It feels strange to be in Provincetown, Massachusetts, after three decades. Everyone I used to know here is dead. The place, once known as a gay haven, feels like less and more of its old self: some parts seem like a gay theme park for straight tourists—complete with straight clubs that do drag shows—and other parts resemble L.G.B.T. retirement communities or are, in fact, L.G.B.T. “adult community” condominiums. Sometimes it feels as if Provincetown has become a mainstream tourist attraction because the gay men I knew died. This is inaccurate—it’s more likely a matter of real-estate prices, travel trends, and Airbnb. Still, there are a few places in this country that feel to me, all these years later, hollowed out by aids, and Provincetown is one of them.
Last month, the town unveiled a memorial to people who died of aids. It sits on the grass to the right of the town hall, and it looks like a giant stone slab. The top of the stone looks like the sandy seafloor here, though it is perhaps meant to look like a fragment of the ocean’s placid surface, in miniature. An inscription says that the monument represents “a unique moment in the living ocean.”
It’s only in the last couple of years that permanent aids memorials have been appearing in American cities. In the earlier years of the epidemic, the memory was represented by the aids Memorial Quilt, a giant travelling exhibit of grave-size, hand-sewn blankets. The quilt was constantly expanding and, after a while, was split into sections so that it could be displayed in many places at once. It was a living and, terrifyingly, growing memorial. Other living memorials such as aids gardens—or, in San Francisco, an aids grove—were launched, starting in the late nineteen-eighties, in more than a dozen cities around the country.
Twenty-two years ago this month, researchers presenting at the International aids Conference in Vancouver announced that they had devised a drug “cocktail”—a combination of several medications—that turned the H.I.V. infection into a treatable condition. Even though H.I.V. continues to kill about a million people a year worldwide, 1996 is now widely remembered as the year that the epidemic ended. For people with access to proper medical care, that was the year the deaths stopped.
A line separating the past from the present is essential for memory to begin forming. So is distance. It stands to reason that permanent aids memorials started appearing about twenty years after the drug cocktail was introduced. A monument was unveiled in New York City in December, 2016. The same year, the organization that runs the aids Memorial Grove, in San Francisco, announced that it was discontinuing the annual tradition of adding to the stone part of the memorial; it was stopping at about three thousand names. Monuments are planned for construction in Seattle, San Diego, West Hollywood, and elsewhere.
Provincetown asked for design submissions for an aids memorial in July, 2013. A committee chose one by Lauren Ewing, an installation artist and part-time Provincetown resident. Her design called for two eight-and-a-half-ton pieces of carbon gray quartzite machined to be smooth on the sides and rippled on the top. Two sides of the square are inscribed with the word “remembering.” A third has a longer inscription, which reads, in full, “The Provincetown aidsMemorial is a horizontal monument, a unique moment in the living ocean. The memorial is a reminder of the lives lost to aids and the humanitarian achievements of the caregivers who responded to the crisis. It is also a reminder of those who are still fighting to live and the continuing impact of aids in communities worldwide. Provincetown was a first responder to the crisis in this country. In 1983 the Provincetown aids Support Group opened its doors to hundreds of people living with aids who came here seeking assistance and treatment. Here they found open minds, big hearts and an interest in their well being. Provincetown’s commitment to being an open community continues today.”
All memorials smooth over history, leaving out much of the passion, the tragedy, and, most of all, the stories of the victims. (The two-hundred-and-fifty-foot Pilgrim Monument that towers over Provincetown, indeed almost directly over the new aids memorial, is a study in omissions.) The aidsmonument, too, is remarkable for what it omits. The phrase “open community” subsumes the word “gay,” and it also elides why people with aids came to Provincetown seeking help. They came because they had no place to go. They came because their own parents wouldn’t touch them, and neither would their doctors and nurses, who put on gloves and, sometimes, hazmat suits before entering the room of an aids patient. Provincetown, which in the nineteen-eighties had a year-round population of about three thousand, had no treatment to offer, of course. But it had low rents in the off-season, many queer landlords who weren’t afraid to rent to the sick, an aids support group, a gay magazine full of treatment information (I was the editor), and a lesbian town nurse named Alice Foley. She had moved to Provincetown from Boston to pursue her lifelong dream of becoming a taxi driver, but around the time the men started getting sick she returned to medicine. She still drove, though—she would drive sick men two and a half hours to one of the Boston hospitals when necessary.
The fourth side of the monument holds lines by several local poets, assembled into a single piece of verse:
Steve’s / holding Jerry, though he’s already gone, / Marie holding John, gone, Maggie holding / her John, gone, Carlos and Darren / holding another Michael, gone / and I’m holding Wally, who’s going. * Transcendence might be the term Emerson would lend it. / What I’m trying to say is that it wasn’t lonely. * Look: I am building absence / out of this room’s air * We are all made of / our own people laying names on the ground * Most of it happened without music, the click of the spoon from the kitchen, / someone talking, somebody sleeping / Someone watching somebody sleep.
The poetry captures the sense of serial heartbreak of those aids years, but it leaves out the rage that fuelled the aids activist movement that played a key role in bringing about effective treatment. That omission, in turn, obscures the fact that, even now, proper care is fully available only to those whom the aidsactivist movement comprised and represented: men from wealthy countries, themselves mostly middle-class, mostly white, mostly educated—the kind of men who refused to accept that something so terrible might just happen to them, who demanded that the government, the researchers, and the doctors do something. Most people, when faced with calamity, do not react with such outrage; most accept that their tragedies are but a ripple in the vast world ocean of tragedy. Somehow, now that so many of those men are dead, the Provincetown aids memorial has managed to drown out their anger.