from Until My Heart Stops
Thursday, June 23, 1988. The day began hot, humid. The fan perched on the windowsill offered little comfort; before getting out of bed I was covered with a thin layer of sweat. The radio announced optimistically today’s temperatures would be milder: high eighties instead of sweltering nineties, but even after shaving and showering I couldn’t stop sweating. It felt like the kind of day that makes me vow every year I will never spend another summer in Manhattan. Walking to the subway I noticed everyone seemed to be moving with sluggish, irritable steps. I could feel the sweat on my back, underneath my arms, behind my knees, streaming in pencil thin lines down the sides of my face. Even the Empire State Building, which bisects the skyline from this block of Chelsea, seemed uncomfortable and sullen, lost in a haze the color of cigarette smoke.
By lunch time, however, the sky was overcast: strips of blue-gray clouds shadowed the intensity of the sun, though the wind which whipped between the buildings of upper Times Square was ironically dry, the type I have always imagined belonged in the Sahara. Summer in New York City can be irritating: stifling, overcrowded subway cars, sidewalks that reek with the smells of urine and dried beer, the deli that always seems to have a broken air-conditioner on the day you want it to work the most. But it can also be a feast for the eyes: tourists wandering around in tank tops and shorts, messenger boys atop bicycles speeding across town in tight, spandex pants, actors and dancers with knapsacks slung across their shoulders, reciting lines to themselves as they head toward auditions or rehearsals. At noon, businessmen in white shirts and tailored dark suits stream through the revolving door of the building where I work, adjusting sunglasses and checking watches before dashing off to appointments. The construction workers of the new buildings which spiral skyward every block of this section of the city, sit on the short, black walls surrounding the fountain and subway entrance of the courtyard of the Paramount Plaza. They have thick, tanned skin and wear tight, faded jeans, heavy dark workboots and T-shirts which cannot possibly have been ripped that way by design.
Crossing 50th Street at Seventh Avenue on the way to get a slice of pizza, I see the worker I look for every day hoping he has removed his T-shirt and stuffed it in the rear pocket of his jeans. Today he does not disappoint me; his body does not fail to stun me: a wide, solid chest and razor sharp abdominals, a tattoo on his left shoulder that reads USMC and biceps the size of the grapefruits they sell a block away at the Korean market. Amazing, I think, such energy at repose, a product of a profession of physical labor and an avocation of going to a gym. I can only stare at him so long without becoming self-conscious or risking a sneer. Looking skyward, I think if it rains later I will have a reason to change my plans. After work I am meeting my friend Jon at his office seven blocks from here. Together we’re going to see the Names Project Quilt at Pier 92.
* * *
Three months ago my best friend died after having been diagnosed with Kaposi’s sarcoma a year before. The day he called me and told me the results of his initial biopsy I said I would leave work and meet him, stay with him if he needed, do anything I could to help. He was choking over the phone, crying, saying he felt so ashamed, why had this happened to him? Then suddenly he pulled himself together, his voice returned to its regular intonation, and he said he had to get back to work, he would be all right. That night he went to the opening of a new Broadway musical.
I was the only one he told at first; though I did not feel privileged by being entrusted with this secret, I honored his desire to keep it quiet. I think what ennobles his life to me now, particularly his last year, was his inability to perceive himself as diseased. He treated his illness as though a cold or a broken leg, something that one day when he awoke would be better or healed, not something that was consuming him day by day, depressing him, immobilizing him. He kept up his normal, frenetic, crazy New Yorker pace for as long as he could, working long hours as a publicist and then attending film screenings, plays and parties. And he continued to write, as he had since I met him nine years before, plays which had been produced in small regional theaters, plays which he never felt had been given the productions or recognition they deserved. Three months before his death one of his plays finally reached off-Broadway, and as he struggled with rewrites and revisions, we both knew but never mentioned, that this might be the only chance he was ever to be given.
Things did not get better. The medications got stronger but he grew weaker. After his second hospitalization the friends, family and co-workers he had not informed were told. When things took a turn for the worse, in January of this year, he stopped working and lost the mobility he cherished, and though he was surrounded by a network of support and did his best to maintain his sense of humor and sharpen his wit, he still flashed through moments of frustration, abjection and embitterment.
I have not been able to forget him a single day since his death. I am reminded of him by articles in the newspapers, reports on the six o’clock news, by his friends and mine calling to ask me how I am, by the details I have to attend to as the executor of the small estate he left behind, details which can be mundane, annoying or time consuming such as sorting through bills, writing letters, or photocopying his death certificate. And on the sidewalks, walking, where I think my actions, my movement will pull me away from his life and back to my own, I see reminders of him in the people who pass: one man has his mustache, another his profile, others his gold wire-rim eyeglasses or his out-turned walk.
We were born the same year, six months apart but in different parts of the country. We grew to the same height, the same weight and could have worn each others clothes if we wanted. But there were other, more important similarities which connected us as friends. We shared not only the same profession, but the same persuasions and aspirations: a love for the theater, movies, traveling and men, and though our tastes were never identical, our passions kept us linked. We were introduced to one another in the lobby of a Broadway theater; we had both moved to Manhattan right after graduating college, leaving behind our suburban roots, and finding employment as apprentice publicists though dreaming of careers as writers. We were awed by the challenges, possibilities and expectations of New York City, yet we were inspired to accomplish every conceivable goal, as young men in their early twenties with a lifetime ahead of them, often are.
Today in The New York Times Canadian officials reported Soviet diplomats had tried to snatch U.S. Navy secrets, the Mets won but the Yankees had lost three in a row, and the Presidential hopefuls were in Los Angeles, Louisville and Boston. A feature story announced The Paris Ballet would be presenting Swan Lake next week at Lincoln Center, a one-man off-Broadway show adapted from the novels of Becket was reviewed, and another article explained that an insect, smaller than a flea, was damaging millions of acres of forest in Vermont. A fire in Egypt killed forty-seven people, ten died in Burma riots and a car bomb in Bierut killed two. Yet when I reached the obituary page, near the end of the last section of the paper, I felt a mild, morbid relief when I noticed there was no one listed I knew and the youngest man who had died was fifty-seven, killed in a sail boat accident when he was struck by the boom.
And throughout the day, as I sat behind a desk, typing, answering phones and attending to the business that pays my rent, I keep reassuring myself I’m not the only person my best friend left behind. There is his mother, his sister, two nephews, a niece, his lover and other friends, most of them who knew him longer than I.
* * *
After work I am surprised to find the afternoon sky startling clear and bright, the oppressive heat of the last few days has disappeared with the clouds. In fact the weather feels so nice, so comfortable, it is the kind of summer afternoon I wish I were spending at the beach. I meet my friend Jon at his office on 43rd Street and together we walk across the west side toward the pier. Our walk is slow and relaxing, by the time we reach Tenth Avenue there is little traffic on the sidewalks or streets. We tell each other about our day: I mention the new telephone system we are installing in the office, he tells me his boss is going crazy because of her high-fiber diet. Together we discuss our plans for a trip to Pennsylvania over the Fourth of July, next weekend: I mention I would like to drive through the Shaker countryside, he tells me about a restaurant a friend recommended in New Hope. As we draw nearer to our destination, our steps quicken, our eyes scan every building and person in sight. Now when we speak our voices are sharp, clipped whispers, notations edged by agitation.
Earlier today, a friend had warned me over the phone that viewing the quilt would be worse than going to a cemetery. Another said I would feel every conceivable emotion. Before leaving my office, I made a trip to the restroom and slipped some toilet paper into my pants pocket. As we wait to cross the street beneath the elevation of the West Side Highway, my friend loosens and removes his tie.
At the entrance to the pier, a white concrete building which is normally used as a passenger ship terminal, we ride to the second floor in an elevator that I estimate is larger than the bedroom of my apartment. When the doors open we follow those ahead of us, men and women of varying ages, into a lobby filled with tables and exhibits, pamphlets, registration books, volunteer workers and other visitors. We are handed programs and presented with the facts: this quilt weighs over 11,510 pounds and currently contains 3,488 names, although today space allows only l,696 to be seen. Spread out, it is bigger than three football fields and includes the names of brothers, fathers, sons, mothers, daughters, lovers and friends. It is the nation’s largest community arts project and is designed to memorialize the thousands of Americans who have died from AIDS. New York is only one of the stops on a twenty city cross-country tour.
We walk through a doorway beneath a handwritten sign that says “Entrance” and enter the main room. My first impression is this room is enormous and bright; sunlight streams in through windows, outside it shimmers across the Hudson River. Inside it is crowded but quiet. And what begins with a sense of curiosity, as I begin to assimilate the first few panels which I look at and read, is quickly overtaken by a feeling of awe. The fabric panels of the quilt are six feet by three feet and have been sewn together in blocks of eight or thirty-two. The main section, draped atop the floor, stretches the length of the 775-foot pier. On either side are blocks suspended from the ceiling, creating alcoves to display even more panels, placed evenly between these fabric walls on the floor.
But it is the names that command the attention. As we follow the white canvas walkway which borders the perimeters of the panels on the floor, statistics suddenly become people.
Some panels are simple, containing only a painted name on plain fabric. Others are more elaborate with hand-stitched designs or needlepoint, or names spelled out in sequins or bordered by feathers. Some are personalized by clothing: a plaid shirt, gym shorts, boot laces, a leather vest, one, even, displays a jock strap. Others hold records, photographs and quotes. Each panel contains only a single name of someone who has died. For me, the hardest to look at are the ones which contain only first names, the ones that read Mark, Bill, Mike or Steve. These are the names I collected years ago on scraps of paper at parties, bars, the gym and the beach. They make me wonder if this is one of them now. Or is it the friend I haven’t seen or spoken to in the past few months, the one I didn’t even know was sick?
It is hard not to keep my eyes moving from panel to panel. And when I look up I notice we have not even made it a third of the way down the room. We are surrounded by other viewers, and I am not surprised to discover they are mostly men and women my age, mid-thirties, their heads bowed, motionless, as if in prayer. The tableau reminds me of those large cathedrals I visited seven years ago in Europe, the ones with plaques and epitaphs lining the walls of the transepts where people are buried beneath the floor. Here, at the quilt, it is as hushed and solemn, yet what was there, in Europe, was viewed with a calm sense of reverence, is here magnified with anger, shock, compassion and grief. Here, footsteps move so slowly and carefully their sounds cannot be detected, the silence is broken only by the shutters of cameras. Ahead a young man in a blue polo shirt and jeans sits crosslegged on the walkway in front of a red silk panel that spells D-a-v-i-d with silver block letters, his head is buried in the palms of his hands. Though I strain to hear but cannot detect any sounds from him, I know by the way his back heaves with short, jerking breaths that he is crying. Behind him, I am suddenly astounded by the sight of a woman pushing an empty stroller, beside her a man carries a baby, less than six months old, in his arms. On the other side of the panel an elderly woman with a cane touches the frame of her eyeglasses and leans to read a name. This is something that has hit us all.
Behind each name is the story of a life, someone who struggled with this disease and lost. Behind each panel there are many stories: Who made it? Who helped? Why this color, this fabric? What does the design remember or represent? Who cried when it was finished? Who recognizes the name as they walk by? And each of us brings our own stories to the quilt, our views, opinions, knowledge and experiences with this disease. And we are united, sewn together as it were, by our thoughts of families, lovers, friends, and co-workers : some dead, some sick, some worried. This is our Gettysburg, our Vietnam Wall, our Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Yet those wars are over, this one continues. All of us are frightened this could be happening to us next. The quilt grows larger every day.
When we reach the center of the room, a crowd of people surround a block of yellow canvas on the floor. At the edges are boxes of tissues and black felt tip pens. Here, the words “New York” have been painted in large, cursive purple letters. Shoes have been slipped off and left on the walkway, their owners kneel atop the yellow canvas and write, covering the empty spaces with remembrances. This canvas is full of writing: names, notes, signatures and messages, hardly an untouched space, signed the way, years ago, we covered the pages of a high school yearbook. Now, standing here, watching a young man who looks hardly out of high school uncap a felt pen and write, I feel angry and guilty. Why has this happened? Why is it continuing? Was there anything I could have done to stop this? Was there something I can do now? At my best friend’s funeral his mother said to me that what I had done was miraculous, the way I had helped make his last few months as comfortable as possible. The way when he could no longer leave his apartment, I brought him food, made sure he took his medication on schedule, arranged doctors, nurses and friends to visit. The way when he was frightened and scared I tried to reassure him he was not alone by leaving work early or taking a day off, many times staying at his apartment overnight. The way when the depression would overcome him, I would entertain and distract him with videotapes, games, magazines, books and records. But now I feel that wasn’t enough, and fearing I might abruptly lose my outward display of emotional composure, I turn and walk away.
As we approach the end of the room Jon sees someone he has not seen since college, twelve years ago in Boston. He introduces me to his friend, though I remain silent and listen to their whispered conversation. As their talk progresses from reminisces and old friends to present day careers and activities, my eyes again roam through the crowd. All at once I see several familiar faces: a friend who works five floors beneath mine, a teller from my bank, a couple I see at the video store on my block. In the distance I spot an actor who has made a fortune from furniture commercials and who once appeared in a showcase of one of my best friend’s plays. Behind him is a former patient of my former psychiatrist and a guy whose name I have never known, but whose tight physique I always admired at my old gym and which I haven’t glanced at in over two years since I moved to a new apartment.
A man my age with a neatly trimmed black beard and wearing an old straw hat stops beside me and stares into my eyes. I look at him, confused for a moment, till he smiles and I recognize him as my friend Bryce who I once worked with booking guests on a late night local cable TV show. We hug, pleased to see each other alive in this room, and he tells me in the three years since I last saw him he has moved from Provincetown to Santa Barbara and now back to New York, where he has been living on the upper west side for the last two months. He apologizes for not having called, then his eyes narrow and he rocks his legs nervously, and says, softly, his best friend died this morning. I answer I am surprised he is here of all places, but I understand why he is. I know exactly what he is thinking and feeling. “How could I stay away,” he says and stops rocking and then looks at the ground. “I have it,” he adds and I know not even to ask, “Are you sure?” Instead, I slip my hand around his elbow and lead him to a corner of the room, near a window, gently pelting him with questions: Do you have insurance? Are you working? Have you started treatments or medication? Do you live alone? Who is your doctor? Who knows and who is helping? He answers my questions politely, without embarrassment, but then adds in an exasperated voice, “I think it was the radiation treatments that killed him. He was fine till last week. When are the doctors going to learn you can’t cover a bullet hole with a band-aid?”
Jon approaches and now it is my turn for introductions and I manage it with only a little awkwardness. As Jon and I part to continue viewing the quilt, I tell Bryce I will do what ever I can to help, that he must never hesitate about asking or calling, and though I start to write his name and new phone number on the back of my program, I stop just in time, finding a piece of paper in my wallet instead. We exchange numbers, embrace again, and as we part I tell him I will start by cooking dinner for him one night next week.
As I walk away, traveling again the length of the room toward the exit, Jon slips his hand into mine, and though I am no longer looking at the names on the panels, I am aware my eyes have started to tear. Last week a friend told me it can take up to two years before the grief finally subsides. Yet I know I can never forget my best friend; he is the one who introduced me, four years ago, to my friend Jon, the thread that binds us together today. We stop again in the center of the room by the yellow panels and Jon unclasps his firm grip as I hand him my program. I slip my shoes off and step onto the panel, kneeling and pressing my knees against the fabric. I reach for a felt tip pen, open it, and write without faltering:
MAY 23, 1955—MARCH 18, 1988
I WILL MISS YOU EVERY DAY
Jameson Currier is the author of ten works of fiction and the editor and publisher of Chelsea Station. He is currently at work on Until My Heart Stops, a forthcoming collection of essays, memoir, and intimate writings.