- Fiction, Folio, Reading, Writing

Deep Salvage, by Charles Rice-Gonzalez

 

I didn’t think people died of AIDS anymore. No more friends falling ill in large numbers. No more hospital visit after hospital visit. No more Kaposi’s sarcoma, Pneumocystis carinii pneumonia, or friends wasting before my eyes. No more funerals every week.

When I started dating David five years ago, it was no big deal that he was HIV-positive. AIDS was like diabetes now. It’s manageable. People live long, full lives now.

 

Back then, when it was different, I buried Ron, Miguel, Ken, LaVenson, and Jamal, all within weeks of each other. With these men, I danced, had sex, and marched arm in arm as we fought for our lives. We swam naked on Fire Island, got sunburned on Orchard Beach’s Twin Island, dangled our legs over the murky Hudson River at the Christopher Street pier in magnificent Manhattan.

Ron grew so feeble he couldn’t use the voice he raised in protest at so many marches.

Miguel withered from two hundred twenty pounds to one hundred twenty pounds in eight weeks, as if the virus had eaten him away from the inside out, while his lover, Frankie, lost his brilliant mind to dementia.

Ken was determined to beat AIDS and tried every experimental drug available. With every attempt, his kidneys and liver weakened until his body poisoned itself.

LaVenson’s pale brown eyes were shut when Kaposi’s Sarcoma moved from his legs and torso to his face. He could barely breathe when the lesions inside his body took over his lungs, but he managed to whisper farewell to me after each hospital visit in case he died that night.

Jamal’s illness hit me hardest because I loved him. Not the way I loved my other brothers. I was truly in love with him, but I was a coward. I didn’t want to have to bury my beloved. I’d comforted many friends who lost their partners to AIDS. Their tears soaked through my shirts as I held their sobbing, heaving bodies, absorbing the seismic tremors of their hearts. Feeling their pain secondhand was overwhelming. I never wanted to feel what they were feeling, especially if I could prevent it.

I had sex with Jamal, a lot of sex, but I kept my body safe and decidedly avoided the boyfriend road.

But I didn’t have to worry about shunning David’s heart. The AIDS crisis was over, right? Just as long as David took his meds, he was good. And there was a menu of medications to choose from that brought viral loads down so low they became undetectable! Gone were days where diarrhea and nausea were a part of the HIV-medicated lifestyle. The early drug’s toxicity prevented people from working or even leaving the house. Today, most of my HIV-positive brothers and sisters worked, danced, drank, used poppers again, cuddled with their pups, fell in love, broke up, and even got married and had kids.

 

I met David at a poetry reading, my first one since college days. I liked to read the occasional best-selling novel, but poetry? I never got it. My best friend, Pablo, invited me to the Nuyorican Poets Café because he wanted me to meet a poet he’d started dating.

“There’s Emanuel,” Pablo said, nudging me. “Isn’t he hot?”

Without taking my eyes off his new beau, I nodded. “Yum, no fucking, doubt.”

“Hey!” Pablo warned, and I raised my palms, vowing hands off.

I scanned the cramped room to look for other prospects. Many hotties in their twenties, half my age. I figured Pablo and Emanuel were leaving after the reading, so I searched through my phone to plan my next stop before this one had even begun.

I was surprised to be engaged by the slam poets’ theatrics, their gestures, melodic delivery, and bravura. I even followed what some were saying, but after three performances I considered leaving when David stood before the mic. He was tall, lanky, and unkempt. Unimpressed and not attracted, I went to the bar near the entrance before I took off.

Waiting for my beer, David introduced his poem. His voice was flat and low. His eyes seemed too large for his slim face, then he closed them and leaned into the mic.

“My poem is titled ‘Murmurs of My Broken Heart.’”

Cheesy, I thought as he began to recite.

His voice didn’t have the verve of the others but poured forth like an unraveling silk ribbon. His love poem was a simple story of hurt, betrayal, and self-redemption.

“You said it’s no problem, but when you looked into my eyes, you saw the virus, not me.”

The room was silent except for David’s drone opening the chambers of his loneliness, inviting the audience inside. The poem lasted about five minutes. His last line—“Why couldn’t you simply love me?”—felt like he had whispered it into my ear. When he finished, I felt the rivulets sliding down my fingers from gripping the cold beer. I took a quick gulp to push down the lump in my throat. It was as if Jamal had come back from the grave to lament his loneliness.

 

Jamal was a perfect soulmate in every way except that he was HIV-positive. It was 1991. He was like me—brawny, a lawyer, loved the movies and dancing until dawn, preferred steak over anything, and drank beer or scotch. Jamal said he loved me. “I love you too, buddy,” I said, jovially.

“I don’t mean like that,” he said, placing his large, strong hand on my heart. “Like that.”

I was feeling it, too. “Not me,” I said, moving his hand away.

“When we fuck, it’s not just fucking. You know that.”

I looked away. He lifted my chin to look into my eyes again. “Baby, I’m gonna fight this, but I don’t know how much time I have left, so love me, Marco, please.”

We were perfect for each other, but the AZT he was taking to fight the HIV severely damaged his liver, so he had to stop. The only other options were holistic and experimental treatments. He exhausted them all and the virus took him over. I watched him go from strong and virile, to being wheelchaired into hospital rooms.

I was with him on his last day on earth. His mother was asleep in the chair on one side of the bed; and I knelt on the other side with my face pressed into his hand, which despite all his weight loss, was still large. My tears slicked his palm. I wanted him to feel them, to know how much I loved him and how furious I was that he was dying and how much of a coward I was not to give in to my heart and love him back. But my words got jammed and materialized only in tears in those final moments.

I felt his hand squeeze my face. I looked up at him and he stared down at me. A warm smile stretched across his taut face. “Marco, I was dreaming about you, and here you are.”

“Jamal, your mom is here, too. She is sitting right there.” I wanted to say it then: Jamal, I’ve loved you all along. I was a twenty-five-year-old Latino lawyer on the rise in a white-owned firm, where I was still closeted. And HIV was stigmatized to the heights. I didn’t think about Jamal. No, I didn’t think that sharing what I truly felt would be a loving act to him or even a liberating one for me. I wanted to wake his mother and let her know he was lucid. As I moved away, Jamal’s body raised a bit, then sank deeper into the hospital bed as he sighed. Holding my gaze, his eyes glassed over, and he slipped away. I raced back to him.

“I love you,” I finally said, pressing my hand over his heart.

But he was gone. I kept my hand on his chest in case his spirit was still in the room. I wanted him to see me and hear me repeat “I love you” over and over again until I heard his mother whisper. “Jamal?” Her howl shattered the sterile quiet of the hospital room.

When I buried Jamal, I knew I’d forsaken his heart to protect my own, but we both ended up brokenhearted.

 

The eruption of applause brought me back into the room. David was obscured as the crowd jumped to their feet to cheer him. I gulped the rest of my beer, then ordered another. David’s words reopened my own wound, so I shuddered to shake the memory.

Suddenly, David stood beside me and slid his drink ticket across the bar. As Emanuel introduced the next poet, Pepe the bartender leaned into David.

“The usual?”

David nodded, looked at me, and smiled. Up close, David was exquisite. His eyes were an earthy brown. His eyelashes were long and curled at the very tips. His lips were full even when they stretched to smile across straight, white teeth. There was a sprinkling of freckles on his cheekbones and across his strong nose. I imagined his brown skin would feel as soft as fine suede. His slender fingers took the drink in the little plastic cup with the tiny red straw. Some of his fingernails were painted black, but they were chipped and uneven. Leaning forward, he sipped, and a few strands of his hair slipped down and got caught on his eyelashes. Blinking, he looked at me. I never look away from someone I want, but something in his gaze disarmed me. I looked down at my beer.

Leaning into me, he whispered, “Don’t tell me a big guy like you is shy?”

“No way,” I said, gazing back.

Sipping, he let his tongue lead before his lips pulled at the straw.

“Nice tongue,” I whispered because another poet was still reading.

“So, I’ve been told.” Turning, he faced the stage. David was a good four inches taller than me and I couldn’t see past him. His loose linen drawstring pants showcased his tight rump. I imagined my hands cupping it. I smiled to myself because David isn’t the kind of guy I usually go for. I like them broader and built like me. I like to grab onto muscles, feel reckless and rough, wrestle a guy down, pin him to the bed, and feel challenged by his strength.

I leaned in toward him. “Hey, I—”

Lifting one finger in the air, David pointed toward the stage without turning around. I felt annoyed and considered slipping out and forgetting about that rude fuck, then I realized that perhaps I was the one being rude by speaking while the poet was reading. Checking out his ass one more time, I decided it was worth the wait.

The audience applauded and Emanuel announced a fifteen-minute break. David faced me and sat on the stool. We were eye to eye. “What’s your name?” he said, formally.

I shook the hand he held out to me. “Marco, and you’re David.”

He placed his empty cup with a soft thud on the bar. “Good memory. Are you a detective or something?”

“Close. A lawyer. Want another of those?”

David nodded, and as I turned to Pepe, he had David’s second drink ready.

Pepe winked and placed it before him.

“I’ll have another beer.”

Pablo came over with Emanuel. “I thought you left.” Then, he looked over at David.

I gestured to Pablo. “David, this is my best buddy, Pablo.”

Pablo high-fived David. “I know David. He’s a rising star. Great poem tonight.”

David shrugged then lifted his head. “Thanks.”

Pablo hugged me. “If you are not here when we get back, text me.”

I hugged him close.

When they left, David stood up and looked down at me. “So, is it going to be a ‘give me your number and I’ll give you mine’ or a ‘your place or mine’ kind of thing?”

I laughed.

“I’m serious, Marco. I like what I see, and I know you want some of me, so whether it’s now or later, it’s gonna happen.”

I continued to laugh. “I’m usually the aggressive one.”

David smiled. “Then why aren’t you being more aggressive, pops?”

“Pops? How old are you?”

“Will it make a difference? Because age is no biggie. How old are you?” He took the last slurp of his drink and waited for my answer.

“I’m forty-six.” I waited for his reaction.

David nodded. “For real? I thought thirtyish but closer to forty because of your beard.”

“Beards are in,” I said, rubbing my chin.

“Yeah, for young white boys trying to look older than they are.”

“Ouch.”

“Oops!” he said, gently placing his hands on my cheek, running his thumb along the hair on my chin. “I like your beard and your seventies’ feathered hairstyle.”

“Now you’re fucking with me,” I said, turning away.

“I’m not. I noticed your hair the minute I came over here. Well, it was the second thing I noticed.” Then he patted his palms on either side of my shoulders. “I first noticed all this. You must spend a lot of time in the gym.”

“There’s one in my building. Wanna come see it?”

“Now we’re talking.” Then he slowly ran his fingertips from my shoulder to my bicep to my forearm and squeezed my hand.

I tugged him into me. “I live in Riverdale. We can cab it.”

“Riverdale? That’s deep Bronx, right? I’m closer, on Avenue D and 5th.”

 

David’s apartment smelled like dirty laundry. The small living room was cramped with “found furniture,” lamps with bare bulbs, and the like. The mini-kitchen had plates in the sink and an overstuffed bag of garbage leaning against the oven. Although the building was renovated, David and his roommates lived in a romanticized version of an eighties squat.

“Hey, David,” a voice greeted from amidst the clutter.

“That’s my roommate Kerry,” David said, turning to me. “And this is Marco,” he shouted to her.

Kerry waved. She was painting her toenails while listening to Depeche Mode from an iPhone sitting in a Bose speaker system. Her blonde hair was pushed up to the top of her head and held in place with an intricate hair clip system. “Caro’s bringing pizza, in case you guys want.”

David leaned into me. “Caro is my other roommate. Artist. Poor.” Then he pointed to himself. “Poet. Barista. Poor, too.” Then he pointed at Kerry. “Actress. Trust fund. College Bestie. Otherwise, we’d all be living in a one-bedroom in Jersey City.” He pointed me toward his bedroom. “My room’s that way. I gotta pee and clean up. Go in. I won’t be long.”

David’s room smelled just like the rest of the apartment: stale. I felt around the wall for a light switch but couldn’t find one. I looked outside his door but nothing. I took several steps into his room and kicked something, so I stood still. Realizing I never got his age, I wondered if they were all grad students. I let my libido eclipse my reason. I’m forty-six years old, in the room of a twenty-something. I started to wonder if the bed sheets were clean and then thought about bed bugs. I slowly backed out of his room and into David. He pressed his chest against my back and wrapped his long slim arms around me. As he unbuckled my pants, I reached back for him and felt his bare hip. I moved my hands up and down his already naked body. He pushed my pants down to my knees. I peeled off my shirt and he turned me to face him. He shoved the door shut, the room now completely dark save a thin line of light around his door frame. I sucked in his minty kisses and reveled in his velvety skin.

“Oh, David,” I sighed.

Then he shoved me hard. With my pants around my ankles, I stumbled and fell backward in the darkness, flailing for something to grasp, but free-falling until I landed on his mattress. He pounced on me. I kicked off my shoes and my pants. It was wild to discover the curves and lines of David’s body in solid blackness. I cupped his butt and pulled him on me. He was so slender. Not like the thick men to which I was accustomed. David made up for being slight by grabbing at me while kissing and lapping with a feral hunger. I easily flipped him on his back and covered him with my bulk.

“Oh, yes, Marco.” He held me and raised his legs. I pushed into his spot. “Be easy with that,” he whispered. Then I heard him spit into his hand and he slicked me. Another spit and he swathed himself.

I positioned myself and began entering him, then stopped. “Condom?”

“If you insist.” He felt around in the darkness. I heard him tear open a condom and felt his fingers roll it down me. He pressed a tiny tube of lube into my palm. “Remember, slow.”

It was like making love to a phantom because I couldn’t see David, only feel him. A sweet tight heat slowly engulfed me as I entered him, and my eyes rolled back into my head. I wanted to thrust but stayed still as he took over. He pushed at me, so I laid on my back. He climbed atop and I could tell that he bowed his head because I felt his strands of hair tickling my face and forehead. I was reeling as he moved and bucked. I grunted and gritted my teeth as I let loose inside him. I gasped.

David held me. “That’s right, let me have it.”

I trembled, and started to pull out.

“Don’t move Marco!” he said.

I couldn’t move. He had me pinned down as he rode in the darkness. I could feel David jerking himself. Soon he was whimpering and shaking. “Oh, fuck,” he said, groaning. Shuddering, he released on my chest and collapsed on me, breathing heavily. He nestled his face in my neck and smeared himself in the hair on my chest. “Stay inside me, Marco. I want to sleep with you inside me.” I couldn’t stay the night. I had to be at work in the morning. Instantly, David began to snore softly. Enfolding him, I slept a bit, too.

When I awoke, I didn’t know what time it was. David was pressed to my side. I felt around for my pants and found my phone. It was nearly 3:00 a.m. As I stirred, he awoke. “Leaving?”

“I have to be at work soon, and I gotta do the suit and tie thing.” I heard a click and a small light clamped to the window turned on and revealed that his walls were covered in neat lines of his poetry written in a large, jagged calligraphy. “Wow, are these your words?”

“Mm-hmm,” David said, stretching. “Caro paints my favorite poems, but we paint them over and change them every now and then.”

He patted the bed beside him. “Come lay here a second and read that one. I never change it.” He pointed to the ceiling. I nestled in beside him. “Do you know the rhythm of the clave?”

I shook my head. “Not really?”

“What kind of Latino are you?”

“An American one.” I nudged him.

“Seriously?”

“I’m Chicano, güey?”

David cringed.

I shook my head. “That was pretty bad. I try. My parents came over in the fifties and lived in San Diego. Dad hated it. Went back to Mexico City. Mom stayed. Fell in love with her gringo boss. She cleaned his house. She divorced my dad to marry Mike—that’s his name—when I was seven and we moved to New York when I was eight. He was from here, so we were in his world, which didn’t have a lot of Chicanos. How about you? I figured Puerto Rican.”

David nodded. “You’re half right. The other half is Dominican. But there was no escaping my cultures here. I grew up with congas on the corner and merengue and salsa on the radio non-stop. So, the clave is the rhythm that holds together all my beloved hip-swinging Afro-Caribbean music.” He clapped out the clave rhythm a few times for me. I noticed how the first word had two syllables followed by three single syllable words. “Check out how I use the two-three clave.” Then he read and clapped the rhythm. “Knowin’ what’s in me. Coursin’ through my veins. Hidden ’neath my skin. Tryin’ to stay sane. Lovin’ with my heart. Feelin’ your heartbeat. Layin’ on my chest. Baskin’ in your heat. Wond’rin’ if you’ll stay. Into the next day. Holdin’ you for now. Turnin’ now to then.”

“Nice,” I said, pausing. “And melancholy.”

“That’s me. So did you like the one I read at the café?”

I wanted to hide the effect it had on me. “I hadn’t been moved that way in a long time.”

“What do you mean?”

“I’m forty-six, so do the math. I was around during all the death and craziness of AIDS. Love, sex, relationships—everything went haywire, but I survived. But many I cared for didn’t.”

David rested his head on my shoulder. “I was born in 1987. I feel like I missed an important time in our history.”

I looked into his eyes. “Consider yourself lucky to have been spared.”

He played with my chest hair. “Am I going to see you again?”

“Of course.” And I got up from the bed. “Let me give you my number.”

David sat up. “Don’t give me your number if you don’t really want me to call you. ’Cause I get the feeling that you are one of those nice guys.” Then, he looked down and gathered his long legs to his chest. He grew smaller. “I mean, you got what you wanted, right?”

“Yes, I did.”

He looked up at me. “Do you want anything else?”

What planet did he come from? He certainly didn’t talk like a twenty-year-old. I noticed how he shielded his heart with those lovely legs and strong slim arms. “I don’t know, David. I can’t tell you, but let’s find out.”

He smiled like he’d just gotten a passing grade.

I checked that I had my keys, phone, and wallet. David watched me from bed the whole time. He extended his hand, and I took it and knelt beside him.

“Marco, I’m young but I’m not stupid. I don’t know if I want anything else here, either. But I like how you said, ‘Let’s find out.’ I like an adventure.” He kissed my hand.

“Should I see myself out?”

He got up. “I’ll walk you to the door. The lock is tricky.”

 

When my doorbell buzzed, I answered, “I’ll be right down.” I grabbed my wallet, and the doorbell buzzed again. “Yes?”

“Don’t come down to pay a cab,” David said. “I didn’t take one.”

“Okay,” I said, buzzing him in. I had the cleaning guy come that morning so that the place would look perfect for his first visit. He liked Jimmy Sommerville, so I had Bronski Beat on the sound system and the apartment smelled of spicy curried shrimp simmering on the stove. Even though we’d gone out a dozen times over three weeks—dinner in the Village, brunch in Chelsea, poetry readings, and walks sharing frozen yogurt—I was nervous to have him in my home. Most of our dates ended up with me in his dark little room which he started calling our “fuck lair.”

When I opened the door to the apartment, he kissed me deeply and then said, “Okay, I’m impressed with your lobby.” He handed me a bottle of wine.

“How did you get here?”

“It took forever, but I’m not complaining. I took a bus to the 1 train and then another bus. I mapped it.” He held up his phone.

“I didn’t want you to go through all that.”

“I didn’t want you paying sixty dollars for a cab when I had the time to make my way up. Besides, I got to read.” He held up Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, the one poetry book I remembered from my undergraduate days.

David took in my simple, clean apartment, polished wood floors, thick sofas, the paintings and photographs on the walls. He walked to the balcony doors. “Can I go out?”

Nodding, I came beside him and slipped my hands around his waist as he looked out in the distance. “I bought this place because of this balcony and this view of the Hudson River. Looks like we are going to have a great sunset.”

David sat in one of the chairs. “I can see why you like it up here. It’s chill.”

I sat on the arm of David’s chair and I kissed the silky hair on the top of his head. “Glad you were able to switch your shift and get tomorrow off.”

“Me, too. It’s hard for me to get coverage to open at five a.m., but I love that shift and being up early.”

“I think you are the first twenty-five-year-old I’ve met who feels that way.”

“How many twenty-five-year-olds do you know?” David playfully shoved me off the chair’s arm.

I laughed.

“Seriously, Marco, there are twenty-five-, twenty-four-, and twenty-three-year-olds who’d love a guy with his shit tight. And besides being young and hot, what’ve I got? I keep expecting you to get tired of me.”

“David?”

“Seriously.” David surveyed the apartment. “You have all this, a good job? When I date someone my age, we’re both trying to figure shit out, freaking out about money, who’s gonna pay the check.” He shook his head. “Then, we get high and sleep all day. I mean that’s fun, but what about the other stuff?”

“Like what?”

“It’s only been a few weeks and I feel you care for me. Like when you suggested I go back to finish school and study poetry, you said it like it was a good idea. When my mom says go back to school, I feel like she’s scolding me.”

I extended my hand and David stood up. He felt good to hold. I wondered if I was just blinded by his youth and beauty. I caressed his smooth arms and nestled his hair, inhaling the frankincense from his shampoo. This felt good. This was something I can do with David. I can hold him and care for him.

“You know about my wild child days, and the five a.m. job. The poetry was about me trying to change, to figure shit out.” David stroked the back of my neck and kissed my temple. Passion between us ignited easily, but I relished simply feeling his slight body against mine and how easy it was for me to engulf him in my arms.

“When the courtroom life was too much, I took a legal job behind the desk of a foundation. Good pay, regular hours. I get to come home and hold someone.”

David pulled back to look into my eyes, then settled back in. “I like holding you, Marco. You feel good. Different.” He said that like he was discovering something. “I’m trying to be different, too. I always got a lot of attention from men. I flunked out of NYU after my first year because I just fucked and partied.” David snorted and laughed to himself. “I met a few rich guys along the way, but I realized that I liked their money more than I liked them. But I like being with you.” He got up and looked out over the horizon. I noticed that he gripped the railing. I wondered if he’d said too much or had he said those exact words to someone else? As much as I tried to be casual about being with David, my insecurity about our age difference let me know that I was considering more with him.

He shut his eyes to the sunset and the breeze blew his hair away from his face. “When my mom moved to South Jersey from the Heights three years ago, I was, like, no way! But she wanted to take me away from New York City and my crazy life, and didn’t want to watch me…destroy myself.”

While he spoke, he never turned to look at me. Maybe he didn’t want to see my face as he confessed. Was I to absolve him? He opened his eyes but continued to look away from me. “I got into writing poetry because of Ignacio, a poet I met about a year after my mom left. He moved into the second floor in my aunt’s building where I was staying. I’d see him on the fire escape writing in his notebook. He told me ‘I write my sadness.’ I fell for him like that.” David snapped his finger. “And he loved the eighties. The music, the fashion, the movies. He said that was the last era that New York City embraced the artist. In the East Village, an artist could live on the cheap and there were a lot of places there. We pretended that his little studio apartment in the Heights was in the East Village in the eighties. When I said we could make the Heights the new artists enclave, he said there weren’t any artists up there, just a bunch of tígeres. Ignacio was Dominican, pure Dominican. He was also a friend of Tina, and I don’t mean Turner. So, I started using more drugs with him. We’d go to bars in Hell’s Kitchen, pick up white guys, mainly, get high with their drugs, sometimes get them to give us a few bucks to take a cab home then take the train and buy more drugs with the cab money. I think I got HIV from him.” David shrugged. “Well, I’d like to think that because I loved him, and it’s better to have gotten it from someone I loved than some random person. But it could’ve been anyone. He assumed I was positive since I was such a freak and never used a condom. Since I didn’t know, I got tested and found out I was. I freaked at first but since our eighties wasn’t the real eighties where I would’ve died, I just took it in stride.”

David turned to look at me. We’d shared a lot over the past three weeks, but nothing like this. I smiled, reassuringly. He smiled, sadly, and looked back out to the horizon. “He loved writing poetry more than anything. After we’d have sex, I’d wake up and see him writing at this table or I looked through his window and see him on that fire escape.” David stopped and wiped at tears, but his voice was steady. “I found him. All overdosed and gray in his apartment. He’d texted me saying he scored some pure shit. I was passed out on some guy’s bed but saw the text the next morning. If I’d seen it when he sent it, I could’ve been dead, too. His face was horrible. Like he was in pain and calling out but no one came. He was on the floor near the window. His poetry book was still on the table, but he had a pen in his hand. I saw some of the stuff he’d taken on his end table. For a moment I wanted to take it, too. I wanted to go out with him. I had started living with him since my aunt kicked me out. And I had nothing. So, I sat with him for a moment and I just started howling. Then I took the pen from his hand and his poetry notebooks and put them in a plastic bag. I banged on my aunt’s door, but she wouldn’t open it. I didn’t have a phone, so I just ran out in the street and saw a cop and brought him up. His family tried to say that I gave him those drugs, that I killed him.” David stopped and looked at me. “I loved him. Nobody gave a shit about me, and I didn’t give a shit about myself, either. He took me in. He didn’t judge. In a twisted way, he was my one and only love. So, I started writing poetry. To honor him at first and then it became part of my salvation. I re-connected with Kerry. She let me stay for free at first and then I cleaned up and got the job at the café. This was all just two years ago.

“And these past years haven’t been perfect, Marco. With my job at the café, I get by. And I love writing poetry, but poetry doesn’t make money, so sometimes I feel lost and like I’m wasting my life.” Pausing, he said, “Now I’m wasting your time.”

Part of me felt like I should run from him. Whenever I don’t want to face something or someone scares me, I want to run. With Jamal, I ran from his love but stayed by his side anyway. I behaved like the devoted lover, but I never gave myself completely over to him. When the courtroom took its toll on me and the pressure from the partners added fuel to that fire, I ran from the firm to the foundation. Always running only to stay in place.

David said Ignacio was his one and only love, and Jamal was mine. The difference is that it had been almost twenty years since Jamal died. I’ve felt so guilty about that moment, that I have not allowed myself to love anyone else. I loved being with David. I needed his fun, but he was a mess. I wanted to run, but something was drawing me closer to him. “You are not wasting my time,” I said, gently pulling him to me. Resisting at first, he finally surrendered. “And this is not a competition, babes.”

“That’s easy for you to say. You have everything and I have…nothing.”

“We give one another what we have to give.” I turned his chin up and wiped tears. “Oh, baby, come to the bedroom.”

He nodded and started to pull off his shirt.

“No, wait. Keep your shirt on.” I led him to my room and pointed to the wall. “The poem you wrote in the park for me, I had it framed. No one’s ever written me a poem. I felt like I’d won an award.”

Looking into my eyes, he hugged me. “You should have let me type it out for you.”

I held him. “The fact that it’s your handwriting makes it perfect. David, you give me what you have—your art, your energy, your deep thoughts. I’ve other things to give, and I don’t feel like you’re taking advantage of me. Do you feel like you’re taking advantage of me?”

He shook his head and looked back into my eyes. “That’s not what I want to do.”

I wiped one last tear away. “I sometimes feel like I’m taking advantage of you. You should be with another beautiful young person, instead of me who’s old enough to be your dad.”

He smiled slyly. “You and my mom are the same age.”

We had a good, long laugh.

After dinner, I took two glasses of wine into the bedroom, where David had stretched out on my king-sized bed. He was long and smooth, and I had to stop to take him in. I could’ve grabbed my phone to capture him laid out with his large feet, bare hips, concave belly, tiny dark brown nipples, and knowing smile. He’d posed and I knew that on my deathbed I’d remember this moment. “My god, David. You are completely beautiful.”

He smiled. “Shut up, just take off your clothes and come to bed.”

I did as I was told.

 

In the middle of the night, I reached for David and instead felt cold wet sheets where he’d lain. Our lovemaking often left the sheets damp, but the sheets were soaked, and I had a sense that several hours had passed since we last came. I saw light coming from my kitchen. He wasn’t there, but I found him looking out at the Hudson through the sliding glass door. I came behind him. “Okay?”

He nodded. “Thirsty.” And finished the water in his glass.

“Want some more?”

He shook his head. “I was just about to go back to bed.” He led me to the bedroom.

“Sorry, it’s wet.” He shrugged nonchalantly. “Night sweats. I’m in between regimens.”

I remembered Jamal and his night sweats. I felt heat rise in my face. “Night sweats? David, you’re not taking medication?”

“Marco, relax.” And he climbed into my side of the bed and patted it to invite me in. “I will be back on meds soon.”

I pointed to the wet side of the bed. “Sweetie, that is pretty serious.”

“Marco, it’s not that serious. It’s not the eighties. It has happened before, but then I get on a regimen and things level out.” He smiled. “Come to bed. Forget about this.”

I had the feeling again that I should run away from him. “David, I don’t want to forget about this. Tell me what is up with your meds.”

Sighing, he sat up and leaned against the headboard. “The HIV I have is resistant to more than half of the treatments out there and none of the once-a-day pills works for me. So, the first treatment I had to take three pills, two in the morning and one at night. I kept forgetting to take the evening pill and so then I became resistant to that treatment. I found out because I started getting night sweats.”

“You just forgot to take your pills?”

David nodded. “It’s weird to take pills when I feel fine. So sometimes a few days would go by and then I’d realized that I hadn’t taken the pills. Then there was Brazil.”

“Brazil?”

“I met a sweet guy who offered to take me to Brazil. When am I ever getting to freaking Brazil? And it was soon after I’d found Ignacio. I wanted to get away. So, I went. Two weeks turned into two months, Rio, Sao Paolo, Bahia. It was amazing.”

I didn’t follow what Brazil had to do with his treatment. “There’s HIV medication in Brazil.”

“I was having fun and felt fine. I figured I’d go to the clinic when I got back. And I did, but by then my viral load was up, T-cells were down, and I became resistant to those meds, so they changed my regimen again.”

The questions in my head fought with each other. I got up from the bed and leaned on the dresser. “David, I can’t— ” I wanted to say I couldn’t go through this.

He protectively gathered his long legs up to himself as he did that first night we were together. He rested his head on his knees. “Marco, don’t ask me to leave. I don’t want to fuck this up with you. I’ll make an appointment at the clinic this week. I’ll take my meds and I’ll be fine. I’m trying to be different. Help me be different.”

I just stared at him then looked away.

“Fuck you.” He tossed the covers off himself and searched around for his clothes. “I’ve told you everything. No lies or secrets. You know it all, and if you don’t want me, then fuck you. Toss me out like the others.”

“Stop it, David!” I said, grabbing his hands.

He writhed free and sat on the bed.

I placed my hand on his shoulder and he shook it off. “Don’t play with me, Marco. I know all this can be too much.”

I sat beside him. “David, you taking your meds is not just about you now.”

He didn’t move. Nor did I. His heavy breathing calmed. “I’m sorry, Marco. I wasn’t thinking about you.”

I wondered if part of my attraction to David was because he was HIV-positive. I wanted to tell him to get the fuck out. But was this my chance to absolve myself, to not run from someone I loved and also feared? But my fears were real. I was glad I always used a condom. I knew how to take care of myself. And right at this moment, if I hadn’t, my fear could have been realized in more ways than I imagined. “David, if we are going to do any of this, we have to take care of each other.”

“I should go,” David said, standing. “I’m so sorry, Marco. I’ll go to the clinic, I’ll take my meds and when I’m back up to speed, I’ll let you know. And if you still don’t want to see me, I’ll understand.” He was frantically looking for his clothes.

I got up and placed my palm on his bare back. He stopped. I rubbed his back. He relaxed, so I guided him closer and caressed his shoulder. I hugged him tightly.

David sobbed. “I’m sorry. How could I not have thought of you? I’m sor—”

I stopped his apologies with a kiss. And then, as if I had been transported to 1991, I began to sob, too.

“Marco? What’s the matter?”

“I lost someone I loved very much, but I never got to tell him.”

“Tell me about him.”

We sat on the bed facing one another. I hadn’t shared Jamal’s story with anyone even as it replayed itself in my memory. David listened patiently. When I finished, he said, “He knew you loved him. And even though you said it after he died, he still heard you. I believe that even if you said it now, he’d hear you.”

I took his hand. “David, Jamal fought for his life, but he didn’t have a chance. You are not fighting for your life, why? The poet?”

He shrugged. “I still feel like I should’ve died with him.”

“But you didn’t. Look, I care about you. But you must care about yourself. As much as I do love you, I can’t do this if you don’t care about living or care about me living.”

David stared into my eyes, something was landing in him. He breathed in deeply. “Marco, you make me happy, but I also feel scared.” I said, “Me, too,” in my mind. Then we embraced.

 

I awoke to the smell of freshly brewed coffee and the sounds of David chopping something. I stretched, then stood in the entryway of the kitchen. He wore just a pair of black boxer briefs and thick white socks. With white earphones in his ears, he shimmied and bopped his head as he chopped peppers. Smiling, he pulled out just one of the earphones. “Enjoying the view?” Shaking his booty, he sang, “You and me together fighting for our love.” He offered me the other earphone and I heard Jimmy Sommerville wailing that line, growing more urgent with every recitation. I remembered dancing with Jamal to this song and with many others with our fists in the air and our bodies pumping triumphantly to the beat. I popped out the earphone and kissed his shoulder.

David stopped his chopping and dancing and stood still. “Marco, taking care of us starts now. Can we just keep going?”

“Yes, but—”

Smiling, he plugged the earphone back in and continued making breakfast.

And we kept going.

 

David took his meds as he promised.

He took me to readings, and I took him to Yankee games. He got to know Pablo, and I became close with his roommates, Kerry and Caro. David took me dancing to East Village eighties’ nights, and I got him to groove to deep house. He returned to school and I felt proud at his graduation when he triumphantly raised his fist in the air. Poets and writers became my friends and we had them over for dinner. I wore cut-off jeans because David loved them and called me the Incredible Hulk because the tattered ends looked like my thighs had ripped the fabric.

David continued to take his meds, and for several years, he was fine. But when the virus morphed and stopped responding to the treatment, his prior years of non-adherence not only made him resistant to the medication he was taking but to the others in its HIV drug class. He had exhausted his treatment options, and his body became resistant to every approved drug available. He had reached deep salvage, lost below the waves. The pain from having buried my lover returned.

 

When I arrived at the hospital, David was already there with the bag we’d packed that morning. He’s wearing the small plastic admissions bracelet. He was still handsome even though he went from one hundred fifty-five pounds to one hundred thirty-five pounds in the last two months. He looked worried, but also serene as he stared down at a clipboard with forms. He shifted in the blue plastic chair and I heard him complaining to himself. “My ass has no more padding.”

He looked up, and I smiled, trying to keep it light although my heart and throat were constricting.

“I couldn’t find a spot, so I put the car in a lot. You’re all checked in? I wanted to be here to help.” I really wanted to say how scared I was. How I didn’t want him to suffer. How I didn’t want to lose him. I placed an arm around him and kissed his forehead. I tasted his sweet sweat.

“Marco, no problem. Dr. Meraz was here to meet me.”

“Babes, I wanted to be here, too.” As I was circling looking for a parking space, part of me wanted to drive away.

Smiling, he took my hand. “I was right to let you be the one to ensnare me.” His hand was cold. I cupped it with my own. “We’ll be okay,” I say as more of a wish. “Everything is going to be fine.”

David showed me the clipboard and I saw that he’d been writing a poem. It’s titled “No Regrets.” I smile, genuinely.

I looked around for a nurse or doctor. “What are we waiting for?”

David handed me the clipboard. “The poem is for you and those forms are my copies.”

I folded the poem and put it in my breast pocket.

“I’m sorry, Marco.”

“Shhh, babes. No apologies. Okay?” I tapped the poem in my pocket. “No regrets.”

I wanted to run and leave New York City with all its ghosts. Leave behind every horrific memory. Leave behind having to go through this with David. But my love for David was too deep to run away from. It overtook my fear.

David sighed. “They are sending a wheelchair.”

“Why don’t they let you just walk?”

“Rules,” he said, patting my hand and shrugging.

I didn’t want to see him in a wheelchair the same way I’d seen Jamal and many of my friends. But it came and he climbed in without a fight and we went to his room. I needed him to fight but begging him to do so would only confirm that our situation was dire.

He stripped off his jeans and turquoise shirt that despite his condition made his pale skin look radiant. He stared at the hospital gown a moment. “I wish I didn’t have to wear that. More fuckin’ rules.”

I liked the fire in his voice this time. David the fighter was in there.

And then he was naked. The weight he’d lost made him look like a calaca in a Day of the Dead festival. His skin was pale and sallow. I looked away a moment.

There is much I wanted to say, much I needed to say, but I felt if I started saying that I cherished every moment with him, that it’d be like saying good-bye. He was only thirty and we are supposed to grow old together. If we measured death by age, I’m supposed to die first. Right?

My temples pounded. I laid beside him. It was cold and the sheets were crisp and stiff. I embraced him, sharing my warmth, feeling his breath, and hoping this wouldn’t be the last time. The doctor said this treatment was the one thing that might help him, otherwise the toxin levels from the meds and the mutation of the virus would continue to attack his organs until his heart or liver gave out.

This was like the old days, was like back then, when it was different. Hoping that some alternative treatment would work, while watching my lover grow feeble. I thought this part was over. I wanted to blame David. I wanted to shriek, “Why didn’t you take better care of yourself? You had options and knew of your resistant strain, but you didn’t think you’d run out of options, did you?” But that’s what was done the first time. We were blamed for getting AIDS, for being sexual, for bringing this on ourselves as if it weren’t the fault of a virus that got into our bodies and wreaked havoc. It had been easy for many to dehumanize us.

I looked at my lovely David and saw him, saw him as the compassionate, creative loving soul he was and not just the virus.

I held him tighter. The words were forming in my head but getting stuck in my throat. I swallowed when I should have spoken. My cheek was close to his when he turned and pressed his face into my neck and whispered, “Marco, I absolutely love you and always will.”

I rested my head on his bony chest to hide my tears. A small part of me still wanted to run. But I didn’t. Instead, I kissed his heart repeatedly. Breathe in. Breathe out. Breathe in. Breathe out. Breathe in.

He sighed and gripped me. “Marco? What’s the matter, baby?”

I looked into his expectant eyes. I saw him as I did his first night on my bed posing in his unadulterated beauty. Pushing back tears, I squeezed his hand, cleared my throat. “David, I’m here. Always. No regrets. And I—I absolutely love you, too.”

David smiled. No fear in his eyes. “I hear you, Marco,” he said, nodding knowingly. “We all do.”

 

Note: This fiction part of Big Other’s Puerto Rican Writer’s Folio: A Hauntology

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Charles Rice-González is a writer, long-time Bronx LGBT activist, co-founder of BAAD! The Bronx Academy of Arts and Dance, and an Assistant Professor at Hostos Community College, CUNY. He is the author of Chulito and a co-editor of Macho to Mariposa: New Gay Latino Fiction. Recipient of many awards, he’s the chair of the board for the Bronx Council on the Arts and the National Association of Latino Arts and Cultures, and serves on the Advisory Board of the Macondo Writers' Workshop.

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