Quietly, I open the locks and come into his apartment; I have keys. I hope he is sleeping, that I will not wake him until I am also naked and in bed, and we can make love in silence. I do not want to talk, or hear him talk. We have nothing to say. Or rather what he has to say I don’t want to hear, and what I have to say he could not bear. He knows this also, but not how stealthily I have thought about it, and planned. I know which boards creak, which bolts drop heavily in the lock, and just how far the door will open before the hinges squeak. But he is there in the passage waiting for me. We kiss, passionately, as he insists, as usually I like but with him, now, am usually too nervous to lose myself into, too conscious of all the rest. This time, however, I accept, and the hinges of my jaw are generous, unwithholding. Like this, tongues together, we do not have to talk. Passionately, but also dispassionately, we move slowly into the bedroom, tongues always engaged and so not talking; shirts unbuttoned; soft sweatpants pulled down, slipped off. His sheets, as always, are clean and neat, candles already lit, and we are naked, cool, making love, and both relieved; we have not had to talk. Not yet.
After our first time, he did something strange. He cried, right there on top of me. I’m sorry, he said through his tears. “I’m so sorry, I just couldn’t help it.” I thought I understood what he meant; enjoying me so much, desiring me so much; loving me; but ending this bliss.
Later I was downtown, giving supper to my friend Lea. That was when he called to explain his mystery. Immediately I remembered gently touching those lumps on his neck, uncomfortable to think about, too big to ignore; and yet politely I had ignored them.
“That bastard!” Lea said. “That jerk! Aren’t you furious? I want to kill him myself! He thinks he’s going to die, and didn’t tell you!”
“He did tell me, Lea.”
“Now,” she said. “Only now. You should be furious.”
This was 1984. When it was already foolish and blind but maybe not yet quite insane to be ignoring all the warnings, to be finding yourself in the middle of plain old-fashioned sex. Yes, insane! some people will no doubt shout. But if so then insanity was widespread, and hard to see, especially in yourself, especially without much practice. Condoms were still too embarrassing to mention, just like that. They weren’t yet on the front shelf at drugstores, and it still meant, if you put one on or asked your friend to, that you thought you were sick yourself, or that you thought he was, or that you didn’t trust him, as if your silence and his implied a clean bill of health, some kind of honor code and guarantee. Friends had to turn to skeletons; then people knew.
Lea wasn’t the only one of my friends to object, to think I was risking my life just to be polite, and that my new friend should at least be shot. Don’t risk your life for love! they told me. No person’s love is worth your life! (This sounds arguable as I write it, but it’s what was said at the time, and the circumstances were of course special. Still are.) But I had waited too long, I was too grateful for someone like him, someone grateful for me. How could I run from someone when it would seem to be because he was sick? Easy, said my friends. Call up and say forget it. This is your life you’re talking about, not a tea party. My idea was the opposite: to sit there and pretend to smile; holding his hand I would save us both.
He insisted at least on kissing, and what kisses they were! invested with all the passion and frustration and longing and reaching that had to be withheld. His mouth would open on my mouth, wider than I thought possible, wider than I ever thought would be decorous or pleasing. It was never decorous, but I lost myself in them before I could even ask if they were pleasing. His tongue pushed against my lips, forcing complacent my jaw until I whimpered if he withdrew. Sometimes he trapped my tongue inside his mouth, and it was more than just my tongue trapped there, because I could not move away, or close my mouth, or swallow, or even make a sound. So I stayed with him through the summer into autumn afternoons, never speaking about these things, the last leaves hanging on in the park nearby.
“But are you attracted to me?” I asked him once, because praising his beauty so much I began to realize it was this question I was trying to ask.
“Oh, yes,” he said. “I’m turned on by your attraction to me.”
Still I told him, one cold night: “This is all I’ve ever wanted, lying here like this with someone like you.”
For a while he was still, his head resting on my chest, blond hair hiding his face. Slowly he rocked his face against me, as if he were wiping his tears away. Then, pulling himself up, we kissed again, gently for a long time and then more passionately, until suddenly he stopped, squinted, and sat up, looking at my face.
Very calmly he said, “You’re bleeding,” and I could taste it was true. I stood up, walked slowly to the bathroom, and in the mirror indeed my face was smeared red with blood, on my forehead, nose, and chin, streaked like warpaint. It was a horrible image there in the mirror, and I threw cold water again and again on my hot face, until it was clean and the image there was myself again. I had no cut that I could see, however, no tear in my skin. He was still sitting on the bed across the hall, watching me carefully as if he saw the terror with which I had splashed and splashed and said nothing. But I came back to him calmly. His own face was still smeared with blood as well, blood I could still taste, and I could see that the cut was on his own lip, it had opened with our kissing, a small speck spreading around all that blood.
“You should wash your face,” I said gently, touching his cheek, and slowly he nodded. But it was a long time before he could take his eyes from mine.
The early light falls like a blade across the bed: a whole night without words. From that first moment at the door until now, we have kissed, cried, made love, but never spoken, not yet. A cowardly success, perhaps. His hair, still silky and thick, falls over a sleeping, trusting face. I look for the danger but each time see the beauty, and that is why I am still where I am, naked in this bed, even stubbornly happy; but awake. More and more, I am wide awake.
Twenty minutes, half an hour he stands in front of the mirror, and I watch him as I have often watched him, thinking how beautiful he is, wondering what he can be doing. He is so careful with his body now, with his life, after a former life I know so little about because he would not describe it; nor answer my questions. I am left to imagine almost everything, everything before me, everything that frightened him to these careful ablutions, and a refrigerator filled with fruits and vitamins and strange powders, and to someone in his bed who, even unknown, is at least safe, and constant, and, perhaps, permanent.
Permanent, that is, if we do not speak, either of us. Because, to my surprise, it comes to me that he too has been delaying the moment, stopping with kisses the words he has already seen in my eyes, my nervous gestures, my concealing silence. Without my knowing it I have been waiting for morning, which would separate us anyway. But he knows, and must have known before I woke up knowing it, that those desperate, silent kisses were the last.
“Can I make you some coffee before you go?” he asks. “Kona or French roast?”
I only nod, giving in once again. We sit in his large kitchen, intimate at the small table, drinking coffee and talking of the last trivial things we can think of.
“What time will you come over tonight?” he asks. “I just wanted to know because I thought I might make pesto, or something.”
“I don’t think I can,” I tell him, not able, but not needing to finish the sentence.
Because suddenly he is sobbing, head down in his arms on the table, blond hair perfectly combed, his coffee knocked violently to the floor. The coffee has spilled against his white cotton pants, a brown stain spreading up and down, clinging to his leg. On the clean floor, the puddle dribbles under the table, under my shoe.
Silently I stroke his hair, his shoulder.
“Don’t leave me!” he shouts through sobs, turning and falling—jumping, even—into my arms. Sobbing all that we could never talk about, all that I had to guess. I stroke him, kiss his wet face for the last time, and look at him one more time as I reach for my bag. He is all alone in that big kitchen, unable to raise his head or watch me leave. His sobbing has not let up. All this time, still with no questions asked.
He never knew me, never dared ask questions I might have asked him back. Perhaps I never knew him either, superimposing on that silence a man I hoped he could be. For a long time afterwards I avoided his neighborhood, taking the long way around. In the park, I would hide behind a boulder, looking out for him in the field of sunbathers before continuing down the path.
“What are you doing here?” Lea asked me, as I grabbed her, pulling her behind the boulder. I thought I had seen a patch of blond hair just beyond us on the grass. But it was not him.
For a while I made a point of daring myself to pass his street, to walk into the field without first looking out for blond hair. It was childish, I knew, and the city is enormous, anonymous.
Not too long ago, I woke up with my fingers pressing against the side of my neck, gently pushing a soft lump there, and then on the other side, too. They move, slightly, in any direction. I did not need to see my face to know it: I had seen that fear before, close beside me on a pillow.
Now, when I run in the park, or pass by his neighborhood, I find myself slowing down near his building, stopping a while on the corner, or detouring in the park just to run by that hill. I am looking for him, of course; I am searching. I used to see him sometimes, stretched out in the sun on one of his clean white sheets, his eyes hidden behind the mirror of his glasses. Or he was buying fish at the market, or fruit where he always bought fruit. Now I know; I was always looking for him, even when I thought I was hiding; looking to see if he was still alive, because if he was, then perhaps I was not in danger; each time I saw him was a relief.
These days, however, beside his bell, the name has changed; his phone no longer connects. I hope he has moved to California, lying in the sun there all through the year, even now, when here, the snow outside mutes the traffic. Once, when we met by accident on the street and talked, I wanted to ask him questions but he wouldn’t let me, he went on instead about the healing powers of crystals, and that easy life on the West Coast, and selling his apartment as soon as he could and moving out there.
“Oh, don’t!” I said, before I could stop myself.
He was surprised. “Why not?” he asked. “What do I have here?”
How could I tell him how much it had come to mean, that he was still alive? I shrugged, smiled and even hugged him on that street corner, but finally we turned away.
And every year since then I’ve come up with more answers to his question.