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David Lipsky


In the year after they graduated from college, all of Leonard's friends, to one degree or another, began to be stuck by premonitions of mortality. They had all been raised on ceremony, to expect life to be a passage of doorways: grammar school to a good high school, high school to a good college, college to a good job. Now there were no more doorways, just a wide room, an empty, dim room, with at the end one black doorway leading nowhere at all. It was against this doorway that Leonard's friends, all year long, seemed to be stumbling. While Leonard, a graduate student, studied English at Georgetown, closing books and then mounting them on his bookcase as if in a display of difficult prey bagged, his friends collapsed. Michael, his hallmate in college, called late one night. He was having a heart attack. He was dying. Leonard lay on his futon, the phone against his cheek, imagining long wires stretching to Los Angeles, Michael's heart attack scurrying across darkened wheat fields to Iowa, Kansas, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Pennsylvania Avenue, here. "Can you feel your heart?" he asked.

"Of course I can feel it," his friend said. "I feel it in my ears, my shoulders, my muscles. It's all I can feel. I don't know what to do."

"Count the number of beats," Leonard said, and was surprised to hear, in his voice, the instructions he'd received from his Chaucer professor for telling the difference between strophe and anapestic meter. "I'll give you a minute on my watch, you count the number of beats. Okay?" Leonard held up his wrist so the streetlight could illuminate the dial. "Go."

Michael's count was eighty-five; nowhere near, Leonard knew, a heart attack. Michael was nervous, home in California without a job. Leonard told him to call a doctor in the morning.

But other calls came, too--his friends seemed to think Leonard was stable, back in the hallway with more doors to open, and thus capable of giving unhysterical advice. But Leonard found that even among his fellow graduate students, life-threatening diseases were also rampant. One friend worried about brain tumors, another about the pattern of moles on her arm. At Columbia, a friend from high school checked himself into Payne Whitney for a night, and stayed a month. Leonard, beginning work on a long paper in March and coming down with the worst cold he'd had since the fourth grade, decided two things: That he would flee Georgetown, and that he had AIDS.

He handled the first problem directly. He called Michael in Los Angeles. Michael would be moving to New York in May, to start work at the magazine owned by a friend of his father's. Leonard would be leaving Georgetown the following month. Would Michael mind finding an apartment for both of them?

The second problem attacked Leonard in two ways. He tried to decide how he'd gotten the disease and came up with a woman he'd met playing tennis one summer, a tall, beautiful Asian who was uncertain of herself in the way tall pretty women sometimes are, as if their beauty and height are stilts they're afraid the first mean person will topple them from. She was twenty-eight, and Leonard, twenty, had slept with her, feeling it a sort of victory. He'd felt handsome that summer for the first time in his life. That this woman (twenty-eight! Asian! from Harvard! in investment banking!) would sleep with him so casually seemed a welcome from the adult world, which he had then imagined as glamorous and powerful. The woman had complained of a previous lover, a ballet dancer who had been cruel to her. To Leonard, in March, "cruel" now seemed a euphemism for sodomy, and this woman, who had been so welcoming, now seemed to have welcomed him to something else, to the area behind that black door in the empty room. Each morning, he woke and checked his arms for dots, for suspicious marks. He began wearing sweatshirts to avoid this morning performance, and found himself sweating in his sleep. Nightsweats were a symptom. In the shower, avoiding the sight of his unfurled skin, Leonard found himself praying.

This was the second dimension Leonard's sense of the disease took: he believed that if he prayed, if he behaved rightly, he would be spared. The disease was a way of keeping him in line, keeping him from feeling too happy or satisfied with himself. In the fall, as his postgraduate friends, pursuing jobs in Manhattan, had spats, fell apart, checked in with neurologists, heart specialists, sleep therapists, Leonard had found himself enjoying Georgetown, loving it in a way he never had in college. The smoky smell that hung in the streets--from fireplaces that actually worked--the candy colored row houses, all the same height, the swish-swish of trees overhead, these things had made Leonard feel adult, and thrilled with life. He'd left the girl he'd dated in school and had taken up with another girl, an undergraduate in a class a friend of his was teaching. When the ex-girlfriend called, tentatively proposing reconciliation, Leonard had felt safe on a high, happy perch, looking down on avoided misery. AIDS was his punishment for happiness. He broke up with the undergraduate and reconciled with the original girl. He began to keep Kosher, which struck him as a small sacrifice. And he began to limit his conversation to assertions of whether things were good or better--to be negative was to risk extermination.

This had caused problems. He couldn't say no to people. When Michael called and proposed he pay rent for April also, since the apartment (a first floor tenement on West 20th Street, with a garden) was for his use, too, Leonard argued vehemently. Michael said, "I can't believe we're arguing. I'm here in this apartment because you needed a place to come back to. I'm not even asking you to pay the full rent, though I could just as easily have stayed in California."

"You told me you were going crazy in California," Leonard reminded him. "You called me on the phone and told me you were having a heart attack."

Leonard could feel Michael registering this. It was taboo to talk about that evening; for a moment, Leonard feared his friend would hang up. "In any event," Michael said, with a nasty click in his voice, "I'm here in this apartment, which is rented in both our names, because you asked me to be. And I'm not paying the first month's rent alone."

They fought for an hour, coming to no special conclusion, and when Leonard got off the phone he panicked. What had he been thinking? Was it worth five hundred dollars to die? He carefully rolled back the sleeve of his shirt to look at his forearm. The red dots, which had seemed to be gone that morning, now were pulsing as brightly and happily as ever. In the morning he sneezed, twice, he coughed, his pee seemed frothier than usual, in the shower he dared examine both arms and felt about to cry, the dots were there, when he looked. He prayed. And then, when he got out of the shower, he called New York, leaving a message on Michael's answering machine. "Sorry about last night and anything I may have said. I was tense about leaving Georgetown. Of course I'll pay my half of the rent. See you Friday." And then, hanging up, he'd felt terrible.

Next was Alexa, his old girlfriend. She was looking forward to his return to the city. She called and asked if he wouldn't mind helping paint her apartment. What could Leonard say?

It was the first of May and scorching in the early Washington summer, the day Leonard left Georgetown. On the Amtrak next to him was a tidily dressed businessman with many magazines. Leonard asked to borrow Sports Illustrated. His seat-mate gave it to him with an edgy expression, the look of a man clearly pained by the idea of someone else getting something for nothing. Leonard read. He felt he was unlikely to be ambushed here by medical information, and he hoped the bland scores and sports photographs would calm him down. But the sports information and his AIDS thoughts were in a race in his head, and in the end AIDS outpaced Sports Illustrated, tackled it to the ground and jumped up and down on top of it, trumpeting victory. Leonard returned the magazine. His seat-mate took it, then tore it in half. For the rest of the trip, each time this man finished a magazine, he would look at Leonard and tear it first into halves, then into quarters, dropping the remains on the carpet under his feet. At Penn Station Leonard hailed a taxi, got in, and gave directions. His driver swiveled in his seat. "Relax," he said, "you've found a driver who's white and speaks English. You've hit the jackpot." In their apartment, Michael was sitting in the living room, taking his own blood pressure.

"Shh," he said, pumping the bulb. When he was finished, he showed Leonard the kitchen, the closets, the bedroom. Then he took him out to the garden. It was lovely. There were two chairs and a barrel table. Dark clouds moved across an even darker sky. There were birds and herbs, and even the many weeds were handsome and fresh-smelling. A cool breeze came up, drying the sweat on Leonard's forehead. He pictured himself here in summer, in winter. "Is it all ours?" he asked.

Michael nodded, pulling out one of the chairs. "There's a priest on the second floor who keeps wanting to plant things. Apparently, the last tenant let him keep his own flower bed."

"Should we let him?" Leonard asked.

"Of course not," Michael said, sitting down. His upper arm was still red from where the blood pressure apparatus had been wrapped around it. He had the Californian's matter-of-fact cruelty, which to Leonard seemed to come from learning to view human accidents not as catastrophes, but as inconveniences which tied up the freeway. "We probably pay five times the rent he does. If he wants a garden, let him find another apartment. He certainly can't use ours."


Waking, on the living room floor, in Michael's sleeping bag--Michael had taken the bedroom; this was only fair, he'd explained, since he'd found the apartment--Leonard realized he could not go on. He had thought that he could not face the AIDS exam. Now, though, he grabbed for the White Pages, and called the number for Department of Health HIV Information. A recorded voice came on and told him to wait, first in English, then in Spanish. Then radio music came on, exactly as though this were a department store he'd called, or some other cheery place. The first song was "Tonight's the Night." The second was "Dust in the Wind." Leonard slammed the phone down. Were they kidding? This morning he didn't think he could face the shower, the menacing, unexplored territory of his own skin. He pulled on shorts, a shirt, and ran out the door.

In the hallway, a man in a priest's outfit was getting his mail. Leonard's back stiffened. All spring long he had been especially nice to clergymen. It didn't even matter what denomination--if Leonard behaved correctly, they were bound to put in a good word for him with the agency for which they worked. He tried to slip past, but the man looked up and said, "Ahh, you must be Leonard. I'm Father Halliday." Father Halliday was in his sixties, bald, with rapidly blinking eyes and ears folded up intricately against his skull like bats wings. He inclined his head and spoke in a confiding, slightly effeminate voice: "Now, Michael told me to bring this up with you, he said you were the gardener. I'm a gardener, too, and as he may have mentioned, I have the most beautiful zinnias and begonias which I could plant in your garden, to give it a little color. What do you say?"

"I'd love to talk about it right now, but I'm late, I'm very sorry." Leonard kept moving. He didn't dare check his arms. And on Eighth Avenue, he didn't dare look at the little cluster of newspaper machines comparing headlines under a lamppost. In Georgetown, he had measured his moral progress by the number of Washington Post articles dealing with AIDS. The better he acted, the less likely there was to be one. On the subway, a swaying woman told a rambling story about her abusive, jailbird husband, as preamble to asking for money. Other riders--competitors? critics?--heckled her, for delivery and believability. Leonard gave a dollar. It was a moral toll charge. Alexa was waiting in her apartment on Perry Street. They kissed. Alexa was a tall, slim girl with arching eyebrows. She--solo in Leonard's acquaintance--had gone through the year unscathed by disease. She'd been unscathed by anything. She'd started the summer working for one magazine and, finding it boring, had switched in mid-winter to another. Disliking the Upper East Side, she'd moved down here. She was the sort of person who scented out what she wanted and then zeroed unswervingly in after it, like a hunting dog. She had zeroed in on Leonard at Georgetown. Now, she was zeroing in on giving her apartment a new coat of white.

As they painted--a sharp smell, rollers spraying up paint against their forearms and faces--Leonard couldn't help examining Alexa's arms and legs for dots and other tell-tale markings. That she could work so aggressively, with no hint at all of the terrible battle that might even then be raging within her (plucky white blood cells versus hordes of invading virus), made Alexa seem innocently brave. They painted in silence, one or the other of them occasionally journeying into the kitchen to change the radio station. Alexa seemed
irritated. After two hours, she said, testily, "Leonard, I wish you wouldn't keep staring at me that way."

"What way?" he asked.

"Like you wish I were someone else." Alexa swung around to face him. The ends of her hair were flecked with Glidden Spread Satin, and there was a fine dusting of white spots over her cheekbones, like freckles. Her eyes were narrowed, and her nostrils were dilating and shrinking, as they did when she scented outrage. "What do you want me to say, Leonard? I'm sorry I asked you to paint my apartment! I'm sorry I'm not your little freshman friend at Georgetown!"

Leonard said, timorously, "She was a junior." He felt that if he stuck to the facts, he would stay blameless.

Alexa advanced, stepping over paint cans and the aluminum foil roller tray. She put her hands on her hips. "And how you could sleep with one of your students I could never understand, either."

She was one of my friend's students, Leonard wanted to say. But with Alexa so close, so close that he could smell her--anger, sweat, and (vaguely) perfume, and paint--he was dazzled by the planes of exposed skin now revealed to him: collarbone, earlobes, jawline, there was so much territory to cover! Alexa's face contracted and expanded in disbelief. "See! You're doing it right now!"

What she couldn't understand was that he was checking his behavior by her condition. "Let's not talk about this right now."

"Why not? We have to talk about this. How can we ever stay together if we can't even talk to each other?" And Leonard understood; Alexa had zeroed in on marriage. The CD ended. Alexa, in her excess of anger, whirled into the kitchen, as if her stereo, too, had failed her. Leonard dropped his roller and walked out of the apartment.

His stomach was jumping all over the place. He began to walk uptown, towards his apartment. The presence of so many people on the street made Leonard feel less special, and thus less afraid. Taking a deep breath, he looked at his arms. They were covered with splotches. White, the hair matted. It was paint. But it was how the disease would look. Leonard took another deep breath. He tried to remember how he'd felt in Georgetown, in the fall, with the other girl, the wood smells, his own ease. It seemed a paradise he'd been ejected from. Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome. It was iambic pentameter. Recognizing this calmed him down, some.

He would have to become cruel. That, he saw, was the solution. God, perhaps, required that you be loving and nice, but the world required cruelty and indifference. Leonard thought of the racist cab driver, the man on the Amtrak, the passengers on the subway, even Michael and Alexa. They were all at home making demands, acting
selfishly, withholding things. If you were not cruel, Leonard decided, people would get anything out of you they wanted. You were a door with no locks, waiting to be ransacked. And this information, itself, seemed another doorway through which Leonard was passing.

At Twentieth Street he turned. Father Halliday was waiting on the sidewalk, in front of their building. As Leonard approached, he took a breath, and his eyes seemed to visibly consider strategies, and Leonard, panicking, head down, cut him off by saying, "Yes, yes, yes: please use our garden."

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