Last Updated on March 23, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 588
"The Way We Live Now" comprises a series of conversations as a large network of friends share information and express concern about one of their friends, an anonymous character who is showing symptoms of an unnamed disease. The story opens with several characters describing these symptoms. They also point out that he must be frightened because he has quit smoking and put off a doctor's appointment. They discuss the panic that has spread among their circle of sophisticated gay, straight, and bisexual Manhattanites about the spreading AIDS epidemic. Although the struggle of this unnamed patient is the focus of the story, his experiences and struggle are narrated exclusively through their observations and descriptions. He remains nameless through the course of the story, only described as a sophisticated urbanite, a collector who lives in the penthouse of a pretentious apartment building in Manhattan. He lived a "risky" lifestyle before his illness—smoking, using drugs, and having unprotected sex with men and women. His circle of friends becomes a "family he's founded without meaning to."
As his friends visit him in the hospital, where he has been diagnosed with AIDS, they reflect on how the man's illness has changed their own lives and relationships to one another. Although his friends are named in the story, they are not defined clearly as characters. Instead, they are identified in relation to their connection with the patient. In a symbolic way, they represent the spectrum of society and its responses to the disease. There are twenty-six characters in all, besides the patient, and each one begins with a distinctive letter of the alphabet.
As the patient moves back home from the hospital, the focus of his friends' conversation turns to other things. They compare the conditions of living with AIDS to what it was a few years earlier, when less was known about the disease and there was more prejudice and hysteria. A friend from out of town says that the "utopia of friendship" that they have formed around the man in his illness is "rather beautiful." Another friend comments, "We are the family he's founded, without meaning to." A third objects to this collective identity, and they all discuss the differences between the man's responses to various visitors.
The man improves and informs the friend staying with him that he no longer needs his help. The friends hear about two other acquaintances that have been stricken with AIDS. They think it is best to keep the news from him. They talk about how life has changed for all of them, how none of them do the same things or take life for granted since the spread of AIDS. Soon after, another member of their immediate social circle is diagnosed, a fact that they also withhold from him.
The man's health appears relatively stable. Tensions and competition among his friends increase. The man takes their attention for granted. He begins to have fewer visitors. The man has a relapse. Facing death, he talks about his feelings of fear and exaltation. One of his friends comes up with the idea of a "visiting book" with a schedule for visitors, limiting the number to two at a time. The tension between the friends eases up in the face of the man's latest brush with death. His condition stabilizes and he is out of danger of not recovering from this particular downturn. Friends observe that he has become more detached. His death from the disease seems inevitable, but as the story ends he is still alive.
Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 688
The AIDS Patient
The unnamed AIDS patient is the focus of the story. Diagnosed with AIDS, he is the subject of his friends' concern. His struggle with the illness is narrated exclusively through their observations and descriptions.
The man is described as a sophisticated urban-ite, a collector who lives in the penthouse of a pretentious apartment building in Manhattan. He lived a "risky'' lifestyle before his illness—smoking, using drugs, and having unprotected sex with men and women. His circle of friends becomes a ‘‘family he's founded without meaning to.’’
Aileen has a close but somewhat ambiguous relationship with the AIDS patient. She rarely visits him and considers herself as a coward because of her behavior. She speculates that he is attracted to her, but others speculate that she is in love with him.
Betsy is a friend of the AIDS patient. She recommends a diet specialist to help him fight the disease, but he declines her offer.
Clarice is Zack's widow and part of the AIDS patient's larger social circle.
Donny is a close friend of the AIDS patient.
Ellen is a close friend of the AIDS patient.
A close friend of the AIDS patient, Frank is a gay man who volunteers at an AIDS crisis center. He has a falling out with Lewis, which signals the rise of tensions among the man's friends and visitors.
Greg is a friend of the AIDS patient.
Hilda is a close friend of the AIDS patient.
Ira is a close friend of the AIDS patient.
Jan is a close friend of the AIDS patient.
Kate plays a ‘‘big sister’’ role in the AIDS patient's life.
An ex-lover of the AIDS patient, Lewis ‘‘still has the keys to his apartment." He is at the fringe of the circle of friends. Once he finds out that the AIDS patient is sick, he starts to visit him regularly.
Max is a friend of the AIDS patient. He is described as one of the circle of friends "most at risk’’ and, during the course of the man's illness, he too is diagnosed with AIDS.
Nora is the estranged ex-lover of the AIDS patient. The only woman the AIDS patient ever loved, she now lives far away, and he has not told her about his diagnosis.
Orson is a friend of the AIDS patient.
A friend and ex-lover of the AIDS patient, Paolo is described as one of the people most at risk of getting sick.
Quentin is both a close friend and ex-lover of the AIDS patient. He is fiercely protective of his ill friend and, according to some, keeps a tally of who does most for him. Quentin moves in with him to help him when he gets out of the hospital and comes up with the system of a "visiting book'' to regulate the stream of visitors when he returns to the hospital.
Considered a friend of the AIDS patient, Robert has only visited him twice since the man's diagnosis.
Stephen is a close friend of the AIDS patient. Out of the circle of friends, he has the most knowledge about medicine and the treatments for AIDS. He asks the doctors ‘‘informed questions.’’
Tanya is a close friend and ex-lover of the AIDS patient.
Ursula is a friend of the AIDS patient.
A friend of the AIDS patient, Victor recommends a ‘‘visualization therapist,’’ a kind of alternative medicine based on the mind-body connection.
Wesley is a friend of the AIDS patient.
Xavier is a close friend of the AIDS patient. He brings a statue of Saint Sebastian to him at the hospital as a protection against pestilence.
A friend of the AIDS patient, Yvonne flies to New York from London for business and spends the weekend visiting him. She tells his friends that the attitude towards AIDS in the United States is less fearful and hysterical than it is in Britain.
Zack was an acquaintance of the AIDS patient. He died of AIDS the previous year.
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