Word Count: 4,240
A CLOSE BRUSH WITH DEATH
I'll bet there are a lot of women in America between the ages of twenty and forty who wonder how close they've come to contracting AIDS. But I'm one of the few who can pin down when she didn't get it. That would be Spring of 1986, just before I moved to England. That move saved my life. But my brush with death began in August of 1979, the summer after I graduated from high school, one month after my eighteenth birthday. That was when I first met Phillip Robledo.
I fancied myself a sophisticated teenager -- certainly compared to most I knew I had seen a lot more and experienced a great deal. But nothing prepared me for Phillip; the sexiest, handsomest, sweetest man I had ever met. It was unfortunate that first glance didn't also point out that Phillip was the most self-destructive and careless human being ever to cross my path.
That summer my friend Liz was working for The Renaissance Pleasure Faire in Marin County, California. I was well acquainted with the Faire, though I had never been involved with the players themselves. Liz was a 'washer- woman', which meant she attired herself in a motley array of faded, mis-matched rags that approximated the clothing of a Renaissance peasant-woman. The players of the Faire were purists in their attire -- Liz looked nothing like her usual elegant self with a grimy cloth tied around her head for a scarf.
I wasn't working for the Faire, and although I went that year on an artist's pass, I was free to wear any costume I wished. My choice of a 'fallen woman, travelling in the train of Queen Elizabeth as a camp follower as her court toured the shires' was eye-catching and colorful.
Before we made our way to the backstage area of the Faire, my costuming as Violet 'the fallen woman' had already caught quite a few eyes. I saw him standing talking to a group of people, his back to me, and my first impression of Phillip Robledo was of height, slenderness, and an intense elegance of carriage and bearing. Attired as a Spanish nobleman at the court of Queen Elizabeth I, Phillip made me realize what it was that made men seem so dashing when they wore such ridiculous clothes. Black velvet and burgundy damask; heavy black tights and knee-high black leather riding boots that hugged his muscular calves...a short, black velvet cape lined with burgundy...and a leather riding crop that he hit against his boot as he talked. All I could see from the back was the cape, his burgundy 'slops', as the Elizabethans called them, his tights and boots. And his hair -- so black it seemed to shine purple in the sun, reaching to the collar of his cape in the back.
When he turned, I realized that I now knew what modelling agencies mean when they say how important 'bone-structure' is to a certain look. Phillip had the face of an aristocrat -- the part he had chosen for himself at The Renaissance Faire was one he seemed born to play -- enormous, dark-dark eyes with black lashes that could have been false and heavy, 'fly-away' winged brows; a long, slender nose that seemed made to 'look-down', as Regency novelists describe their heroes doing during a put-down of upstarts; a full, sensual, slightly cruel mouth.
It took me a moment to realize he was staring as hard as I was, but his eyes had to raise from my considerable cleavage in order to meet mine. Then he smiled and stepped toward me, and picked up my hand to kiss it -- the palm, not the back. I felt like a character in a bodice-ripper. It was hard for me to believe that Phillip was eighteen that year, also (his birthday three months before mine). There was nothing about him that was boy-like -- he was very slender, but it was the sleek, elegant, spareness-of- flesh that a panther possesses. He exuded sensuality and sexual appeal of a jungle cat -- strangely enough, he was extremely confused about his own sexuality. I think it came from his Spanish Catholic upbringing, and being so very good looking; when I met him, he had girls who clustered around him at the Faire, as if they were his groupies and he was some kind of a minor celebrity.
That put me off him, at first -- I had been working with rock people since I was sixteen, and girls who hung around rock stars really bothered me. I was stand-offish with Phillip even though I liked him, and that seemed to attract him. We started dating two weeks after we met, the night following my second visit to the Faire with Liz.
Despite the intense physical attraction, Phillip and I were an ill-matched couple. Though we could sit together for hours and discuss almost any topic, the sexual side of our relationship was tense and manipulative, and never changed in that respect. It was if our personalities were both so strong that we were in a constant state of battle for the upper position -- figuratively, if not literally. And there was always the problem of direction -- I had known what I wanted to do since I was a young teenager -- Phillip seemed lost and drifting amongst a wealth of opportunity and possibilities. When I met him he was working as a model -- a field he actively disliked and denigrated. This disturbed me, and it seemed that a lot of the considerable money he made was unaccounted for. I had been around rock people long enough to know what that meant.
He started by snorting coke, like a lot of people during the late 70's and early 80's -- the ones who had the money to buy it, and wanted to believe they were living on the cutting-edge. Phillip was part of the fast-track clique in San Francisco; a crowd of models, actors, dancers, hangers-on and wanna-be's who specialized in self-abuse of the physical kind. They drank too much, took too many drugs, smoked and were all self-proclaimed 'bisexuals' in a time when it was hip to be. Before AIDS, bisexuality and mild drug-abuse were the bench-marks of the self-delusional hipster.
By the beginning of 1981 we were starting to drift apart. I was going to college full-time, working on my first book and hosting an experimental television show in San Francisco called Rock Journal; the show was co-hosted by a high school friend of Phillip's named Gavin. Phillip had done a surprising turn-around and gone to work as a 'junior exec-in-training' for a multi-conglomerate nightmare called Bechtel. I couldn't believe it -- the first time I went to see him at this glass-and-concrete behemoth, I was certain he had lost his mind. But all he had really done was to trade one elite crowd for another -- now he was a minor star in another firmament. He was the only person there who wore leather trousers and a leather tie with his Oxford shirt; and they seemed to love him for it.
During the first six months of that year, I only saw Phil occasionally -- our lives had become too disparate. But that summer he told me he had been shooting heroin during those months and was now clean. He asked me to come back to him -- to come and live with him in San Francisco, and that it would never happen again.
I didn't and it did. Later that year Phillip asked me to marry him for the first time, at the wedding of a friend of mine. Just as asking me to come and live with him had been, I could see this was a desperate attempt to clutch hold of a life he wanted but couldn't seem to find -- what he considered a normal life. Since he wanted children and I didn't, I knew our views of that ideal life were radically different. And it wasn't hard to tell that, as much as Phillip wanted to live that good life, there was something inside him that kept him pushing him over the edge. In early 1982 my first book, CUTS From a San Francisco Rock Journal was released, and since Phillip had been a model for photographs in the book, he came to the release party. After that, he became a regular in my life again. He left Bechtel, telling me he was tired of the corporate world and knew it wasn't for him -- I was happy at the time, since I hated it myself. I didn't learn until sometime later that he had been fired for his continuing drug abuse. He was so successful at hiding it from me that I believed, at the time, he was clean. Except for the coke, of course -- he admitted to that, but never indulged in it when he was with me.
In 1982 Phillip revealed his ambitions as an artist -- until that time, when my book was released, he had never shown me any of his drawings. They were excellent -- I could see that, with the right training, he would make a first-rate designer one day. He was awarded a scholarship to a design school in San Francisco, but never finished even one year. Instead, in 1983, he began talking about relocating to Los Angeles and finishing school there. This seemed like a bad move to me, but Phillip wasn't good at accepting advice from anyone else. On this particular subject Phillip's older brother Joseph and I were in agreement, which made him even more determined to go. Joseph had moved back to the bay area from Oregon, and we had quickly become friends. Though my efforts to fix him up with my friends invariably fizzled out, he was always cheerful about the double-dates.
That summer was the second time Phillip asked me to marry him, and come to Los Angeles with him. I had just finished college in 1982 and was finding my own career difficult to navigate; I decided Los Angeles wasn't what I needed at the time -- looking back, I think I was afraid what would happen to Phillip once he hit that faster-than-life Southern California club-scene. There was never really any doubt that Phillip would be a big hit in Los Angeles when he finally made the trek, in the spring of 1984. The few times I saw him, during his trips north, he seemed to be having a great time and doing well in design school. But when he returned for good, in the spring of 1986, I had the impression that things had fallen in once again.
I was leaving for London in June, to finish my second book, Punk Retro, which was under contract to a British publisher. A move so far away involved a lot of planning and arrangements, and I only saw Phillip a few times before I left. Joseph was interested in Christine, the photographer who would be accompanying me to England, so again we double-dated.
We had become uneasy with one another, and there was no opportunity to renew our affair. My move to England and lack of available time saved my life. I returned for Christmas that year, but only spoke to Phillip on the telephone. When I moved back to California for good it was the beginning of 1988, and Phillip told me he had contracted AIDS. While he was living in Los Angeles, he participated in needle-sharing at parties, shooting heroin and crystal-meth. Add to this his experimentation in bisexuality, and the ending to the story was a given. He was so highly allergic that the combination of the disease in his blood-stream and the polluted air of Los Angeles had sped the progress of the virus.
In the spring of 1987 Phillip returned to Los Angeles to visit some friends. He was there during a particularly bad smog-alert, and collapsed on the sidewalk. When a friend drove him back to Joseph, in the East Bay, it was discovered he had AIDS.
That was the first time AIDS had touched me personally. In London I had interviewed a male streetwalker who had the disease and sometimes a friend-of-a-friend or a stage star I had seen in a show turned up to have tested positive. But this was a man who had been one of the few lovers in my life; I was glad I had gone along with the trend in London and been tested twice for the disease.
I cried when Phillip first told me, on-and-off for hours. But I believed at the time, as he did, that he was going to survive. I only saw him once more -- in December of 1977, when I met him and Joseph at The Dickens' Faire in San Francisco. He looked the same, and we behaved as we always had -- but it wasn't the same. He refused my friendship after that, and I didn't hear anything for nearly two years. Then, at the end of October, 1989, Joseph called to tell me Phillip had died the night before. The story of the last two years of Phillip's life was told to me by Joseph, who spent them living with and taking care of his brother.
My mom was in Yosemite visiting her aunt. She'd been gone for two days, and was due to return two days later. This was in the spring of 1987. Phil was in Los Angeles, and I was home by myself. I got a call at one in the morning from Rusty, who has also since been diagnosed with AIDS since Phil got it. Rusty was a friend I had met down in L.A. the year before -- a friend of Phil's, that is. Phil's whole group of friends who shared needles all died from AIDS -- Phil was the first, though.
Rusty told me that Phil was very sick, and since he refused to go to a hospital in Los Angeles, Rusty was going to drive him home (close to 500 miles). Phil had the Mustang down there; at five in the morning I heard a knock on the door, and it was Rusty. I walked outside to the car, and Phil was lying along the back seat. He couldn't breathe. I don't know what Rusty was thinking of; I would've done anything in order to get him to a hospital, rather than drive him all that way in his condition.
I took one look at him, and said, "My God...what can I do? Where can I take him?" All I had was my Kaiser card.
I remembered a friend who had suffered third-degree burns over fifty-percent of his body, and he went to Alta-Bates Hospital. I figured that was the best hospital in the area, and I got him there in twenty-five minutes. They brought him into the emergency room, and twenty-five minutes later they told me they were admitting him. By ten that morning, they had the diagnosis. The doctor said to me, "Your brother has AIDS..."
"I didn't believe it. I was numb. It wasn't until a week later that I realized I had done the best thing I could have, and even then the doctors had to tell me how lucky we were. They had just gotten their allotment from the government for AIDS research. Phil stepped-in at the bottom of the program -- he was their test-case, their guinea-pig. He was the first person on the planet to receive Aerosal Pentamidine -- it was the aerosal form of the drug Pentamidine (Isetheionate), that had been developed for people with Pneumocystis.
"At that time, he had more than one lung disorder. He had an atypical form of Tuberculosis, and two or three other lung problems. When I first took him to Alta-Bates he had Pneumocystis, which is a form of pneumonia that affects the lungs. Blisters and swellings form inside the lungs, and he was unable to assimilate oxygen. I put him in their hands, and I called my mom in Yosemite. I said, "Phillip is very, very sick..."
They couldn't cure him of the pneumonia; he just lived through it. He was in a coma for three weeks. We had alerted all the members of the family, and everyone was there. He had been given the last rights, and even my mother was talking about him as if he was dead. But he was under so much morphine, he was just in a coma. I knew he was still there, and I tried to tell them, 'Don't talk about him as if he's dead. He can hear you!'
After that first time in the hospital when we were so scared, Phil made it for two years before things started to get bad again, then he had to go into the hospital every month. But during those two years he went back to work and got his own apartment. He was acting and living as a normal person, but he was getting government assistance. He had been enrolled in Medicare as an AIDS patient -- AZT costs about a thousand a month.
To me, every time he went into the hospital was bad. I'd start out by going to see him every day, but as time went on sometimes I wouldn't go for a week, because I knew that if things were really bad they'd tell me. To go in and see him suffer like that...I couldn't do it.
Finally, he became too sick to take care of himself. He'd never had to, really -- but it hurt him to have to ask anyone to do something for him. I did everything he ever asked me to, but I still feel as if I could've done more. I know I could've...if I'd volunteered. But he wouldn't ask; and if he ever did, I knew how much it hurt him.
He knew it was the things he'd done that brought him to that end, but he lived his life the way he wanted to. He didn't talk about it much. All he said to me was, 'I've lived the way I wanted to, and this is the way it's gonna be.' He never deluded himself about it, not once.
He took massive steroids. It increased the capacity of his lungs, but they affected him, too. Forty-eight hours before he died they pulled him off all that stuff, and increased his morphine. At the end, all they wanted to do was make him comfortable. They told me that the other drugs wouldn't do him anymore good, and the pain-killers couldn't hurt him -- he was too far gone.
His doctors were concerned because he wasn't anxious, frightened or oxygen-hungry. They put him on a drip-bag, and he had a pump so he could give himself injections any time he wanted to. After that, they took the pump away and just had the stuff drip into his system. They had him on so much he was no longer conscious, and most of his reactions were automatic. Michelle (Joseph's girlfriend) and I sat with him and talked to him for days.
We were holding his hands when he took his last breath. I called her at work, and told her what was happening. She came to the hospital and just walked up to me and jumped into my lap. We stayed that way, most of the last four days. Before Phillip died, my mom had been there thirty hours straight, and she refused to leave. My sister finally talked her into going home. I could tell that Phil was fighting to hang on. He wouldn't let go, because my mom was still there.
I was sitting there talking to my dad and I said, 'Dad, he's not gonna let go'. You could feel it...you could touch his body, and tell that he was fighting with everything he had. It was four hours after my mom left the room that he finally gave in. Michelle was sitting in my lap, and we were trying to get some sleep. His breath changed, and as soon as it did I ran for the nurse. It was only five minutes after that...
Suffocating like that, it seems to me to be the hardest way anyone could ever die. To my way of thinking, I'd rather bleed to death. But he had no panic in him."
Something had been bothering me throughout Joseph's story, and I was having trouble putting it into words. Suddenly I realized it was the same thing that had always bothered me about Phillip -- Joseph and everyone around him blindly accepted Phillip's right to do anything he wanted to, no matter who it hurt or made suffer. That he had been the ultimate victim of his own selfishness seemed to be all right, too.
"Joseph," I asked him, "Do you feel that it was worth Phillip dying at the age of twenty-eight to be able to live the way he did?"
He stared at me for a moment. "For myself, no. But for Phil, yes. People have died younger living the way they wanted to. If I stepped out in front of a truck tomorrow and died on an emergency table in the hospital, I'd have to agree. I've done what I wanted to. If I wound up in a gutter I'd think, 'Hey, today's a good day to die. I've done what I wanted to.' That's the way we've always lived. Dad drilled that into me; I don't know where Phil learned it. He's always done what he wanted to do, and he could justify it in his mind. I had to have it tapped into me.
"Now, I get up in the morning and think, 'If I don't make it the rest of the day, that's ok.' I had to learn it, but with Phil it came naturally."
It still didn't seem quite right. I wasn't sure whether I couldn't accept the concept itself, or it was just Phillip's death, so young and so horrible, that was unacceptable to me. "Are you angry with him?"
"No, I'm not. He showed me a lot of different things, and life is funny. A lot of people think it's a gift that God gives us, and that we can't give it back when we want to. A lot of people think we have an afterlife, and a lot don't...basically, to me, as concerns the time we have here...how you spend it and how you leave is your own damned business. Phillip didn't become as successful as he wanted to, or have all the material things he wanted, and he didn't go all the places he wanted to -- but damn it, he did what he wanted to.
"Phil always took everything for granted. He had everything; he always has. Throughout the centuries, whoever he was, he always had whatever he wanted -- he did this time, too. For him, it was always easy; and now he's learned that you can't take the time you have for granted.
"What I've learned from all this is that money is power. It can change you, and it can kill you. For Phillip, I think it was that we have only the time we're given, and you have to make it count. You shouldn't squander it. Sure, have fun and do what you want to do, but don't squander it stupidly."
Was this the way Phillip would have wanted it, given a choice? Was it worth dying at 28, just so he could have a good time, screw around and stick a needle in his arm? Perhaps he, like so many before him, really did believe it was worthwhile to 'live fast, and die young'...but it seems this dancer paid the piper a very high price. I still miss him, all these years after his death. Sometimes I'll go somewhere, and know how much he would enjoy it. Or I'll write something, and think he would appreciate it, since he was always my biggest fan. And I think differently about my own life since I learned how close I came to suffering his fate. Often, I think he's watching, and he likes what I'm doing -- having fun, not taking life for granted, and hopefully not squandering it.
Joseph and I remained friends for three years after Phillip's death. He finally admitted to me that he had wanted me to be his girl, from the moment we met, but Phillip and I had been too close, our relationship too complicated, and brothers don't poach in one another's orchards. And the first time he asked me to go out with him, Phil had been only been dead a year. It was too soon for me, and he didn't ask again. I lost track of him, and didn’t find him for ten years. Joseph’s story is also a tragic one – he and his second wife Deborah were poisoned in the Unocal chemical spill of 1994, and now live in the rural wilderness of Washington – they can’t breathe in populated areas.
Isabel moved to Las Vegas...I hope she’s having a good life there. She endured more than a mother should.