Geography of the Heart maps love story of two men

Fenton Johnson called two women on Mother's Day. One was his own mother, a provincial but open-hearted Catholic woman who has spent virtually all her life in a small hill town near the Appalachians in Kentucky.

The other woman was Kathy Rose of Santa Monica, a German Jew, a Holocaust survivor, the mother of a man Fenton had loved and had seen die.

"Larry [Rose] and I were children of two different, great historical moments," Johnson writes in his latest book, "Geography of the Heart," a memoir about falling in love with a Jewish man and watching him die of AIDS.

"He was a son of the traumatic dislocations of twentieth century Europe. I was a son of the great migration from the farms to the cities that in those same years emptied the American countryside."

Johnson, an award-winning novelist and frequent contributor to The New York Times Magazine — as well as a creative writing teacher at San Francisco State University — writes a story of two men from opposite corners of American culture. He describes himself as an independent, congenial son of Kentucky. Rose is Jewish, thriftless, emotionally daring.

"Larry was accepting of his fate, and so was able to be philosophical about it," said Johnson, who lives in San Francisco. "I think being Jewish played a role in that — also, being raised by Holocaust survivors. It gave him that gift, an appreciation of what you have in the hand rather than what's around the corner."

Johnson was HIV-negative when he met Rose in 1987 and remains so. Despite the risks of becoming involved with a man with a fatal, comunicable disease, the two eventually moved in together. Fenton took care of Rose through his illness.

With only three years together, they never got beyond the honeymoon stage, Johnson said.

"I know couples who have been together a long time," Johnson said. Those other couples had made peace with grief. "But at the time of his death, I was as much in love with him as any time. We had no time to grow beyond that stage."

Yet Johnson says "Geography of the Heart" is more than a love story; it's a political book. "To love someone deeply and without reserve is a political act. It commits you to their well-being without qualifications."

The relationship was inextricably bound with the issue of AIDS. It marks the episode Johnson cites as a critical moment in their relationship — when he could tell Rose his greatest fear and not worry that it would end their relationship.

His greatest fear was that Rose would infect him with HIV, then die and leave him alone.

Rose finally died in a hospital in Paris in October 1990. They had gone to Europe together, knowing it would probably be their last trip.

Reflecting upon what held them together, Johnson said, "I like to think that one of the things we had in common was having roots in religions that maintain respect for mystery.

"Catholics and Jews, as apart from Protestants, have a greater respect for the workings of the mysteries of life," he added. Rather than emphasizing how people help shape their destiny, "Jews and Catholics make a healthy room for unpredictability."

But they have one other thing in common in "Geography of the Heart" — a tradition of hospitality, of joining together across all boundaries.

"We were attracted to each other by our superficial differences, then bound by a mutual understanding of the depth and layerings and resonances of our complex, stratified cultures, each laden with traditions of hospitality, friendship, and ritual," Johnson writes.

"Matzah balls or hush puppies — in the end the recipe doesn't much matter. What matters is the mere presence of the table of those doughy, bland balls, the living presence of the shaping hand of history."