Who knows what hearts and souls have in them? On the answering machine a message from Victor, who tells me when I call him that Paul, my lover for two years before I met Alexis, is sick. There exists a special tone of voice, now, for illness, that marks the difference between sick and dying.
I’ve heard that he’s sick.
And so this body whose secret parts were my main pleasure in life for longer than anyone else’s transforms itself into a fount of contagion. Paul passes over into the territory of no-longer-quite-alive, and I calculate that if he got it five years ago, the general incubation period, he must have been infectious on each of the 50 or 60 occasions when we slept together, giving me a much better than average chance of being infected.
He wants to see you. He’s asked for you.
I haven’t seen Paul in over a year. One day I saw him on the street with the man he’s been living with, a tall gangly person with glasses and bleach blond hair that falls to his shoulders, a silly-looking man, whereas Paul has a rugged, packed look about him and that face, the map of Macedonia. We said hello goodbye very pleasantly and I considered that if he hadn’t had a continual need to fuck all over town we might’ve moved in together and had a normal relationship, if there is such a thing. He liked having someone at home, waiting for him. I never could wait for people. Victor says, he came back from abroad and his roommate found him the next morning bleeding from the mouth.
Maybe it’s because we didn’t love each other that we broke off without any rancor, without even really breaking off. We met every three or four nights in the corner bar, the one near my house where I still sometimes drink with Victor. Paul and I never made dates or anything, and some nights we saw each other there but went home with other people, if Paul didn’t feel like doing it with me he would say: let’s get together real soon.
How long has he been sick.
We stopped sleeping together when people still referred to gay cancer and thought it came from using poppers. For a long time I moved back and forth from Europe, each time I returned the thing had become more of a subject, I heard of this one and that one getting pneumonia and fading out. Paul said once: It’s getting scary, it’s getting close. He’d met Jason years ago and they had made love once in a while, Paul told me, when it wasn’t you it usually was him, and then he and Jason moved into Cornelia Street, signing a joint lease, which was practically marriage.
They’ve had him in the hospital for two weeks.
At first the people who died were people I hardly knew, or people from earlier lives who’d been in a lot of the same rooms, their deaths were disconcerting but seemed to happen on a distant planet. At first people would say: well, he must have been leading a secret life, taking all kinds of drugs and going to the Mineshaft. Because at first, most people who got ill did seem the same ones who never finished an evening at 4:00 AM, piled into taxis together when the regular bars closed. And then of course there was this other thing with needles, if it spread by blood and sperm, people who used needles would naturally get it.
The worst thing is, I can’t feel anything for Paul. I’m too scared for myself.
But you’ll go see him, I hope.
Of course I will.
Except that I am, in this particular business, a bigger coward than I’d like to be. Victor and I used to drink with Perkins when Perkins turned up in the bar, and Perkins got ill, I didn’t go to the hospital, he had one bout of pneumonia and the now-familiar remission, and Chas, who lives in a building behind my building, called raising money to get Perkins a color TV, since he had to stay in all the time, and I never gave it, I promised to, in the early autumn, and one mild afternoon I saw Perkins at Astor Place, looking all of his 54 years which he never had previously, he said, Call me sometime, and the next I heard it went into his brain and they brought him into St. Vincent’s raving, Victor went four or five times, I said, My God, Victor, what do you say?
The thing is, Victor said, When he feels all right he doesn’t feel as if he’s dying, the worst thing is acting morbid and stricken about it. You just go have a normal conversation with him. But it’s too late now because he isn’t lucid for more than a few minutes during any given visit. At first he’s his old self and then he babbles.
I never thought I’d be so chickenshit about anything.
But this new situation, with Paul, what does it mean? And with Gregory?
Another thing about Perkins: he had, for a time, a comely Irish lover named Mike, a slender boy with soft brown eyes and a small wisp of a moustache, they were together for a while and then they weren’t. Mike fucked everything that walked, one night we found ourselves using the toilet in Nightbirds when it was still an afterhours joint and I let him piss in my mouth, then we screwed at my place the whole next day in every conceivable position. He called a few days later and warned me his doctor thought he had Hepititis B, as it happened I’d just had a typhoid shot for my visa to Thailand and got a bad reaction, my pee turned red, then it passed on and Mike phoned just before I left to say his results had been negative.
Mike moved to California and Hawaii for several months and when he came back he lived with Perkins again but soon after that he started looking spectral and then stopped going out and then everyone heard that he had it and a few months later everyone heard that he died. That was four years before Perkins came down with it and when Perkins came down with it he told everyone he was sure he got it from Mike, though how Perkins could be sure, since Perkins took it up the can as often as possible from anyone available, was a mystery. Yet he insisted that Mike had been the source.
Until now Mike has been the only person I know I’ve slept with who later died from it and I used to think that because I recovered from the typhoid shot, which I got after I slept with him, that meant I hadn’t caught it from him, and I also rationalized that maybe Mike caught it in California or Hawaii and then gave it to Perkins when he moved back to New York, in which case Perkins’s incubation period may have only been a year or two, or rather four years, I keep getting dates mixed up, I went to Thailand in ’81 and I think I’d already stopped sleeping with Paul, so if I didn’t get it from Mike possibly I didn’t get it from Paul either. But with Mike I could only have been exposed once, and some people think that repeated exposure is necessary for the virus to take hold, so if it had only been Mike I could now feel fairly confident though how can anyone who ever did anything with anybody feel at all confident and with Paul, of course, the case is very different, his dong has been in every hole in my body hundreds of times squirting away like the Trevi Fountain, I’ve rimmed him too and once when he cut his finger chopping up some terrible cocaine he bought in the Spike I even sucked his blood.
Now, of course, everyone’s conscious about the problem, but as somebody said in the paper the horses are out of the barn, how can you possibly know if, back in the days of unfettered casual screwing, someone you met by chance and screwed and never saw again wasn’t a carrier? Not that I had so many in the last years, but they don’t really know if numbers are important, even if I don’t have it I probably have the antibodies and if I have the antibodies I’m probably a carrier. So if I do it with Gregory I risk infecting him. And then, I don’t know about Gregory, either. He says he hasn’t taken heroin in five years, but junkies who do actually manage to kick usually muck up several times before they get off it, maybe five years isn’t so precise, in addition to that Gregory looks like a magazine cover and I can’t imagine he hasn’t satisfied all his sexual appetites regularly, in fact he’s alluded to various dark periods of the past, hinted that when he used drugs he did some hustling here and there, he’s so well-spoken and smart it’s hard to imagine him peddling his dick on the street but who knows what people will do. Anyway, I threw myself at him in less than a second after seeing that face and I’m shy, there must have been hundreds of opportunities. Thousands.
Victor says he’ll go with me to see Paul.
I realize that I really am in love with Gregory.
These have to be peculiar times.
It would not be strange to get it and then to decide as Perkins did that this one particular person gave it to you, one out of ten or 50 or 100, maybe because that person made you feel something special, had done wonderful things in bed or got you to trust them physically and mentally as no one else ever had: Mike for example had miraculous talents because his sexual demands were flagrant and unyielding, he was socially genteel but I remember in the bathroom at Nightbirds and later too he talked dirty and tough, kneel down, bitch, suck that dick, and of course the pissing, which had introduced itself as a specially filthy surprise but the way he insisted on it made it seem like an ordinary thing people did. He was an incredibly complete fuck, he exhausted your imagination and wiped out your memory of other fucks, when Perkins remembered making love perhaps he only thought of Mike and things Mike did to him. You would naturally connect your most vivid memory of pleasure to infection and death because the others weren’t remotely worth getting sick from, just pallid skimpy traces of sex crossed with thin trickles of “bodily fluids,” if the two things had to be linked, better that a cherished image of sex connect with the transmission of the microbe.
In any case, if you had sex now it was a matter of deciding, even if you took elaborate precautions, whether the degree of risk involved—and who could calculate that?—was “worth it,” whether your need for that kind of experience with another person outweighed, in a sense, your desire for survival.
When I think about Perkins in that fifth floor walk-up watching the color TV his friends gave him, I imagine him measuring out his life in half-hour segments, telling time by the flow of images and the chatter of voices, his thoughts melting into the TV. As he wasted away the set continued entertaining him, keeping his mind off things. It showed him funny pictures that weren’t really funny and brought him news of catastrophes that were somehow beside the point. The TV made his death feel vicarious and filled his bedroom with another world he could enter when this one had run its course. A quilt covered the bed, the same one he’d slept in with Mike, the room was big and chilly with a thin musty carpet covering the wood floor, brown velour drapes covered the arched windows. His bedside lamp had a pink shade, the square table near his pillows had pill bottles and a water glass on it, he didn’t feel as though he were dying, Victor said, he just knew, intellectually, that his death would come sooner than later. Sooner than expected. But does anyone expect to die? Even when one is quite old, it must seem a fantastic event, if one is 91 can still imagine living, say, till 95.
* * *
He is lying in the darkness of his own bedroom, a plywood cubicle within his vast loft, near the southern tip of the island. He’s talking into his cordless telephone, which gives local calls the scratchy echo of long distance.
We live in large and small boxes in buildings on regularly shaped streets. We see each other seldom because we are busy. Nothing happens to us except dinner parties and visits to the dentist and work, our lives have the generic flavor of deferred pleasure and sublimation until we fall in love or die.
M. is 36, rich, successful. He’s a closer friend than Victor but I haven’t been in his apartment for years. When you’re busy you use the telephone.
“Contamination,” he says, through the phone crackle.
“Like water,” I say.
“Water, blood, sputum, spit, urine, semen, any kind of fluid. It’s all in the food chain,” M. declares. “You have to imagine particles, like from Chernobyl, settling into the water table like—like little dissolving snowflakes. They sink in the ground when it rains, go into the water, everybody drinks it. Some people get a little bit, some people get a lot. Or maybe it gets eaten by a cow or a pig, it grows into grass and some swines store it up in their tissues, and then you pop into the local deli for a ham sandwich with a little mustard, on some nice rye bread, presto you’ve got AIDS.”
And what if I die, right away instead of later on, if for instance I take the blood test, it’s positive, I’ll never finish Burma, I won’t leave anything behind. Or just a few things, of no historical interest. On the immortality front I will fail, ashes to ashes, and no health insurance, I’ll become a ward of the city and put in one of those wards where the doctors and nurses shun you for fear of catching it, and none of your friends comes to the hospital, Libby would come, M. would come, Victor would come, my friend Jane would definitely come, but how would I die, what would I be like, and how lugubrious for them, if it’s a big ward there’s bound to be others dying in the same room, dying with the television on, perhaps they make them wear earphones but when the ward got deathly quiet at night I’d hear the little bug noises in their earphones. Was that the point, to leave something behind, it’s really a thick ambition, if you’re dead what difference does it make. Of course they say it’s why people have children, they can remember you for a time, though mainly they remember pain, pain from their terrible childhoods, even if their parents loved them, it’s usually so twisted it’s as bad as hate, and even when it isn’t, the other children torture you and make fun of all your little quirks and debilities, you try to escape into fantasies but those are poisoned from the very outset, while you’re still in first grade they’ve already turned you into a monster, you spend your whole adult life trying to wipe out all the things they’ve taught you to do, trying not to hate yourself.
I never tell about my childhood because I only remember pain. And then I keep meeting people like Gregory who think they’re as they are because of the father or because of the mother, he seems so clear about it, my father did this to me and my mother did that, therefore I am. I don’t know what either of my parents did: my mother says she regrets slapping me too often and I can’t remember ever being slapped. Maybe she remembers wrong. When you go into psychotherapy they teach you to invent false memories of childhood beatings and sexual abuse, people become addicted to these simple explanations of why they’re monsters.
And now everyone is going to die before they figure anything out, I’m going to die before I can be truly loved, I’ll die with every sort of bitter memory of Alexis’s coldness and Paul’s faithlessness, though really that didn’t matter with him, I’m not bitter against him, but why couldn’t I have what I had with him with someone who loved me, and I’ll die before I can make Gregory love me, I can see I’m fated to cash it in without a single memory of real happiness. What is real happiness, is it this business of living with another person, I never really lived with anybody, I thought no one could stand it. You think you’ll have a long life, so you do everything at a snail’s pace, before I tried to writeBurma I tried to write a book about a family, one sister was a socialite, another was crippled in a wheel chair, the brother was a fag actor in off-Broadway, the parents had been murdered in their townhouse, I only wrote two scenes of that book, the sister in bed with her boyfriend and the brother getting drunk on the set of a soap opera, not bad, oh yes, and one scene with the sister racing through the townhouse in her wheelchair, she’d had special ramps built so she could get around. Before that I tried something like a love story based on me and that California surfer type I fucked a few times when I lived in Boston, a shoplifter. Nobody shoplifts any more, I remember when everyone did it, it showed your contempt for the capitalist system. Everyone worships capitalism today, look at this obscene medical system, if Paul doesn’t have insurance he’s probably in a room full of other people’s contagion, they say the patients with AIDS go into Sloan-Kettering perfectly healthy and pick up diseases in the waiting room, it’s how Michael got pneumonia, I almost forgot about Michael, his apartment windows used to be right there, the windows still are there but he’s dead.
Maybe I’m dying anyway, faster than others because I smoke so many cigarettes. I try and try quitting and nothing works. I can lay awake at night telling myself, You will not smoke a cigarette tomorrow, your body doesn’t want you to smoke, when you go to the hypnotist he makes you close your eyes and tells you your brain is going down a steep flight of steps, that you’re on an elevator going down, deep down into the hypnotic state, it sounds like a car salesman, And when you emerge from hypnosis, he says, You will have no desire for a cigarette, all cravings for a cigarette will have left your body, and whenever you feel a temporary urge for a cigarette you will tell yourself, “I need my body to live.” The impulse only lasts for 90 seconds, he says, after 90 seconds you will no longer crave a cigarette. I ought to go back because I did stop for six hours, thinking the whole time, I’m a non-smoker now, since telling myself I’m a non-smoker now was one of the hypnotic suggestions, and even while I smoked the first ten cigarettes the same night, I thought, I’m a non-smoker now.
They say if you’re infected and have the antibodies you might not come down with the fatal syndrome, therefore you should build up your immune system, which I’m tearing down with cigarettes and alcohol, sometimes I drink nothing for weeks and then for reasons I’ve never figured out I’ll get drunk at a party and then drunk again the following night, sometimes for as many as six or seven nights running, then stop again, though I never stop smoking, I wake up wanting a cigarette, it’s crazy, but then again, Perkins went into AA two full years before getting ill, he stopped smoking at the same time, he began looking wonderful, his skin all clear, the bags around his eyes vanished, he’d always been youthful anyway but then he became spectacular again, young again, and immediately got sick. And Michael the same story exactly: he gave up drugs and alcohol and cigarettes, toned himself up at the gym, etherealized himself like some ideal sexual object, but without screwing around because even then he was frightened of catching it, and perhaps a year passed before Michael’s glands mysteriously swelled up, he woke one day in a high fever, they treated him at St. Vincent’s for pneumonia, he recovered, then I saw him out and around, he said he felt normal and the only difference was you suddenly know that anything can kill you. I despised Michael but near the end he wrote this hilarious story about assholes, laughing right to the grave about the whole business, which I can’t help respecting, really, he died his own particular death without any pietistic nonsense or feeling of solidarity with anything, least of all the social contract, he’d had a good time while he was here, lots of laughs, plenty of weird scenes, his one full-length film which somebody somewhere has, Michael didn’t want much in life besides kicks, I don’t think death found him with a lot of plans pending for the future. Whereas Paul, this can’t possibly feel natural to him, something further, quite a few things further were supposed to happen, he’s always gotten acting work, always a play, a movie, something, never a starring part but it would have happened eventually, Michael had had plans once upon a time, but then his wife went through a windshield on the Ventura Freeway, after that Michael wanted a good time and eons of forgetfulness, but at the very least, he must have wanted to live. Life doesn’t care about what anybody wants.
* * *
I see Gregory again, for five minutes, on his way into work. I’m walking along lower Broadway, deciding about shoes.
“I want to see you real soon,” he tells me. “I’d really like you to see what I’m doing.”
When he talks I go into a terrified ecstasy. I’m losing my will to this man, who embraces me on the corner of Prince and Broadway and purrs, “But mainly I want us to become very close.” I’ve been walking along here thinking it might be the route he will take to the restaurant today. I’m not going to tell him about Paul, though I want to tell him everything I’m feeling and thinking. Not yet. If ever.
He has a beautiful smell, a faint animal funk mingled with some essential oil, opoponax or civit, in his fur-flapped hat he looks like an expensively bred, sleek creature, the thick nose a sexual mark, a carnal threat: and he looks as if he might dart away from me, slip out of my grasp, jump to something else like a fickle cat. He’s interested in everything that doesn’t interest me when I’m with him, little events in the street, what other people wear, how other people look, window displays, passing fashions, he dates everything, clocks everything, he seems obsessed with defining this minute, this period, this era, he savors details and tiny nuances, he knows about what’s on television and all the new movies and every song that’s played on the radio, his fixation with the inessential, the passing moment, also makes me feel he’ll slink off to someone else, almost unconsciously, to whatever offers him a momentary pleasure, without obligations. I pretend an interest in his interests, wanting to seem modern, and in fact all this junk that he likes bores me silly. But I try seeing it through his eyes, and begin to learn what something will look like to Gregory. Magazines images start falling apart when I look at them, breaking themselves down into sex messages, sales points, prescriptions of what people are supposed to be, in this time, this place. He has more energy, more appetite than I do, as if the world were still offering him unlimited possibilities, endless options. And if he were born yesterday and still had a whole lifetime to make choices. His face lights up like a child’s when he sees, for example, a stunningly well-dressed Puerto Rican girl.
I need him and I need money. The editor who’s hired me at the magazine offers an advance of $400, which I accept. We’ve been friends for a long time before this, long enough for him to say: Just think, this time you know you can pay me back.
I call Gregory at home, on a day he doesn’t work: let me take you to dinner. His voice sounds withdrawn, not exactly irritated but not expansively friendly, as it usually is. I’m dead, he tells me. I need to be alone, I’m so fucking wired from that job. I didn’t mean to bother you, I say, coolly, and he says: Brett, please don’t be like that, don’t get an attitude just because I’m exhausted.
His voice sounds as if it’s wrapped in flannel, but suddenly turns clear and genial. I really can’t see you tonight, he says, and then he tells me stories of the job, what happened last night, which customers insulted him, Philippe’s latest outrages, all with energetic irony, as if to say, Look how well I’m putting up with such insanity.
We talk for an hour, about everything and nothing. Something keeps getting shunted aside, he throws himself into amusing me as though this will compensate for his not seeing me. I wonder if he’s seeing someone else. He reads my thoughts. If I could see anyone right now I would see you, he says. Try to understand. I always need a day or two entirely alone, just to stop my nerves jumping all over my skin.
I don’t dare say, I could help you. After all, Gloria thought she could calm him down by opening her body for him, and she was obviously wrong.
One night the long-dreamt call arrives, as it must, from the wrong place, at the wrong time: I needed you after all, do you think we could try something, perhaps it could work if we didn’t make each other crazy.
Where are you, I ask.
In the Argentine, he says.
Oh. I always called it Argentina.
It would have been Burma, maybe, some time.
But of course it never was.
I wake up with tears running down my face but I can’t tell if I’m crying.
Nerves. Plastic coating on the parts that feel.
They say the outer surface of the virus mutates rapidly from one host organism to another. It’s difficult to fix a clinical picture of the virus. You can kill it, said a health worker, with ordinary ammonia.
Who was the disinherited nephew who swallowed the bleach, Libby asked.
What have I learned? He smokes a lot of grass. He watches Friday night videos without fail, alone, and he’s stood me up three times in two weeks. We make a lunch date and he does show up, 45 minutes late, somehow smoothly talking me out of my anger by saying he’s intimidated by me, that I’m a celebrity and he feels like nothing in comparison, a fucking lousy waiter in a sleezebag restaurant, he’s afraid I’ll find him boring, or stupid, if he stands me up it’s because he’s terrified, the job makes him so depressed he’s sure he’ll alienate me with his complaining, he wants so much to give me the best of himself, he only wants to see me when he’s feeling good about his life.
I tell him it doesn’t bother me if he’s depressed and wants to complain and that listening to problems is a normal part of any friendship. I say that my so-called celebrity means nothing to me and isn’t as enormous as he imagines it to be, and even if it was it wouldn’t have anything to do with how I feel about him. I explain that I know he’s more than a waiter, that I don’t think of him as “a waiter,” but even if all he wanted to be in life was a waiter, even if that was all he did, I’d still love him the same way. He tells me this is unfair because he wants me to love him for who he really is and he doesn’t think of himself as a waiter, he’s repulsed by having to be a waiter, and if I think I could love him if that’s all he was then I obviously only love him for his looks because that’s all being a waiter requires, his looks. I tell him that I don’t define people according to what they do for money. He says that truly clever people don’t waste their lives doing menial work. I tell him there are a lot of different kinds of cleverness and that I don’t especially respect the kind that devotes itself to making money, that it seems to me it takes as much brains to be a good waiter as it does to do anything else. He says I’ve obviously never been a waiter. I tell him that’s true, but I’ve been a gas station attendant and a bus boy in a cafeteria and an office clerk and I’ve also sold popcorn in a movie theater, I know what menial work is like, I know it’s draining and horrifying but I think his reaction to it is a little bit extreme.
You don’t understand, he says. He then describes a sensation of vertigo, of falling into a bottomless black pit, of knocking off his four day shift every week and immediately becoming hypersensitive to noise, to touch, to voices. In this vulnerable state, the touch of someone’s hand feels like a razor working into his skin, or like an electrical shock. I know, he says, that part of this has something to do with Gloria as well as the job. I don’t think I can have anything to do with anybody physically for a while.
I decide to be brave and tell him that if he isn’t physically attracted to me he should just tell me. He says if he told me that I wouldn’t want to have anything further to do with him. I say I’d probably feel bad about it but still would want to know him, but even if I decided not to that he’d have to take that risk. He says he can’t risk losing me because he wants to be part of my life. I say I want him to be part of my life but I also want him physically and if he doesn’t want me physically I want us both to be clear about that. He says it isn’t that he isn’t attracted to me but that his present mental state makes it impossible for him to feel anything sexual about anybody and that I have to understand this and if I refuse to understand it I’m just being horribly unfair and mean to him.
We leave each other in the street. As I walk home I realize he’s made me feel like an elderly lecher. I remind myself that I am only 35 and still look pretty good for my age. I hate his guts. He’s a manipulative little creep. Three weeks ago he was fucking Gloria every night and suddenly he’s frigid, it’s the stupidest con I’ve ever heard. What does he want from me. Ego gratification. He wants me to desire him. He likes feeling worshipped. I’m going to drop him right now, put him completely out of my mind. I can see where this will lead, more misery. He knows I’ve fallen in love with him and I could be useful to him somehow, he keeps harping on what a big celebrity I am, maybe he wants to meet famous people and attach himself to someone with money. I think he told me he once let some rich guy take him to Egypt, some old queen I believe he said, back in his hustling days. Obviously I’m not in any position to do anything for him financially so maybe he thinks of me as a stepping-stone to wider opportunities. If he strings me along …
He says Gloria went from being great gash to a pain in the ass in no time flat, that expression “great gash” upset me. He thought of her as a convenient hole, for when he wanted it. And when she wanted it he felt she was being predatory. Now he says he can’t be touched but he touches me whenever he pleases. Maybe he’s sick, anaemic or something, and when he works these long shifts he really does get abnormally drained of energy, it could even be mononucleosis or leukemia, today he looked quite pale, even a bit cheesy, gorgeous as ever but his forehead was sweating, he didn’t actually say he wasn’t attracted to me but he obviously isn’t, he simply doesn’t want to say it, he thinks it’ll hurt me, but really it wouldn’t hurt to know that now, while I can still get him out of my life without going nuts, because I’m getting distorted by this, I can feel Gregory taking over larger and larger areas of my mind, I think about him incessantly, lately I need to know or at least feel like I know exactly where he is and what he’s doing every minute of the day, if he’s not with somebody now I’m scared he’ll meet somebody he wants to go to bed with, but how do I know he’s not fucking five different people, or ten for that matter, if he doesn’t want me to know there’s no way I’ll find out without actually spying on him, which would be really crazy.
He could even be right, I’m making all kinds of unfair assumptions, for example, because I find him sexually attractive I assume everyone else does, and further assume that since he’s beautiful he also has a powerful sex drive, that if he found me attractive he’d naturally want to sleep with me immediately, and because he hasn’t he’s not attracted to me. So I’m reducing him to a sex object when he may be this highly sensitive, caring person with leukemia or mono or a severe vitamin deficiency. After all he says he wants me to love him, so my attraction to him, at least, isn’t something he wants to neutralize. But then again, knowing that I want him physically, he should either put up or disappear, if he cares about me, because I don’t just want a friendship, it’s too frustrating. This feels like a movie I’ve seen before.