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The Man Who Was Immune to AIDS

Just as adulthood has a way of pushing normals toward deeper normalcy, it pushes eccentrics further toward the margin if there’s no countervailing force. Steve had friends, most of them at a distance, and a big blended family of half-siblings, step-cousins, and other less identifiable relations. But he had no spouse or children (though he’d wanted both) and, disastrously, no cohort. Survivor guilt he could work on, with therapy and visualizations and visits to ashrams. But surviving was a harder problem. It meant facing mortality, in essence, alone. And so, though AIDS bypassed him, the ordinary indignities of aging (a bit of neuropathy, a bout of arrhythmia) threw him into tailspins. He’d panic over nothing, complain about how old he was to people even older. When he needed his gallbladder out and Amy, with two kids at home, was unable to help him the way he’d helped her through her medical crises, he lashed out in a rage so severe it estranged them almost to the end of his life. The lovable eccentric had somehow become, Carla saw sadly, a stodgy old man. It wasn’t guilt that caused the change; it was disappointment. The world with all its marvelous places was nevertheless riddled with errors. It was not good enough.

After the semi-grandeur of Malden-on-Hudson, the dinky frame house in Catskill was a terrible comedown; anyway, the many steps to the bedroom were too many to climb. So after a year, he ended the lease, in June 2013. He booked a month, on scholarship, at the Ananda ashram in Monroe, where he hoped to repair his health and attitude while studying Sanskrit. Then, starting in mid-July, he would travel to London and France. Despite all this, he sounded manic to his sisters. One evening, after a meal out, he fell asleep at the wheel coming back to the ashram. He wasn’t supposed to drink alcohol with his various medications.

The trip to Europe got cut short; he had no money for the France leg. But his patrons in London (who’d paid for the flight) reported him happy: He delivered their painting and, with their teenage daughter, made a soulful video singing “Let It Be.” When he returned to the States in late July, having nowhere else to go while he looked for housing, he camped at the apartment of an old Hell’s Kitchen friend who spent summers away. He’d stayed there often enough to know the rule: He’d have to be out by the time his friend returned on August 26. The friend wasn’t looking for a roommate.

On Thursday, August 15, Steve finished his work on the Fodor’s guides to Aruba and Turks and Caicos, places he’d never get to. For the next week, he looked and looked, online and in person, but could not find an affordable apartment he liked near Malden—not even in dreaded senior housing. Perhaps when the “horse people” left in September the market would loosen, but he didn’t have that long. Of course, there was his generous Crohn cousin Ruth on the Upper East Side, who’d housed him in the past; but she was nearly 100 and he had a cold, so he wouldn’t ask. The trap was closing: “A map of the world that does not include Utopia,” Wilde wrote, “is not worth even glancing at.” Still, Steve tried to preserve an air of buoyancy. He had lunch with friends, spoke to family, and emailed widely, telling some people he was exhausted and numb but others that everything was, or would soon be, fine. In fact, on Tuesday, August 20, he let Carla know he’d be driving upstate that weekend to look for a new apartment. After that, when she tried to call him, his message box was full.

He didn’t drive upstate as planned, but in an email to an old friend Friday morning, seeming to refer to the housing problem, wrote that “something should break this weekend.” How he spent the rest of his last day is not known. How he ended it is. At 10:09 in the evening, according to his computer’s history, he called up a photo of himself at a beach, looking tan and happy, wearing colorful shorts. If he hadn’t before, he now took off his mother’s ring. With his 67th birthday 13 days away, he would not, after all, outlive her.

Someone called the police at 6:45 the next morning. An unconscious and unresponsive man was in the driver’s seat of a red Chevrolet Equinox parked in front of the Manor Community Church on West 26th Street in Chelsea. Emergency medical technicians pronounced him dead at the scene. The medical examiner’s office later said the cause of death was “acute intoxication due to the combined effects of oxycodone and benzodiazepines”; apparently he had stockpiled painkillers and tranquilizers. The manner of death—differentiated from an accidental overdose by the huge number of pills he swallowed—was suicide.

And so the friend who returned to the city two days later would not be stuck with a roommate. (Or a roommate’s things: Everything not in storage was crammed into the car.) But the rest of Steve’s friends and family would have the burden of living with him for the rest of their lives. Could they have done more? (But he hadn’t asked.) Should they have guessed? (But he hid his despair, if it was despair.) Was he ill? (An autopsy revealed nothing unusual in a 66-year-old man.) Had he really killed himself, then, over a housing problem? That seemed impossible; rather, a feeling gradually developed among the survivors that the suicide was a logically thought-out solution to problems Steve was simply tired of facing. Certainly the two-page note he left was not irrational. Mostly it provided practical information about things like his storage units and safe-deposit boxes, along with instructions to tell the Ulster County Board of Elections that he would not be a poll watcher come September. In any case, he died, unlike so many of his friends, at a time and in a manner of his own choosing. And, who knows, as a person who believed in an afterlife, he may have expected to be reunited with his mother, next to whom he is now buried; reunited with Jerry, gone these 30 years; reunited with all the others he loved and, because of a flaw, outlived.

Over time, his sisters have provisionally come to see evidence for this less tragic view not only in his birthday message to Amy (“enjoy gift”) but in the way he was found in the car by the police. With the seat reclined as far as it could go and a CD of Buddhist chants nearby, he’d propped his feet up on the dashboard. He was smiling.