Once, during a particularly long hospitalization, he’d had a roommate, Roberto Juarez, who was seventy-seven years old. The guy was dying naturally.
“The forties are the greatest time in your life,” Roberto said feebly. “The fifties are the second best. After that, it’s horrible. Call me Bob.”
“Nothing good about growing old, huh?” Hockey asked hopefully.
“Well, there is one good thing. But you don’t have to be old to get it.” Roberto was feeble and spoke slowly, but that was fine, since there was nothing to do and they were both too sick to be bored. “There is this … break. This moment where you start stepping out of it.”
He was speaking so softly, Hockey knew that what Bob was saying was true. It was movie code. In a courtroom, loud is true. In bed, it has to be soft.
“Out of what?”
“Out of the theater of it.”
“The theater of what?”
“Of life.” Bob took a rest now.
A few hours later, Hockey asked him again.
“What is the theater of life, Bob?”
“You see the falsity and you feel pity for those who are wasting their energy on it. You know, the game, the silliness.”
That hospitalization had been a particularly bitter one. It had pushed Hockey even further on the spiritual conveyor belt toward acceptance of his own death. With this came a new love for other fragile human beings, the ones he had usually run past in the supermarket aisle. That old man in the next bed had finally given Hockey permission to relax. Now he could follow the lead of the dying. It takes one to know one.
But here he was, shockingly back at work, back in shoes. Unexpectedly, Hockey was back in the game, knowing it was a game. This appeared to be a cruel joke of modern medicine and AIDS activism. Hockey had always thought death was the only escape from disease. But things had gone the other way.
He walked over to his office sink and looked in the mirror. He really did seem better. Back at his desk, the sage out of its sack, he lit it and let it smoke. It smelled like an old broom. He watched for a while, couldn’t keep it lit. Finally its charred body lay quietly by his side as he turned to the true ritual of sorting out his pills for the afternoon, evening, night, and the next morning. This was something that produced results. He sorted them from the vast array of bottles into his plastic pill container, with its many, many compartments. It was always pill time at the Notkin residence.
Hockey took the big blue ones, three of them, every five hours. He took the big white ones after having eaten fat. The little white ones and the middle-sized red ones were for an hour after eating sugar. The orange capsules were to be taken four times a day, but he had to take the orange pills, four of them, once a day. Swallowing had become a big part of his day.
He put on the funny hat.
These pills destroyed his liver, gave him diarrhea, made his skin break out in horrible rashes, raised his cholesterol, and made him fart. The doctors wanted to take his Hickman catheter out of his chest, but he wasn’t ready yet. He needed it. He loved it. It was his connection to life. They opened up his chest and the Hickman let life come back in. He didn’t want them to take it away.
Hockey was worried about stepping back into traffic. He had let go of strategy the closer he’d come to death. While sick, his world had become smaller, and aspirations were replaced by the faces of the few remaining friends, their acts of grace. They had fewer expectations and more tolerance, although there were still enough expectations remaining to create real relationships.
Whenever he became greedy in his dying and forgot he was not the only one losing something, his friends got angry and reminded him. Whenever he forgot that a man has responsibility to other people until the moment he is dead, his friends let him have it. But now, as he approached life again, the new boundaries were unexplored. He wondered if his lingering sadness would be considered appropriate, still. Or would it be a tiresome secret he’d have to guiltily keep to himself in order to make room for someone else’s
emergency? Was the joy of finally living supposed to override all other feelings?
In the old days, when an AIDS diagnosis meant death, as soon as someone actually got sick, many of their friends began to flee. It was inevitable. The friends shook out. Others came in closer. There were always people who were more comfortable with dying friends than with living ones. They preferred the quiet closeness of precious moments to the coexistence that so many relationships are trapped in.
But now that Hockey was better, the most religious bedside relationships became burdened with consequences. Loss was so familiar; for many veterans of the crisis it was the only relationship they could count on. Hockey himself knew the feeling of fearing the living. The living have claws and fangs. They kiss and tell. The dying can’t help you get ahead, but they can’t stop you anymore, either. They have no currency. The dying can offer the opportunity to exchange little private kindnesses and truths that never leave the hospital room. There is no record, no witness, no backlash.
Sometimes in a hospital bed, or at home, infusing, Hockey wanted to know every detail of the outside world. Who was fucking who. What Carrie Fisher wore. All the internecine warfare. At other times he was so jealous, he wanted no knowledge of it. He wanted the world to end with him. Now, back in the world, he had to be more generous. He had to not want it to end. He had to forget why and how he’d ever felt that way.
Light tap on the glass.
Hockey looked up from his pillbox. It wasn’t raining. Someone was knocking on the door.
He pressed the buzzer and watched an actual human walk into his life.
“Who is that?”
“Hockey, you know me.”
“Is that Thor?”
“You remembered, silly-billy.”
Thor entered, smiling, an old man in good shape. He’d done calisthenics every day of his life, and now he was the last surviving authentic leather daddy. Leather skin included. Behind him followed a younger guy, already over the hill. A young, sad man.
“I told you, Joe. Hockey is my pal. He won’t let us down.”
Thor flipped on the light. That helped. Now Hockey realized why it was getting hard to tell the pills apart. Evening had come.
At sixty, Thor still had that cavalier stride. He still had that shoulder-length blond hair, now obviously dyed, and the telltale thick clone moustache of his notorious youth. He still wore flannel shirts and jeans, the sight of which shook Hockey’s memory uncontrollably back to the days he had long put to rest.
There once was a time when Hockey, too, had looked that way. Everyone they knew had those moustaches back then, those flannel shirts, that rough-and-ready masculinity that did not yet wear spandex bicycle shorts. Thor stood there beaming, the Jolly Green Giant, and Hockey was dizzy with sudden memories of many, many dead faces. Corpses behind moustaches who had died so long ago now. Himself like that so long ago. People whose existence he had obliterated, whose details had fallen off the shelf.
“See, Joe. I told you he would help us.”
Joe lingered in the background while the old man went to work.
Thor pulled up a chair energetically and then pushed the piles of used newspapers to the floor. He put his jackboots on the desk.
They still make those
, Hockey thought, glancing down at his own sneakers, the kind he’d gotten used to as the peripheral neuropathy had swelled his feet and legs. Now he wore them out of habit. For a while at least. A little while longer.
“Come here, Joe.” Thor pushed old magazines off of the other folding chair. “Have a seat.” But Joe just took one baby step away from the wall. He needed it. “Now Hockey,” Thor thundered. “How are ya doing?”
“A lot better.”
“Good, I’m glad to hear it.” He reached over to give Hockey a kiss on the lips. Suddenly Hockey remembered that one time in 1979 when he and Thor had tricked at the baths. He couldn’t recall any details, though. Only the long blond hair dripping in the steam.
Joe released a huge sigh, and Hockey remembered the poor guy was still lurking back there, wanting something.
“Joe is in trouble, Hockey, and we’ve got to help him.”
“What’s the matter?”
“Tell him, Joe.”
“My boyfriend and I got arrested on pedophilia charges.”
Hockey looked up. Joe seemed to be a bland man. But then he caught those amazing baby blues. Pale, hand-blown glass. All color, no clarity.
“Dave is a second offender and they’ve got him locked up, no bail. I got out on fifty thousand dollars. Clean record.”
“No,” Hockey said.
“Just listen,” Thor smiled. “There’s’ an injustice that’s been done here.”
“The kid is fifteen,” Joe said, stepping toward him. Moving in.
Hockey could see it all before him, twirling and twisting in the sea of unpopular causes and gray zones, ambiguous moralities that most people don’t want to understand, and essential human contradictions. All he wanted was a couple of condo closings and a few wills. That was enough for him.
“The kid is fifteen,” Joe said again. “He’s a gay kid. We met on the Internet. No deception. He’s been over a few times to have sex, a real frisky guy. The parents are a nightmare, and the kids at school hate him. Now they’ve got Dave, my boyfriend, in jail on child abuse charges, but the kid is not a child.”
Joe was right on the edge of Hockey’s desk, looming over him, inevitably.
“Not that that would stop you,” Hockey scolded, feebly, while Thor’s smile became a reflecting pool.
“Fifteen-year-old boys have the right to get laid,” Thor shimmered. “That shouldn’t be up to someone’s idiot parents and a tightassed cop.”
“I need your help,” Joe said.
“I told him what a great lawyer you are.” Thor reached out to rub Hockey’s neck. It felt really good. “They’re going to make scapegoats out of Joe and Dave with everyone going crazy about ‘child abuse this’ and ‘child abuse that.’” He mimicked Joe’s Canadian twang. “This is not abuse, and Stew is not a child.”
Hockey felt faint. This was going to happen and he couldn’t stop it.
“David is facing twenty-five years, Hockey. You’ve got to help us.”
Joe seemed to be a nice guy. He seemed authentically upset.
“Who is going to pay for this?” Hockey knew he was defeated. He was staring at an endless, stigmatized, no-win cause. Another one. Another drain of money and energy with weird, soon-to-befeuding parties, in an environment of social repression and legal corruption.
“Committee to Lower the Age of Consent Defense Fund.”
“We’re not asking for any handouts here. We’ve got to build a good case and get a good legal team and plan a strategy, right, Hockey? And I have a couple of ideas in that direction.”
Hockey looked over at Joe. Joe didn’t have to stand by his lover. He could worm his way out of his unpleasant responsibilities like most people try to do. But he didn’t. He had integrity. Hockey could see that Joe was loyal. He was trying to do the right thing. Just the way Hockey had stood up for Jose, and the way Jose would have stood up for Hockey if he had lived.
“What attorney in their right mind would ever take this case?” Hockey whined, letting fate carry him into his own future. Who ever thought there would be a future, and that it would get programmed so passively?
“We don’t have one,” Thor said. “You have to help us find one. Someone who can make us look good.”
“What in the world would ever make you look good?”
“A woman,” Thor said.
“A woman?” Hockey rolled it over in his mind, landing on one familiar feminine face. “You’re right. That’s what we need.”
Mary and Eva were at home on a lazy Sunday morning. The happy hum of a shared life. This is the highest privilege–another person’s presence–masquerading falsely as the mundane.
Eva sat on the floor trying to fix her bicycle. Mary was at the computer, both listening to a well-worn copy of
Dusty in Memphis
. The immeasurable pleasure of the morning chat, that constant conversation between two mutually interested people that means true love.
“I don’t get it,” Eva asked casually. “Why did he turn you down?”
Mary’s naturally soft angelic look was so deeply pleasurable to Eva that it transcended everything harsh she might do or say. She was a visceral, visual delight. If the words were painful, Eva could just watch. Many hundreds of mornings Eva looked over at her sleeping lover, her sustained loveliness, and thought,
You are so beautiful, and I love you so much
. Watching her chest rise.
“I’ve explained this before,” Mary said calmly.
“You have explained it. But I still don’t get it. I thought he loved your play.”
Mary was willing to go over this one more time, even though she had long ago come to understand that there were essential facts about her world that Eva could never grok. The Theater was not orderly like the law. Eva was logical to a fault. Since the theater was entirely illogical, Eva would never understand, really, why all that cruel and lovely artifice mattered so very, very much. Why it drove people mad.
“I’ll explain it to you again.”
“I know you’ve explained it before–I’m sorry. But I want to get it.”
“Okay.” Mary was willing.
Repetition had worked in the past. It had taken Eva about three moons of explanations to finally understand that Mary really cared about Christmas and that Eva had to get her a present every year. Then Mary persuaded her that ham sandwiches on white bread with mayonnaise were delicious comfort food and nothing to be made fun of.
Eva had to learn that most people in most places say prayers before eating when they are with their parents. Witnessing it should not be considered an anthropological experience to be relayed to aesthetic friends at dinner parties. Mary spent years convincing her that it is normal to fly an American flag. That Mary’s family members are
, not “blue-collar white Protestants,” as Eva habitually described them. Just normal. That most people do not think it is “fun” to argue at the dinner table. That when you ask someone where they are from, the typical answer is
The Pale of Settlement