The Book of Jonah

A131 hol3

The ride was lovely, if Jonah was the type to enjoy the country. City born and bred, it felt alien, even more foreign than his journeys to other countries. The train snaked its way through small towns with biblical names, surrounded by corn and soybean fields, smelling of cow manure. It always made him feel uncomfortable, out of his element. A few miles outside of – yes, it’s true – Nineveh – he finally disembarked at the small station, watching the train continue on its journey past a field dotted with cows. A fresh-faced sophomore was waving, so Jonah headed over to him, to be chauffeured into the town proper. The auditorium where he would be speaking was just a few blocks from the hotel, so he shrugged off the offer to be picked up later that afternoon, assuring his escort that he would prefer to walk.

The preference isn’t just for the exercise. Jonah was already regretting his decision to accept this invitation, and seeing the sophomore only brings it home. These children, born into a world where AIDS already existed, brought out anguish and rage in him.

The audience was broader than he expected. It’s a town-gown event, and all the seats were filled. The mood of the room is respectful and attentive. Jonah began his standard speech, but something made him shift away from the usual rhetoric. Instead, he told the story of Tarshish. The loss of Amos, the continued and steadfast love of his chosen family. As he told the story, his voice grew stronger, passionate. He described how the neighbors would avoid Hannah when she shopped at Zabar’s. How he would join Sam at his synagogue on Amos’s yartzheit to say kaddish together, and no one else would stand with them. The old fears turning into habits, isolation pooling around these generous, loving parents until only a handful of people showed up to their funerals. The virus, Jonah told the rapt audience, is pervasive. Even if AIDS has shifted into a manageable, chronic disease, Silence still equaled Death.

When Jonah stepped away from the podium, the audience did not applaud. Instead, they turned to each other. Men tentatively stepped across the aisle to greet each other. Women embraced. One or two sobs broke out. Apologies, confessions and words of forgiveness began to fill the air. As Jonah made his way down the aisle, some of the people touched his arm, and thanked him. He murmured something back, but did not stop walking until he was back at his hotel room.

It was December, but Jonah flipped on the air conditioner. He sat on the edge of the bed, shaken and angry.

Why? He was unsure if he was shouting aloud, or just imagining it. Why did they listen now? Why not back then, when it could have helped Hannah and Sam, who had so much love to share? For that matter, why not back when it might have helped Amos? Or even, G-d willing, his own parents?

And the black wave of loss and despair washed over him. The first of the generations to be touched by AIDS, the last of the generations to have lived in a world before AIDS existed, Jonah felt old. Were the decisions he made the right ones? Were the decades of activism worth it? What work, what financial stability might have been his had he chosen to hide? What meaning might he have found if he had tried just a little harder? He wondered, yet again, why he was spared when so many of his friends were not. He worried that he would die alone.

Who will be there for me?

Better that I should die, Jonah said to himself, his face in his hands.

He awoke the next morning, feeling hot and sweaty. Checking out of the room, Jonah met his ride to the train station. He flung his bag a bit too hard into the back seat, making the driver flinch.

Jonah sighed, and apologized, turning away to watch the snow-covered landscape dotted with cattle. The driver attempted conversation, telling Jonah how the audience stayed for over an hour, then slowly breaking up in groups, neighbors walking together, students escorting the elderly. Jonah must have made some kind of noise, because he noticed the driver glancing over, wary.

Jonah considered whether to explain his state of mind, and decided to keep it simple. He was just wishing someone could have been there to walk Hannah home from the grocery store, he said.

The driver nodded, understanding. And yet, the driver added after driving silently for a while, it doesn’t take away from what happened last night, does it?

Watching the cows in the field across from the train station, Jonah has no answer.

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