“Angels in America” – Jinny Guo ’24

“Robbie, you’re a strong boy. Don’t let the tears fall. Come on, get up, you can do this,” my mom’s soft voice whispers in my ear. As I raise my head, I see her warm, beautiful smile and her tall figure standing before me. She reaches out her arms and lifts me from the ground. Her hands feel so real and powerful. I feel tears burning as they cascade down my cheeks, and I can no longer distinguish illusion from reality.

“Robert! Get your ass out of bed, now! For f—s sake… I swear to God your alarm has been ringing for fifteen minutes!”

A gruff, masculine voice, accompanied by the piercing ring of my alarm clock, causes me to slip through her embrace and plummet back to the earth, ripping my mother’s sincere smile away. My head hurts like hell, and my body shivers. I’m really not looking forward to sitting in the obnoxious classrooms for seven hours without time to breathe. Going to school has become the most dreadful thing I can ever think of. Judging by my father’s concern, it’s well beyond 7:00 in the morning, and I’m already off-schedule.

“Get down here now and take your pills! If you miss that bus, you’re walking to school yourself!”

“Dad, I know! I’ll be down in a minute!” I yell as I put on a green flannel and baggy jeans. The importunate rash on my back makes me itch so uncontrollably that I rush to the bathroom to rummage for hydrocortisone cream. The pale, skinny boy in the mirror scares me once again, and this is the only time I feel a little glad that my mom has gone because I know seeing me like this would crush her.

As I struggle to spread the cream on my back, the faint voice of the newscaster reaches from downstairs, and I prick up my ears. “…Pedro Zamora, a young activist known for his role on the reality show ‘The Real World,’ passed away this morning at 4:40 AM, November 11, 1994 at Mercy Hospital in Miami due to complications related to AIDS. His passionate advocacy for AIDS awareness continues to inspire young people across the nation. Zamora’s untimely death serves as a poignant reminder of the ongoing struggle against the AIDS epidemic and the importance of early detection and prevention efforts. Zamora—” Suddenly, my dad shuts off the radio, just as I figured he would.

I walk downstairs into the kitchen and pour a bowl of Oatmeal Crisp and milk. As my dad slaps a pancake onto my plate, I take a cautious look at him, unsure if I should say anything to break the ice. We haven’t talked much since the day I tested positive for HIV— and most definitely not about my diagnosis. While our relationship has been quite strained since I came out to him as gay, my diagnosis makes it even worse. I have yet to bother to tell him about the bullying that started two weeks ago when rumors of me getting AIDS somehow spread around the school. I want to talk to him so badly, but I’m afraid of seeing the shock and disappointment that once filled his eyes when my physician announced my results. Then, without as much as a glance in my direction, my dad passes through the door to his private clinic, where he habitually spends most of his days. More often than not, I only see him for breakfast, though there is always a prepared, cold dinner in the fridge and a sticky note reminding me to take my pills on time when I get back from school.

The school hallway is abuzz with the usual morning chaos by the time I arrive, and the acronym “AIDS” has already been scrawled in red and black Sharpie all over my locker. Embarrassed, I pull a wet wipe from the smallest pocket of my backpack and try to scrub away the striking marks, desperately hoping that no one looks my way. Yet, as I turn around, I spot the absolute last person I want to see coming from the other end of the hallway with a couple of boys I don’t recognize. Jake has his black JanSport bag slung over his right shoulder and his left arm around the shoulder of the boy next to him as the three of them banter. Our eyes meet, and I quickly lower my head, attempting to shield my face from him.

Still, I hear the laughter of Jake and other boys approaching. “Yo! Look who we have here! Careful, guys. You don’t want to catch his disease.”

“Jake… Not now…” I mumble in a voice that he can’t hear.

As if spurred by my frightened look, Jake knocks the books from my arms.

“Oops! My bad!” The boys’ cruel hissing slithers through the hallway.

My vision goes blurry as tears well up in my eyes, but I try not to let them fall. Feeling like a meek rabbit cornered by a wolf, I don’t know what else to do other than stare at the vinyl floor tiles between my Converse and Jake’s Air Jordans. As Jake and his new friends walk past me, the tallest boy lands two heavy slaps on my right deltoid, sending a shock down through my body. It feels as if my body is mere seconds away from shattering into a million pieces and spilling into prickly puddles on the floor. I feel weak. Why does he treat me like that? What did I do wrong that my best friend detests me so much? How could the person I used to trust the most suddenly become someone I fear the most?

The only place at school where I find solace is the library. Two weeks ago, I started spending my lunch period there, at a corner seat by a small round table in the study room to avoid the cafeteria crowds. It’s a quiet space, free of the judgmental side-eyes often thrown in my way, a slice of heaven far removed from the chaos of the hallways and classrooms. I put on my headphones and turn on my Walkman, immersing myself in the melodies of Madonna’s “Like a Prayer” and trying to shut out the busyness of the world. I pull out a book; the cover showcases the silhouette of a cowering angel with a pair of colorful, feathered wings perched behind him with the golden title Angels in America emblazoned above. As I flip through the first few pages, I find myself unable to concentrate. I’ve been staring at the last line of Scene I for a minute, and I can’t recall anything that has happened so far in the play. The incident with Jake earlier keeps resurfacing in my mind, screwing with my thoughts. I slump against the cool surface of the table, burying my aching head deep in my arms. If my mom were here, she’d tell me what to do.

“Robbie?” In the blink of an eye, I swear I see my mom before me, a pair of white wings gracefully hanging behind her. Still, without even lifting my head, I know the voice comes from Sarah.

“Hey, are you okay?” As I wearily open my eyes and adjust my posture, Sarah pulls out a chair and sits beside me, smiling.

“Yeah. I’m just tired.” I squint my eyes and cover my mouth with my palm to fake a yawn.

“Come on. Don’t even try lying to me. I’ve known you since you were in Pampers.” She leans forward and ruffles my hair with her hands. She’s probably the only person I don’t get mad at besides my parents for doing this.

“Fine, you caught me. I ran into Jake earlier, and he was hanging with his new friends.” I know I can never get away with keeping anything from Sarah.

“Oh boy. You know him better than I do. Don’t even bother.”

“ —But it hurts so much that I can’t think of anything else.” It hurts when you feel like a piece of garbage abandoned by your best friend.

“Well…You know he’s having a hard time too.”

I bite back the words on the tip of my tongue. She’s right. Some seniors have said some pretty nasty things to Jake, and it was because of me. I’m in no position to blame him.

“He’ll wrap his head around it eventually… and so will the others,” Sarah breaks the silence.

“I don’t know. My life is such a mess right now. I haven’t spoken anything longer than a sentence to my dad since my last counseling session on Monday.” I slump back onto the table.

“That’s a whole other issue. Seriously, Robert, you have to talk to him. He’s your father, not some monster,” She raises her voice.

“I’m scared of the way he looks at me. It feels like he wishes I’d never been born!” I wish she could have seen my dad’s cold, shameful look walked out of the office of my counselor, Mrs. Turner.

“Oh, don’t say that,” Sarah softens her voice and thrusts her arms forward to hug me.

“Thanks, Sarah,” I whisper as I rest my chin on her shoulder. Sarah’s company always reassures me that I’m not facing everything alone.

“Okay. Let’s not talk about this. What are you reading?”

“Uh. Angels in America. Mrs. Turner gave it to me. She wanted me to read Act I before the next counseling session.”

“Oh. Interesting. What’s it about?”

“Well, I haven’t actually retained any of it yet, but Mrs. Turner said it’s about some gay men with AIDS and how they deal with the disease and their identity with their families and society. I told her I feel a bit lost, so she said it might help me with my troubles and help me find my ‘true self.’ I’m not so sure about it though. You know I’m not a fan of fantasy stories.” I shrug.

“Robert, I honestly think you’ve already found your true self, and you’re one of the few our age who has. I don’t remember if I’ve ever told you, but I think you were really brave to come out. You’ve never tried to hide any parts of yourself, not even when the bullying got really bad last year. Hell, if I were you, I don’t even know where I would be right now. I probably wouldn’t even have survived last year,” She pauses for a moment, then continues. “And you should be as brave about your disease as you’ve always been.” When she says that final line, I realize she is squeezing my hands tightly.

My heart skips a beat. I remember my mom calling me her brave little superhero when I was little, and I’d always feel like I was actually a superhero. However, the nickname seems to have slipped away from my life after her death. I look into Sarah’s dark brown eyes, finding it hard to put into words to let her know how grateful I am for her to say that and be the only person on my side, but I think she knows.

“Don’t even bother with Jake. Give him some time to wrap his head around it. Trust me. He will figure it out eventually,” Sarah continues as she stands up and pushes in her chair, hinting that it’s almost time for class. “But I do think you should talk with your dad about your feelings and all the stuff going on at the school,” She adds as we head out of the library. She bears a serious expression, which I rarely ever see from her.

* * * *

The afternoon slips away quickly. Sarah’s words still linger in my mind as I’m on my way home. What if I can just be brave one more time? What if I just explain to dad that I didn’t do anything wrong? I can’t help but try to imagine what my dad’s reaction would be. Will he be surprised? Will he believe what I say? Will he say anything? Will he even respond if I knock on the door — It occurs to me that my dad probably won’t be around at home until late, given his usual schedule. I glance at the black Casio on my wrist. 2:30 PM. Even if I knock on his door, he is probably busy seeing patients. Lost in my conjectures, I don’t realize the bus has stopped in front of the familiar red bricks of our house until the bus driver hollers.

As I enter the house, I hang my backpack on the chair by the door and walk straight to the door to my dad’s clinic as if an invisible string is pulling at me from behind the door. I’m not even sure what I’m thinking, and I have no idea what I will say if he does open the door. Regardless, I knock on it.

Much to my surprise, the door opens almost immediately, and my dad’s bewildered face appears behind it.

“Dad, I want to talk to you,” I blurt out, my voice trembling. “It wasn’t my fault. I don’t know what happened, but I swear I didn’t do anything.” An eternity of silence follows. I fix my eyes on the collar of my dad’s shirt, afraid of seeing his expression.

“Robert,” he murmurs. It’s been a long time since he spoke my name so gently.

Dad, I’m sorry, I whisper silently in my heart. The tenderness in his tone makes me feel remorseful, although I’m not entirely sure what I’m apologizing for.

“Robert, I hope you know that I’m not as good a father as I wish I could be.” He pulls the door wider and moves toward me until the stubble on his chin rubs against my forehead. My face presses against his chest. The familiar scent of his shirt feels so comforting.

“And I’m really sorry for it,” he continues, his hands gently caressing the back of my neck.

Dad, I’m sorry for not being the son you can be proud of.

“I’m not good with words, but I hope you know that I’ve always been proud of you, just as you are. love you, kid.” He kisses me on the top of my head.

I love you too, Dad.

I don’t dare to say anything aloud, afraid of bursting into a cry as soon as I open my mouth and ruining the moment. My tears dampen my dad’s navy shirt. His arms around me feel like a sanctuary, warm and reassuring. At this moment, he seems like an angel.