The End of The Beginning

The Agents of Death are restless and agitated. They demand fifteen names this time, and are shouting at us to finish “quickly, quickly!”

I was pretty safe last year, so I only add my name once. I am sitting, as usual, with Santiago. The dreaded “death music” plays on loop. Instead of choosing names from the hat and reading them immediately, the Agents take the hat and exit the cabin, leaving us to look around at each other, wondering what was happening. At first, I expect them to come back and tell us who they will be taking. But they don’t.

I glance around the room at each person, wondering how I’d feel if they were called. As my eyes rest briefly on each person, I have the sudden realization that there is not one table in the entire room that doesn’t have at least one person I care deeply about sitting there. My chest feels tight, and tears are already cascading down my cheeks. No, I think, I don’t want to lose anyone else. But I know that I can’t stop Death.

I stand up, wanting to hug my friends. I find Charlotte sitting next to Sorrento and lean down to embrace them both, tears running down my face.

When I straighten up, Nate approaches me. He straightens my shirt collar and smooths my hair, murmuring a soft, “There you go,” before moving on to someone else.

The next person I spot is Ike sitting at the table across from Charlotte. I go over and hug him tightly. He hugs me back. When I finally take a step back, he gives me a sad half-smile. I give the same sort of smile back and nod before squeezing his shoulder, speaking without words.

I look around for Artie. We make eye contact and immediately walk towards each other. He envelops me in a bear hug, and I squeeze him back.

I make my way around the room like this, stopping every few feet for a long, tearful hug. Saying goodbye is too much for me to bear thinking about: I’m simply looking to both give and receive comfort.

Nate is staring out the window, pretending to fix his hair as he wipes tears from his cheeks. I can tell that he is trying to be strong for everyone else. I go over and place a comforting hand on his shoulder. When he turns back around, his face is once again calm and composed. He wipes a tear from my cheek with a finger and smooths my hair again, smiling sadly. “There. All better,” he says soothingly, and turns from me to do the same for someone else.

I let him go. I can tell that he’s struggling not to lose it.

Finally, the Agents return. “Follow us,” one of them says. No names are called.

Together, we trudge toward the field where the coffins lay in the sunshine. The beautiful day seems almost mocking. I walk slowly, terrified to see whose names would be in those coffins. We are told to remain in a single file line. People are sobbing ahead of me. Dragging my feet, I take a deep breath and approach.

First, I see Eli and Max. I find no comfort or relief in seeing people I was not close with. Death is death.

The next name I see is Nate’s. Oh, god. Not him. I begin sobbing in earnest.

I keep walking, tears blurring my vision. The next coffin is Steven’s. I feel a small gut-punch upon seeing his name.

And lastly, Nick. Another friend.

I weep into a tissue forlornly, circling the coffins and and making my way back to the grassy field so that others can see who we’ve lost.

I am distracted from my own grief by a loud keening. It’s Sinclair. “NO!” he wails. His face is bright red and crumpled in grief, and he is barely able to stand. He is being held up by Ike and Ruben who stand on either side of him as he reaches out for Nate. I immediately go over to comfort him, but… how does one comfort a friend who has just lost the love of their life? I reach out and hug him, feeling helpless.

Nate finally appears and the two embrace. I step back and leave them to their goodbyes.

When I turn around, Steven is standing there. I throw my arms around him. “You changed my life,” I choke out between sobs.

“And you changed mine,” he replies. I look at him in amazement and gratitude, and my shoulders quake. He turns to allow others to embrace him, saying their own goodbyes.

“It’s time,” says the Angel of Death. Steven, Eli, Nick, and Max head to their coffins and lay down. Sinclair is weeping and clutching at Nate. Nate is attempting to extricate himself, but Sinclair refuses to let him go. “No! NO!” he shrieks, grasping at Nate’s arm.

Nate seems just as calm as he was earlier in the main cabin, though his eyes are shining and wet. He holds Sinclair by the shoulders, looking into his eyes and speaking quietly and earnestly. He closes Sinclair’s fist around something and manages to take a step back. Finally, he turns and walks to his coffin, his head held high like the Queen we all know he is.

Sinclair is inconsolable. “Wait!” His voice cracks as he pleads through his sobs, “Take me! Take me instead!” He has to be physically restrained by Ruben and Ike from throwing himself in Nate’s casket. The Angel of death simply bows their head in sorrow.

The Angel of Death finally speaks. “We are gathered here today to mourn the loss of Eli.” I hear someone sniffling behind me. “We are gathered here to mourn the loss of Max.” The Angel pauses between each name, looking around at the mass of grief. “We are gathered here today to mourn the loss of Steven.” I flash back to Steven’s speech last year. He really did change my life, and I am glad I had the courage to tell him. “We are gathered here today to mourn the loss of Nick.” I blow my nose and hand my packet of tissues to whoever is standing besides me. I don’t even look to see who it is; we all need them. “We are gathered here today to mourn the loss of Nate.” Sinclair cries out in anguish, falling to his knees. I and a few others try to help him up but he is inconsolable, crumpling to the ground in a heap of despair.

The Angel of Death’s voice seems to become even quieter as the final name is announced. “We are gathered here today to mourn the loss of Howard.”

My eyes widen. Howard, the kitchen boy? I’d kissed him once, in jest, simply because I’d been enjoying making him blush. Pepper, Priest and I all had a laugh when he’d backed away in shock and then his junk fell through the leg of his tiny shorts. He’d been mortified. I would smile now at the memory, if I weren’t so miserable.

As the ritualistic sounds of “Just A Little Lovin” reaches my ears, I am crying so hard that I can barely breathe. There is an ache deep in my chest, and I am turning to hug whoever is closest to me. Is this what people mean when they refer to heartache? I wonder. Everyone around me is also seeking out friends and loved ones for solace. I am both comforting others and being comforted in turn. Santiago, Artie, Charlotte, Sinclair, Ike and Ruben, Terrence, Enrique, Claire… everyone I love who is still here: we all mourn together.

Just a little lovin’
Early in the mornin’
Beats a cup of coffee
For starting off the day

Just a little lovin’
When the world is yawnin’
Makes you wake up feeling
Good things are coming your way

This old world
Wouldn’t be half as bad
It wouldn’t be half as sad
If each and everybody in it had, yeah

Just a little lovin’
Early in the mornin’
That little extra somethin’
To kinda see them through

Nothing turns the day on
Really gets it dawnin’
Like a little bit of lovin’
From some lovin’ someone like you

This old world
Wouldn’t be half as bad
It wouldn’t be half as sad
If each and everybody in it had

Just a little lovin’
Early in the mornin’
(Just a little lovin’)
(When the world is yawnin’)
Just a little bit of lovin’, ah
Oh, in the morning
Nothing turns the day on
Really gets it dawnin’
Make a little bit of lovin’
It’s so good, it’s so good

Casual Cruelty

After the ceremony, the kitchen staff brings out a tray of the Saratogan’s infamous Green Drink. Kohana calls out to those gathered. “The color green holds the energy of life and growth.”

Kim, standing by his side, continues for him as the tray gets passed around. “We are survivors and in this green and growing place, we take health and life into our bodies.”

Kohana speaks again. “Drink and become vital, become vibrant.”

They speak the last word together: “Live!”

I haven’t tried it before, but when the tray comes around, I shrug and take a cup. I take a swig and almost gag. God, that’s foul. I set the cup down gingerly and look around.

“Where’s Sinclair?” I say aloud, to no one in particular. I haven’t seen him in a while, which strikes me as unusual.

Francis, Artie’s best friend who happens to be standing nearby, answers me. “He got pretty high and wandered off somewhere.”

“What? Shit.” I take off down the path to find him.

Sinclair has not been doing well recently: he’s been fighting more and more often with his wife Mary, who keeps demanding that he spend less time campaigning and more time at home with her and their children. She doesn’t know that at least half the time he’s “campaigning,” he’s actually been at Club Diamond with Nate. And he’s been getting pushes from several of our friends to come out publicly, which he is not quite ready for. I know that he’s been feeling pulled in a hundred different directions, and lately he’s been turning to drugs to escape. I’ve been asking him to slow down, to no avail.

At this point I’m feeling pretty sober, though the Green Drink does seem to be having the effect of heightening my emotions. I’m worried about the article I’ve promised Ruben I’ll write, I’m worried about the spreading disease, and I’m worried about the friends who will inevitably get sick. But right now, I’m focused on worrying about Sinclair.

I peek into the Darkroom, but he’s not there. I head for the Pillow Room. I don’t bother taking my shoes off; I simply peek inside. He’s not there, either. I turn to check the private room that’s in the same cabin as the Pillow Room, and find myself face to face with Ike.

“Hey, Ike. Have you seen Sinclair?” I ask.

“Yeah, he’s fine,” Ike says.

“Where is he? I’ve been looking all over for him. I heard that he was… not in a good place.”

Ike glances over his shoulder, then back at me. “He’s fine. Don’t worry about it.” I realize that Ike is not just casually hanging out – he’s guarding the door.

I eye him suspiciously. “Are you sure?”

“Yeah. He’s with Ruben. They’re talking,” he says.

I relax. “Oh, okay. Good.” I trust Ruben. “Well, just… make sure he calls his wife, okay? She gets pretty upset when he’s out late and doesn’t call to tell the kids goodnight.” Ike nods, and I turn to go.

Just then, Chain walks in and marches straight up to Ike. “Where’s Sinclair? I need to talk to him.”

“He’s busy,” Ike says, firmly planting himself in front of the doorknob.

“Oh, come on,” Chain says. “I just want to talk to him.”

The door to the Pillow Room opens yet again. “Where is he?” Nate demands. Ike steps aside and lets Nate into the room he’d been guarding, then stands in front of it again, blocking Chain from following.

“What?” cries Chain. “Are you kidding me? Why does Nate get to go in?”

Ike sighs. “Because he’s Nate. Nate does what he wants.”

“What, does Sinclair need protecting? From you? You couldn’t even protect your own boyfriend from getting attacked,” Chain spits angrily.

Last New Year’s Eve, Ike and Ruben had ducked into an alley for a quick kiss. Unfortunately, they were spotted and attacked by some thugs who decided to “teach those fags a lesson.” In his fury and in trying to protect Ike, Ruben had ended up getting beaten so badly that he’d been airlifted to the hospital. He’d needed emergency surgery, and it was weeks before he could even speak. Even today, he still sometimes gets stuck on words or loses his balance.

I gasp at Chain’s callousness. I don’t know Chain well, but his words seem uncharacteristically cruel.

Ike shrugs, seemingly unperturbed by Chain’s comment. I hear a scramble behind the door, and Ruben bursts from the room. He advances on Chain, fists clenched. “What the FUCK did you just say to him?” he snarls. He’s standing so close that I can see bits of spittle land on Chain’s face.

“Ruben,” I say softly, laying my hands on his fists and gently pushing his arms back down to his side. He ignores me.

“How fucking dare you. Don’t you ever speak to him like that. EVER,” Ruben growls. His fists raise back up to his sides, and I push them down again before placing a hand on his shoulder. He is shaking with fury.

“Ruben,” I say again, gently. “Come on. You don’t want to do this.”

Thankfully, Chain seems to come to his senses. “You’re right. I should not have said that.” He turns to Ike.” I was very upset, but that’s not your fault. I’m very sorry.” He turns back to Ruben. “That was unfair of me. I apologize.”

Ruben scowls at Chain down for another moment without speaking, then turns and goes back into the room, pausing only to stroke Ike’s cheek briefly.