With a broken-down oven, in a hotel kitchen, on an uninhabited island
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Eric was an apprentice clown at Ringling Brothers. He was tall, an acrobat more likely to get a laugh by diving into an imaginary pool than by raising an eyebrow or with an exaggerated pout of his painted lips. At twenty-three I worked the evening shift as a nurse in a Hoboken hospital near the waterfront, where every corner had a tavern. I met Eric in one of those bars, just a few blocks from the hospital. I was standing in front of the jukebox, and he leaned over me — which was easy for him to do with his height — put in a quarter, and hit B6. My hand hovered over the glass, and he touched it lightly as he whispered, B6 is right, isn’t it? And it was — Paddy Reilly’s “The Town I Loved So Well,” a song I played at least twice every time I was there. Eric grinned. He had a missing tooth but didn’t seem the least bit self-conscious about it, which I liked about him right away.
From then on, three or four nights a week around midnight I would slide into a booth next to Eric. We also liked to park under the train trestle a block from the Esso station and make out. He drove a little Honda Civic that reminded me of a clown car; he would bend his limbs this way and that to get in. Sometimes I followed him home to a large house on Sip Avenue in Jersey City, where he lived with his mother and nine brothers and sisters. I don’t think what we were doing — just sitting in a tavern booth or kissing in a car — could be called “dating.” There should be a word for it, though. We never did make love, but I got to know Eric’s skin and the scent of him (like acrylic paint) and the size of his jeans. At work in the emergency room, as I cut people’s clothes off with big scissors, or guided a tube down someone’s nose, or lifted a blood-soaked dish towel from a hand or a face (once, an entire lip came off with the towel), I would think about Eric’s arms and legs, how supple they were, how accommodating. I couldn’t wait to see him.
I was working with AIDS patients in New York City when I got on a hospital elevator with a clown from the Big Apple Circus, and for a minute I thought it might be Eric, whom I hadn’t seen in thirteen years. Then the clown leaned close and squirted a fake daisy at me, and I rolled my eyes and backed away. Sorry, I hate clowns, I said. It was a mean thing to say — he was a volunteer going to see kids with cancer — but I could barely hold myself together in the middle of the AIDS epidemic. There were new deaths every week.
I had just come from Victor’s room. He was twenty-seven, and his entire lower body was bloated from a sarcoma blocking his inferior vena cava — the large vein that carries blood from the legs and belly to the heart. His abdomen was as hard as a stone. His scrotum was the size of a basketball; it took two hands to raise it off the bed. For his comfort we’d suspended it in a makeshift sling: a towel padded with gauze and taped to the bedrails. There were also sarcomas on his face and in his mouth and lungs and on his swollen legs.
That day Victor had given me a phone number and asked me to call it. I held the receiver in one hand and laid my other on his pulsing stomach as I dialed. Hemlock Society, a voice said. I hung up.
Victor, I said disapprovingly: just his name, nothing more.
All over town people were getting recipes for suicide from this hot line; the most popular was a pill overdose combined with a plastic bag wrapped tight around the head. Who could argue with a desire to end this impossible suffering? I remember looking at Victor’s IV fluid to see how much morphine was left in the bag, and increasing the drip just a bit, and then seeing on his face the hope that I would run it wide open. I wouldn’t, though it would’ve been easy to do. In those days, before machines controlled IV drips, we held our watches up and counted the drops per minute to calculate the dose. Did I hope Victor would die soon? Of course I did, but selfishly, so I would not have to see him suffer. As I left, I looked back, and he was gripping both side rails, straining to see the river outside the window.
When the little spray of water from the clown’s flower shot into my face on the elevator, I imagined Victor’s belly letting go, releasing all the fluid it was holding. Then I thought of Victor as he had been the first day he’d come to the chemotherapy unit, with his splotchy purple lesions and his baby-blue Angora sweater and the meticulous waves in his stunning brown hair. He was a dancer, and he crossed his legs in the chemotherapy chair and jiggled his foot and said, I am so lucky to be on this protocol. Thank you! I am so hopeful! I tried to match his enthusiasm as I labeled a Polaroid of him and placed it in a plastic sleeve in his case-report book, a large binder in which every lesion was recorded. I had no way to count or record the lesions that must already have started to wrap around his inferior vena cava, such that a few months later he would be tricking me into calling for instructions on how to kill himself.
One night I asked Eric if we should go to a movie. Sure, he said, but why? I said I wanted him to take me on a real date. I felt like something was missing between us, just going from work to the bar to his car. He told me I was the girl of his dreams, and he gave me that lovely missing-tooth smile and flung his arm around me in his loose, clownish way. We went to see The Omen, and the evening was perfect. We held hands and shared popcorn and grabbed each other so hard during the scary scenes that we had bruises, and for days afterward I would drop into conversations at work that Eric and I had gone to the movies or that I’d missed the game on Thursday because I’d been on a date with Eric. I felt as simple and pure as Saint Therese of the Roses.
In the emergency room a homeless guy came in from the docks. It was cold out, and he had on layers and layers of clothes. He was almost a caricature of a homeless man, with his smudged face and tar-stained boots and wild, dirty hair. I decided to scrub him clean. I took off all his clothes and lathered up his face and shaved him and washed his hair in the giant shower stall. Then I put hospital pants on him and a gown, and he looked good as he lay on a stretcher, waiting for the doctor to come in. I did this for the homeless man because I was a saint and the girl of Eric’s dreams.
I told Eric all about my good deed while I was lying back in the Honda’s bucket seat and he was grinding and twisting his agile body against mine and the light from the Esso station was like moonlight and the rumble of the train going over the trestle gave me chills of happiness.
The sick men I treated always reminded me of other men who were in good health. In the clinic, seeing skin stretched tight and weeping with sores, I would think about soft, healthy skin. I craved its touch. And so, when I left the hospital, I wanted to make love with anyone I could. My dates often ended in my apartment, where my bed was a mattress on the floor and a single, overstuffed chair faced the window. I was careless sexually. My grief needed an exit, and I felt I could let go in the arms of a stranger.
While Victor was dying on the twelfth floor, his poor diaphragm finally unable to take in air, I was giving chemo to a man named Chet who worked in finance on Wall Street and lived on Madison Avenue. Once, as I was pushing vincristine slowly into his vein, he rested his hand on mine and said, I’m so afraid to die alone.
What about your family? I asked.
He explained that he’d left his “little Podunk town” because he was gay; they didn’t even know he was gay back home: Now I should call them and say, “I’m gay and I’m dying”?
I’d heard this many times from other patients, but I knew Chet’s three brothers and his mother and father had reached out to him often while he was living in New York, asking him to come home for a visit. I pointed out that he had nothing to lose and everything to gain by telling them the truth. Would you like me to call? I asked. We could do it together.
He paused. He had sarcoma in his liver and a colostomy bag because of another tumor obstructing his colon. His face was so thin you could see his skull. Let’s do it, he said, and he smiled and cried both at once, his shoulders shaking in his plaid blazer.
After Chet’s treatment we went into an office behind the pharmacy to make the call. His mother answered. Annette, I said slowly, I am here with Chet, and he wants to tell you something. And I handed the phone to him. Chet spoke so fast, I wondered if she could even understand him: I have AIDS and I’m dying, I know you wanted me to play baseball, I’ve tried to live a good life. . . . He gulped for air and held his stomach. Dad? Chet said, and then, Bobby? Is that you? And then he listened for a long time, tears coursing down his face, past a dark-violet sarcoma on his nose. Hell, he said, come now! And after he hung up, he pulled my head to his shoulder and told me they wanted him to die at home; they wanted to be with him.
Did time stop at that moment? It must have, because even though it was twenty-six years ago, it feels as if I have never left that room.
My skin was always sensitive and itched if I wore a wool sweater. I broke out in hives if I ate chocolate. So when I started scratching my arms and legs in Eric’s car — and at work under my white pantyhose, and in bed until my sheets had small spots of blood on them — I didn’t worry much about it. But after a few weeks I couldn’t sleep, and my legs had long red lines from my nails digging in. I went to see a dermatologist, who thought it was amusing to bring out a picture of a mite magnified a thousand times, so that it appeared to be the size of a quarter, and tell me that this bug was living under my skin and laying eggs there. I started to cry. Hey, he said, scabies is totally curable.
We went over my recent history and decided that, on the night I’d treated the homeless man and cut his miserable clothes from his body and bathed him, the bugs had leapt the short distance between us. The doctor told me about a lotion and a shampoo, how to clean and launder everything I owned, and the people I might need to tell. He would write a prescription for as much Kwell as I needed. I left his office feeling contaminated, and on the bus home I scooted away from my seatmate.
I thought of Father Damien, who’d contracted leprosy while caring for lepers: my affliction, like his, signified my commitment to others. I imagined Eric might see it this way, too. That night, when we were huddled together in his car, I told him about the source of the itching and offered to pay for the lotion and shampoo for him. He pulled away and leaned into the driver’s-side door. Shit, he said. I’ve been itching. All my sibs have been itching. Fuck! I remembered how he was always playing with his younger brothers and sisters, doing clown tricks with them on the floor. Eric told me to leave the medicine on his porch. Then he got out of his car and walked away.
I ordered a carton of Kwell, and on a cold March evening I carried it shamefully up to Eric’s front door. I rang the bell, which echoed in the vestibule, and I waited a couple of minutes, hoping to see him, but he never showed. For a few weeks afterward I avoided the bar where we’d met, and when I finally went back, he wasn’t there. Padraic, the bartender from Dublin, was leaning against the jukebox on a break when I went to play my favorite song.
Hey, Paddy, I said, have you seen Eric?
Oh, sure haven’t, Mary, darling, he said, but I heard he got a job teaching seeing-eye dogs.
I never saw Eric again, and soon I was living in New York and rarely came back to New Jersey.
Chet’s family members were on their way from Pennsylvania to bring him home, and he was in a hurry to get rid of his belongings. He gave many items to the nurses: a chaise longue, a collection of vases from Italy, a lacquered table. To me he offered his bed. It’s a beauty, he said. Bloomingdale’s! Four-poster! It didn’t matter how many times I said no; he wanted me to have it. I even told him straight out it was a boundary issue, a breach of hospital protocol, but he was determined. Two days later, on a Saturday morning, the doorman buzzed my apartment. Men were there, he said over the intercom. They have a bed.
It was beautiful: a pale wood, maybe birch. Chet had gone home to die; there was no way to refuse it. The men put the bed together and lifted my mattress from the floor and settled it within the high, wide posts. For months I slept peacefully.
After Chet died, his family wrote to me and the other nurses about his last few days and how grateful he had been to us. I put the letter in a large envelope where I kept cards from AIDS patients and their loved ones. The envelope was becoming unmanageable.
A few months later I was making my bed when I saw a minuscule worm curled into a ball under the pillow. That night I found another bug, this time on top of the pillow. Then I noticed about ten worms on the floor beneath the headboard. I asked my father about them, and he said there could be woodworms in the bed. Do you see little holes? he asked. I did — tiny hollows in the headboard.
Though damaging to wood, the worms didn’t harm people, and for months I went on removing them from my bedding. Some days there were more than others. I told one or two friends about it, but when I saw how appalled they were, I stopped telling people. All day I fought the hiv virus, a bug that was taking men — or mostly men — from the world, and at night I found light-brown, circular bugs on my pillow. I never crushed them; I lifted them delicately into a trash bin.
I had some choices for where to spend New Year’s Eve that year: I could have gone to a Brazilian club with friends. I could have gone to a drag queen’s house in TriBeCa. I could have hung out at an Irish pub in Jersey. But instead I stayed home with the worms. I was reading in my big easy chair at about thirty minutes to midnight when I realized I could not face another year of bugs. I got out my zippered tool bag, a gift from my father, and started to take the bed apart. It wasn’t easy. I unscrewed the big nuts and bolts, but the joints seemed glued. I hammered and hammered until they started to loosen. I stood precariously on corners and jumped on them to force the sides apart. The other apartments in my building were either empty or filled with partygoers for the holiday, so no one was disturbed by the crashing noises. At about ten after twelve I called my parents to wish them a happy New Year. I could hear people banging on pots in the old neighborhood. Then I returned to the hard work of disassembly.
By 4 AM I had carried all the pieces of the bed to the incinerator. As I swept the dozens of worms that were left on the floor into a paper bag, I grieved Chet’s death all over again, and Victor’s, and so many others. I felt flimsier, as though the worms had left small cylindrical cavities in my body. Air made its way through the holes, whistling through me. But at least the bed was gone. I entered the new year both exhausted and triumphant, sleeping on my mattress on the floor until the light of day finally made its way across the brick courtyard and through my window and into my eyes.
Mary Jane Nealon