“The Speed of Love” is in conversation with a Tracy K. Smith poem, “The Speed of Belief.”
My boyfriend Gael’s arm encircles mine as we walk up and down the long, cool hallways of the oncology ward. I don’t lean against him. I keep my hands on my walker. I’m a man, after all.
It’s hot outside on the West Side of LA, but the air conditioner is like a fridge. This place is all white walls, generic prints. I pay a lot to have a private suite and not be separated by a flimsy curtain from some sad, screaming old man with Medicare doctors and night terrors.
Today, I don’t mind my accommodations as much because Gael is finally visiting. Through the entry, Gael steps in front of me, his jeans tight. I can see the nurses watch his butt bob up and down, though not my nurse. She’s got her head buried in paperwork. I grimace because Gael is mine.
In my room, Gael’s pecs stretch against his vest when he tries to help me into bed. The mattress is raised too high, but I shove his arm away. I jiggle and flop like a trout, but I get there. I’m on the bed. Gael stands, crossing and uncrossing his arms.
Doctor Sanduthi walks in. Foreigners like us make the best doctors. He’s carrying CAT scan images that he waves in front of my face like walking papers. “Mr. Lee,” he says.
“Call me Irving.”
“I’m sorry to tell you this, but the tumor’s metastasized.” He holds up one of the CAT scans. “Even if we could resect the liver tumor, there would be no way to remove all the affected lymph nodes or the lesions in your brain. The radiation treatment last month was our final alternative.”
Gael stretches toward me. The drizzling of hair on his fingers ripples when he moves his hand to my leg. “How long does he have?”
“A month, give or take. Toward the end, we expect some new symptoms.” Doctor Sanduthi’s still not looking at me. I might become confused and disoriented. I might lose motor function.
“Listen, smart guy.” I whip my palm in his direction.
“Please don’t get agitated, Mr. Lee. I’ll need you to sign some forms. Is there anybody else you’d like me to call?” He stares at Gael like he doesn’t quite know what to do with a 20-year old hanging out with a bag of bones three times his age.
I grope around, searching for something to throw at the doctor’s pin-sized head. There’s nothing within reach.
Gael pales. Doctor Sanduthi moves away. What a numb nut, and they say he graduated from UCLA.
As soon he leaves, Gael says, “Irving, sweetie, it doesn’t make sense for you to go home. Your bedroom is on the second floor. I wouldn’t be able to carry you up.” He examines one of his biceps. “What about a hospice?” A vein throbs in his neck.
I hate the thought of those lonely, half-dead people. Gael plants a moist kiss on my cheek. I lean my head against the thin pillows, and my neck feels like it’s about to cramp. His gold-flecked eyes are glowing. I wish he’d kissed me on the lips.
“Why are you all dressed up, Gael?”
He fiddles with the orchid he brought me. It hasn’t bloomed yet. Its pink buds are tight and withdrawn against a frail ochre stem. Those silly plants die like that’s their job.
“You’ve got a lot to think about. You’ve got to prepare.”
Prepare for what, Gael? I think.
He gazes at me from under his long, curling lashes. I want to pluck them out like the petals of a forget-me-not. He walks to my closet. I watch his ass, and I feel myself start to get it up. I get hard for Gael, every time.
“Why don’t we fuck, Gael? No rubber.”
“Do you think that’d be good for you?”
I try to chuckle, but the sound doesn’t make it past my windpipe. Instead, I start hacking and can’t stop. Coughs wrack my body, I’m shaking so hard. I have to get it all out. Spittle comes flying out of my mouth. A drop lands on his face. He wipes it off quick.
“Just leave me alone, Gael. I know you don’t want to be here.”
Behind the tiny rectangular window in the door, my nurse lifts up a cup of grapefruit juice and wiggles it as if she’s toasting me.
Gael knows I’m not strong enough to fuck him. I try to remember the joke about the three guys who walked into a bar that he used to tell me. Gael loves to laugh.
“Hey Gael, the past, present, and future walk into a bar. What happened?”
His answer is “Ta-Ta.”
He’s already out the door.
I’ve knocked over a Styrofoam cup on my nurse’s counter.
“Honey, why don’t you go to your room?” My nurse squints at my scabby legs through steel-rimmed spectacles.
I’m standing at her station clutching my walker. The three tubes inserted in my arm are attached to an IV bag hung on the walker pole. The tubes are leashes. All I can do is wait for Gael. It’s been two weeks since he visited. I’m not going to a hospice.
“Who’s taking me for my walk?”
“Mr. Lee, this isn’t a hotel.”
“I’ll check out in a couple weeks.”
“Mr. Lee, visiting hours only last for 30 minutes. You wouldn’t want to miss any of your visitors, right?” She’s wiping up the floor, her smile gray in the fluorescent light. She should use some whitening toothpaste.
“Take. Me. On. My. Walk,” I say. I use all the strength I have left in my arms to pound the walker against the tile floor.
I pound, pound, pound.
I can’t stop thinking about Gael. My nurse drops me off at the cafeteria, dumping me at a corner table. The surface is littered with crumpled plastic cups and unidentifiable crumbs.
She says, “I’ll see you in about 15 minutes.”
I sit there for at least a good half hour. I can’t make it by myself to the elevator. I hear a Code Blue over the loudspeakers. My nurse is probably doing CPR on some poor S.O.B.
The vending machines hum. So does the dumbwaiter. I like the little sounds. Gael used to tease me that one moment of silence was too long for me. I can be silent when I’m in my casket. I watch the scrolling dumbwaiter. I count the trays.
The lunch crowd ebbs out. I fantasize about the fine hairs on Gael’s arm. They glisten after he comes back from the gym. There’s one grown-up who’s also sitting at a dirty table, but he doesn’t seem to mind. A bag of chips leaks out its contents right in front of him. He’s in a wheelchair. He looks like a lifer, like me. He looks at me looking at him.
“Do you ever go out to the courtyard and see the stars at night?” he asks. He’s ugly by any standards. His teeth are crooked. His lips are dry. Loose packages of skin hang off his arms.
I don’t respond to rhetorical questions. Instead, I concentrate on a little bowl of Jell-O that remains when the dumbwaiter returns. The Saran Wrap is still on it, and the quivering, red cubes look alive. A curlicue of whip cream is smashed on the top. I bet it would taste sweet and creamy if my taste buds weren’t fried.
“You’d think people wouldn’t want to fly to the moon anymore,” he says.
The ones who are losing their minds are the worst. They seem like they’re going to die, but they can hang on forever.
“Why’s that?” I ask.
“Because people are trying to find something that they haven’t discovered yet. Take the moon. Why would you want to go when it’s already been discovered?”
“Moon charts are sold 20 minutes away in Hollywood.”
He doesn’t laugh. His eyes shift toward the ceiling. His neck cranes upward like a swan before flight. I feel like we’re at a planetarium, and he’s the narrator. He’s observing some invisible shift of the cosmos, about to start a lecture.
“A lot of people are out there seeking peace,” he says.
“Seeking means you haven’t found it yet.”
“You can feel the moon every night.”
“I never said that.”
He follows my eyes to the Jell-O. He’s flexing his fingers repeatedly. Clearly he has muscle spasms. His hand is a web of lines. The skin on his knuckles is so dry it’s about to bleed.
My joints hurt a little as I shuffle to the dumbwaiter. The red Jell-O plate is coming toward us again. It’s revolved through almost a dozen times since we started talking. It’s the only food remaining. I pick it up, and since my hands are swollen from the IV treatments, I have to hold it with both hands outstretched like I’m giving the last Magic 8 ball in the world to some kid for their birthday.
“What’s your name?” I ask him.
“Mario,” he says.
“Are you hungry?”
I may not be much good these days, but I concentrate my energy to that central point deep inside of me. It’s something I learned when my mom made me play Hanon scales. When I tired, she’d sit down and play them herself.
I manage to hold the Jell-O still. I peel the Saran Wrap from the Jell-O. I want to offer him magnificence.
I feed the Jell-O to him, hand to mouth. It seems like it could be gross, but it’s not. The whole time I’m memorizing his face, the craters his acne made, mapping it all out.
I want to talk. I page my nurse and let her know on a bright September morning. A month, and I’m not dead. Out the window I see a motley crew of pigeons huddled together. They’re shivering. My window ledge has so much shit that it destroys the view of the parking lot.
I hear her voice, brusque and metallic through the intercom. “I’ve asked you more than once not to page me unless it’s important.”
“Blah. Blah. Blah. Did you want to give me an enema? I want to visit Mario. Bring chocolate. We’ll talk, like girls.”
Seconds later, she is in my room with an oatmeal raisin cookie. She rips open the wrapper and bites a chunk. Her eyes are bloodshot from the night shift, and she’s slapped on bright, queen red lipstick. Whenever I dressed up at home for Gael, I’d wear the same color with a matching dress.
She sits on the bed, her legs too long to dangle, not graceful even a little bit. “Spit it out. I’m on a double.”
She loves hospital gossip. I see her in these busybody huddles with the other nurses on a regular basis. One time, I overheard somebody saying that my nurse’s boyfriend left her. I don’t know if what I heard was right. She emerged pale, trembling, red-nosed, from a bathroom later that day.
“I met somebody. It’s true,” I say.
“Is it the guy with the burn mark across his face?” she asks. “Ralph, the paramedic? His nose doesn’t match his eyes.”
The litany of names goes on. She calls out a half dozen doctors, says that Dr. Sanduthi ogles her sometimes. Just this way, she says. She runs her hand along her lips. I tell her she should smile more often. Her smile falls like cake onto a clean floor.
I’d raise a finger to interrupt, but I can’t move all my body parts. My words come out funny, so I enunciate slowly.
“I want to see Mario.”
“Oh honey,” she says.
“Take me,” I say.
“He has AIDS.”
But I do.
In the month after our first date at the dumbwaiter, Mario and I are inseparable. When he grins, I see the silver caps and wide gaps.
Mario and I can’t leave the building, but we imagine riding bicycles together. He bikes with me through Boyle Heights, pointing to the taqueria on the corner, the church his family has been going to for the last 20 years, to the apothecary that’s being driven out by a CVS.
“Irv, over there, past the 5, you can see the LA River. It’s so bright, no?”
I tell him about places he’s never been. I tell him about Barcelona and Gaudi, the Fundació Joan Miró and that singular moment in the gallery when I imagined that Miró’s jumbled lines were a slew of kites soaring from the wall. I share the time I went to a Turkish bath and walked out naked into the hotel lobby. He’s a local boy, so he likes it best when I tell him about the time I ran into OJ Simpson in Brentwood.
“What did OJ say?” Mario asks again.
“He asked to sign my ball.”
He tells me that I’m a rich cabrón, and he hopes that next week we can spin down the 101 in my Porsche convertible. I can almost feel the wind whipping my hair.
We goof off, ram wheelchairs into a broken soda machine near the stairs. We zip away with free chocolate bars and Sun Chips. We get the leukemia brats to push us on the wheelchairs through the third floor. We race, and when a kid wins, we secret them to the basement, where the morgue is. The kids love the dead. The kids plead to go inside, but you need a card key.
“Irving will let you in when he dies,” Mario says, jerking a crusty finger in my direction.
“Yeah,” I say. “When I come back as a ghost, I’ll let you in for sure.”
The kids scream and run away as Mario and I chase them down the hall.
Mario and I take the elevator to the atrium that overlooks the hospital courtyard. It’s morning, and there aren’t that many people around, just a bleary-eyed couple holding a baby, a short-haired woman scratching her hair, and a security guard whose feet are up on his desk.
In the background is an upright Yamaha piano, its black paint dinged-up and dull. It’s automatic, so it plays itself. Boring classical music filters through the air.
The hospital is on water conservation alert. Instead of grass, the gardeners placed stones on the ground behind the piano.
He takes my hand, and we smile at each other. He puts his head on my shoulder and tells me that he’s tired. He closes his eyes, and we both fall asleep.
When we wake up, we go back to my room and play Cutthroat with my nurse. She’s a shifty one, and the only way I can beat her is if I cheat, which I do.
Mario’s looking me right in the eye when he says, “Irving, I’m not gay.”
I move my head to the side, and heat shoots up my face.
“You’re so gay.”
“I don’t know what I am, Irving,” he says. “Does it matter?”
I wonder what I’m doing when I ask him, “Do I matter, Mario?”
“Irving, right now, pick up the deck.”
I have a trap door there in my insides.
My nurse’s eyes are soft. Her mascara is running. Why didn’t I notice that she had makeup on?
It’s been a few days since Mario became a straight guy. I’m worried about him. I ask my nurse through the intercom to take me to see him. She says it’s not a good idea. I page her about 10 times. She comes in and says that she wants to help me get out of bed.
She empties my bedpan and washes my cock with a soft, green cloth. I relish the moment the cloth rubs against my balls.
“Irving, I’m tired today. How about a chair?” She’s got bags under her eyes so I say yes. One of the brakes on the chair is broken. She pushes the chair forward. Crick. The wheel squeaks a little louder. Crick. We veer a little left. It’s there, a stutter in my lungs.
She stops on the third floor and picks up a bag of M&M’s.
When we get to the elevator, she leans over me. She whispers, “We’ll be at his floor soon. I brought some flowers for you.”
I’m too tired to say everything I’m thinking.
She pushes the thick wooden door open. There’s a rush of laughter, warmth, like bubbles or foam.
At least a dozen people, a few of them children, all turn towards me with varying expressions of surprise. The talking stops, but the radio blares a Maná song.
My nurse clears her throat. “Excuse us, Irving and I were just looking for Mario Cruz.”
“Sí, soy Mario.” The voice emanates like a rumble. The mob parts in slow steps. He’s sitting up. His skin is smooth and glows with peach undertones. His lips are moist. His eyes are beyond me, rising far away.
My nurse and I shuffle back.
“Mario, don’t you want to say hi to Irving?” She steps in front of me while she asks, her body blocking Mario. Somebody turns off the Maná.
A voice calls out, “Mario made himself an old friend.” Scattered laughs.
My nurse is talking to Mario, “Don’t you want to celebrate the Winter Solstice with Irving? All the patients have extra visiting privileges.”
It’s autumn. She’s so dumb. I can tell Mario doesn’t believe her anyway. I’ll buy her a Farmers’ Almanac.
Mario gazes at some fixed point over my head.
I hear, “Sí, sí. Escuchen todos, este es mi amigo, Irving.”
My friend, Irving. I do speak Spanish. I’m not a heathen.
I pee in my bed. On purpose.
I shit in my bed. It isn’t on purpose. But I don’t care.
I don’t drink the orange juice, or the ginger ale. I don’t drink the water. I don’t eat the sandwich. I don’t touch the double chocolate devil cake, but somehow I’m able to squish it into a pulp with a plastic fork.
They put me on IV fluids only. Dr. Sanduthi says, “Irving, your body has weakened because you haven’t eaten in the past five days. I’ll have to leave this IV attached. If you would like us to send for any family, we can. Also, I can offer you the services of our hospital chaplain, or a therapist. Nod if you understand me.”
If it’s the last thing I do, I’m going to knock over this Jell-O. It’s staring at me. I hate it.
You point the metal chassis over at the moon, or Mars, or some other celestial body.
If you’re wearing glasses, you’ve got to take them off. We all come equal to a
telescope; we all get another eye. You look through the long, cylindrical darkness.
At the end of it are these points of light. Maybe you take your eye away from the
scope for a brief moment. When you return, you notice how the moon
is your own face. You stare at the dark spots until your eye gets tired.
You pull back. You realize everything is so small. Everything fits into the black.
Is it Winter Solstice yet? No?
Dressing me for my funeral is going to be hard. My toenails are long so she’s going to have to clip them. The whole of me has curled up into a ball. I bet when Dr. Sanduthi calls out the time of death, he’ll notice my nurse is crying. I’m going to root for him to kiss her. A tender kiss because he’s never really seen her before, and the moment you see somebody that you see all the time for the first time, it’s so tender you have to close your eyes. Gael won’t be there because he and I both know that I’m not leaving him anything. Once somebody leaves you when you’re dying, that’s it.
I push Mario in his wheelchair through the basement and then up to the first floor. When we get to the atrium, I feel a pang in my chest. It’s midnight. The night guard is asleep. A woman with bloody hands in a surgical scrub sticks her head down between her knees. Another woman is holding a man against her bosom. I hear him sobbing, “My baby, my baby.”
I wheel Mario to the main opening where plush sofas rest under a high archway. We lift our heads, admiring the spiral staircase winding around and around, a seashell curving. Up through the skylight, we can see the pink of the Los Angeles night, the almost-stars.
One entire wall of the lobby has been removed and replaced with glass paneling to highlight the hospital courtyard. In the center of the garden, carefully cultivated plants bloom, fragrant and dangerous. Against the glass, facing out the window, is a magnificent Kawasaki baby grand piano, buffed and polished until its black shines.
Mario says, “The doctor says you’ve only got a couple weeks.”
“I’m worried because I’m an amateur astronomer, and you’re a professional.”
His silence is sharp. Maybe he’s letting something inside unwind, get loose. I’m scared. I wheel him over to the piano, and somehow we heave him onto the piano bench. I sit next to him.
“Irving, I’m married.”
I don’t know where he’s going with this.
“My whole life’s been a secret.”
I clasp my hand over his and tell him, “You know I used to wear glasses. But I like it better this way.”
“You sell yourself short.” He’s coiling up, angry. “Do you know what you’re living for? The particles of time are infinite, but they trickle. Everything we do feels like anti-medicine. Go to work. Come home. Do the chores. Play with the kids. You’re the break in my routine. I don’t have much time, but I’m grateful a Dios, for you. My gift.” Mario’s eyes are wet. “But I can’t love you the way you love me.”
It’s cold outside at night, but during the day the sun rises overhead and scorches everything on the landscape.
I put his shoulders in a vise. “You’re not making any sense. You don’t love me? You can’t love me? Which one is it?”
Mario sinks backward into the wheelchair, wrapping the heavy blankets around him like a little kid afraid of the dark. He is already shrinking, becoming more distant. We are resuming our old orbits.
“I’m good on the piano. Can you hear me?” I ask.
It’s an impulse. A neuron that fires once in some faraway world but somehow reaches this one. My lifetime feels to me as if it’s something I didn’t choose.
Gael isn’t here with me, I know, but I see him. “Let me show you something, Gael,” I say.
“Anything,” he says.
I face forward at the piano. I fluff out my coattails. I lift my hands high and descend on the keys. This is how my mother started the music. I put my shoulders into it, curve at the waist, spin and rotate in a wild loop. My fingers speed up and down, dancing. I close my eyes. I bend the octaves, stretch my thumbs and pinkies, slamming the chords. I diminuendo through the treble clef and crescendo down the low, laughing. We smile at each other. The rhythm sounds just like this: the upbeat after the downbeat. He’s kissing me, and everything comes toward us, the steepest lift, the sheerest drop, here in the universe where we can glitter forever, a constellation blinking on and off, rising with the melody, crying out, sharp, high at the edges.
I keep playing the music, even though it’s loud and dreadful. I don’t know how to stop.