Selection from The Third Kind of Horse
IN WHICH JOSE DIES (133-137)
My friend José died like his lover did, not quite alone in St. Vincent’s Hospital on Seventh Avenue in Greenwich Village. Hooked up to a breathing machine, it helped him as he drowned in his own fluid-filled lungs.
I was in bed in Brooklyn when the police called me. It was about the time my insomnia would have kicked-in anyway, but I was scared when the phone rang and jumped to get it before it woke Lawrence of Arabia. An unfamiliar and unkind voice said,
“Do you know a José Forte?” “Yes.” “You are listed as next of kin. An ambulance brought him to the emergency room at St. Vincent’s.” I always wondered what happened to all those forms we would fill out where we list who to contact in case of an emergency. I assumed that the police would use one of them to track me one day after I’d committed a crime. Killed the president, or better yet Senator Jesse Helms, as we were always plotting at lunch.
Sitting over take-out cannelloni in red sauce and garlic bread on the steps of the AIDS Hotline we would plan how someone already very ill and about to die anyway should kill Helms or the President. That way they would die before they had to serve a very long jail term. We had it all worked out.
We would not give the bad guys AIDS, since that’s what they 133Michelle Auerbach
thought we’d do. We would frankly take them out so that we could get someone in there, in charge, who didn’t hate faggots so much. Get the ball rolling on research, a cure, help. Anything.
It would go like this. Get a politically active cute, boy-toy looking fag to shoot Senator Helms at a public event. He can’t be too skinny yet, because cute is important. You might as well sell a lot of posters and T-shirts if you’re making a martyr. He then goes into prison and makes impassioned speeches, letters to the editor of the New York Times. His lawyer can be cute and gay, too. That would make for a good trial with lots of publicity. Maybe even a Broadway musical like “The Assassins” could be made about him. There are enough ACT-UP-ers who work on Broadway, it’s not farfetched at all. He dies before long, because he’s very, very sick, now in a martyr way. We lose a menace to society, and some pretty boy gets his fifteen minutes in jail with all the buff guys in the uniforms, and society gets educated about AIDS. It could work.
I figured that if I were tied to such a crime, they would call the next of kin listed on my apartment lease and get Artemis. Forget my parents and my brother. I never list them. Always Artemis and Sistah D.
“Do you know or have you ever known Lyssa Albert?”
I should remind them to hedge if anyone asks that until they can figure out what the call is about. That way no one will get dragged into anything they can’t handle.
Recently I’d begun to want to list Kevin. No one would know to tell my friend, who is not my lover, not my childhood best friends like Sistah D and Artemis, or my roommate, that I’m dead, incarcerated, or on the run. I would want him to know that something had happened to me. I wanted to list him somewhere as an emergency contact. Not to take care of me, but please contact him so that he will know something is going on.
That’s what happened with José. The police contacted me not because he got picked up for blowing some rich lawyer in the bathroom at Grand Central, though that happened in college once and I had to bail him out with a month’s worth of my food money, but because he called 911 and couldn’t breathe.
In the cab I pictured it from what the cops said. Hard to believe I was experiencing the New York police doing something actually helpful. He had a purple wall phone in his avocado green kitchen. “Fuck conventional wisdom,” the Fashion Institute of Technology decorating queens always say, you go for that purple phone, and you are just fierce enough to carry it off. But he was on the floor when they found him, with that phone in his hands. How did he reach the phone? Was he standing or crawling? Did he walk into the kitchen or was he too panicked? They didn’t say anything about a chair by the phone. They said he was on the floor.
So the chairs stayed around the red Formica table, the table where Kim, a male-to-female transsexual friend of ours cut her hand while slicing bagels one Sunday morning in college. We’d been out all night dancing and we went back to José’s to get something to eat and some coffee. My father often joked about the rate of bagel-related injuries in the tri-state area, and how many of them were goyim trying to be bagel, lox, and the New York Times Jews. His theory was that culturally in New York, just about everyone wanted to be an assimilated Jew. Somehow I don’t think he had a Hawaiian transsexual in a red sequined dress in mind when he said it. Though Kim was the ultimate New York transplant who absorbed the culture so well you would have thought she had an aunt stashed somewhere in a nursing home in Queens.
Kim sat there in awe as blood bloomed out of the cut, and then we all debated which towel to ruin. We had to take her to St. Vincent’s to get stitches. She cried the whole way to the hospital about filling out the forms because she didn’t know what to do. Could Kim legally put “she” in the sex blank of the Hospital intake forms when the reassignment surgery was complete but her driver’s license still said “he?” We convinced her to put “she” on the forms, that no one would notice the driver’s license, but for sure they would question her if she, looking gorgeous and very feminine, put “he” on anything. We were right. It was a triumph in Kim’s world, to pass that well, and after the stitches, everyone left the hospital for champagne at Florent.
It was different with José because he was alone and scared. No jolly band of well-wishers, just me, and I might not have been his first choice, but I was what he got.
I got there in time. José, the kinda pudgy queeny fag with the permanent roll of fat over his belt, who was always on the coffee ice cream diet, looked like he’d been on chemotherapy for six months. No hair, ribs showing in his hospital gown. I almost walked right by. Had to play it off like I was in a rush and just hadn’t looked down.
Luckily he couldn’t talk, because of the tubes. Saved us both the embarrassment of having to discuss how he looked, or what I was doing there. I held his hand around the IV for the antibiotics and wanted to call Sistah D, but every time I moved my chair a millimeter, he squeezed my hand tighter and I felt like I shouldn’t get up. How long was long enough before I could leave to find a phone? When was too early and therefore rude?
I never did get to call D. I sat for the rest of the night on the edge of the chair, mind wandering all over the place, my life, job, love, New York and how much I love it, but what a horrible place it is to be in the hospital, and then I got to watch José die while I held his hand and he looked into my eyes. What he found there I don’t know. All we really had together was a few years of going to clubs and staying out till all hours, and him trying to girl me up, and failing. He once insisted that I let him put make-up on me. Artemis was there, and he did her first. She looked fine. You can’t really make her look bad, even with too much eyeliner. Once José was done with me I looked in the mirror. I had smudges for eyes, green to bring out the color, and slashes of angry pink on my cheeks. He made my lips a violent shade of red, a bruise color that matched the popular nail polish of the day, which my mother called “blood-clot red.” I had nothing to say. He was just one of Sistah D’s hanger’s on. He never even made it onto the subway to visit me in Brooklyn once. We worked together but even then rarely did we work the same shifts, and he was always too busy to talk, since he had to take the Spanish speaking calls. I may have bailed him out of jail and shared an office and some kind of social circle, but were we friends?
I looked back and saw a person who was younger than I’d thought and scared, not wise like I expected. Death for José was not the experience of pure knowledge I read about. Not a voyage into bliss like yoga told me. He did not have the clarity and deep conversation I had seen with other friends, but maybe that was a function of how much we did not know about each other. In the presence of dying friends, I have learned some astute things about the world. José was scared and he was looking me right in the eye and I didn’t dare look away and he died alone, as we all do, but I held on tight and we didn’t say a word. I could feel whatever was essentially him slip out of his body and hover over us for a few minutes, taking things in, or letting things go. I put his hand down on the bed, because it was no longer him at all.
My chest expanded. Every breath felt huge and cold. There was laughter welling up in me that I suppressed lest the hospital staff think I was a cold bitch or crazy. I got the joke. There was a dead body in the bed I hardly recognized, but the José I couldn’t see, floating over me, was real and enduring. The fact that we are so attached to our bodies, these sacs of mostly water and ego, it’s a joke, it doesn’t have to be this way. José got it too. He was there, laughing with me, egging me on. Be fantastic, be more, be too much. Who cares?
When I left St. Vincent’s it was morning. I could see every car neatly outlined and definite as I walked east. I could feel each intake of breath, the temperature of the air, the stray paper bag that I kicked as I crossed the street was alive. I wanted to call Kevin, but of course I couldn’t. I wanted to do anything but be alone, not because I had found death scary, but because I wanted to celebrate. I walked over to Simone’s in the East Village and had rapturous sex. I poured all the light I could muster into her mouth as I kissed her. I touched her clit and it was an electricity conducting experiment where the current was so strong it flattened us on the bed. She went slack when she came and then looked at me with wonder. I wish I could have claimed that level of expertise, but really it was me and José, all the way.
Michelle Auerbach is the author of The Third Kind of Horse (2013 Beatdom Books). Her writing has appeared in (among other places) The New York Times, The London Guardian, The Denver Quarterly,Chelsea Magazine, Bombay Gin, and the literary anthologies The Veil (UC Berkley Press), Uncontained (Baksun Books), and You. An Anthology of Essays in the Second Person (Welcome Table Press). She is the winner of the 2011 Northern Colorado Fiction Prize. Michelle is an organizational storytelling and communications consultant and lives in Colorado with her partner and her three kids.
Beth Couture is an assistant editor with Sundress Publication and the secretary of the board of directors of SAFTA. She is also the fiction editor of Sundress’ newest imprint, Doubleback Books. Her own work can be found in Gargoyle, Drunken Boat, Yalobusha Review, the Thirty Under Thirty anthology from Starcherone Books, Dirty, Dirty from Jaded Ibis Press, and other publications. Her first book, a novella titled Women Born with Fur, is due out in the fall from Jaded Ibis Press. She teaches at Bloomsburg University in Bloomsburg, PA.