My friend Howard doesn’t want me to know that he’s dying. He hates all the movies and books and plays about AIDS, especially what happens at the end. He says they turn something real into a sappy, pointless melodrama. But that’s not why he hasn’t told me.
When Howard’s mother died at nearly ninety, I took him out for dinner the next day. We went to a Burmese restaurant downtown, a small, dark place with a lot of sweet-and-sour dishes. Whenever I brought up his mother, he changed the subject. At dessert, he finally said, “She never really loved me. I can’t help but be relieved.” This startled me, and I asked him why he was so sure it was true. “I was born too late,” he said. “The others were grown. She wanted to travel, not to have me.” And that is the one and only conversation we have had about his mother. We’ve discussed everything else, of course: his many lovers, his odd three years of married life, his time in Greece, in Majorca, in Rome.
Howard is fifty-eight, but until this year he’s always looked twenty years younger. He is strong, small, and thin, and used to be very tanned, though now he’s pale. He still has that charged, straight-ahead energy that I associate with gay men. Howard’s like a lightning bolt, with a vigorous handshake that’s unexpected from someone so small, and eyes that glow, even now. Not long ago, Howard had so much energy he would spend whole weekends dancing in clubs with names like Mother Teresa, gyrating with skinny young boys. When he turned fifty, Howard began to prefer Japanese boys with fashionable hairstyles and smooth skin and good jobs downtown.
Howard is a teacher. He teaches Buddhist thought at a progressive art college where the walls are covered with day-glo graffiti about Africa and AIDS. For a while, he wrote stories. Although I have never read them, I assume they are overwrought. Something happens to him when he writes. He becomes too concerned with big ideas, too caught up in explaining what it all means, too lost when he tries to put it down on paper. I know this because a few summers ago he went to Japan to teach English to rich businessmen, and the letters he sent me were filled with nothing but statistics about the work force, theories about the way students learn, and facts and information about the structure of Japanese society. But when he talks, it’s different: he tells you what happened, how people looked, what they said.
I met Howard at a dinner party fifteen years ago, when I had just moved to New York. I thought he was one of the best-looking men I’d ever seen, taut and strong, with his sharply chiseled face and that glow in his eyes. He made me feel electrified when he talked. We decided to meet for lunch, where he asked me a hundred questions about my past, what I wanted from life, and why I’d decided to live in New York. At that lunch I could never have imagined him being sick, much less dying. I’ve thought about this a lot lately, how with some people — the slow, sedentary types — it’s not much of a surprise when they fade away, but others seem immune to sickness and death.
Howard lives with a former lover now, a boy who has probably only a few months left himself. He is not Japanese but a blond named Richard, only thirty-two, and as handsome as the boy in Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice. He has the pale white skin and soft blue eyes of a van Eyck painting. As Howard says, Richard is “languid,” so it wasn’t surprising to learn that he has AIDS; it was sad, impossibly sad, but not surprising. He has always been sick with flus and fevers, and afflicted with mysterious gashes and black-and-blue sores. Now he sits in bed and switches channels on the TV, too exhausted to read, too sad to eat, too forlorn to see anyone but Howard.
Howard tries with Richard. He makes him soup, and tortellini stuffed with spinach. He cooks pots of noodles with cottage cheese and rents Dial M for Murder and The 39 Steps. But Richard isn’t interested. He just wants to die. He is tired of being sick, of barely holding on. When he met Howard on a blanket at Jones Beach one summer, Richard was a waiter in search of a career. Howard helped him become a fashion stylist. Richard was just starting to succeed when he began to get sick.
Now Howard is sick, too, but he hides it from Richard and me. I know only because another friend of his told me. The friend made me swear not to say anything to Howard. I was up all night worrying, and early the next morning I called Howard just to hear his voice. “How are you?” I said. “Tired,” he answered. “Tired from Richard?” I pressed. “Just tired,” he said. And I knew the friend’s story was true. “Can you meet me for lunch?” I asked, wanting to see him, to know he was still there.
At lunch, Howard looked gray, and the strong thinness that had once been so beautiful now made him look bony. I knew he was sick, and I’m sure he knew that I knew, but neither of us mentioned it. We talked about Richard instead. “He’s dying,” Howard whispered, as though Richard might hear him. “He is very sad and depressed, and won’t let anyone come to see him. He says he’s ugly and ashamed.”
I imagined Richard even more ashen than when I’d last seen him, even more ephemeral in his gray velvet robe, his eyes an even paler blue. Howard himself had become middle-aged all at once, like turning a corner. I thought of all the times we’d been together, and how little we’d really been able to say. And now he couldn’t tell me he was dying. And I couldn’t tell him that I knew.
The restaurant had the unfortunate name of the Blue Hen, and was laughably out of place — a fake country-style kitchen, complete with calico curtains and paintings of cows, in the middle of a block of junkies and noise. We’d chosen it because it was unpopular and therefore quiet. Our waiter was a young Japanese boy, tall and thin and graceful, like the bamboo in Japanese paintings. I could feel a kind of color come over Howard, a small red hope. He ordered us two cottage-cheese omelets and two glasses of dry Chablis. The waiter came back quickly with our food.
“Where are you from?” Howard asked him in impressive Japanese.
“Kyoto,” the waiter replied.
“A beautiful city,” Howard said. “One of the most beautiful in the world.”
“When were you last there?” the waiter asked. He had the manner of a well-bred prep-school boy somewhere in the middle of his class. It was hard to guess his age. His face was expressionless at first, but talking with Howard made it come alive.
“How long have you been in the city?” Howard asked.
“Seven months, but my intentions are longer,” the boy answered.
“Please, let me help you,” Howard said, handing the waiter a smooth silver business card with his name printed in elegant relief and, discreetly, along the bottom of the card, his phone number.
Leaving the restaurant, we decided to walk along the pier by the river. Howard, in his courtly way, formed his right arm into a semicircle, waiting for me to latch on. So I did. Because I’m a little taller than he is, my arm wasn’t quite in the crook of his elbow, where it should have been, but Howard made adjustments. We walked, and I leaned into him the way he likes me to. “What will you do if the Japanese boy calls?” I asked.
“I suppose I’ll see him once or twice. We will have dinner,” Howard said, “and he’ll tell me that he is an artist, that he’s in New York to take photographs, or to paint, or to make formless brown ceramics that aren’t possible in Japan. And I will listen sympathetically, letting him know that I believe he can do whatever he wants.”
“And you?” I asked. “What will you get from this?”
“A dinner or two more with a beautiful boy,” Howard said, and I could see tears in his eyes. I’d never seen him cry before. We stood together looking at a big navy ship, arms linked like a happy couple from some other time. Neither of us said a word.