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Authors: Michael Nava

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BOOK: The Death of Friends
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“What happened?”

“He woke up having trouble breathing. He’s here at Midtown.”

“I’m on my way,” I said, and only then did I notice the half-dozen messages on my answering machine from the morning.

The fourth floor of Midtown Hospital—the AIDS ward—had become as familiar to me as the floor plan of my own house. Once I’d come to visit one friend and bumped into another strolling down the hall, dragging his IV along with him. My AA sponsor, Tim Taylor, had died in one of these rooms in a hospital gown and handmade Italian slippers. He’d left them to me. I could neither wear them nor throw them out, so they gathered dust in the back of my closet.

Josh was sitting up in bed with an oxygen mask pressed to his face, watching
The Simpsons.
His mother, Selma, sat in a chair beside the bed, knitting. I kissed him on the forehead.

Selma said, “Hello, Henry.”

“Hi,” I said. “How are you feeling, Josh?”

He lifted the mask long enough to say, “Like shit.”

“That’s the spirit,” I said.

Selma got up. “Sit down, Henry. I need to call Joshua’s father.”

“Tell him I’m okay,” Josh said.

She kissed his cheek. “Don’t talk too much.”

After she left, I sat on the edge of the bed and reached for his hand. “Is it pneumocystis?”

He flicked the mask to his forehead impatiently. “They don’t know,” he said. “They shot me up with antibiotics just in case. I’ll just be here a couple of days, but now Dr. Singh thinks there’s something wrong with my kidneys—” He pulled the mask down, took a couple of deep breaths and lifted it again. “I’m backing up, like a broken-down toilet.”

“What’s he recommend?”

“More drugs,” Josh said, disgustedly. “I swear to God, it’s the drugs that are killing me, not the infections. I cannot take one more thing. Next I’ll be wearing diapers and—” He pulled the mask down and breathed, gripping my hand. When he raised it again, he said, “I can’t do this anymore.”

“We’ll get through it, Josh.”

“What’s the point,” he said, tears gathering in his eyes. “It’s not like I’m ever going to be well again.”

I squeezed his hand and repeated, helplessly, “We’ll get through this.”

He wiped his eyes on his sleeve and nodded. “Stay with me a while, okay?”

“I’m not going anywhere,” I told him.

He closed his eyes. Within a few minutes, he was asleep. I got up and went to the window. The Century City towers glittered through the hazy late October afternoon. There was laughter in the hall behind me. I said a prayer, always the same prayer. Two words. Help us.

“He told me he doesn’t dream anymore.”

Selma was standing in the doorway, a plump woman in late middle age, her heart-shaped face drawn and tired.

“Probably he just doesn’t remember them,” I said.

She approached the bed. “I used to think it was unnatural that Josh is a homosexual,” she said. “Now I know that unnatural is when a child dies before his parents.” She smoothed the sheets above his wasted legs. “I wonder, have we done right by him? Given him enough support?” Her voice shook. “What is enough in a situation like this?”

“You’ve been wonderful,” I said, and added, tactfully. “Sam, too.”

“Sam tries, Henry.”

I nodded. Josh’s father had never come around to the fact either that Josh was gay or that he had AIDS. I still hadn’t forgiven him for a remark I’d heard him make to Selma the last time Josh was in the hospital. “My boy is dying of a homosexual disease,” he’d said. “Just what every father hopes for.”

“Sam’s stubborn,” Selma said. “So is Joshua. Stubborn and sensitive. I used to think maybe he’d be an artist of some kind.” She picked up her knitting and carefully put it into a canvas bag. “But I was afraid for him, too. The world’s a hard place for men who are stubborn and sensitive. But you know that.” She squared her shoulders. “Now that you’re here, I can go. I’ll be back in the morning.”

“I’ll see you then,” I said.

For the rest of the evening, Josh drifted in and out of sleep. We talked while he was awake, and when he was asleep, I held his hand and thought. Not about him or us or the future. That was too big and frightening a place to go to. I thought about Chris and Bay and Zack Bowen and Detective McBeth. My conversation with her had confirmed that Bay either didn’t know about Zack Bowen or wasn’t telling. If she knew about Zack, if, in fact, Chris had left her for him, why would she not reveal that to the police? Zack said that she and Chris had fought over his leaving. Was she afraid if she said something it would cast suspicion on her? Bay a suspect in Chris’s murder? The notion was incredible. Yet, when I thought about the manner of the murder, the weapon, the violence, it had all the markings of a crime of passion, improvised and ugly. And Bay was nothing if not passionate.

8

I
LEFT JOSH AT
around 10:30 and ran into his doctor, Vikram Singh, coming out of another patient’s room. Singh was a small, slender man, whose dark, fine-boned face was set in deep lines of fatigue. He saw me, extended a slim hand and said, “I was just going to look in on Josh,” in an Anglo-Indian accent that made even the most banal greeting sound like a line from the Upanishads.

“He’s asleep,” I said. “You’re working late.”

He shrugged. “We should talk. Let’s go into the common room.”

The common room was dominated by a wide-screen TV and big framed photographs of movie stars. Bookshelves held paperbacks and board games. There was track lighting and modular furniture in pale blues and greens. It was spotlessly clean, as if it had never been used. With a sigh, Singh slumped into an armchair.

“You know Josh is very sick,” he said, the harshness of the words blunted by the softness of his voice.

“Does he have pneumocystis again?”

He shook his head. “No, it’s not PCP this time. Just a mild case of ordinary pneumonia. That wasn’t what I meant when I said he’s very sick.”

“Then what?”

“His kidneys are beginning to fail,” he said. “It’s called HIV-nephropathy and it leads to a condition called uremia. Do you know what that is?”

“He told me he was like a backed-up toilet.”

Singh smiled briefly. “It’s good he can still make jokes. What it means is that his bloodstream retains the toxins that are normally excreted in the urine. Eventually the system poisons itself.”

“What can you do?”

He gave me a look at once sympathetic and irritated. “There’s really nothing,” he said. “Not in his condition.”

“And what is his condition, exactly?”

“Well,” he said, “as you know, he went through a period of neurological disability early on and there’s still some impairment there, loss of short-term memory and some minor motor problems, but he’s still functioning at a very high level of mental acuity, all things considered. That could change, of course. His main problem is the MAC, the wasting.”

“I know what that means.”

“Yes,” Singh said, wearily. “The weight loss, the diarrhea, fatigue, insomnia, all those symptoms. His neuropathy is also getting worse, bad enough that he may soon have trouble walking. All this has left him very, very weak.”

“How weak?”

“He’s entered a terminal stage, Henry. He may have a few weeks, a few months, but no more than that. I think it best for you to prepare yourself.”

My heart seized up, and for a moment I couldn’t answer. “Have you told his family?” I asked, finally.

Singh looked puzzled. “I was under the impression that you are his family.”

“I meant his parents.”

He shook his head. “I’ve had very little contact with them. I thought it should come from you or Josh.”

“You’ve talked to him?”

“We had a long talk the last time he came in to see me,” he said. “He asked me to talk to you. He thought you might have questions for me. Do you?”

“Can he manage on his own or should I make him move in with me?”

Singh smiled and said, “I think we both know one doesn’t make Josh do anything he doesn’t want to. He’s all right where he is for now. Later, yes, you may want to try to persuade him to move. Failing that, we can arrange round-the-clock nursing, but we’re not there yet.” He touched my hand. “This is difficult.” It wasn’t a question.

“What did he say when you told him?”

“He said he had no idea that dying would be such hard work,” Singh replied.

I went down to my car, got in and sat, waiting for something to happen, some tidal wave of grief or anger to overwhelm me, but all I felt was a kind of dazed fatigue. It was the mental emptiness of effort I used to feel when I was a distance runner on my high-school track team, and everything got reduced to putting one foot in front of the other.

What was I then, fifteen, sixteen, pounding the dirt path along the river that ran through my home town? I sought refuge in that emptiness from my first awareness that I was different from other boys. What had Chris told me about his own adolescence, that he didn’t want to be different? I didn’t, either. I watched my classmates being initiated into the world of men and women where everything was planned and the outcomes known; marriage, children, family. That world was closed to me. I didn’t have a plan, didn’t know where I would end up or with whom. So I ran, mile after mile, until my body ached and my mind went blank.

What happened is that I realized I could not outrun this thing. I remember that day, staggering along the path after a stupendous effort, darkness falling in the summer sky, racked with the dry heaves, gasping, “I’m a queer,” the only word I knew for my condition. I was full of fear and I felt completely alone, but I could not deny the truth and there was a kind of relief in that.

I had now reached the same point with Josh’s disease. I couldn’t outrun it. “He’s going to die,” I said, testing the words. They had the same ring of the truth as those other words I had spoken to myself all those years before. I felt the same relief that I had felt then, but now I understood its source. The truth can be painful, but it does not produce evil. Lies are the source of evil. With that thought in mind, I went off to meet Zack Bowen.

The Abbey was on Robertson, just below Santa Monica, on the edge of Boys’ Town. Low brick buildings housed cafes, clothing stores, coffee houses and watch repair shops that rubbed elbows with gay clubs and sex shops. These establishments catered to hordes of the beautiful young gay men who lived in the big apartment complexes that lined the side streets or who drove in from all over Southern California on weekend nights. I seldom ventured there, because it reminded me of San Francisco in the ’70s, when I was a boy just coming out and how out of place I’d felt among the big-muscled boys who cruised each other with cold assessment. Twenty years later, only the faces and the clothes had changed; the air was still charged with the brutal calculation of lust. And beneath that was the claustrophobia of a ghetto, of fearful people looking out at the world from behind invisible fences. On a wall near West Hollywood Video someone had spray-painted, Free Fag Zone, but it wasn’t any kind of freedom I understood.

The nearest parking I could find was several blocks away, and as I walked back to the coffeehouse I passed a video store. I went in and asked the girl at the counter, “I wonder if you could help me. I’m looking for movies from an outfit called Wilde Ride Productions.”

“They’d be in adult videos,” she said. “Last aisle. Are you looking for one in particular?”

“I don’t think so,” I said, feeling rather sheepish.

“Well, they’re shelved alphabetically by title, but you tell from the spine of the box who the production company is.”

“Thanks,” I said.

“No problem.”

Ninety percent of the adult videos were gay and there were a lot of them. It wasn’t clear to me whether I was looking for a clue to Zack Bowen’s character or if I just wanted to satisfy my prurient curiosity, or both. I glanced at the first couple of shelves, looking at the spines of the video boxes until I found one from Wilde Ride. It was called
Asshole Buddies.
I pulled it from the shelf and studied the cover. There was a glossy photograph of two naked young men, pink and muscle-bound, standing back to back and leering at me. I turned the box over. There were smaller pictures of other young men, their names written beneath them. One of them was called Nick D’Angelo, and it was Zack Bowen. He was sitting in a chaise lounge, a swimming pool glittering behind him, wearing a tiny bathing suit. He looked younger than I remembered him, and when I checked the date of the movie it was from three years ago. I put it back on the shelf and left the store.

It was a quarter to twelve when I got to the Abbey. It was set back from the street and opened up to a big courtyard dominated by an enormous iron statue of Mercury. The courtyard was half full of men sitting in small groups around metal tables, talking, playing board games, drinking coffee, watching each other. I bought a cup of coffee and found a table near the entrance and waited.

I waited for an hour, until the courtyard was nearly deserted and the boys behind the counter were beginning to put things away. Then I got up and headed back to my car. The video store was still open. I thought about the movie I’d looked at earlier,
Asshole Buddies.
I didn’t know what it would tell me about Zack Bowen, if anything, but on impulse I went in and rented it.

There was a message from Bay Chandler on my answering machine when I got home. She’d left it that morning, before McBeth dropped in on me. She said, in worried tones, “Henry, this is Bay. I talked to a police detective after you called, a black woman named McBeth, I think. She told me something very disturbing about Chris that I need to talk to you about. Please call me as soon as you get this message.” There was another message from her, from around ten. “Henry, it’s Bay again. I really must speak to you. Could you drop by tomorrow morning, around ten? If you can’t come, please call me first thing in the morning.” This time, there was just a trace of anger in her voice. I could guess what she wanted to talk to me about. Chris’s lewd conduct arrest. I erased the messages.

I went into my bedroom and popped the video into the VCR, got undressed and into bed and pushed Play on the remote control. An American flag appeared on the screen, flapping gently in the breeze, and a deep, masculine voice made a pitch for the First Amendment. “Remember,” he said, as the strains of the
Star Spangled Banner
played softly in the background, “censorship is un-American.” Then the flag dissolved to a scene of two young men fucking in the back of a pickup truck while the credits ran. I fast-forwarded, missing, I’m sure, the intricate plot and witty dialogue, until I came to Zack’s scene.

BOOK: The Death of Friends
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