1.-- I understood the dream the night I packed Nathan's things for Goodwill. Maybe it was touching his things that brought it back -- the smell of his cologne on the suits, his grip traced as a memory on the handle of his paddleball, feeling the weight of his dirty running shoes as I packed them into milk crates, loading them into the car trunk. Or maybe it was because once his closet was empty the dream would be the only thing I had left of him, despite my stumbling through darkness to find him, the hours spent too afraid to cry, and my struggle to recapture the cadence of his voice reciting The Book of Job in Hebrew. Packing his things wasn't like burying him again. It was like hiding his stuff.
2.-- It is a large funeral home that I am in. The place is dark and empty. An air conditioner hums. Blood red carpeting pushes against my feet, propelling me into the room. In the center of the room is an open casket filled with red clay, heavy and moist. My hands work the clay, shape it. My fingers search its thickness. I dig, tearing into the clay, my nails clawing it, burrowing a hole. I move mounds and mounds of the wet clay, clumping it around the hole. A metal, garden shovel appears in my hand and I dig deeper. Clay falls from the casket, lands on my shoes, stains my shirt sleeves, clings to my pant leg. I begin stuffing things I cannot see, cannot tell what they are, into the hole and cover them. My hands reach for more of the clay. I continue burying them deep inside the casket, but there's too much stuff and not enough dirt. I rake dirt from the ends of the casket, but it isn't enough. I panic. My heart pounds. The sweat on my forehead is moist like the clay. I need help. I can't bury it all alone, but nobody is around. No matter how much clay I scoop, I can't hide everything.
3.-- My things: dirty 200 thread count Ralph Lauren linens, Polo shirts, Tommy Hilfiger slacks, Brooks Brothers silk ties, the Motorola cell phone, a Coach bag, three abdominal workout videos; his things: paint-stained Champion sweatshirt, a pair of deck shoes, the album of photos from his trip to Tuscany, ticket stubs from the Lyric, Goodman, and Steppenwolf, a box of old pornos, Newsweeks, and Utne Readers, stack after stack of index card notes for his dissertation, the books on Kabbalah and Jewish mysticism stolen from the University of Chicago library, empty prescription bottles, the clarinet that he swore he'd start playing again after grad school but never did, a program from a Cubs game, the tattered copy of Why Bad Things Happen to Good People, a Halsted Street Market Days poster, essays his students wrote that were never picked up at the end of the semester, his collection of stupid hats (the enormous sombrero, the pith helmet, deerstalker cap, Canadian Mounties hat), his diplomas, an outdated globe, a broken boombox, an antique patchwork quilt, a screwdriver set.
4.-- I first started having the casket dream when Nathan was home from the hospital incontinent -- shitting and pissing himself in his sleep. But, the dream seems beyond time now.
there are nights when I forget the noise of the television, my numbness, and my
mind wanders back to sift through the layers of shit. Now, the faint edges of
it all are clearer -- our meeting, our relationship, Nathan's diagnosis -- and
the pieces fit together.
He hated me at first, is what he'd told me later. Hated the way I worked a bar -- my "stand and model" poses, the hardness of my eyes, my silence and distance -- he said I only talked with people who I thought were beautiful enough for me. Most of all, Nathan hated me because he went back to his apartment and changed his clothes to impress me, hating that that was what it took for me to notice him. Still, we went to my place and fucked. There was no intimacy. It was completely detached. Bodies moving over bodies, one part touching another.
The next morning, while we curled and spooned, his hand massaging my arm, he asked, "What did you dream last night?" His voice was slow, easy, his breath warm on my back.
"I don't dream." I tugged the comforter to my shoulder.
"Everyone dreams, Dave. We'd eventually die if we didn't. Rapid eye movement."
"I don't remember my dreams." I wanted to end the conversation, go back to sleep, but he didn't. He wanted to talk. "Whadjoo dream?" I mumbled, burrowing my ear and mouth into the pillow.
"Your typical performance anxiety dream. I was naked in the synagogue and my rabbi asked me to read from The Torah, only when I picked up the scroll there was no writing on it. It was just a giant, blank white roll." I rolled over, watched him laugh. He smiled, eyes half-closed the way they always were when he was nervous. They twinkled under heavy lids.
"Well, did you pass?"
"What do you think?" I asked and pulled him up against me.
Before our first conversation, I'd never considered the importance of dreams. Like everything else without a tangible form, they came hard to me, so I saw them as Nathan's domain -- which is probably why I never told him about the casket dream when I started having it.
I remember the parting shots of one of our fights:
Him: If you don't dream, I don't see how you can love.
Me: I don't see much fucking point in either.
5.-- It wasn't long before he moved in with me. He didn't have much stuff, a suitcase and a few boxes. I joked with him, asking him if he was embarrassed that his entire thirty years on this planet could be packed into three boxes and some Samsonite luggage. "Centuries from now, when our relationship is a famous love story," I kidded, "the archaeologists are gonna be pissed you didn't leave more for them to unearth."
It pissed him off. "You can take care of the archaeology of objects, Dave," his voice dripped with sarcasm, "and I'll be in charge of the archaeology of emotions."
6.-- Of course, Nathan had me pegged. I do better with objects than emotions. Maybe that's what this list is for.
Still, things weren't bad. They weren't great either. I don't want to say that we weren't in love -- whatever that means -- we were. We had our nesting period -- weekends and nights spent together, locked up in my apartment watching videos, reading the Sunday papers, all of our meals delivered. For a few months it was a nonstop honeymoon, but when the bliss wore off, we stopped being a couple and we started to relate to each other as people, which meant no longer overlooking each other's annoying idiosyncrasies. Dealing with units is easy. Units are static. They have designated functions. People don't. They change and it was Nathan's dynamics that scared me. And when they changed, I ran. For some reason, even when things were at their worst, when it would have been easiest to leave Nathan, I didn't. I didn't run, abandon him. Instead, I hid -- shutting it him out in phone sex lines and bathhouses -- Man's Country and the Unicorn -- fucking until I'd forgotten the problem, then I'd go back to the apartment.
Like it matters. I say it like it does, but that's what I'm trying to convince myself, that all the little things that I didn't do, matter as much as the big things I did. It's not true, but it's the lie that keep me going. Covering up the truth and ignoring how I treated him, keeps me alive. Just like the dream.
Even though he knew I was cheating on him, he never said anything, never threw it in my face during a fight. Christ, I make him sound like a saint. He wasn't.
The dead have it easy. They don't have to justify anything.
7.-- He kept the first lesion hidden for a long time. I was pissed he did. It was on his ankle, buried under a layer of thick wool socks, until he and his doctor were sure. Supposedly, he never said anything because he was afraid I'd leave.
We were in the bedroom, he was sitting at the end of the bed, putting on a pair of shoes, I was at the ironing table near the window with my back to him. Something was wrong and we weren't speaking to each other. Not that there'd been a fight or anything. Just a dry spell in the relationship -- the kind that came after the novelty of each other's bodies, lives, and conversations wore off.
"We have to talk." His voice was serious, the same voice he had when reading Job.
I didn't look at him. Whatever it was, I didn't want to get into it. Looking at him, I sensed what would happen. He'd bitch about something I'd done, some slight, insignificant transgression, demand an apology, and not getting it, he'd sulk. I kept ironing my slacks and stared out the window, ignoring him.
"Dave, we need to talk."
I shrugged my shoulders. Outside, a really buff guy was walking a German Shepherd on the sidewalk. We flirted with me through the window; the two of us playing eye tag.
"Jesus H. Christ, Nate, what?" My face hot, I felt the little muscles around my nose tremble. I was pissed he was pulling me away from the window. "What's so fucking important?"
His face was pinched, hard. He didn't say anything. Nathan struggled to hold back tears. He bent over, pulled up his pant leg and tugged his sock down. The Kaposis' sarcoma lesion was three inches long, starting at the ankle and curving toward the calf. He started crying.
"Oh, Christ, Nathan, stop overreacting. It's just a bruise."
Nathan shook his head and curled his leg up to his chest.
"Yes it is, it's just a bruise, Nathan." I knew it wasn't, but I couldn't have it being what it was. None of us can, not any of us. We keep it hidden, locked away in studios and one bedrooms on Halsted, or we send it home to the families in the burbs, the South, wherever, just to push it away. We cover it up and go to the clubs, baths, bars, the Belmont Rocks to cruise the gym fascists, the Tommy and Ralph clones, the club kids, the nipple ponies. We fuck and suck and act like everything's alright, because we think it's our right for having kept our desire buried for so long, and now it's okay to bury reality. I can say it now. I couldn't then. Hell, I wouldn't have listened.
I held Nathan for a long time, rocking him in my arms until he fell asleep, and then tucked him into bed. When he was asleep, safely dreaming, I felt my body crawl everywhere he'd touched me. It felt dirty, unclean. I frantically stripped out of my clothes, hopped into a scalding shower, scrubbing and scrubbing my flesh raw -- trying to scrape him from me. I turned the shower off, got dressed and left for the Unicorn. Nathan could sleep and die, wither away and vanish in bed, but I'd be damned if I'd let that happen to me. I wanted to fuck. I wanted bodies, objects. Hard, perfect, healthy bodies -- rock-hard nipples, beautiful pecs, a nice cantaloupe ass -- I didn't want a human being at all.
8.-- The doctors could biopsy the lesions, they could give him pills to increase his appetite, help him sleep dreamlessly, monitor his T-cell count, combat the side effects of the AZT, operate on his eyes to save his vision, implant the catheter after the veins in his arms collapsed, but they couldn't do anything to stop the suffering. Not his. Mine.
You eventually become dead to it. At least I did. Nathan was in the hospital the first time I understood him. By then everything was so unreal, so dream-like. He was pretty far gone. Coma. He'd become the things around him, a series of tubes -- fluids in-out, scribbling on a medical chart, filthy bed sheets, the wheezing, drowning noises from his chest, the chemotherapy pills, the respirator. He was a shell, a husk and that's when I saw him for the first time. As an object -- a thing that could be dosed, graphed, and regulated-- something beyond himself -- he was safe for me to try and understand. I played his favorite tapes for him, read him Job ("Now there was a day when the sons of God came to present themselves before the Lord, and Satan came also among them."), told what I'd done that day, how his colleagues missed him, described the flowers he'd been sent, tried to surround him with everything I knew was a part of who he was. It was the first time my one-sided conversations with him had any weight. In the hospital, everything about us came easy, but when they released him, everything became too real again.
9.-- The first time I had the dream: I bolted up in the bed, half-awake, the heavy shit-like feel of wet clay still clinging to my hands and a tremendous shame still gnawing at me. Guilt at what I'd been doing. The bed sheets were drenched -- clammy, sticky, the imagined smell of ammonia shrouding me. Nate, I figured, had probably soiled everything and the conscious hell of his illness had intruded in on my sleep. I rolled over -- pissed that I'd have to change the sheets, his pajamas, see his thin, shamed face as I wiped him clean (apologizing, saying how sorry he was and me wanting him to fucking shut up so we could ignore it) -- and his side of the bed was empty. I panicked. The dream flooded back and I was sure that he'd been in the casket, that I'd buried him with my filth.
"Nathan!" I shouted kicking my way from underneath the covers and searched the bedroom. No answer. "Nathan!"
I wasn't sure if I should be looking for him or for the coffin where I'd buried him. He was in the living room, curled up on the sofa asleep, his medication in a row on the coffee table. I shook him and he smacked his lips, blinked his eyes, complaining I'd woke him again. I'd been kicking too much in bed and he couldn't sleep, he said, so he crashed on the sofa.
We kissed and he rolled over and went back to sleep. I went back to the bedroom, pulled the sweaty sheets off the bed, stuffed them in the closet, and collapsed on the stripped mattress. I don't know how long I concentrated on the rise and fall of my chest and its slow return to normalcy, before I fell asleep.
10.-- When Nathan's dementia was so severe he couldn't recognize anything and everything about him was buried under a viral cloud -- his body thin, lesions bold on ashen skin, blind eyes roaming aimlessly, lips chapped and cracking -- I remembered something he'd said a couple of days before he showed me his first lesion.
He'd been at the kitchen table, reading glasses hanging from the tip of his nose, pencil in hand, scanning a stack of student term papers for his class on the Old Testament. I set a few bags of groceries on the floor, popped open the fridge, pushed in a gallon of milk, and unpacked the rest of the bags. He grabbed hold of my leg.
He smiled, didn't answer. I put a few cans of soup into the cabinet. When I turned around, Nathan was still looking at me -- not really looking at me, staring off into space. His face was troubled, tiny creases around his lips, his eyes heavy.
He shook his head slowly like he'd been awakened from a revelry, smoothed his hand over his mouth and then scratched his head.
"About The Book of Job. I just realized that we never know how Job's suffering affects his family."
"Didn't you tell me that a lot of them died?" I stepped behind him, massaged his shoulders.
"Yes, but what about Job's wife? I mean, I just realized how easy Job had it. He'd had everything taken from him except for his faith. But what about his wife?"
"So? It's just a story. I mean, what does it matter?"
"I don't know. It just does, okay?" Nathan dropped his pencil and reading glasses onto the table and left the kitchen.
I figured the moodiness was end-of-the-term stress and let it go at that. Later, after he'd been released from the hospital, and the two of us were alone in the apartment, I understood what he'd been trying to say. He'd be in the bedroom (by then the home care nurses had converted it just for him) and I'd be on the living room couch, listening to him wail, his senseless shouting in a voice tortured beyond an endurable point. Eventually, it got so bad that I couldn't take it. I left. I climbed into a pair of jeans, pulled on my shoes and a t-shirt and left the apartment.
I guess what I want to know is the same question Nathan asked; where was Job's wife through it all?
11.-- I was there when he died. It isn't like they tell you it is. The moment he died was one of the most comfortable we shared. It's also the one I can't remember as well as the rest. I know how he shaved, how he tied his shoes, how he opened a door, shook someone's hand, how he set the dinner table, how he did laundry, but I don't how he died.
12.-- I still have the dream -- the clay caught under my fingernails, my hands smeared and filthy, the tension swelling in my chest pushing against my heart, my heart tight with anxiety, sweating -- and in the dream I still can't see what I'm burying, but when I'm awake, I think I know. I think I've known all along.
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