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

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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.

Simon Played Keyboard

Almost everyone who is attending the party has gathered around the bonfire. The luminaries that people have created are lined up on a table near the fire, the tea light candles inside each illuminating the art on the outside. Fittingly, Steven is the first to speak. “This is for Leon, and for Simon.” He pauses. “Simon played keyboard.” I smile sadly.

One by one, each person takes their luminary, speaks a few words, and throws it into the fire. I wait until those who were closest to the deceased have gone before I make my own statement. First, I look around the circle, pausing for just a split second on each person’s face, and quote a popular song: “We are family.” Then, in a more concise echo of the words Steven had shouted earlier that night, I add, “So, fucking act like it.” I’d meant to say more, to announce my decision to print an article in the Times and my wish to do more, but my throat closes up and my breath catches. Instead, I take a deep breath, toss my luminary into the fire, and step back to let someone else speak.

Steven’s Outburst

I am uncharacteristically quiet as I sit near the bar. I’ve long ago switched to beer, and there are several empty cans on the table in front of me. I’m normally a happy, horny drunk, but after everything that’s happened tonight, my thoughts have finally caught up to me.

I’ve been hiding from the fact that I’m scared. People are dying, and sooner or later it’s going to be someone I care about. I’ve been trying to avoid thinking about it by spending all of my time drinking and/or fucking, but it’s not working. Thinking about my conversation with Ruben, I wonder how I’m going to follow through on my promise without getting fired. But at least I’m doing something, I think. That’s the important thing.

“Katherine? I… oh, my god,” says Artie, noticing the empty beer cans on the table. “Are you okay? What are you doing?”

I’m fine,” I answer, staring out into the room. I don’t want to tell him what I’m thinking, especially not tonight, when we should all be having fun. I don’t want to ruin his party.

He puts a hand on my shoulder and bends down, studying my face. “No, you’re not. And this,” he gestures to the empty cans, “is unlike you. I’m worried about you.”

I smile up at him, squeezing his shoulder. “Seriously, I’m fine. These aren’t even all mine,” I lie. He looks dubious. “I’m gonna go check out the fire.” I kiss his cheek. “I love you, little brother. Go have fun. Get laid, or something.”

I step outside and walk over to the bonfire. Fire has always had a calming effect on me, and soon I am entranced by the flames. There are sounds of laughter and merrymaking all around me.

“WHAT THE FUCK!!”

I almost jump out of my skin as a very loud, very angry voice shouts through the din. I look up to see who is shouting. It’s Steven. He shouts again.

“What. The. FUUUUUUUUUUUCK!!! People have stopped speaking, and every eye is on him. “WHAT ARE YOU PEOPLE DOING. DO YOU HAVE ANY IDEA WHAT IS HAPPENING AROUND YOU?” The party has gone completely silent. “Simon was my friend, my brother, AND I DON’T EVEN KNOW WHAT INSTRUMENT HE PLAYED!” Steven pauses, his stare icy as he looks around. “No one told his brothers he was dying because they DIDN’T KNOW WE EXISTED. We live in too many fucking closets. People are passing out on stage and you just ignore it. The show must go on. It is all we have. Put it in a FUCKING CLOSET.” He glares at us, chest heaving. “We all promised we were going to make luminaries to honor our friends at midnight. Well, that’s in ten minutes, and no one has made a single one. Because we just PUT IT IN THE FUCKING CLOSET and go PARTY. Well, this is not all we have. WE ARE MORE THAN JUST A PARTY. So come out of your closets, do your fucking job and HONOR YOUR FRIENDS.” Steven turns on his heel and walks back inside. After a moment of shocked silence, several people follow him inside. There are soft murmurs through the rest of the crowd.

All at once, the emotions I’ve been trying to stifle catch up with me: fear of getting sick and dying, fear of my friends dying, shame at forgetting about the luminaries, guilt at not having done anything to help with the growing crisis. I barely knew Leon or Simon – with the exception of a few fleeting moments when Nate and I laughingly tried to convince Simon to dress in drag for last year’s Urban Renaissance performance – but Steven is right: they were part of our family. I decide to join the people who’d gathered inside and create a luminary.

There is a small group of party-goers sitting at one of the tables which has white paper bags, tea light candles, and markers strewn all over. They almost look like children at summer camp doing arts and crafts, were it not for the somber looks on their faces. I spot Steven sitting at the head of the table. He is speaking with a few people in hushed tones, and I feel a sudden overwhelming urge to hug him. So, I do. I stride over and touch his shoulder to get his attention. He barely has a chance to look up and see who is in front of him before I reach down and embrace him. Tears fill my eyes and spill over, and I squeeze him tightly for a long moment. When I step back, I look into his eyes and say, “Thank you.”

He looks startled but also grateful. “Thank you.

I wipe my eyes and take a seat at the table. “Pass me that marker, will ya?”

Drama in the Darkroom

I head back towards the Darkroom, where the crowd outside seems to gotten larger, to find out what I’ve missed. Before I get there, I hear a shriek of “What the fuck!?” and lots of commotion. When I arrive, I survey the scene in front of me: Claire is at the front of the crowd, tied to a cross and shaking slightly, and Sam is holding her. (I don’t know Sam, but I’ve heard stories: she’s Santiago’s ex, and she’s a troublemaker. I generally tend to steer clear of her.) Barbara, Claire’s girlfriend, is stalking away angrily. “Untie me!” Claire demands hysterically. Sam obliges, and Claire collapses in her arms. After a moment or two, Claire takes off, presumably to look for Barbara.

Steven is standing at the door to the Darkroom. He holds up his hands for silence, and the crowd obeys. “This was a contest for the women to prove that they are just as tough as men. Today, the women have shown us what they can do. Chain, take down that sign.” Chain removes the “MEN ONLY” sign from the door to the Darkroom and hands it to Steven. “From now on,” Steven continues, “women will be welcomed in our space.” He rips the sign in half symbolically. There are whoops and hollers all around.

Hmmm… interesting. I make a mental note of this, and then head back to the main lodge with the others for the drag show.