Learning to ride, falling down, getting back on
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“Are you going to write about me?”
It isn’t a question he wants answered. It hangs there in the close, sterile air, while I look out the window and he changes channels, with a heavy mechanical clunking sound, on the color TV suspended at one end of the hospital room.
“ ‘Free gift’ is redundant,” he says finally. “I wish they’d pass a law.”
I look from the window, to him, to the TV, and back out the window again, and nod.
Our original intention had been to go to East Berlin for dinner; we had decided it would be cheaper. I’d always wanted to go through Checkpoint Charlie. There it is: Us and Them, whatever you think that means.
A day visa is good until 10 p.m. It was almost 9. No one could understand why we were going in the direction we were going; everyone else was coming out. We were disorganized but determined.
We went past the Allied checkpoint, past the American, the Brit, and the Frenchman, past the sign in more languages than we could read — YOU ARE NOW LEAVING THE AMERICAN SECTOR. We crossed an open expanse of asphalt, like a shopping mall parking lot.
The gateway to the other side, the hole in the wall of graffiti that separates one unreconstructed side of Berlin from the other, that bifurcates the naked fields and bombed skeletons that make up the peripheries of the two cities that were once one, is a concrete blockhouse, not unlike a motor vehicle inspection station. But the inspectors are soldiers.
They didn’t know what we were doing either. But they allowed us deeper and deeper into this complex, buzzing us through heavy metal doors that slammed and clicked behind us. They sold us our visas, exchanged the obligatory currency at the official rate, leaving us with palms full of Monopoly money covered with pictures of farm machinery.
And then they left us and went about their business. People streamed past in the other direction, giving us odd looks. But the soldier in charge of the final door was nowhere in sight.
“I hated traveling with you,” he says, clicking the TV off with an air of finality.
“I don’t travel well.”
“Like wine, right?”
I sit by the bed and study his face. He is a little pale and he’s lost weight. His cheekbones are a bit too prominent but this is striking, makes him more handsome.
It’s a funny line we’re supposed to walk, between nonchalance and concern, between normalcy and terror.
“Jean been in to see you?” I ask, a bad question to fill an awkward pause.
He shakes his head.
“Just you and Paulie. Everybody else —” he gestures in the air like a magician freeing doves, smiles just a little, squints in half-suppressed anger and pain. “They ee-vap-o-rated.”
“Poor them. What must that be like?”
“Poor them,” he echoes softly.
I wasn’t prepared for it, though the wait had made us both edgy. I was feeling more stupid than anything else, guilty that we hadn’t planned better, that we were going to blow the opportunity to have a good, cheap dinner, that things were going to be rushed and clumsy in East Berlin.
It shook the foundations of the building. It hurt my ears. It caused a flurry of activity in what had, up to that point, appeared to be a sleepy border station, sent several soldiers running through the area where we waited. That’s what the explosion did.
But it was the silence and the calm afterward that almost did us in.
“What the fuck was that?” he whispered to me, because I’m supposed to know these things.
We stood for what might have been a very long time, listening to our hearts, wondering, trying not to wonder, breathing, trying not to breathe.
A soldier in a great coat came up behind us.
“Follow me please,” he said, and we did.
“They’re afraid,” I say, after a pause.
“Of me,” he says.
I’ve never used the word. I’ve never heard him use the word. We dance around it, a clumsy dance, a superstition that cannot protect us anymore, a vestige of a more hopeful time.
“I’ve got it,” he said when he first told me. “I tested positive.”
“Aren’t you afraid of ‘it’?” he asks now.
I nod, and the weight of my head feels like a heavy betrayal.
“But you’re here.” He grants me absolution.
I put my hand on his shoulder to reassure him of this, and the action disconcerts — yet reassures — us both.
I understand the others, as does he. This mindless fear of contagion, of the plague, it’s not hard to fathom. People react the same way to cancer. And they must know, with far greater certainty, that that’s not contagious.
His family hasn’t had anything to do with him since he came out, and that was more than five years ago. It’s strange, this ghettoization. It breeds a sorrowful solidarity. When he leaves the hospital — if he leaves the hospital — the Gay Men’s Health Crisis will assign him a “buddy,” like a visiting nurse. He has them, and I suppose that’s good. But what a terrible fraternity.
What did I think of, going backward through that cement labyrinth of electronically locking doors? I don’t remember. Was it the Nuremburg Laws or my one phone call, the right to remain silent or the Helsinki Agreement, my mother’s maiden name or the phone number of the American Consul?
“Those terrible little cars in Hungary,” he interrupts my chain of thought. “What were they called?”
I smile. There’s a picture in his living room, an enlargement, a present to commemorate a trip that has become so much nicer in retrospect than it was at the time, a photograph of “one of those terrible little cars” as we passed it. It’s a dirty white shoebox with a motorcycle engine, and the driver is looking at the camera, clearly not a happy man.
He nods at this. “Drive two miles: pass a Trabant. Drive two miles: pass a Trabant. Drive two miles. . . .”
He lifts his hands, shows me their pink backs. “They get hot when it’s time for my medicine,” he says, and rings for the nurse.
They make AZT from herring sperm and this perplexes me. How did they discover this, first of all? And, second, how do they get the herring to give it up?
The nurse who administers the injection — I look away — puts on rubber gloves first. It’s his blood she fears, and I suppose this is one fear that has some basis. But it seems as if rubber gloves are becoming a part of the landscape. I see them on token clerks now, and the occasional ticket vendor. What would these people do if faced with something truly contagious, like polio, typhus, or TB, a disease where a sneeze in the face is all it takes? They smoke cigarettes, these people, they lie in the sun. They eat saccharin and microwave their food. Gloves aren’t going to save them.
He was in here five years ago, had something minor and unmemorable. He had a lot more visitors, too. Three of us, old high school friends, came to see him, brought him a Playgirl, and a bunch of balloons filled with laughing gas, walked them right past the guards and the nurses.
The soldier came to an abrupt halt, turned to face us, and reached into one of the pockets of his coat. He handed us our passports.
“You must go to West Berlin,” he told us, with force, a suggestion to which we were more than amenable. We scurried the hundred yards or so back across the tarmac that separates Us from Them, back to the little shack the Allies share, looking for answers from the crew cut, bull-necked MP there, the local representative of Us.
Clearly, this was one of those situations, savory and rare as Black Angus beef, in which he was given — God-given, I’m sure he thought — the opportunity to condescend to almost everyone, save, of course, the Frenchman and the Brit, the former in his boxy de Gaulle hat, the latter absent-mindedly fingering the well-starched crease in one of his trouser legs, all of them frozen there in what seemed a scene from the distant past.
“Ah doan know,” he said to us, casual as apple pie, “sounds lahk someone jus’ tried to blow another hole in the wall, lahk they did las’ week.”
Ah-huh, ah-huh. Thank you, Gomer.
“Now you’ve got something to write about,” he said, almost triumphantly, when we had settled for an Italian restaurant not far from our side of the wall, where we sat and thought our private thoughts about what the other side of the wall was like — inaccurate thoughts, we would later find out, when the other side turned out to be just as run-down and bombed out near the wall, just as built-up and overpriced the farther from the wall one went.
But, of course, it’s never that easy.
“It isn’t believable,” I told him. “It’s overly dramatic.”
“But it happened.”
Never a good enough reason.
“If you did write about me,” he says, turning the TV back on to undercut what he is saying, not looking at me, making me feel like I’m not supposed to look at him, “you’d make me believable, wouldn’t you, not overly dramatic?
“And you wouldn’t moralize,” he goes on, “would you, wouldn’t make it a cautionary tale, something else to sell safe sex, or to condemn the irresponsible faggots who brought an end to urban living in the late twentieth century?”
The word “faggot” always makes me flinch. I’ve never worked out the calculus which allows him to use it with such impunity and makes it such an offense when anyone else uses it. But then I suppose it’s the same rule that allows blacks to call each other “nigger” and Italians to call each other “wop.”
I whisper, “No,” and wait for him to apologize. When he doesn’t, it occurs to me, with more force than it has in the last two years, that he is dying, and may now consider himself beyond apology. I have trouble deciding whether that’s healthy or not. The dying part is easy: I don’t think that’s healthy under any circumstances. And maybe he’s right; maybe it’s the same with apologizing.
“It’s your attitude,” he says finally, faint echoes of grade school. “That’s why you’re such a lousy person to travel with.” He clicks the TV off again and turns to look at me, lying on his side, looking childlike and lost. “You compromise, but you don’t want to, your heart’s not in it. People can tell,” he says, and his eyes begin to water, “and you ruin their enjoyment, make them feel guilty.”
This is old news. “I’m supposed to compromise, and I’m supposed to like it,” I reiterate for him, my voice a little sharp.
He nods and smiles at me.
“Not the slightest fucking chance. Not for all the drunken cabdrivers in Budapest. Not for every frozen whore in Berlin — straight or gay. Not for every overfed dachshund in Vienna. I wouldn’t insult myself or the intelligence of anyone I was traveling with. I’m lousy to travel with. That’s part of the package.”
Walking down Fourteenth Street, before, going toward Saint Vincent’s, the more difficult direction, and I was dry, dry as a desert wind, my eyes so dry they hurt, my throat so dry my breath cut. I wasn’t crying. I wouldn’t. I couldn’t.
It was as if someone had just taken the plug out of my ass and drained me. That’s how he’d put it.
When I was a kid, I used to think about my immune system quite a bit. I know that sounds strange. But the idea of the unseen, the internal, fascinated me. Take out my heart and put it in a bottle — better, take out five human hearts and put them in a lineup — and I wouldn’t be able to identify my own heart. How can it be mine if I don’t know what it looks like? But if you couldn’t actually see the immune system, you could at least see the results of its work: pus, mucus, lymphatic fluid.
There was a big emphasis in my family on understanding these things. Pus wasn’t mere evidence of putrescence; it was the white cells that had engulfed the invading microbes. And there was something dramatic about that. I wasn’t allowed toy soldiers — my father was an ardent pacifist — but within my body violent battles raged, invaders were vanquished, territory was laid siege to, then liberated. Though I could only infer the existence of these struggles from various sounds, feelings, and movements, there was high drama here, exultation at the wars my body fought and won.
He has no immune system. Or — more accurately — his immune system has gone over to the other side. It’s having open house. The more esoteric and bizarre infections — things that live in all of us but are kept at bay — are having a field day in his body. Soon, they will kill him.
He’s never told me how he first noticed it. I’ve never asked. But I’ve wondered about it, since I know where he must have been looking, and how feverishly he must have been praying not to find anything.
Was it his dentist who noticed first, probing gingerly in gums that seemed a bit too inflamed, reaching almost unconsciously for a second pair of gloves, fighting down the special kind of terror and pity with which dentists in the Village now live? Or did he realize it himself, did his glands give it away? Was it one of the vibrant strawberry lesions with which Kaposi’s sarcoma spatters the legs, the first one like the kiss of a snake, just above his ankle one day, when he was fresh from the shower after an afternoon of handball?
It’s been three years since he first told me, the wink of an eye — but not for him. Not a long, hoarse, drawn-out scream either. That’s far too easy, and far too cathartic. No. It’s been a gasp, a rattling sound in a chest that has known collapsed lungs — more than once now — the sound of nails tearing slowly off, as clawing hands slip over a precipice.
I would have had the barrel of a shotgun in my mouth the afternoon the test results were confirmed, or so I’ve always said.
We take these things for granted and we shouldn’t.
There’s nothing I can do for him. There’s nothing I can say. But being here must count for something, if not as a witness then simply as a friend. Since friends — quite suddenly — are scarce.
I’m a big believer in selfishness. Altruism I don’t find very convincing. It isn’t what he thinks that matters to me. I’m not here to prove a point or to change his mind about the straights either — and I know that he doesn’t think about me that way anyway.
I wouldn’t want to die alone; I don’t want to deserve to.
His voice is beginning to fade. The AZT makes him drowsy. Or maybe it’s just the minor relief of knowing that what little help there is has begun making its way through his veins, winning minor and ultimately inconsequential battles, fending off what cannot be pushed out.
“Sit down,” he orders, retreating into the surly tones of a tired child. “Take the plug out of your ass. Leave the window alone. There’s no air here anyway . . . there’s no air. . . .” He drifts off, the television a background lullaby of meaningless noise and random light.
I wait. I watch. I listen to his breathing.
“Call before midnight tonight,” the television says, “and we will send you, without. . . .”
I lean over the bed and kiss him on one of his too-prominent cheekbones. And in his sleep, if sleep it is, he smiles.
Donald N. S. Unger