The Way We Live Now

by Susan Sontag

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The plight of an unnamed victim of acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS) is told entirely through the voices of his friends. They observe his first reactions to his illness—denying that he has it and delaying a trip to the doctor for the blood test that will establish his condition definitively. Each friend reacts differently to the man’s dilemma. Some sympathize with his state of denial; others worry that he is not seeking medical attention early enough. Aileen thinks of herself, wondering if she herself is at risk. She doubts it, but her friend Frank reminds her that AIDS is a totally unprecedented illness; no one can be sure they are not vulnerable. Stephen hopes the man realizes he has options; he should not consider himself totally helpless at the onset of the disease.

When the man is hospitalized, Ursula says that he has received the AIDS diagnosis almost with relief after his months of anxiety. Friends wonder how to treat him. They decide to indulge him with the things he likes, such as chocolate. They visit him frequently, and his mood seems to lighten.

Does he really want to see so many people? Are they doing the right thing by visiting him so frequently? Aileen asks. Ursula is sure they are; she is certain that he values the company and is not judging people’s motives. Friends such as Stephen question the man’s doctor, trying to assess the gravity of each stage of the illness. The doctor is willing to treat the man with experimental drugs, but she tells Stephen that the chocolate might bolster his friend’s spirit and do as much good as anything else. Stephen, who has followed all the recent efforts to treat the disease, is disconcerted by this old-fashioned advice.

Kate shudders when she realizes that the man’s friends have started talking about him in the past tense, as if he has already died. Several friends suspect that their visits are palling on him, while other friends argue that he has come to expect their daily presence. There is a brief respite from anxiety as the man’s friends welcome him home from the hospital and observe that he is putting on weight. Xavier thinks they should stop worrying about how their visits affect him; they are getting as much out of trying to help him as he is. They realize that they are dreading the possibility that they might also get the disease, that it is just a matter of time before they or their friends succumb to it. Betsy says that these days everybody is worried about everybody, that just seems to be the way people live now.

The man’s friends think about how he has managed his life. He practiced unsafe sex, saying it was so important to him that he would risk getting the disease. Betsy thinks he must feel foolish now, like someone who kept on smoking cigarettes until he contracted a fatal disease. When it happens to you, Betsy believes, you no longer feel so fatalistic; you feel instead that you have been reckless with your life. Lewis angrily rejects her thinking, pointing out that AIDS infected people long before they knew they needed to take precautions. Their friend might have been more prudent and still have caught AIDS. Unlike cigarettes, all that is needed is one exposure to the disease.

Friends report the various phases of the man’s reaction to the disease. He is afraid to sleep because it is too much like dying. Some days he feels so good that he thinks he can beat the disease. Other days he thinks that the disease has given him a remarkable experience. He likes all the attention he is getting. It gives him a sort of distinction and a following. Some friends find his temperament softened and sweetened; others reject this attitudinizing about him as sentimental. Each friend clings stubbornly to a vision of him, the story ending with Stephen’s insistent statement, “He’s still alive.”

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