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

Advertisements

Ring of Remembrance

I am woken by a voice snarling, “That’s the last time I take care of him!” I open my eyes to see Fernando angrily throwing a blanket at Santiago and Nick before stalking out.

“What was that about?” I ask sleepily.

“Nothing,” Nick mutters. “I don’t want to talk about it.”

I yawn and stand up. “Suit yourself. I’m gonna get dressed and head over to breakfast before all the coffee is gone.”

When I arrive at the main cabin, Morgan is snapping pictures. People keep calling her name and posing. They are smiling, but there is a sense of urgency about it. “It’s the last big party for a while,” she explains. “And some of us might not be here for the next one.”

“That’s a great idea,” I say. “Would you actually mind getting a few with me and Santiago? Like… engagement photos?”

“Sure!” she says.

I grab Santiago and pull her over. She rolls her eyes, but agrees to pose for  a few pictures. I also get a few with Artie, Charlotte, and Sinclair.

“Thanks, Morgan!” She gives me a thumbs up and walks off, her camera still making popping sounds.

I start heading back inside to get a plate but pause when I see Terrence sitting on the steps. I sit down next to him. “Hey,” I say.

“Hey,” he says back. He’s twisting one of his rings again. We sit together in silence for a few moments.

“Nice ring,” I say nodding towards it.

He hesitates, then takes it off and hands it to me. “Take it,” he says. “I can’t bring it with me where I’m going, anyway.”

“Terrence–”

“What’s for breakfast?” he interrupts me.

“Terrence. Stop it. You are going to survive this,” I say fiercely.

“No, I’m not, and we both know it. So let’s just stop pretending. I’ve got my affairs in order; I’ve made sure that Morgan and some of the Saratogans are on the lease. I’m making sure that things continue once I’m gone. And besides,” he says, gesturing toward the ring in the palm of my hand, “let’s face it – that’s gonna look a lot better on you.”

I stop arguing – everyone knows that there is no arguing with Mr T. “Fine,” I say. I slip the ring on my middle finger and flip him the bird with it. “Now let’s go get some food.”

T and Me

Once Sinclair has headed back to his cabin, I peek into the Pillow Room. Fernando is there, but it is otherwise empty. “Quiet in here,” I remark.

“Yeah,” he says. “I think everyone else has headed off to bed.”

“Hmm. I’m not ready for bed yet. I’m gonna take a stroll around and see if I can find anyone.”

“I just did that a little while ago. I guess it’s possible, but seems unlikely,” he says.

“Couldn’t hurt,” I say.

I stop in the Darkroom first. The lurid gay porn is still playing, but the cabin is otherwise empty. I’ve never seen it so quiet; it’s almost creepy. I walk back out and head over to the main lodge. The grounds are quiet. I’ve resigned myself to heading back to the Pillow Room and sleeping alone, but stop in the main lodge anyway, just to make sure. I am surprised when I hear voices talking quietly.

“Hello?” I call out.

“Hey, babe,” I hear Santiago’s voice from one of the tables in the back. She is sitting and chatting with Sorrento. I sit down next to her and lay my head on her shoulder as she and Sorrento chat. A few moments later, Nick and Terrence walk in.

“Hey guys,” says Terrence. “What are you doing up?”

“I’m just waiting for my fiance to come to bed,” I answer. “What have you two been up to?” Nick flushes, and I laugh. I stand up. “I’m going to sleep,” I say, kissing Santiago’s forehead. “I can barely keep my eyes open. I’ll be in the Pillow Room, if you want to join me.”

“Is that invitation open to the public?” Terrence teases.

“Sure,” I say, “The Pillow Room is public domain. There’s plenty of room!”

“That sounds like it could be fun,” says Santiago, looking around. “Let’s all go!”

“Yeah, why not?” says Terrence. Nick shrugs.

I raise an eyebrow. “You fags wanna come cuddle with the lesbians tonight?”

“Not me,” says Sorrento. “You guys have fun!”

The four of us traipse off to the Pillow Room, which is empty. I guess Fernando found something else to do after all, I think to myself. I lay down with the pillow and blanket that I’d dropped off earlier. Santiago lays on one side of me, Terrence on the other. Nick lays on the other side of Santiago.

I turn onto my side and snuggle into Santiago, facing Terrence. Nick and Santiago are deep in conversation. I’m tired, but content to stay awake and chat now that I’m finally horizontal.

“So, you and Nick, huh?” I grin.

“Yeah, well. You know me…” he says.

“I sure do!” I answer. “You are the founder of these parties, after all.”

He is quiet for a moment. “Sometimes I wonder if they were a mistake. With all of the sex and everything…” his voice trail off.

No,” I say emphatically. “Terrance, these parties are where so many people have met and developed friendships and relationships. Hell, it’s where Santiago and I finally got together, and it’s where I proposed to her. Did you think that was spur of the moment?”

He smiles. “No, I guess not. Charlotte would never let you do something so big without planning every moment of it.”

“So true!” I pause, then reach out and take his hand. “It’s not your fault, you know, I say softly. “The disease? It would have spread regardless. But your parties brought people together.”

He squeezes my hand briefly. “They brought Kimberly and I together,” he says.

“I know,” I say. “She told me.”

He is twisting one of the rings he always wears, and I am suddenly nervous. Terrence never fidgets. “Terrance?”

“I’m positive,” he blurts out.

I freeze in shock. “What?”

“Yeah. I found out earlier today. I don’t expect to be around much longer, honestly.”

I feel as though the wind has been knocked out of me. Terrance? He’s one of my oldest friends. He’s a condescending know-it-all pain in my ass, but he’s my friend, and I can’t imagine the world without him.

“Don’t cry,” he says. “It will be okay.”

“I’m not–” I blink. Shit. I am. I wipe my eyes furiously. “This sucks.”

“It does,” he agrees.

“We’re gonna find a cure, though. We’re gonna get this place opened up and then–”

“Let’s not worry about the future,” he interrupts me. “Let’s enjoy the here and now.” He leans forward and kisses me.

I’m overwhelmed at the sudden surge of passion and tenderness that flows through my body. I kiss him back, wrapping my arms around him tightly.

“I don’t want to– can we just–” I struggle to find the right words.

“Of course,” he says. Changing the subject, he says, “Hey, did you see the shirt Eli was wearing earlier?”

We talk all night. It starts getting light out before my eyelids become too heavy to keep open anymore, and I succumb to a restless sleep.

Spending Pink Dollars

In the time between 4th of July 1983 and New Year’s Eve 1984, there was a string of events that were not played out by actual scenes, but were decided by the players. Katherine decided to not only print one article in the Times, but to go out with a bang: she paid off some of the staff at NYT to help her publish an entire Sunday edition dedicated to educating people about the ongoing AIDS crisis. The front page headline splashed, “NYT Editor Katherine Stockton Comes Out As Lesbian”. Sinclair Everett also came out publicly, and the infamous interview with him was included in this issue. (He consequently was divorced by his wife Mary, who was awarded custody of their two young children.) There were obituaries and memorials for Simon, Leon, Trevor, Kimberly, and Abner – though oddly, Katherine never was able to find a copy of Abner’s poem that she’d promised to publish. Before Kimberly died, she headed out to San Francisco along with Eli and Dawn for a project photographing people in poverty and those who were sick and dying from AIDS. Sadly, she died before the project was finished – she got sick while on the road and passed away shortly after flying back to New York. Katherine included many of those pictures in the paper as well, along with a long memorial dedicated to her friendship with Kimberly. Included in the memorial was a picture of Katherine holding Cassandra Kimberly, Charlotte’s infant daughter, whose middle name was in honor of her late “Auntie.” Katherine was of course fired from her post at the Times, but she had been expecting it and was prepared. She freelanced a few articles for Out magazine with Nick’s help, as well for an LGBT magazine called The Advocate. When she wasn’t freelancing, she was writing grant proposals for the new Saratoga Center, and was spending most weekends on-site helping out with whatever needed doing. She had far less less money, but far more passion for her work, and she felt more alive than she had in years.

No Escape From Death

I honestly don’t remember a lot about the morning after of 1983. It’s pretty hazy. I remember the ominous music, and I remember the Agents of Death demanding thirteen names instead of ten this time. I remember giving them three tickets again, especially since I’d been unprotected not only with women, but with men. I remember holding my breath as I listened to Pepper calling out people’s names. More than half of them were people that I knew and had recently interacted with in some way: Evelyn, Pen, Enrique, Mr T, Steven, Ruben, Abner, Trevor, Nick, Walter, Claire, Max… and Kimberly.

I remember my shock when I hear Kimberly’s name called, and my denial. There’s no way she’s going to die, I thought. She’s part of my group, one of my girls. I’m going to go down to the funeral field and she’s going to be fine. I think I really believed that, too… right up until I saw her laying in her coffin.

I remember waiting as the music continued playing, the only sounds in the room sobs and people shuffling about as they hugged and consoled each other. I remember the feeling of suspense as I wait for the Agents to come back and escort us down to the field where we would learn who passed. I remember the feeling of dread as I pause to peek into each coffin. The first one I stop at is Abner’s. I barely knew him, but he was a friend of Santiago’s, and I’d recently chatted with him about the possibility of including one of his poems in the Times alongside Sinclair’s interview.

I fling a flower onto his chest angrily. “Fuck you, Abner. And I’m still going to print your–” my voice cracks, “–stupid poem.”

I know before I even get there. Kimberly is nowhere to be found… she’s in one of these other caskets. I find her just behind Abner’s and look down for a moment, sobbing. I place a flower gently on her unmoving chest. “You fucking moron!” I gasp out between sobs. “I told you to be careful!” I am crying so hard that I can barely get the words out. But… it doesn’t matter.

The Agents call us back to begin the funeral. The Angel of Death stands before us once again. “We are gathered here today to mourn the loss of Trevor.” It’s the same as last year: people hugging and sobbing. “We are gathered here today to mourn the loss of Abner.” Grief, fear, determination, anger, sadness… all are present. “And we are gathered here today to mourn the loss of Kimberly.” As tears stream down my face, all of my emotions war for dominance.

I wonder which one is going to win.

Sleeping Alone, Again

I head back to my cabin, finally ready for sleep. I’ve just finished changing into my pajamas and brushing my teeth and arranging my blankets when Kimberly comes in. She gathers up her blankets and pillow.

“Where are you going?” I whisper curiously.

“To sleep in the Pillow Room,” she answers. “It’s more comfortable sleeping on the floor than on these horrible bed frames. Besides,” she flashes me a grin, “there are people to snuggle. You should come!”

I pause. “That’s… tempting.” I glance from Kimberly, to my cot, and back to Kimberly again. I yawn and take another step toward my cot.

“Seriously, you should come,” she says again.

“That is very tempting…” I say again. I take one more glance at her, then say, “Okay, fuck it. Wait for me.”

I gather up my blankets and pillow and follow Kimberly across the lawn, barefoot in the darkness. When I arrive, Santiago is there, gathering her things and putting on her shoes. Fernando lay in a corner, Nick massaging his back. Kimberly disappears into the private room.

“Hey, babe.” I greet her with a kiss. “I decided to sleep here. It will be more comfortable than the cots, and there’s so much room to snuggle! You should stay here with me.”

“Hmm, that sounds nice… but I promised Sorrento a quick chat before bed,” she says. Seeing my face fall in disappointment, she quickly says, “but I’ll come back. When I’m done.”

“Okay.” I kiss her again. “Goodnight.” I lay down and close my eyes, knowing full well that Santiago won’t be back tonight. My mind whirls, replaying the events of tonight over and over again in my head. I fall asleep to the sounds of Fernando and Nick whispering in the corner, feeling lonely and wishing that my girlfriend was there with me.

Challenge Accepted

I sidle up to where Santiago is chatting with some people and nudge her. “Am I glowing?” I ask in a low voice.

She glances up and studies my face for a moment, then exclaims an incredulous, “Already!?” I laugh. If I didn’t know any better, I’d swear she sounded jealous.

Still gloating, I saunter off, scoping out the rest of the party-goers. After a few moments, I spot Nick, a former co-worker from the Times.

“Hey, Katherine!” he says.

“Nick! So good to see you! What are you up to these days?” We make small talk for a few moments. I’m barely listening as we make niceties; years of my grandmother throwing parties for New York’s wealthiest has helped me perfect the art of pretending to be engaged when I’m not really all that interested. He tells me about some magazine he’s working for, how it’s been hard to get funding, etc. I nod and smile pleasantly, throwing in an occasional “hmm,” or “uh huh” in all the right places.

“What would really help is if I could get an interview with Sinclair,” Nick continues.

That gets my attention. “With Sinclair?” I glance over and notice that, much like a bloodhound, Claire seems to have found her way back to him. From the look on his face, she is grilling him once again. “Huh. Well, let’s go talk to him. I’ll introduce you.”

Nick’s eyes go wide. “Really?” he gasps. “That would be amazing!”

“Sure, come on,” I said, heading over towards where Sinclair is standing. “He’d probably love to help you out.”

I lead Nick over to Sinclair. “Sinclair, have you met Nick? He used to work with me at the Times.” The men shake hands, and Nick launches into his pitch. I space out a bit, scanning the rest of the party, cataloguing faces both new and old. I snap back to the conversation when I realize Sinclair is shaking his head uncomfortably.

“Out Magazine? I’m not sure that’s such a good idea…” Oh. Shit. I’d heard of it, it was a gay-centered magazine. Whoops. Perhaps my listening-without-listening skills aren’t as good as I’d thought.

“Perhaps the Times would be a better platform for this interview,” I interrupt. Sinclair nods in relief, agreeing with me. I see Terrence out of the corner of my eye. I should go say hello, I think. I clap a hand on Sinclair’s shoulder before I amble off. “I’m sure you guys can figure something out, though.”

“Terrence!”

“Katherine!” He kisses my cheek.

“Excellent party, as always! But, poor Sinclair. That Claire girl is badgering him and threatening to out him to his wife. We should do something.” I lean in conspiratorially. “Blackmail, perhaps? Do you have any dirt on her?”

Terrence shakes his head. “We’re not gonna blackmail her. Look, it’s fine. I’m the one who told her.”

My mouth drops open. “What?? Why would you–”

He cuts me off. “It’s fine. She needed to know. Don’t worry about it, it will all be fine!” He pats my shoulder condescendingly and walks off.

I watch him walk off, shaking my head in disbelief. “I hate it when he treats me like his stupid kid sister,” I mutter aloud to myself.

I make my way back to my friends, who are chatting with Morgan. Morgan is a feisty woman who comes off as a bit rough. She’s loud, she says what’s on her mind, and she knows how to get what she wants. I like her. But I am not really listening to the conversation; I’m already scanning the crowd for new prey. Claire was just too easy.

“Who’s that girl in the copper skirt?” I asked.

Morgan glances over and laughs. “Oh, good luck with that one – that’s Evelyn. She’s Chain’s sister, and she’s straight. Part of the Saratoga crowd.”

My eyes linger. “Straight, huh? Are you sure?”

Morgan laughs again. “Katherine, there’s your challenge for tonight,” she teases. “I’d love to see you try to seduce Evelyn.” Santiago and Charlotte look amused. Welp. I never could resist a challenge.

“I accept!”