Times are getting tough for a loud, proud, Jewish fag hag like moi. My friends are dropping like fruit flies, as Fane used to say. Yes, used to say, for my beloved Fane has left us all in the dust for that Great Back Room in the sky.
Fane. I first met him a year before his untimely demise at an open poetry reading held at Queers-R-Us, our local coffee shop/hangout/pick up joint. Ours is a small community where everyone knows everyone (and more than likely has slept with everyone) so I noticed him right away. His hair fell to his shoulders in thick black ringlets not unlike my own (later we found out we'd both gone through a "Jew-fro" stage at the exact same time). He was wearing perfectly pressed black jeans (which he admitted, when asked, were dry cleaned), cowboy boots, and a black T-shirt that said, "I Survived The Bronx." Being a born and bred Brooklyn girl who has never been short on chutzpah, I promptly introduced myself.
"I'm Missy," I said, extending my hand.
"Fane," he replied shaking it, which inspired me to slide the top of my jersey off my shoulder in a "Flashdance" sort of way and burst into song: "Fane! You're gonna live forever. You're gonna learn how to fly." Fane laughed, a deep, scratchy, throaty, big-enough-to-live-in laugh, and I was, as they say, smitten from day one.
"Sit, sit, tateleh, I'll buy you a cawfee," I said in my best Brooklynese, but Fane had other plans. One of the poets, a tall, dark handsome lad built like Michaelangelo's David, was the sole reason Fane had just sat through three hours of Allen Ginsberg wanna-bes, so if anyone was going to have the pleasure of his company for the rest of the evening, it certainly wasn't going to be me.
"I'll cawl you," Fane promised, matching my New Yawk accent vowel for vowel. He wrote my number on a napkin, stuffed it into his back pocket and went off to pursue the stud of his dreams. I didn't really mind though. I was sure Fane would call, and he did, the very next day. "I'll take that cup of coffee now," he said in a weary voice that let me know he'd been up the better part of the night and could really use it.
"C'mon over," I said, putting some water up to boil. Fane arrived in a T-shirt that said, "Start Your Day With Me," and asked for a grand tour of the house. I showed him my meager digs: a small living room, kitchen and tiny bedroom.
"Is this the closet?" he asked, opening the door without waiting for my reply. He took a step inside and started moving my clothes down their rack like a housewife at Macy's Close Out, looking for the ultimate sale. "Nope, nope, unh-unh, no...." He moved my blouses, pants and the occasional skirt aside until his eyes lit up. "Now this is perfect," he said, lifting up a silver lamé mini-dress I bought on a whim and hardly ever wore.
"Wait, it has matching mules." I dug through my Imelda Marcos-sized shoe collection until I found the three inch heels.
"Excellent." Fane oohed and aahed over the shoes, holding them up to the light for closer inspection. "Are they comfortable?"
"I've never worn them..." I paused dramatically, "...standing up anyway."
Fane took a step back as his hand flew up to his heart. "My dear," he said in a false British accent, "you absolutely shock me."
I rolled my eyes. "Oh c'mon, Fane. You know how those butches are."
"I know no such thing. Anyway, I didn't peg you for such a femme."
"I didn't say I was a femme."
Fane studied me. "Well, you're certainly not what I'd call a butch."
"I'm what's known as a hard top convertible," I said, which made Fane laugh out loud. He balanced one silver shoe on the flat of his hand and asked, "Can you walk in these?"
"Sure, why? You want to borrow them?"
Again Fane feigned shock. "I don't want to wear them, Missy. I want you to wear them...." this time Fane paused dramatically, "...to my funeral." And that's how I found out Fane had AIDS. He had left New York City for our small seaside town because he was looking for a quiet place to live. And a quiet place to die.
Fane and I became fast friends, or--you should pardon the expression--buddies. It was one of those friendships where you meet someone and immediately feel like you've known them forever. Or maybe our friendship fast-forwarded so quickly and so deeply because Fane knew he didn't have a lot of time left (hence his favorite T-shirt, "I'm Looking for Mr. Right Away"). In any event, Fane and I started hanging out on a daily basis. I had recently joined the ranks of the gainfully unemployed, and Fane had taken early retirement. So, what do two queers do with so much time on their hands? They rent movies, of course. Fane and I were both total film buffs; in fact, when asked, I told people I was using my unemployment to write a screen play, thus our daily screenings could be written off as "research."
Perhaps Fane and I bonded so well because we had both spent most of our respective childhoods in darkened movie theaters eating stale popcorn and lusting after the stars we saw in front of us on the silver screen. We both agreed "Dr. Zhivago" was our all time favorite movie; Fane had a major crush on Omar Sharif while I had it bad for Julie Christie. We'd both had our first sexual encounters while watching a movie: Fane got beat off by someone his father's age while watching, "The Man Who Knew Too Much," and I, believe it or not, had actually fallen for the popcorn trick while watching "Love Story." For those of you who don't know about the popcorn trick (Fane didn't) it's when a guy cuts a hole in the bottom of his popcorn bucket and sticks his penis inside. Then when his date reaches in for a handful of corn, she comes up instead with a handful of dick.
"I'll have to try it sometime," Fane said when I explained it to him.
"Just don't try it with me," I said, like Fane ever would. We were sitting on his leather couch as we did every morning, having already drunk an entire pot of coffee Fane brewed with cinnamon sprinkled over the grounds. Today's film was "Hush Hush Sweet Charlotte." Fane opened the bag of chocolates that lay between us and was usually devoured before the opening credits stopped rolling, and started happily munching away. Fane made no apologies for his bad habits: he smoked like a chimney, ate chocolate by the pound ("I like it like I like my men: dark, hard and bittersweet.") and drank Jack Daniels with dinner every night, not enough to get drunk, just enough to take the edge off and help him fall asleep.
After the movie, we took our usual walk into town for a leisurely lunch and stroll by the water. Fane led the way to the breakwater and climbed carefully over the rocks. "Have I told you this is where I want my ashes scattered?" he asked, one hand held up to shield his eyes from the sun glinting off the sea.
"Only a million times, Fane."
"And have I told you I want you to sing, "Where Have All the Faggots Gone?" at my memorial?"
"And have I told you--"
"What a control queen I am?" I cut in to finish his sentence.
"And damn proud of it." Fane chuckled until his laugh turned into a cough which turned into a wheeze, which turned into a gasp, which finally, after a scary moment, turned into steady, shallow breathing once again. After Fane caught his breath, we slowly made our way back to his place so he could nap and I could read a book or just watch him sleep. I loved being in Fane's house; he was an art collector and the walls of his apartment were covered with paintings and drawings, all beautifully framed. My favorite piece of his didn't hang on the wall though. It sat on Fane's mantle: a shiny green, ceramic high-heeled shoe used as a candy dish that had once belonged to his grandmother. "It's so I always remember the little Jewish Princess inside me," Fane said, waiting to see if I'd take offense.
"It takes one to know one," was my politically incorrect reply.
I asked Fane about his grandmother, and he told me she was the only one in his family that had really, truly loved him, but she was long gone, as was his mother, both victims of breast cancer. And his father? "The old geezer isn't exactly proud of his faygeleh son," Fane said, lighting up a cigarette. "I haven't even seen him since my mother's funeral, and that was over fifteen years ago. My father's new wife, the Wicked Bitch of the Bronx," Fane exhaled with a vengeance, "is much younger than my old man, and she doesn't want her two sons to know about their fairy step-brother. And my father, the world's most henpecked husband, can't stand up to her. Ach, the hell with them, it's their loss, right?" Fane stabbed his cigarette out in a Mr. Peanut ashtray, even though he hadn't even smoked it halfway through.
Clearly Fane was done with the conversation, but I wasn't. "Does your father know you're sick?" I asked.
"He doesn't even know I'm alive." Fane snorted, and then started choking on some phlegm. I didn't want to upset him further, so I dropped the subject, and didn't bring it up again.
Besides being tired and having that awful cough, for a long time, Fane showed no overt signs of having AIDS. We didn't talk about his illness much, but it was always with us. I remember one day in particular when we were having Sunday brunch with a trick of his named James and a friend of mine named Hal. Hal had a splitting headache, James was all stuffed up with allergies, and I was doubled over with menstrual cramps.
"And how are you?" someone finally thought to ask Fane.
He waved his hand as if to brush away the question. "Besides having a fatal disease," he shrugged, "I'm fine."
"AIDS is not a fatal disease," James reminded Fane between sneezes.
"Tell it to my T-cells," Fane said. "All three of them."
"What about the new cocktails?" Hal asked.
"Cocktails, shmocktails. I tried them, remember?" We all did remember, because it would be hard to forget how sick Fane had gotten on the new drugs, which seemed to work for every other person on the planet except him. Almost everyday as we sauntered through town, Fane and I would see someone who had been at death's door the month, the week, the day before, and now, not only were they fine, they looked better than they had even before they'd gotten sick. Fane, on the other hand, was the exception who proved the rule. He had been much, much sicker on the drugs than off them, with stomach aches, cramps, and worst of all, nonstop diarrhea. His doctors had had him try several different combinations but nothing worked except going off meds completely. As soon as the drugs were out of Fane's system, he felt one hundred percent better. But only for a little while. Then his downhill slide began.
A few months before he died, Fane started giving away his clothes. Always on the thin side, he now made Kate Moss look fat as Divine. "Here, take this." He handed me a gorgeous cashmere cardigan the color of cranberry juice right after we'd finished watching Susan Hayward in (and I kid you not) "I Want to Live!".
"Too big?" I asked, holding the sweater up to my shoulders.
"No," Fane answered. "It clashes with my lesions."
And so it began. First Fane went blind (very "Wait Until Dark") and then he went bald (very "Scent of a Woman"). Despite all the outward signs, I was taking a Scarlett O'Hara approach to the whole thing. "I'll think about it tomorrow," I told my reflection in the bathroom mirror every morning before I went off to Fane's. I was still holding onto my denial, even when Fane's ex-lover Rudy moved up from New Jersey to live with him so he wouldn't have to go to a hospice. I was hurt that Fane hadn't asked me to be his roommate and when I told him so, he just smiled and started singing that old Dinah Shore hit, "It's So Nice to Have a Man Around the House."
"But Fane," I broke in mid-chorus. "I'm unemployed. How can Rudy take that much time off from work?"
Fane's reply shocked me. "Missy dear," he said, "It's not going to be that much time."
Still, I ignored the writing on the wall and held my chins and my hopes up, but both were dashed one afternoon when out of the blue, Fane uttered three little words: "Call my father."
"Your father?" I couldn't have been more surprised if Fane had asked me to call the man on the moon.
"I want to see him, well not see him." It was like Fane was reminding us both that he was blind. "It would be nice if he came before I died."
"Okay." I picked up the receiver and dialed. Fane immediately closed his eyes and fell asleep, or pretended to. Either way, I was on my own.
"Mr. Oppenheimer?" I asked, even though I knew it was Fane's father. It had to be; his voice sounded just like his son's. "I'm a friend of Fane's, and I'm calling because...."
"Who is it, Harold?" I could hear Mr. Oppenheimer's wife yelling in the background. "Just hang up if it's a solicitor. Don't tell them anything...."
"Who is this?" Fane's father asked.
"My name is Missy, and Fane asked me to call you because he's sick."
"How sick?" Mr. Oppenheimer's voice dropped to a whisper, like a kid who didn't want his mother to know he was on the phone.
"Sick enough for him to ask me to call you," I said, not knowing any other way to make my point. "He'd like you to come."
"As soon as you can."
"I'm really busy at the office right now," Mr. Oppenheimer said a little too quickly. "Maybe I'll make it out there in a few weeks."
"He may not have a few weeks," I said, choking on the words I had resisted saying for so long. "Look, here's the number. Why don't you call when you can fit your only offspring into your busy schedule?" Without waiting for an answer, I hung up.
Fane immediately opened his eyes. "Is he coming?"
I relayed our conversation.
"Pussywhipped prick," he muttered before closing his eyes again.
Mr. Oppenheimer didn't call back that week and I was afraid we were running out of time. Everyone else came to visit: Fane's friends from New York, the Dean of the college where he had taught, even his ex-wife, Prudence. Rudy and I didn't let anyone stay too long, as even a half hour visit tired Fane out. Ever the gracious host, he would never admit that his guests were a drain. He just held court from the hospital bed we had dragged up into the living room, barking orders to whoever was closest at hand. "Get Martin a pillow for his chair, he has a bad back. Bring Bethany a Seven-Up, she likes it straight up, no ice." Fane needed to show all of us he was still in command, and I, for one, needed to believe it was so. For as long as I possibly could.
Fane was getting weaker by the day, so I called his father again. "Look, he's your son," I said to Mr. Oppenheimer, as if I was telling him something he didn't already know. "Can't you honor your own son's dying wish by coming to see him?" I even played the Jewish trump card: guilt. "Mr. Oppenheimer," I said, "how are you going to feel if you never see Fane again? Are you really going to be able to live with that?"
"He's the one who should have thought of that a long time ago," Fane's father said, "before he started living a ho-mo-sex-u-al lifestyle." Mr. Oppenheimer stretched out the word to make sure I knew what it meant. "This is all Fane's fault. He made his bed and now he's lying in it."
No, Daddy Dearest, I wanted to say. I made his bed and now he's dying in it. But I doubted Mr. Oppenheimer would appreciate the gallows humor at this point, so I just hung up and went in to tell Fane what had happened. But when I saw, despite everything, the look of hope on his face, I just couldn't do it. "I got a busy signal," I lied, not having the heart, or perhaps the guts to tell Fane what his father had said. "I'll try again later," I added, but I doubt Fane believed my ruse.
It didn't much matter anyway, because the next day Fane took a turn for the worse and the end really began. First he stopped eating, except for the bits of chocolate I'd hold up to his mouth for him to lick like a lollipop. Then he stopped smoking, which was really distressing to me. Fane and I had fought bitterly about his cigarettes; I never let him smoke in my house so even when he was well enough to go out, he hardly ever came over. When he first became bedridden, I had to hide his matches so he wouldn't fall asleep with a lit cigarette and burn down the house. Now he was too weak to smoke, yet his lips pursed and his cheeks sucked in as if he was inhaling, even in his sleep. And half the time it was hard to tell whether Fane was asleep or awake because mostly what he did was lie motionless in bed with his eyes closed. Once, when I was sitting by his side, he asked me if I was waiting for the D train, and I knew he wasn't asleep or awake: he was in another world, waiting for the subway in the Bronx. I tried not to show him how panicked I was. "Fane," I said calmly. "You're not in New York. You're on the Cape in your apartment." But he didn't believe me, and besides, I realized that wherever he thought he was had to be a whole lot better than where he actually was, so I joined him there. "God, Fane," I said, "do you think this train will ever come?"
"Whenever it'll come, it'll come. I'm not in such a big hurry to get where I'm going," was his somber, startling reply.
Sometimes, just for old times sake, I'd put a movie into the VCR so Fane could at least listen to the soundtrack, but he wasn't really interested anymore. Nor was he much for conversation, so mostly I just sat with him and massaged his dry skin with almond-scented moisture cream. "You have such soft hands," I said to Fane after rubbing them awhile.
"You have such a soft heart," he replied. It was the last thing he ever said to me, because the next morning he lost the ability to speak.
Rudy and I became very protective of Fane after that. We decided his days of entertaining were over. People still dropped by constantly, bringing bags of food Fane could no longer eat, and though they would never admit it, some of Fane's friends seemed relieved when I told them he no longer had the strength for company. They stayed around anyway, and soon Fane's kitchen became the hottest new hangout in town.
"Did Fane ever tell you about the time he baked a batch of pot brownies for the faculty Christmas party?" one of his colleagues asked the crowd sitting around Fane's kitchen table.
"I think that was the year he dressed up as a nun," a former boyfriend added.
"What was his name, Our Mother of the Perpetual Hard On?" a recent trick asked.
"He was always the life of the party," another colleague remarked.
"Was?" I hissed through clenched teeth. "Was? He isn't dead yet, you know."
"Sheesh, what's with her?" Everybody looked at me like I had gone mad, which I had.
"I think all of you better clear out," I said, and I sure didn't have to ask them twice. And if they thought I was nothing but a big party pooper, who cared? I just couldn't stand sitting around Fane's kitchen table, telling stories about him and laughing, when he lay upstairs in the living room dying, so near, and yet so very far.
The last night of Fane's life, Rudy and I were downstairs in the kitchen eating a late supper of cold Kentucky Fried Chicken someone had dropped over earlier. It was a crisp August night, with just the right amount of chill in the air, and the sky was covered with stars.
"Listen to the wind." Rudy looked up from the drumstick he was gnawing on and cocked his head to the side. "It just came up out of nowhere. Weird. It sounds like a ghost."
"It's spooky," I agreed, midchomp. Then we looked at each other in horror, realizing at the same time it wasn't the wind at all. It was Fane. We dashed up to the living room and there was Fane, sitting up in bed for the first time in over a month. His eyes were wide with terror, and sounds were coming out of his mouth I had never heard from a human being before.
"Fane, it's Rudy. I'm here, baby. Lie down." Rudy tried to lower Fane back onto the bed but he was too agitated to relax.
"I'll call the nurse." I ran for the phone and speed dialed hospice. After I explained to the nurse what was going on, she explained to me what was going on: "Fane's body and spirit are battling it out now," she said in a voice filled with kindness. "There's nothing you can do but witness his struggle."
"Isn't there anything to make him more comfortable?" I asked.
"You have morphine there, right? Give him eight drops under the tongue now, and eight more in half an hour. That should calm him down."
I told Rudy what to do and together we got the drugs into Fane, but they didn't do any good. He continued to moan and groan and pant and sweat like he was about to give birth or come or both. Well what did you expect, I asked myself as I ran to get a cold washcloth to soothe his sweaty head. Did you really think Fane would look at you, take one last breath and fade away like Margaret O'Brien playing Beth in "Little Women?" Fane was not ready to die and did not want to die. And though we didn't want him to go either, we made ourselves tell him it was time to let go.
"C'mon, Fane," Rudy said. "You don't have to put up a fight anymore. We know how brave you are. You can go."
"It's okay, Fane," I tried to sound like I believed it. "We'll be all right without you. Just relax and give in to it. Let go."
"No!" Fane roared once, between gasps for breath. Rudy and I could barely look at each other, we were so ashamed of betraying Fane like that. But what else could we do? Nothing except wait for Rudy's watch to beep, telling us it was time to give Fane morphine again. I filled the eyedropper and Rudy brought it up to Fane's mouth. Another fifteen minutes went by before Fane's breathing slowed and he lay back down on the bed. I thought he had stopped breathing altogether, but after about half a minute, he drew in another raspy breath: the death rattle. Rudy and I kept talking to Fane, since we had both been told that hearing was the last sense to go. Another twenty minutes went by and then Fane took in one final breath, exhaled noisily through his open mouth and was still.
"He's gone," Rudy said. "Bye, Fane."
"Bye, Fane," I echoed and then out of nowhere I began to chant ancient Hebrew words I thought I had forgotten long ago. "Sh'ma, Yisroel. Adonoy Elohanu. Adonoy Echad." Rudy looked at me surprised: we both knew Fane hadn't set foot inside a synagogue in over thirty years, since his Bar Mitzvah. I shrugged. "Just in case," I said. "And besides, it couldn't hurt."
The next day there was lots to do. We dressed Fane in his "Nobody Knows I'm a Fairy" T-shirt so the undertaker could take him away. We filled out endless forms, got rid of tons of meds, and called hundreds of people, including Fane's father. "Don't you think he'd want to know?" I asked Rudy.
"Whatever," he said with a shrug. And I suppose he was right: Fane's father didn't want to know from his son when he was alive; why should he care that he was dead? But I knew Fane would want me to make the call, so I picked up the phone. This time a female voice answered.
"Is Mr. Oppenheimer there?" I asked.
"Who's calling please?"
"It's Missy. I'm a friend of Fane's."
"Oh my God! Harold, Harold!" Fane's stepmother was immediately hysterical. "Harold, come to the phone right now. Harold!"
"What's the matter, Phyllis?" I heard Mr. Oppenheimer say as he picked up the phone. "Who is this?"
"It's Missy. Fane's dead." I have to admit, I did get a little perverse sense of satisfaction at being the one to deliver the news.
"Fane? Vey iss mir, Gottinyu, my boy. My son."
Sure, I thought. Now that Fane's dead, Mr. Oppenheimer could once more claim him as his own. "When did he die? Last night? Why did you wait so long to call us? Why didn't you tell me he was so sick?"
Take three guesses, I want to say, but even I could not be that cruel. "It happened very fast," I said, even though last night had been the longest twelve hours of my life. "I'll let you know about the funeral."
We didn't really have a funeral for Fane. Rudy waited around until his ashes arrived and then we walked out to the breakwater and scattered them over the sea. Two weeks later we did have a memorial and as Fane had hoped, it was the social event of the season. The place was packed to the gills with boys: boys in dog collars and leather chaps; boys in tight muscle tees with tattoos strewn across their forearms; boys in faded jeans and baseball caps, dark sunglasses hiding their red-rimmed eyes. It was Fag Hag Heaven, and I played it to the hilt in my silver lamé.
"Did Fane pick out your outfit?" more than one boy asked.
"But of course." I pivoted on my stilettos and walked away so they could admire the way the shoes hit my heels with sensational slaps. The overall mood was strangely festive, like it was all one big party, which it would have been if the guest of honor had graced us with his presence. But he did not, despite his ex-wife's insistence that she could feel his spirit hovering by her side.
When everyone was done shmoozing and cruising, the formalities began. Rudy, back from New Jersey for the occasion, played Master of Ceremonies. He started things off by reading us a letter he had written to Fane, telling him how much he loved him, and by the time he was done there wasn't a dry eye left in the house. Then James, who had shaved his head in mourning, took the stage and told us we must not remain silent; rather it was our responsibility, whenever a gay man died, to make a really loud noise. Then he took a deep breath and let out a wail that made my blood run cold. Fane's ex-wife was next. Though they married as teenagers and were only together for a few years, she said Fane was the only man she had ever really loved.
"Oh, get a life," Rudy murmured. I poked him in the ribs and told him to keep quiet. Then it was open season on Fane. His students told us what a wonderful teacher he had been, his colleagues told us what a wonderful scholar he had been, his boyfriends told us what a wonderful lover he had been. Then I stepped up to the podium.
"I have a letter to read," I unfolded a piece of paper, "from Fane's father." There was an audible, collective gasp from Fane's mourners, and then a loud shushing as everyone told everyone else to keep still.
"Dear Missy," I began. "Thank you for telling me about Fane's death and for inviting me to his memorial. Fane and I did not have an easy relationship as you know; we disagreed about many, many things. Still, he was my son, and I did love him in my own way. I am not a bad man, despite what you may think. Perhaps, if anything, I was a bad father. In any event, I want to thank you, and all the people who took care of Fane for me. I'm sure it wasn't easy. Fane was not an easy person. But I'm grateful he did not die alone. Sincerely, Mr. Harold E. Oppenheimer (Fane's father)."
"Heavy," someone muttered from the front row.
"What an asshole," someone else mumbled. Then everyone was talking at once and Rudy had to scream into the microphone that we were serving light refreshments back at Fane's apartment and everyone was invited.
It was strange being back at Fane's house; I hadn't been there since the day after he died. The hospital bed was gone and Rudy had tagged all the artwork according to the will Fane had left behind. People tried not to seem too excited as they scanned Fane's paintings to see which ones they had inherited, but every once in a while I'd hear an enthusiastic "All right!" burst through the air. There was nothing on the wall with my name on it, but then I had a hunch, and sure enough, there on the mantle was the green ceramic shoe that Fane's grandmother had given him which, according to the Post-it on its heel, now belonged to me. I took it home, filled it with candy, and placed it on my kitchen table. Every day I take a few minutes to look at it and remember the good news: Fane no longer has AIDS. And then I pop a piece of chocolate into my mouth: so dark, so hard, so bittersweet.
(for Victor Fane D'Lugin 1945-1996)