Vermilion, part 1
At the center of every good story sits a lie, an exaggeration that turns the pumpkin truth into a golden carriage. The lie in this story is that Jose was perfect, but that’s not really a lie; perfection has nothing to do with the attributes of self and everything to do with the needs of others. So while we alone may hold responsibility for our shortcomings, it is others who make us perfect.
I don't know why this is. I know that at Garrett's memorial, I heard a lot about how tender and loving he was, how spiritual, how giving. I heard nothing about the pissy queen who bragged of numerous and unverifiable degrees in philosophy and literature, and who hung up on me whenever I couldn't get him the pot he wanted the minute he wanted it. When the time comes to memorialize Frank, I know I'll agree with the words that are spoken: He was a loving and generous friend, giving of himself and all that was his, a joyous and playful spirit. It’s true. He is. But he’s also someone who can lash out at me without warning, making his predicament -- usually something about being out of time, patience, or money -- my fault. The Frank Stovall I know can be every bit the pissy queen Garrett was, just as self-centered, just as grasping and demanding. Damn, but can't we all?
"He expected all of your attention,” she said, “all of the time." I wasn’t there to hear her say this, but when these words ring in my head, words spoken just days before Jose died, I imagine them coming out in a yell. Best friends since high school, this Texan flew to Frank’s side because of a dream that had awakened her in the middle of the night in the middle of her vacation in the middle of the Colorado mountains, miles from any car or road. And now, as she stood jet-lagged in front of Frank’s dream house in the foothills of the Oregon Cascades; the house that had saved Frank from a slow-lane commute to an LA job he’d hated, the house in which he regularly hosted all his California and Texas friends, the house guarded by two smiling, wagging dogs who pranced behind a chain link fence on shit-covered concrete; as she stood in front of Frank’s house, his words swerved like a car on the freeway with a blown tire. If he killed himself -- and the dogs, he’d have to kill the dogs -- if he killed himself when Jose died, then maybe they’d end up together. That could happen, couldn’t it?
This is not what Frank’s best friend had flown from Colorado to hear, and I imagine her words were intended to splash Frank with a little of the cold water of reality, but I still don’t like it. "When Jose lived with you,” she said, “he was just a prima donna, and you know it.”
There had been problems, it’s true, and it didn’t help that Jose got an apartment in town an hour away. Still, the relationship didn’t end all at once. It was more of a slow, foot-off-the-gas-but-not-on-the-brake, winding-down-to-a-stop kind of end. Jose was lucky to survive the CMV he’d battled on my couch, and so when he qualified for subsidized housing near his doctor, he went. His new apartment was near the hospital, the bus, his friends, a branch of the library, a movie house; all the things Jose needed. Except Frank. Jose spent every weekend on the mountain, and over a year later he and Frank were still smiling together at my fall wedding reception, but spring announced their separation. Not long afterward, Jose called me near tears. Frank refused to cut and deliver the flowers that stubbornly continued to grow in Jose’s garden at Frank’s house: daffodils and narcissus, tulips and foxglove, a sea of lilies. "But I love those flowers," Jose cried. "How could he not do this for me?"
I could not make Frank cut or deliver flowers, and I could not tell Jose that such an expectation was unreasonable, but what I could do I did. Jose started a writing group after moving to town, and although I’d been working with him on his short stories, I wasn’t invited. So I advised Jose on how to make the group run smoothly and helped him edit his novel. I did not talk to Jose about my own writing, and Jose didn't ask. I told him once that I admired his ability to share his work with just about anyone, something all but impossible for me at the time, and I shared my own writing on only one occasion, a poetry reading. Jose came and listened to me read. Afterward he did not comment. I did not comment. I thanked him for coming. He thanked me for inviting him. Then both of us smiled big smiles, somehow pleased, so pleased. I know it sounds odd, and I suppose I could root around here a bit, scrape at the dissatisfaction such interactions might have left behind, but this isn’t the essay where I dig at my regrets. Fact is, I had not a care about Jose, what he thought, how he acted, who he was in the world; I loved him. I loved everything about him. I could fill a book with what made Jose who he was and what made me love him -- his silly horse laugh, his practical jokes that always included me as silent co-conspirator, his sense of timing, his eclectic taste in movies, his worship of words and books and art, his opinions spoken so freely, his beautiful face and dark eyes that looked right in -- but I could not give you the one thing, the feeling of the one thing, that held us fast: being together. That’s it, the essence of our friendship: it felt good to be together.
I have a friend who followed The Bhagwan, living at Rancho Rajneesh here in Oregon until it disbanded, and he once tried to describe the bliss -- that’s the right word -- the bliss that arose in him in the presence of The Bhagwan, but he couldn't. I understood. My friendship with Jose had caught me up in the same star gazing, reality-twisting happiness. The two of us spent our days at the movie house immersed in pictures, symbols of the mythology of emotion, imprinting identical light impressions directly onto our brain stems, not a word between us. And we spent our friendship awash in words, swimming in the love of words, their supple texture, sculling, dipping our laughing mouths, shooting words like Greek fountains high into the sky around us. That’s how it was. We inhabited a magical reality, a wondrous place wherein all things could at once, as in dreams. It was only those around us, and later those listening to me tell the tale, that saw any contradiction.
A man in my writing practice group, the place where I wrote the first draft of this book in a white-hot heat, listened to me pour my heart out about Jose for more than a year, and then one day he wrote this:
Listening to Dina root around for the foible or flaw which will make Jose seem human, watching her come up empty or with only some gossip from Frank or friends, but never anything cruel or unkind which Jose did directly to her -- oh, he didn't invite her into his gay men's writing group, but I think most people will forgive Jose this, even if Dina hasn't quite -- but listening to this one might argue that she is avoiding something, afraid to face some terrible truth, but I don't believe it; I don't think Dina hides from much of anything about Jose. He may have been miserly and penny-pinching with Frank, he may have been a pedant with Lupin, but Jose and Dina had one of those friendships where they brought out the best in each other. And Jose has always seemed quite human to me.
His illness, his suffering, his fear of dying, these are flaws enough. That Jose didn't complain or whine or impose, that he kept his Latino good manners and courtesy with him past the point where others might succumb to pain and fear, these are his strengths. . . . And as Dina points out, Jose's death from AIDS is ample proof of his humanity.
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