I wrote this piece of rythmic prose several years ago as a performance piece. Its meant to be read aloud.
The afternoon of caring for a man living with AIDS did not happen exactly as I describe in the piece, not at one time. My story is an amalgam of many such afternoons in the days before HIV could be effectively treated.
This is fictionalized memoir, but it is very, very true.
You close the heavy brownstone door to shut off the bright yellow spring day and climb two flights into must and gloom. The stairs creak and you open the door to enter the twilight of a living room you know isn't dusty because you and the friends won't let it be.
You think about opening the drapes but who's going to look at the art on the walls anyway so you take the paper bag from Fairway into the tiny kitchen and you pull out the carton of rich egg custard and kosher chicken soup or kosher style anyway, and then that soft white cheese he loves that you bought from that Carribean guy whose English is so slurred with French that you really can't understand most of what he says.
You look in the bedroom and you see him under the blankets or at least you think you do because there's so little left of him that he barely makes a lump in the white sheets from Bloomingdales that have just the right count of Egyptian cotton thread. But you know he's there because you can hear the rasp of thrushy breath. You can smell him. His room smells like him and old unfamiliar food and sick and bright fake lemon from you and the friends who fight to keep it all clean even though you can't.
You think about giving him the soup cold because last time you burned him and he pretended it didn't matter but you know it did. But who wants cold soup really so you put the carton in the microwave and tap your foot until it beeps.
Damn. You burn your finger stirring it so how can you possibly expect him to get it past his swollen tongue so you swear and just bring him his custard instead.
And this time he's awake or at least not pretending to be asleep anymore so you say, "Hi, Alan," and hold out a spoon. He struggles to sit up, sticks of bone pushing out blue silk and he sketches a smile onto his waxy bristly yellow spotty face.
You know he's not hungry and you know he's not really smiling and you hand him his spoon because it's your turn.
He's not your friend. You didn't know him before he got sick but the friends take care of him and now you do too because they're your friends and everybody takes a turn and today it's yours.
And maybe you're wrong. You watch him grimace in pain trying to make the yellow pudding slide down his throat without swallowing. Even though you didn't know him when he wore those rows of expensive suits and ties in the closet, even if you never saw him shepherding his art at the Met, even if he never held you close dancing at the Roxy, maybe he is your friend.
You hear him sigh and he shakes his head and you go get it anyway.
Maybe since that time that he whispered sour into your ear that he was terrified of dying and you admitted that so were you but, hey, each of us is immortal because we each live in our own personal universe that has no beginning or end because how could we know if it did? Maybe since that time you really are friends even though that weird little chain of thought only comforted you for a second and probably didn't help him at all even though he laughed and patted your cheek.
You go for the soup and see a bone china saucer sitting in the sink crusted with egg yolk so you wash it and taste the soup and it's cold and you bring it to Alan and he's coughing.
Can't catch his breath. Choking on phlegm. He grabs your arm, panic twisting his face and he pulls you in. You pat his back and he's so light you might break him and he's so, so hot, which is weird because that color of cold yellow wax can't be be hot even though it's burning you.
He's finally not coughing just resting in your arms so he didn't die, not today at least when you're all by yourself with him. Not that he's dying. Not that he's an AIDS victim. No. He's a man or woman living with HIV. And that's important. You know it's important because that's what everybody tells you and you're 28 and you believe what people tell you when you're 28.
Your cheeks are wet as you gentle his head back onto his pillow. You don't let him feel the damp, you just smooth his sheets and walk to the bedroom door, careful not to wipe your cheeks with your sleeve until you slip into the kitchen, because Alan can't see you crying.
That's the rule and rules are important and today it's your turn.