The Bridge Between Love and Death
There’s the story, then there’s the real story, then there’s the story of how the story came to be told. Then there’s what you leave out of the story. Which is part of the story too.
Let's say that fiction is a vital component of human existence.
If so, poetry, art, music, dancing, and so forth is all merely part of a natural drive to exalt our limited personal experience beyond what we call real life—the practical parameters of our survival as living, social creatures. Fiction can be created everywhere: putting on makeup, lying to your father, magic tricks, having a crush on a movie star, playing chess. Fiction is ready to come out and play at the least excuse. Fiction is art, it is beauty, it is a wonderful game that everybody wins. Larp (live-action role playing) is literature, except it is created by a group of people in real time instead of by, say, a haggard-looking, brilliant, overcaffeinated, godlike Author who, without involving himself in the convoluted drama of his characters’ lives, creates, peoples, and finally perfects his little world before releasing it into the wilds of the public imagination. In larp, the creator and the beholder are one.
So what do we need fiction for? We need it to fill in the gaps. Even scientists couldn’t do much of anything without theorizing, and nobody could do anything at all without stitching all the bits and pieces of what-we-know-for-sure together with our untested ideas, our wishes, our delusions, or our educated guesses.
The endless procession of marriages between what is true and what is beautiful.
And the one fact of existence that, alone among all others, is surrounded by the widest chasms of unknowability, is that all existence must come to an end.
There are only two views which correspond to the duality that is man: animal and spirit. According to the one the task is to live to enjoy life, and put everything in to this. The other view is: the meaning of life is to die.
This year I played two larps about death. The first one, “The White Death”, lasted about an hour. The second game, “Just a Little Loving”, took three days. It wouldn’t be right to compare the two games as equals—while both were extremely important experiences for me, the White Death specifically prepared me to have the incredibly lasting and profound experience I had in Just a Little Loving.
The White Death is about mortality and immortality. It is an abstract, wordless game based on an allegory about a group of settlers trying to set up a community in the mountains, but dying off one by one when winter storms hit. In it, death was a release from suffering and circumscribed consciousness. We all began the game as human beings (miserable, ineffective, and hopelessly restricted to base animal drives), and we were given several props to work with: white balloons, white sugar, and white paper, representing dreams, survival, and faith, respectively. These provided us with a way to develop a relationship to our own death. My character, like all the other “humans”, had a random and unique physical disability, and several meaningless prejudices (mine were a hatred of people taller than me, and an attraction to people with brown eyes). From the beginning of the game, my character had decided that life wasn’t worth living. She clung to her dream and her faith as desperately as the others held onto survival. Standing still in the midst of a cluster of stumbling, moaning humans, she held onto her white balloon gently but persistently. And when a tall man with blue eyes took it away from her, she began to wail, and then they both wept together, sitting on the floor and rocking back and forth, sharing a single dream between them.
In retrospect, I think this character was about my experience with a dear friend of mine, who had been struggling with depression, addiction, and suicide for a very long time. In many ways, she and I are very much alike, and we became close in the autumn of 2013. Life had been hard to her, and I wanted so much to help, and in order to do that I tried to feel for myself that hopelessness and its drive towards suicide. I saw it could be welcomed as the ultimate release from suffering. A life without hope of real human connection, with only the inevitability of suffering and failure, would truly be unbearable. I liked to think that I would find mere consciousness its own reward, even if life held no warmth or happiness for me, but I found out, in the White Death, that of course this could not be the case. I might beguile myself with empty dreams and unwritten beliefs, but it would be presumptuous to imagine that I could generate all my own happiness. My character wanted to be free of the oppressive, meaningless loneliness of life. And when I was finally drawn into the darkness by the dead, I was freed of my human disabilities and prejudices, and the first human I welcomed into the afterlife was the man who had stolen my dream, because he had sat down next to me and wept, too.
The White Death was a truly hopeless world, and I think that’s exactly what major depressive illness feels like. But the world we live in doesn't have to be meaningless, and depression and addiction are not, in fact, hopeless conditions. My friend remains one of the most wonderful people I have ever met—imaginative, creative, curious, brilliant, and breathtakingly artistic. The world is a more beautiful place because she is still here. The White Death was an immaculate death, one that freed us from our suffering, hopeless, and dying bodies. The living color of the mortal world was to us only an impurity, which would be inexorably subducted beneath the perfect, lifeless, crystalline structure of the snow that covered the blessed dead. I grew less afraid of death after this game, more accepting of it, and, I hope, more understanding and forgiving of the darker side of the human mind that seeks to die.
By contrast, Just a Little Loving was full of life and color. Death was real, but we needed to make the most of whatever time we had left, in order to be together. The very structure of the game was oriented towards living, and even suffering was just another way to interact with others, to deepen a character and add even more meaning to his or her life. Death was not a beautiful release, it was just the end. If you died, your character was gone and a new character would be given to you, with all your former connections effectively destroyed.
And this world wasn’t abstract at all; it was real. New York City, 1982-1984: the specter of AIDS. My character was a young gay man named Francis, who had come from a terrible childhood where he was neglected, abused, and ultimately rejected by his family, but who, in spite of everything, had made a good life for himself. He had a stable relationship and was well-liked among his friends. He had a brilliant dancing career, a close-knit community in the drag scene, and meaningful counseling work at the LGBT Center. When the first rumors of the “gay cancer” arose, he couldn’t run away, as he had from his destructive family life. He had to confront the new danger while remaining devoted to his identity as a gay man and to those he cared about. He had a very fine line to walk between putting himself and his community at risk, and loving the gay community the way he wanted to, using the only the available, insufficient facts about HIV to make such decisions. He lost a great deal to this terrible epidemic, and through no real fault of his own. He lost dear friends, he lost his relationship, and he even lost part of his own identity.
The three days of this larp are really three years—annual 4th of July parties, in 1982, 1983, and 1984, set in Saratoga, NY—and Francis transformed dramatically between that second and third year, when his boyfriend Tony left him without saying goodbye, falling into heroin addiction and HIV, and when the science around AIDS finally produced better prevention data and an HIV test. Francis developed a great deal of courage, and matured from a lighthearted boy, trying to keep the monsters in his past at bay, into a strong young man, more serious about the work and people that matter to him, more generous with his love, and more brave in his vulnerability. On the one hand, he felt he didn't have much more to lose. On the other, further loss would have been devastating. He managed to blend his fierce independence with a beautifully raw emotional intensity. He became strong enough to intentionally lay himself open to being hurt, in pursuit of genuine honesty and generosity towards those he loved.
In the third act Francis tried to give back, not just to the gay community as a whole, which he now did every day in his counseling work at the New York City LGBT Center, but to his friends. Trusting and being trustworthy was both very simple and very frightening. He had an unshakeable belief in those he cared for—the support and love he had to give was always real. This realness was a liability for him, but he took a leap of faith by offering his simple, trustful friendship.
If the community he loved was really going down in flames, than he was going with them, with no regrets. He lit a sky lantern for Reginald with his Club Diamond family, holding hands, helping them let go. He sat with Diane and listened to her romance woes. He kissed Nate, calling him "mama", telling him how beautiful he was. He hugged Marcus and told him he was going to be wonderful up there. He blew kisses to everybody who said hello. He supported his best friend Artie, who always came to him for help and whose loneliness touched him deeply. He promised loyal friendship and assistance to Tony, who finally came to Francis and Artie, apologizing for the way things ended and asking for help getting off drugs and into a better life. He watched every last person at the party seek forgiveness, or resolution, or hope, or redemption, and he felt with them all.
And then he stood up on the stage, and with everyone watching him, sang a love song to Daniel, who had left Club Diamond to work on a cure for AIDS. It was a song without demands or expectations. Francis was offering love without strings attached, without making Daniel have to choose between having a life purpose and living a beautiful life.
"I love you," said Francis, afterwards.
"I'm positive," said Daniel.
And Francis didn't even flinch.
On the last morning, at the time of the lottery of death, Francis felt absolutely frozen. He thought of Tony, addicted, homeless, and now HIV positive too. He thought of his new relationship with Daniel. He thought of Nate and Walter, his beloved surrogate parents at Club Diamond, both HIV positive. He thought of his dear friend Reginald who he had lost to AIDS the year before. Francis felt like he was looking out of a deep, cold tunnel. In his mind, they had already left him, and he was alone on the grass sobbing, as defenseless as he had once been as an abandoned child. And this time, there was no hiding behind a fortress of ruthless independence, flying free of life's cruelty and insisting that he never needed anything from anybody. He had chosen this community and thus acknowledged his own longing for them.
And it was unspeakably frightening to want something so much.
He walked to the graves, holding the hand of the man he loved, staring at the grass and feeling a million miles away, carrying funeral flowers for as-yet-undetermined fallen comrades, sure that he was about to lose everything and feeling utterly defenseless. He thought, I will die if they die. These people are my life.
He held on to Daniel's hand as if it was the one thing keeping him from drowning.
And then he let Daniel's hand go, and walked among the coffins.
And the names inside did not belong to him or to his dearest friends.
I don't remember exactly what happened next. Maybe he smiled. Maybe he kissed Daniel. Maybe he went to each of his friends and embraced them. Maybe he cried.
I don't think he did any of those things, though—I think he just laid his flowers on the dead, and gently touched the shoulders of those who were mourning, and found Daniel's hand again.
And the funeral song played, and pieces of his heart shattered and flew out to join the bereaved, and Daniel and Francis slow-danced to Dusty Springfield's song "Just a Little Loving", and Daniel said, for the first and last time, "I love you", and the game was over.