Scenes from a Marriage
The second to the last time he gets out of the hospital, the last time being his death, Dave goes on a farewell tour, like Cher. He has just published his new book. His third, his last. It’s an account of the last year of his life, and it’s impossible to read – partly because I’m in it, doing nothing to keep him alive, and partly because he won’t stop kidding about the worst thing that happens. “My T-cell count is lower than my IQ,” he writes. “If I were Dan Quayle, I’d be dead now.”
Two weeks before he dies, the publishing company sends him thirty copies of the book, and I load Dave and his books into a cab, and we drive around town handing them out to every agent or editor or cute boy who ever rejected him. He is also trying to get someone to publish the diary he kept while he was in the hospital. It’s a black Mead Composition notebook, and it’s an aborted novel, a toilet joke, an archive of AIDS obituaries from The New York Times for September and half of October, 1994, a list of results of blood tests, CAT scans, MRIs, bone marrow tests, colonoscopies, and bronchoscopies, a document of rage, and a draft of Top Ten Lists – Top Ten Most Embarrassing Public Bowel Movements, Top Ten Cutest Nurses.
And it’s an autobiography in the form of a questionnaire. There are 500 questions, which Dave has written in block letters in his careful 3rd grader’s print:
1. Name: _________
2. Age: ___________
3. Religious Persuasion: ____________
4. Number of lifetime sexual partners (in thousands) (circle one):
0-10 10-20 A Lady Doesn’t Tell
5. Life expectancy: ____________
And so on, for pages. Of course, he has supplied answers. They’re scribbled in his barely readable cursive script. His name is “Legion.” His age is, “You should die like this, you’d know what aging is.” For “Religious Persuasion” he has written “Liza.” He doesn’t answer the question about sexual partners. Next to “Life Expectancy,” he writes, “I’ve got ten minutes to live, but who’s counting? Now I’ve got nine.”
We take this diary to several literary agents. David already has an agent, but he fired him because he brought ice cream to the hospital room. “Ice cream, for God’s sake!” Dave screamed. “Ice cream is dairy! Dairy goes right through me! If I had lung cancer, would you bring me a pack of Virginia Slims?”
We visit Charlotte Sheedy, Audre Lorde’s agent, and also Ally Sheedy’s mom. “In the future, I won’t work with anyone who hasn’t repped a Lesbian and raised a movie star,” Dave says, when our cab pulls to her building on lower Broadway. Then, “Fuck you,” he says, for no reason. He is always meanest in cabs. I’m getting money out of my pocket. I’ve been broke most of my adult life, but I took a steady job just as Dave started getting sick, and for the first time in our friendship, I can pay for things. Lately, I’m paying all the time.
Which: fine. He has always paid for me, bought lunch, taken me to Broadway shows, orchestra seats, shelled out a cash loan for a month’s rent, several times. I’m happy to pay. Relieved. I can’t keep him alive, but I can pay.
He, though: hates the shift in power. Paying is his job, his privilege. It’s his way, he jokes, of making people love him. “Don’t overtip,” he screams, as we’re leaving the cab. “Jesus. Get a receipt. Do you think you’re a Rockefeller? You’re not. Guess why? Guess why you’re not a Rockefeller? Rockefellers have money because they don’t tip and they save their receipts.”
We climb from the cab. He weighs ninety-seven pounds. So he walks slowly. His death walk, all bones. The skin at the back of his neck is creased and dry, sinewy. His hair is pin straight, slicked against his skull. One arm goes out to the side for balance. The other ends in a fist that clutches the waistband of his jeans.
His pants are a sight gag. Let go, and they fall. He knows this, and he’ll drop them to shock you. And he leaves his zipper open to show his diapers. The pants and diapers are white, and so is his T-shirt, which is scrunched up over the Hickman catheter that’s spliced to his chest at his right nipple. His down coat is a blue pall. He’d scold me for that line. “‘Blue pall!’ Miss Thing! What is it, Poetry Month?” And he’d laugh his three-syllable laugh, “Hant, hant, hant.” He’s a little diapered man in a blue shroud holding his pants up and moving stiffly and delicately across the sidewalk. He is thirty-eight years old.
Now we’re pushing through the door to Charlotte Sheedy’s office, and there is the surprised assistant at her guard post. She stands up, then darts back, Tippi Hedren in The Birds, freaked-out by what flew in. AIDS is good for something, a way to get access to anybody, push past office punks. Waving his hand, Dave says, “We have an appointment,” and we keep walking, through the door to the inner sanctuary, straight to Charlotte Sheedy’s desk.
Dave sits in a wooden chair. Sits, slides. The chair’s slippery, or he is, or both. Or the problem is his coat. It’s a sled, and he rides it down off the chair seat until he’s sitting on his neck. Then he pulls himself up. Again. And Again. “Such a little figure / slipped quiet from its chair”: Emily Dickinson. It’s on my mind. Did I say it out loud? More poetry, my response to loss. Don’t help, just recite. Dave hates me, because I can’t help. Or I can, only a little bit, and right now. Dying is a series of instant victories over nothing fatal, in preparation for complete loss. Will he not die if I find the right poem? If I can separate him from his coat? Let’s pretend it’s true about his coat, at least. Our lie agreed upon. I get him out of the thing, which he drapes over the arm of his chair, and sits still.
Now he’s a pair of shoulder blades in a T-shirt, and above them, a face. Huge head, shrunken body. His glasses are Dr. Eckleberg’s, a billboard that stares at you. There’s a narcissistic boon in watching David die, because he lights on you with an urgency and directness that no one else has ever spent. His gaze. Sure, it indicts you, dictates and controls, but you’re hot and lit, a movie star in her key light.
Floodlights on Charlotte Sheedy, who has been sitting behind her desk and watching calmly, waiting for the best moment to speak.
“Oh, Charlotte Sheedy,” Dave says. His voice is high and loud and raspy and sweet. “I have brought you my new book, and also my newest book.” I’m standing behind him. He’s a film director and I’m his people. He raises his right hand, signaling me, and I step forward and hand Sheedy his two manuscripts – the new book, and the hospital diary.
“I want you,” he tells her, pausing to haul himself higher in his chair, and to catch his breath, and to grab his pants, which have not moved up the chair with the rest of him, “to represent me. From now on.”
Charlotte Sheedy is spectacularly cool. She opens Dave’s new book, the published one, congratulates him, thumbs through a few pages, and then sets it aside with a palm flat on its cover, both stamping it with her imprimatur and absorbing its contents through her fingertips in an apparent flash of superhuman appraisal. Then she takes up Dave’s diary, which, in her hands, is not a receptacle of rage and rubber hospital gloves and blue pills stapled and glued to lined notebook pages, but an ordinary book proposal. She is so smooth, I want her to be my agent, too, possibly my mom.
One page of the diary is entirely black, and she stops there. Dave inked it solid with a magic marker one afternoon, frowning while he told me that he hoped he didn’t go to hell because he was tired of running into me. “Even in hell,” he said, “I’d have to buy you lunch.”
She stares at the page and says, “I see.” Then she closes the book, looks up. Our eyes meet over Dave’s head. I am trying to make my face say, “Sorry, sorry, sorry.” Charlotte Sheedy is nicer than I am, though. She doesn’t collude with me in silent commentary about a man who is clearly at the end of his life. Instead, she looks at Dave.
“I’m not sure this is ready to be shown around,” she says. Maybe she gets sick writers in her office all the time. Maybe all writers are ten minutes from death. “Please keep me in mind, though,” she says, “when you have something that’s finished.”
Dave grins, showing all his teeth. “Darling,” he says. “I completely agree.”
He stands slowly and heads around her desk for a hug. They meet by her chair and do a quick, theatrical, cheek-to-cheek air kiss.
And then we’re listening to Dave breathe.
His fierce breaths.
It has been an effort for him to stand up. I didn’t dare help him, because: there’s nothing wrong! That’s the story he’s telling, and why deny it? He’s not a man with just days to live. He’s a potential client with a literary property he’s shopping around.
And what am I, then? His people, his amanuensis, development girl, his chauffeur, his “longtime companion,” non-sexual, his stock boy, carting books, his pocket change, hailer of cabs, his walker, as if he were a woman in a fur on the Upper East Side. His George Hamilton, conducting Lynda Bird Johnson, the President’s daughter, to the Academy Awards, which Hamilton did in 1966, in white tie and a spray tan. Dave would get that reference. He loves anything tacky and obscure. He loves failed and minor stars. Three months ago, it would have made him laugh. Now, though. He’s going to die, and all I have is George Hamilton in a fake tan.
He’s breathing in Charlotte Sheedy’s office. We’re all breathing. She breathes, I breathe, we listen to Dave breathe. We count the breaths, which come slowly, with labor. Breath, pause. Breath, pause. In the pause, we stand there, waiting for what’s next.
I’m with Dave on the futon couch in his living room in Chelsea. He’s decided to throw a theme party – “I’m Still Standing,” which is a lie – and I’m addressing invites that need to be out fast because the party’s a week away, and he doesn’t want to die before anyone can RSVP.
I’m writing names on envelopes. He’s doing an 8-hour IV drip. Pentamidine, a prophylactic against pneumonia. A guy named Santiago, health care professional, has come with equipment: IV bag, rolling stand, yards of clear tubing, and a hypodermic needle. Santiago is a straight guy with a tattoo on his left arm. He sets up the IV in the corner near the window. The fat bag hangs on its silver pole, and Santiago unwinds several feet of tubing, which he hooks to the needle. Then he smacks Dave’s arm to find a vein.
“I won’t let you slap me again unless we have a safe word,” Dave says.
Santiago laughs. He’s wearing rubber gloves, blue jeans, and a sleeveless T-shirt. “What a fabulous tattoo,” Dave says. He’s right, it’s awesome. It stretches from his shoulder to his elbow, curving around his bicep, and it shows a military grunt in battle fatigues cradling his wounded buddy in his outstretched arms. An all-male Pieta in blue and gold, framed by swirls. “I have an outfit that color,” Dave says.
I’m reading the tattoo like it’s about me. Pieta: I’m Mary with her wounded son in her cradling arms. Or switch roles, and I’m Jesus, crucified by what I’ve been sent to save. No wonder David yells at me. My Christ thing. Closet Catholic. When Dave told me he had AIDS, the day we met, I liked him more. Creepy fetish, dying men. Except it was 1989 in NYC, and the chances of meeting someone who didn’t have AIDS, in that place and time, were, forgive the word, slim. And I hadn’t kept anyone else alive. Maybe Dave. If he had five years, surely there’d be a cure. . .
He had five years, in any case. Now he’s dying, and I’m jealous. I’m competitive with Dave’s death. It’s all he cares about, dying, not dying. I want him to care that he’s losing me. I know how selfish that sounds. I never say it to him. Death doesn’t just shroud, it also snaps the sheet back, and you get to see how your best beloved looks naked and stripped of flesh and left a bone clutter in a sack of skin, sometimes smeared with shit. That’s what a body is and does. You see him, and yourself: you’re a sniveling want machine, saying, “Stop that. Don’t die. Talk to me.”
I have to outwit my rival, Dave’s death. So when Santiago pinches Dave’s skin and pierces it, digging the needle into the green-veined underside of Dave’s wrist, I force myself to watch. Needles make me sick, but I want David to know I’m not afraid. I’m better than death. I can handle whatever happens to his body. I must be turning pale with nausea, though, because he screams.
“Stop staring,” he screams. I’m sitting next to him, holding a ballpoint pen, my lap a writing board. There is a half-addressed envelope on my thigh. Santiago is tracking the flow of viscous fluid through the tube into David’s wrist.
“Stop looking at me like nothing human could ever offend you,” Dave says.
“I’m sorry,” I say, putting the pen down.
“I want you to be offended.”
“I wasn’t trying to upset you.”
“Of course you were trying to upset me. You want my attention.” He splits “attention” into its three parts: uh – TEN – shun. “How brave you are. How caring. I’ve got news for you. You’re not the Messiah. You’re a fag. I’m a dying fag. I win the Suffering Sweepstakes. You think this is happening to you. Well, it’s not. Look,” Dave shouts, holding up his pierced wrist.
“Me,” he says, showing me his wrist, which he waves in the air.
The needle pulls at his skin. Santiago leaps forward. Dave ignores him, and points at me.
“You,” he says.
He moves his hand back to his chest. The needle’s tearing at his skin, and there’s blood. He hits his chest.
“Me,” he repeats.
“You need to chill,” Santiago tells him.
“Go fuck yourself,” David says. “Not in a fun way.”
A week later, Dave’s Chelsea living room is packed with queers and a few straight women, ten days before he dies. Everyone is standing, only David is sitting. It’s impossible to find him, unless you glance down, which is hard, because people are shoulder-to-shoulder. Dave’s at knee level. He’s been taking Haldol for anxiety, and he’s doped up and zoned out, nesting in a corner of his futon couch like a small brown hoot owl.
People ask me what’s up, where’s Dave? I’ll show you, I say. Then I guide them to the couch. Dave, I say. His chin is on his chest. Slowly, he looks up.
“Someone to see you,” I say.
“Oh, darling,” he says, stretching out his hand, which is blue with puncture marks from IV drips. “It’s been such hell.”
He’s known for his theme parties, which are famously bad. My first was his David Party. Five years ago, in his old place in Midtown Manhattan. He said all gay men in New York were named Christopher or Stephen – “Full names! With a ph! No gay man is ever just ‘Steve!’” – and in protest, he invited thirty Davids to his cattle chute in Hell’s Kitchen. Cramped and airless studio apartment. You could stand in the middle with your arms spread and touch both walls. It opened off the second floor landing of a 9th Avenue tenement building and ran straight back to a foldout couch under a window that was closed tight against the fire escape.
He sent invites to David Bowie, David Geffen, and David Letterman. “I couldn’t believe that Letterman was in the phone book!” He made nametags – “Hello, My Name Is: David” – and served David’s Cookies. On his TV, he showed a video with the sound turned down: Richard Gere in King David.
I called from the corner pay phone on 52nd Street. “Can I speak to David?” A few minutes later, I showed up at his door.
“You can’t come in,” he said, “because I’m expecting – ”
“I get it,” I said.
He let me stay. Mute gay men stood against the walls, holding drinks. He had invited twenty men who’d never met. Twenty strange Davids. No one moved or spoke. It was a gay bar on Friday night before anyone was drunk. “Let me do introductions,” David said, leading me around. “This is David. That’s David. Over there is . . . David! So many Davids, only one John,” he said, “Hant hant hant.”
Now in his new apartment, I guide guests to him, one by one, and say, “Here’s David.”
He falls against them and naps. If he’s not napping, he’s shitting. Every twenty minutes, he jumps up and runs to the john.
“Out of the way,” he screams, “out of the way, out of the way!”
He reaches the toilet, and I close the bathroom door behind him and lean against it, facing the crowded room.
Freud says we retool the lost object and stick it in a display case in our brain, which is not the same as letting it go. We keep it and lose it at the same time. Part of my mind turned into David. David and others. I’m not a man, I’m a psychic receptacle of dead guys firing neurons at my synapses. Dave is my gag writer, long dead. When I say something funny, I’m him.
“How convenient to have a lost object you can plagiarize from,” Dave says.
Nathan Lane is in a play. Limited run, sold out. David wants to see it. He’ll be dead in three days, so we can’t wait for cancellations. He sort of knows the playwright. It’s my job to call him. Dave says, “Get him on the phone and tell him I’ll just die if I don’t see his play.”
Dave’s off Haldol since his party, which is good news and bad news. The good news is, he’s alert again. The bad news is. . .
“Hant hant hant,” he’d say.
Somehow, I track down the playwright’s assistant, who has never heard of Dave. “Tell him I’m a semi-famous gay author,” Dave says. I don’t. But the assistant calls back, and we have two seats for the next night. Full price, of course, but they’re house seats, third row center, and they’re Nathan Lane’s.
Dave is ecstatic. Nathan Lane’s house seats. He wants to brag. Who can he call? No one. He has reached the stage of terminal illness when people figure if you’re not dead, you should be. I’m not being harsh. No one wants to say good-bye twice. After all, he had his farewell tour. Threw a party that was really a wake. Why keep staging his exit? People have departure fatigue. Even he does.
So it’s just Santiago and me in his living room when Dave says, “I’m going to give Nathan Lane copies of my books! After the play. We will wait at the stage entrance to thank him, and you will hand me each of my books,” he tells me, “and I will sign them, and give them to Nathan Lane. And if I hate his play, I won’t tell him! I’ll just say, ‘Nathan Lane, you’ve done it again!’”
We’re fifteen minutes late for the curtain when Dave and I show up at the City Center two days before his death. The City Center is a big Moorish Revival theater built in 1921 as a meeting place for Shriners – the guys in Bye Bye Birdie who watch Janet Leigh do her table dance. If you squint as you head through the gold doors on West 54th Street, you can see 2,200 white men from Warren G. Harding’s administration adjusting their red fezzes and filing into the house.
Dave and I have time to picture Shriners, because it takes us fifteen minutes to walk from the ticket booth at street level to the lobby one flight down. He’s in his uniform of white jeans over diapers, white T-shirt, and blue down coat. Slung on his shoulder is a knapsack that’s flat and square and thick and grey as a garment bag doubled in half for hanging shirts and suits on a trunk flight to distant dress balls. It holds his portable IV bag. He’s getting a Pentamidine drip on the run. A clear plastic tube hooked to the IV bag coils out of the knapsack. It slides under his shirt and plugs into the port in his chest.
We walk downstairs while ushers watch. They are figuring out how to seat us. Or how to prevent us from being seated, since we’re so late and slow. And we’re infusing. David is being infused, he’s a walking pneumocystis carinii pneumonia prophylaxis. I wonder if anyone has done a Pentamidine drip in the house of the Shriners before. Pentamidine Drip in the House of the Shriners would be a great title for a Tony Kushner play, and I’m about to tell Dave, when he says he has to go to the john.
So that solves the problem of getting our seats. Anyway, for now. One crisis resolved, another in its place. Our life is a drama, who needs plays? We detour to the Men’s Room, where we spend most of Act One.
We’re together in the stall. It has a wooden door, which I swing shut, locking us in. He needs me here, because someone has to hold the Pentamidine bag while he shits. He doesn’t need help to undress. He takes his right thumb out of his belt loop, and his pants fall to the floor. Ditto his diapers – he unsticks the Velcro, and they drop. He squats on the toilet seat. I hear liquid splatter. I don’t want to watch, but I don’t want to seem like I’m grossed-out and turning away. Anyway, in the tiny stall, there aren’t many places to look.
“Why are you watching?” Dave says.
“I’m not watching.”
“Who would watch this?”
“I said I wasn’t watching.”
“If I were Liza, and you were Baryshnikov, that would be one thing.”
“I’m sorry I’m in the toilet stall with you,” I say, which is a sentence you would cut from the film. Unless it starred Peter Sellers.
“Everybody poops,” I want to say. Should I be freaked out by his shit? I’m not saying I’m into it. I can’t stand watching needles sink into veins, that’s my pitfall as a caregiver. I have penetration anxiety. Blood and shit, though: whatever. Why should either of us be embarrassed? Okay, I wouldn’t want anybody in the toilet stall with me, but my body isn’t falling apart. Not yet, not from a wasting disease. Will I be grateful that someone who loves me is willing to wipe my ass when I have days to live? “In sickness and health, till death do us part”: that’s marriage. But David and I are not married – to anyone, nor to each other. My loyalty to him goes beyond what’s expected of the unmarried, and that’s why I hate marriage. It’s smug. There are realms of commitment and intimacy, involving an order of devotion and sacrifice and love, that are equal to the terms of anyone’s sanctified, legalized marriage.
David is narcissistic, enraged, abusive, accusatory, helpless, wisecracking, incontinent, and dying. That’s what is meant by “dearly beloved,” it turns out.
He sits on the toilet with his pants and diapers on the floor, and I hold his bag high and make sure the plastic tubing has enough give so it doesn’t tear at his chest. His eyes are closed. I wonder if he’s falling asleep. When he’s done, he asks me for toilet paper. I tear him a length. He wipes and flushes. Then he wants to check his IV drip. I pull up his t-shirt, and we look at his chest. The port, a white disc. His blue nipples are clipped to his skin. I count his ribs, naming them the way anatomists do. Five are “true,” five are “false,” and two are “floating ribs.” All twelve are there. We trace the tubing from the port to his knapsack, which I unzip. Dave makes me uncoil, then recoil the tubing. I roll it tight, tuck it away. Re-zip the bag. We get his diapers up, then scoop his pants off the floor and hook his thumb through the belt loop. Then we head back to the ushers, terrifying them.
“Don’t hold the curtain,” David is shouting, though the play started forty minutes ago. “I mean it. Don’t hold the curtain.”
The ushers won’t seat us, of course. Not even between scenes. Our seats are in the middle of the row, and we’d have to climb over people to reach them. It would be too disruptive. Anyway, Act One is about done. The ushers ask us to wait. Dave’s yelling, “I’m two minutes from death.”
The ushers say, okay, we can sit in the aisle, house left. Tiered cement, thinly carpeted. David says okay. We sneak into the back of the house and crouch down on the floor. Dave is sitting on bones. We’re in time for the end of the act. It’s a play about AIDS. Naked gay white men with AIDS. We might have stayed in the john. The act ends fast, and now the usher can show us our seats. We get settled, finally. And then Dave has to go to the bathroom again.
So we spend Act Two in the toilet. Same routine: stall, pants, diapers, shit, wipe, port, tube, bag, zip, scream, “Don’t hold the curtain for me!” We miss Act Two. We’re in our seats for Act Three, but after ten minutes, Dave falls asleep with his head on my shoulder, where he leaves a circle of drool. He wakes for the curtain call.
“It was fabulous,” he says. “Wasn’t it fabulous?”
We both say it was fabulous. We stand, though standing is hard. The audience applauds, the actors bow, they exit, the stage goes dark, the house lights come up. Audience members file out of the theater, until there are just a few people standing near the stage, and Dave and me in our row.
Then Dave turns to me and says, “Now go get Nathan Lane.”
I can watch him shit. I can wipe his ass. I can hold the tubing for his Pentamidine drip, and try to bear the sight of needles piercing his veins. But one thing I cannot do is ask a movie star to talk to me or my dying, or even still living, friend.
“He’s not a movie star yet,” David says. “He’s not even really a Broadway star! He’s an off-Broadway star! I’m a semi-famous gay author! So are you! He’ll talk to us! We’re on the same level of fame!”
Hardly, I say. Don’t be bitter, he says. We bicker, Dave expectant, me stalling.
Then, deus ex machina, Nathan Lane appears.
Not the Good Witch of the East, not from out of the sky. Not in white or with a wand and the words to hurry us home. But in a burst of light, as velvet curtains part under an Exit sign at the front of the house. Scrubbed free of stage glitter and smiling affably, he comes. Though not summoned. A private audience has not been arranged, not by Dave, not by me.
Divine intervention? He’s headed for us. David is yelling his name.
“Nathan Lane, you were fabulous!” he yells. “I’m Dave! A semi-famous gay author. I brought you my books!” He points at me. “This is my punk! He’s a semi-famous gay author, too!”
I’m relieved not to have to wander backstage calling out for Nathan Lane. Then I’m embarrassed, because: um, Dave, who no longer cares what he says or to whom. Then I’m angry at being embarrassed. I don’t want to be ashamed of David, not in front of a stranger, certainly not a stranger who’s an off-Broadway star and appears through velvet curtains in a shaft of light.
Now Nathan Lane is standing at our row. The few people down by the stage move close to hear what he says. Not much. David is running the show. He raises his right hand and says, “Pen!” And I give him a pen. And then he says, “My book!” And I hand him the first of his three published books.
I forgot to say that I’ve been carrying his books. Go back and add them in. “In my hand, in a bag, in my knapsack hung on my back, I carried David’s books.” Write a sentence like that, put it where you want. Mention also that it was the last time I saw him alive. He died two days later. Also, that I was in shock. And I was protecting everyone else from shock. Which was how I protected myself.
Maybe you don’t know, or know but died, or should have known, or know but don’t want to know, or don’t have anyone left who also knows how ordinary it was for a while to see emaciated people with pin straight hair and skin like a sheet thrown over a corpse walking down the street.
By 1994 in New York City, AIDS had become ordinary, even as it remained occult, a minority affliction, the fate and circumstance of diseased pariahs, staged for your relief in downtown and Broadway theaters, providing catharsis, someone else’s loss or even your own kept distant because expected, like blindness in Greek tragedy. Familiar plot.
And David wanted to make it extraordinary again. He was a Russian formalist critic queered and dying and defamiliarizing AIDS. To show you how odd it was. How little of noble sentiment or poetic effusion could ever attach to it. How shitty it was. How pierced and bloody and diapered and screaming. How relentless and dull. How even death was boring in its incremental ravaging, a day, a day, a day. Boring also in the primal sense of boring into, drilling through flesh into bone, into marrow. How, when you laughed at David’s jokes, you were implicated in the pain from which those jokes arose. Jokes he made in order to endure his pain, and to inflict it.
His theater of cruelty.
I like Nathan Lane, too, but that doesn’t mean I want to make him watch me die.
Dave talks and talks, and signs the books I hand to him, first, second, and third. Then he gives them to Nathan Lane. Sometimes I wonder what happened to those books. Are they on a shelf with the Tony Awards? Does Nathan Lane have a story he tells late at night? Did he toss them in the garbage outside the theater? What did I do with my invitation to David’s last party? I sent one to myself. Where is the black Mead notebook with Dave’s questionnaire? His hospital diary? Did we leave it on Charlotte Sheedy’s desk? After David died, we put his white pants and T-shirts and blue coat and his IV stuff, bags and needles and tubes, in a big red bin for medical waste. Me and Santiago. Then I guess we called a special truck that came and took them away.
I wanted to give my life away. I didn’t know why. I wanted to render it unto to David, to people who were dying, to anyone who died.
Survivor guilt, people tell me. Political commitment, friendship, duty, love.
Or: Grandiosity. Catholic fervor, a form of blasphemy or pride. My life for yours. Except it’s not mine to sacrifice to you, or you, or you. It’s God’s. He gives, He takes it back. To act in His behalf is a sin.
That’s if I believed in God.
And sacrifice? Would I have fasted, set myself on fire, flaming faggot, in a public square?
David was fasting. He was flaming out. He was starving to death. Not on purpose. His body would not absorb what he ate. That’s how he died.
I loved him for the wrong reasons. I saw my chance to rescue him from death. It was abstract, not personal: someone has to not die. Or it was too personal: I can’t stand to lose you.
That’s why he hated me.
Not because I was an inept savior. Not just because I was inept. Not just because he died anyway, as he would have died with or without me. But because his death was necessary to me. I needed him to be dying in order to save him from death.
In case you were thinking I was proud of myself and angry at him.
I also wanted
I wanted to be there, in my body, with him, holding and held by him, when he died. Connected to him, part of what we were both about to lose.
What I had instead of connection or anyone’s martyrdom or salvation was the spectacle of his death.
I’ll say that much for David. He knew how to stage a finale.
I don’t want to lie. I don’t want just to create an effect.
It’s 2015. Holiday weekend: 4th of July. Gay marriage just legalized. Literally, just. Dave’s been dead for twenty-one years, and I’m at my mother’s house in suburban Pennsylvania, in the guest bedroom of the condo complex where my parents moved six years ago. Retirement community. My father’s been dead for five years, and my mother’s been watching TV. Turner Classics. She’s in love with Cary Grant.
No thanks, I told her, just now, I don’t want to sit in the bedroom with her and her dog and watch the new HBO documentary about Larry Kramer. I don’t want to watch it with anyone. Not because I won’t like it. I’m sure it’s a great film. Great that Kramer – author of The Normal Heart, novelist of gay American history starting with Washington-in-love-with-Lafayette, AIDS activist, gay eminence, the guy who made sure a scene of naked wrestling between Alan Bates and Oliver Reed showed up in Women in Love, screenwriter of Lost Horizon, the Liv Ullmann musical, Cassandra of AIDS, founding member of Gay Men’s Health Crisis and ACT UP, 80-year-old troublemaker even still – : it’s great and necessary that Larry Kramer is being given his due, especially in this moment of celebration, the success of the “marriage equality” movement.
Yet it’s a film I can’t watch, certainly not with my 84-year-old mother and her dog. Because I know it’s got footage of Dave’s last ACT UP meeting, the last one he ever attended, where he delivered his parting rant, his final public appearance and bit of political theater – the last stop on his farewell tour, a week? a day? the night before? he died.
I’m never sure who’s heard of ACT UP, and who hasn’t. Google it. There are books written. Documentaries, one of them Oscar-nominated. “ACT UP to end the AIDS crisis” was its motto and statement of purpose in 1987, and this is still its justification and plan. Dave’s why I started going to ACT UP meetings in the fall of 1989, and he’s why, five years later, I stopped.
It was Monday night. Dave’s last meeting. ACT UP/New York met on Monday nights. Still does. Was it before or after Nathan Lane’s play? Ha! A timeline organized around how recently you saw Nathan Lane.
Dave died two days A.L., After Lane. Did he? That night at the play was the last time I saw him. Him, Dave. The last time I saw him alive. Later I saw his dead body, but I’ve written that story already. Was Dave’s last ACT UP meeting the day before he died? He died on Halloween. Halloween or the next day. Halloween was Monday that year. I remember that the blue NYPD barriers from the Halloween Parade had not been taken down. They were still lining 7th Avenue, Monday?, Tuesday?, maybe it was Wednesday that I said good-bye to his body, his corpse.
Did he die Tuesday morning? I was in Flushing, Queens, at Queens College, where I teach Creative Writing, and where, as far as I can figure, at the moment Dave died, I was standing in front of a classroom writing a line from Ernest Hemingway’s “The Big Two-Hearted River” on the chalk board: “The river was there.” It matters that the river is there, because nothing else is. The town around the river has burned to the ground. I was explaining this to my students. Then I stopped. I felt warm, and heavy, and slowed-down. It must have been just a few seconds, although it seemed much longer. That night after class, I got the news on a pay phone in an Irish bar near campus that David had died. I don’t remember who told me.
He could not have gone to an ACT UP meeting the night before he died, because I was there, and that meeting was not the last time I saw him alive.
I took him to the meeting. I was holding his bag. Cradling his IV bag while he ranted. Which may or may not be true. About the bag, I mean. I remember him in his white pants and T-shirt, yelling and infusing. He was an efficient guy, a multi-tasker even in death. Did I have his bag? Why do I imagine that it was hanging from a rolling IV pole, and that Dave grasped the pole, and rolled it back and forth across the floor as he delivered his rant? That’s a scene from Philadelphia. Tom Hanks did that, not Dave. There was no aria in the background, Maria Callas wasn’t singing “Porto sventura a chi bene mi vuole”: Just because you’re dying doesn’t mean that you’re the only one at risk.
I have no idea what he said at the ACT UP meeting.
“Fuck you, I’m dying.” Something like that. “Fuck you. Your fault. I’m dying.”
If I watched the HBO documentary about Larry Kramer, I would know.
But I don’t want to know.
I took him to the meeting. We had a bad cab ride downtown. The cab had no shocks, and the driver hit as many potholes as he could, across 23rd Street and down 9th Avenue. Every time we hit a pothole, Dave screamed. We were Keystone Cops in a slapstick bathtub being rolled through city streets. The cab slammed and cracked and split against the pavement and pulled up and disgorged us in front of the 13th Street Community Center, which had not yet been monetized by corporate homosexuals and was still funky and half-formed, a New York City public school repurposed as a meeting place for queers.
And so into the building we went. Me with his bag, Dave a holocaust Jew, emaciated, raging, his beautiful deep-set green eyes hot with the flame that had burned away his flesh and left only a stare and a body in white. He was an avenging angel. Not one of Tony Kushner’s angels come to deliver the divine terms of our human mission and salvation. David was the Angel of Fuck You. He was the Angel of I Die, You Do Nothing. The Angel of This Is What Your Democracy Looks Like, democracy in diapers, shit-smeared in your neglect.
He was the Angel of Your Nostalgia Is Killing Me. Dave would have loved the Canadian AIDS activists who, twenty years after his death, raged that the historical accounts of ACT UP’s “heroic era” 1987-1996, the films, books, news reports, encomia from Rachel Maddow and Anderson Cooper, did not stress the life-denying information: there is still no cure. He was the Angel of You Failed, Where’s My Cure? “When I die of kidney failure,” he’d say, if he were alive now, “because of the drugs I’ve been taking for nineteen years, not to mention the worthless drugs I took for six years before that, that’s when I dare you to tell me that ACT UP worked.”
Me and Dave and our Rolling Thunder Review. Twenty-one years ago. Taking the Community Center. Scorched Earth. We were revving our tanks in order to withdraw from the field and leave nothing behind. Nothing the enemy could use. Who was the enemy? Don’t say Ed Koch, that’s obvious. Or Ronald Reagan, George Bush I. Abe Rosenthal, duh. The New York Times. No. You were. The enemy was you. So was ACT UP. So were cute boys and gay girls in combat boots. Dave’s friends. Everyone who had ever loved or rejected him. Especially me.
We rolled into the Center. The meeting was on the first floor. It was a straight shot from the front door to the room with fucked-up walls and metal pillars in your sight lines. For a while, ACT UP was so large it met across town at Cooper Union, where Frederick Douglass and Elizabeth Cady Stanton had long ago tried to change the world. By the fall of 1994, no cure in sight, shrunken in ranks, we were back at the Community Center. At Dave’s last meeting, there were thirty, forty people in folding metal chairs across the concrete floor.
You can watch the film if you want to see the rest of this: Larry Kramer in Love and Anger, 2015, 82 minutes, directed by Jean Carlomusto. I’m sure it’s good. Dave’s speech, some of it, is at 1.05.11. James Wentzy shot the footage. I remember seeing Wentzy with his camera, back then, recording Dave, and then for twenty years, I forgot.
Two weeks after the United States Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage, I got HBO Now on my iPhone, and lay on my bed in Brooklyn, fast-forwarding through the documentary until I saw Dave’s emaciated face. And then I stopped.
I don’t think dying is sacred or profane. It’s routine. I mean, it happens. David made a spectacle of his death, to prove there was nothing ordinary about it. It was a political death, it wasn’t personal. I wish it had been personal. I wanted it to happen, not just to David, but to me. It was also happening to me. I’m glad he died, because people die, and I want to die. I don’t ever want to not die. Dying is human. It doesn’t offend me. It was awful to watch him not die.
In the cab home from ACT UP, Dave said, “Why are you watching me all the time?”
And I said, “The thing is, you seem really stressed, and I – not just me, a bunch of us were – we’re just worried, you know, and maybe if you just – ”
“What? Maybe if I just what?”
“Are you going to die without – ” is what I wanted to say.
I couldn’t say the sentence, even to myself. Without what? I can’t say it now. You repeat the story, Auden says, until you reach the point in the narrative where you stumble, where you trip. The split in the seam, rip in the fabric where the story begins. Pull the thread. You write about what unravels.
I get proprietary about David. I don’t like to hear people talk about him. I don’t understand what happened. Sometimes people say you learn things and move on. Or they say absurd stuff like God doesn’t give you anything you can’t handle, which is clearly bullshit. God: pfft. And what was there to handle? There was nothing to handle. There was no moving on. Don’t you need to have an experience in order to move on? What experience? What did I learn? David didn’t want to die. I was not supposed to let him die. He was dying all the time, everyone knew he was dying, he knew, he made jokes about it, but to talk to him about his death was not allowed. There was no talk of death. There was no death. I was forbidden to think of his death, and then he died. It was the most painful thing that ever happened to me. I had nothing left. I had nothing, and then I had nothing left. I wish people would never ask me about him. I wish they would never say his name.
(Published in New South, 2008; revised 2015)
Stunning, and a rapid rewind, for me, to London 1994, only we didn’t make movies about friends who were dying. They just have to sit uncomfortably in our memories.