Once, in a happier time, Linda and I were going to make a movie.
We figured it would be a TV production, something for the networks or cable. It was movie-of-the-week material, a triumphant tear-jerker about a woman in peril, the woman being Linda. Still, as we dined under the stars one warm evening in Santa Monica, we couldn't help but indulge our big-screen fantasies. "When Harry Met Sally" found its way into our conversation. I suggested that Meg Ryan should play our heroine.
Linda smiled and laughed and I think she blushed. Meg would do.
The part required someone who was attractive, smart, vibrant. A girl-next-door type, but also a free spirit. And she'd have to exhibit something more--the quality of grace under pressure. Linda Luschei, after all, was adventurous enough to have placed this ad in the personals of the L.A. Weekly:
\o7 LOVEABLE, PRETTY BLONDE blue-eyed SWF, 33, intelligent, warm, funny. I'm HIV-positive, seeking together SWM for platonic or other relationship. Call . . . *\f7 More than two years have passed since I met Linda. I was covering AIDS and working on a story about HIV in the "straight" community.
I was astonished when Linda told me that 60 men had left 72 messages--less so that some of the calls were "creepy." Linda ultimately met about 10 callers, and dated two so steadily that her friends dubbed one "Friday" and the other "Saturday." One was HIV-positive, the other wasn't.
She had placed the ad for the most common of reasons. Linda wanted love in her life--and she was determined that HIV wouldn't cheat her of a second chance.
Her movie, you see, would have opened with a scene at the Hard Rock Cafe at the Beverly Center. A stranger would notice Linda's easy smile and approach. "You look like the only woman here who isn't pretending to have a good time," Michael would say. Two years later, the newlyweds would be living outside New York in a home with a white picket fence.
Happily ever after seemed within reach. But shortly after their wedding, Michael became gravely ill. A test found him to be carrying the AIDS virus; the next day he died. A hospital later determined that Michael had been infected via transfusion before blood was tested for HIV. When Linda was tested, she was found to be infected as well.
The virus remains a stigma, but that was more true in 1985. For years, Linda kept her condition a secret from all but a few confidantes. But divulging the truth proved liberating.
Linda became an activist. In 1991, she teamed with her friend Ann Copeland, who is also HIV-positive, to establish Women at Risk, an HIV-education and support agency based in Culver City. Linda urged persons not to let HIV cloud the good in life.
I wrote an article about Linda, and the calls started coming. Several producers wanted the rights to her story. Linda was excited and she asked me to help prepare a script. We were no longer a reporter and subject. We'd become friends.
Linda signed with a producer who had a good reputation. We did a "pitch meeting" at CBS Television City, but that's about as far as our movie got.
We drifted our separate ways. A couple of months ago, I left a message for her at Women at Risk. Ann called me back.
The good news was that Linda had found the love she was seeking. Ann had introduced her to Stephen Jay Hunio, who is also HIV-positive. In March, Linda and Stephen were married.
The bad news was that, a year earlier, Linda had developed AIDS. It was only three days after the wedding that a stroke sent her to the hospital.
Linda Luschei Hunio, age 36, died June 4, surrounded by loved ones. The memorial was last Friday in a little chapel at Forest Lawn in Glendale. We listened to "Turn, Turn, Turn" and an old Cat Stevens song from the movie "Harold and Maude." We placed sunflowers, Linda's favorite, on her casket. The sadness of losing Linda was leavened by the joy of having known her.
The other day, her father, Martin Luschei, faxed me an article she'd written for an HIV newsletter in the summer of '93.
"You know my type," it began. "I'm the long-term survivor of HIV, the trouper with the great attitude who speaks to groups and media about my experiences living with this disease. It's been eight years. . . . I have more energy than most uninfected people I know. I speak and write and hold down more than one job. I use my life as an example that a perfectly productive life is possible even with HIV."
She then explained how AIDS was threatening her eyesight.
Linda had long understood that the virus would probably lead to her death, but she refused to let it ruin her life.
Nobody played the role better.