Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Vermilion / chapter 3

At the center of every good story sits a lie, an exaggeration that turns the pumpkin truth into a golden carriage. The lie in this story is that Jose was perfect, but that’s not really a lie because perfection has nothing to do with the attributes of self and everything to do with the needs of others. While we alone may hold responsibility for our shortcomings, it is others who make us perfect.

I don't know why this is. I know that at Garrett's memorial, I heard a lot about how tender and loving he was, how spiritual, how giving. I heard nothing about the pissy queen who bragged of numerous and unverifiable degrees in philosophy and literature, who hung up on me whenever I couldn't get him the pot he wanted the minute he wanted it. When the time comes to memorialize Frank, I know I'll agree with the words that are spoken: He was a loving and generous friend, giving of himself and all that was his, a joyous and playful spirit. It’s true. He is. But he is also someone who can lash out at me without warning, making his predicament -- usually something about being out of time, patience, or money -- my fault. The Frank Stovall I know, at least the one I knew when Jose was on this earth, could be every bit the pissy queen Garrett was, just as self-centered, just as grasping and demanding. Damn, but can't we all?

With Jose, it was different. I loved everything about Jose; I still love everything about him, and I cannot see imperfection in him but that I must first see it in myself. My connection with Jose was such that I could not question his choices, his motives, his needs without questioning my own. I could reveal to you my faults, and they are many, but I cannot show you Jose's. For me they do not exist. Perhaps this is simple self-delusion. Perhaps it is a feeling as common as hunger. But it is uncommon for me.

"He expected all of your attention,” she said, “all of the time." I wasn’t there to hear her say it, but when these words ring in my head, words spoken just days before Jose died, I imagine them coming out in a yell. Best friends since high school, this Texan flew to Frank’s side because of a dream that had awakened her in the middle of the night in the middle of her vacation in the middle of the Colorado mountains, miles from any car or road. And now, as she stood jet-lagged in front of Frank’s dream house in the foothills of the Oregon Cascade Mountains, the house that had saved Frank from a slow-lane commute to an LA job he’d hated, the house in which he regularly hosted all his California and Texas friends, Frank started to spin off into the wild blue. Adjacent to the house, the dogs smiled and wagged and pranced behind a chain link fence on shit-covered concrete. They’d been kenneled for days, Frank said. He had to kill them. He couldn’t keep driving back and forth anymore, leaving Jose, not an hour each way, not with Jose's last bit of life hanging in the balance; if he killed himself -- and the dogs -- if he killed himself when Jose died, then maybe they’d end up together. That could happen, couldn’t it? This is not what Frank’s best friend had flown from Colorado to hear, and I imagine these words were intended to splash Frank with a little of the cold water of reality, but I still don’t like it. And I’m not fond of that tone she has, either, the one that says she knows what the hell she’s talking about. "When Jose lived with you,” she said, “he was just a prima donna, and you know it.”

There had been problems, it’s true. The relationship had come to a standstill after Jose got an apartment in town. It didn’t end all at once. It was more of a slow, foot-off-the-gas-but-not-on-the-brake, winding-down-to-a-stop kind of standstill. Jose was lucky to survive the CMV he’d battled on my couch, and so when he qualified for subsidized housing near his doctor, he went. His new apartment was near the hospital, the bus, his friends, a branch of the library, and a movie house; all the things Jose needed. Except Frank. Jose spent every weekend on the mountain, and over a year later he and Frank were still smiling together at my fall wedding reception, but spring announced their separation. Not long after, Jose called me near tears. Frank refused to cut and deliver the flowers that stubbornly continued to grow in Jose’s garden at Frank’s house: daffodils and narcissus, tulips and foxglove, a sea of lilies. "But I love those flowers," Jose cried. "How could he not do this for me?"

I could not make Frank cut or deliver flowers, but what I could do I did. Jose started a writing group after moving to town, and although I’d been working with him on his short stories and was also a writer, I wasn’t invited. Instead, I advised Jose on how to make the group run smoothly, and I helped him with his novel. I did not talk to Jose about my writing; Jose didn't ask. I told him once that I admired his ability to share his work with just about anyone, something all but impossible for me at the time, and I shared my own writing on just one occasion: a poetry reading. Jose came to hear me read, and afterward he did not comment. I did not comment. I thanked him for coming, he thanked me for inviting him, and both of us smiled big smiles, somehow pleased, so pleased. I suppose I could root around here a bit, scrape at the dissatisfactions such interactions might have left, but this isn’t the essay where I dig at my regrets. Fact is, I had not a care about Jose, what he thought, how he acted, who he was in the world; I loved him. I loved everything about him. I could fill a book with what made Jose who he was and what made me love him -- his silly horse laugh, his practical jokes that always included me as silent co-conspirator, his sense of timing, his eclectic taste in movies, his worship of words and books and art, his opinions spoken so freely, his beautiful face and dark eyes that looked right in -- but I could not give you the one thing, the feeling of the one thing, that held us fast: being together. That’s it, the essence of our friendship: it felt good to be together. We stood as witness to each other's lives.

I have a friend who followed The Bhagwan, living at Rancho Rajneesh here in Oregon until it disbanded, and he once tried to describe the bliss -- that’s the right word -- the bliss that arose in him in the presence of The Bhagwan, but he couldn't. I understood. My friendship with Jose had caught me up in the same star gazing, reality-twisting happiness. The two of us spent our days at the movie house immersed in pictures, symbols of the mythology of emotion, imprinting identical light impressions directly onto our brain stems, not a word floating between us. And we spent our friendship awash in words, swimming in the love of words, their supple texture, sculling, dipping our laughing mouths, shooting words like Greek fountains, high into the sky around us. That’s how it was. We had the magical reality of dreams and movies, that wondrous place wherein all things exist at once. It was only those around us -- and later those listening to me tell the tale -- that saw any contradiction in this.

A man in my writing practice group, the place where I wrote the first draft of this book in a white-hot heat, listened to me pour my heart out about Jose for more than a year, and then one day he wrote:

Listening to Dina root around for the foible or flaw which will make Jose seem human, watching her come up empty or with only some gossip from Frank or friends, but never anything cruel or unkind which Jose did directly to her -- oh, he didn't invite her into his gay men's writing group, but I think most people will forgive Jose this, even if Dina hasn't quite -- but listening to this one might argue that she is avoiding something, afraid to face some terrible truth, but I don't believe it; I don't think Dina hides from much of anything about Jose. He may have been miserly and penny-pinching with Frank, he may have been a pedant with Lupin, but Jose and Dina had one of those friendships where they brought out the best in each other. And Jose has always seemed quite human to me.

His illness, his suffering, his fear of dying, these are flaws enough. That Jose didn't complain or whine or impose, that he kept his Latino good manners and courtesy with him past the point where others might succumb to pain and fear, these are his strengths. . . . And as Dina points out, Jose's death from AIDS is ample proof of his humanity.

* * * *

As far as Lupin was concerned, Jose Sequeira was lovely and kind but something of a snob; as far as Jose was concerned, Lupin’s pronunciation of Spanish was so misshapen that he could not abide listening to him speak it. Who knows what others might feel or say about my love of sound and meaning. I know my husband will tell you I seem constitutionally incapable of letting a word slip by mispronounced, in English or any language, but I will tell you that as a child I suffered from both a tongue-knotting shyness and a consistent mangling of both my first and last names. It marked me. So I remember very clearly when I asked Jose to pronounce his last name for me. We were walking in the south park blocks toward the university on a spring day. My eyes had read sequeera on the Writing Center’s intake form, which was of no consequence since all work was conducted on a simple first name basis, but on this spring day walking under the towering white oaks with my student Jose, my listening ears heard cicada, like the insect. Jose didn’t know what a cicada was, but he approved the sound my tongue made, and he did so in such a way as to cause me to feel that particular happiness that comes with calling something by its true and rightful name. It is a gift to know and call a person, place, or thing by its true and rightful name. It is a pleasure to be known and called by your own. Names, like language, are many things; markers for culture, status, familiarity; opportunities for communication and affection; signs that announce age, class, heritage. A true name and a given name can be, but are not necessarily, the same. When they are, they are so only after one has become known, then unknown, and known again to one’s intimates, only after having stared heart into heart with another. This can happen in an instant. This can happen with just word. 

Not long after Jose and I became friends, I attended a reunion of my father's family, people I'd not seen since I was small child, and I noticed that my cousin Jose's name was properly pronounced by family members as "Hoseh," with an s sound, not "Hozay" with a z; that the last syllable of his name was not the "ay" American tongues make it out to be, but the "eh" of red. I returned home and began calling Jose Hoseh. Jose said nothing. Our circle of friends, including Frank who speaks fluent Spanish but says "Hozay," said nothing. My Hoseh was identical to the sound Jose’s mother and sister made when they spoke his name, but no one emulated my pronunciation, not even Frank; and though I carried on a while for the principle of it, the feel of Hoseh was awkward in my mouth and so I reverted to the Americanized version. I never asked Jose what he thought, I didn’t ask him what he preferred, either, and I want to tell you that I don’t know why, but I think I do. What drove me to say Hoseh was the same need which also drove me to say, whenever Jose asked me if I knew of so-and-so and mentioned an author or artist I thought I should know, “Yeah, that name rings a bell,” even when I had no earthly idea. Jose, for his part, said nothing.

When Jose lay close to death in the hospital that last time, years after he'd sat shivering and wishing for death on my living room couch, days before he got well enough to leave the hospital and come home to die, I read to him from Renaldo Arenas' autobiography, Before Night Falls. It has many words and phrases in Spanish and, while I do not speak Spanish, I could not imagine mangling -- anglicizing -- these words written in Jose's native tongue, so I resurrected my best European vowel sounds and made an effort to say Spanish words in something approximating Spanish. Lying quietly with his eyes closed, Jose said nothing. During the first days and weeks after we took Jose home to his apartment and I struggled to communicate with his Nicaraguan parents who spoke little English, I often fell back on my college French or something resembling childhood Italian, something vaguely recalled from growing up in my Grandma Dina's household, hoping that Sonia would supply the proper Spanish pronunciation. For example, when Sonia called me to dinner one evening and I said, "Moment," she obligingly replied, "Momentito." But Jose said nothing. One evening I asked Jose to teach me how to compliment his mother’s cooking, and we got hung up on my pronunciation of delicious -- delicioso in Spanish. Jose made me repeat and repeat and repeat -- delicioso, delicioso -- but I apparently had no ear for it. Although he said nothing, I could see Jose was exasperated when he finally -- finally! -- approved my new sentence. It wasn't until my first Spanish class, after Jose's death, that I understood the problem. My tongue had stubbornly formed the word just like Anna Maria Albergetti (remember her Good Seasons salad dressing commercials?), with the first s coming out with a t stopped in front of it: delitsioso, the sound Italian, like my blood. 

When Jose was dying, he and I did not speak of death. Afterward, I imagined standing next to Frank, with his 35 T-cells, and watching the approach of the next death in my life, his death. I thought if Frank and I could talk about what was to come, the experience would be easier. But to talk of death at such a time is like pausing in front of a speeding car, watching its approach from half a block away, looking at your partner in crime, and the two of you rationally considering the appropriate action to take to avoid destruction. That’s the movies, not life.

It is late in the evening after a long day spent in the hospital at Jose’s side. After I park the car and switch off the engine, I put my arms onto the steering wheel, my head into my arms, and cry. I don’t go on too long. I know this is just the beginning of hard times, not the end. Finished, I step into the warm night air and up onto the swath of grass between curb and sidewalk. I hear the squeal of tires and turn. A pair of headlights swing wide, nearly missing a left-hand turn onto my street. They swipe through a wide drive half a block away as I watch, waiting for the driver to overcompensate again and speed past me like the idiot he clearly is, but instead, the headlights careen back across the street and thump up onto the curb between a telephone pole and my garage; they swerve, squeal, accelerate, and begin roaring down the sidewalk-- toward me! Suddenly I'm on all fours, slick-bottomed sandals, grass slope, scrambling -- the way I once ran in dreams as a teenager -- scrambling like an animal toward safety. In dreams I could never outrun the beast at my heels; but tonight that beast, which turns out to be a silver pick-up, wheels sharply, shoots the space between my car and the one parked behind it, and high-tails it down the road and back into the dark from whence it came. Safe, I run screaming into the street. "Who the hell do you think you are?"  

That’s what it’s like to watch the approach of death. You stand in front of it blinded by surprise and the bright light of moment-to-moment survival, too stunned to realize you're no match for it. And then you run. Like the prey that you are. 

My first car after graduate school was a 1963 Ford Falcon station wagon. My husband, Cliff, hates reading this part because he remembers the details differently, but so it is: memory is unreliable and often our version of things can be as annoying to others as our personality quirks. It is not memory, however, but objective fact that the 1963 Falcon wagon had the first automatic window Ford ever installed. This meant the back window rolled up and down with the push of a button at the driver's seat instead of the crank of a handle at the tail. Theoretically. Ours was more inclined to jam than to close. Cliff worked long and hard to fix the problem, but once the back window was down, it could never be relied upon to go back up. Some things just can’t be put back the way they were. The 1963 Falcon wagon also sported the first-ever transistor radio installed in an automobile, which meant no more vacuum tubes and so no more waiting for the radio to warm up. Just flip the switch and, presto, music -- like magic! But when the rainy season came -- and we have a long one here -- the show was over, and nothing Cliff could do would bring the magic back. But in 1963, what a marvel the new Falcon was, rolling out onto the showroom floors in such designer colors such as aqua and lemon chiffon. Ours was vermilion. That’s the twenty-dollar word for blood red, but by the time we bought it in 1991, our vermilion car looked more like tomato soup made with milk. Bottom line, my Falcon wagon was a two hundred dollar car and looked it. All the same, after graduate school I was so excited to get a car, any car, that I hung up on a long distance friend only to call him back with a tail-to-grille description. 

Humphrey, for that was my new car's name, was a steady-as-you-go three speed -- three on a tree, for those of you who remember -- and while I might have wished he was faster, I always loved the clunk-ka-chunk sound of his shifting gears. It was a sound that suited the plodding pace of an out-to-pasture gelding with the sturdy, friendly face of a mule. My internal combustion steed had a faux air scoop nestled into the hood where a nose might have been, and on his sides were branded what appeared to be chrome rockets but were, in fact, industrial age falcons. For inspiration only, I'm afraid; Humphrey was a slow starter. Oh, he ran well enough when I got him on the freeway, if I got him on, and therein lay the challenge. Portland is a city of freeway on-ramps that double as off-ramps, and so each time I tried to set Humphrey to running loose, I also faced 500-horsepower stallions cutting us off both left and right. We didn’t always make it. Sometimes, just as my old mule was getting up to speed to merge, the two of us got herded off in another direction. However, back on the streets of my city neighborhood, I loved the slow, whining wind-down sound of the engine as I let off the gas and rolled to a stop. It was a comforting sound, the sound of something sturdy and reliable, and I enjoyed it all the more for the fact that I had little comfort in my life at that time. Not long after I got my new car, for example, the same long-distance friend I’d hung up on, a man of 5'9" who’d longed to play professional basketball and who made his living as a sports writer, called looking for my reaction to Magic Johnson's announcement. My straight friend was stunned at the news. I was stunned. But his was the disillusionment of hero-worship, while mine was just plain disillusionment, the disillusionment of the naive. A philandering celebrity sports figure was worthy of concern because of his HIV status but not so with my friend Jose, nor any of my gay friends. No matter how I drew parallels, this friend did not -- would not -- see Jose’s situation as being worth his attention.

When I got Humphrey, I was working as a part-time writing tutor at the Alternative Learning Center, a drop-in center at a community college on the north end of town. It was the first job, since I'd completed my degree nearly a year prior, for which I’d been hired to do the work I'd been trained to do. It took me two buses to get to the Learning Center and cost me a dollar and an hour each way. I worked a four-hour shift twice a week. After we got the Falcon, I was often tempted to drive. Who knows what that cost me. Humphrey got maybe eight miles to the gallon, and I'd rev the engine up to the top of every gear before shifting, getting the most power I could out of my three-in-tree speeds. I drove that car as fast and as hard as I could push it, like it was my own body, my anxious legs pumping and churning hard, harder, hardest. So, while on the bus it seemed like I sleep-walked to work and back, in the Falcon it seemed like I ran. Then, one day, not twenty yards from the uptown freeway off-ramp and the circuitous route that winds me round the edge of the city and across the river to my rented home, I hit the wall.

The wall runners hit.
The wall writers hit.
The wall families hit. And friends.

Things fail. The people we love, the bodies we rely on, the cars that get us to our jobs and homes, they break down on us at the moment we least expect. It can’t be helped; we are not immortal, and while they remain longer than we, neither are the mountains nor the seas nor stars. It is a universal truth that all things perish. Fast or slow, with warning or without, it all goes. One day I’ll go. I find myself looking at old people and thinking, Someday that will be me. But even though we know this, even though we know our loved ones will cause us pain, our cars break down, our houses collapse around our ears, and our lives screech to a halt, we are surprised when it happens.

I wonder if a star is surprised when it finally winks out of its existence as a being of adoration and light and tornadoes into the gravitational unknown. Star, supernova, black hole; even on a celestial time table, the end -- the transmutation from this form to that, from motion to stillness -- must come as a shock. And so it is no less with human beings. We super-glue and duct-tape and patron-saint our cars and our bodies, hoping they’ll take us that last extra mile, deliver us to that last important destination, and in the midst of nothing important -- a run to the grocery store; or of everything -- rush hour; they stop.

The vermilion of their days spilling like pollen onto the airwaves.

It was on a spring morning, the same spring that brought me Humphrey; Jose called to tell me he had AIDS, and more: he was sick. Fever, chills, night sweats, all the result of some opportunistic infection, no doubt, but he didn't know what it was. Worse yet, the doctor didn't know. It would actually be more than two years before the infections and diseases overtook him, but we didn’t know that then, and Jose was alone: alone in fear, alone in pain, alone in a body that no longer worked properly, and too long alone in a house in the mountains with no companionship but the dogs. He began commuting into the city, Frank dropping him off at six in the morning in a neighborhood just across the river from where I live, and there Jose would sit on the curb, in the dark, waiting for the HIV Day Center to open. Without discussion, Cliff and I gave him a key. We said, Come and go as you like. In my journal I wrote:
Jose has come twice this week. This morning I talked with him briefly before dropping him off at the Center. This afternoon he will have tests run on his liver. He thinks perhaps he is experiencing the beginning of his death. I am at a loss as to how I can reach out to him. I am reaching, but we're not connecting, not able to touch, only sending sound signals (and silences) across the distance.
When he got no better, we said, Move in. You and Frank both. We gave them the attic: narrow stairs made narrower by a sagging handrail, moss green carpet with a futon lying on it, a bare bulb in a ceiling so steeply sloped that only a child could stand up under it, and plywood walls that the previous renter had painted bright public-swimming-pool blue. You could lie on your back and feel like you were drowning. It was what we had to offer. They stayed the night one time. Then another. Then two nights in a row, then three. . . . Jose just kept getting sicker. In my journal I reminded myself:
I wished for this. In the wake of deaths experienced at a distance I invited Death to walk a little closer to my door. I wanted to better hear this song. And now Death walks down my street humming under his breath, softly humming.
Each morning, when Frank got up, Jose would come downstairs to sit on my sofa. It wasn't a proper sofa but the loveseat-sized end of what was once a sectional, cunningly striped in two shades of golden brown like a brindled cat, but that was back in the days when my car was just a colt. The sofa Jose sat on was a straight-backed, one-armed, taxidermied version of the original, with the stuffing poking out of one corner. There was no love left in this loveseat, which made sitting awkward and lying down impossible, but each morning there Jose would hunch under a blanket, brown skin ashen, mouth clamped shut. His mother, who normally visited this time of year, did not know he was sick, not how sick. His father did not know he was gay. I knew everything but what to do. Normally unwilling to speak before coffee and at least half a newspaper, mornings found me chattering endlessly as I waited for my turn in the bathroom. One morning I hit a spin, like a car on black ice. Skidding in slow-motion circles, I ran on and on and on about the transformation the women in my family make every day before going to work or out shopping, and when I ran out of my own tale to spin, I began asking Jose what rituals the women in his family had. I suppose I was apologizing for my disheveled state, or perhaps for the fact of living in close quarters, but mostly I was longing to fill the silence; I who craved silence.

Running late more and more, I began driving to work. There I began to hear laudatory remarks from my co-workers as I let out, like a slow leak from a punctured tire, the fact that my friend with AIDS was ill; that he was staying with me because he and his partner lived an hour away; that he couldn't be that far from a doctor; that he had nowhere else to go. The lauding came in hushed tones and included words like brave. Brave. In pursuit of a career in writing or something like it, I was slowly going broke, putting off my student loans just one more quarter and then one more so I could bus to a part-time, eleven-dollar-an-hour job at a community college -- a job I loved -- in the part of town that news-watching suburban whites regarded as our version of Harlem, and then drag myself through drug-infested Old Town to an afternoon job in a repo department in the suburbs. Each was an hour's commute by bus; one way. When I drove, it was in a red rust bucket with lint-covered seats and bad brakes. I may have been a lot of things, desperate comes to mind, but I don’t know that brave was one of them. I was in no danger, unless you count the temptation to feel sorry for myself come afternoon. What I felt was ridiculous. Wearing my eggplant Valerie Steven's suit or my heather gray Jones New York, purchased on close-out, I must have looked like a neon sign for the do-good-white-women's-society as I rushed to arrive on time to teach teen mothers and displaced middle-aged homemakers to read college texts and write compositions on outdated Apple computers. From my point of view, bravery was what was going on around me; from the man in his sixties who had raised up a family and held down a job but was just now learning to read, to the overweight, gap-toothed woman in tight pants who talked about loving Jesus and wrote about sexual abuse and being beaten; black, brown, white, I tutored a spectrum of adult basic education students most teachers never see, mostly women, mostly middle-aged. There were few men at the Learning Center, and they tended to be shy with me, except for the young blond with palsy in his limbs and on his lips. He had arrived at the Center by way of collision: drugs, speed, and the immovable object. He kept trying to get me to go out with him, out on a date, out to the parking lot, out to his car -- he didn't care, anywhere. I adored them all, even the woman who wrote about kicking her son out of the house when he confessed his homosexuality. She loved her son, she said, but she loved Jesus more. At the Center, I helped her to read the literary essays assigned in her comp class, word by word, sentence by sentence, idea by idea. The day I left that job she pressed a five dollar bill into my hand, and when I declined, her eyes got teary and she insisted, saying, “You need to have something to see you through.” At home Jose, my one-time student, my dearest friend, and now my housemate, sat on my couch in silence. No matter what I said to draw him out, he wouldn’t talk. Then one morning, he said, “I want to die.”

Machisma. This is the covering of problems with a shrug and a smile or with light-hearted banter or laughter, saying always, "Fine, fine! Things are great." So many women I know do this. So many gay men. When Jose and I went to see Woody Allen's Husbands and Wives, he and Frank were newly split up and Cliff and I were having trouble, though I wasn't telling Jose about it. I like to think Jose never knew, he admired Cliff so, but the truth is that Cliff and I hadn’t been married a year when Jose began to ask, "Are you and Cliff okay?" I always had the same answer. "Yes, yes, we’re fine." Then Jose would say, "Sometimes when people marry after living together for a long time" -- in our case the better part of a decade -- "sometimes things fall apart." But I'd laugh. I laughed it off the same way Jose and I laughed at those too true, too painful scenes in Husbands and Wives. In self-defense.

In the first years of my friendship with Jose, Cliff and I often spent the weekend in the mountains with him and Frank. This was when they were still a couple, still in love, before Cliff and I were married, when Jose was in seemingly good health. One weekend Frank bought a video of The Mamas and the Papas singing and reminiscing, and with Frank every latest discovery is so exciting, so wonderful, it must be shared right now. So we let him put the tape in and then puttered, sitting down to watch when it got good. I had a headache that day and soon retired to the loft to peer at the video and my friends from between the bars of the rail. I was sad that weekend, sad near the surface for no reason I could discern. Maybe it was the headache, a migraine no doubt, although I didn't know at the time that’s what those were, or maybe it was just music sung in a minor key. In any case, I couldn't help crying and I couldn’t stop crying, but I did it the way I expressed many emotions in those days. Silently. If anybody suspected, no one said; it was a house full of men, and I was trying to hide my tears, not share them.

This is also the way I conducted my friendship with Jose. I never let him see me upset about his illness or his dying. While we shared every feeling -- sometimes spoken, just as often not -- shared the way some share a cigarette, it is ironic, or perhaps fitting, that we hid our pain from each other. We were careful, the way Jose was careful with the blood that flowed just beneath the surface of everything in his life, lest the vermilion spill. It cost me. Each time I would sit down, for his birthday, at Christmas, upon the occasion of the completion of his novel, each time I bent to put the words of affection or pride to paper, the ink dried in my pen. I had no words, only the devotion of my actions. Even today I cannot rightly say whether Jose and I were alike in this way, this need to act rather than speak, or whether I was following his lead, learning his rules of relationship. Then again, it is with men whom I have always formed my closest bonds, so how could I know the difference between the rules of love and the rules of men?

I knew Jose was scared. I operated on that premise. And on the premise that he would not tell me directly. This emanated from a place in me far below the level of conscious thought and informed all my actions. I do not know if Jose knew that I was scared; he caught me crying only once. Okay, twice, and I'll bet it was the same day, the day Jose’s father flew in from LA. That was two years after I worked at the Learning Center, two years after the time Jose got CMV and sat mute and ashen on my couch, all the color of his lovely brown cheeks withdrawn to the poison in his veins. He and I spent those two years like kids at a carnival, riding every ride and eating every kind of food on a stick like we’d never get older, never get tired, never get sick and have to go home. Our lives were not perfect, nor our hearts trouble free, but when we were together ours was a brighter, prettier world than most mortals inhabit.

I knew Jose would not recover from this new round of diseases. I knew he did not want to spend his last days living with his immigrant parents in his sister’s husband’s house, not in that atmosphere of the-pin-has-been-pulled-but-the-grenade-hasn’t-gone-off . . . yet. But until that day, until Jose lay in his hospital bed before me, side by side with this fear of having to go “home” to a home that wasn’t his, until that day when I sat beside him and felt his father draw closer, closer, I had never considered the possibility that Jose might actually leave me. Still, I didn’t stay to say good-bye. I stayed to ease the transition, the waiting period that marked the culmination of years of filial distance, the hours before the dying son welcomed the Latino father who now knew that he had AIDS, but not that he was gay; the father who had never visited him in Portland, not while Jose had lived with Frank, not while he had lived alone, not when Jose’s mother came to see him, not in the entire seven years he’d been here; now this father was coming to take Jose home to die, as family is privileged to do. That I, Jose’s best friend, was here, that Frank had stepped in to care for Jose as a partner again, that Jose had an entire family here, a chosen family, was of no consequence. This is when I cried. As we waited for his father, Jose and I talked. At times he seemed to speak metaphorically of his nearing death, and at times like a fevered patient on morphine: There are many around me, he said, and they are waiting, waiting for me, but they are afraid of the dark, afraid of nightfall. But the light will help, he said, and my father is bringing the light.

The doctor stopped by and said, “He may as well go home.” This is when I cried.

When I hit the wall, when my car, my vermilion and rust and steel extension of my desire to run hit the wall and broke down -- transmission input sheered in two between second and third gear -- when I broke down on the freeway and angry rush-hour commuters honked their horns and rode my ass and flipped me off because I was creeping along at ten miles an hour while they crept along at twenty, I breathed. I breathed hard. I sucked air like an overheated engine, sucked air . . . until . . . I . . . busted . .

. . . into tears. Naturally.

At work a Latino student had accused me of insulting him. I had told him he couldn't sit at the long table in the writing section of the Center. He was doing math; he had to sit at the math tables. He protested; I cited the rules. Nicely, politely. Enforcement, alas, was part of the job. He remained, I explained, he argued. Finally, realizing I didn't recognize him and thinking that perhaps he was new to the Center and hadn't noticed, I pointed to the sign posted on the table. The young man exploded from his chair: "Who are you to say I cannot read? You saying I can't read? I can read. I can read! I am sitting here."

Stunned, I assured him that wasn't my intent. I validated, I mediated, I apologized, I soothed, I calmed. Then I ducked into the staff room, surprised at the hot tears rising behind my composure, and even more surprised at my own explosion: "My friend is dying, I'm afraid he's dying at home on my couch, and he won't talk to me."

He does not need this woman's help.

* * *

The man in my weekly writing practice group wrote:

My hour with Jose, the only one I had, was at the famous Red Dress Party. I'd just met Tom Spanbauer and all these white-hot writers, had just come face to face with how much I had to learn as a writer, with how lucky I was even to be invited into the Dangerous Writers group, and I'm at a party where I'm cross dressing for the first time in my life -- in a red dress -- my blond hair in a frumpy bun on top of my head and my beard shaved off and make-up on and my own friends don't even know who I am till I speak. And there was Jose: tall, beautiful, big-hair wig, serious cleavage, and a spangled strapless number he was clearly comfortable in. Comfortable was the last thing I was feeling.

I glommed onto Jose so I wouldn't have to spend the entire party in a corner or wandering around endlessly trying to look like I was having such a good time I was too busy to stop and chat. Jose was easy to talk to. His Spanish accent made him more approachable somehow -- I figured I could throw in a Spanish sentence here and there and charm him. Jose told me about his novel, told me the plot and what he was trying to accomplish, told me he had AIDS, told me he liked to dress up as a woman and perform for his friends, told me how to use scotch tape and make-up to get serious cleavage on a man's chest.

For somebody as shy as I am at a party, Jose was the perfect companion: if I asked him a question, he'd talk for five minutes; if I asked him another, he'd talk for ten. We spent an hour together, then I was ready to mingle. Jose got me through that party, that marvelous party where everyone, all 200 people, wore a red dress and where I came away remembering not the prettiest woman but the man with the most outrageous dress. Jose was a real human that night. Vain enough to talk about himself for an hour when that was exactly what I needed.

My friendship with Jose was like the movies he and I watched on his 13-inch television: small in actual size but in power all-encompassing. In my field of vision, the scenes on that 13-inch screen expand to fill the room, the house, the heavens. Years before I met Jose, I had watched Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles on a black and white television, but what I remember is in color, the tan-skinned Martians in their white white flowing robes, the gold glitter of their seamless eyes, huge, seeming to see all things and nothing. For me this movie takes place in my living room: right before me, Martians stand tall as trees, graceful as animals. Their presence makes me catch my breath, and yet, mesmerized as I am by them, I cannot tell you what they said. Not a word. And so it was with Jose: his presence and the soulful nature of our friendship eclipsed the moon, the stars, my pain, even my husband at times. When Jose’s life began to wane, I let him become everything to my heart, and my heart is where I live. Then. Now. Always.

So if I must show Jose to have faults, if faults are required for the perfection of our friendship be believed, for you to be certain that Jose was indeed human and not simply a figment or wish fulfillment of my imagination, then I choose machismo. It is the worst I can say about Jose. It may also be the best. In truth, I cannot say that in Jose machismo was a fault so much as it was a surprise. Maybe I thought my friend was beyond it. Maybe I thought being gay somehow canceled it out. (It would be another ten years before my husband would look at me and say of another gay friend, “Don’t try to process your emotions with him. He’s a guy.”) In any case, I didn't expect it, this machismo, and I didn’t know what to do with this man on my couch, hunched under a blanket and ready to die but not to speak of death. But that is not a time I think of often. More often I think of the times when I did not bring up the subject of death, the times I could have started the conscious, straight-talking conversation. I had opportunities. Like the time Jose returned the collected cards and letters I'd written to him. And the time he suddenly gave me an Italian coffeepot that had been in his family for generations. I knew what the gift meant; just before she died, my grandmother began parceling out her possessions. But that was to happen years later, and under circumstances where I knew to expect such things. As Jose handed me the ceramic coffeepot, as he asked if I wanted it, what I noticed was the roses: hand painted with a stylized realism that the women of my grandmother’s generation loved, in detail so crisp that they seemed etched, almost silver-edged; roses the color of dried blood. As Jose handed me the coffeepot, as he asked me if I wanted it, I berated myself for not taking the bold route, for not pushing the door that says pain on one side and relief on the other. But I had no earthly idea how to say to him, I know this means you’re dying. As Jose handed me the coffeepot, as I thought about wanting it and waited for him to talk, waited for him to open that door, he said, “Do you want the coffeepot?” and I heard that this was a gift meant for someone who appreciated its significance, someone in the family. I accepted.

Machismo. It is the door to the inside of a man.

Machismo. It is the door to a man snapped shut. It is what makes my husband unable to share his fears with me. It is what makes my husband unable to tell me the tender things I know he feels. It is also what drives him to ask whether there is enough gas in the car, whether I know the roads are slick with rain, to say, “Drive carefully.”

Machismo. It's what had me upstairs in the loft that weekend, weeping with a migraine, weeping silently under the sound of The Mamas and the Papas.
Machismo. Jose stood on the other side of that door and protected me, the friend who loved him like a child loves a fairy tale.

When Jose opened his eyes that last day in the hospital and caught me crying, I smiled at him. I said, because I had no words for what I was feeling, "If I had a brother, I'd want him to be just like you." In a tone of voice I did not know, which came from a man I knew but did not recognize, Jose promised to take his father aside. “I will tell him,” he said, “you are my special friend"; that I was family. The words themselves made no more sense to me than my own, both sentences from some gift shop greeting card, but I recognized the familiar inflection, which put the accent on special.

* * * *

We live in an age of information, an age in which it is easy to believe that there are words for everything and that all things can be spoken. But this is not true.

The moment before something happens, we think we will have words to describe what we have not yet experienced. The moment after, perhaps long after, we take aim at our feelings and speak as if setting loose words crystallized like diamonds in the volcanic heat of experience. But this isn’t so. No words formed in that moment. Some moments preclude speech. The moment of death. The moment of birth. The moment of orgasm. The moment of getting or losing exactly what we always wanted. At each of these moments we cannot speak, not coherently.

Jose and I did not say, I will miss you.

Jose and I did not say, I'm sorry to leave you.

We did not say, I wish this weren't happening.

We did not question the tenets of our lives, at least not to each other. Perhaps to Cliff, to Frank. Perhaps alone, each in our own beds, each in our own heads, in the dark. But not in the bright white-water of everyday life, not when the boat tipped, certainly not in the shock of plunging into icy reality: it takes the breath away, that first moment, speech as well.

Away from Jose, I suppose I had words -- they ran endlessly in my head if not out my pen -- but being together always came with the forgetfulness of pleasure, not to mention the shock of the boat tipping over. Still, I never cried out. I breathed -- or held my breath -- navigated the rocks, focused on the dark uneven texture of Jose’s face, deciding, minute to minute, that I would do whatever it took to be near him. I wasn't thinking, not in words, not in any language. If I was thinking at all it was in terms of survival, but then that's not something we have to think about.

Did Jose and I ever speak of death? Some things must be spoken in an older language. I drove him to the doctor for his appointments. I took him to the hospital for his procedures. I walked beside him on the street and on the stairs as if his creeping, careful pace were my own. I listened to all the reports from all the doctors and to the ever-growing list of pills and side effects. At the other end of the telephone line, I talked him through his fears and listened for his voice to became stronger, waiting for the inevitable words: No, no. You don't need to come over. I read his novel, read his fine words in a foreign tongue and helped him to compose, in proper English grammar, this coming-of-age-just-in-time-to-die story. I sat beside him and watched Jose’s fictional boy grow up in a brothel on the edge of a Central American jungle, saw the boy experience first love, mutual masturbation, incest, rape; I followed as he searched for his mother's lost love, the days pealing back to reveal betrayal, magical healing, murder; when Jose’s boy had grown into a young man, I escaped with him to “the dream country,” learning as he did about the drag queens, how to be prostitute, and that disease they called the plague; and I felt just as Jose felt the heartbeat of love -- gained and lost, gained and lost -- that filled the life of this beautiful, reviled, mother-worshipping, man-loving, fantasy-driven boy; until one day Jose looked at me and said,

"But, Dina, you are unshockable."

This isn’t true, of course. It is the lie at the center of my own story.

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