Borrowed TimeI’m not sure I can do this. I’ve wanted to teach Paul Monette‘s Borrowed Time: An AIDS Memoir or Becoming a Man: Half a Life’s Story but have always been too afraid to do so. Until now. My Lesbian & Gay Lit class is starting Borrowed Time for Wednesday’s class. I’m not sure I can do it.
Borrowed Time is Monette’s chronicle of his relationship with Roger Horowitz, his partner of ten years, as Roger is first diagnosed with and then dying of AIDS. It’s one of the most important accounts of the AIDS crisis during the 1980s, a classic text of Lesbian & Gay Literature.

I’ve taught portions of Monette’s last collection of non-fiction essays, Last Watch of the Night: Essays Too Personal and Otherwise a couple of times, but this is my first time teaching Borrowed Time. In fact, I’ve never been able to finish Borrowed Time — it’s just so intensely tragic. One of the essays in Last Watch of the Night, “3275,” which is the plot number of Monette’s grave site with Roger, ends with a call to arms:

We queers on Revelation hill, tucking our skirts about us so as not to touch our Mormon neighbors, died of the greed of power, because we were expendable. If you mean to visit any of us, it had better be to make you strong to fight that power. Take you languor and easy tears somewhere else. Above all, don’t pretty us up. Tell yourself: None of this ever had to happen. And then go make it stop, with whatever breath you have left. Grief is a sword, or it is nothing. (115)

I can’t help but approach Borrowed Time with this passage in my mind. Reading it has always felt so devastating that I can’t help but cry through parts of it. It’s difficult for me to feel angry about the losses the gay community has suffered from AIDS and all too easy to feel sad and crushed by them. I’ve never known anyone personally who died of AIDS, so maybe that’s kept me from anger.

At any rate, I worry that my easy tears will affect how well I can teach this book, which is why I’ve never taught it before. Monette was a seminal author in my early queer reading. Becoming a Man was the first non-fiction book I read that really felt like it shared my thoughts and feelings about growing up as a gay boy. Consequently, teaching Monette’s work is very personal for me. He was still alive when I read his works, and I was even teaching a couple of his essays the week he died. While I obviously never knew him personally, reading his works was so influential on my intellectual and emotional growth that I can’t divorce myself from the personal connection I feel to him.

Reading and thinking about how to teach Borrowed Time is especially difficult because so much of what he writes in describing his relationship with Roger early in the book reminds me of my relationship with PJ. Here’s what he writes about meeting Roger:

For if there was no man out there who was equal and simpatico, then what was the point of being gay? The baggage and the shit you had to take were bad enough. But it all jogged into place when we met, everything I’d brooded over from the ancient Greeks to Walt Whitman. It all ceased to be literary. My life was a sort of amnesia till then, longing for something that couldn’t be true until I’d found the rest of me. Is that feeling so different in straight people? Or is it that gay people have to keep it secret and so grow divided, with a bachelor’s face to the world and a pang like dying inside? (11)

Reading Monette’s bewildered and overwhelming responses to his partner’s illness and death make me consider how I would deal with PJ’s death (years and years from now). His bereavement triggers my own response to the fact that someday we too will die, and no one knows whether we’ll go together or if one of us will be left behind alone, again. The thought of being without him — really being without him — is too much for me to deal with.

Clearly, Monette wanted us to read his book and not just feel bad for his loss (or even to just consider our own mortalities). He wanted it to spur us to action, to take up our swords and fight. I guess this is the difficulty I face in preparing to teach it. How do I get past the personal tragedy and the morbid thoughts it raises about my and PJ’s eventual deaths to deal with the real point — none of this ever had to happen. In an age when AIDS is now at least thought of as a manageable disease, how do you convey the same anger and intensity to fight it that those who lived through the crisis felt?

Roger and Paul

I found this picture of Monette and Roger on the Monette-Horwitz Trust webpage. (Monette wrote a poem about rediscovering the photograph.) Maybe remembering their humanity — that they lived and ate and worked and loved and fucked, that they felt the same things we felt — is one way to connect to this anger. If they were alive today, they’d only be in their sixties. So young.

If nothing else, maybe I can get my students to see their love for one another, which comes through so vividly in this book. Six weeks before he died, Horwitz turned to Monette and said, “But we’re the same person. When did that happen?” (13). In many respects, this book is a great love story, and like so many great love stories it’s a tragic one. Perhaps if we can tap into that, we’ll eventually be able to tap into the anger and action that Monette hoped he would inspire.

Of course, focusing on their love risks me being in tears all through class, which is what I worry I’ll do. Which brings me back to my initial thought — I don’t know if I can do this.