[I] may be crazy but I'm the closest thing I have to a voice of reason.

30 April 2010

On the Borderline

Remember when I said that I had entered the shamanic version of basic training? Boot camp for the woo-woo set, I called it. Well today I came close to losing everything I’ve worked for. Actually my fuck up was Tuesday, during the nighttime hours of the Scorpio full moon, and it was a doozy. Today I confessed my wrong doing to the shaman and took my punishment like a good soldier. It was painful but not permanent. Afterward, the shaman said that he had decided he wouldn’t drop me. I did not know I’d done something for which I could be dismissed.

The shock of the true nature of my offense was much worse than the pain of my punishment.

I am a natural iconoclast, it’s true. Daily you can find me kicking down barriers, dancing around the rules, and flirting with disaster, but I’m a good kid. I am. I’m the four-point honors student, not the fuck up. I have friends who are fuck-ups. I love them. But as for me? While I love a good mess and I love my messed up friends and I will make messes with them if they want me to, I have never had an intractable fuck-up on my record. Ever. It’s not my style. I was shocked when I heard the shaman’s words. I have never done anything that would cause me to get kicked out of a place where I wanted to stay. I have never made a wrong so intractable or inalterable that I could not backtrack, apologize, make amends.

Today I learned what my father meant when he said that kindness could often be the best punishment. My father didn’t raise me, but in addition to a second family, he did raise and care for many messed up foster kids. I’ll never forget when he told me that showing kindness when the swift kick of punishment was expected often brought contrite tears to an otherwise unreachable child. Today I was surprised to realize: I am that child.

There has been no writing nor any editing of The Movie Lovers this week. Shamanic work has been all. Plus many, many fuck-ups. . . . So, with apologies to my enthusiastic readers, here’s tonight’s teaser from Chapter 6.
One Easy Thing:

* * *

In college I earned money as an art model, dropping my fuzzy yellow bathrobe (a favorite cast-off of my auntie’s) to pose on a dais. One artist, a quiet man in his forties who worked in pen and ink on toothy white paper, invited me to the opening of his show. “I drew you as Caesar,” he said. It wasn't the androgynous cast of my face that occasioned his portrait. It was what he saw behind my face, behind my every nude pose. “It's the purpose in your gaze,” he said, “your ferocious will.”

* * *

All contents of Sins of the Eldest Daughter / dinarozellebarnett.blogspot.com/
are copyrighted © and may not be used without permission from the creator.

28 April 2010

Turn Right Over to the TV Page

The TV page is where you, my dear sweet readers, will be getting your entertainment tonight. Me? I am off to bed, and in the interest of sparing the social media world of just one little dose of TMI, I will skip the details.

Let’s just say that some of you can imagine I had way too much fun, which I did, at least in theory, and some of you can imagine that I am rather ill at the moment, which I most definitely am. And then there are those who know that I do Secret Santa Shaman Stuff. Give a kewpie doll to everyone in group three! Why? Well, I may or may not have done any and all of the detail-free things I mentioned, but the Secret Santa Shaman Stuff is what really has me wishing for a case of the flu. Yes, you heard me right, and no not the ACTUAL flu, just something like it. Something I can say I have and everyone will say, Oh... I’m sorry. That must be awful. I hope you’re feeling better soon.

See? Everyone feels for you when you have the flu.

That’s what I have, a thirty-six-hour Secret Shamanic Case of the Shits and no sleep and a need to be babied. Just a little bit.

Luckily for me the Universe has my back. My cat, Zoe, has put me on the well-kitten fitness program, which demands lots of cute kitten lounging, posing, and purring directly at the center of my lap so I must sit still, watch TV, and recuperate. Night all. Sweet dreams.

All contents of Sins of the Eldest Daughter / dinarozellebarnett.blogspot.com/
are copyrighted © and may not be used without permission from the creator.

27 April 2010

Powerlines: The Transformation Landscape of Nowhere

Dear sweet readers, I have just lived the week from hell. I know, I say that rather often lately, but this time even the Tarot agreed, tagging me with The Tower card. The Tower is one of the highest cards for healing and transformation. Awesome, right? Well maybe, sorta. As anyone who has been broken will tell you, the road to healing is one that leads straight through the landscape of nowhere. Luckily I find dust, scrub brush, and power lines oddly soothing, at least to look at anyhow. Good thing, because my journey though the energetic version of this landscape is akin to wandering in circles without food or water under the tutelage of the desert sun, buzzards optional. To everyone in the real world, of course, it just looks like I’m malingering. Some lessons come hard. But I am possessed of an iron will (thank you, Mother) and I cut my eye teeth on Marines, so it takes a hell of a lot to make me quit. Mostly what that means is that I learn things the hard way. Also, it means that the Universe is very happy to grind my nose into the dust until I cry uncle. But I digress.

Eight days ago, which is the last time I was here, I knew that everything I had to say was rooted in an old life, a life that had fallen away somewhere between an energetic shift at the hands of my shaman and the final posting of Chapter 5, Longtime Survivor. Well... I foolishly thought that a day or two of contemplation would be all I needed before continuing along my merry way.

The Universe said, Hah! It is to laugh!

This state of affairs, my pathetic state, has made my shaman very happy. He says I’m making good progress. He says don’t push, in fact, don’t do anything, which is funny because I couldn’t if I wanted to. It’s not that I couldn’t write this past week, not that I couldn’t edit, and not that I couldn’t talk, though I neither answered my phone nor posted much on social media; no, this past week I’ve been unable to do anything. Anything at all. Each morning I woke up in more pain than the day before. And before y’all begin wondering, let me tell you, physical pain, emotional pain, psychic pain, spiritual pain, at a certain level, they’re all the same damn pain. No matter, I tried to push my way through it, which only made the pain worse but I am nothing if not persistent. So four days ago the shaman grounded me. I am now playing a game of Shaman Says. If it’s not shaman sanctioned, I don’t get to do it. Think boot camp, only for the woo-woo set. And before y’all start assuming this is for pussies, let me say this. I will marry and financially support the first Marine to undertake and survive this kind of spiritual odyssey. I was married to a Marine, people, a three-tour Marine, and he made it his personal mission to toughen me up; that Marine has nothing on this shaman.

So, to the point of this post. As I said a week ago, I had planned to review and input the edits I’d previously made to Chapter 6, just as soon as I found them.... Well, I found them alright. This morning. Here’s the best part. I looked everywhere. I mean I looked everywhere and then some. I turned the place inside out. I could have printed the chapter again and started from scratch, but what I wanted was what I’d already done, dammit. Chapter 6 is a tome. Last I looked, it was in need of some serious from-the-ground-up editing, and I had done that....!

The irony is not lost me that this chapter, Chapter 6, is entitled One Easy Thing. ~sigh~ For my part, I am working diligently to remember that going through old shit, which is what the shaman says is happening right now, that going through old shit is just that and not some divine comeuppance. I am not convinced. Again the irony: One Easy Thing is about a time in my life when not a single damn thing was easy. Not one.

Cut back to the week from hell. For the first four days, I was a dog with my tail between my legs. Then Friday night I partied on BLIP.fm with a couple of friends. I partied till nearly 5 Saturday morning and it was Hey-la-my-mojo’s-back! kind of night. Along with my lost mojo came a lot of penis jokes, penises being one of the things I am currently forbidden, and I don’t remember what brought it up but I wasn’t kidding about having a penis pen, and YES, it did just appear by my car. Three times. So I finally gave it a home. But I digress. It’s what I do best these days. Before I move on, however, I have to say that there are actually bands named Butch Penis and Crazy Penis. Hand to God. It was too much to resist. But that was Friday night.

Saturday I slept till three in the afternoon, ten hours, and I awoke in such a state of pain and exhaustion that my body could not roll over in bed and my mind could not turn away from a depression the likes of which I have not experienced since I was a very sick puppy on a dozen medications and suicide watch. I could do nothing. I called the shaman and did as he said. I sat in the sun. I breathed. I worked at remembering that going through old shit is just that and not some divine comeuppance, which is how it’s felt, no matter what my happy shaman says.

I keep falling off the planet and Saturday was by far the worst, but I had a pile of laundry that’s been building up. Doing laundry is not hard. I did laundry. It took three months. Or maybe it was three months of piled up laundry I was doing, honestly, I couldn’t tell the difference. It’s still not done, but I no longer feel as though I am living in quicksand, and this morning I got out of bed and to the computer without pain. I sat at my computer where I sit every day, looked to the left, for what reason I have no idea, and there on the floor covered by a single sheet of paper was One Easy Thing. Edits and all. I went right to it, picking it up as if I knew what was there all along. And who knows, maybe I did.

Tomorrow I go back to plan A: edit Chapter 6 - maybe with my penis pen, who knows - and keep moving forward. The chapter looks in pretty rough shape, so it may not make its appearance tomorrow, but I will: me and my old luggage, trudging past the flea bag motels and the power lines.

All contents of Sins of the Eldest Daughter / dinarozellebarnett.blogspot.com/
are copyrighted © and may not be used without permission from the creator.

19 April 2010

1 a.m.

Dear sweet readers, tonight’s title song, “You’re My Star” by the Stereophonics, is one I include here as a thank you to a reader on Blip.fm. He sends it to me when I head for my writer’s cave. I’ve become quite fond of it.

It’s one in the morning and I have nothing to say. Usually this is prime writing time for me, but I have reached a transition point. It’s time to sit and ponder: what has gone before, what can come after. I’m rather happy to say that I’ve had no time to truly ponder, which isn’t usual, but the Universe has seen fit to send friends to drag me out into the world, a place I seldom go except as a way to get to the gym, the shaman, the doctor. But for two days I have enjoyed wonderful food, wine, and real conversation, my favorite form of recreation. Tomorrow evening I get to do it again, and I get to talk about my work, too. It still astounds me that this should happen.

At this point I have no ready-for-prime-time thoughts to share here, not even any not-ready-for-prime-time thoughts. Everything I could say is a rooted in an old life, and that life fell away somewhere between Thursday’s shamanic work and yesterday’s blog post. I felt it go. I’m not sure what that means. I do know that I have allowed my life to spin out of balance or, wait, maybe the out of balance part is just the old life falling away. It is still too early to tell. This is why I’m happy that I’ve been out in the world, for had I been home, I would have spun my wheels trying to sort out what is not ready to be sorted and I would have stranded myself in mud.

So for now, know that I plan to review and input the edits I made to the next chapter, just as soon as I find them. My life, and my apartment, looks like a hurricane hit it; change is messy, very messy.

All contents of Sins of the Eldest Daughter / dinarozellebarnett.blogspot.com/
are copyrighted © and may not be used without permission from the creator.

18 April 2010

Let the Bodies Hit the Floor

Yesterday I looked up and realized that 1994 was gone, that it is, quite literally, history. That was a realization I thought I might never have. I have carried the bodies so far. I did not anticipate ever setting them down. Today I sat in the living room of a new friend and heard him say, “When our class, 1994, when our class left...” and I did the math. He was speaking of his high school class. I finished grad school in 1990. I knew, even before I answered his questions about The Movie Lovers and this blog, that I was speaking to the generation I’ve been waiting for. It is so fitting that this should be the class of ’94, and I know Jose would appreciate that as much as I do, being a writer of fiction and a man of consummate timing.

I used to do so much counting. Days since Jose died. Years. 1994 became my Year Zero. Everything from that moment separated into two categories. Before Jose’s death. After Jose’s death. People began to ask “Isn’t she done yet?” They didn’t mean the book. “It’s been a year. Isn’t she done yet?” Grief doesn’t have a time line, but today when I heard that year and I did the math, today I realized that I no longer needed to say “It’s been a decade and a half since Jose died.” I no longer wanted to measure my life from that fateful point; I no longer had to.

Tonight I let the bodies hit the floor.

LONGTIME SURVIVOR (HIV University), part 3/end

It was May of ‘94, early in the month I think, and it was hot, too hot: too hot to stand in the sun, too hot to move without sweating, and too hot for an already nauseated Jose to ride comfortably in the back seat of an old car without air-conditioning. Somehow I feel I should have known that last one, but we can only see as far as our experience allows.

Jose’s parents and I had brought him home from the hospital in the heat of the afternoon, and I parked my Rambler next to the back stoop because it was the quickest way into the apartment. But Jose was disoriented that day and uncharacteristically stubborn and he simply, for no reason we could discern, refused to go. A debate broke out in Spanish. Standing in the heat of the sun, what I noticed was the side of the building. Its gray paint had begun to blister but not yet to peel. A moment’s observation. In the time between that day and Jose’s death I would have many hours to study this tabula rasa, hours spent in five and ten minute increments sitting on these steps or atop the retaining wall, Frank chain smoking to the filter, me picking at the brown grass and dirt, both of us breathing the overheated smell of garbage as we worked to save the man we loved, something which we both knew couldn’t be done. I ended the debate between Jose and his parents by taking Jose firmly by the arm, walking him around to the front of the building, up the front steps, over to his front stoop, up those steps, and into his stuffy south-facing apartment. A distance of maybe forty or fifty feet, the trip took ten minutes and left us bathed in sweat. At each set of stairs, each step, I instructed Jose how to walk. Which foot to lift. When.

I got him inside. I got him comfortable. Then he began to vomit. And vomit and vomit and vomit. The jarring ride in my old car, the unseasonable heat, the long walk to his apartment, the toxoplasmosis, the drugs for the toxo, all these had conspired against him. His mother grabbed a bucket. His father brought a cool cloth. I held Jose close to my body, held the bucket close to his face, stroked his hair, and told him, “It’s all right sweetie it’s all right sweetie it’s all right.”

When I got home that night my left eye burned with the splash of vomit that was no longer there and my head burned, as with a fever, with the words Jose had spoken so often: all body fluids are dangerous. Even urine might have blood invisible to the eye. Certainly bile could have blood from an inflamed esophagus or stomach. Later -- days? weeks? -- I called an ICU nurse who told me it’s standard procedure to wear goggles when intubating a patient; when a person coughs or chokes, internal fluids get sprayed out along with the exhaled air.

“How careful is too careful?”

“It only takes once,” she said. It’s what we once heard in sex education classes about the risk of getting pregnant.

That night I returned home to my husband after holding my best friend in my arms while he puked, holding him not because he was drunk or heartbroken but because he was too sick to know what was happening to him; home to my husband and the dark of our back deck, home to make small talk and then to quietly to say, I’ve been exposed; home to make love -- the first time in a long while -- with no questions and no protection.

Jose died a month later.

The year Jose died, Philadelphia made a star of Tom Hanks and the title song remains an anthem to the devastation of that opportunistic collection of diseases we call AIDS. Philadelphia, as I mentioned, also bears the dubious distinction of being the first feature-length film to deal explicitly with AIDS since Longtime Companion came out in 1990. But in the summer of ‘89, the year in which the story of Longtime Companion draws to a close, I didn’t know anyone who had died of AIDS. I hardly knew anyone who had died. I wasn’t yet thirty. Thirty was when AIDS was still considered news and Congress passed the Ryan White CARE Act and a small but certain segment of the nation was saying, It’s about time. Thirty was when Frank and Jose were becoming fast friends with Cliff and me, when the four of us saw Maya Angelou speak and heard the resonance of truth in her voice when she said, “Those who have gone before you have already paid your way.” Thirty was when Jose called weekly to announce which movie he and I just had to see. We were crazy about the movies and crazy about each other; seemed we were best friends in an instant, though that can’t be true, but it was. Thirty was the start of Jose’s tenure as my best friend, the very last best friend I’ll ever have, because to be best friends you have to be young in a way that I’ll never be.

It took me a year after Jose’s death before I worked up the courage to have myself tested, a year of alarms sounding in nightmares, a year of immobilizing grief. At some point during that year I finally realized, for certain and forever, that the world isn’t safe. It never was, of course, and I can’t tell you if the moment at which that became clear to me was when the bile hit my eye, when the best friend I’ve ever had stopped breathing, or if I simply found myself having a lot of those moments and finally stopped counting them, stopped tracking, stopped backtracking, and began letting it all wash over me like waves on the beach. What I can tell you is this: what they say about ignorance is sometimes true.

Wondering whether I’d been infected was frightening, but I needn’t have worried. At the turn of this new century, the CDC Surveillance Report on HIV and AIDS cases in the US had three things to say about how a person is exposed: Sex, drugs, and blood. It’s a chant that plays like the B-side to the boomer generation’s mantra: Sex, drugs, and rock and roll! All the rest, all that we imagine about how we may become exposed to HIV, is simply variations on this theme, variations on a theme of fear. I’m okay. But I’ve been watching my little corner of the Postmortem Bar, and it’s filling up like a last minute barbecue on the first real day of summer, filling up with my close friends and family friends, casual friends, co-workers, acquaintances. The three people walking on the beach at the end of Longtime Companion are very much alive. How they get to be at that bar as their dead friends and lovers reappear, I don’t know, but miracles like that are just one of the things I love about the movies; Jose, too.

Here, then, is the miracle in my movie: at the Postmortem Bar I’ll get to see Carl, the English department secretary from the university where I was a graduate teaching assistant, and I’ll catch up with a beloved linguistics professor there, too; I’ll see Jim, the eldest son of my grandmother’s best friend, like an uncle to me, the man whose mother still believes, as the Seventh Day Adventist church wills it, that her son’s death was caused by the sin of his lifestyle; I’ll see Gryphon, the clothing designer with the sterling bone pierced through his nose, who hand-constructed one-of-a-kind, antique-fabric kimonos for my auntie’s boutique; I’ll meet the young men, fifteen or twenty of them, whose pictures were pasted in a handmade shadow box that sat atop a red silk-draped altar in Jose’s room and to which he had gestured and said simply, “My friends who have died”; I’ll see Randy, my younger sister’s best friend and roommate, so dear to the family that our aunt referred to him as “one of the kids,” the man who would later arrive at my doorstep with books and pamphlets, tissues and kind words, and answers to questions I didn’t even know I had; I’ll see Garrett, who was always “going to beat this thing” with yoga, special diets, positive thinking, and who looked so bad after Jose died that Frank locked eyes with me and said, “Garrett’ll be next”; I’ll see Aaron, who died a year after Jose, and he’ll hug me and tell me he was always one to feel that he had to take care of those he loved, that he was dying and didn’t have the energy to take care of one more person and that’s why he sent me away, tears, astonishment, and all; I’ll finally get to meet Michael, the partner of my closest friend, Jim, the love of his life; I’ll meet the brothers and partners dear to all the men and women I met in my AIDS grief group; I’ll most likely see the neighbor from across the street and he’ll see his live-in “nephew,” whose empty hospital bed was all I ever knew of him; I’ll see the acquaintances, co-workers, and neighbors who haven’t died yet but will; I’ll see Jose; and I’ll see all the friends I held in my mind’s eye when Jose entered the hospital for the last time and I called my father in tears to tell him something that, even then as a man of fifty-odd years, he could not imagine: “In ten years, half my friends will be dead.”

It’s been nine years so far, and that circle of friends is gone. All dead.

Or shell shocked.

All contents of Sins of the Eldest Daughter / dinarozellebarnett.blogspot.com/
are copyrighted © and may not be used without permission from the creator.

17 April 2010


Queer. In Spanish it is mariposa, butterfly, and just like the word queer, the word mariposa was originally an epithet. So many words have been rehabbed since 1994. So many things are possible that were inconceivable a decade and a half ago. So let me make a little confession. It’s after 3 AM and tonight’s installment was ready before midnight but I got caught up in, well, the past. I thought I was circling the drain on how to introduce this piece, but the fact is I could have posted it without any lead-in. Something occurred earlier today that had me back in 1994, when Jose died, when we lived in a world that reviled gay men and believed that God was raining down hellfire and damnation on the sodomites who brought us AIDS. That’s the world I wrote HIV University for, but that chapter, in fact all of The Movie Lovers, couldn’t be read until now, when everything is different. Because in 1994 - hell, in 2004 - I was queer. Not gay. Strange. What I wanted to say about the time of AIDS, how I wanted to say it, and who I wanted to say it to just wasn’t possible. Oh I said it, but everyone who was to read it had a new argument for why I could not, should not, would not. And so I waited.

Today I looked up and realized that 1994 was gone, that it is, quite literally, history. But when I set out to celebrate that tiny but entirely awesome fact, I got pushed back in time, back to a time when I had a voice and I sang it out loud but no one could hear it. So today, as I tried to imagine how to lead into my diatribe against ignorance, aka HIV University, I lost traction. I forgot that I have you, dear sweet readers, who Tweet me and Blip me and Face Book every day to say that you enjoy being here, or as one of you said last night, “Yes, U are right.. tonight’s blog was just a taste, not much more than a tease of what's to come.. fine, i'll hold my breath..” ~laughs~ So although I have circled the drain without inspiration for more hours than I care to say, I am here, now, confessing, because I was not about wimp out and leave a blog tease again.

Queer. Look it up in the dictionary. All it means is to deviate from the usual or expected; what we call normal is just that: the usual, the expected. But by now, I’m sure we’re all clear that while I may be just a girl who likes boys, I am entirely queer.

LONGTIME SURVIVOR (HIV University), part 2

Today less than half my friends are gay. Not long ago most of my friends were gay, but there’s been some attrition. That’s where my education began. My AIDS education. For most of mainstream America it’s fair to say that AIDS education didn’t get rolling until the 1994 release of Philadelphia; until that time, Longtime Companion was the only feature length film to deal explicitly with the subject. In 1990, the same year it hit movie theaters nationwide, Longtime Companion aired on Oregon Public Broadcasting and that’s where I saw it, right here in my living room with my husband, Cliff, my best friend, Jose, and his partner, Frank. The movie closes on an empty beach on Fire Island, the same beach that is packed belly-to-back with laughing, tanning, cruising gay men at the beginning of the story; at the end it lays as abandoned as the rumpled sheet of an unmade bed. A woman and two men walk across the sand, just the three, talking about those who’ve died, and as the credits roll a place called the Postmortem Bar appears, repopulating the scene with lost companions. Afterward, this ending was all we could talk about, and odd as it sounds, I think I believed our conversation focused on this scene because we found it to be so moving, not because we thought any of us would ever end up there. At least, that’s not what I thought. Not then.

When the story line in Longtime Companion ends, 1989, I was still half a year away from meeting Jose. I was maybe a year away from his long distance phone call: “I’m gay.” Next sentence: "I have AIDS." Not HIV positive; AIDS. Gay I'd already figured and I was touched that he wanted to make an official announcement, but AIDS . . . that knocked the breath out of me.

When the story line in Longtime Companion ends, I was still two years away from Jose sitting on my couch, ashen, silently contemplating his death. I was over four years away from the time when Frank would ask me if I thought Jose’s memory was deteriorating and I would lie -- automatically, just the way I would answer Jose when he asked the same question for the third time in less than five minutes -- automatically and without question. By then, Jose had contracted CMV, cytomegalovirus, among other things. It had lodged in his brain and was slowly closing things down, a kind of Alzheimer’s of the boardwalk at the end of the season.

Longtime Companion opens on a sunny spring morning in 1981 to a tableau of beautiful buff men reading a New York Times article, the first about the new “gay cancer.” Immediately each of these men calls his best friend, his lover, his partner. The straight, single woman in the movie calls her best friend: “Did you read the paper this morning?” At the time, Kaposi’s sarcoma was so rare only doctors had heard of it. And while we all pretty much know what getting Kaposi’s means now, back in 1981, summer on a Fire Island beach was still carefree and, well, gay.

In the summer of 1981 I had just finished my first year at community college. I don’t remember reading about a “gay cancer.” That fall, the CDC declared the disease that would come to be known as AIDS to be an epidemic, but I didn’t hear about it. I suppose it’s human nature to need a particular individual, a face, someone to be drawn into our orbit or we into his, before we can care about an entire group of individuals. At that time there were no openly gay men in my circle of friends.

Just two years later, in the spring 1983, the men in Longtime Companion have moved on from reading about a cancer that an unlucky few might develop to talking about a disease called AIDS. They know it’s sexually transmitted. They alternate between worrying and reassuring themselves about past behavior. They practice safe sex. In the spring of ‘83, while I was finishing my associate’s degree, I accepted a dinner invitation from the man who would become my husband. We had sex on the first date. We had sex before we had dinner. Actually, we had sex instead of having dinner: glorious, mind-numbing, lean-against-each-other-and-gaze-in-the-mirror-afterward-in-total-awe sex. We didn’t practice safe sex. We came of age in the ‘70s; we’d never heard of safe sex. Fact is, we probably couldn’t have practiced safe sex even if we’d had a mind to, since the first “safer sex” guidelines weren’t even proposed until 1983, right around the time Cliff and I hooked up. Had those guidelines been available our sexual histories should have inclined us to exercise caution, but again we probably wouldn’t have. This isn’t just because, like most heterosexuals, all we worried about was birth control (and the occasional heartbreak) nor because we hadn’t heard about AIDS, though we hadn’t, but because even if we had heard about AIDS, we would also have heard that AIDS was a gay disease, a virus with a bent preference.

But sitting here in a brand new century with all the available facts, I can tell you that 1983 was also the year researchers documented that the so-called gay disease could be transmitted from males to females. Still, facts notwithstanding, AIDS was and seemingly always will be a gay disease to Americans. It’s not that people didn’t care. They just didn’t see how this affected them. But those with HIV knew. And they cared.

From Jose I learned how dangerous any infection is for a person with AIDS, and so when one of my cats accidentally scratched him, I went for disinfectant. I reached to swab the cut with a cotton ball, but Jose drew back and told me to let Frank do it. “It’s only a scratch,” I said, “I’ll be careful.” I felt silly saying even that. The dot of blood was no bigger than an aspirin, but Jose who was never forceful, insisted. Let Frank do it; Frank was HIV-positive. Facts were facts. Jose always very careful around his uninfected friends and family, and he took the education of others on the subject of HIV/AIDS as a personal responsibility.

Once Frank had bandaged the scratch and I’d put away the disinfectant and cotton balls, Jose turned to Cliff and said, “You know Cat Scratch Fever?”

Cliff grinned. He’s a metal head from way back. “Yeah. It’s a Ted Nugent song.”

Jose was not smiling. “No, the disease. It’s a disease.”

Cliff, Frank, me, we all chimed in: “It is not!” Jose’s trickster sense of humor was legendary and so the three of us stood grinning at him like a colony of Cheshire cats. We were not to be fooled.

“It is very dangerous,” Jose assured us solemnly.

With Jose there were two things that never ceased to amaze me: the silly “facts” that would pop out of his mouth like gumballs, for example, Cat Scratch Fever, which could not possibly be true, and the not so funny fact that half the time he was not joking; some of these things could, and eventually would, kill him. As it turns out, “cat-scratch disease,” or CSD, is quite common not only in Central American countries like Nicaragua, where Jose was born and raised, but all over the world, including the United States. In Texas, where Frank was raised, the number of confirmed cases of CSD the year Jose died was higher than over a half-dozen other animal-borne diseases combined, including Lyme disease and Rocky Mountain spotted fever. Even so, CSD is primarily a child’s disease in the US. It is not considered serious, and treatment is normally considered unnecessary. For the immune compromised, however, cat-scratch disease can cause neuropathy, pneumonia, problems in the central nervous system, and encephalitis. It can be fatal.

In Longtime Companion, 1984 is marked by one of the men discovering he has a six-inch lesion on his brain: toxoplasmosis. He smiles brightly at his partner. “This explains why I’ve been throwing up.”

I remember 1984 for Cliff’s promotion from boyfriend to live-in partner and for two fabulous forays into urbane culture. The first involved spending spring in Manhattan. Not only did this trip mean three glorious months of theater, art, and music while I studied American culture, but at the advanced age of twenty-four it also marked my first time in a big city for more than just a day trip, my first time away from home without a family member, and my first (well, only) time being mistaken for a boy. It was in the Village, naturally. Back home in Portland, my newfound acculturation ushered me straight to the performing arts center where I gained part-time employment and my second entree into urbane culture: theater, opera, music, dance, and as often as not, the chance to chat the night away with a gay co-worker. Although these co-workers were out to most of the younger crew, a few of the older women on staff were still trying to arrange dates between their nieces and some of these “nice young men.” One of these nice young men and I became friends. We’ve been friends for over twenty years now and the last time I saw him he introduced me to a friend of his who referred to him as her ”best gay friend” -- as opposed to her best friend, who was someone else. It’s worth saying that this distinction struck me as far stranger than my being mistaken for a boy.

I didn’t know it at the time, but this friendship would mark a turning point in my life. As a child I had been aware of those “nice young men” in the family circle the way most people in American families are aware, vaguely: inevitably there was some male friend of the family, some uncle or nephew or cousin, who straightened the table settings, who helped repaint the kitchen or paper the dinning room, who was so thoughtful; someone who could cook. I was a teenager when my mother demonstrated through the unspoken bond of friendship that all men are created equal, no matter what gets whispered about them. The generation after mine, the HIV generation, grew up with out gay men as just another stripe in the rainbow of humanity. For my generation the education was different. For some, the learning began with the shock of a phone call: “I’m gay.” Others, like me, had a gradual accumulation of experiences: school boys who hung around for protection as much as friendship, college boys who risked their not-yet-ready-for-prime-time coming out stories, young men who shared confidences about what went on behind their closet door. So, my friendship with one of these nice young men didn’t mark the first time someone came out to me, nor was he my first “best gay friend.” No, as I look back, what I see is that this friendship was the turning point in my friendship with gay men. I was twenty-four when this man and I became friends and my life began to become more densely populated by gay men; by thirty-four I was knee-deep in bodies. Truth is, I don’t know that I’d be writing any of this were it not for the fact that my circle of friends became very gay and then, too rapidly thereafter, very dead.

When I graduated from college in the spring of ‘85, I considered myself educated, socially conscious, knowledgeable about what was important in the world; yet looking back, I’m none too pleased to see my younger self more self-involved than aware. Oh, I thought I was aware. I was aware of apartheid in South Africa. I was aware of the starving in Ethiopia and on my twenty-fifth birthday took donations in lieu of gifts. I was aware that the man in the White House was making lousy decisions. (Those who can’t recall who was in the White House probably aren’t movie buffs.) I was aware of chlamydia and herpes and that venereal diseases were now called STDs. But mostly I was aware of my pride at having successfully put myself through college and my joy over the diamond class ring my auntie had purchased to mark the occasion. What did I know?

Several of the peripheral characters in Longtime Companion have died by 1985, and I want to say that most heterosexuals had no idea what was happening at this point, not unless we knew someone who was gay, but that’s not quite the case. A national poll taken in 1985 revealed that 72 percent of Americans favored mandatory testing for HIV, over 50 percent wanted to quarantine those with the virus, and 15 percent of us would have preferred the infected be identified by tattoo. When I see statistics like these I wonder how I managed to be so oblivious. Then I remember the collective gasp and the slammed door: Rock Hudson had AIDS, and thirteen-year-old HIV-infected Ryan White wanted to attend public school. I remember the reactions of my family members and non-gay friends, too. I remember the fear, the judgment: parents, some of them doctors, fearful that their child might try to become blood brothers with the infected; friends who, though they could not tell me to my face, would not allow their children to eat off my plates nor drink from my clean glasses because Frank and Jose used them as well. I remember everyone was afraid. By 1985, the talk in Longtime Companion has shifted from AIDS to opportunistic infections and drugs: which drug will work best under each circumstance, each individual combination of infections, each version of the compromised life. One of the central characters, Sean, has developed CMV. It eats your brain. After Sean’s memorial, the next scene is his partner’s memorial. Those in the know reel off the latest research: HIV is in saliva. Lovers are afraid to kiss, much less make love. Friends surreptitiously scrub their hands after hugging a hospital-bound buddy.

When Jose died, at the age of thirty, AIDS was the leading killer of American men aged 25 to 44. All men. City boys and country boys. Homo and hetero and bi. The United States is the only country in which HIV originated and flourished in a marginalized and stigmatized population that was, for the most part, out of sight and easy to put out of mind. Because AIDS began here in the gay community, gay and HIV have became fused in our minds. While it should go without saying that gay does not equal HIV positive and HIV positive does not equal gay, HIV/AIDS continues to be considered a predominantly gay disease in the US, statistics to the contrary be damned.

For things we do not wish to look at, we have closets.

In the early days of the AIDS epidemic (an experience for those on the front lines that had the feel of a holocaust, this word with its meaning rooted in burnt offering and sacrifice; not an epidemic, which simply implies prevalence, something widely or commonly occurring), The New York Times refused to acknowledge gay relationships. The Times’ obituary column referred to surviving partners as “longtime companions” of the deceased. “Widows,” Frank called them, his mouth smiling but his eyes serious. It is from this denial of acknowledgment that Longtime Companion takes its name.

I know from my own experience how hard it is to say what others do not, cannot, or will not acknowledge. For the remainder of the 20th Century, whenever I talked about Jose and the circle of friends I had when he was alive, I usually got one of two responses. One felt like no response in particular inasmuch as I was talking to those who found my lifestyle or life history to be unremarkable, maybe even similar to their own. The other was some combination of shock, awe, and/or multiple questions about why all my girlfriends were men. Being around men whose hearts lead them to partner with other men has never struck me as strange. Love is love, as far as I can tell, attraction is attraction; we go where it leads. What strikes me as strange is that so many of my friends and so many of my friends’ partners died before any of us reached middle age. What strikes me as strange is the fear and anger that splashed back at me when I talked about gay men or AIDS in what appeared to be an educated perhaps even liberal-minded group of individuals. And, finally, what strikes me as strange, strange that it is still here, strange that it is still so strong, is the denial that still surrounds both homosexuality and HIV/AIDS (oh, how I wish these two were not so often bound together in the same sentence). My father, for example, a man whom I consider to be clear-eyed and open-minded, a man who makes his home in places where land and sky are wide and spacious, says to me from his couch one day, “I don’t know any gay people.” I tell him, “Yes you do, Dad.”

Knowingly or unknowingly, what we deny we sacrifice.

AIDS was declared an epidemic just as the ‘80s opened, but most of us didn’t know much about it until 1988 when, seven years after declaring an epidemic, the Surgeon General mailed out 107 million copies of a small pamphlet entitled Understanding AIDS. “Finally,” Cliff and I said, and we laid the pamphlet out on the coffee table. We hoped that our friends, family, visitors would read, discuss, and disseminate this vital information. But instead of encouraging communication, the effect was like holding up a condom in church: whenever anyone came over, silence ringed the coffee table. Now when I look back, what I find most telling is not the silence, nor that Cliff and I felt the need to show solidarity with those who’d been openly maligned in the media and on the street for “infecting innocent victims,” but that the two of us didn’t talk about getting tested. If we had any doubts, we each did the math and kept it to ourselves.

The spring of 1986, I found myself working my first full-time job since college graduation and that spring is acid-etched on my mind’s eye because it arrived with an AIDS joke, the first -- and last -- told to me in anticipation that I would enjoy it: “What’s meaner? A junkyard dog with AIDS or the man who bit him?” My curt response cost me an office friendship. I was naive enough not to understand why, but so be it. AIDS is not a joke. AIDS is not a movie. There are no house lights coming up at the end. There is no walking home. Every gay man who has died because of AIDS was somebody’s son, somebody’s brother, somebody’s uncle, nephew, cousin, maybe even someone’s father. In the decades since AIDS was declared an epidemic and safe sex replaced birth control as the number one concern of the sexually active, an entire generation of children has been born, grown, and come to sexual maturity under the Damocles’ sword of HIV. The HIV generation was raised to fear sex in a way that even the Church never conceived of. They never got the freedom that the generation who came of age in the ‘70s had, we with our rallying cry of “If it feels good do it,” but they’d like to; over half the new HIV infections among those under the age of 25 is from sexual contact, heterosexual contact. Abstinence remains as useful a safe sex plan for this generation as it was a birth control plan for mine.

All contents of Sins of the Eldest Daughter / dinarozellebarnett.blogspot.com/
are copyrighted © and may not be used without permission from the creator.

15 April 2010


Today in my shamanic work I experienced a life altering shift. That was early this afternoon. The rest of the afternoon and evening I spent at the hospital with my nephew. He’s out of danger and should be fine. I, however, am too tired to post anything more than teaser of tomorrow’s blog. Goodnight all. See you tomorrow.

LONGTIME SURVIVOR (HIV University) teaser

Today less than half my friends are gay. Not long ago most of my friends were gay, but there’s been some attrition. That’s where my education began. My AIDS education. For most of mainstream America it’s fair to say that AIDS education didn’t get rolling until the 1994 release of Philadelphia; until that time, Longtime Companion was the only feature length film to deal explicitly with the subject. In 1990, the same year it hit movie theaters nationwide, Longtime Companion aired on public television and that’s where I saw it, right here in my Portland, Oregon, living room with my husband, Cliff, my best friend, Jose, and his partner, Frank. The movie closes on an empty beach on Fire Island, the same beach that is packed belly-to-back with laughing, tanning, cruising gay men at the beginning of the story; at the end it lays as abandoned as the rumpled sheet of an unmade bed. A woman and two men walk across the sand, just the three, talking about those who’ve died, and as the credits roll, a place called the Post Mortem Bar appears, repopulating the scene with lost companions. Afterward, this ending was all we could talk about, and odd as it sounds, I think I believed our conversation focused on this scene because we found it to be so moving, not because we thought any of us would ever end up there. At least, that’s not what I thought. Not then.

All contents of Sins of the Eldest Daughter / dinarozellebarnett.blogspot.com/
are copyrighted © and may not be used without permission from the creator.

HIV University

Tonight we start Chapter 5, Longtime Survivor, and I admit that I’m anxious. I don’t know how this chapter will work as a serial. It’s not episodic like the others, and for all I know I’ll decide to post ten pages of it tomorrow, as there seems no dividing it before that part of the story has gathered strength. The original title of this chapter was HIV University. When Jose died in 1994, I lived in a world that reviled gay men and believed that God was raining down hellfire and damnation on the sodomites who brought us this dread disease. It wasn’t just the crazy TV evangelists who believed this, most of the country did. So I set about writing HIV University. It’s a very different world today, and I’ve no doubt that those of you born after the mid-80s don’t know what I’m talking about. Which is a very good thing.

LONGTIME SURVIVOR (HIV University) part 1

In 1995 I had myself tested for HIV. Long before that, I knew to use a condom, to stay away from intravenous needles that weren’t fresh from the package, and to treat blood as a biohazard. The day before I received my test results, I wrote a letter to one of my sisters. I didn’t grow up with this sister, nor anyone in my father’s family, but less than two months after my best friend’s death I found myself on the Oregon coast with the whole family: dad, step mom, both sisters, their husbands and kids. I arrived at the family vacation awash in the grief with no name; neither orphan nor widow; the crush of living in close quarters, the push to have fun with people I loved but did not know, these slammed up hard: grief buggering family fun. My sisters, so young, neither within spitting distance of thirty -- or twenty-five, for that matter -- death had never touched them. I could not speak my feelings to them. Hell, I could barely contain those feelings, but I tried, mentally packing my nitroglycerin grief between layers of cotton batting and ice. It wasn’t long before my husband drove me up the coastline while I screamed.

Before going to the coast, I had called a friend. “How can I do this? How do I talk about Jose? How can I not talk about him? They’re Seventh Day Adventists. I know how the church feels about homosexuality.” When this friend told me to bear witness, I found myself remembering the beauty of Jose dying:

eyes closed, chin
lifted, cheekbones carved and wood-brown
translucent as petals, lips rounded, reaching
for water, eager
almost singing.

At the coast each night, I lay awake in the shared room where my husband, my father, and my stepmother lay sleeping. Each night I slipped out of bed, got my pictures of Jose, and fell asleep with them spread around me. I didn’t know what I was doing. This was a time in my life when my favorite picture was of my best friend just days before he died; with light caressing his cheekbones, illuminating his brow, his eyes rolled heavenward; here Jose is retablo, altar, ecstatic saint. Here he is Christ reclining before God in the final hour, terrific to behold, and I was possessed of a grief that had me sharing an eight by ten of this picture with all comers, exclaiming its beauty. But not at the coast.

Nearly a year later, as I waited for my HIV results, I composed that letter to my sister. I didn’t know it at the time, but I was writing to do what I hadn’t known how to do at the coast: to find, or maybe to create, a space for the emotions I felt and also to create a place for my friends, my dead and dying friends, whom the world so often condemned or simply denied. That was a part of the world I could not understand, but I think on some level I understood that, at least as represented by my father and my sisters, this world did care about me and so perhaps it could care about those for whom I bore witness. To my sister I wrote, “Another friend has died.” I had been practicing that phrase. From the time Jose died, I practiced saying it to those whose lives remained unmarked by AIDS.

To my sister, a nurse, I wrote that my friend Frank had only nine T cells left. This sister worked on a small reservation in rural Idaho at the time, so I wasn’t sure how much she knew about T cells. The T cell is a principal type of white blood cell. Its job is to identify foreign antigens in the body and to activate the other immune cells. Each human body starts out with approximately 1000 to 1500 T cells. When the body gets down to 500 it's in danger of contracting thrush, a fungal disease that erupts in a white, yeasty coating on the throat and tongue; usually accompanied by fever and diarrhea. At 200 T cells the body is in danger of contracting pneumocystis pneumonia, a standard indicator of AIDS. I told my sister that a count of 200 T cells is what the CDC -- the Centers for Disease Control -- defines as AIDS, that when you have HIV and your T cell count dips below 200, you’re considered to have AIDS whether or not any opportunistic diseases are present. I hoped these numbers could convey to her just how scary it was to know that Frank was down to nine, a tiny committee of nine to fight off all infections. I didn’t tell her that we had named them. Silly names like Tabitha and Endora and Jose Jr.

As I wrote, I found myself remembering when Jose had only two T cells. He gave me the news over the phone, pronouncing his fate with the astonishment of a scholarship boy discovering he’d gotten into an Ivy League college.

“You have two?” I said. “What are you going to do with them?” It was the same voice that had popped out of me when Jose learned that one of the opportunistic infections was causing his brain to shrink. After that, whenever Jose forgot something I’d say, “Well what do you expect, Jose, your brain is shrinking,” and we’d laugh. Longtime survivors say attitude is everything. People who give up simply die.

All contents of Sins of the Eldest Daughter / dinarozellebarnett.blogspot.com/
are copyrighted © and may not be used without permission from the creator.

14 April 2010


Tonight we finish Chapter 4 of The Movie Lovers. Last night, as I read over the end of this chapter, I couldn’t help but remark on how it felt like the end of the book as well, and in a way I suppose it is. The closing chapter of the book is an elegy, a kind of lullaby farewell to my friend, but before the elegy and after Chapter 4, the story takes on a different tone. I won’t tell you more. I’m just thinking out loud here. And tomorrow comes extra early for me, so without further comment, here is...

AT THE MOVIES, part5/end

It's spring in Northwest, Portland’s only truly urban residential neighborhood, the trees are leafing out, it’s cool and sunny, and Jose and I have just been to Cinema 21. We didn’t sit in the balcony this time because Jose's legs can't manage the stairs, two flights. We don't discuss this, just as we never discussed sitting in the balcony our first time together at this theater; we just headed there. This time we head to the double swinging doors on the main level. I get Jose settled in our seats -- not too close for him, not too far away for me -- before I come back out to grab us some popcorn and cinnamon tea. I don't recall which movie we saw; a movie lover isn't necessarily someone who remembers the title of every movie. Oftentimes a movie lover can't even describe the plot. It’s the meaning that is important, the force of feeling conveyed that defines a movie. When Jose and I leave the theater through the twilight of the lobby, he is wearing his black and white hound’s-tooth checked scarf, the soft one I now wear as he did, tossed across the neck and back over each shoulder. The sunlight is blinding. It darkens our sight and we have to stop to let our eyes adjust. When we start up again, it is Jose's walk that I notice: measured, each footstep something I can both feel and not feel, just like Jose's feet, numb and cautious with neuropathy, guessing at where the sidewalk is.

We walk from Twenty-first Avenue to Kornblatt's on Twenty-third, and as we walk Jose is talking about his novel. I feel spring in his words and in the two of us strolling to lunch after a matinee. Jose might have been wearing that canvas field jacket, the one he wore constantly and had nearly worn out, the one that had me saying to Frank as we sorted through the clothing, "What jacket? I don't remember that jacket." I can't say for sure. All I remember is the walk, paced as I would later pace myself with my infirm grandmother, walking hand in hand through the Chicago neighborhood of her youth. At Kornblatt's we order cheaply. Surrounded by the corned beef smells and big city sounds of this New York style deli, we talk over the whole movie, the previews of the next movies, and the movies we want to see after those. We eat slowly -- Jose is the first friend since my best friend in second grade who eats as slowly as I do -- and we make the grumpy, tip-scrounging waiter bring us napkins and more napkins for our matzo ball soup and our half sandwiches of pastrami and our rice pudding dessert. When we're full, we thread our way through the crowded tables and I hold open the heavy glass door as we exit to the sidewalk.

As for what happens next, I can’t say for certain. Some scenes play over and over in your mind while others become blank tape. Suddenly, Jose isn't beside me. I turn: he's standing four steps back, stock still. Somehow I know this is because he will fall if he tries to move. I can see that he can't see me; he stares straight into my face, not registering a thing. I walk back and take him by the arm. I help him to sit in a plastic chair by a white metal table on the sidewalk. I command him -- Stay right there -- like I'm speaking to a small child -- Stay, don't move. Then I run. Past the new leaves and the spring smell and the sun on everything, I run to my car though I can't recall where I parked it. I don't recall driving back. I don't recall whether my car was big or small or whether it was easy or hard for Jose to get into it. I only remember the beauty of the white car parked at the curb, between me and Jose. No place to park, so I stop in the middle of the street, right next to this pristine Chevy Bel Air with picnic table fins carved into its flanks like horizontal wings. 1959. A very good year for cars. I have one eye on Jose; one eye is admiring the Bel Air; one eye is on the rearview mirror and the traffic, always thick and ornery on Twenty-third Avenue; and one eye, my internal eye, is clamped shut and I can't pry it open. Did Jose make his own way to the curb, slipping through the narrow passage between the Bel Air and the car parked behind it? Did I open the passenger door for him? I don't know. I know the Bel Air has smooth clean shiny white paint. Like new. I know the day is bright and suddenly hot, but I am cold. I know, as if it were my own body, the stillness of my friend, the quietness of his legs as he tries to rise and walk over to me. I know the distance, the long distance, of six feet.

We didn't talk about what happened. . . after hours of sitting side by side in the dark watching the same flashing figures, sighing the same sighs, sharing tissues, laughing; I think we laughed on the way home. I dropped Jose off, drove home, parked the car, and I don’t recall what I did after that. Cry? Smile at my husband and say, "Jose gave me a little scare today"? It doesn't matter because all I could see, what I still see, is my friend looking like any beautiful man at a sidewalk café on a fashionable city street: he is in white -- white shirt, white pants, black boots, no scarf or jacket; he sits in a white halo of light at a table in the sun -- and I am stuck in a too large and empty vehicle with an insistent line of traffic pressing in behind me while I sit with my foot on the brake; and my eyes on Jose.

Massive Attack - Teardrop
All contents of Sins of the Eldest Daughter / dinarozellebarnett.blogspot.com/
are copyrighted © and may not be used without permission from the creator.

13 April 2010

Sacred Blood

Dear sweet readers, not long ago I told you that Jose doesn’t just die in The Movie Lovers, he dies a lot, and that you’d best get used to it. Well, he doesn’t die tonight, not in the movies he doesn’t, and tonight we’re watching movies.


While I was in college, I lived in Northwest Portland and was within walking distance of Cinema 21. I met Jose years later, when I was in grad school and living on the opposite side of town, but that theater remained my favorite. Whenever Jose and I went to Cinema 21, we always sat in the front row of the balcony. Anyone who went there with me sat in the front row of the balcony. It’s my place; some of those seats bear twenty years’ imprint of my bony ass. I saw Eraser Head there. I sat through Herzog’s Aguirre: The Wrath of God and through Tarkovsky’s Solaris. All through my twenties I returned yearly to watch Picnic at Hanging Rock and Days of Heaven, to see Siddhartha showing with Steppenwolf, Nosferatu with Freaks. Cinema 21 is where my junior high French class, mouths agape, watched Cousin Cousine. It's where Jose took me and his mom to see Twist, a movie about the first coupleless dance and the downfall of Western civilization as our parents knew it.

Frank, Jose, and Cliff and I saw Tongues Untied at Cinema 21. A documentary, it was originally scheduled to show on OPB, Oregon Public Broadcasting, which had also aired Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City the previous year to much acclaim, but this time, OPB balked. Tongues Untied was just too much: too much about being gay, too much about being black, and most subversive of all, about being out. Inside the dark of the theater, the four of us, we felt the drum-beat-poetry, rap, snap-queen power of the movie enter our blood and dance us out into the heat of the summer evening. We celebrated Tongues Untied by going out for dessert and listening to Frank’s coming out story, beginning to end, about a skinny white kid touring with a black Southern Baptist choir. Jose never did tell his story, not really. Neither he nor I shared any ritual telling of the past. We focused on the present, and we paid attention to the past the way we paid attention to illness and the encroachment of death: we went to the movies.

In addition to the film buff's classic favorites, Jose loved the movies of South American directors. Our favorite was Santa Sangre -- Sacred Blood -- about a family of circus performers. It is a Dadaist film. Completely surreal. Completely real. Broken hearted and enraged, a man pins his wife to the red and white knife-thrower's wheel, slices her arms off at the shoulder as their son stands by helpless. The boy kills his father and spends his life being his mother's arms. When she needs to do her hair, it is the boy now who stands behind her, and slipping his own long arms into the red sleeves of her dressing gown, he raises first the comb and then the mirror to her black hair. When she wishes to play the piano, it is his arms in her white silk blouse sleeves and his manicured fingertips moving up and down the keyboard. By the end of the story, the son is a grown man desperate to escape the mother who has murdered his every girlfriend. He tries to escape but cannot: his mother is already dead. Her memory lives on in a life-size rag doll that her son slips into, his arms drawing a hug around her from behind as he becomes his own mother. In the end, it is his girlfriend, the only girlfriend his mother has not killed, who quietly leads the man to raise his arms in surrender to the police. Her name is Alma. Jose whispers to me, "Alma means 'soul' in Spanish." Under my breath I say it, "alma."

* * *

Jose wanted to die at home. Like many men of his generation dealing with AIDS in the ‘80s and ’90s, Jose assembled a circle of friends to help. First we helped him with eating. Then bathing. Then other bodily functions. A “good” night meant that Jose would get up four (or five or six) times to pee, to eat, or just to talk. With a little assistance he could use the plastic urinal, but because of the dementia, he sometimes got his signals crossed and couldn’t say he had to pee until it was right now. Or too late. After the urinal came the Depends, first at night, then around the clock, just in case. Jose could still move under his own power with the help of a walker and he usually had enough warning before a bowel movement to get out of bed and head for the toilet. But, like the Depends, we were there in case.

It was my first night to stay with Jose after he began using Depends. I was asleep on the couch when he called out. He had to go, he said, Now. So, I scramble to get him out of bed and down the hallway but halfway to the bathroom he can’t walk. Such complications happen without warning for those with dementia, and Jose and I find ourselves in a slow-motion race, he with diminished strength trying to push the walker while I pull him along with words of encouragement. When we get to the bathroom, my suspicions are confirmed. Jose’s legs couldn’t move because his bowels were. Standing over the toilet now, Jose grips the walker while I remove the Depends, and then it’s shit everywhere. Loose. Copious. Like applesauce, a quart of it. By the time I get the diaper off but before I can reach for a cloth, Jose’s bowels have begun again and it’s shit hitting the toilet seat and shit on the walker, shit dripping down his bare legs, shit on the legs of the walker and shit dripping down onto his white socks and the floor. Shit. New fathers squeamish about diaper duty got nothing on this. Eventually I think to grab Jose around the middle, the way the nurse showed me, and I slowly lower him to the raised toilet seat. I let him finish while I dispose of the diaper.

As I wrote this scene I tried making it comical and in a movie perhaps it could be, but it just wasn’t. Corey Baker, who helped hundreds of men in Jose’s situation, had arrived earlier that evening to walk me through the protocol. First I must ask permission: Is it okay for me to care for you in this way, Jose, to change you and clean you? Yes. Then I asked Jose if it was okay for Corey to walk me through it. Yes. Once I’d been shown the ropes and Jose was finally asleep, I went to the bathroom to brush my teeth. With Tinactin. A cream for athlete’s foot. This is how I learned that my methodical calm masks anxiety, but I was never so anxious that I forgot the cardinal rule: always glove up, clean everything with bleach.

When Jose is finished, I have gloves, and with latex between his skin and mine, I help him to stand. He braces against the walker, bare from the waist, and says he is too weak to shower. Shaking, shit covered, determined, he hunches there like an old homeless man leaning into the storm. The linen closet is to the left of the commode. I reach in. There is one washcloth, white with pale peach stripes; one. Not even a towel. So I pick up the ten square inches of terry cloth, I put my arms around my friend, press my cheek against his and whisper the only words that can be of any use: “I love you.”

All contents of Sins of the Eldest Daughter / dinarozellebarnett.blogspot.com/
are copyrighted © and may not be used without permission from the creator.

12 April 2010

Blues for an Indian Summer

Here’s what I learned today:
Sometimes love itself is worth more than the thoughts that others create about it.

I know that in my friendship with Jose I knew this truth in a way that I never questioned and I thought I would always know it, but today when I heard those words I was stopped short by the realization that I had, indeed, forgotten. Worse, I had turned my back on this truth. I haven’t quite recovered from that, and so I have little, no, really nothing to say about tonight’s installment, but I can say this. The shamanic work I have been engaged in these past six months has intensified to the point that I am mostly speechless about it. No one could believe what I am in the middle of. I hardly believe it myself. It was the same in my last six months with Jose. Just as I could never have predicted that I would be here, I could never have predicted what my journey with Jose would turn out to be. I just went, consequences and whatever the rest of the world thought be damned.

Here is part three of Chapter 4 of The Movie Lovers.


It was an Indian summer the first time Cliff and I stayed the weekend with Frank and Jose and our first afternoon was sun-soaked, luxuriously hot, languorous, and a little sad; not in spite of the sunshine but because of it. A short drive from their Mount Hood home that day brought the four of us to a wild spot where bushes grew thick with purple berries, huckleberries by the handful. Fanning out under the slanted sun, we began picking and very quickly found our containers full. We pooled our harvests and went out for a second time and a third. We picked till Jose was saying to Frank, for the second or third time, “I need to rest.” Even at this early stage in our friendship, when he was still healthy enough to pick wild berries and to weed his hillside garden, Jose was easily fatigued. It didn't help matters that Jose's brown skin broadcasted health and vitality; no one could believe he was sick. But I heard him, quietly almost to himself, saying "I need to rest," and I became his champion. Because of this, Jose told me things he couldn't tell his lover, things he couldn't tell his mother, things he needed to say but which, in his attempt at telling them, came out as nonsense to other people's ears. "It's the dementia," they would later say, and as he lay dying they said, "He's out of it. He doesn't know what he's saying," but I knew it was only that they couldn't hear him. So I became his voice. And I found that I was calmed by the sound of it rising from my throat, forming clear, delicately enunciated words on my lips.

The week that I learned we were no longer caring for a terminally ill man -- "He's dying," the hospice nurse said, as if her words could make us believe it -- was the week Jose quit speaking. That night, as water rushed and pots banged in the next room where Jose’s mother vigorously washed her sorrow along with the dishes, I sat by my barely conscious friend and listened to what would turn out to be his last words. Moonlight streamed in the south-facing window as Jose’s arms and legs threshed the bed, his heels moving back and forth as if he were going somewhere, and his breath coming out in little pants. Suddenly he cried out, "Why is it so hard?" I just stood there, not knowing what to say. More agitated, louder, though not loud enough to draw anyone’s attention but mine, he cried out again, "Why is it so hard?!" All I could do was say "What's hard, baby?" All he could do was repeat the question. So I promised to help him figure it out, and he quit talking. To me. To anyone.

In the year after Jose’s death, Cliff and I visited Garrett in the hospital room from which he would go directly into hospice. He lay sprawled over and around white sheets, skin bare, his thinning hair pushed into a kewpie curl, and as I regarded this man now become a doll, body wasted away but calves still chorus-girl beautiful, I recalled that Indian summer afternoon in the foothills of Mount Hood: how we all smelled of sun and summer dust when we returned to the house; how Jose, wearing white, looked the least marked by our hip-wading through the brambles; how Garrett, arriving late, immediately baked the marble-sized berries into a pie; and how we gobbled that pie as soon as it was cool, finishing it off for breakfast the next morning. I remembered that after Jose had rested and Cliff had finished a cigarette we crossed to the south side of the road where the bushes grew thick and close, the trees towered broad and high, and the land dipped and rose suddenly like the sea. We waded deeper into the forest, separated now, tossing the breadcrumbs of our voices.

Where are you?
This way.
Here, Jose. We're over here.

Picture this: The Movie House, one of my favorite places on the planet. On the street, a black and white awning marks an understated entrance into what was once a women’s social club. Inside and to the right popcorn is sold at a tiny counter. To the left a broad staircase mounts to a spacious double parlor: wicker furniture, chessboards, high-class magazines, back-to-back twin fireplaces; deluxe; arrive early, sip tea, be seen. Just off the parlor, and not much bigger, is a theater whose bright orange seats are as hard on the backside as the color is on the eyes, but next Cinema 21 The Movie House is my favorite film venue. It is the first theater where I got to make out with a boy I had a crush on, the first theater where I enjoyed soft chewy Milk Duds, having previously had only the jaw breaking variety at lesser cinemas, and the first theater where I learned to enjoy the pleasure of my own company.

The first movie I went to alone was just out of high school. La Cage Aux Folles is a French flick about a gay couple confronted with the necessity of appearing "normal" in front of the parents of their son's fiancée; her father is deputy minister of morality, or some such, and the boy's father owns a nightclub in which the boy's other father performs in sequins, heels, and the not unoccasional feather boa. I'd been a fan of French cinema since my ninth grade French teacher took the entire class to see Cousin Cousine, so while I was teenager raised in the suburbs, subtitles didn't seem odd. A foreign culture didn't seem odd. No, what seemed odd was going alone. To a girl raised in the suburbs, going alone to a movie meant that you were somehow deficient, not sociable, not desirable, not . . . right. A loner. I'd tried to get my boyfriend to go. Tried to get my best friend to go. Tried my sister who had seemed so happy to have me living at home again. Even tried my mother. No, No, No, and No. I resisted going alone, I did, but in the end a movie was what I wanted. So I turned up the AM radio and steered my '64 Bel Air wagon toward what felt like the wilds of downtown.

I don't recall why I chose La Cage Aux Folles or why I decided to see it at The Movie House, only that I had the best time I'd ever had at the movies. I went again. This time I took my boyfriend and two more friends: all boys, all straight, and all stone-faced throughout the movie. Not even a grin. As for me, when la femme of the couple, the drag queen chanteuse, la maman, the swish-and-dish flaming better half shrieked in horror or surprise or delight, I shrieked; the man was a scream. (Yes, Nathan Lane and Robin Williams are funny in the later American remake, but I say it is impossible to be as funny as the French.) My friends didn’t seem to get the joke. I tried translating the quirky French humor, thinking that the French sensibility might need more explanation for American high school boys. Straight boys, all of them -- ah, the part I hadn’t considered -- and they shrugged off my translations with the same indifference they shrugged off a movie about a gay cross-dressing cabaret act. For my part, I shrugged off friends who thought the world turned only one way and became, until Jose, my own favorite movie partner.

I suppose it is worth saying here that high school for me was a long time ago, and so the time that I first saw La Cage Aux Folles was also a long time ago. Things that barely raise an eyebrow now could blow the average person out of his socks then. So, for all I know, this movie experience of mine doesn’t translate either. I think perhaps we do not realize how many things must come together for understanding to occur. That blessed state of understanding and being understood, not needing translation, is something we all experience too rarely and something I had so much of with Jose.

Over the years, taking myself to the movies became my primary source of solace, my cure for all discomforts from boredom to desire to heartbreak, and especially for loneliness. In college, I spent a term off campus with a group of students in New York City. I loved roaming the city and searching out new places to hang out and write on the cost of a single cup of coffee, but in many ways I remained lonely, displaced, homesick. When it got to be too much, I would take myself to the movies. One night I saw a movie that was set in the very city that had me pining for home but, and this shows how great a narcotic movies are for me, I laughed so hard and fell into the story so completely that I forgot: forgot my dingy residential hotel room, forgot the other students with whom I never managed to connect, forgot the darkness and the cold and the rain outside, forgot the entire city of New York. I was happy. When the movie was over and the credits rolled, I was still laughing, laughing and walking past Cliff's apartment on the way to my own, in my head anyway. Then the house lights came up and I rose to leave. That’s when it hit me: three thousand miles. This wasn't Cinema 21. Home wasn't a dozen blocks away. There would be no easy way home.

In February, the grayest, rainiest, crankiest month in western Oregon, my favorite place to watch movies is at the Portland International Film Festival. Jose’s the one who got me started, and while he and I usually went for the foreign films -- we could see a movie in English any time -- our final year included a British flick, a comedy. The Movie House was filled with people and with laughter, but whenever Jose leaned over to whisper that question moviegoers ask each other all the time, “What'd he say?”, I didn’t have an answer. I didn’t know. At first I blamed the trouble on language, American English versus British English, but no one else seemed to be having trouble with that. Then I tried listening harder, but nothing helped me understand the words. In retrospect, I know all too well this feeling of syllables sliding past without spaces, without markers to delineate the shape and sound that we call words. Not many years after this movie with Jose, I became so ill that the effects of the depression and the side-effects of the drugs I took for the depression slid all things together like raindrops into puddles. I could hear the voices of friends and know that these sound vibrations connected into discreet words with distinct meanings, but my ears could not translate. In the theater that day with Jose something was wrong, I knew it, I just didn’t know what. It wasn’t our hearing. It wasn’t the language. And it wasn’t because Jose or I resisted the picture of life that was playing on the screen before us, as my high school friends had, but we were resisting. As Jose neared his own closing credits, as his senses began to fail, as body and mind became brittle with premature age, we resisted the admission that we were losing each other.

All contents of Sins of the Eldest Daughter / dinarozellebarnett.blogspot.com/
are copyrighted © and may not be used without permission from the creator.

08 April 2010

Catch and Release

“Pardon me while I live in a fantasy
quietly show you everything you’ll ever need.”

As I serialize each chapter of The Movie Lovers, I let myself have a little more control, worrying less about consistency - the length of the blog, the potential attention span of readers, any expectations about continuity of storyline - returning to the kind of writer I am, the kind that created a story compared to On the Road and the gonzo journalism of Hunter S. Thompson. (Dear sweet readers! You literally make my year when you say such things.) That was the long way of saying that this section of Chapter 4, At The Movies, is short. It wants to stand on its own. It needs to stand on its own.

And I had something more to say here, but it swam off. Catch and release, some thoughts are that way. All I know is that in serializing I have come to view this book as the love story that it is. It is uncommon to write a love story between two who are not lovers, not potential lovers, not even desiring to have reality change so that they might become lovers. And now, for the first time, I can see where that might confuse readers, flashing as it does like a bright lure in the water. Or is it everything I’ve ever needed?


Einstein once dreamed of a master theory that connected everything and today string theory posits that everything, everything, in the universe is composed of tiny vibrating strings, strings smaller than the particles most of us were taught about in school, smaller than atoms, smaller than quarks. Deep inside the particles we call atoms and quarks are tiny filaments vibrating to a particular frequency and the vibrations of these filaments are what we perceive as matter. Knowing that all matter is made up of tiny filament-like strings, vibrating the world into being; that the vibration of a single filament creates the light we see every day in our homes; that the vibration of a different kind of string creates the music we hear from a piano or a violin; all this brings new layers of meaning to phrases such as “seeing the light” and “making beautiful music together”; and it makes me think that opposites like Cliff and I are attracted not to learn how to vibrate at the same frequency, which might never happen, but to find the hum of harmony. I don’t know. I don’t have a master theory. I have the movies. And when I had Jose, he and I vibrated like strings on the same violin, chords on the same piano, lights twinkling on the same strand; we were the movies, flickering along together as the interplay of light and dark in an old black and white movie.

All contents of Sins of the Eldest Daughter / dinarozellebarnett.blogspot.com/
are copyrighted © and may not be used without permission from the creator.

07 April 2010


“The only thing I’ll ever ask of you
you gotta promise not to stop
when I say when.”

Chapter 4 is entitled At the Movies and, as you might guess, is the chapter in which you get to see what Jose and I spent all our time doing. We loved the movies. I mean we LOVED the movies. This is also the chapter in which Jose dies. What? You’ve seen Jose die in this story already? Get used to it. He dies a lot in this book. “Death is a dance. A ballroom. A glove. An extension of total abandon in/love.” That’s Patti Smith and she had it right. There is nothing straightforward about love or death.

I had planned on taking a little break after Chapter 3 to give you, my dear sweet readers, a chance to breathe between bouts of The Movie Lovers and to read something different, but at this point my head is deep into the book. Perhaps just as salient are the twin facts that a) I’ve been fighting the headache from hell, on and off for four days now, and that hasn’t given me a lot of creative time; and b) the best, albeit temporary, remedy for the headache has been an online flirtation with a certain cowboy. I rest assured that you’ll all forgive me for not sharing the details. So on with The Movie Lovers it is!

Those of you who’ve read from the beginning know that Frank and Cliff are Jose’s and my husbands, respectively. For those of you who’ve just begun the story, Frank belongs to Jose and Cliff belongs to me. Catch up.


Jose and I became friends over a movie, a really bad movie; worse: a bad film. Movie lovers, both of us, we were destined to become fast friends, but we didn’t know that at the time. We didn’t even know each other, not outside the Writing Center where I tutored. It happened like this. Jose invited me to an art film at the Northwest Film Center, something about an impressionist painter -- I forget which one, but that doesn’t matter; it was our first movie together. When I told this story to a friend, her response was to say that Jose and I had not yet established our movie protocol, those unwritten codes of conduct and procedure that people develop between them over time, but that’s not it. Jose and I were never as formal as all that. Or maybe it’s love that cannot formal; love, even with its needs and its courtesies, that cannot be contained by protocol. But forget all that. Think of it this way. This friend of mine enjoys the movies, films too, but she isn’t what I would call a movie lover, not like Jose and me. A movie lover lives for the interplay of light and shadow. A movie lover is someone obsessed with the emotion of a camera angle, the truth of a close-up or a cut, the rhythm of the heartbeat behind the story behind the pictures on the screen. A movie lover is someone who gets to the theater in time to see the previews and the opening credits, someone who sits through all the end credits and all the music until the screen goes dark and the house lights come up. A movie lover doesn't expect a movie in which gratification is instant or continuous but is willing, happy even, to sit through even an agonizingly paced film until the last frame transforms it, retroactively altering the entire nature of the story. After this art house film, Jose and I drove back to my house in that blank silence only people unknown to each other can have. Finally, I blurted, "That was really awful." Jose let out his breath. "Yes," was all he got out before we broke up laughing. “I promise to do better next time,” he said. And so we were friends.

Going to the movies left Jose and me like children after a trip through the haunted house: laughing, gasping, waving our arms and contorting our faces, our truncated sentences all starting or ending with, Wow! That was incredible. The same thing happens whenever someone asks me to describe our friendship. My words fall out in a heap, or they careen out of control, first running amuck then abruptly dead-ending: inarticulation again. Me and Jose? I just shrug and smile. And day I asked my husband to describe us. "Best girlfriends," he said. "You used to get together and squeal." "Squeal?" He shrugged. "Well, Jose's was a manly squeal.”

I don’t know about squealing, but we did giggle a lot. And we went to the movies a lot where, eventually, we fell into a ritual. It started with Jose smiling one day and saying, “My treat.” It wasn't a you-got-it-last-time-so-I'll-get-it-this-time deal, nor was it based on who had money, since neither of us ever had much of that. It was simply our ritual, and I, whose idea of being on time is rushing around in a hell-fire hurry five or ten minutes behind schedule, I began to arrive early so that I might be the one to smile and say, "My treat." We went on like this for over four years, but my husband was right when he said we were still in the romance stage of our friendship. "A truncated courtship," Cliff called it. A movie lovers' courtship.

Being movie lovers, Jose and I attended the Cans Film Festival religiously. This festival is an entire day in November during which movie lovers can escape to the alternate reality of their choice for, at that time, two cans of food donated to the Oregon Food Bank. And when I say we attended, I don't mean we saw a movie or two in the evening, I mean we plotted a timetable. We calculated the quickest mode of transportation between shows -- my car, the bus, MAX, or our feet -- and we saw our first movie when the first theater opened, at eleven, shuttling throughout the day between three downtown theaters on one side of the river and a Cineplex on the other. We had two goals: to see the movies we wanted most to see, and just as important, to see as many movies as possible.

The morning of the festival, Jose and I would meet for breakfast with our backpacks full of cans. This in itself required planning. Each year we scoped out the sales and discussed the cheapest, the most nutritious, and (since we carried these packs all day) the smallest can of food we could offer up in exchange for our tickets to movie lovers' heaven. Tuna always won, hands down, but we tried to give no more than one can at a time. We'd hand over tuna and a can of pork and beans, tuna and a can of soup, tuna and a can of vegetables. There wasn’t much variety in the menu we offered; we were poor. Sometimes Jose went to Esther’s Pantry for food, his AIDS status and poor finances granting him access. The one time I chided him about receiving food for the poor only to give it away to the poor in exchange for a movie ticket, Jose said, “I don’t just take what I like. I take a little of everything,” and while I pondered the logic of that, the coup de grace: he offered me his extra cans.

Each year Jose and I started our festival date with a couple of movies at the Lloyd Cinemas, happy smugglers snacking on apple slices, cheese and crackers, grapes, chocolate. When it came time to go downtown, we would abandon my old car for the train. My husband, Cliff, bused to the parking lot after work to pick it up, and sometimes he and Jose's partner, Frank, joined us for that movie or two in the evening. We always finished at the KOIN Center downtown, the only chain theater that played foreign films and art-house fare, and most importantly, the theater that ran the latest festival showings. One year, my festival total reached a record six movies in thirteen and a half hours. That was the year, the first year, Jose had to go home early.

Now I go to the Cans Film Festival alone. I don't plan the day. Sometimes I don't even plan the movies. I’ll see one in the afternoon at the Guild, maybe another in the evening if the day has gone well. The first year I went without Jose I saw only one movie, Pulp Fiction, and I cried all through the end credits; it would have been our new favorite. The next year I managed to take in three movies, the third late at night -- last showing -- after Cliff and I argued. Bundled up in Jose's wool overcoat, the tan one with the blue flecks, and driving Frank’s Miata, I put the top down, turned the music up, and took the long way to the cinema, speeding down Front Avenue into the pink sodium-lit industrial district, chanting with Rush on the radio: “We are young . . . learning that we're only immortal for a limited time.” The pocket of my Levi’s held a tiny blue ceramic vase with a cork in it, a chestnut-sized urn of Jose's ashes. At the movies, I curled my fingers around it.

All contents of Sins of the Eldest Daughter / dinarozellebarnett.blogspot.com/
are copyrighted © and may not be used without permission from the creator.

06 April 2010

The Room, the House, the Heavens

We are at the end of Vermilion, the final installment. I know the piece so well that I can fill in all the blanks: I read it in three or four sittings and it still makes the same sense as if I had read it in a single sitting. But I don’t have any way, any reliable way, of knowing if it holds together for you, dear sweet readers, as you read a chunk here and a chunk there. Yesterday I reminded you of how the chapter started: 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.... And today I want to remind you of the many other threads that weave the tapestry of this chapter, but I won’t. Instead I will tell you what happened to me when I read the chapter this time.

I noticed the unswerving devotion of my love for Jose, how our friendship became the North Star of my existence, and so of course I saw, finally, what others have seen and questioned. I’ve been asked to define this friendship in terms that others understand: Was he like a brother to you? If he had been straight would you have married him? How did your husband feel about you spending all your time....? I don’t have answers to these questions. What I have is text, the words in which I have chosen to contain my experience, extraordinary as it was.

But I can tell you this. My favorite color is Van Gogh yellow, the yellow of the moon and stars in Starry Night, and I can tell you that I was blessed to have had a friendship that shined for me as those stars shined for Vincent.

VERMILION, part 6; the end

My friendship with Jose was like the movies he and I watched on his 13-inch television: small in actual size but in power all encompassing. In my field of vision, the scenes on that 13-inch screen expanded to fill the room, the house, the heavens. Years before I met Jose, I had watched Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles on a black and white television, but what I remember is in color, the tan-skinned Martians in their white white flowing robes, the gold glitter of their seamless eyes, huge, seeming to see all things and nothing. For me this movie takes place in my living room. Right before me are Martians standing tall as trees, graceful as animals. Their presence makes me catch my breath, and yet mesmerized as I am by them, I cannot tell you what they said. Not a word. And so it was with Jose. His presence and the soulful nature of our friendship eclipsed the moon, the stars, my pain, even my husband at times. When Jose’s life began to wane I let him become everything to my heart, and my heart is where I live. Then. Now. Always.

So if I must show Jose to have faults, if faults are required for the perfection of our friendship be believed, for you to be certain that Jose was indeed human and not simply a figment or wish fulfillment of my imagination, then I choose machismo. It is the worst I can say about Jose. It may also be the best. In truth, I cannot say that in Jose machismo was a fault so much as it was a surprise. Maybe I thought my friend was beyond it. Maybe I thought being gay somehow canceled it out. (It would be another ten years before my husband would look at me and say of another gay friend, “Don’t try to process your emotions with him; he’s a guy.”) In any case, I didn't expect it, this machismo, and I didn’t know what to do with this man on my couch, hunched under a blanket and ready to die but not to speak of death. But that is not a time I often think of. More often I think of the times when I could have started the conscious, straight-talking conversation. I had opportunities. Like the time Jose returned the collected cards and letters I'd written to him. And the time he suddenly gave me an Italian coffeepot that had been in his family for generations. I knew what the gift meant; just before she died, my grandmother began parceling out her possessions. But that was to happen years later, and under circumstances where I knew to expect such things. As Jose handed me the ceramic coffeepot, as he asked if I wanted it, what I noticed was the roses: hand painted with a stylized realism that the women of my grandmother’s generation loved, in detail so crisp that they seemed etched, almost silver-edged, roses the color of dried blood. As Jose handed me the coffeepot, as he asked me if I wanted it, I berated myself for not taking the bold route, for not pushing the door that says pain on one side and relief on the other. But I had no earthly idea how to say to him, I know this means you’re dying. As Jose handed me the coffeepot, as I thought about wanting it and waited for him to talk, waited for him to open that door, he said, “Do you want the coffeepot?” and I heard that this was a gift meant for someone who appreciated its significance, someone in the family. I accepted.

Machismo. It is the door to the inside of a man.

Machismo. It is the door to a man snapped shut. It is what makes my husband unable to share his fears with me. It is what makes my husband unable to tell me the tender things I know he feels. It is also what drives him to ask whether there is enough gas in the car, whether I know the roads are slick with rain, to say, “Drive carefully.”

Machismo. It's what had me upstairs in the loft that weekend, weeping with a migraine, weeping silently under the sound of The Mamas and the Papas.

Machismo. Jose stood on the other side of that door and protected me, the friend who loved him like a child loves a fairy tale.

When Jose opened his eyes that last day in the hospital and caught me crying, I smiled at him. I said, because I had no words for what I was feeling, "If I had a brother, I'd want him to be just like you." In a tone of voice I did not know, which came from a man I knew but did not recognize, Jose promised to take his father aside. “I will tell him,” he said, “you are my special friend"; that I was family. The words themselves made no more sense to me than my own, really, both sentences from some gift shop greeting card, but I recognized the familiar inflection, which put the accent on special.

* * * *

We live in an age of information, an age in which it is easy to believe that there are words for everything and that all things can be spoken. But this is not true.

The moment before something happens, we think we will have words to describe what we have not yet experienced. The moment after, perhaps long after, we take aim at our feelings and speak as if setting loose the words crystallized like diamonds in the volcanic heat of experience. But this isn’t so. No words formed in that moment. Some moments preclude speech. The moment of death. The moment of birth. The moment of orgasm. The moment of getting or losing exactly what we always wanted. At each of these moments we cannot speak, not coherently.

Jose and I did not say, I'll miss you.
Jose and I did not say, I'm sorry to leave you.
We did not say, I wish this weren't happening.

We did not question the tenets of our lives, at least not to each other. Perhaps to Cliff, to Frank. Perhaps alone, each in our own beds, each in our own heads in the dark. But not in the bright white-water of everyday life, not when the boat tipped, certainly not in the shock of plunging into icy reality: it takes the breath away, that first moment, speech as well.

Away from Jose, I suppose I had words -- they ran endlessly in my head if not out my pen -- but being together always came with the forgetfulness of the pleasure we took in each other’s company; and later, the shock of the boat tipping over. Still, I never cried out. I breathed, I navigated the rocks, and I focused on the dark uneven texture of Jose’s face, deciding minute to minute, that I would do whatever it took to be near him. I wasn't thinking, not in words, not in any language. If I was thinking at all it was in terms of survival, but then that's not something we have to think about.

Did Jose and I ever speak of death? Some things must be spoken in an older language. I drove him to the doctor for his appointments. I took him to the hospital for his procedures. I walked beside him on the street and on the stairs as if his creeping, careful pace were my own. I listened to all the reports from all the doctors and to the ever-growing list of pills and side effects. At the other end of the telephone line, I talked him through his fears and listened for his voice to became stronger, waiting for the inevitable words: No, no. You don't need to come over. I read his novel; read his fine words in a foreign tongue, and helped him to compose, in proper English grammar, this coming-of-age-just-in-time-to-die story. I sat beside him and watched Jose’s fictional boy grow up in a brothel on the edge of a Central American jungle, saw the boy experience first love, mutual masturbation, incest, rape; I followed as he searched for his mother's lost love, the days pealing back to reveal betrayal, magical healing, murder; when Jose’s boy had grown into a young man, I escaped with him to “the dream country,” learning as he did about the drag queens, how to be prostitute, and that disease they called the plague; and I felt just as Jose felt the heartbeat of love -- gained and lost, gained and lost -- that filled the life of this beautiful, reviled, mother-worshipping, man-loving, fantasy-driven boy; until one day Jose looked at me and said,

"But, Dina, you are unshockable."
This isn’t true, of course. It is the lie at the center of my own story.

All contents of Sins of the Eldest Daughter / dinarozellebarnett.blogspot.com/
are copyrighted © and may not be used without permission from the creator.