The last time I wasn’t afraid of the dark
Words by Shonquis Moreno




I can’t remember much of the years 1982, 1983, 1984, but I can still feel them. I feel sorry to have forgotten so much and sorry to have wanted to forget so much...

I was 11 and 12, the second daughter of two librarians living in a little town where San Francisco could be conjured out of the fog at midday, ten minutes away over the Golden Gate Bridge. The City lay at the border of the mysterious thrilling rest of the world, where my mother took me to watch ballet at the opera house and where I squirmed through operas with my father. But sometimes he took me to the Castro, too, where the sidewalks sparkled with mica and cowboys filled the streets in various states of undress, kissing each other with abandon. I remember thinking that that was joy. And it seemed contagious.

I am writing this decades later — I am always writing this, in New York, in Washington, D.C., in Amsterdam and Istanbul — where the moon reminds me of the moons that woke me in the middle of the night when I was little and my father was still living in the house with us. In those days, light would pour like an X-ray through the Chinese elm, through the window, through my eyelids, waking me, and I would feel terrified for no reason at all. I wanted to run into my parents’ room next door, but I didn’t dare stand up. I imagined that the floor had fallen away, and that if I stepped out of bed, I would fall without landing. I thought: Breathe very quietly. I thought: Lie very still. But my breathing moved me. My heartbeat moved me. And I imagined that each movement put me in greater jeopardy. I could hear nothing outside, no wind chimes, no cars on the freeway at the end of our street, none of the dogs barking, just my quickening breath, the pulse in my ear against the sheet. Finally I would dash into my parents’ room, throw myself into the bed between them and go slack with relief, waiting for my father to tell me that the monsters in my dreams, and presumably in my room, would disappear if I would just look them in the face.

My mother used to dream of flying. Me, I’ve never had a flying dream. In most of my dreams, I’m falling. The closest I get to flying is falling just short of horizontal, falling and falling until the long moment anticipating death becomes a deadness itself. I have a lot of bad dreams, a few every night, and they’re all askew with hackneyed details: overripe plums burst open at the foot of the tree, warrens of rooms that I can’t find my way out of, running and running with nothingness at my back. My father taught me to be a meticulous observer of my dreams and I wanted to believe him, but in my family we never looked our monsters in the face. We never even admitted that there were any monsters there at all.

Later, I would look back and wonder at how long it took me to notice the purpling blisters of the lesions, like plums bursting with ripeness, just beneath his left ear. No matter how long I looked at them, however, his theory would always fail me. My fears would take up residence in the dark and multiply virally in all the things I knew that I pretended not to know. But long before that, lying next to my father, I was bold, I was brave, I was safe.




During his first stay in the hospital, the doctors warned us that we should not touch any of his bodily fluids, which meant that I should not touch his tears. While he was dying — he was sick for over a year — he lay in a bed as narrow as a crib. Tubes ran like vines up his arms, their elasticity obscene beside his brittleness. I didn’t go to the hospital very often — my father was a very proud man — but when I did visit, the hospital scared me. Colours looked ready to expire: jaundiced yellows, disinfected whites, browns without enough brown. It was one temperature all the time, everything refrigerated, as if to retard the spoiling process. Objects there had an impossible weight: leaden walls, linoleum floors, cement sills. Beside them, my father could be blown away like dandelion seeds, but his hand was too heavy to raise to my face.

The hospital room framed that summer in cement, the sky spitefully blue, balding hills burnt to a blonde stubble by the sun and parched with drought. Inside, my father was chapped all over, skin flaking like ash. There were moments when I couldn’t recognise him or remember that he was still there, inside a body desiccated down to its scrotum. From the bed, reclining was an effort, pulling breath from the air to make words, an effort. His black hair had gone white; the moons on his meticulously manicured cuticles had waxed and risen. Only his eyes remained familiar, except for the rare times, in the midst of this drought, when he cried.

In my family, there had been drought — a lack of communication that we thought of as self-reliance — for as long as I could remember, but he had always looked lush. Where my mother, ascetic and vegetarian, recused herself beside him, he crushed me with hugs. He chewed thick slabs of chocolate cake as if they were steak and, on weekend mornings, cooked bacon breakfasts that spat out of the pan. But this withering sickness took us by surprise. A nurse would help him into the bathroom where, behind a closed door, the pain would find a hole in the painkillers and a sound would issue from his core. More than anything, it was a sound of astonishment, I imagined, at this wholesale failure of his body. My mother and I never mentioned it. Mostly, I was filled with embarrassment at how embarrassed I felt for him, for us, for me. This illness was too intimate.

All of this happened a couple of years after the divorce, which was pragmatic and amicable — I didn’t realise that my mother had been hurt or how much — when he’d seemed so healthy: drinking and bitterness had been replaced with relief and renewal. And then, after living as himself for the first time in his life — and for only a moment — he fell doggedly ill with what would soon be called a plague. The illness was a mystery and when at last he was diagnosed,  it became a mystery closeted in an acronym. I couldn’t keep the plus and minus straight then, and I still have to think twice about it today.

One night around this time, I can picture us standing beside the kitchen sink with dusk filling the room because no one had turned on the lights for the evening. He is telling me, in words I can’t remember, that he is gay and HIV positive. He seems shaken, maybe afraid, definitely exposed, all of which had been unimaginable to me just a few minutes ago. I am glad the room is dark. I can think of nothing to say or do that could possibly give him the slightest comfort.

And after that, everything is the same and nothing is the same. For a couple of years, he took me to the Gay Pride parade, and as his date, to what I thought of as ‘father’s nights’ in the city where I followed him as we danced, standing on his feet. This was all normal when I was with him, but something to deny at slumber parties. I was aware of a stigma surrounding who he was, but we lived in one of the most liberal pockets of the country, during one of the most liberal moments in human history. I found it difficult to embrace the lie we told — that he was sick with cancer — when I believed there was no reason for the lie.

In the hospital, while my mother read poems to him from a book about horses, I felt like a spectator, mildly bored, wishing I could slip away at the first opportunity. He wrote poetry, himself. He also wrote opaquely cerebral stage plays, performed Guignol-meets-Baudrillard puppet shows in a theater he constructed from papier-mâché, made ‘Japanese’ fans from paper collages and driftwood, and shot 8-track films on soft brown tape wound around clear reels. In one, a young man is walking naked along a beach. For whole minutes, he is walking away in silence, the tide inside of him under the pull, perhaps, of some secret moon. The surf breaks against sand, the sun burns down and the sky is a kiln that seems to make the clay of the man stronger, until the end when — I imagined, because it wasn’t in the film — it broke him.

Toward the end, when my father’s bones showed through the hospital gown, he told me that he was dying. I suspected already that he was gone into this struggle inside himself, but mostly I was worried about not touching his tears. He said, “two months”, but I was afraid to kiss him. Not knowing what was contagious, everything was. While I was on a camping trip, he mailed me a greeting card embossed with the scales of a portly dragon standing under a too-small umbrella in a downpour that fell only on him. Inside, the painkillers made his cursive loopy, but they did not make it uncertain: “The doctors say two months.”

I don’t think he had quite that long, but I don’t remember saying goodbye, if we ever did. The night that his lungs were filling with fluid from the pneumonia, I was traveling with a friend’s family in the Albuquerque desert. I ate half a discount store birthday cake and, after finding a cockroach above my bed that I thought might fall on me in the darkness, kept the lights blazing until morning. No one called me that night, but on my return the next day, my mother told me that, as I understood it, my father had drowned. To comfort me, she said that he’d chosen his time to die. If he chose his time to die, I thought, why didn’t he wait for me?

Afterward, we rarely spoke of him. Not of his lie to her, or her lies to herself, not of her grief at losing him twice or of our campaign of misinformation, which betrayed him and the things we believed in. She generously tolerated the myth I was making of him, the Good Father, and remained a stranger to me in both her grievances and her grief. I would catch myself listening for the jangle of his keys in the door, or the particular weight of his step on the stairs, or his voice on the phone when I picked up. But I could not see, feel, or hear his absence and the only thing I seemed to feel was remorse for rarely feeling anything at all. I could cry neither for the loss of my father nor for my father’s loss.

Later, my mother found some peace in a dream she had in which my father flew over her, smiling and free of pain. Instead, through my waking hours, I alternated between feeling numb and conscience-stricken:  “I’m so sorry”, people would say, not knowing what to say. And then, their curiosity getting the best of them: “What kind of cancer?” I had been dreaming the same dream over and over again: I would awake in the viscous nighttime of my room, rigid with fear, unable to move, every part of my body hyper-vigilant. Only after eternal moments, when my eyes had adjusted to the dark, would I discover my father standing silently in the doorway. Invariably, he would refuse to enter, his face, in the moonlight, a thick white paste of rage.

By the end, he had hardly seemed the amaranthine father who had raised me from sleep, chubby four-year-old, and held me up to the sky, flying, as the moon was swallowed up in the Earth’s shadow. That was, perhaps, the last time I remember not feeling afraid of the dark. And in my memory, he remains immeasurable — not just larger than life, but a quantity of which I can take no measure.


Shonquis is a writer and design consultant based between Istanbul, San Francisco and Brooklyn. This essay first appeared on TheRecollectors.com, a storytelling site dedicated to remembering parents lost to AIDS. shonquismoreno.com


This feature was first published in Issue Two of SATORI. To explore issue one further click here.


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