What a difference a year makes, don’t you think. Last year, you spent two weeks in Australia for work. You called daily. Sometimes twice. I remember that one call, when you were crying because you missed your daughter. We talked a lot that night. About your kid and her mother and about my kids and the way I raise them. You said that you liked the way I talked about them and it was the first time you called me beautiful. Another time when we talked, it was my turn to cry. The past had caught up and an apology had been issued. It had meant so much that I teared up when I told you. And you listened patiently. It was also the time when I told you about my family dynamics. I remember those things clear as day. And I miss those talks. Quality talks. I was never someone to cry a lot in front of people. But I cried with you. Three times. Yes, I counted because crying is such an intimate and personal thing for me. I don’t mean the tears I shed last night after I watched that movie, but the real emotional tears that come straight from the sad and overwhelmed heart. Yes, that meant a lot. And you know, those tears, those explosions of emotions, they felt so good with you. It feels like a lifetime ago. Do you remember that time you called very early in the morning. My voice was thick with sleep, my brain not ready to translate the words we were saying to each other. We laughed so hard. That’s a sound I remember and miss too. Your laughter. It’s true, last November, we were so close. This November we couldn’t be farther away. You will probably be abroad for weeks, you mentioned the Netherlands to me the last time we spoke. I am not sure about your schedule and it is not my business anymore either. Just, yes. I had this thought that last year everything was different. Last November we were one. This year we are worlds apart. Next November life will be different yet again. And it is good.
wild and free
told with conviction
endless miles away.
We sit together in silence. Our beers are left untouched, our words are left unspoken. My mouth is dry and my mind is in overdrive, but I can’t produce the words that clog my brain. Another one of our friends was buried today, and our circle is quickly diminishing. Once, we have been a clique of ten friends. We went to the clubs, and drank and danced the nights away. Some had been more than friends others had been platonic friends without the wish for more. Seven friends have passed away in ten years. The gay plague, that is what conservative newspapers had called it in the eighties and nineties. But we all know by now that it isn’t just a plague for gays. It is a plague for humans. How can it be that it still kills us? With all our knowledge and the access to condoms or meds. Are we really that naive and unconcerned? Do we ignore what we know for a moment of unbridled lust?
So, here I sit with Marcus and Will. We are the survivors of our clique, and I have no idea why. Why are some people infected and others are not? The three of us are not. Were we lucky or just careful, I don’t know? Who has decided to spare us this fate? And is it even fair that it is us? My life is not more privileged or liveable as Marvin’s, and yet, I am here, and he is not.
Marvin has taken his own life. He lived with the virus for two decades before everything changed for the worst. I am not sure what exactly changed. He never volunteered any information and I am not someone who pries. Like us, he saw the way our friends had wilted away. He had seen the agony, the pain, the humiliation. They faded in front of our eyes, and there was nothing we could do to stop it. Marvin, he refused to be a fading flower. He refused to live in pain and be in need of a carer. He lived a self-determined life and he wanted to end it that way too. Pills. He took sleeping pills that didn’t let him wake up again.
Earlier, at his funeral, I read a part of his farewell letter.
I want to thank you for mourning the loss of my human shell, but, remember: The show must go on. There were people before me and there will be people after me. And life goes on. All I can and will ask is that you don’t shed tears because I am gone, celebrate because I was here. And make the most out of your life. I enjoyed mine. Please do too. Goodbye.
People cried, of course. I did too. I can’t imagine my life without his wit and his snark. I don’t want to imagine nights out without him. But I must. Because, Marvin was right. The show must go on.
I push my beer away and get up. Marcus and Will look up as if they are trying to find words to say or the energy to move. They stay put, though, and they stay quiet. I hide my hands in my pockets and ponder what to say, but there are no words. I shrug my shoulders, lowering my head, before I nod in the direction of the pub’s door. They nod back and that’s my cue to leave. I don’t look back. I don’t want to see their grief.
The bright daylight blinds me as I step out of the dim pub and on the pavement. Nothing around me suggests that we just buried one of the best men to have ever wandered this earth. The world keeps spinning and people keep bustling around.
I drive home. I should be feeling more than I do and it almost makes me feel guilty. I am not numb, but I am not excessively sad either. I exist. That’s all, and it is not enough. At home, I put on some music and sit on the couch with my cell phone. I roam through my contacts until I find Marvin’s number. Delete. My contact list becomes emptier still. And out of the stereo, Freddie sings: The show must go on.
A friend requested a story for World Aids Day. It’s important to keep awarness alive… This was my submission.
And so it began. Her reflection in the mirror faded with every time she dared to look. Her skin became grey and her eyes had lost the living spark. Color was a distant memory she only vaguely remembered. Grief had taken over the moment he had passed on. She rubbed her face with bony wrinkled hands, trying to find the person she once was. But she was gone. He had taken everything with him, and he had left her with an old and worn shell.
She shuffled to the bedroom and closed the windows. The evening breeze was crisp; winter was lurking around a corner. She shed the last pieces of her clothing and laid on the bed, folding her hands on her soft stomach. Then she closed her eyes and conveyed the images of him that she had stored away in her mind. They came, and took her away. Away from the grey. Away from the grief. She felt her feet touch the ground and her eyes sought out details to understand where she was. She was in a strange land where no age and no pain existed. A land between life and death. But she didn’t know that yet. Her vessel was still inhaling air to fill her lungs, and making her heart beat on.
She could hear his voice; Henry’s voice was teasing her, asking to come see him. But whenever she turned toward the direction of the sound, nothing was there. No one was there.
“Henry?” Her thin voice reverberated through the nothingness. The uncertainty spread inside her body. The soles of her naked feet felt a change in the surrounding before her mind was able to catch on. Where the ground had been of sand and gravel before, it was now cotton-like and soft. Walking became more like floating. A familiar laughter made her walk on with a smile. She was where she wanted to be. For a moment, her chest had felt constricted, but it wasn’t anymore. Panic that had threatened to arise was pushed back down. She knew that she would be fine, because he was near.
There was no way to describe what she saw around her. There were no shapes and yet everything was of different shapes. There were no colors and yet everything was so very colorful. There were no sounds and yet, it wasn’t quiet either. Everything felt familiar and well-known. Almost intimate. Even the smell of the air reminded her of a place she had loved once upon a time.
“Henry?” she asked again. She felt the touch on her bare arm before she saw him.
“There you are, my love,” he replied and kissed her forehead. “I missed you, what took you so long?” She needed a moment to answer. She took his cheeks between her hands and exhaled sharply. “Henry, is this you? This can’t be you.” The man looked familiar, but he was young. So very young. Her Henry had been old and sick, marked by his age and everything he had seen in his lifetime. His hands covered hers. The heat of him seeped into her. His smile was contagious and familiar. “It is you,” she whispered, stepping back and bringing her hands to her lips. If this was Henry, what did it mean? How could it be? The blurry shapes and colors changed around her. She was on the farm she had grown up. The grass was green; the shade of green it has after a recent summer rain. The sky was blue and cloudless. The barn that had burned down and had killed livestock stood tall and was painted in red and white. Looking down, she realized that she was standing on a wooden porch. She was wearing a thin dress she had loved because of the flowers on it. She turned around. Everything was familiar. Young Henry sat in a rocking chair looking at her.
“Did the other shoe finally drop?” he chuckled and reached his hand out to her. He was engulfed in light. The glow was so bright, she almost had to look away, but she couldn’t. She took his hand and he pulled her toward him. “Oh Henry,” she sniveled. “Are we…?” She didn’t finish her question.
“Yes, Vera, my love. Welcome to eternity.”