when we realized we were both feeling a little sick from the heat.
So we found a shaded lawn by an art museum and sat down. Eddie stretched loudly and lay down on the grass. I lay down beside him on my side so I could look at him. He looked so beautiful that day. He closed his eyes and his long eyelashes lay softly against his face. I would be lying if I said I'd never thought about Eddie in a more than friendly way. I mean, why wouldn't I? Eddie was my best friend. We had a bond that I had never felt towards anyone else before. Since the first day we'd met, I'd told him everything, and vice versa. He was the first person I'd opened myself fully too. And he had not judged me, he'd loved me. He was everything I could ever want. And I had come to the conclusion a while ago that I was probably in love with him.
There had been a few moments in our friendship where I'd realized he felt the same way. I remember this one time the previous summer. We had been in my room, listening to an album. We were lying down next to each other, talking. I propped myself up on my elbow so I could look down on him as I talked. But when I'd looked down on him, I couldn't speak. He didn't notice at first, but than he looked up at me, and didn't say anything either. I looked down a little bit and noticed that his shirt had lifted a little and exposed his lower stomach.
I leaned down and kissed the skin above his bellybutton and than pulled his shirt down. Eddie and I were very affectionate friends. However, that lone action was one of the most erotic moments of my life. When I pressed my lips against the warmth of his stomach, I felt him tremble. I shivered too. But that was the end of it. We never spoke about it again. I think we both knew the power sex and love had of fucking up friendships. Plus being gay in the '80's was the worst time to start a serious gay relationship, with AIDS happening. The odds were against us, and we knew it. We both sort of came to the conclusion that it wasn't the time to let our feelings to come out.

We quietly lay on the grass until we heard someone speaking on a microphone. "What's going on?" Eddie asked.
"I don't know" I replied. "Let's go see"
The Gay Men's Choir was having a charoke. Eddie and I joined the crowd surrounding the stage as the MC asked people to come and sign up. "Come on people!" he said exasperatedly, "this is your once chance to be a real diva"
After a a few minutes went by, the first performance was announced. "Alright ladies, our first performance will be..." the MC looked down at a clipboard. "...Eric Samuels! Come on up Eric"
A man, who turned out to be Eric, came out of the crowd and climbed up onto the stage. He was very cute. He had shaggy blonde hair and a nice, lean body. He walked over the the stereo guy and whispered in his ear. The stereo guy nodded and got the tape ready. Eric walked up to the microphone and waited for the music.
"I've paid my dues....time after time" Eric belted as the music started. It was Queen, We are the Champions.
The crowd screamed and cheered as Eric began to sing. He had an amazing voice and sounded a lot like Freddie Mercury. There was something going on though. I watched Eric as he sang the lyrics. Eddie was watching him too. Eric was pouring every ounce of emotion he had into those words.
Halfway through the song, he walked to the side of the stage and picked up a rainbow flag that had been placed on display. He rose his arm as high as he could as he yelled "We are the champions...we are the champions! No time...for losers...cuz we are the chapions...of the world"
People were crying as Eric finished his song. I was cying. All the hate, the homophobia, and disease we had battled. We were a community of dead, and a community of survivors. Many men and women in that crowd that day came to that parade feeling defeated. But Eric, with his cover of Queen, had shaken us out of our mental stupor. He had reminded us that we have to keep on fighting until the end, we didn't have a choice When he was done, everyone cheered as I wiped my eyes. I looked over at Eddie. I couldn't read the look on his face. He looked upset thought. Suddenly, he turned and started running away.
"Eddie!" I screamed as I ran after him. "Eddie, wait"
I chased him through the whole crowd until we were out of the festival. He finally had to stop. I ran up to him as he put his face into his hands. I grabbed him violently by the shoulder and turned him towards me. "What the fuck was that all about?" I yelled. His eyes were puffy with tears. He pulled away from me and turned to walk away. I grabbed him again, and turned him to face me. "Why are you doing this?" I asked roughly, feeling my voice shaking. "I'm your best friend. Why are you running away from me"
Eddie let out a groan. He fell on his knees, looked up at the sky, and screamed. Now, I don't mean he yelled, or moaned. He screamed, at the top of his lungs; so hard, his body was shaking. It was the scream of a man who had bottled all the pain he was feeling and now his bottle had finally cracked. I didn't say anything, just looked down and waited for him to talk.
He finally looked up at me. "They won" he said softly. "All of them. All the people who have been telling me I'm a sick faggot all my life. My father, my mother, the pastor, all of them. The very love that I defended so much is what's going to kill me." He laughed bitterly. "You want to know who infected me? It was that guy." He pointed to a random guy on the street. "And that guy, and that guy over there. Don't you get it? We all gave it to each other. It's all our faults. I brought this upon myself. I deserve it. I am a sick faggot"
I couldn't hear this anymore. I brought Eddie up to his feet and grabbed him underneath the chin so he could look me straight in the eye. "Now, listen to me" I said. "No one deserves this disease, you hear? No one! You can get upset, and you can cry, but I never want to hear you talk like that ever again. I love you for your faith in our kind of love. So don't you EVER call yourself a sick faggot again! You are Eduardo, you love men, and you are the purest thing that God has ever brought to this earth"
Eddie began to sob as I told him all this. I pulled him into my arms. He struggled at first. "Fuck you" he mumbled through clenched teeth, "fuck you." He soon gave up though and collaped into my arms. "I'm so scared John" he cried, "I'm so scared. I don't want to die. I'm not ready yet"
I didn't say anything. There was nothing I could say. I just stroked the back of his head, and made soothing sounds. I looked to my right at the entrance to a closed bathhouse. On the door, above the closed sign, was a poster which read in bold letters: GAY MEN ARE THE LARGEST RISK GROUP FOR AIDS INFECTION. USE PROTECTION! BE SAFE!
"These men are so young" I thought that day. None of them were ready to go. They all had lives ahead of them; lives full of love and heartache, successes and failures. Eddie leaned away from me and wiped his eyes onto his shirt sleeve. I could tell from the way he moved that he had regained his senses. "God, I'm so embarassed" he said.
"Why?" I asked.
"I just made a total queen of myself" he laughed. His eyes were still red as he looked me in the eyes. And I felt that same feeling I'd felt that day last summer. Our love showed it's face once again, but only for a second. Eddie shook his head and smiled. "Come on John, take me home"
"Alright my champion" I said. I crouched down to let Eddie climb on my back. "Giddy up" he said as I stood up with him on back.
I nayed like a horse, which made him laugh. And as the sun set on us, creating a golden glow over the whole city, I carried him home.