I hadn't known Paul for very long. We had met at Trent University in Peterborough in the fall of 1987. I had worked and travelled around and I was older than him, twenty-four and in fourth year. He had just turned nineteen and was entering first year. At the beginning of the year at Trent, some senior students introduce the first-years to the university. There are no pranks or anything like that; the seniors are there to be helpful. They're called "amigas" and the first-years "amigees", which shows you how much Spanish they speak in Peterborough. I was an amiga and most of my amigees struck me as good-humoured, eager children. But Paul had a laid-back, intelligent curiosity and a skeptical turn of mind that I liked. And it happened that because of our parents' jobs we had both lived in Mexico City for a few years when we were kids. The two of us clicked and we became good friends. We did things together and talked all the time. Because I was older and I had seen more things, I would usually fall into the role of the wise old guru and Paul into that of the young disciple. But then he would say something that threw my pompousness right into my face and we would laugh and break from these roles.
Then, hardly into second term, Paul fell ill. Already at Christmas he had a fever, and ever since then he had been carrying this cough around. If he moved suddenly, if he sat down or got up too quickly, for example, he would erupt into a dry, hacking cough. Initially, he, we, thought nothing of it. The cold, the dryness of the air -- it was something to do with that.
But slowly things got worse. Now I recall signs that I didn't think twice about at the time. He complained once ofdiarrhea. he seemed less energetic. One day we were climbing the stairs to the library, hardly twenty-five steps, and when we reached the top, we stopped. I remember realizing that the only reason we had stopped was because Paul wanted to rest. He was out of breath. And he was never finishing his meals, either, and seemed to be losing weight. It was hard to tell, what with the heavy winter sweaters and all, but I'm certain that his frame had been stockier. Finally, when he was getting winded at the smallest effort, it became clear that something was wrong. We talked about it -- nearly casually, you must understand -- and I played doctor, and said, "Hum. Out of breath, cough, weight loss, tiredness -- Paul, you have pneumonia." I was joking, of course. Ironically, that's in fact what he had. It's called Pneumoncystis carinii pneumonia, PCP to intimates. Late in February, Paul left for Toronto to see his family doctor.
Eight months later he was dead.
AIDS. He said it to me over the phone in this strange, removed voice. He had been gone for a week. He had just got back from the hospital, he told me. I reeled. AIDS. AIDS! My first thoughts were for myself. Had I ever drunk out of his glass? Used his soap? Come into contact with his blood? I tried to remember if he had ever cut himself in my presence. Or scratched me accidentally. Then I thought of him. I thought of sex, of homosexuality. But Paul wasn't gay. I mean, he had never told me so outright, but I knew him well enough and I had never detected the least ambivalence. That wasn't it, anyway. Four years ago, when he was fifteen, he had gone to Jamaica on holiday with his parents. They had had a car accident and Paul had been gashed in the left thigh. He had lost a quantity of blood and had received a transfusion at the local hospital. Six witnesses of the accident had come along to volunteer blood. Three were of the right blood group. Several phone calls and a little research turned up the fact that one of the three had died two years later of toxoplasmic cerebral lesions while being treated for pneumonia, a suspicious combination.
I went to visit Paul that weekend at his home in Rosedale. I didn't want to -- it was he who asked; I wanted to block the whole thing off; I asked, this was my excuse, if he was sure his parents cared for a visitor -- but he insisted that I come. And I did, I came through. And I was right. Because what hurt most that first weekend was not Paul, but Paul's family.
After learning how he had probably caught the virus, Paul's father didn't utter a syllable for three days. Then, early one morning, he fetched the tool kit in the basement, stepped out to the driveway and destroyed the family car. Because he had been the driver when they had had the accident; even though it hadn't been his fault and it had been in another car, a rented car. He took a hammer and shattered all the windows and lights and then he scrapped and trashed the body and then he banged nails into the tires. Then he siphoned the gasoline from the tank, poured it over and inside the car and set it on fire. The neighbours called the police and the fire department and they rushed to the scene, but when he blurted out why he was doing it, they were very understanding and put the fire out and left without charging him or anything, only asking if he wanted to go to the hospital, which he didn't. So that was the first thing I saw when I walked up to Paul's house -- a burnt wreck of a Mercedes covered in dried-out foam.