Magic Johnson has taken away our denial. He is not Rock Hudson or Liberace, whose homosexuality gave us distance. He is not Max Robinson, about whom there were drug rumors. He is Magic Johnson, who was our vision of eternal youth and health and joy.
If he has been struck by this virus that brings on AIDS, then all of us must move past our denial stage. It's been with us for a decade now. It's how we tell ourselves that we're safe from this disease: It's always somebody else, some other group, those gays or those drug abusers, those people whose lives are different from yours and mine.
But now it's Magic, who was our gladdest vision of ourselves. Now it's Magic, who strode like a god through the heterosexual bastion of professional basketball. Now it's Magic, eight weeks after marrying his long-time girlfriend.
Now it's Magic, only all of the magic has fled.
Every month in the mail there are numbers: the Maryland AIDS Update, the arithmetic of anguish. On it are statistical breakdowns of all sorts. AIDS cases broken down by gender, by race, by age, by geography. AIDS cases by exposure category: men who have sex with other men, IV drug abusers, male IV drug abusers who have sex with other men, transfusion recipients, hemophiliacs.
And this one: heterosexual contact.
Always, the numbers have been small.
In the 10 years since they've been tracking AIDS cases in this country, there are about 120,000 people who have died from the disease, plus far more people still alive with active cases. In the state of Maryland, in 10 years, there are 62 males and 139 females whose cases are traced to heterosexual contact and nothing else. Since Jan. 1 of this year, fewer than 30.
And each month, when the numbers reach this office, they are passed around by people anxious to put distance between themselves and the possibility of contagion.
''Look,'' someone will say, ''only two heterosexual white men.''
''Look,'' someone else will say, ''60 percent gay men and 24 percent IV drug users and 6 percent IV drug abusing males who have sex with other males. That's 90 percent. I'm statistically negligible.''
We use the numbers for distance, only now there is Magic Johnson who takes away all of our distance. He is not a number, he is someone we know, someone healthy and hetero, someone who could be any one of us.
And so he takes away our national state of perpetual denial, our sense that it's always going to be somebody else. If it's Magic, then it could be anybody.
''I plan on going on, living for a long time,'' he said last week at the news conference where he announced his retirement. What a bizarre week: In an act of unabashed and incredibly bad-timed public obscenity, Wilt Chamberlain announces he's slept with 20,000 women -- but Magic Johnson's the guy who pays the ultimate sexual price.
And what a strange news conference. Johnson smiled like a man with a future, proclaiming his good health, talking of pursuing dreams of one day owning his own professional basketball team.
''I'm gonna be a happy man,'' he said. ''Life goes on. . . . This is not like my life is over. It's not.''
And he smiled that glittery smile of his, and you asked yourself: Does he understand? Or, as he drags the nation out of its prolonged state of denial, has he simultaneously entered one of his own?
On a cable news show the other night, there were shots of Max Robinson, the network news anchor who died from AIDS complications. The shots took us through the stages of his life and dying: young and handsome here, beginning to look drawn and tired there, and gradually the disease having its way with him.
We never knew about Max Robinson until the end, nor about Rock Hudson or Liberace. Likewise, the choreographer Michael Bennett, and the Redskins' Jerry Smith, and the attorney Roy Cohn. There was still too much shame attached to the disease, too much sense of the victim as social pariah.
In his gesture of openness last week, Magic Johnson took that away. He could have announced his retirement, said his legs were too banged up, said his heart wasn't in it anymore. We would have believed him.
Instead, he gave us truth. And in that truth, he makes us confront not only his mortality but our own.
''Sometimes you're naive,'' Johnson said. ''You think it couldn't happen to you, only to other people.''
Now we know better.
The age of random sex is over, except for those suicidally bent. But maybe the new age means confronting this disease at last, admitting that each of us is vulnerable. Categories of victims no longer matter, it's time to stop turning our backs.
We turned our backs because we wanted emotional distance. We wanted room to deny. But Magic Johnson has a virus, and the age of denial is over.