When I saw Doug walking around at Findlay Market last Wednesday, a sly smile came to my face. There was no doubt in my mind I'd approach him.
Our friendship started more than 18 years ago. We worked for the same company and sometimes would have a drink together after work. We'd do lunch, even went to a few baseball games. We were pals.
But something happened in my life that caused the friendship to end: My twin brother died.
My brother lived in Seattle, and in the fall of 1994 I got word that he was very ill. I spent a lot of time with him in the hospital hoping he'd pull through. He didn't.
On Sept. 27 of that year, he passed away from AIDS.
Doug was one of the people I called when I was in Seattle. I let him know my brother had died. He said all the right things to me on the phone that night when I called him, seemed sorry for my loss — but I never spoke with Doug again.
After I got back from Seattle, I would call him wanting to get together. He never returned my calls. After a few weeks of feeling bewildered, I called a mutual friend to find out what was going on.
This mutual friend didn't want to say much, but she let me know Doug now considered me a "hot potato."
It seems Doug didn't know my brother had AIDS, and he didn't know much about the virus. He thought it was a "gay" illness.
Because my brother had died from it, I was guilty by association. In his mind, he now thought I might also have AIDS and didn't want to be around me anymore.
This was a common attitude back then. In the 1980s and even in the early '90s when this illness was considered an epidemic, many didn't associate with people who had AIDS or with people trying to help those with the virus. I remember my brother telling me that even some doctors would literally back out of an examination room once they found out he was HIV positive.
Doug wasn't the only person in my life who felt like I was now a hot potato. Many thought catching AIDS was as common as catching a cold. It was a deadly virus. I was now too close to it.
Like those other people who wanted nothing to do with me, I never attempted to call Doug again. Now, close to 14 years later, there he was at Findlay Market buying, of all things, potatoes.
He looked my way as I started to approach him. No smile came to his face. I extended my right arm to shake Doug's hand. He didn't offer his.
"How you doing, Larry?" he said. "Long time, no see."
"You can shake my hand, Doug," I replied back. "I don't have AIDS."
"What you been up to?" he wanted to know, ignoring my words. "Last I heard was that you..."
"Last thing you heard from me directly was that my twin brother was dead because of AIDS," I said, interrupting him. "Word has it that you dropped me because of that."
Doug didn't answer back. He looked down at his sack of potatoes.
"After he died, I felt a lot of grief, you know?" I said to Doug. "I had to do something about that, so I volunteered for AVOC (AIDS Volunteers of Cincinnati, now known as Stop AIDS). I did that for over five years, got close to a lot of people with the illness, watched a few die."
Doug continued to look at his potatoes not saying a word.
"There was one friend I really got close to," I continued. "I watched him die while holding his hand in a nursing home on the West Side. You still live over there?"
"Why are you saying this stuff to me?" Doug said, finally looking up.
"Because I want you know how I dealt with my brother's death," I said. "I loved him, Doug, but you couldn't get beyond the fact that he had AIDS. You became a jerk because of it."
Doug looked at me for a long time. Finally he said, "You really don't have AIDS?"
"No," I replied.
Doug looked down at his potatoes again.
"It was good to see you," I said, again, extending my hand.
Again, Doug wouldn't shake my hand. He simply walked away.
Now, days later, I realize I was probably hard on Doug. I shouldn't have said anything to my former friend at all, should have pretended not to see him.
I think I was being difficult because I'm still bitter about how easy it was for him to walk away from me.
That was 14 years ago. Now AIDS is no longer considered a public health crisis, thanks to all the new medications, but since seeing Doug I'm reminded of that stigma that once existed. I'm thinking in some ways it's still there.
He still wouldn't shake my hand. Doug's still ignorant when it comes to AIDS.
Doug, if you're reading this, I'm sorry I beat up on you at Findlay Market. You're not the first person to back away from someone who has AIDS or even from someone who just happens to know something about it.
I want you to know it's alright. I'm over it. No hard feelings.
By the way, I hope you enjoyed those potatoes.
CONTACT LARRY GROSS: [email protected]