He sprang forth feet first, a breech baby running toward life in 1959, but his journey would end only 33 years later in a New York hospital. As another World AIDS Day approaches, I can't stop remembering my brother's brief, but vibrant life.
We were Mexican twins, born a year apart to a beautiful teenage mother, and an embittered Army enlistee who never made it to Korea because of a bum leg and an already battle-scarred heart.
My little brother, John Francis Quintana Jr., didn't headbutt his way into the world. He sprang forth feet first, a breech baby running toward life in 1959. After hours of painful labor, and a week before Christmas, an OB-GYN manually dilated mom's cervix, and released John-John from the confinement of her womb. My brother's journey would end only 33 years later in a New York AIDS ward, where he was swept away by the first virulent tide of an early HIV strain. Back then, no one could make sense of the strange new disease that was cutting down young, vibrant people in the prime of their lives.
New York had become my brother's home. In The City, he had shed his Colorado past, and had assumed the sleeker sobriquet of "Jay." He had established a lucrative business without the benefits of a formal education or East Coast ties. It wasn't an easy proposition for someone born in the distant West, where our Mexican, Native American and cowboy relatives have been living, loving, fighting and dying for generations. Jay was not born into the world of gilded frames, tassled armoires and silver tea services, but he had street smarts, and an innate sense of aesthetics that won the respect of other artisans, architects and old-money clients. He created couture-inspired interior designs that wound up in some of New York's finest homes. His star was rising, and he earned a nod of recognition in the world's toughest city in an Oct. 18, 1987, New York Times Magazine story titled "New Talents, New Ideas: Young Hands Practice Age-Old Craft."
I could tell you Jay and I had grown up in a family of quiet artists who inspired us to explore and create, but I would be lying. My brother created beauty from darkness and design from chaos amid the maelstrom of our childhood. Our father, a bomb technician at a federal weapons plant, was bedeviled by alcoholism, and struggled with the disease for years. He made several suicide attempts, and once tried to hold us hostage with a gun. At night, he became a brutal flamethrower who drank, raged and thrashed himself and us into emotional exhaustion. Like his father before him, our father was a member of that secret sect of midcentury family men who took their punches in the outside world, and doled them out at home. My heart disintegrates into shards when the unwanted image of my then-teenage brother ducking in humiliation invades my head. Our father is rapping his knuckles on my brother's head and yelling, "Sap!" Jay's long 1970s hair drapes across his cheek like a shiny dark curtain, and he trips over his bell-bottomed jeans in embarrassed silence. That I did nothing to protect him haunts me to this day.
In a happier memory, Jay is about 7 years old, and his skinny-boy body is wrapped in a white towel. Another towel is wrapped around his head, and he is teetering around our dirt-filled barrio backyard in mom's pointy-toed high heels, shaking his hips, tapping his elbows alternately, and singing loudly, "I'm Chiquita Banana!" The dancing banana, the stuttering José Jiménez, and the thickly accented Frito Bandito were among the few Latino images of any kind back in the 1960s. We weren't mature enough to recognize abject stereotypes or budding homosexuality. Even so, at the age of 8, I knew there was something different about my little brother. As children, we had shared a bunk bed, I on the top, he on the bottom, but he kept his secret from me for years.
When Jay was 16, mom found a stash of blue-boy magazines under my brother's mattress. We sat on his bed and leafed through them in morbid fascination. The scandalous discovery may or may not have been the impetus, but shortly after that, Jay emerged from the confines of his teenage closet. After a few weeks of brooding, mom recovered, and released him from his burdensome secret. I remember how happy my brother was after that. He could finally be himself. The day I left for college, just another media-saturated baby boomer bent on becoming a post-Watergate journalist, my brother leaned me over his arm and planted a brotherly kiss on my mouth. I can still see the impish glint in his hazel eyes. For the next 15 years, we popped in and out of each other's lives. Jay moved to New York to reinvent himself, and I bolted to South America, trying to outrun our sad-sack past.
On a summer day in 1992, my brother left us. He was only 32, but had been living with AIDS for years. My mother and sister were at his side as AZT burned through his veins in a last-ditch effort to save his life. I had just started a new job with the Associated Press in Denver, and my bureau chief, editors and the AP managers in New York had graciously agreed to let me go to my brother's bedside. Before I could leave, however, mom called to say my brother was tired of fighting. He was ready to die, and wanted to say goodbye to his big sister. I pressed the phone to my ear, and at first heard what sounded like incoherent mumbling. My feelings were pared to the bone, and all I could say again and again was, "I love you. I love you." My numb brain eventually began to make sense of my brother's responses. "I love you, too," Jay said weakly, again and again, as our hearts shattered across hundreds of miles of phone lines, and he went to sleep one last time. My AP colleagues fell quiet, time slowed down, and it seemed as if my pain were hovering over the newsroom like a heavy, invisible presence.
Ironically, bitterly, I visited the AP's world headquarters at 50 Rock in New York only a few weeks later. As I stood on a high-rise balcony one night, I breathed in the essence of the city that had made my brother happy for so many years. His city offered up the best version of itself: glittering skyscrapers, balmy air, and a star-filled night. I returned to my hotel room, and one of my brother's many friends called to regale me with stories that made us laugh and cry. He told me about the time he awoke to hear someone outside his building yelling in a slurred voice, "Hey, handsome, wanna come out and play?" He peeked out his window and there was my brother hanging onto a street lamp, all dolled up in drag. In another story, he knocked on my brother's apartment door, and heard a shuffle before the door opened slowly. My brother smiled brightly, but his painfully thin body was covered in shingles, and he was clinging to an IV pole.
I still can't watch "Philadelphia" or "Angels in America" without crying for my brother. I could have done more. Why wasn't I there for him? Why was I so wrapped up in my own life? You know, everyone says it of loved ones who have died, but it's really true in my brother's case: He was one of the best people I have ever known. He had a huge capacity to love. He was kind, gentle, forgiving and caring, and never judged people, not even our father. He was never arrogant about his talent, success, looks, money, lifestyle or sexual prowess. He called mom weekly, and remembered his brothers and sisters.
After he died, I went home and opened a book he had given me one Christmas. It was a copy of Tom Wolfe's "The Bonfire of the Vanities," a biting divina comedia humana detailing the financial and cultural excesses of 1980s New York. Tucked inside the thick 1987 novel was a postcard of the Brooklyn Bridge and the Lower Manhattan skyline at dusk. The cherished memento had made it all the way to South America, and back to Colorado. Scrawled on the back in my brother's flowery cursive were the words:
Hi from New York. I have just moved here from L.A. & I love it. I am doing fashions & interior designs & making a good name for myself. Please write.
All my love, Jay.
Here's to you, little brother, with all my love, again and again.
A version of this essay was published under the title "The Boy Who Danced in a Towel" at http://contacto-latino.com/