People die. It can’t be helped. In the ‘90s it happened every day.
Not long after Jose died, Garrett died, and after that it was Aaron, and then my Grandma Dina died, too. Grandma’s death was a surprise, but I was there to hold her as she left this world, just as I was with Jose. Frank retired to live out whatever life he might have left on 35 T-cells, staying with Cliff and me in between jaunts to Mexico and Spain, looking more and more like a skeleton with every passing month.
Tonight’s blog is extra long, for tonight we finish The Low Spark of High Heeled Boys. I had planned to divide the conclusion of this chapter into two parts, but after last night’s death scene, I don’t have the heart to drag it out.
The Low Spark of High Heeled Boys
For me, Jose’s death yanked out the tent pegs of the universe, and in that one swift motion, all that I had thought permanent in my life began to collapse: star; black hole. Needing a sense of control -- over something, anything, in my life -- I decided to raze what little remained, make a clean sweep of it. I would divorce my husband. He hadn't understood what I needed before Jose died and he didn't seem to be learning now. Without Jose's friendship, there was no way I could endure the fissures in my marriage. That's what I told a friend who then said to me, "One crisis at a time." So I waited, figuring I could divorce just as easily next month as this.
During this time, Frank got two tickets to Portland's La Femme Magnifique, the local competition for a national drag queen contest, and invited me to go with him. Cliff, who had long since quit accepting my invitations to go anywhere, decided to buy himself a ticket and come with. When Cliff and I arrived ahead of Frank, we found ourselves entering a sky-high hall aflame with lip gloss, glitter, sequins: a veritable skyline of resplendent bigger-and-better-than-reality beauty. All the ladies in this flight of fantasy were ‘70s stewardess gorgeous, the preflight drinks strong, and the cruising direct nonstop. Being a mere RG (real girl) under these conditions can be dangerously ego-deflating unless you are a) drop-dead gorgeous and dressed to the teeth, b) a stone lesbian in a killer tux, or c) hanging with a cute friend who needs you to check out all the guys he’s checking out. Frank was late. I didn't know anyone else. In less than forty-five minutes, I'd crowded up to the bar twice, made the looky-lou rounds, chatted up the shy table mates to my right, and was in danger of getting drunk before the festivities if I had one more gin and tonic. Finally with nowhere left to go, I turned to my husband, even though I knew he wasn't one to flirt, not even with me. What I saw made me rethink my plans for divorce.
My husband, man whose posture and movements make clear that he owns not only his place in the world but the seats on either side, whose personality and fashion sense produce an image somewhere between hippie surfer dude and long-haired redneck, was chatting with the near-twin blonds seated to his left. The voice raised an octave, the expansive hand gestures, the scattering of "girl" and "hon" and "doll" as he talked with these men, all the signs were there: my husband was dishing. Don't ask me why I was surprised. I never made a list of the qualities the man I married would have to have, simply assuming that any man I loved would look at the world the same way I did. If I had made such a list, however, being man enough to enjoy the company of gay men would've been in the top five. Jose was my best friend -- not gay best friend; dearest friend -- and when Jose lay dying, Cliff had argued with me as much as he had consoled. More. He was a man who had raged about the checkbook and the daily chores, a man who coped with his friend’s dying and his wife’s disappearance by focusing on the unraveling disorder of things, and I had hated him for it. But as I watched my husband on this evening, I heard Jose’s words. “Cliff is my hero,” he had said. “He’s the model for how I believe a straight man is supposed to be.” And who knows, maybe Cliff is. I know I never contradicted Jose when he said this, nor offered any example that might make him think otherwise. Jose adored Cliff. Every gay man does.
“Oh, Jose would have loved this,” Frank declared as friends and family gathered. At Frank’s suggestion, we drove caravan from Jose's apartment in the city to the memorial an hour away, as a formal funeral procession: single file, headlights on, all the way up the mountain. I was dressed in black, complete with black hose and a fashionable hat. Oh yes, Jose would have loved that, all of it, not because he was such a drama queen, though Frank thought as much, but rather because Jose lived his life guided as the stars are guided. Call it timing, call it style, Jose knew how to play to the mood of a moment. He always dressed for the occasion of meeting for lunch, for example -- casually of course, but with care. That’s how it was with our friendship as well. Whether staying in to watch a video or going out to eat, our demeanor was casual, yet we held each other’s hearts with care, in full awareness of the needs of the moment. Sometimes, as we entered a restaurant or a movie house, our reflection would flash into the room from a mirror, a window, art under glass, and in those moments I could almost hear the glass sound of hearts breaking.
I love the movies. On the big theater screen, on the small glass screen, all movies are marvelous. The television in my living room is just small enough that I don’t have to say I own a big screen TV, but at twenty-seven inches, it’s big enough that the glass reflects everything in the room. The TV was a gift to my husband, given by me for saying “I love you” every day, for picking flowers and arranging them in my favorite vases week after week, for booking a moonlight cruise for our anniversary, which came just two months after Jose’s death. Our marriage survived, of course, for the same reason it had survived up to that point: Cliff and I always gave each other the space to be exactly who we are, and who we are is not exactly what most people expect. I haven’t any close girlfriends to speak of, at least not any that aren’t gay men, and for years Cliff’s closest friend has been a single woman who’s straight and a decade older. I don’t do shopping with the girls; Cliff doesn’t do football with the boys. At our house, it has always been Cliff who does the cooking, while I put away the dishes, recycle, and take out the trash. I’m also the one who takes the car to the mechanic and mows the lawn. Cliff does the laundry and cleans the toilet. (Okay, so I’m the one who does laundry that requires special care; he is still a guy.) So naturally, even though the television was purchased for my guy, I control the remote. Cliff doesn’t mind. He goes to bed early. I‘m the one who stays up late. I stay up watching videos, like Jose and I used to.
The first color TV Cliff and I ever owned was a hand me down from Jose, a thirteen-inch portable, making it a full two inches larger than the black and white set that preceded it. Cliff loved having color, but I loved the TV itself; not because it was color, although that was novel, and not because it came with my first remote control, although that too was novel -- and fun, once I learned that I didn’t need to point directly at the TV -- no, the reason I loved that TV was that it had been Jose’s; we had watched years of movies on it, the two of us sitting side by side against the wall on the living room carpet or the bed, all propped up with pillows. Whatever we couldn’t see on the big screen we watched on the little one, scooted up as close as humanly possible, so that thirteen inches could become thirteen feet, could become Cinescope, could be the world.
After Jose died, I watched movies just to be close to the world we once inhabited. After Jose died, what I wanted most to watch -- but could not -- was the video we made of our trip to the falls. Multnomah Falls is one of the most scenic spots in Oregon. Jose had only been out of the hospital a couple days, but ever the host, he had arranged to drive his visiting parents up the Columbia River Gorge to show them the sights. We stopped at all the roadside attractions, Frank, me, Jose, and Jose’s parents, looking at this waterfall, taking in that view, and reading every other historical marker, a feat made more remarkable by the fact that getting in and out of our rented car was a comedy of elbows and good manners. Picture five adults squeezing into a subcompact meant for four, five adults sucking in their bellies and clutching their packages until every door can be closed and the high hum of the highway can be countered with polite conversation in two languages; then, at each stop, all five adults burst forth like happy candy from a piñata.
At each stop, we’d get ourselves upright and smoothed out and then stand a moment to wonder whether we ought also to take out the wheelchair, packed in the trunk three layers down. Then out came the video camera, and we’d roll tape on Jose narrating the history of the Gorge, Jose posing with his parents next to an historical marker, Jose leaning on his cane before a scenic vista, Jose speaking to the camera as he read from a list all the names of family members in LA to whom he wished to send greetings and thanks. It wasn't long before I could see that Jose was getting tired, hungry too. I could see it in the way he walked, even more slowly than usual, and in the deliberate way that he exercised patience, with himself, with us. And because I saw Jose losing ground, I took the camera from Frank and told him to go stand next to his sweetheart, not yet knowing that this was to be the last thing recorded that day, in fact, the last video altogether; not knowing that after lunch we will have to cut the trip short and return home.
With the camera rolling, Frank cracks a joke about how much Jose loves him. "How much do I love you?" Jose says response. He smiles. He licks his pasty lips. He makes a false start, clears the phlegm from his throat, smiles again. "It's not that I don't want to say," he says in a voice suddenly hoarse. He laughs. The joke is that when he and Frank split up it was over love, displays of love. For Jose, the Catholic from Nicaragua, love was something you showed through your actions, not something you said. For Frank, the white southern Baptist, love was the words “I love you” spoken out loud and often. Standing high above the floor of the Gorge where the mile-wide Columbia slow-rolls to the sea, Jose recovers himself enough to say, "I love you more than I could ever say." Then, as if to show proof, he adds, "Just wait till we get home." Frank smiles, raises his eyebrows. "A little hoochie coochie?" he says. Everyone laughs. For a moment we are, all of us, silly, embarrassed; in love.
Jose's eyes keep rolling up into his head, his long lashes falling, eyelids drooping like those of a child determined to stay up till the celebration at midnight. Patiently, he brings his eyes back down, smiles, flexes the charm he still has so much of. Frank is wriggling his hips in a little happy dance over getting some hoochie coochie tonight when Jose grins at him, a huge smile that says, You know I love you. Out loud, in his lightly accented English, he says, "Maybe." Jose’s eyes roll back into his head. He closes them, opens them, smiles, and in a voice thick as river gravel, "Maybe not."
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