How did it get so late so soon?
It's night before it's afternoon.
December is here before it's June.
My goodness, how the time has flewn.
How did it get so late so soon?
- Dr. Seuss
We begin at the end and end at the beginning; I tell my story not in chronological order, but in order of the bits and pieces of memory that float to my mind. After all, life is not one long narrative but a whole bunch of experiences strung together, cut up by periods of empty sleep and fading memory.
I look upon my life backwards, beginning at the most recent event, my death, and going on towards my teenage years. From then on, my recollections are fuzzy and haphazard- I'm not sure which birthday party belonged to which year and so on. So we'll focus on my adult life, we'll wind back the clock and see whether this empty life ever really meant anything or not. I dispense facts as accurately as I can; it's up to you to make the decision.
I DON'T THINK YOU'RE GOING TO EAT IT
A constant stream of oxygen makes its way up my nostrils, out of the tube taped beneath my nose. It's wrapped around my head, the thin plastic curving away from my cheekbones and then drooping alongside my pillow to the oxygen tank.
I believe it's Mark sitting in the chair beside my bed- the thirty-year-old kid in chunky glasses and rumpled sweaters sniffling and pretending to read the paper. My eyesight isn't as good as it once was, because I am dying, and I do not deny it.
Um," he says softly. "Rog? "
Yeah? It comes out as "Mmm."
"Can I…can I have your fruit cup?" he asks gently. I can tell he's embarrassed to ask, even through the foggy haze of drugs I'm on.
"It's like…I don't think you're going to eat it, and I haven't really had anything since breakfast. Well, I mean, I had a coffee, but that doesn't really count. Well, it does sort of count, because it gave me these weird jittery feelings, so I had to walk all the way down to Maternity and back, but, like, it doesn't make the gnawing stop."
I force my voice up through my throat. It comes out hoarse and crackling.
"You can…have the fruit cup." I ease a breath through my lungs, feeling my throat burn from the effort. I'm pathetic. Am I not pathetic?
"Thanks, Rog. I knew you'd said yes."
THAT'S NOT VERY OLD
I wander around the stark corridors of the hospital aimlessly. I've lost so much weight that I can barely cling to 110 pounds, the average weight of a preteen girl, not a 5"11 adult man. The walls of the hospital seemed to glow with sterile white ugliness and a solemnity that speaks of death and clean sheets.
My blue plastic gown with its microscopic white polka dots clings to me feebly, like a vinyl parasite. I pull along my IV drip with a pale arm; the misshapen wheels clang along the floor and interrupt the imposed silence.
I realize that I've already gotten to the children's ward when I notice the brightly coloured marker art that hangs on the walls. Oh Tommy, look at that pretty sunshine! Is that representative of your celiac disease?
A little girl rounds the corner, clad in a pink gown quite reminiscent of my own (except for the flamboyant colour). Deep red circles crease under her eyes. She looks to be about eight, with short frizzy blond hair and clenched fists.
"Hi," she says to me.
"Hi," I answer. I am not in the mood to announce my (quite low!) cell count to another well-wisher.
"How old are you?"
"That's not very old."
"I know." She's wise beyond her years. "What are you here for?" I ask.
She whispers "Leukemia."
I bite my lip.
"What about you?"
"Something that makes you angry at the world."
She looks down at the floor. I catch a glimpse of the top of her head. Dried out, brittle yellow hair is tangled messily. It thins at the crown of her head, where she's bald.
REALLY RATHER TOUCHING
It's not the worst hospital room ever, I suppose, though my tendency for the melodramatic usually overrides me with hatred for pretty much everything.
The walls are white and overly sanitary. Unused medical equipment gleams in the corner, metal rods shiny and reflective. There are tubes also, rather stale looking yellow and clear plastic, with white marks where they've been bent. There's a sink on the far side of the room, with a chart above it detailing my extensive medication schedule and god knows what else.
My bed is slightly lumpy because of the thin mattress, but it's comfortable enough. The fuzzy teal wool blanket occasionally sheds tiny balls of fluff onto my sheets. The bed has a metal guard on each side, too low to keep anyone from falling out, but protruding just enough to make sitting on the bed impossible. This pisses Mark off, so he sits in an uncomfortable painted folding chair next to my bed, or lies down with me, which always draws looks. At some point I just had to let go of my embarrassment, realizing I wouldn't let a grumpy nurse taint my last few weeks with Mark.
I'm on an IV tube which is taped like a bracelet around my wrist and then into my veins. It's connected to a bag of clear fluid that dangles ominously from a frosted metal stand. I hate looking at it. It makes me feel like an invalid (which I am.)
The only spot of color in the room are the balloons that are weighted down on the floor next to my bed. They're shiny tin foil with brightly illustrated pictures of guitars and music notes. Collins brought them, thinking they'd cheer me up. To think that he stole guitar ones just for me is really rather touching, if not childish.
I'VE NEVER NOTICED BEFORE
Mark and I are room mates out of necessity. We are best friends out of convenience. We are lovers, though we tried quite hard not to be.
We are lying in his bed. He is stroking my hair and smiling shyly, biting his lower lip without thinking, the way he does. I am told that I do that too, biting my lip, though I haven't ever noticed. Maybe I picked it up from him, or maybe he picked it up from me. You never know.
I'm lying on my side underneath the worn comforter, which drapes over me, my body a shallow lump underneath it. I'm down to 120 pounds. My eyes have sunken into my face and my cheekbones jut out like skeletal knives.
"Mark?" I croak softly. My breath is hot on his face.
"Look…" I say. Mark shifts slightly and the mattress squeaks. "I'm sorry to bring this upon you. You don't need to stay here."
He looks down, exposing pale eyelashes.
"I know, Rog." He sniffles. "I love you." The morning sun has lit up the metal pipes of our industrial ceiling with streaks of light; I notice Mark's bookshelf against the dirty brick wall. Things I've never noticed before.
"Yeah," I murmur gruffly. "Well-- you too."
I still can't say I love you. It's never been my thing.
I'd be the first to admit that Mark and I initially had issues with being together …the most prominent issue being that neither of us considered ourselves gay.
"We aren't really gay," I say to him while we are eating dinner one night. He looks down into his oily chicken soup and turns pink. "We're just two straight men that happen to be having a romantic relationship."
He doesn't meet my eyes, but mumbles "That seems to be the definition of gay, Rog."
"Not really," I counter pathetically. "We still like women."
"Bisexual, than. But we're probably not straight."
Part of my soul still resides in high school, and wants so badly not to be called "gay." I know this is the homophobia that prevents me from admitting what is evidently true, and yet I'll continue to hide from it stubbornly, because I, Roger Davis, am an asshole.
NICE TO KNOW
"Rog?" he asks. I glance over from the television, but my eyes are glazed over. Mark's face reflects blue light. The images from the TV dance off his glasses.
"You're not watching Sailor Moon."
"There was nothing else on."
"Turn that off immediately and come to bed. I'm lonely."
"Oh, go jerk off to your Sailor Venus porn." I turn back to the TV to observe scantily clad anime girls. Isn't it nice to know the world is being saved by someone who also looks good in a pixilated mini skirt? Besides, it helps me forget about my soar throat brought on by thrush.
He ambles off, sighing deeply. Under his breath, Mark mutters "How did he know?"
Collins is large, tall and husky. I am thin and frail. I consider this to be remarkably unfair given the difference in our years with HIV.
When we walk through the Village's Thompkins Square Park, he strides slowly so I can keep up with his long legs and seemingly never-ending energy. His sensible shoes scrape against the cement path satisfyingly; my mangy sneakers smack the pavement as I huff alongside him. Our shadows are cast far forward- his stretching on for a good few inches past mine.
"The thing is," he's saying, "you just have to take it one day at a time. If you worry all your life, you'll miss out on life itself."
"Yeah," I grunt. It's easy for Collins to spew this mantra when he didn't spend the sunny November morning vomiting up his antibiotics.
He continues. "See, back in my seropositive days, I was constantly plagued with all these concerns. I went to the doctor like once a month; I was fine but all my tests came back positive with these freaking weird antibodies. And that was back in the eighties. And let me tell you something Roger, you're lucky you got diagnosed in '91. I had to wait so long for them to find out anything."
A cool breeze tickles my neck. A jogger passes by, her dark hair flying behind her, contrasting with the clear sunlight and autumn trees.
"And then," Collins explains, "finally in 1988 I tested completely positive. And you know what?"
"What?" I pout. I don't want to hear the uplifting answer. Lectures are for college students, not me.
"I was glad. No more beating around the bush. Life doesn't suck so much anyways, and this is a Chronic But Manageable Disease."
"But Collins," I interject, "what I don't get is this: It's '96. You tested positive in '88. You were seropositive a long time before that. You must have had AIDS for at least ten years now. How are you still around?"
He laughs at me, a deep, hearty laugh that makes its way up all the way from his belly. I roll my eyes.
AN ABSTRACT ILLNESS
Cloudy moonlight dusts the sidewalks. The streets of East 13th are mostly empty except for the occasional pedestrian. A car passes by once in a while, disturbing the peace with a loud whoosh of air. Late night drug stores and Chinese restaurants glow with chipped neon signs and window light that spills onto the street.
I remember this night, October 17th 1996, because it was the night that I knew I was dying.
AIDS is an abstract illness; few understand it biologically, but many people can tell you the rather unpleasant connotations. Gay people. Prostitutes. Drug addicts. Hemophiliacs. AIDS smells like blood and semen and the nineteen eighties.
I didn't have AIDS until that night. I was HIV-positive, which was rather difficult to explain. What is HIV-positive anyways? It's waiting and watching, swallowing brittle pills day after day as you dread the inevitable future. It's being extra careful when you throw away used Band-Aids. It's lying awake at night, wondering how many sleepless nights you have left when you feel fine.
Then AIDS sneaks up on you when you least expect it- dark violet bruises that you notice in the shower, on your calves and thighs and chest. It's insomnia for the fifth night this week and the redness under your eyes. It's dry, harsh coughing when you have no allergies.
We return to the night of October 17th. Walking home from the doctor, thinking about my depressing lack of T-cells and wishing so badly I could be someone else. Hoping so badly I could somehow wake up the next day and not be Roger Davis- ex-drug addict, former rocker, in denial "straight" kid who sleeps with his pathetic room mate and now, soon to be AIDS-casualty.