Main | Tuesday, November 14, 2006

The Goodbye Song

Today is a sad anniversary.

In 1994, Jimmy went into the hospital again. He'd been in and out of Broward General a dozen or more times over the last couple of years, and it was getting harder for his friends, including me, to maintain the usual matching levels of panic and hope that most people experience when a friend is very sick.

It didn't help that Jimmy was a terrible patient. When he was able, he'd leave the hospital grounds and walk across to the convenience store to buy cigarettes, which he'd smoke in the hospital stairwell, striking a ghostly figure in his gown, under the emergency lighting. He cursed the nurses when they confiscated his smokes, and he cursed the housekeepers for cleaning his room while he was watching tv. He cursed his friends for not visiting enough, and he cursed us for waking him up when we were there.

And of course, we forgave him continuously.

"This isn't Jimmy," we'd say. "Not OUR Jimmy." Then we'd blame the illness, or the medications.

But in fact, Jimmy hadn't been Jimmy since Barney died, in 92. Barney had been a core member of my inner circle, ever since college. And ever since college Barney had barreled through our lives with an everchanging series of 'husbands', all of which had their arrival heralded as Barney's 'One.True.Love.' It became a running joke.

"Who's that with Barney? This week's One.True.Love?" And then we'd snicker.

And one week, in 1990, it was Jimmy. That week stretched into a month, which lasted through the summer, which became a holiday season spent in a whirlwind of parties with Barney and Jimmy, the likes of which none of us had seen. Looking back, I think we were all subconsciously speeding up the timeline of our world.

Go more places. Throw bigger parties. Love each other harder.

The biological clock was real for us, man. And that fucker was counting down fast.

Barney and Jimmy had less than three years together. The first year, Barney bought a dilapidated bungalow in Wilton Manors, which they quickly turned the showplace of the neighborhood, largely thanks to Jimmy's home repair skills and Barney's amazing gift for ornamental landscaping. It wasn't very long before real estate agents were driving unconvinced home shoppers past their house.

Their second year together, Barney landed a huge promotion at his company, and with his Christmas bonus, he bought Jimmy a cherry-red Jeep, stunning us all. Jimmy had wanted a Jeep ever since he was a little boy, and Barney told us that Jimmy had sobbed uncontrollably when he saw it in the driveway on Christmas morning.

In '92, Christmas fell on a Friday, and most of us scattered to spend the weekend with our bio-families, planning to regroup for New Year's Eve. At their home, on Christmas Eve, Barney went to bed with a fever and a terrible cough. In the morning, Jimmy could hardly wake him. Barney was transported by ambulance to Broward General and was put on a respirator. The doctors said it was the fastest moving case of pneumocystis they'd seen since the 80's.

Jimmy made an uncomfortable call to Barney's parents in Pensacola, who made immediate plans to fly to Fort Lauderdale in the morning. The hospital refused Jimmy's request to be at Barney's bedside, forcing him to take a vigil in the vending machine room.

In the morning, Jimmy was buying his breakfast from the candy machine, when a hospital administrator tapped on his shoulder. Barney had died a few hours earlier. He'd choked to death. Barney died alone, with his One.True.Love standing 100 feet away.

The next weekend Barney's parents arrived with a U-Haul and took away all of Barney's possessions, including all the household items that he and Jimmy had owned together, from appliances and linens right down to the artwork off of the walls. Jimmy watched helplessly as they hitched up the red Jeep, which for some reason was in Barney's name, and towed it away.

It was about two years after Barney died that Jimmy had started to have problems himself. It was PML. Progressive Multifocal Leukoencephalopathy. Dizziness, disorientation and memory loss quickly took over Jimmy's ordinarily effusive personality.

During Jimmy's final hospital stay, he shared his room with an older man, also with AIDS. I'd seen this man and his lover around the leather bars of Ft Lauderdale over the years, the two of them always in complete leather gear, no matter the occasion. Once, we saw them in the downtown supermarket, shopping in leather chaps. They seemed completely devoted to each other, and somehow we thought they were cute, and spared them our usual withering scorn we probably would have heaped on someone we'd seen shopping in assless chaps.

My roommate and I were headed down the hall to Jimmy's room one evening, and as we approached his door, we could hear singing. A single, low voice gently singing a familiar song. We stopped outside his room and could see that it was the lover of the man in the other bed. He was dressed in his finest leather, and he was standing just inside the curtain that was drawn around his husband's bed, singing him a song we'd heard many times in the clubs.

We'll always be together
However far it seems
Love never ends
We'll always be together
Together in electric dreams

After he finished the song, he walked past us without a glance, his shiny boots clicking loudly down the hall.

We tried not to look around the curtain as we walked over to Jimmy's bed. Jimmy was sitting up and looking out the window. He didn't acknowledge our presence for a minute, which we'd gotten used to. Finally he looked over at us and said, "Did you hear that guy singing? What a waste of time, his husband died hours ago."

"Oh...really," I said.

Jimmy laid back on his bed and stared up at the ceiling.

"I don't know, maybe it wasn't a waste of time, who knows? Do you think Barney can hear us?"

"I don't know, honey."

"I wonder what I would have sung to Barney if I had been...," Jimmy said, his voice trailing off.

Jimmy reached into his shirt pocket for his cigarettes, an instinctual move really, because not only did he not have cigarettes, his dressing gown didn't have a pocket. He made a frustrated noise and looked back out the window, dismissing us with a wave of his hand.

He died the next day.

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