by Esther Cohen
I have a friend named Howard who doesn’t want me to know that he’s dying. He hates all the movies and books and plays about AIDS and what happens in the end. He says they turn something real into a kind of sappy melodrama without a lot of point. But that’s not why he doesn’t say.
When Howard’s mother died – she was almost ninety – I took him out for dinner the next day. He didn’t want to eat in my house, so we went to a Burmese restaurant downtown, a small dark place with a lot of sweet and sour spices. Whenever I brought up his mother, he changed the subject. At desert he finally said, “She never really loved me. I can’t help but be relieved.” That started me, and I asked him why he was so sure that was true. “I was born too late, and the others were grown. She wanted to travel, not me,” he said and that was the one and only conversation we had about his mother, although of course we discussed all the rest, his years of lovers, his odd three years of married life, his time in Greece, in Majorca, in Rome. Howard is 58, but until this year, he always looked twenty years younger. He is strong, small and thin and very tanned. Though now he’s pale.
He’s always had that kind of charged and straight out energy that I associate with gay men. Lesbians, although I could be wrong, seem warm and soft, like pots. He’s like a lightening bolt, with a handshake that’s unexpected on someone so small, and eyes that always glow. Even now. Howard had so much energy that he would spend nights and days just dancing, whole week-ends in places with names like Mother Theresa, gyrating with skinny young boys. When he turned fifty, Howard began to prefer Japanese boys, youngish men with fashionable hairstyles and very smooth skin. They all had good jobs downtown.
Howard is a teacher. He teaches Buddhist thought. But he’s a larger scholar than that. He really has an overwhelming knowledge of so much that’s been written. There aren’t many fields he doesn’t know at least a little bit about. Particle physics, neuroscience, world literature, philosophy. He speaks many languages, and has lived here and there. He teaches at a very progressive art college downtown, a college whose inside walls are dayglow murals, whose students picket and protest every day.
For a while, he wrote stories. Although I never read them, I imagine they were overwrought. He can be too concerned with big ideas, too lost when he tries to put it all down on paper, too caught up with what it all might mean. I know this because a few years ago he went to Japan for the summer. He taught English to rich businessmen. The letters he sent me were nothing but facts and their meanings, statistics about the workforce, information about the way Japanese children learn, about the construction of the society without any of its texture. They were letters to plough through, letters like a kind of book that is on the cusp of readability. Books that are encyclopedic, that are only read if you have no choice. But when he talks, he’s different. He tells you what happened, how people looked when they came over to dinner, what was said at the meal.
Something happens to him when he writes. Maybe he’s read too much Plato.
I met Howard at someone’s dinner party fifteen years ago, when I had just moved to New York. We sat next to one another, and I thought he was one of the best looking men I’d ever seen, so taut and strong, with a sharp chiseled face and an unusual glow. I liked the charge he gave off, and the way he made you feel electrified when he talked. We decided to have lunch. At our lunch, he asked me a hundred questions about my own past, about what I wanted from life, about why I decided to live in New York. At that lunch you could never imagine him dying. I’ve thought about this a lot the last few years, how some people, usually the slow and sedentary types, are not as much of a surprise when they disappear but others seem immune to dying. When we bought our house in the country, when we decided we were going to try to spend summers somewhere else, Howard was the first person I told. He’s someone you want right next to you, all the time. When he said he’d buy a house upstate, we were thrilled. The house he bought is simple. Two stories, straight up and down. It took him no time to make it beautiful. I visit him as much as I can. I’m not really sure why he bought his house. He is a city person, with more friends than anyone. The country’s a little too isolated for him.
Howard is sick, but he hides that from us all. I know because another friend of his told me. He told me in confidence, and made me swear not to tell Howard but I was up all night worried that Howard was going to die so I called him early in the morning, just to hear him. “How are you, Howard?” was all I said. “Tired,” he answered. And when he didn’t continue, I knew the story was true. “Tired from dancing?” I tried to press him. “Just tired,” he said. “Can you meet me for lunch?” I asked, wanting to know that he was still there. He said yes.
At lunch, Howard whispered. He looked grey, and some of the strong thinness that had made him beautiful had turned to a kind of bony quality he hadn’t had before. I knew he was sick, and he knew I knew too, but neither of us mentioned it, the way we barely discussed his mother. Still, we talked about death. “My friend Richard is dying,” he said. “We were lovers once. Unhappy lovers, which isn’t all that surprising. He is very sad and depressed, and he won’t let anyone come by to see him. He won’t go to dinner, or have his friends drop by. He says he’s ugly and ashamed.”
I said Richard was probably even more startlingly beautiful sick, more ephemeral in his grey velvet robe. Howard listened to me, but in a different way. He looked like a man who had waited a while to become middle aged, and then all at once, he’d turned a big corner. I thought of all the times we’d been together, how little we’d really been able to say, and how I couldn’t even tell him what I knew. That he was dying. He couldn’t tell me, either. We were in the city having lunch.
The restaurant had the unfortunate name Blue Hen, an out of place fake country-style kitchen in the middle of a block of junkies and noise. Red calico curtains and paintings of cows made it look falsely pristine, a little like we were in a Martha Stewart Horror Movie.. We chose it because it was not popular, for many good reasons, and therefore very quiet at lunch. Our waiter didn’t come for a very long time, the time it took Howard to whisper cautiously about what Richard’s life really was.
When the waiter arrived, he was a young Japanese boy, tall and thin like a graceful Japanese line drawing of bamboo. He smiled at us both, and I could feel a kind of color come over Howard, small red hope. He ordered for us both, house special omelets and glasses of dry chablis. The Japanese waiter quietly smiled and then he blushed. He came back very quickly with our food.
“Where are you from?” Howard asked our waiter. “Kyoto,” the server replied. “A beautiful city,” Howard smiled. “One of the most beautiful in the world.” “When have you last been there?” The waiter had the manner of a well bred boy who was somewhere in the middle of his prep school class, modest but competent enough. It was hard to guess his real age. His face was flat, but talking with Howard made him look more alive. “How long have you been in New York City?” Howard asked. “Seven months, but my intentions are longer.” “Please let me help you,” Howard handed the waiter a smooth silver card with his name in small and elegant relief. Only a phone number, discreetly printed, ran across the bottom of the card.
We left the restaurant and decided to walk along the pier, near the river. Howard likes it when I hold his arm. He is courtly, and tends to form his right arm into a semi-circle, as though he’s waiting for me to hold on. So I do. I’m a little taller than he is, so my arm isn’t quite in the elbowed corner where it should be, but Howard makes adjustments, allowing for my height. We walk, and I lean into him the way he wants me to. The way I want to. “What will you do if the Japanese boy calls?” I ask him. “I suppose I’ll see him once or twice. We will have dinner,” he said, “and he’ll tell me that he is an artist, that he’s in New York to photograph, or to paint, to be the next Kirosawa or Noguchi, or to make formless brown ceramics that aren’t possible in Japan. And I will listen sympathetically, letting him know by that how much I believe he can do what he intends,“ he said. “Who we are and what we want.It’s funny. “
“And you? What will you get from all this?” Howard remains a mystery to me. “A dinner or two more with a beautiful boy,” was all he said, but I could see tears in Howard’s eyes. I’d never seen him cry before. We were standing together looking at a big navy ship, arms linked like a happy couple from some other time. Neither one of us said a word.
|Esther Cohen writes whatever she can: stories, poems, essays, even novels. She earns her living in many ways including book doctor, teacher, and curator.|