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.