As an author, I chose to tell in this story my own idea of how Leon’s morning after the party might have played out, including going home to New York City. In actual fact, the last thing he said to anyone was asking Kimberly to look after Diego, and then the bell began to toll.
That terrible, terrible bell.
It was our signal to end roleplay, sit down, and be quiet. We were in a liminal space, still in touch with our characters but operating as players.
Two of the game organizers entered the room dressed in black suits and hats – the Bureaucrats of Death. Their job: to conduct the lottery that would determine which characters would die before the next year’s 4th of July party.
My experience as a player was complicated by the fact that our game did not have enough players to fill every role, and as a result some of the organizers were pulling double duty by also playing characters. The player of Rain was among them, which was the reason for the “early bus” conceit; he had to go wipe off makeup and put on a suit and get ready to destroy us.
In the first act, the Bureaucrats of Death were sad for the characters, for the world they represented who did not know the devastation AIDS was about to visit upon them. They handed out blank tickets and pens, and told us each to write our character’s name on at least one, and up to five, tickets, representing how risky we felt their behavior had been based on what we know today about the mechanisms by which AIDS is spread.
I still remember the sense of pride with which I scrawled “Leon” on five tickets. Leon lived hard, had lots of sex, did lots of drugs – the things someone like him was “supposed” to do at the time. I was defiant as I dropped my tickets into the hat. That was Leon before. He was on the edge of so many things about to happen: a comeback career, reconciliation with his son, finding love for the first time in his life. I didn’t know it yet, but Sorrento had decided to run for office and wanted Leon to join him in cleaning up their lives and making something out of their futures.
Those were the things in my mind as Pepper’s player – another organizer – began drawing names and the Bureaucrats told us to stand if ours was called. A bright future, my beautiful plans.
I don’t remember anymore who was called first. Only that Leon was second.
I remember the entire room gasping. I remember that tears were already flowing down my cheeks by the time I got to my feet. I remember avoiding the gaze of my friend Brand across the table, knowing I might not be able to keep standing if I peeked at his face. I stared at the Bureaucrats, the bringers of death, the only people so unfamiliar in that room that I might be able to look at them without completely falling apart.
When all the names were drawn, they told us to follow them and be silent.
We left the main cabin and walked down a grassy slope, stopping just before we would round a corner placing the funeral tent in view. I had helped erect that tent less than 24 hours earlier. It felt like a lifetime.
Another organizer awaited us, dressed in a long black skirt and velvet jacket, a fascinator pinned to their head so a black net veil covered their face. The Angel of Death. The Bureaucrats went on to the tent, leaving us in the Angel’s detached care. “Stand in a single file line,” they told us. “Do not look at each other. Do not speak.”
Somehow I had ended up at the front of the line. Not even the presence of another human figure ahead of me could bring me comfort, offer me an anchor to seize while I drowned in grief. The Angel stared impassively ahead. I shook in sobbing, silent misery.
Finally one Bureaucrat returned. “Come with me. Stay in line.”
Five coffins lay under the tent. Five signs lay inside them.
“Walk through the tent. If you see your name in a coffin, lie down inside it.”
Leon’s was the first name I saw. I’d known it would be.
It becomes redundant to say I was crying. I’m not sure I actually stopped crying from the moment I heard my name called until half an hour after I later re-emerged from that coffin. But if it was possible, I began to cry harder. I laid down.
“If your name was not in a coffin, you will have a brush with death in the coming year. You may go back up the hill now.”
I could see nothing but plywood and canvas and one incongruously blue strip of beautiful morning sky. I hadn’t even looked at who else had gotten into coffins. I didn’t know who was returning to life.
“We will now place two shrouds. If you are covered with a shroud, you will die of AIDS this year. If not, you have been infected with the virus but you do not know it yet.”
The Bureaucrats unfolded a shroud. I could see only enough to know that when it was open, they walked it away from me.
An endless time passed as I awaited the final shroud, and I found myself wondering: do I want to live? Or does Leon’s death become a symbol? Do I serve to catapult the stories of those I touched in my brief time here?
The Bureaucrats unfolded the second shroud, and it was with a feeling of inevitability that I watched them walk it over my coffin and drape me in stifling black.
“The rest of you may leave your coffins and rejoin your loved ones.”
Later, I would have the experience of being one of those who waited at the top of the hill, scanning the crowd with a sinking feeling as I looked for a loved one who had not returned. I can only imagine what it must have been like for the players of Diego, Sorrento, Enrique, and Skye to stand outside the cabin, to see others return and to look with desperate hope for me and for Simon, and to find neither.
There were a few more preparations for the Bureaucrats to make. They folded the shroud down from my face, and for a single disoriented moment I thought they had turned on a fog machine, as if we were entering Heaven, or Limbo. Then the fog began to clear and I realized it was my glasses – Leon’s glasses – clouded over with my own hot breath and tears. They placed a sign on my body, and started the music.
Then it was time for the mourners to arrive.
I can’t remember anymore the order in which they came. I kept my eyes open as they did, needing to see, needing to hear, needing to know that my death would matter. I remember Mr. T – they were back in character by then – kneeling by my coffin and saying, “You’ll always be the king to me.” He placed something with me that I couldn’t see; later I would learn it had been his heaviest and gaudiest gold ring.
I remember Diego laying a branch of leaves across me, and myself thinking, “He brought something big. That means something.” I remember dozens of others with small flowers and sad faces, holding each other as they realized how fragile we all truly were. How death waited at the end of every day, and could not be denied.
I remember Sorrento falling to his knees beside me, crying as he said, “He’s the only one who ever really saw me.” Those words, so closely echoing Leon’s feelings for Rain, shook me to my core.
And I remember my own anguish as I hoped and waited and prayed for the one face I needed most, the one voice I needed to hear speak his love and his sorrow, the one that would never come. I needed Rain. And because the player was an organizer, Rain couldn’t be there.
I still didn’t know, then, who lay in the other coffin. It wasn’t until the characters gathered outside the tent and the funeral began that I heard, “We are gathered here today in memory of Simon,” and it hit me that Rain, Enrique, Diego, Sorrento, and Skye were in the midst of having their entire world torn apart.
In Just a Little Lovin’, every day begins and ends by playing the eponymous song while the players stand frozen in place. When it ended we were supposed to break character, and I made it as far as sitting up before I came undone. I covered my face with both hands and cried so hard the rest of the world went silent.
I think it was Mo, though it might have been Rachel, and could just as easily have been both, who got their hands under my arms and helped me first to stand up, then to get one foot, then the other, out of my coffin. “You always die first,” Mo said with a little laugh, referring to when she had run I Say a Little Prayer in 2014, first planting within me the desire to play the full version of the game, and I as Daniel (aka Lady Verona) had been the first to go.
Mo and Rachel and Brand, the friends I had played ISaLP with that first time, held me for long minutes while sobs wrenched their way out of me. Finally Mo looked at my tear-ravaged face. “Who do you need?”
“Diego,” I choked out. “Sorrento.” I didn’t know their player names well enough yet to ask for them. “Rain.”
Rain’s player was there, but it wasn’t the same. The Bureaucrat looked too different, and the organizer had too many other duties that needed attention. “Man, Rain is going to be seriously fucked up after this,” I told him, then let him run off. The others hugged and held me while I tried to staunch my endless flow of tears.
“Melissa. Get me Melissa.”
My best friend, who played ISaLP both times that I’ve run it since my own first time in 2014 (once at my house, and once at a small local gaming event), who had come to JaLL because I talked her into it, wrapped me in her arms and got me back up the hill. Our characters, moving in entirely different social spheres, hadn’t even crossed paths the night before, and slowly I managed to tell her the shortest version I could manage of what the hell had happened to me. I cried a few more times. I sat down and tried to write about it in an email to my boyfriend, but I didn’t know how to even begin to explain why my heart was still lying in shreds in a plywood box.
But time marched on, and things had to be done. The game continued. I picked a new character, Francis, whom I would inhabit for the remaining two days. In a twist of dramatic irony, Simon’s player chose Artie, Francis’s best friend, and we two became lovers by the end. And I also know that he, like me, formed an attachment to his flawed first character that death would only serve to deepen.
I did my best with Francis, but Leon planted himself in my heart and set down roots that will never let go. Perhaps the funniest part is that I didn’t actually like him very much at the beginning; it was only when I began to understand his loneliness that I really let him in.
And that’s why I’m writing this blog: to let him finish telling me his own story. To remember what happened, and learn what didn’t. To let him know how important he remains to me. Because disco may have died, but for me, Leon never will.