Five Years and Four Months

by Jim Brega

 

I met Rafe in 1985. The first time I saw him, he was walking toward me up Ninth Avenue. He had a lazy athlete’s stride (something I couldn’t have anticipated from his letter), deep-set brown eyes whose depths no mere photo could plumb, a mop of dark hair, and too-red lips under the moustache I would never see him without. He had dressed practically for our first date—a brown-bag lunch in Central Park—and for the city’s unbearable Au­gust heat. A tangle of sweat-dampened black hair sprang from the V-neck of his blue and white football-jersey­styled shirt; his navy shorts only half-covered his muscled thighs. I knew immediately that I would sell my soul to see the other half. Who among us has never contemplated such a bargain? Looking back now, I realize that both our destinies changed at that moment, and that the events that would eventually devastate and nearly destroy both of us were already in motion. Had I known what would grow out of our less-than-chance encounter—what suffering and sorrow would come with the joy—would I have had the courage to begin?

To say I fell in love with Rafe that day would be an exaggeration. In truth, I spent most of the afternoon as anyone would who suddenly found his whole conscious­ness awash in a feeling—lust, fascination, rapture, but not love, not yet—he had never experienced before. I made Rafe repeat questions I was too distracted to hear the first time he asked them; stared at his lips to avoid the intensity of his eyes; barely restrained myself from seizing his hand each time he reached up, when nervous or uncertain, to tug with his left thumb and forefinger at a thinning spot in his mustache. Through all these distractions and observa­tions I wove an unspoken monologue, explaining to my­self why someone so beautiful would never be interested in me.

When that subject was exhausted, I allowed my mind to wander, to silently bemoan the wasted effort that had brought us here, effort that had become the standard in modern dating practice: the struggle to write the perfect classified ad for the New York Native, the exchange of let­ters and photos through anonymous post office boxes, the trading of phone numbers and the screening of calls on answering machines. And then first meetings, like this one, where, all too often, one or both of the parties decides quickly, usually in the first few seconds, that the real person they’re confront­ed with bears little or no resemblance to the correspondent they had idealized in their imagination, and the meeting falls apart. The well-mannered way to handle it is for the disappointed party to spend a polite five minutes faking interest, and then announce, “You know, you seem like a nice guy, but I don’t feel a connection here,” and depart quickly, leaving both parties’ self-confidence intact. Often it’s messier than that.

My hopes had soared during our first phone conversa­tion when Rafe and I discovered we lived six blocks apart in a city of six million, as though proximity implied affin­ity or compatibility. But one glance at the living man had shown me he was out of my league. At least, I thought, I didn’t have to take the train all the way out to Queens or Brooklyn for this one. I can only imagine how diffident I must have seemed in response to Rafe’s attempts at con­versation; I figured we were just killing time as a pref­ace to his polite rejection. I was rude enough that, at one point, Rafe, exasperated, asked, “Do you have any ques­tions for me?”

It took me a minute to come up with one: “How was your sandwich?”

On the walk home, when we reached the point where our paths diverged, I offered my hand to formally say goodbye. He took my hand in his, pulled me close, and whispered in my ear, “Can I see you again?”

The last time I saw Rafe was five years and four months later, when I said goodbye to him in the emergency room at NYU medical center. I had brought him in early in the evening when it had become clear that he was hallucinat­ing—a new symptom for him. I’d been standing beside his bed for hours, holding his hand, and he finally seemed to be resting comfortably. I didn’t want to leave, but it was 2:30 in the morning; there were no visitors’ chairs in the crowded ER, and I needed some sleep if I wanted to be ready to once more negotiate the process of getting him officially admitted to the hospital the next morning. I kissed him good night and told him I loved him.

An hour later I was in our bed, dreaming that Rafe and I were riding bicycles through the park toward Bel­vedere Castle. There was snow on the ground, and my wheels slipped as I rode, while Rafe raced ahead. My bi­cycle had a bell on it, the kind I’d had as a kid. I called out to Rafe, telling him to wait for me, and pressed the bell’s lever over and over. It sounded exactly like a telephone.

I leapt up in a panic. How long had the phone been ringing? I fumbled with the receiver as I tried to decipher the hands on the bedside clock. Did it say 3:30 or 6:15?

I sat on the edge of the mattress; the booming of my startled heart nearly deafened me, but the voice at the oth­er end of the line was calm. I tried to absorb what he was saying: Rafael had stopped breathing. He had died peace­fully.

How long did I sit (after the line went dead), staring through the open bedroom door and across our tiny, dark apartment, the dimness broken only by the needle-shaped glints of moonlight flashing from the tinsel on our stunted Christmas tree? I was reminded of the infusion needles stored in the drawers of our demi-kitchen, beside the syringes, alcohol wipes, sterile packages of coiled plastic tubing, and glass ampules of heparin and saline that were supplied by the home nursing service. They were all use­less to me now; artifacts from a battle decisively lost, impersonal reminders of a futile struggle waged against im­possible odds.

Thus it came to pass: Rafael Reyes, age forty, died of AIDS, alone in the busy NYU emergency room, in the middle of a Thursday night less than three weeks before Christmas, becoming U.S. victim number 122,464.

§

I don’t remember the exact order of what happened next.

A call came from Palm Coast. Hurricane Madeleine— Rafe’s nickname for his mother—alternated between screaming and wailing in un-musical counterpoint. “Is it true? Is it true?” And then: “Why didn’t you call me? Why didn’t you tell me he was in the hospital? Why didn’t you tell me he was dying?”

I realized that the hospital must have called her, Rafe’s official next of kin, after talking to me. I wanted to say, “Maddy, he’s been dying for five years. Where have you been?” But all I could manage was, “I’m sorry,” even though it had been Rafe who made the decisions about what to tell her and when to tell it.

It was way too early in the morning, but I called Rafe’s good friend in New Jersey anyway. “Joyce, he’s gone,” was as much as I could get out before I dissolved into a blubbering mess and began to weep the desperate tears of the abandoned, tears more for me than for Rafe. “Shhhh, shhhh, it’s okay, it’s okay” she kept saying.

At some point I got hold of my friend Will on the upper West side, who promised to meet me later in the morning to help make arrangements. When we went to the hospital I wanted to go to the emergency room to look for Rafe, expecting to find him where I had left him, smirking his little smirk as if to say, “What’s wrong with you? Did you think I would leave you?” But we didn’t go there; we went to the property desk, where they handed me a baggie containing Rafe’s gold chain bracelet and the ring I had given him on the fourth anniversary of our Central Park lunch.

How had it all come to this? I stood in a glossy maze of fluorescent-lit hospital corridors, an environment that had become all too familiar. A bag of inexpensive gold jewelry was in one hand, and over the other arm a small pile of folded clothes and Rafe’s jacket. My dead lover lay naked somewhere in the basement, awaiting the attentions of Reddens funeral home on 14th Street. I was thirty-nine years old, and had spent the last five years fighting for someone else’s life. Suddenly I had nowhere to go and nothing to do but to try to make sense of the senseless, to face the fact of my failure and the prospect of a future alone.

You have to think about what you dread in order to dread it, and I had thought about this possibility. I had even—secretly, shamefully, hating myself for it—allowed myself to accept its inevitability. Maybe it had been in Oc­tober, when Rafe had contracted a new infection. Maybe it was November, when his eyesight began to weaken for a reason his doctors weren’t able to discover. I had strug­gled to keep my resignation from showing, but one day Rafe said (in an echo of our first meeting), “You never ask me how I feel in the morning any more,” and I told him he had given the same answer so many times that I couldn’t ask again, that I couldn’t face the day with his litany of complaints I could do nothing about lingering in the air between us, that I had to be able to hope he would get bet­ter in order to do what I needed to do each day. I wanted to say, “You can tell me about it the day you wake up and feel better.” But the truth sat like a dead weight on my heart and left me breathless, as though I were watching a horrific accident happen in slow motion and was power­less to do anything about it.

§

At one point, when it was clear his health was failing, I made Rafe an album of photos of our life together, hoping it would encourage him to remember better times. It still serves that function for me. There are snapshots of the two of us in Grand Cayman, the Dominican Republic, and Key West—one in which Rafe posed so close to a rest­ing brown pelican that most people who see the picture assume the bird is stuffed. There are photos from Disney­land, Big Sur, and The Pines on Fire Island. There are pictures of Christmas trees, birthday parties, and graduations. And of apartments. So many apartments: five in the three years we lived together.

When I look at that album now, it’s not the empty pages at the end that evoke sadness, but the gaps at the be­ginning. How could we have been so careless with those first months and years? How could we have wasted our time on petty jealousies while we followed the whims of our faulty characters? In the beginning, lovers always feel that time stretches infinitely before them; they luxuriate in it as if in a warm bath, taking perverse pleasure in the needless injuries they’re able to inflict on their beloved with small insistences, and unaware (the embracing water so warm, so comforting) of the scarlet drops leaking from their own wounds and, as surely as ticks of a clock, mea­suring out their time together.

For Rafe and me, the heat of our August meeting faded through the autumn months. By the time Christmas arrived, Rafe was in Puerto Rico on a winter vacation he had planned with other friends. I was alone in the bitter cold of New York’s late December, with its slushy, de­serted streets bound by piles of dirty snow and frozen dog droppings, and store windows already advertising post­holiday sales. When he came home, Rafe presented me with a souvenir—a T-shirt: “Sun of a Beach”—and broke up with me. But in the warming days of spring our need for each other sprouted again, as determined as the crocus­es blooming in Central Park.

Approach, avoid. That went on for a while. I don’t remember his revelation that he was HIV-positive hav­ing anything to do with it. Back then we had only a vague idea what that meant, and the AIDS acronym hadn’t even been agreed-upon yet. As the meaning became clearer, the injustice of it fed Rafe’s rages, whose destructive force scared me and which I credited to an unfortunate gene inheritance from his mother. Once I tried to reassemble the splintered cabinets in Rafe’s kitchen using a bottle of white glue and some C-clamps after he kicked them in during a particularly violent incident. Another time, I vis­ited his parents’ house in New Jersey, before his father died and his mother moved to Florida, to help Rafe re-paint their living room. It was the first time the walls had been touched in twenty years. Madeleine took me on a tour of the modest bungalow, and I stopped to examine a fist-sized hole in the wall of what had been Rafe’s teenage bedroom. “Yes,” she said in her Spanish-accented English, “he did that. You must understand: he does everything with the whole heart.” 

Everything except love, I thought.

But then, gradually, it was love; love that we eased into like a favorite shirt, that grew in our hearts like an ac­ceptance of something inevitable.

Among the photos in the album I made for Rafe are some from our first shared apartment: the upper half of a roomy, high ceilinged, two-family in the Kingsbridge section of the Bronx. With the luxury of shade trees out­side and a second bedroom—the safety valve that allowed each of us the option of solitude while we adapted to the idea of living together—it was an apartment made afford­able only by the cheaper rents in the outer boroughs. One photo shows our large sun porch that faced the street, and as Christmas approached once again I knew that was ex­actly where our tree should go. We returned from a local lot with an enormous balsam fir that we barely managed to wrestle into the room, leaving a trail of needles all the way from the front door. We scoured the district’s stores for strings of tiny lights that were available locally only in the gaudy magentas and pineapple yellows of our Dominican neighborhood. From the surrounding streets, the tree, with its hundreds of lights and glittering icicles, was a beacon that blazed through the porch’s many-paned windows and guided twenty or so guests—parents, brothers, cousins, friends—to our house for a traditional Christmas dinner. We were a family at last.

§

We did our best, through that long winter and the spring that followed, to believe we had escaped, had somehow left the ever-pursuing spectre of disease and death behind, to believe our idyll could last despite the almost daily stream of bad news in the papers and the regular appear­ance in Rafe of new symptoms. I was tempted to think of our story as a grand drama, the two of us the heroes who, by dint of love and virtue, would prevail against all odds. Certainly war was being waged—a perfect environment for heroes—but the enemy had all the advantages. We had no weapons with which to fight this silent, invisible, ap­parently unstoppable foe. It was winning, and we, all hu­mankind (or so it seemed), were being slowly, inexorably tortured and then destroyed.

Could the battle have been turned in Rafe’s favor if governments had stepped in quickly, rather than sitting back with grim satisfaction while society’s undesirables died off in a plague that many thought was only what they deserved? Being poor, gay, black, or addicted was sud­denly a possible death sentence. What a relief that normal, god-fearing Americans couldn’t catch it! Then it turned out, as scientists had warned from the beginning, that any­one could catch it—men, women, children, gay, straight, bisexual, atheist, Christian, Muslim, Jewish, rich, poor, black, white, brown—and, as the number of victims doubled and doubled and doubled again year after year, the research money finally began to pour in.

All of it too late for Rafe. In 1984, the year he was diagnosed, only about 7,200 AIDS cases had been report­ed in the US. By 1990 there were 160,000, and more than 120,000 of them had died.

I have a terrible confession to make: I didn’t care. I didn’t care about the thousands or hundreds of thousands; I didn’t care about friends, even, who sickened and died. I was focused only on the survival of one person, and that was Rafe. If you want to talk about callousness, about self-interest, here’s an example: I forced myself to invent a brutal game of give-and-take, a game of bargains (very different from the first bargain I had offered that day on ninth avenue, the day we met) in which each death that was not Rafe’s meant that he would live a little longer. I was spellbound by rumor and searched eagerly through the details of obituaries. This one had toxo; Rafe didn’t have toxo, he would be okay. That one had been a smoker; Rafe had quit smoking, he would recover. The other one spent his spare hours at the baths; Rafe had never visited them.

I wasn’t a hero. In truth, when it came to this disease, there was nothing special about either of us; nothing distinguished us from thousands of others threatened by the same or similar circumstances other than Rafe’s determination to face it down, to survive somehow. The closest thing we had to heroes were the doctors who stuck with us, even if they had little to offer but palliatives and flimsy hope, even when their spirits were nearly broken by the flood of new, desperately sick patients they faced each day. Among the sick and their partners and help­ers, timelines for plans and goals were shortened; no one knew whether they would be alive in six months or a year. People learned to not ask questions when someone was absent from a meeting or event, but there would be whis­pered consultations afterward: “Where’s Roger? Has any­one seen him since Tuesday?” I attended a weekly support group for caregivers, and watched the entire membership of the group change over the course of a year as their part­ners died and the caregiver left, only to be replaced in the circle by another. The fact that I was still there, that Rafe was still alive, served, in my mind, to validate my heart­less game of bargains.

But there was no way of hiding from the dangers that stalked us, no bargaining when all we had to offer was what fate could seize whenever it wanted. Rafe was taking AZT, a cancer drug adapted to combat HIV, on an experi­mental basis even before its FDA approval. No one knew what an effective dose was. Rafe took twelve capsules a day, and suffered the anemia, headache, and nausea that were the drug’s side effects. Yet his T-cells continued to dwindle, as did his weight: he was starving to death on a full stomach due to a cytomegalovirus infection. He did his best to swallow the huge, calorie-laden meals I pre­pared for him in a desperate attempt to stop his weight loss: fatty fried pork chops, mashed potatoes with butter and sour cream and grated cheese, sugary desserts washed down with milk shakes. The rich foods nauseated Rafe, and I gained twenty pounds.

Still, we tried our best to live normal lives. I built a wire cage as a home for a pair of budgies, who we then had to banish when bird down and dropped seed shells formed dust balls that rolled from one end of the apart­ment to the other and sent Rafe into coughing fits. We bought a cheap car—one without a radio, to discourage break-ins—and began to enjoy brief escapes from the city: to Jones Beach to see Diana Ross and a Chicago concert, or to Port Washington to visit Rafe’s cousins.

But it was hard for me to consider our life in the Bronx normal. Our landlords, downstairs, were the only people I knew in our neighborhood. At least they spoke a little English, which set them apart from most in the com­munity. As far as everyone else was concerned, I was an unwanted foreigner, isolated by my downtown business drag and my nearly complete ignorance of Spanish—a handicap Rafe didn’t share. It was only forty-five minutes by subway to my job in lower Manhattan, but in the eve­ning the smell of stewed pork, the knock-knock-knock of wooden pestles fusing green plantains and garlic into fra­grant mofongo, and the throb of the meringues that spilled from the second-floor apartments onto the crowded side­walks all made the atmosphere thoroughly Caribbean.

The older neighborhood residents watched warily from their doorways and windows and gave me a wide berth on the sidewalk, suspicious of my business suit and obvious Anglo identity. I relied completely on Rafe for any local business transactions after spending a frustrating quarter hour one day trying to get a sullen grocery clerk to admit he knew what “pumpkin” was.

The group of Dominican and Puerto Rican punks who sprawled in the middle of the otherwise empty subway car most evenings as I neared my stop was a bigger concern. I was careful to keep my eyes on my book or newspaper as they mumbled to each other in low voices. Then, one night, a distinct phrase: “Hey, that guy is queer.” I had to walk past them to get to the station exit as they lingered on the darkened Kingsbridge platform. One called out, “Yo, faggot, you wanna look at my dick?” as he pissed onto the elevated tracks.

I waited a day to tell Rafe the story and tried to make light of it, in a guess-what-happened-the-other-night kind of way.

He listened, silent and expressionless, and remained so for a few seconds after I had finished. Then, two words, final and irrevocable: “We’re moving.”

I tried to convince him he was over-reacting, that it was an isolated incident, but I didn’t try very hard. Rafe’s decision was made in a moment; he was determined to leave the neighborhood where he no longer felt I was safe. I never found out how he convinced our landlady to allow us to break our lease—it may even have been the truth— but in another month we were back in midtown Manhat­tan, in a one-bedroom not even a third the size of our Bronx floor-thru.

For some reason, that became a pattern with us. We never stayed in an apartment for a full lease term of one year—at least, not until the current one—and we never spent two Christmases at the same address. Everyone we knew understood that they should have pencil and eraser ready to update their address books when they received our holiday cards. I used to joke that I was renovating New York City one apartment at a time as we went from place to place building sleeping lofts, installing air condi­tioners, replacing kitchen floors. Then, finding each pol­ished space lacking in some essential quality, we quickly moved on.

I think Rafe sensed the shortening of days. Everything he did seemed urgent now, driven by an awareness of the shrinking timeline I mentioned before. I was putting the final touches to the re-painting of our last midtown apart­ment when Rafe came in and sat on the bed. He watched silently for a few moments before speaking.

“Jamie, I have to talk to you about something.”

I was kneeling on the floor, carefully brushing the baseboard with off-white semi-gloss and trying not to get it on the carpet. I sat back on my heels to listen. “Okay. What’s up?”

“I’m not feeling so good. I don’t know if I’m going to make it.”

That caught me by surprise. Rafe never wanted to talk about not making it, but I didn’t need to ask what he meant. I felt a little sick to my stomach, and wondered if I was ready for this conversation.

“There’s one thing I’ve always wanted to do,” he continued, “but you’re not going to like it.”

My stomach did another flip. I put down the brush and waited.

“I’ve always wanted to live in the Village.”

I nearly laughed with the relief of realizing that it was, after all, just another move he was talking about. Still, I said nothing, but looked around the apartment, lin­gering on the “dusty rose” walls—a color Rafe had insisted on—and the eight-month-old couch we had purchased for this place when it turned out that the heavy furniture we had been dragging around with us wouldn’t fit. There was no point in arguing about the move, since Rafe knew I could deny him nothing. But I was tired. And the Vil­lage! What was he thinking? I doubted we could afford an apartment there, unless it was a little room where we’d be tripping over each other all the time. If I could delay things—even for a few months—so that, this one time at least, we could stay put for a full year, I could later relent and we would look for another place together.

“Rafe, I’ll make a deal with you. You know we can’t afford a higher rent right now. But if you can find an apartment in Greenwich Village at least as large as this one, for the same rent, I’ll move.”

The next day Rafe found our Village apartment.

“And the rent is less!” he crowed triumphantly.

§

I still live in the apartment Rafe found, on Barrow Street just off Hudson. It’s on the ground floor, usually undesirable because of the risk of burglaries; but we couldn’t afford an elevator building, and Rafe was too weak to climb stairs. We made our compromises gratefully; after all, we were, finally, in the kind of upscale, gay-friendly neighborhood to which Rafe had always aspired. We nervously allowed ourselves to hold hands sometimes on evening strolls—something we’d never dare in the Bronx, or even in midtown. In our three compact rooms (plus an entrance hall which, with the typical oddity of older New York City buildings, is as big as the kitchen), with Raymond, an enormous orange tabby that adopted us by walking in through an open door on move-in day, sitting on the windowsill watching the resident old ladies feed pigeons on the sidewalk, I allowed myself to hope that we were finally home.

If, as they say, timing is everything, ours was more than a little off. I think Rafe spent as much time in the hospital as out while he lived on Barrow Street. He was always trying to get home, and once devised a scheme that involved me sneaking him out of the hospital for an Italian dinner and a quiet evening watching TV with Raymond in his lap. He tried not to mope when I dropped him off back at NYU Medical Center just before bed check, but he re­ally didn’t see the point. He wasn’t getting better.

He had been HIV positive for at least five years by this time, and was the longest-living patient some of his doctors had. But he was not winning the war against the virus and its opportunistic allies; he had merely achieved a temporary standoff. He hadn’t been able to rid himself of CMV and, as a result, had lost fifty pounds, nearly a third of his healthy weight. His doctor prescribed some­thing called TPN as part of a new plan to end Rafe’s slow starvation. It was a bag of milky fluid that had to be forced into his vein through an infusion pump—bypassing his unreliable stomach—for eight hours a night. I barely slept during that period, waking again and again to listen in the dark for the soft weep and sigh of the machine at the head of the bed and the sound of Rafe’s breathing. I rifled his body like a pickpocket, reassuring myself that the needle was still in the catheter, that the tube wasn’t kinked under his arm. Inexplicably, perhaps from exhaustion, Rafe slept long if not well, mumbling through his nightmares without waking.

I used to wonder whether he would have been willing to suffer through the years of his illness if he had known how bad it would be. The Rafe who had flirted with me on that muggy August day five years earlier was gone. His beautiful olive-toned complexion had turned pallid and wan; most of his hair had vanished—the victim of an assault by his own immune system and the drugs he was taking—and his skin draped loosely over bones looted of muscle by a body desperate for protein to keep its essen­tial organs running. All the pain, disappointment, and fail­ure that had accompanied his desperate search for treat­ment were written on his once-handsome face; his robust physique had been replaced by that of someone twice his age. He could no longer affect the confident stride that was the first thing I had noticed about him; now he walked slowly and took several minutes to climb the subway steps. Even I looked careworn and older than my years. Had I been able to foresee all this, would I have been brave enough, generous enough, to love him?

Perhaps you think the answer should be “no.” But I see I’ve left out part of the story. Sure, there were chal­lenges, disappointments, pain, and sorrow. But they came with a flip side. If it hadn’t been for Rafe, I might never have learned to enjoy life the way he did, to schedule va­cations first and leave work to the months leftover, to act on a whim (like stopping in at the half-price ticket booth in Times Square on a weekday just to see what’s avail­able and then spending the evening at a Patti LaBelle con­cert). Had I not met Rafe, would I ever have learned to thoroughly enjoy a simple plate of baked ziti, or tostones con ajo? Would I ever have found myself in a hut in the Dominican Republic, on an otherwise deserted beach near Punta Cana, ordering fish for lunch and then watching the waitress’s brother push off in his boat to pull my flopping entrée from the still, clear water of the Caribbean? I see suddenly that I’ve cheated you; the flip side is the real sto­ry. The pain, the struggle, the disappointments—that’s all just bad luck.

And in spite of all that happened, all the suffering we endured together, all the physical changes Rafe’s mirror documented in pitiless exactness each morning, he was essentially an optimist. He had plenty of chances to give up, but deep down he always expected to survive, to overcome whatever came his way. When he seemed ready to lose hope I would remind him: “Rafe, in the entire history of disease there has never been one that killed everyone who got it. You can survive this. You may be the only one who can, but if you can, you must!” And when we had a good day—and there were many—Rafe would say to me, “These last five years have been the happiest of my life,” and that would make me happy, too.

§

I finally got to celebrate two Christmases in the same apartment. A full year. Rafe almost made it, too. He died just three weeks short. It’s ironic because he had actually been feeling better for a while. How could we have known that a quite ordinary tumor had been secretly growing in his brain, ignored by his overburdened immune system? The mystery of his dimming eyesight was finally solved.

One day—maybe it was about a month before he died—we had one of those good days I mentioned. Rafe was home from the hospital. It was once again December in New York, clear and cold. The mounds of snow that the plows had pushed from the street onto the sidewalks had not yet been blackened by soot and exhaust. We bundled up and went out to wander through the neighborhood we had come to love, window-shopping at the small stores lining the narrow, tree-lined streets that wind among el­egant nineteenth century townhouses. I doubt there’s any­thing more beautiful, more hopeful, than the Village at Christmastime. Rafe and I decided to go into a store on Bleeker Street that had given over its display window to an arrangement of fifty-dollar tree ornaments. While Rafe perused their collection of Santa Clauses, I carefully lifted two delicate crystal snowflakes and held one up to each ear lobe.

“Look!” I called out to Rafe. “Who am I?”

He studied my pose. “Hmmm. It has to be either Liza or that puppet—what’s her name?—Madame!”

I adopted a look of mock confusion. “You mean they’re not the same person?”

He thought about it. “Well, they do both have a gay boy’s hand up their skirts…”

“Wow,” I said, replacing the snowflakes. “You know, I was just going for something simple, like Liberace.”

Another customer, in stiletto heels and coyote coat, frowned at us as she stomped out of the store. I tagged her as an East-sider, an example of the type of New York woman that Tom Wolfe once described as “an exquisitely starved X-ray.”

“What’s her problem?” I wondered out loud.

“I don’t know,” Rafe whispered as we followed her out, “but don’t get too close. I’ll bet she killed that coyote herself, with her bare hands!”

Back outside, we turned the corner onto Grove Street and stopped in front of a leather store. There are lots of chaps-and-bondage shops in the Village—so many that they’re like dog turds on the sidewalk: you only notice them to avoid them. But this one is different. It sells the expensive coats and jackets in extreme styles—with extra zippers and tabs everywhere—that were the latest fash­ion. It was exactly the kind of excess that Rafe loved. We knew we couldn’t afford leather coats, not from this shop, but we charged into the store anyway, moving briskly as though we might actually buy something. We tried on one coat after another, each of us admiring or, in turn, laugh­ing at our transformed selves in the store’s mirrors.

Unexpectedly, among the fashion-victim-ready de­signs, I discovered a simple saddle-tan leather jacket with a “Russian” closing: a zipper that ran from the left side of the waist diagonally across the chest to the right side of the collar. I slipped it on, half zipped it, and admired my newly elegant figure in a mirror. Unlike the store’s cruder merchandise, the leather of this jacket was soft and supple; it followed the body’s contours – but not so closely that the tailoring didn’t broaden the shoulders and narrow the waist. I thought I looked twice as butch as I had a moment before, and the soft silk satin lining, padded for warmth, conjured up delicious feelings of sex and luxury.

I saw in the mirror that Rafe was beside me. “Now I know how a woman feels the first time she tries on a fur coat!” I whispered, turning to face him.

Rafe smiled, tugged the overlapping lapels tighter around my neck, and kissed me gently on the lips.

Just before we left the leather shop, I noticed Rafe in conversation with the salesman. I didn’t think anything of it; everyone likes to talk to Rafe. But a few days later, a clumsily-wrapped package with my name on it appeared under our Christmas tree.

That was more than twenty years ago. I never opened that package, but I still have it. I take it out and put it under my tree every year. It’s ridiculous, I know, but on some level I think that maybe, if I don’t open his present to me, Rafe isn’t really gone.

I had a dream after he died in which I was at a party with dozens of other people, all strangers to me. Suddenly there was a commotion at the door, and Rafe appeared with a group of friends, chatting and laughing, their arms draped easily around each other’s shoulders. All the signs of his illness were gone; he looked as he had the day we met.

Rafe left his friends and came over to me, his impish smirk playing across his lips. “Well,” he said, “I guess you didn’t love me that much.”

I don’t know what he meant, but he was wrong, of course.

It didn’t happen for a long time, but eventually I took other lovers; I even have a husband that I’ve been with for more than a decade. He doesn’t tease me about my odd Christmas ritual. He understands it for what it is: an act of devotion that will never be reciprocated; a hearkening back to a place and time and events that some would like to forget, put behind us. But I don’t think I’ll ever forget.

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