November 7, 1994: I sat on William and Luke’s bed, listening to the ring, ring in my ear, each ring getting fainter like a distant alarm. I was about to hang up when someone answered—a man.
“Hello,” he said, startled, like maybe I’d woken him up.
“Hi,” I said into the receiver of the beige rotary phone on my lap. I scanned The Yellow Pages opened next to me on the faded maroon bedspread. I checked the ad: Did I get the number right? I looked out their bedroom window and up at the night sky: What should I say? No answer.
“We have a body that needs embalming,” is what came out.
It’s a moment that will take years to unravel. I am still stunned that I used the word “embalming.” I think it’s funny that I made it sound like we’d murdered him: “a body.”
Twenty-five years later, I sympathize with that twenty-three-year-old girl―me―sitting on that bed, rotary phone on her lap, The Yellow Pages open beside her. She’s in way over her head. She tried her best to perform this final task. I even have sympathy for that young man in the next room, not the one whose life was over―he always had my sympathy―but for the one whose life was just beginning. The bonds of our strange union were about to break, and for a long time, I hated him for the pain caused by this avalanche of loss.
My friend is dead. I couldn’t bring myself to say it, so I kept it clinical, like I was describing a frog suspended in formaldehyde.
Twenty minutes earlier, I picked up the phone. It was late on a Tuesday night. The call had come and I’d responded like a soldier would to deployment orders: perfunctorily, with resolve. “I’ll be right over,” I said, pulling on my red Keds. I drove the five minutes from my apartment through the empty streets of Hillcrest, past the Gay & Lesbian Center, the post office, Topsy’s Diner―the site of many drunken late-night patty melts.
I parked my Hyundai in front of their apartment like it was just another night, stubbing out my cigarette in the overflowing ashtray. Their place was in a U-shaped collection of five or six low, Pueblo-style cottages the color of sand within a Spanish-style apartment complex typical for San Diego.
I stepped with purpose onto the path that weaved from the sidewalk through the small center courtyard, but I slowed as I reached their front door. Once the door was open, there was no going back. I let the nearest section of landscaping distract me―a sparse and neglected collection of cacti that I noted with surprise retained a few of its blooms: bright red, yellow, and pink against the apartment’s beige stucco—unexpected bursts of color in a place it would be hard to imagine anything would grow.
Near the doorstep, William and I hugged. Above us, the dark sky was lit by an absurd number of stars, like a worldwide fireworks display designed to mock our grief. He broke our silent embrace, turning his head away from me and heading inside. I followed him, expecting to walk together to where Luke lay. Instead, William stopped short and handed the phone book to me.
“I don’t know,” he said in response to my questioning look. His blue eyes, deep set on a regular day, were sunken, an ocean after a storm, a calm masking the turbulence below. His wry, crooked smile was gone. The creases around his eyes and mouth were more noticeable with his face slack. He looked older than his twenty-four years.
“Look under ‘F’ for funeral homes?” he said, one corner of his mouth turning up. His Kentucky accent, full-blown under duress, made the o in “homes” sound more like aw.
How odd this was. Seconds after I’d arrived, he handed me the phone book, assigning me a task like I was sent from some agency.
He knows I have to see Luke first, right? I thought. I have to say goodbye.
The hospital bed in the living room of their one-bedroom apartment looked built for a giant with Luke, always petite, now shrunk to child-sized. My mind wandered to an interaction I’d had with a leather-daddy gay I barely knew. We had both been cast in a play and I must have mentioned my friend Luke. Leather Daddy was convinced he knew him, so I described him. He said something like, “Oh, yeah. I know him. Pocket-sized gay, right?” I objected to that phrase, but when I told Luke later, he didn’t seem to mind. Instead, he smiled. It surprised me, then I thought, What do I know about what passes for an insult or an endearment in his world?
Luke’s head lolls to the side. His face―hollow, cheekbones sharp, skin stretched and blue―is turned toward the TV set, the screen blank. I still see the pink-cheeked Luke―delicate features, earnest smile, freckles―and his body, instead of hidden under a hospital gown, adorned in his preferred 1970s style: striped bell bottoms with a shiny, close-fitting, paisley button-down shirt. I expect the real Luke to rise up from this other Luke.
Then an internal collapse; my throat constricted, and my heart beat fast, as if I’d been running. My body was reacting to the horror of what had happened. I think: I knew he would die, but I didn’t know that meant he’d be gone. I’m so stupid, so stupid.
I nearly laughed remembering that I’m so stupid, so stupid are the exact words Shirley Maclaine says as the character Aurora Greenway in Terms of Endearment. It’s right after her daughter, played by Debra Winger, dies. She’s even standing by a hospital bed. It’s the kind of melodrama Luke lived for. Somebody give my daughter the shot! I imagined him screaming, hitting his fists against the table, theatrically miming pulling a cardigan around his shoulders in a mock version of Aurora’s famous hospital tantrum. He would have been perfect as the fierce Southern mama-bear who was willing to rip to shreds anyone who caused her baby pain, in some imagined John Waters version of the film.
There is no easing into it. One minute you’re sure-footed while three of you walk together toward a future hand-in-hand. The person you both love is right there―and here’s you and here’s him and there’s him, right here, right where you all have always been.
Your memories give the illusion that things are as they have always been. There the inevitable end sits, like the edge of the world, visible but distant, a cliff you know you’ll reach―someday. You see it, you believe in its existence, you’re not blind. You’re just busy, doing regular things, like seeing movies, eating loaded potato skins, singing cheesy lyrics, going bowling, painting sets, chatting in a hospital room while eating fries and marveling at how everyone thought that “someday” had come, that you’d reached the edge, but actually you hadn’t, haha, not today.
The step off is a shock, the world one minute full of noise and movement, and then the next quiet; a dizzying nothingness rushes in, taking up all the space, the space where the person―your person―used to be, as he vanishes along with every anchoring thing, and you are catapulted into a slow-motion free fall with no foreseeable end.
I turned away from Luke, dry-eyed and resolute. William had asked me to do it, so I would. I glanced over at him, busy doing who-knows-what in the kitchen and walked toward the bedroom, eyes to the ground, clutching the phone book to my chest like it was the last piece of earth I clung to before I fell.
Some names and identifying place have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals.