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Text: World Copyright
Martin Foreman

Copyright of pictures acknowledged where possible

A Badass Virus

Los Angeles, 1996: A bar on a quiet stretch of Santa Monica Boulevard in West Hollywood where hustlers, johns and the curious hang out. The decor bright and bare, the pool table used, the pinball machines standing idle and the bartender serving clients with the bored efficiency that comes with middle-age. The hustlers not as young as you expect hustlers to be, and the johns not as rich; both in tight, faded polyester. Mingling freely and sometimes the only way to distinguish one from the other is to see who buys the drinks.

I buy a beer and lean against the wall, but my feet ache and there is a vacant stool by the bar. The man sitting next to it gestures that it is free and I settle down to watch the scene. A few feet away two young men in identical narrow moustaches argue in Spanish, one pirouetting gracefully to make a point. Further away a couple embrace, their gesture comforting rather than erotic; others, alone or in groups, punctuate the windows and walls.

"How long you waiting?" My neighbour asks.

What am I waiting for, I wonder. "Not long," I say. "Until I finish this," I hold up the bottle.

He absorbs the information, says nothing. I prod the conversation along. "How long are you waiting?"

He shrugs, mutters something I can't hear, and adds, "I'm on the streets." My theory proved. He has no drink. "I was all right till last night," he goes on, "but I walked out."

"Of where?"

"This guy's place. I was there about three weeks, a month, looking after him. He has the virus, you know, needed someone to look after him. Otherwise I would've been sleeping down where I'm working, down on Third and Western, a store there, I'm doing some work. I do a bit of everything, carpentry, plumbing, whatever's needed. He's a sculptor, opening up this place, so I'm helping him. Then this guy says he needs someone to look after him, so I says okay."

There is more. I miss half of it, trying to make sense of the half I do hear. There are two men, it seems, one he works for and one he looked after until yesterday. The first is a client; the second... I don't know. The second has the virus and it makes him act funny, and that's the main thing.

Billy, the name I give my neighbour, talks on. Billy is an adult, but his height stuck at fourteen. At fourteen, his thick red hair will have flopped over his forehead while his good looks and grin melted the hearts of mothers and advertisers. Fourteen was a long time ago. The hair and eyes are dull and the skin rough and lined. When he leans towards me, he looks forty, but when he is animated and he gets down from the stool to face me to make his point, he loses ten years.

Billy, I am sure, has talked all his life. He talks now with an intensity that comes deep from his soul, in words that are quiet, calm and monotone. Words that I strain to hear, in sentences that flow endlessly into each other and in paragraphs that I struggle to understand. He talks to explain, with all the detail he can muster, the situation with his unnamed friend, the impact the virus can make on a man's life.

"He don't know what he's doing, 'cause the virus has gone to his head, you see. One minute he'll be okay, the next he'll be mad. See these bumps on my skin?" I see nothing, but nod anyway. "That's 'cause he used my razor. I told him not to, but he did. That's because the virus made him do it. He uses that stuff to clean your teeth, right? Not toothpaste, the other stuff." I guess mouthwash, but there is no time to check. "Usually he uses his own, but sometimes he's in his roommate's bathroom - he's got a roommate - and he uses his room-mate's stuff. I tell him not to, but he don't remember. That's dangerous when you do things like that. I should I should call his mother - she lives in Palm Springs - tell her to come look after him, but he don't need her yet. Most days he's okay. It's just the virus making him do stuff like that."

It is after midnight and the bar is beginning to fill. The door opens. A, tall, balding man with tattoos, moustache and unwashed ponytail comes in, then a rotund figure with grey hair like a small cloud above his round face catches my eye as he floats past, looking for old or new friends. I note his black shirt, the gold medallion the size of a saucer and his fur waistcoat before turning back to Billy.

"Yeah, it's a badass virus," Billy explains. "They want to give him treatment but they can't find it yet. It's hiding in his body, and they're waiting for it to come out. It moves around, right? One day you're okay, the next it just moves an inch and suddenly you're tired. You don't know what's hit you." I try to reconcile Billy's explanation with my understanding of HIV; metaphorically, it makes sense. "When you're having sex," Billy goes on, "I'm not saying it's a bug, but when you're having sex, it moves down to your organs." His hand gestures, as if pushing the virus down through his belly. "It's trying to find a way to get out."

I ought to respond, to comment, but my mind is blank and nods and yeses and grunts are all that Billy needs to hear. "Like one time," Billy goes on, "he let the dog out and a fly came in. He got so mad. There he was cursing the dog for him having opened the door and letting the fly in. That was stupid, right, but the virus makes you do things like that. He'd be all right if he wasn't back on the drugs, but he's taking them again. Some of that shit is so powerful, it lasts five or six days, makes you want to" his hand jerks in the classic gesture "all the time and you don't know you're doing it. I taken it sometimes. I know what it's like. It's no good, you lose control."

The couple against the far wall are still embracing, except I have the impression that one of them has changed. Every so often a younger man lets his eyes linger on me, as if uncertain whether I am customer or competition.

I drink, Billy talks on. I have the impression that I am hearing again what I have heard before, but the words are different. I ask the occasional question to clarify my understanding, but the responses are as long, as detailed and as vague as all that I have heard before. All that I can conclude is that there is a possibility the relationship will continue.

There's a moment's silence. Somehow the atmosphere has changed. "I hustle," Billy tells me, as if I have not guessed. "I'm straight, but that don't mean I don't feel for someone. He invites me back, I might go. He needs me. I do things for him. But he got to get a few things straight before he loses it. Like no using my razor." And if he doesn't ask you back, I wonder. Billy is unfazed. "That's okay," he tells me. "My place is out there." His tone is light, as if he did not care.

The silence returns. My mind is blank and Billy has lost interest. He looks away as if he has nothing more to say. Shortly, I put my empty bottle down, get to my feet and offer Billy my hand. Absently, he takes it, his attention already elsewhere.

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