VERMILION, part 4
Machisma. It’s my own word. It means when people cover their problems with a shrug and a smile or with light-hearted banter or laughter saying, "Fine, fine, things are great." So many women I know do this. So many gay men. When Jose and I went to see Woody Allen's Husbands and Wives, he and Frank were newly split up and Cliff and I were having trouble, though I wasn't telling Jose about it. I like to think Jose never knew, he admired Cliff so, but the truth is that Cliff and I hadn’t been married a year when Jose began to ask, "Are you and Cliff okay?" and I always had the same answer. "Yes, yes, we’re fine." Then Jose would say, "Sometimes when people marry after living together for a long time" -- in our case the better part of a decade -- "sometimes things fall apart." But I'd laugh. I laughed it off the same way Jose and I laughed at those too true, too painful scenes in Husbands and Wives. In self-defense. Not against Jose. Against the truth.
In the first years of my friendship with Jose, Cliff and I often spent the weekend in the mountains with him and Frank. This was when they were still a couple, still in love, before Cliff and I were married, when Jose was in seemingly good health. One weekend Frank had bought a video of The Mamas and the Papas singing and reminiscing, and with Frank every latest discovery is so exciting, so wonderful, it must be shared right now. So we let him put the tape in and then puttered, sitting down to watch when it got good. I had a headache that day and soon retired to the loft to peer at the video and my friends from between the bars of the rail. I was sad that weekend, sad near the surface for no reason I could discern. Maybe it was the headache, a migraine no doubt, although I didn't know at the time that’s what those were, or maybe it was just music sung in a minor key. In any case, I couldn't help crying and I couldn’t stop crying, but I did it the way I expressed many emotions in those days. Silently. If anybody suspected, no one said; it was a house full of men, and I was trying to hide my tears, not share them.
This is also the way I conducted my friendship with Jose. I never let him see me upset about his illness or his dying. While we shared every feeling -- sometimes spoken, just as often not -- shared the way some share a cigarette, it is ironic, or perhaps fitting, that we hid our pain from each other. We were careful, the way Jose was careful with the blood that flowed just beneath the surface of everything in his life, lest the vermilion spill. It cost me. Each time I would sit down, for his birthday, at Christmas, upon the occasion of the completion of his novel, each time I bent to put the words of affection or pride to paper, the ink dried in my pen. I had no words, only the devotion of my actions. Even today I cannot rightly say whether Jose and I were alike in this way, this need to act rather than speak, or whether I was following his lead, learning his rules of relationship. Then again, it is with men whom I have always formed my closest bonds, so how could I know the difference between the rules of love and the rules of men?
I knew Jose was scared. I operated on that premise. And on the premise that he would not tell me directly. This emanated from a place in me far below the level of conscious thought and informed all my actions. I do not know if Jose knew that I was scared; he caught me crying only once. Okay, twice, and I'll bet it was the same day, the day Jose’s father flew in from LA. That was two years after I worked at the Learning Center, two years after the time Jose got CMV and sat mute and ashen on my couch, all the color of his lovely brown cheeks withdrawn to the poison in his veins. He and I spent those two years like kids at a carnival, riding every ride and eating every kind of food on a stick like we’d never get older, never get tired, never get sick and have to go home. Our lives were not perfect, nor our hearts trouble free, but when we were together ours was a brighter, prettier world than most mortals inhabit.
I knew Jose would not recover from this new round of diseases. I knew he did not want to spend his last days living with his immigrant parents in his sister’s husband’s house, not in that atmosphere of the-pin-has-been-pulled-but-the-grenade-hasn’t-gone-off . . . yet. But until that day, until Jose lay in his hospital bed before me, side by side with this fear of having to go “home” to a home that wasn’t his, until that day when I sat beside him and felt his father draw closer, closer, I had never considered the possibility that Jose might actually leave me. Still, I didn’t stay by his side to say good-bye. I stayed to ease the transition, the waiting period that marked the culmination of years of filial distance, the hours before the dying son welcomed the Latino father who now knew that he had AIDS, but not that he was gay; the father who had never visited him in Portland, not while Jose had lived with Frank, not while he had lived alone, not when Jose’s mother came to see him, not in the entire seven years he’d been here; now this father was coming to take Jose home to die, as family is privileged to do. That I, Jose’s best friend, was here, that Frank had stepped in to care for Jose as a partner again, that Jose had an entire family here, a chosen family, was of no consequence. This is when I cried.
As we waited for his father, Jose and I talked. At times he seemed to speak metaphorically of his nearing death, and at times like a fevered patient on morphine: There are many around me, he said, and they are waiting, waiting for me, but they are afraid of the dark, afraid of nightfall. But the light will help, he said, and my father is bringing the light. The doctor stopped by and said, “He may as well go home.” This is when I cried.
When I hit the wall, when my car, my vermilion and rust and steel extension of my desire to run broke down on the freeway and angry rush-hour commuters honked their horns and rode my ass and flipped me off because I was creeping along at ten miles an hour while they crept along at twenty, I breathed. I breathed hard, sucking air like an overheated engine, sucking air like a horse that had been run till it dropped. I breathed and I breathed, but it didn’t help. I broke.
. . . into tears.At work a Latino student had accused me of insulting him. I had told him he couldn't sit at the long table in the writing section of the Center. He was doing math; he had to sit at the math tables. He protested; I cited the rules. Nicely, politely. Enforcement, alas, was part of the job. He remained, I explained, he argued. Finally, realizing I didn't recognize him and thinking that perhaps he was new to the Center and hadn't noticed, I pointed to the sign posted on the table. The young man exploded from his chair: "Who are you to say I cannot read? You saying I can't read? I can read. I can read! I am sitting here."
Stunned, I assured him that wasn't my intent. I validated, I mediated, I apologized, I soothed, I calmed. Then I ducked into the staff room, surprised at the hot tears rising behind my composure, and even more surprised at my own explosion: "My friend is dying, I'm afraid he's dying at home on my couch, and he won't talk to me."
He does not need this woman's help.
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