Mark considers himself an expert in hospices. He's been to two different ones for four very different friends. He is pretty sure he knows everything there is to know about hospices.
Some days he can still feel the sharp tang of citrus disinfectant burning in his nose. He hears the whoosh of air as a bed rolls away down the halls. He can hear muted silence. This is how he gets to sleep at night.
There is a big difference, he thinks, between hospitals and hospices. Hospitals are where sick people go to get better. It's where babies are born and children get pink casts with stickers saying "Get Well Soon."
Hospices are where terminally ill people are sent to die. They're quieter. There is no maternity ward. There is only a distant echo of lost hope than can be heard reverberating through the long, white corridors.
Angel, Mimi, Collins and Roger each went to hospices specializing in HIV-positive patients. Most of the people there were between 20 and 40. There were few elderly people and no children. There were few colorful balloons. Mark remembers a lot of carnations though. White carnations, drooping with some petals falling on the floor, only to be swept up quickly by the custodians, who wore white to match the flowers, and floors and halls and beds and sheets. Everything was white or medical teal. Mark felt awkward wearing his worn red coat.
It was different every time. The memory of Angel's death always seemed to go hand in hand with the feeling of tenseness among the other seven friends. Mimi wouldn't speak to Roger, and Roger was moody and prone to sudden outbursts. Mark treaded around him in the loft, afraid to remind him to take his meds. They would go to visit Angel together. Mark would stand silently against the wall, occasionally giving Angel a weak smile. Roger sat down in a too-small plastic chair, looking down deliberately and avoiding human contact. Mark would buy coffee for both of them, pressing the warm cup into Roger's hand and then retreating quickly.
Roger wouldn't take Mimi to a hospice for a long time. He preferred to sit by their bed in the loft, playing guitar quietly and stroking her kinky brown hair as she wasted away. Eventually Mimi became incontinent and they were forced to bring her to an inpatient hospice.
Mark was awkward around the dying Mimi. He didn't know what to say with Roger watching him watch her. He mostly played the role of Roger's assistant- buying him drinks, doing the dishes and the laundry without asking while Roger tended to Mimi. He almost breathed a sigh of relief when she died one chilly February 14th. The brilliant red roses Roger had brought her for Valentine's Day were on their own, a beautiful shock of color in a pale, fluorescent room. Mimi didn't notice them. She slipped into a coma that morning. At three fifteen on that cold but sunny afternoon, she died.
Two days later, Mark gently pushed Roger into a coat and brought him to the funeral. It was a Catholic funeral. Her mother was sobbing loudly, clutching a rosary of brittle wooden beads, and shaking back and forth. Roger just looked on, his mouth open slightly, his eyes dry. Mark softy rubbed his back. He can still remember the feel of his cold, numb fingers on Roger's cracked leather coat.
He accepted the uncomfortable hugs of Maureen, Joanne, Collins and Benny and then he weakly embraced Roger. Roger's plastic AZT beeper pressed into his stomach. He lamely noted the scent of cigarette smoke that hovered around Roger, and the distant expression clouding his face.
A few tense months went by until Collins started getting insomnia. It seemed impossible. Collins had always been strong and tall, at six feet. He couldn't die.
Collins moved into a hospice by himself and of his own choice. He had always been goddamned smart and reasonable, even as morphine dripped slowly into his tainted veins. Collins kept his good sense of humor until the day he died. And then there were five.
Roger seemed to quietly resent being the only one left who was HIV-positive. Mark knew that, and tried not to bring up the subject. A year passed by them. Then two. Roger hadn't been HIV-positive nearly as long as the others had. He was still healthy. Still unmistakably alive.
And then time sped up and Roger lost his appetite and suddenly Mark clutched at the days and months that slipped through his fingers. Mark remembers going to Central Park a lot with Roger. He carried Roger's guitar slung haphazardly over his shoulder and then they would sit down on a bench and Roger would play anything that came to mind. His fingers slid over the strings and let the chords leave his guitar, drifting away over the heads of the hundreds of anonymous New Yorkers that passed them. Roger sang too. His voice was getting raspy and not as strong as it had been, but he was still good. He knew all the words to everything. Mark would bring a portable radio that crackled out songs through the hideous static and then Roger would play them back just by ear. He was pretty nimble, probably from giving Mark the Finger so much. Or so Mark thought.
Mark would like just another taste at those beautiful sunny autumn days in the Park. He could go back there, but it wouldn't be the same. No guitar and no radio and no Roger. He can still feel the comforting heat of Roger's fading body beside him on the splintery old bench. All he wants is to feel one more day of Mark And Roger held firmly in his grasp.
Everything must come to an end. Roger was taken to the same hospice where Collins had died three years before. Roger lasted quite a while there. Stubborn asshole. He would. Roger could always get the way he wanted just by yelling and putting his foot down. He grabbed life and pulled it back to him, if only by force. Mark brought Roger's guitar to his bedside and after ten solids minutes of Roger playing with the up and down button, Roger would bring his bed up in a sitting position and he would play beautifully.
Roger's room mate, a thirty-one year old named Dave would make requests sometimes. The three of them, Mark, Roger and Dave would sing together. Then Dave died. When Mark went to visit Roger one day, the bed next to him was empty. It was very clean too. Mark smelled laundry detergent. He could almost feel the stark crispness of newly folded sheets tucked around the edges.
Roger got the flu and had to be quarantined for one week. When Mark went to see him again, Roger was wearing a white mask and he had a tube taped underneath his nose, giving him air. Mark talked and Roger listened and nodded until he fell asleep.
The nurses wouldn't let Mark take Roger to Central Park one last time. It was a beautiful night, full of rarely seen New York stars that glowed under a blurry blanket of smog. Mark came to take Roger but he wasn't allowed to leave. Besides, the nurses pointed out, Roger was asleep and too weak to go.
Then Roger died. Mark came one morning and there were two fresh, empty beds next to each other. A doctor explained that Roger's heart had given out in his sleep the night before. He was probably dreaming of something nice. He wouldn't have been in pain.
So that's it. No more dying, no more trips to the hospice. Mark hasn't heard the familiar electronic beeps of an AZT monitor in two years. He has realized that dying is a verb, not an adjective. Everyone who is dying is also living. He knows that too late.
Mark lives alone in the loft, and yet, traces of Roger can be found everywhere he turns. His clothes are still folded and resting in his drawers. His stained coffee cups clutter the counter, as yet unwashed. Roger had only used them for coffee, so what was the point of washing them? Well actually, removing mold and bacteria and other lovely funguses one might not want to ingest each morning with burnt Wonderbread toast, as Mark pointed out, but Roger was set in his ways.
Whenever Mark feels a familiar ache burn in the pit of his stomach, he stands on the bench by the window and presses his palms against the cool glass, feeling the moisture of his hands leave smudges on the window panes. He looks down, out through the grille of the multiple fire escapes, down to the street where a homeless mans sits with a sign asking for money, and where a barely seven teen year old girl shoots up in the darkest alcove she can find. Now that those who are gone have passed, life continues, painfully and ignorantly and just as before.