The Fifth Season
"Do you remember when all the neighborhood kids had ringworm?" he asked me from his hospital bed, inviting me to imagine, I suppose, that the lesions corrupting his brain were a similar phenomenon. I said yes, but really only one kid in the neighborhood had had ringworm, and it wasn't even ringworm - it was impetigo. Or so I remember.
"Come lie in the bed with me," he said. He said it every time I went to visit him. There was a large window near his bed. Out the window I see gray - perhaps the roof of another building or it could be that the sky was gray every time I went there. The room was on the fourth floor. It was winter. In the beginning it was winter, and then at the end it was spring. But all I see is gray, very continuous, something to count on. I think there was another man in the room, near the door. There was another man, and then later there was not another man. He is gray as well, but shadowy, off to the side.
Marc pulled back the sheet and blanket and patted the space beside him. The bed was narrow, like all hospital beds, but I climbed into that space and lay on my back with my legs straight ahead of me, my arms pressed to my sides - it was what I could do. We would pretend we were still children; or we would slip into that late-eighties, early-nineties script that had enamored Hollywood and the American public: Philadelphia, Early Frost, Long Time Companion: gay man dying, loyal friends hold his hand to the dirty end. I felt under the sheets for his hand. There. Warm and muscular, surprisingly life driven. He was dying from the neck up, the rest of his body uncorrupted, muscled, blood fed. I looked ahead of me at the wall - there was something on the wall, a card or a painting, blue - and I held his hand.
His left eyelid was collapsing. An inelegant drooping into the corner as if gravity were exerting unfair pressure. At first the drooping had given him a lazy, sexy look, but now the skin cloaked more and more of his eye each time I went. His eyes were brown. I didn't go often enough. The small bones inside both his ears were closing in tightly to his eardrums. Nerves shut off, the auditory system smothered. By the time he was admitted into San Francisco General he was stone deaf, but he could read lips and we had a clipboard we passed back and forth. Yellow paper with blue lines.
"Do you want some hot chocolate?" he whispered to me. We had often on winter days as kids, after destroying the snow in our backyards, sipped hot chocolate on stools in his mother's kitchen: dark green cupboards, a photograph of a Oaxacan market on the wall. But the whispering annoyed me - and I was embarrassed that it annoyed me. It was desperate, not childlike but childish - though I don't remember him talking like that as a child.
"Take some money from my bag and go downstairs and get yourself hot chocolate."
"I don't want any hot chocolate,” I said.
"You don't want any?” he asked, turning further on his side to see my lips and watch my face.
"Is something wrong?"
"No, I just don't need any hot chocolate." I had taken money from his bag the week earlier and had returned with two cardboard cups of hot chocolate from a machine in the basement cafeteria. Instant, watery, sweet. A distraction.
A nurse came in with a blood pressure hose over his neck. He had red hair, diluted by sun or bleach. "Don't get up," he said, gently, "I'll come back." I'd watched him take Marc's pulse the week before: how did he keep his fingernails so clean?
"No, it's all right, I've got to go," I said. I'd been there for over an hour; he slept and then woke; we talked with the yellow pad about the lesions and the possibility of cutting them out with laser technology. But the lesions would just grow back, like thistles.
"What?" Marc asked. He put his hand on my arm and looked up into my face.
"I've got to go," I repeated, slowly, more slowly than necessary. "T h e n u r s e i s h e r e."
The nurse stepped to the foot of the bed and turned his head politely - or to spare himself the awkward deceit.
Marc moved his hand up my arm and sat forward, bringing his eyes to me, pulling me down toward him until our foreheads were an inch apart. I couldn't recall being this physically close since first grade, yet something seemed familiar. A violence. I could see the clear mucus gathering in the corner of the drooping eyelid and the completely unmasked plea in the other. Dark brown. Lighter now than when he was a kid. I could have been there only thirty minutes. Fear and fearlessness. Nothing to lose. Emptiness and grasping. A golden ring around the pupil.
"Hot chocolate?" he asked, his lips not closing around the words as they came from the back of his throat and rode out on his breath. They sounded like "ha chohtlate." He pointed down, toward the cafeteria. I covered my mouth to suppress a nervous laugh and looked away.
A blue print on the wall, blue and yellow and some milky white and I want to say the image was a horse, a print of that famous yellow horse, and that his mother, who had flown in from Minnesota the week before and was staying with his sister Lynn in Richmond, taped the poster there, but I don't think that’s true. I don't know how that print got on that wall, though it is true that Marc loved paintings and prints and when he lived in London and New York visited the galleries regularly and when he came back talked about the art incessantly. But Marc had nothing for horses; I am the one who in shorts and T-shirt rode a Shetland around our backyard and into the cornfield behind our houses one summer, until the horse bucked me off and my forearm snapped in two places, and then for the rest of the summer into the school year Marc carried things around for me. A biology book. My coronet on band days. An empty black plastic purse.
The nurse was wearing a white T-shirt and white pants - of course he was. I smiled. Marc could see my lips - I wore lipstick all the time then. "Yes," I said. "Hot chocolate in the cafeteria."
And then I'd be gone, walking quickly past the other man in the bed by the door and turning into the brightness and anonymity of the hallway.