Nadav Spiegelman

Borrowed Time

Paul Monette
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Stuart and Roger were discussing John Boswell’s Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality, a book they both loved, which details the benign attitudes to gay love in the early church, even to gay marriages.
At the bank, Sheldon was forcibly cheerful and introduced us to his new assistant, Len, coyly remarking to me behind his hand as we went into the Deli Diner that Len was “even more gorgeous than the last one, don’t you think?” I did not hazard an opinion. By now I was used to him saying the wrongest, dumbest things imaginable, anything to avoid emotion.
I listened in on his call to Roger, huddling in the shade of his compassion, trying to learn what it was people said when the worst had happened. He listened to Roger’s woe and terror, really listened, with an “Oh” that echoed Roger’s own. Then he spoke and gave comfort and made us hope. All through the calamity I’ve heard the noblest people do that: Somehow they find the words.
Fred was so vastly overqualified it was funny, but he made an enormous difference to the texture of Roger’s life.
Today he wasn’t listening much, and I could tell he was sad. So we just sat there for a bit, not talking, while I watched the various dogs and their owners cavort in the park.
Suddenly Roger began to recite Milton’s sonnet on his blindness: “‘When I consider how my light is spent / Ere half my days, in this dark world and wide …’” I don’t remember how far he got before he choked up and couldn’t go on, but that didn’t matter. Neither of us would have been very receptive to the bullshit about bearing God’s “mild yoke.” But I can’t ever forget the moment, looking out at all the sunset yuppies and their dogs while Roger declaimed his loss in a broken voice.
We used the blue-cloth Oxford volume called Portrait of Socrates, comprising the Apology and the two last dialogues of the philosopher’s life, edited by the aforementioned Livingstone.
I had an appointment with Martin myself a month after Roger died. The first thing he said was: “He loved you greatly.”
I told him I was sorry and then about my friend. Yes, he said, he understood; his own friend had died just after Christmas. Among us warriors there is a duty to compose ourselves and pass on anything that might help, no matter how deep the grief. Two weeks after Roger died, a frantic acquaintance called to ask about the meningitis drug that hadn’t worked for Roger, who died with it in his veins. Just the mention of the word took my breath away, as I answered questions about the convulsive side effects. But I thought of the blind man trying to help me save Roger’s eyes, and so I stayed on the meningitis case till the crisis was past.
Some of the agonies that burn in the heart forever begin as brief as snapshots. A nurse came to wheel Rog through the dozen corridors and bridges that connected the Bowyer Clinic to 10 East, and at one point we were on an elevator. Roger looked over and tried to see me five feet away, straining his one eye as if he were reaching for me, as if from a train pulling out of a station. That was the first time I ever suffered dying, and I can’t even say what death it was. Roger’s and mine both, to be sure, but something more as well. I understood then that the tragedy of parting was deeper than death—which only the very wisest have anything true to say about, like Mrs. Knecht across the street. “Here I am, Rog,” I declared softly.
One afternoon, I walked in calling “Here I am,” as usual. I realize now that I would announce myself this way as a counter to his blindness, but it’s still the phrase I speak when I visit the grave, or sometimes when I walk into the empty house.
He worried to Dr. Martin during a therapy session at the hospital: “Paul says he can’t survive without me.” An accurate quotation, I’m afraid, and I’m grateful to Martin for allaying his concern: “Of course he can. He’ll do fine.” Even if it isn’t so, I’m glad he said it.
He talked me through the whole trip, and once when I couldn’t bear the pain of being far from him he said, “I miss you the same way, darling. But there’s part of me that’s rooting for you to have a good time. So try.”
I hit brutal traffic coming into L.A. and arrived fried at the hospital at six-thirty. When I walked in the room his parents greeted me with a cheer. Roger, lying half asleep in bed, was so pleased and excited that all he could do for a moment was moan with pleasure, rocking back and forth in a motion akin to wagging.
But how was I to know? Then I knew nothing about death, and now I know everything short of my own.
What is it? he wanted to know. “I’m so afraid,” I told him. “I want you to be okay. I don’t know what to do.” And he spoke an ocean of reassurance, curled on his side in bed: “Don’t worry, darling, I’m still here.” Twice more in the difficult days that followed he’d hear me blubbering over one misery or another, and he echoed again, “I’m still here.” Letting me tuck in beside him and unleash a flood of grief.
Cope returned at ten and waited till Al and Bernice arrived. When they walked in they greeted him warmly, not looking toward Rog right away, thanking the doctor for all the long fight. Al gripped my shoulder and declared, his voice breaking, “This boy took care of him like a mother.” Then Bernice went to the side of the bed, touched Roger’s hand and said, “Good night, sweet prince.” But they held their tears, those two, because they had sworn since the very beginning of the end to be strong for me.
And with the party in full swing—just the size Roger liked, conversation one on one
“What if we got it?” I said, staring out at the otters belly up in the kelp beds, taking the sun. I don’t remember how we answered that, because of course there wasn’t any answer. Merely to pose the question was by way of another shot at magic. Mention the unmentionable and it will go away, like shining a light around a child’s bedroom to shoo the monster. The great ache we were feeling at that moment was for our stricken friend, and we were too ignorant still to envision the medieval tortures that might await him. But I know that the roll of pictures I took that day was my first conscious memorializing of Roger and me, as if I could hold the present as security on the future.
How do I speak of the person who was my life’s best reason?
We weren’t kids anymore. We’d been hurting dull as a toothache for years. When we came together as lovers we knew precisely how happy we were. I only realized then that I’d never had someone to play with before. There was a lost time that wanted making up in spades. Six weeks before Roger died, he looked over at me astonished one day in the hospital, eyes dim with the gathering blindness. “But we’re the same person,” he said in a sort of bewildered delight. “When did that happen?”
Since he’d paid all the bills during my two bouts of bad harvest, when I couldn’t sell a paragraph, I was eager to return the favor. The worst that could happen, I told him, was he’d fall on his face.
There was always a sort of double clock to the evening, because Roger was asleep by midnight, never a night’s insomnia, and I didn’t go to bed till three.
I realize now how peaceful it was to be writing while Rog lay asleep in the next room. I can’t describe how safe it made me feel, how free to work.
I can see us so vividly side by side in bed—reading, dozing, roaming—always coming round again to that evening anchorage, no matter if the day had been a hurricane.
Roger was fine. How is it I remember those moments sharp as a Kodachrome and see him perfectly healthy when I know now it wasn’t so? I’ve got two pictures from January that spook me so much I can’t even look at them now.
We respected one another’s work without envy, since we weren’t trying to be each other at all.
The movie was half an inch deep but rather endearing,
We were driving down Sunset, me at the wheel, when he suddenly said, in a frail voice with a quiver of tears: “Don’t go.” I looked at him, startled. “I’ll be back in four days. You’ll be all right.” As tender and reassuring as I could be, because I knew how unanchored we were when either of us was away. We’d always agreed it was harder on the one who stayed home.
I shlepped my bags from the airport to the Variety Arts, and went limp with relief when Roger came in, beaming, with Alfred Sole. A look was all we needed by way of anchorage.
How much denial was everyone practicing? Enough to power Chernobyl, but nobody did it consciously; that’s why it’s called denial.
The shame of being different was rooted deeper in me than the fact of being gay: in the mesmerized faces of those who would stare at my brother on crutches, my brother too busy walking to notice. I noticed.
Has anything ever been quite like this? Bad enough to be stricken in the middle of life, but then to fear your best and dearest will suffer exactly the same. Cancer and the heart don’t sicken a man two ways like that. And it turns out all the certainties of health insurance and the job that waits are just a social contract, flimsy as the disappearing ink it’s written in. Has anything else so tested the medical system and blown all its weakest links?
Together Roger and I became postgraduate students of the condition. No explanation was too technical for me to follow, even if it took a string of phone calls to every connection I had.
Eventually the interns had more to learn from us than we from them, for we had a data base larger than theirs.
At last Roger would emerge, looking a little rocky, but with his tie neatly knotted as ever and his briefcase firmly in hand. I felt such a flood of love for him then, and wagged like the dog and happily chattered as I drove us home to safety.
The media are convinced in 1987 that they’re doing a great job reporting the AIDS story, and there’s no denying they’ve grasped the horror. But for four years they let the bureaucracies get away with passive genocide, dismissing a no-win problem perceived as affecting only an underclass or two. It was often remarked acidly in West Hollywood that if AIDS had struck boy scouts first rather than gay men, or St. Louis rather than Kinshasa, it would have been covered like nuclear war.
Whenever Cesar was down, we’d always say we couldn’t wait for parties we gave to be over. At midnight Cesar would murmur about the guests who had settled in: “Don’t they understand we have to analyze all of this?”
They also had a mutual friend, with political views to the right of Genghis Khan, and they traded a laugh over him.
I had my own obsessive ideas about food. I’d always been a closet vitamin freak, and for twenty years have begun the day with monastic grayness, downing a drink of soy meal and brewer’s yeast in buttermilk. It tastes as bad as it sounds, and its austerity has never kept me from eating french fries and chocolate with abandon the rest of the day.
Now we know that stride could have been made in ’82. or ’83 if the government hadn’t been playing ostrich. Spilled milk, people tell me; you can’t undo the past. But can’t we measure the spill?
Christ Church in Andover was a fount of liberal outreach, shining with irreproachable convictions, yet my mother’s sprinkling of God in every conversation had created a cloying atmosphere from which I kept my distance.
It was so close to a delusion it took my breath away, but it wasn’t quite.
The next night I was sobbing when I came into the main lobby of the hospital. Tears are part of the leeway of the common areas of a hospital, since so many have to do their crying away from the patient’s bed. You don’t care who sees you cry in the lobby: it was port of entry for all the sorrows, and one gave up all one’s previous citizenship at the border.