This story is by Susan Walker Finlay and was part of our 2018 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
ONE LAST THING
Luis calls from the other room—the living room. The living room is now the dying room, I think, and my heart squeezes. It strikes a dissonant chord, and everything in me sinks. Inside, I weep. Luis, my love, this is not a good day to die.
We’ve been a couple for over ten years. He turned forty soon enough for us to do it right. We had the party to end all parties—razzle-dazzle, glitz and glam. Later, we watched from our fire escape as the sun rose. We didn’t make love. It was too difficult for Luis, and extraneous to our feelings. We could so easily have grown old together.
He calls now. “Robert. Robert. Please. Come to me, mi amor.” He pronounces my name ‘Robere’, as he always has. On his tongue, my name is music. His voice is an ancient rasp, thinner than a butterfly wing. I go to him, and his milky blue eyes look past me, somewhere to the side of my face.
“Luis,” I gasp. “Luis. Can you see me?” He’s been partially blind for some months, but he’s still had a blurry center of sight.
“No, Robert. My eyes are all blind now.” I have to hold back tears. Be strong, I command myself. He needs you. There will be time to cry later.
“It is time,” Luis croaks. “It must be tonight.”
“Ohhh. . .” My wail is guttural, coming from deep inside my undeservedly healthy body. “I’ll take you to the hospital. I won’t leave your side. You might get well again. . .” Meaning, we both know, well enough to survive this torture for another month. Well enough to endure until he drowns in his own bodily fluids.
“You must, Robert. You have made me this promise. We have the agreement.” I lean close, to hear his words. I seal my heart, lock it up tight. He’s right. This is what we agreed, because I love him, and he’d do it for me. And it should be me dying from this new and insidious disease, not him. I was the wild one, the club-boy. I slept around indiscriminately and, until gay men started dropping like sheep over a cliff, I rarely used protection. I did every drug I could get my hands on. And I wasn’t nice. I was cavalier, and mean to others, especially lovers. I never took them home. I went to their place, so I could leave after sex.
But Luis—Luis had only two lovers before me. And then the one, the one other, on that desperate night after he came out to his family. He went to the dark bushes in the park, around the men’s washrooms, and had his one indiscreet—and deadly—encounter.
“Sweetie, I just don’t get it,” I said to Luis one time. “How is it that I’ve been so. . .foolish. . .and you’ve been practically a choir boy, yet you get this wretched thing while I walk away scot-free?”
“I do not know. It is, like all these things, part of the big mystery, no?”
“I guess so,” I answered. “But it’s not fair. I wish we could switch places.” I’m not just saying that. I’ve thought about it all these months. “Oh god. . .”
“But I am not like the choir boy, my Robert. I only was shy and odd. Sometimes, I would want to do. . .more. Anyway, why do people always say that? How it is not fair. Life is life. It is still a gift, I think. My mom. . .” His voice caught. He never could speak of her without choking up. “My mom would say, ‘The fair is a place with the Ferris Wheel and the candy floss. This is the real life.’”
He was openly affectionate. I was a sealed clam-shell when we met. I couldn’t be pried open. Not until Luis, that is. He made me want to love, to be kind, to find that nugget of goodness within myself. Through him, I learned love, and I felt self-worth for the first time.
Now I have to give him the one thing he’s ever asked of me. The only thing.
I tell him again. “Your love changed me. I was a ghost-man, before you. We’ll be together again, somewhere.”
We know there’s a place like that. We can almost touch it, smell it. We both dreamed it, as we slept one night. When we awoke, and found we’d been in the same place even in our sleep, we cried.
We lay in bed a long time that day, not talking more of it, knowing talk could destroy our fragile connection to the truth we’d found.
I wondered aloud. “Why would I be so blessed?” But I knew it was all the overflow of Luis’s love. When we glanced at one another, our smiles were shy. We were like children again.
I gazed at his hairless body and skeletal head, the hauntingly beautiful aretes of his jutting bones sinking into the shadowed landscape of his sand-colored skin. There was mystery there that I wanted to capture and preserve. I wished I were a painter, or a great photographer, who could harness the chiaroscuro of his ephemeral beauty.
The time has come. I will do this. I owe him. I owe the world. This is both about me, and not. I can make up for the lack of care with which I’ve gone through life. I’ll be doing the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do, and I can’t kill myself afterwards. That would ruin it, strip it of honesty.
We’d discussed it months ago. “How will I know? It needs to be you who does it. I mean. . .if I have to. . .”
“No, no,” he replied. “It will be me. But maybe you have to. . .lead. . .guide my hand. Not to push it. To hold it under mine. Help me to not drop them. I will get them inside my mouth. And you will save me from dying alone. I do not want to be alone.”
“Yes. No,” I answered. “I. . .okay. Okay.”
Already, he coughs up red flowers of blood into his tissues several times a day. Soon, it won’t be flowers, but flowing streams.
How do we say goodbye? We don’t. At least, not like that. We agreed back then; there would be no long and dramatic farewell. Anyway, we’d been saying it every day since.
It takes only twenty minutes until my beloved Luis is unconscious, and another sixty until he’s dead. I lie still, beside him, for what seems both an eternity and a moment. His face takes on an almost unearthly glow. All the lines of pain are gone, and his blue eyes are clear. I close his lids gently, before the empty mask of death steals in.
I cradle him, his emaciated body, his bald head, feeling the heat leave him. Later, I’ll call everyone. The apartment will be flooded with friends, for Luis is—was—much-loved. And I’ll welcome them as never before. I need them. But for now it’s just me, holding him close as his life-force ebbs. I know when he’s gone, though some of him will linger around our home for another three days, and after that. . .after that, I can’t say. He’s always here, or my memory of him is. It doesn’t matter which. The results are the same.
His last words are for me, and me alone. But before that, he suddenly opened his eyes. The milkiness was gone, and they were a deep blue. From within, sparks fired like phosphorescence on a night sea. “I can see again, mi amor. I see. . .much,” Luis said, his voice open with wonder. “It is as we thought, Robert. It is so. . .sublime. I wish I could tell you. . .it is all so clear now.”
He reached up and stroked my face. This was the greatest gift, a moment of revelation. He watched me awhile, as I wept, and he wiped away my tears. “See?” he whispered. “I am strong again. Thank you, my Robert. Thank you.”
I saw the transformation of his face. I was a voyeur, a witness to the most private moment of any person’s life—their dying, their death. I remain aware of the rare privilege of this, the honor bestowed upon me.
I feel weary, old. But strangely, not as lonely as I thought I’d be. Hans, the sculptor from upstairs, is cooking us dinner, as he now does several times a week. I look up and he turns and I smile. He hands me a glass of wine. “It’s good to see that smile, Robert.” He pronounces it as Luis did, dropping the hard click of the ’t’ at the end. I’m remembering how Luis once told me, “Love is not just giving. You must also be willing to receive it.” I’m ready.