heard about Vince long before I'd met him. Peter knew him from the waiting room
at the radiation clinic.
kind of a punk rocker type with a bad attitude, but he's kind of funny too. He
always makes cynical remarks in the waiting room, like 'I don't want some idiotic
funeral; I want them to throw me in a ditch by the side of the road when I die,'
or 'what do you give yourself, Peter -- a week; two weeks?' It's funny, but it
bums me out because he's the only other young guy there and I think he should
have a better attitude. He just gets sarcastic when I tell him he can get better.
The only reason I even got to know him was that he was asking everyone for a dollar
the first time I went there. They were all saying 'no' and I just felt like we
were all in this thing together ...so of course I'd give him a dollar -- I've
given him three dollars now."
does he need a dollar for all the time?"
takes the bus." And Peter shook his head. "Can you believe it? Nobody
comes with him, ever. He lives in some residential hotel downtown and takes a
bus to the hospital for radiation. He's totally depressed and broke; on welfare
I guess. But he's smart. He's got a lot going for him if he'd just realize it.
I think you'd like him -- he kind of reminds me of you."
that supposed to mean?" I asked defensively.
offense, I only meant the 'smart' part." It was a politic answer. I knew
Peter saw a parallel in our negative attitudes, and I suppose, the kind of questioning,
sarcastic, or just plain cynical intelligence that was at the root of my potential
or my demise -- it was still too soon to tell, being that I was only 21. "Maybe
you'll come with me sometime and you can meet him," he offered.
we'd walked into the waiting room the next week, he was the first person I saw.
He looked right at me -- or through me -- and my throat filled up. I'd more or
less put him out of my mind after Peter'd mentioned him the week before, and since
the topic of him hadn't come up on the ride over, I was caught off guard. I looked
away; I looked back. It was odd the way he stared at me, and how I stared back.
It seemed almost as if we knew each other already, even recognized each other
but couldn't figure out where from; as if we'd been looking for one another for
a long time. I wanted to turn to Peter and say, "That's him!" but that
was actually Peter's line, and he delivered it without the exclamation.
was tall and thin with dark brown almond-shaped eyes over a slightly turned-up
nose. He had black, dense eyebrows, offset by his hair, which was dyed a vivid
flaming orange and cut short. On his neck, just under his left ear, was an elaborate
and expressive tattoo, a sort of cross between a spider's web and Chinese calligraphy
-- and as such it had the quality of both repelling you and attracting you at
the same time. He had on a pair of badly-stained, too-short khakis which revealed
his mismatched socks and his ratty old converse sneakers. He wore a white t-shirt
with big black letters that said, "What Would Satan Do?" An arresting
intelligence peered out of his eyes and he had an almost invasive awareness about
him, like he knew more about you than he should. I felt suddenly naked. I wanted
to stare back at him, but feared I'd either blush crimson or get swallowed whole.
I knew I wanted to know him; wanted him to be my friend in the greedy way a child
wants someone they admire to be their friend.
suspected he was queer from the minute I saw him. He likely guessed the same about
me. Queers always recognize one another, but with Vince, it was a kind of recognition
beyond even that -- right down to the cellular level. I hesitated in the doorway
momentarily, and then, taking a deep breath, I entered the room. Vince, forever
I realized that Peter's cancer had blown the lid off my repressed sexuality along
with everything else. And here stands Vince in the clearing smoke. The drillbit
of his eyes; the fire that flamed off his head in L'Oreal liquid amber. A part
of me then, and for a long time afterward, tried to resist his pull, but he seemed
to snap off my ribs like dry twigs, and out ran my heart. Can falling in love
be a relief? I suppose when you've fought its possibility for so long, it's got
Though the room
was crowded, there were of course open seats next to Vince. He defensively said
'Hi' when Peter introduced us as if he might be thinking Peter had previewed him
for me. But in time I'd understand it was simply Vince's irritation with all things
polite or cordial. I said something inane like 'pleased to meet you.'
who are you?" he asked me, the introductions now over.
ah, Peter's brother," I responded, pointing my thumb at him, at a loss since
Peter had just introduced me as such.
I mean like what are you; like what do you do with yourself; what are you into?"
at Peter briefly, who looked at the floor, perhaps momentarily regretting that
he'd put me in this position. At that moment 'you' would have been the best answer
to Vince's question, but I was way too nervous to be in any way suave, and I'd
always been too introspective for repartee besides. "Uh, just a guy, ya know,
a college student ... or I was until recently..."
we're all cancer patients," and he motioned his eyes around the room, "
-- ain't it grand?" A big sarcastic grin now spread across his until-now
guarded expression. I hadn't seen it coming, like a left hook, and I reeled before
attempting a response.
I offered, "yea, I know."
was an awkward silence and then Vince began to comment on the bad art hanging
on the walls -- harmless mauve flowers, well-coordinated abstracts that matched
the furniture; and various portraits of cats. "Sure doesn't make you think
of radioactive isotopes or malignant cancer cells does it?" he remarked,
scanning his eyes around the room. "Why don't they have fractals, or pictures
of magnified carcinomas? Maybe we'd all learn something; see the truth."
And he raised his voice slightly, looking at Peter and me provocatively as the
others in the room began to fidget. He proceeded to tell us that he had had testicular
cancer -- in too loud a voice -- which meant they'd removed one of his balls.
"The doctor offered to give me a fake one made out of glass, just like a
glass eye. I laughed in his face and asked him what made him think I'd want a
cold ball of glass in my scrotum?" He paused momentarily for emphasis, before
continuing, "... he thought I might be concerned about my appearance and
what women would think. He said it was a cosmetic issue. I told him I was a fag,
but not a drag queen, so I'd pass on the cosmetics." He laughed sardonically,
and we nervously laughed along with him, but all I could focus on was that he'd
just confirmed my suspicions about his being gay which put a lump in my throat
that I tried to swallow, suddenly more nervous knowing than when I'd only suspected
it. But he was going on:
told him I didn't give a fuck what anybody thought and if it bothered them, they
could go to hell." Peter looked at me nervously as if to say, 'see what I
mean about the bad attitude?' But I was still struggling with the lump and only
managed a sheepish smile.
I was enthralled by both his brazenness and his honesty. I was surprised
that Peter hadn't mentioned to me that Vince was gay, being that he seemed suddenly
so obvious about it. Either Peter hadn't seen it as a big deal, or more likely,
it somehow hadn't come up between them. Then again, perhaps Vince spoke of it
now for my benefit.
uneasy silence passed before Peter broke the impasse by asking about Vince's radiation
and speaking of his own complications, mentioning that at one point the doctors
had wanted to remove his right eye.
well the glass eye they probably had lined up for you almost ended up in my scrotum,"
Vince wise-assed, laughing at his own joke. Peter laughed too, but with embarrassment
as an elderly woman across the room tipped her reading glasses to get a better
look at the loud-mouthed punk. Vince was on a roll and proceeded to dish the medical
establishment, from receptionists and administrators on up to technicians, nurses
and surgeons, recounting their persistent ignorance in matters of survival and
health. "One doctor insisted on lecturing me on safe sex, and when I asked
him if oral sex were safe, he said no, that the mouth is basically one big open
sore." He guffawed. "'Well, no fucking kidding, and you're a case in
point!' I told him. Fuckin' idiot."
then Peter was called in for his treatment, and as he walked away -- and I watched
his back disappear behind the door -- I felt a sudden shame that I'd sat here
with this strange, attractive boy, listening to him diss the complex and painstakingly-built
system of knowledge that had saved my little brother's life. Perhaps I should
have protested? And so I began our first of a seemingly endless series of arguments.
medicine does help people though. It saved my brother; it works sometimes."
it does," he said sarcastically, "for awhile. Or if you're willing to
be maimed. I should've just let myself die. Look at us: I've got one ball; you're
brother's face is a mess -- what's left of it. I mean, look around you: Is this
really what people want?"
don't think my brother's face is a mess, and he's getting reconstruction after
this besides. He wants to live; that's what he wants; that's what all these people
His eyes flashed
coldly. "What the fuck do you know about it?"
felt suddenly as if I'd overstepped his bounds. After all, he did have cancer
and who was I to lecture him on it. So I scrambled and began back-pedaling. "Hey
man, no offense. I know you've been through a lot. I shouldn't speak for my brother
or anyone else."
relented as well. "Your brother's keeper, I understand. He's a poster child,
I can't argue with what he stands for." I was silent, unsure where he was
taking this. "He's a good guy, though, your brother. He's a lot cooler than
most of the selfish fucks in this room. He doesn't -- " and he raised his
voice still louder " -- begrudge me a buck when I ask for it." A few
nervous coughs nearby conveyed discomfort, accentuating the thickening silence
I didn't want
to fall in love so publicly and with such difficulty, though it seemed strangely
completely out of my hands. I offered him a cigarette as a ploy to escape the
cause cancer; I can't possibly accept such a ludicrous offer," he mocked
me, speaking in a condescending and officious tone, which he suddenly clipped
with a smile. What was it in his smile that made me forget the malice I'd seen
in those same eyes a moment before? Was it a tenderness much more convincing than
all that bile? Or, was it just his duplicitous charm that overpowered me? The
constant contrast. Perhaps it was my intense attraction to him, which saw all
of his expressions and moods as beautifully-rendered -- when he'd shown anger,
it seemed a perfect, sublime anger, burning clean and blue; when he was defensive,
it was as endearing and arresting as watching a little boy aware of an injustice.
He seemed to hop from one mood to the next, joking, scowling, enthused, despondent,
disarmingly vulnerable -- a sort of poetic range that covered all points on the
emotional spectrum. It made him seem huge, epic, more vital than anyone I'd ever
witnessed. His anger scared me too, but the minute he smiled I felt completely
And he smiled again
when he said, "but yea, I'd love a smoke."
only problem was, I had no cigarettes. I'd said it out of desperation, but without
But he was
already up and walking toward the door, so I followed him out. I must have looked
somewhat stunned, searching my mind for an explanation as to why I'd offered him
a cigarette I didn't have.
delivered me of my anxieties though as he pulled out a pack the minute he got
out the door, which opened onto an outdoor corridor running the length of the
building. He seated himself at once as he lit up, performing the whole trick in
one graceful movement as I awkwardly tried to gain my composure.
he said slowly, almost seductively, looking up at me "as in Armstrong?"
I chuckled nervously, relieved by his humor. "No, as in O'Neill minus
you're not the man on the moon?" He nodded his head back and forth, sighing.
"After all these years I've looked for him." I felt suddenly eager,
and I wanted to say I'd be Neil Armstrong; I'd be his man on the moon if that's
what he wanted. I'd put on a fucking space suit -- one small step for you, Vince;
one giant leap of faith and courage right into your arms for me.
gave him my sorry smile, the one I'd perfected watching Peter. I looked down then,
but soon I found I was staring at his hands, having almost forgotten where I was
and that I was talking to a stranger.
He was smiling at me again, patting the wooden bench next to him so I'd sit down.
I smiled back quickly, and went to sit down. I realized I was simply following
his orders without even thinking. His power -- which I suppose I could also call
the power of my attraction to him (who's power was it really?) -- was exciting
and attractive, but it was also overwhelming, domineering even, and somehow unfair.
He was a man with a gun, waving it around, and I was the bumbling security guard,
unable to get my gun out of my holster. I excused myself.
gotta go to the bathroom," I blurted, and got up and headed for the men's
room I'd passed earlier, back down the corridor.
instinctively turned on the tap to splash cold water in my face the minute I got
there, hoping to calm my nerves and get a handle on things. I took a deep breath,
and for the first time in all these months of Peter's illness, I felt suddenly
alone and apart, and able again to see where I was, as if I'd awoken from a kind
of sleep. Since Peter'd gotten sick, I'd put myself aside, dropped out of school,
followed the orders of cancer if you will. I'd stuffed all my personal anxieties
about being queer into some drawer and forced it shut, figuring I could get back
to my endless obsessive ruminations about my tragic homosexual fate later. I'd
told myself that I needed to keep my feelings directed toward Peter and my parents.
I'd been almost relieved by his illness that way, like I'd been granted a reprieve
from my own seemingly insoluble problems now that they were so clearly secondary
to someone else's.
now Vince. That drawer had popped open violently as if he were some kind of Fag-in-the-box.
I looked in the mirror, my mind once again orbiting the what-I-saw-as-enormous
black hole of homosexuality, bracing myself for the cold slap of hopelessness
that would render me once again a self-pitying ruin, looking for some place to
hide. But it never came. It was like trying to 'get a feeling' that you knew was
in you somewhere, but you just couldn't quite find it. A wick, but no match in
I was surprised,
even bewildered. I racked my mind, but all I could see was Peter's face, scarred
and swollen. And when I looked at myself, it was as if there wasn't as much there
as there had been before he got sick. I felt empty, but emptied in a good way,
a bucket of water or mud dumped. Perhaps when they took the cancer from Peter's
cheek, a whole bunch of things went with it. He was the root of a sickly tree,
and the rotting fermenting fruit I'd carried on my branch had suddenly fallen
and split open, and all that was now left were the released seeds.
I still didn't know which I was: the seed or the shell? Either way, I had a vague
sense that those seeds were heading somewhere just as I had a similar sense that
the emptiness would be filled. His brows are dark as dirt; his eyes invade me.
Well, maybe both then.
I pushed open the door, he was already standing, waiting for me, having finished
his cigarette. I wondered then how he knew I hadn't wanted one, or was he just
so self-involved it hadn't occurred to him? I'd never trusted my heart; I wasn't
about to trust another person.
motioned his head that he was going in, and entered before I'd even reached the
door. I'd gained a little equilibrium throwing cold water in may face and I aimed
to try to keep it. So, I stopped at the magazine table as I walked back into the
waiting room and grabbed whatever was on top, resolved to take charge of the situation.
Vince looked at me as I approached, and at the magazine. It was Time. "Propaganda,
huh?" he commented off-handedly.
well, I guess. I wanted to finish an article I'd started at home," I offered,
unsure of myself again, all my resolve evaporating before the orange flames streaming
off his head, and once again overwhelmed by his presence and my own shakiness.
me that," he commanded sarcastically, grabbing the corner. And I handed it
to him without thinking. I let out all the line. I panicked inside. I knew I needed
to get hold of myself, that I had to stand my ground with him.
give me that back." He handed it to me without any resistance and got up
to get his own magazine. He came back with Newsweek.
see how many lies we can count," he said slowly, grinning. He was challenging
me, but it was all done in such a disarming and friendly way -- and besides, he
wasn't calling me dishonest (or was he?). I thumbed quickly through to
an article on the Persian Gulf War.
"Forty thousand children slaughtered,
do they mention that?" he said matter-of-factly, leaning over to see my magazine.
"Gulf War Syndrome," he read. Then out loud, he said "Anyone have
Gulf War Syndrome here?" He paused. "Guess not," he added, smiling.
What could I say? I smiled at his humor, and then I just looked at him, smitten.
He seemed so unaware of his beauty and brilliance, as if it weren't his or any
part of him, which made it all the more enticing. It was as if it came through
him, the door of him (Maybe he's empty too I considered briefly). Or like fire,
it's not really there, it's just something that happens between the wood and the
air -- or his scalp and the hair dye. His energy was unnerving -- and I knew it
wasn't just me who saw it. In this crowded waiting room, he was a presence. Though
few would acknowledge him or it, those of us who did looked at one another knowingly
without speaking. I noticed all the others who were in on it avoided him with
determination. I was young, and thought them cowards. And, of course, I was queer.
Whatever the myriad reasons of my surrender, I didn't know then what they knew
or perhaps suspected. And though I do now, I have no regrets. It was as if all
the people of the world were an audience, and what was up on the screen was not
important. It was just another Godzilla or Titanic movie. He was the single person
struggling toward the aisle from a row of seats, climbing and tripping and excusing
himself (would he actually bother?), while everyone sat enraptured by the film,
which existed like the skyline of a city, weirdly still and somehow dead, though
everybody knows something by God is going on there -- isn't it? Sitting in this
theater of life, the backs of the multitudinous heads before me, I see him struggling
-- the one moving thing, his eyes looking back at my own. He is going somewhere.
And so he is a question posed. I want to know where he's going, and so, as if
from a distance, I tentatively begin to follow.
knew I was in love with him then, but it was more than that -- I was coming under
his spell. He wasn't just some attractive guy, but the fact that he was attractive
and he had that fascinating mind; that vast range of emotions and perception --
it was the left hook followed by the solid right. And he seemed so alone, so other,
so 'man from another world' -- like he had a secret that I was suddenly and solely
privy to. It was as if he were asking me to climb on his spaceship going to who
knows, and probably not returning. It was exciting, but it also made me uneasy
up to get a drink of water; went to the counter and asked for the time; meandered
over to the window. Eventually I returned to my seat. He was reading now. He left
me alone, perhaps sensing that he was in danger of scaring me off -- or was that
just my wishful thinking? Maybe he was just interested in whatever he was reading
and it had nothing to do with me.
came out a few moments later. I stood up and smiled, and then Vince asked me for
a dollar. Before I could respond, the nurse called his name: "Vincent Malone."
didn't feel like I'd given my mouth permission to say it, but out it came: "We'll
give you a ride, if that's cool with Peter," I said, looking at Peter with
my eyebrows up.
Peter agreed, as if to say 'why not?'
went off to his treatment, and I sat back down with my brother, who turned to
me and said, "Quite a character, huh?"
swallowed hard. "Yea, he's a piece of work alright."
"I thought you guys would hit it
off," he added, good-humoredly. The old lady was eyeing us again, probably
wondering who this fool was who'd been charmed by the orange-haired devil.
see what you mean though, Peter. He's bitter."
it worries me cuz I don't think he'll get better with a negative attitude."
knows?" I said, thinking to myself that Vince seemed unstoppable to me. I
also hoped and even sensed that I was going to find out for sure just what would
happen to Vince, so I saw no need to speculate. I suddenly wanted to thank Peter
for guiding me to him. 'Silly,' I told myself, but my heart was full and I reached
my arm around Peter and hugged him close to me, whispering, "I love you,
Peter." He blushed -- not at love, but because we were in a room full of
people. I could certainly relate to that, but I was suddenly exhilarated, and
so out it came. "This is my brother," I said out loud, triumphantly,
smiling and turning to look at him. It sounded stupid, but they all knew what
I meant, and even the old lady in the glasses smiled back at us.