I’m Marna Deitch. In 1980, I lost my parents and grandparents from different illnesses within two months. I was a stage actor in New York City, and I relied on my friends to replace the roots that were just ripped out from me.
We were all young actor/dancer/singers, hanging out at the piano bar with each other and dreaming of accepting our Tony Awards. One of my co-workers at the restaurant I worked at got very ill. I think it was 1981. At first, they didn’t know what it was that was making him waste away. And then they attached a name to it: GRID. Gay-Related Immune Deficiency.
They couldn’t help him. He died. It was a mystery.
The next year, they changed the diagnosis name to AIDS. More and more of my close friends were developing symptoms. Some died quickly, within a few months of diagnosis, and some lingered in a long painful fight. It wiped out the theater community in New York in the early ‘80s, and I lost most of my closest friends.
My high school in Long Island had a big theater department, where a lot of students felt comfortable with coming out, but we stayed friends after graduation. Paul and Steve were together in a monogamous relationship. One night they decided explore opening up their relationship, and they did, only that one night. I can’t remember who died first, but they both died within two years of that one night … and because of that one night.
Of all these losses, one of the most painful was that of Gene, one of my closest friends who disappeared for six weeks and was subsequently found floating in the Hudson River down by the World Trade Towers. George had been Gene’s lover of six years and our friendship went back to high school, where he was my date to prom.
Shortly after Gene’s death, George said to me, “You’re moving to California, aren’t you?” and he asked if he could come with me. I immediately said yes.
“How’d you like to go by motorcycle?” he asked.
I thought he was crazy. Neither one of us had even been a passenger on a bike! But I thought, what the hell, let’s do it. We were empty from all the losses. We had to do something dangerous to bring life back into us.
We took a few lessons and somehow passed our motorcycle road tests. The next day, we bought bikes, packed up and left New York City six weeks later. We left, even though George’s best friend from elementary school, Andy, was battling AIDS. And once we were on the road, I noticed that George wasn’t doing well. He was always tired.
We had planned to camp out on the road, but now he wanted to stay in motels. When we reached Texas, George decided he would head back to New York. I decided to go on to California by myself. And I got to California. By that summer, I turned around to ride back to New York. I wanted to see Andy before he passed, knowing that he was getting bad. But I didn’t make it, he died when I was in Colorado.
And then, soon after, I lost my very closest friend, Kenny. The AIDS went to his brain, causing him to become paranoid. To this day, Kenny’s death was the hardest for me, even harder than the deaths of my parents. It was Kenny who got me through my parents’ funerals and the grief that followed. And now he was gone.
At the March on Washington, D.C. in 1987, I was there for the unfurling of the Names Project and found the quilts for friends who I had lost touch with and were now dead. I left California for a six-week motorcycle road trip and returned home to discover that I lost more friends from AIDS, men who weren’t even sick when I had left.
What I didn’t know on first that cross-country motorcycle trip from New York to California was that George was HIV positive. He had only two or three more years to live. I still have that motorcycle and I had George’s initials painted onto the tank.
But I feel like that motorcycle was their last gift to me. My parents, George, Gene, Kenny, Steve, Paul — it’s like they all said that they weren’t going to be here with me to share my life, so they were going to give me this incredible life to live.
Because of their gift, I have now traveled cross country five times by motorcycle, twice up to the Arctic circle and back, and flew to Hawaii where I rented a bike and road around the Big Island, in order to finally say I have rode my bike through all 50 states.
I have gotten so much recognition because of the motorcycle, which only came into my life because of this pain and loss. I miss them all greatly. But I also know this life I live is because of them and a tribute to them.