It was the end of October and it had been five months since Edgar started wasting away. He’d lost twenty pounds of fat and muscle, his jacket hung loose over his newly slack- skinned torso. Accepting a cigarette from a stranger outside Metropolitan, he inhaled, then leaned his head back and exhaled, the rising plume madding under the streetlight. His doctor said he’d be fine: it was just a matter of getting him on one or two pills, off the cocktail. Edgar had always liked that word; it called to mind a Bette Davis movie, someone descending a staircase in a bias-cut satin number clutching a martini glass. This cocktail was just dozens of pills he counted with careful fingers from plastic bottles into blue and pink plastic packs. It did a number on the body, this avalanche of medication, these strange chemical floods. Like taking ecstasy on a dance floor, but with no high, only comedown. He couldn’t bring a trick back without fearing they’d see the pill boxes by the bed, on the piano, next to the coffee maker in the morning.
The stranger nodded his head. “Cute jacket. Where’d you get it?” He was here with a few similar types who’d retreated inside: stubble, delicate frames, giant sneakers, baggy black sweatshirts hanging almost to the knees.
“Back in the early ‘90s,” Edgar said, pulling the denim around himself protectively.
“Oh,” said the stranger. “I was in preschool back then.” He smiled broadly, showing big white teeth. His voice was low but scoope-dup at the end of each sentence. Cruel, Edgar thought, but not without charm. Maybe he could. Maybe he would.
“I have HIV,” he said.
“Whoa,” said the stranger.
“Yeah,” said Edgar. “Scared now?”
“Not really. I’m Mark.”
“And what do you do, Mark? Other than giving cigarettes to dying men.”
“You’re not dying,” said Mark.
“How are you so sure?” Edgar smiled and lifted the snuffed cigarette to his mouth. He gestured to Mark, who leaned close. They brushed the tips against one another. Right as they touched, the orange light flickered brighter, revealing arched lines on Mark’s forehead.
“I’m switching medications and I feel like shit.” Edgar knew this wasn’t any way to introduce himself but it was all that was on his mind.
”Don’t they have pills that work now?”
“Sometimes,” said Edgar dryly, “the pills stop working and you have to find new ones.”
Mark shrugged and leaned back against the wall behind him, crossing black- sneakered feet. “Then, that’s what doctors are for. You’re not dying. I hate melodramatic people.”
The next morning, Mark awoke in an empty-seeming studio apartment. A tawny cat glared at him from the top of a bookshelf. Sunlight streamed in, striking a big flat-leafed fig tree, a marble fireplace, a dark walnut piano. Then he heard the flushing of a toilet and Edgar appeared from the bathroom, naked, a jiggling ring of slack skin hanging from diaphragm to belly button. He shrugged, winked, sat down at the piano and started playing sweet-toned major chords, one note in the middle pulsing regularly, then a low trill like the bottom falling out of the world, like death, then back to the sweetness of the first melody.
“What’s that?” Mark asked.
“Schubert,” said Edgar, and the pulse got more insistent, the chords louder. Mark lay back on the bed and listened. The melody carved out space near the top of the keyboard; the trills came back, seemingly tamed.
“His last piano sonata,” said Edgar, missing a few notes and grimacing as he did. There were a lot of little endings that didn’t end. A held note brought hope back. Then the death trill boomed in the bass louder than ever. The next time the melody came around he noticed Edgar was humming it in a pained, scooping voice. Mark watched Edgar watch his hands.
Suddenly, the music stopped. “If I go on any longer I’ll play the whole movement. It’s twenty minutes.” Edgar stood up and walked to the kitchen. Mark heard the click-whoosh of a gas stove, the rustling of items in cabinets. He pulled on his shirt and wandered in. Edgar was holding a pill in his hand, muttering under his breath.
He looked up and popped it into his mouth, reached for a glass of orange juice on the counter.
When the coffee was ready, they drank it at the little table across from the piano. The cat jumped up next to the mugs and continued to glare.
“Who’s this?” asked Mark, beginning to reach out his hand.
“Don’t get too close, he attacks.” Edgar swatted Mark’s hand. “That’s Ruskin.” Ruskin meowed, batted at Edgar’s beard, and stretched himself out in the sunny spot on the other side of the table. Mark usually hated people who made excuses for their cats, but today he reached out undeterred and gave a quick belly scratch. The cat grinned and rolled over, clawing at the air.
Edgar turned to Mark. “He seems not to hate you. So, what do you do?”
Mark shrugged. “It’s boring as fuck. I work in front-end development.” This was a word Edgar knew he’d heard but couldn’t place. Mark saw him squinting confusedly and came in with the answer: “Websites. And you’re just a pianist?”
“Just?” Edgar flared his nostrils over the coffee cup in mock horror.
“I meant that’s the only thing you do.”
“Yeah,” Edgar said. “Lessons. Kids, grownups. A few concerts. Rehearsals for the ballet. You make it until you don’t.”
Mark gestured around the apartment. “You’re here on Graham. I’d call this making it.”
“My mother was Puerto Rican,” Edgar said. “It’s been in the family. You know, rent control.”
“Lucky bastard. So when’s the first lesson of the day?”
“I have Saturdays off,” Edgar said. “Saturday mornings free to practice or you know…” He gestured at Mark. “Then at four I have group.”
“What’s group?” Mark asked.
“An AIDS thing at the center. I hate going, but I hate not going even more.”
Mark smiled. “Then go.”
They said goodbye, exchanged numbers. Edgar promised to text him, and they kissed again, deeply, at the door. Mark biked home lazily, feeling the cool air work its way under his sweatshirt. Edgar stood at the window and watched him head down the avenue. The sky was streaked with translucent gray-pink clouds backlit by the low autumn sun. Leaves flocked up from the sides of his wheels. He took big lazy looping turns and coasted through red lights.
Every Saturday afternoon, Edgar went to a brightly lit room at the community center on Fourteenth Street for the long-term survivors group. “Easy now,” Edgar always thought when reading the name, “I haven’t survived yet.” The drug ads, the doctors, the relentlessly positive group leader — all of them tried to say that you still had your whole life ahead of you. It was half-true: you had a life, but it was someone else’s. Many of your friends died. Doctors and nurses and pharmacists gave you hundreds of pills. Your body started being uncooperative in dozens of small ways. Weight redistributed, hair grew where it hadn’t and receded where it shouldn’t have. You looked older than you were, you were older than you were. Depression set in — the normal sadness of a long illness distorted as if filtered through an astigmatic lens by the faint stink of sex hanging over every mention of the disease. Edgar thought gay life, with its love of spectacle and glamour and big healthy bodies, was particularly ill-equipped to provide support. The old gays who didn’t have it felt superior and the young ones who did had never known it as anything other than one or two daily pills. And straights were hopeless, always asking how you got it with wide, suspicious eyes, waiting for proof you deserved it. No one at the ballet knew. He’d never even told the fey wig master Brian, whom he’d watched slowly shrivel and then, one day, vanish altogether. He hadn’t told his students. When one curious woman, a lawyer, asked why he was taking so many pills, he smiled sympathetically and said, “Vitamins.”
Ten to fifteen people usually attended the group. Edgar perceived them as pale, gray, stooped figures. He was scared to get too close. Then there was Sean, the group leader’s mascot. A sleek fifty with perfectly trimmed stubble, he usually spoke with confidence and cheer about finding reasons in his heart to fight. Today, Sean wore a black sweatshirt, hood pulled low over his head. When he raised it briefly to greet everyone, Edgar could see puffy eyes and the remnants of tears on his cheeks.
“I’m Sean, and I’ve survived twenty-five years.” Everyone snapped their fingers weakly. “A friend of mine died this past weekend. Fifty-three-years-young.” Edgar grimaced at the phrase.
Sean started weeping. “Not of natural causes… This is the third friend of mine with AIDS to kill himself.”
The group leader, a tall redhead with a bristling mustache who always wore plaid, clucked sympathetically.
“Because us long-term survivors are so isolated, so depressed. I try to beat it because if we don’t, it beats us.”
Howard, one of the men who always attended, swallowed a mouthful of cookie. “We have group.”
“Fuck group.” Sean stood up. “What good does this fucking do? I watched hundreds of my friends die in the ‘80s because of ignorance and red tape, and now it’s like nothing has changed.”
Howard frowned. “Why are you attacking group?”
Sean crumpled. “You get so fucking lonely. There is nobody lonelier than a single POZ guy over fifty. Everything you go to that’s for you is some shitty replacement for a real social life. And then there’s all these fucking faggots who ignore me on Grindr, living lives we put our bodies on the line for while we sit in our apartments, slowly disintegrating. Some days I’m fine, I go around with no problems. Some days I’m in so much pain I’m curled in the fetal position in bed the whole day. My friend who died, Cox, said he’d lie in bed for five or six days after one of the days of pain, afraid to move, afraid it would start again, knowing that nobody out there would see some healthy looking guy and know what was going on. He would call me on those days and I’d try to help. When he died, we found full bottles of pills and unfilled prescriptions on his nightstand. He’d stopped taking his medicine. What the fuck is that? How the fuck do we let people get that way?”
The group leader, concerned, broke in: “Let’s all take a moment of silence for self-care.” Sean broke down weeping. Edgar didn’t realize he was crying too until he felt the sting of tears and reached for a tissue to wipe his eyes.
Ruskin came scuttling to the door when Edgar got home from group and nuzzled Edgar’s left leg. There were fresh scratches on the trunk of the potted fig. Edgar went into the kitchen to make tea, leaving the lights off. As the electric kettle sputtered, the sunset
cut an orange stripe through the clouds. When the tea had steeped, he spiked it with a shot of bourbon, then brought it with a cork trivet to the piano. Setting it on the ledge next to the music stand, he flipped on the light and folded back the cover of the score to the Schubert sonata he’d played for Mark that morning. His fingers traced the opening chords, he pushed down the soft pedal and tried to pull the phrase gently out of the keys. The voicing was wrong, the third and fifth of the chords too loud. He stopped and tried again. He clicked a metronome on and then off, looked at the suggested fingerings, crossed them out and tried something else. His left hand jumped down to the low trill, but it sounded tinny and unconvincing. He felt his left index finger going a little numb and took another sip of the tea.
Should he text Mark? Shit — there went his concentration, little splats of wrong notes surrounded the pulse. He started again. His hands were sweating, and he felt sweat gathering under his T-shirt and on his shoulder blades and lower back. His hands slipped as he eased, or tried to ease, into the repeat. Eventually, he gave up. He’d lost the day.
He grabbed his jacket and headed for the bar. It had gotten colder; the plumes of air he exhaled looked like smoke. He found himself buying a pack of cigarettes and his hands fell instantly back into the habit, deftly unwrapping the cellophane, pulling out the extra flap of silver paper, flipping over the lucky one. He got to the bar before he could finish his first, so he leaned back against the black-mirrored windows to pose and check his hair — curly, tufted, his high hairline descending to a prominent peak. He knew he had an emerging bald spot on the back left side of his head and his face looked astonishingly wrinkled.
In the bar, there was the usual swirling riot of people and coats and red light. He muscled his way up to buy two beers, then perched by the ATM. A group of young men stood posing in backwards baseball caps and unbuttoned flannels, these masculine shells peeling to reveal limp wrists and pink T-shirts. An older weasel-looking guy in a leather jacket, skinny jeans, and canvas sneakers bopped his shoulders arrhythmically to Whitney Houston. Edgar imagined him carefully applying face cream before the bathroom mirror and combing his hair over, strand by strand. Shoot me if I turn into that guy, he thought. What looked like a bachelorette party squeezed by. A lesbian stood by the pinball machines wearing a teal track jacket and gray beanie. He envied the jacket and almost talked to her but waited too long to approach.
He drank the beers. He got another, asked for a shot, dropped the shot into the beer glass and downed it. He moved to the backyard for a while, smoking more of his cigarettes. He’d have a sore throat tomorrow. A group of bald bears chattered about the drag queen that was coming on later. “Yaaas,” one said, “she is fucking fierce.” Edgar turned on his heel to lean crookedly against one of the metal poles that held up the backyard’s corrugated plastic awning. He thought about the first time he came to the bar, how scared he’d been. Every once in a while, he still saw a shiny faced young guy slink down the ramp and sit on a bench, petrified, knees glued together.
He had another couple of drinks and found himself back inside by the photo booth, holding a gin and tonic. It was a summer drink but he was hot by this point, sweating under his jacket. A blond idiot approached from across the bar, face fixed in a stupid grin. “I was just texting my friend,” said the idiot, “and I was trying to say ‘I ran into her’ but instead…” he convulsed with laughter. “Instead…the autocorrect…made it say…Iranians.” He laughed some more and then stepped back. “What’s the matter,” he asked, “you don’t like funny shit?” Beyoncé played in the background. He was drunk, his words sloshed together. “I like you,” the idiot said. “You’re serious. I like serious people.” His blue button-down was open halfway down his amorphous torso. The white T-shirt underneath was stained, and there were little patches of sweat at the armpits and nipples.
“Hi,” Edgar said.
“I like you,” said the guy. “You’re serious. Do you even smile? Wanna take photos? Let’s take photos. I wanna remember you.” A beat. He frowned exaggeratedly at Edgar. “See, that’s you.”
“I do not make that face,” said Edgar, too loudly.
“Come sit in the photo booth… Come siiiiit,” sang the blond, and Edgar shoved himself onto the bench next to the idiot, pulled the velvet curtain shut, and proceeded to smile grotesquely, eyes pressed shut into slits, all his teeth bared. The camera flashed four times. On the last flash, the guy turned and tried to kiss Edgar. He kicked the idiot off, launching himself out of the photo booth and onto the floor, and blacked out.
Edgar woke up in bed. He tried to lift his left arm and felt pinches. He looked over and saw a tube leading to an IV and a monitor clipped to his index finger. He looked down and discovered himself in a hospital gown, looked to his right and saw a curtain pulled shut. He was on the window side of a double room; the window was dirty and revealed only smudged brown patches and lights.
The TV was turned to a nature program, the sound turned off. A hummingbird fluttered in slow-motion in front of a purple flower. “The hummingbird is like an addict,” read the caption. “Not only does it never stray but it will actually defend its flowers from thieves.” The flowers, it turned out, were less romantic, “enjoying a few days of frenzied pollination.”
In tiptoed a balding male nurse who looked down at him with weary eyes. “You’re up,” he said. “Morning there.”
“Where am I? What happened?” He felt like a character in a Sirk movie, like Dorothy Malone. Maybe he’d crashed a red sports car into some backlot trees.
“You were at a bar, you collapsed. Your white blood cell count is very low.”
“I remember being there,” he said. He remembered the guy in the photo booth and shuddered. “It sucked. How long do I need to stay here?”
“You can go home in the morning,” the nurse said. “But no more drinking until we get your meds sorted.” He smiled in an attempt at friendliness. “You’re going to be fine.”
“What time is it,” Edgar asked.
“Five,” said the nurse and left.
On TV, a camera panned across a windy desert. “By now,” the caption read, “the flowers have already shriveled and died. The wind sends the dead plants cartwheeling across the ground, scattering seeds as they go.”
Edgar got back to his apartment at eleven the next morning. He walked up the stairs with shaky steps. Ruskin screeched at him indignantly as he kicked off his shoes. He poured some food into the cat’s dish and drank two glasses of water and put the coffee on. That was Edgar’s Saturday. He met someone, he had sex, he played a sonata well and then badly. He heard someone died, he drank too much, and he collapsed. Now it’s Sunday. He sits down at the piano in the dawn light and begins to play the Schubert sonata again. He’s still alive.