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A novel about reincarnation and love
Christmas, 1983: A young man, Robert, tends to his soul mate, Keith, who is dying from AIDS. Robert tries valiantly to make this a special Christmas for his lover, but loses the fight late Christmas night. Christmas, 2007: Robert ventures out late Christmas night and finds a young girl about to fling herself into the unforgiving waters of Lake Michigan. He rescues her, and the two form a bond forged from an odd feeling they share of familiarity, and even love. Neither understands it, since Jess is a lesbian and Robert has never been attracted to women. But there's more...Jess begins having strange dreams, reliving key moments she couldn't know about in Keith and Robert's life and courtship. Robert and Jess begin to wonder if their inexplicable feelings might be rooted in something much more mystical than a savior/victim relationship. As the two move toward and pull away from each other, Ethan, Robert's younger lover, plots the unthinkable. His crystal meth-addled mind becomes convinced there's only one way to save himself, and that is through Robert's destruction. Christmas 2007 spirals downward to a shattering climax in which both love and lives hang in the balance. There's a murder attempt...salvation...redemption...and a new love is born...
IT WAS CHRISTMAS, 1983. Robert looked outside the bedroom window. Snow was beginning to fall on Lake Michigan; the gray churning waters eating it up as fast as the sky could make it. Below, the traffic on Lake Shore Drive was spare: no commuters hurrying to work this holiday morn; Robert supposed the only people on the road were families on their way to grandma’s house and the unfortunate souls just now returning to their own homes from Christmas Eve revelry. Lake Michigan roiled near the shoreline with huge blocks of ice.
Robert pushed open the sliding glass doors to the balcony and a blast of frigid air hit him. Earlier, the radio had said something about the day being the coldest on record, with a temperature of 12 below, and wind chills much lower than that. But he needed to slip away for just a few minutes, needed to escape the heat set to the mid 80s inside because his lover Keith could not stop shivering, needed to get away from the constant babbling of the TV, tuned to MTV for Keith, and the endless rotation of songs from Michael Jackson’s Thriller.
Most of all, he needed to escape from Keith, who was dying. Robert breathed in and tried not to think about a handsome man, in his prime just a few months ago, now wasting away to a skeletal wraith, and tried to concentrate instead on the crackling in his near frozen nostrils and how the icy air was traveling to his lungs, invigorating, uncomfortable, and terrifying all at once.
Robert was tired. He had spent the whole week getting their penthouse apartment ready for the holiday, in spite of the fact that Keith was unconscious most of the time and when awake, babbled, moving from non sequiter to non sequiter. It hurt Robert that often he didn’t even know who Robert was. And this from a man, who, just a few months ago, had told Robert he was “the one” and that he had no doubt he would spend the rest of his life with him, a promise that was coming true more quickly than either of them could have guessed. But Robert soldiered on, determined to infuse their luxurious home with Christmas spirit, in deep denial of the fact that same Christmas spirit was playing a serious game of hide-and-seek (and winning) and ignoring the fact that his lover was wasting away due to a disease they were just getting around to calling AIDS (although Robert wasn’t even sure their president could be brought to utter the acronym). Robert had called Marshall Fields, explained that he was housebound with a sick “roommate” and could they deliver an assortment of lights and decorations, enough to fill a four-bedroom penthouse with merriment. At first, the sales clerk he got on the phone was hesitant, but sympathetic, explaining how the holiday rush would make the kind of deliveries Robert requested impossible. But when they heard money was no object, Marshall Fields was more than happy to comply, even arranging for next-day delivery of designer ornaments and strands upon strands of tiny white lights. He had talked to the doorman downstairs and had convinced him to send up one of the maintenance men to string the lights all across their balcony outside and, inside, on the three Christmas trees he had had delivered from a lot on Belmont Avenue. Robert snorted as he remembered how he had paid more for their delivery than for the trees themselves. He had made a mix tape of their favorite versions of the holiday classics: Peggy Lee singing “The Christmas Waltz,” Nat King Cole, “The Christmas Song,” Ella Fitzgerald on “The First Noel,” Les Brown and his Band of Renown doing their version of “The Nutcracker Suite.” He couldn’t bear to let Guy Lombardo’s “Auld Lang Syne” play, though. It made Robert cry.
And Christmas, damn it, was not a time for tears.
He had baked cookies, filling the apartment with the scent of anise from the pizzelles his Mother used to make back in Summitville, PA. He had wrapped tons of presents for Keith: sweaters from I Magnin, toys from FAO Schwartz, books and music from Rizzoli.
But Keith had noticed none of it, and hadn’t had the energy to open even one of his presents. Robert had unwrapped them for him, holding each up to his lover’s sleeping face, his wheezing, gaspy breaths giving a kind of thanks. At least that’s what Robert told himself. He had even gotten tickets to the big thing in New York, a play called Torch Song Trilogy. He whispered in Keith’s ear that they would go when “he got better” even though Robert knew he never would. But it didn’t stop him from imagining them in a darkened theater, looking over at Keith to gauge his reaction to something happening on stage. Keith could cry at things like Kodak commercials and Robert imagined him handsome once more, his face lit softly from the stage, with tears rolling down his cheeks. He would return Robert’s gaze, smiling sheepishly, and brushing the tears away. Keith’s sensitivity was a big part of what made Robert love him so much.
1983 had been a hard and wonderful year. Robert had met Keith in a bar called Touché just before New Year’s Eve, 1982 and had never expected the one-night stand between the butch leather daddy and the boy fresh from Slippery Rock State College to go any further than that one night. Robert had liked the grizzled good looks of Keith (thick salt and pepper hair, chiseled jaw line with a Kirk Douglas cleft, and the body of a Schwarzenegger). He imagined running his fingers through the coarse mat of hair on his chest and couldn’t look away from how that same chest was so gorgeously framed by his leather vest. Keith had also worn chaps and tight, faded Levis. Robert had jeans and an Izod shirt on, with Adidas running shoes. He was surprised he had even been admitted to the smoky leather bar, notorious for its backroom antics, but he supposed his youth, blue eyes, and blond hair had convinced the doorman to ignore the leather dress code. Or maybe—more likely—the doorman chuckled as Robert entered the bar, which smelled strongly of sweat, cigarettes, and stale beer, because he felt like he was throwing a Christian to the lions.
They had awakened the next morning in each other’s arms…and Robert had moved in that same week, saying a quick goodbye to his roommate in Rogers Park and throwing a Chiquita banana box filled with books and two suitcases into the back of Keith’s Jaguar.
Somehow it had worked, despite the fact that Robert was only 22 and Keith double that. Their honeymoon had continued throughout the spring and even partially into the summer. Robert quickly adapted to taking care of the penthouse apartment, even quitting his job as an indexer for Encyclopedia Britannica to make sure the two story home overlooking Lincoln Park and Lake Michigan was always spotless. He sharpened his culinary skills and took a course in French cooking. Although there was little need for that because Keith’s favorite foods were all decidedly comfort: macaroni and cheese, meatloaf, roasted chicken, soups, and stews. When Robert made his mother’s Sicilian spaghetti sauce with meatballs and pork spare ribs, Keith could never get enough of it, even though Robert told him that Sunday was the day for pasta. They had eaten well and made love through the winter and into Chicago’s damp and dreary spring. Not right away, but eventually Keith revealed the secret of his wealth and his copious free time: he was a writer of a series of young adult novels that had a teenage witch as their heroine. Adolescent girls would line up when a new edition was delivered to a bookstore, none of them even aware that J.M. Darling was a middle-aged man. He and his publisher had built a fictional life for J.M. and she was a young woman just out of Yale, who had made it big in spite of her orphanage background. The books—and all their translations, different editions, film rights, and more—kept them free from financial worries. Luxuries were never in short supply. Keith turned the books out easily, which left them a lot of time for play. It was almost as magical as the life of his teenage heroine, Heather Marshall. Robert hardly noticed the difference in their ages. It was nothing for them to spend long weekends jetting off to Keith’s favorite places: New Orleans, Key West, and Portland here in the States, or even more extravagant trips on the Concorde to Paris.
The summer was when things turned dark. Like a summer storm, the plague crept up on them with low, almost imperceptible rumblings and flashes of dull light. Keith and Robert had driven down to Starved Rock State Park one weekend in June. They had spent the day hiking and eating a picnic lunch on a bluff overlooking the Illinois River. The park rangers wouldn’t have approved of their dessert, but no one was looking.
The hike was what they figured caused the purple sore that appeared on Keith’s heel the following weekend. He had come out of the shower and held up his foot for Robert to see. At the time, Robert had thought nothing of the sore and had waved it away, wanting to go back to sleep. “It’s just a blood blister from our hike. I told you your hiking boots were too tight.” He had pulled the pillow over his head.
Then, AIDS had yet to be properly named by the Center for Disease Control. That wouldn’t come until September, wiping out previous monikers like GRID (gay-related immune deficiency) and “gay cancer.” Both men had heard rumblings in the press about gay men getting sick in New York and San Francisco and how one of the symptoms was a kind of rare cancer. Neither of them associated Keith’s “blood blister” with anything serious and certainly nothing deadly.
When Keith woke up several nights in a row drenched in sweat, they attributed it to bad dreams, a touch of the flu. When he languished in bed for two days (an almost unheard of occurrence for Keith) with a temperature of 104, both were finally ready to call the doctor. But the fever broke during the night before Keith’s appointment and he felt fine the next day, so they canceled Keith’s appointment. “Like a million bucks,” he said, smiling at Robert over the breakfast table and using one of his favorite expressions. Robert thought his lover’s wan face and ashen color was due to the fever and that it too would pass.
But it didn’t.
By September, Keith had many more of the purple sores. After awhile, they knew they were living in denial and that Keith needed to see a doctor. The talk of “gay cancer” and mysterious, quick, and unpleasant deaths continued to grow in the media, but neither of them was ready to accept that was what was happening to Keith. They knew a visit to their doctor, a handsome friend of Keith’s, would confirm anemia or something equally harmless and treatable. Looking back, though, Robert wondered if they both knew, deep down, they were kidding themselves.
It wasn’t so much the visit to the doctor that confirmed their horror and entrenched them in it, but the subsequent tests and the continued blossoming of the purple sores. Doctor McKean, whose practice consisted mostly of younger gay men, had seen the sores too many times to not know what they were. He told Keith and Robert what they already feared: the sores were not blood blisters, but Kaposi’s sarcoma lesions. It seemed that once they were named, the lesions spread even more rapidly over Keith, and when the first one appeared on his face, he refused to leave the apartment.
Things went downhill fast, with repeated bouts with pneumocystis carinii pneumonia (PCP) weakening Keith’s rapidly flagging immune system. He started to have trouble walking, started having trouble seeing, and finally, went blind. And then the disease began to eat away at his mind.
Here on the balcony, Robert pushed hard at his eyes and tried to stop remembering, forcing himself back into the present, this “holly, jolly Christmas, the best time of the year.” He tried to rein in the shivers the subzero air and whipping wind were causing. Gazing out at the water again, Robert wondered how fast he would die if he threw himself from some of the boulders down there. How long did hypothermia take anyway? Gripping the railing of the balcony, he supposed a twenty-three story drop would be a much quicker—and more efficient—way to die. But throwing oneself from boulders into a churning mass of gray water and slushy ice seemed so much more dramatic, so much more Dark Victory. And besides, hypothermia, with water as cold as the lake surely was at this time of year, might be equally quick, shutting down his body’s vitality in minutes, perhaps only seconds.
He would have to find out. But now, there was a lot of Christmas left and he was freezing to death. He turned and went back inside. Maybe there would be a Christmas miracle and Keith would be sitting up in the bed, a twinkle in his eyes, with a few lucid words for Robert. Maybe he would have gotten out of bed and dragged a hidden cache of presents out from the closet, all for Robert. Maybe he would confess that his fever had broken and he was once again feeling “like a million bucks.”
Maybe not. He slammed out the cold with a slide of the glass door and breathed in. Keith’s sheets would probably need changing.
CHRISTMAS NIGHT WAS memorable for Robert, if only because it was the night the one great love of his young life was taken, stolen away by a disease he could never have imagined just a few years ago. The night was also memorable because there was a kind of Christmas miracle and it lasted only for a few moments, but Keith did come back to him, his Keith, the one who could make him laugh and make him feel “like a million bucks.” For the briefest of moments, the real Keith returned, smiling and making of his death mask face a hint of what had been there before: a handsome, distinguished man whose cheeks were no longer sunken and hollow, whose green irises were rimmed in yellow no more, and whose smile could light up a room. Maybe seeing the old Keith, handsome, devilish, strong jawed from his Mediterranean heritage, was just a figment of Robert’s imagination, something he wished for so hard it came true.
But the lucidity that came late that Christmas night was not his imagination. Something had clicked in Keith’s fevered brain and for just an instant, he came back.
But it was only to say goodbye.
Robert had spent the long afternoon cooking. He knew it was pointless. Keith, in his best moments, could only keep things like Jell-o and protein drinks down, and Robert had no appetite himself. But in spite of a decided lack of hunger around the Harris/Jafari household, Robert had made quite a testament to culinary expertise in the marble and glass kitchen. The counters were crammed with cutting boards where Robert had used his Wusthof cutlery to prep a garden of fresh herbs, mincing parsley, sage, basil, and thyme into stacks of fine green confetti. Garlic was sliced into translucent slices. Lemons sliced in halves lined up in an orderly row beneath the windowsill, waiting to release their juices. And there, near the sink, was a twelve-pound goose, ready to have its skin loosened and lifted and to be infused with chopped herbs, ready to have its cavity stuffed with lemons and whole garlic cloves, to be buttered and rubbed lovingly with extra-virgin olive oil and trussed, where it would spend the day basking in the heat of an oven, religiously basted every forty minutes. There was oyster stuffing, rich with fresh-from-the-sea briny juices and fresh sage and fennel sausage. There were artichokes, their leaves clipped, bottoms shorn, and stuffed with a mixture of bread crumbs, garlic and Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese. In the sink, a mound of Yukon gold potatoes awaited peeling. Brussels sprouts needed to be cleaned, steamed, and tossed in butter, lemon juice, and garlic.
And when the kitchen windows were fogged with steam from bubbling pots and the whole first floor of the penthouse was redolent with roasting bird, Robert went into the little powder room off the kitchen and threw up. He sat there by the toilet afterwards, gasping, and wiping angrily at his mouth and nose with Kleenex that left shreds on his stubbled face. He started to sob, and the tears came easily, hating himself for being such a coward, for spending all this time, all this money, to prepare this glorious yuletide feast no one would ever eat. He slapped his own face, punishing himself for being so stupid, stupid, stupid. Who was he trying to kid? Did making a Christmas goose with all the trimmings wipe out a year of love, passion, and happiness? Did all the cooking, decorating, and wrapping of presents put a different face on death, who paced the penthouse, features furrowed, waiting to take his own Christmas present, which lay, just inches away from “delivery” on sweat-soaked Egyptian cotton sheets?
Why couldn’t he accept what was happening? It was over. It was only a flame that had flared and then was snuffed out. He forced himself up, gripping the little pedestal sink, and splashed cold water on his face. He looked at himself in the mirror above the sink, hating the vibrant, rosy glow in his cheeks, his fine, small-pored skin, twinkling blue eyes that betrayed not a hint of his exhaustion and despair, and his shining blond hair, in ringlets because of the kitchen humidity.
Why did Keith have to die?
Why did Robert have to live?
He closed his eyes and went into the kitchen, ready to begin feeding the fabulous meal to the garbage disposal. The work, just like the preparation of the meal, would take his mind off things.
And then he heard Keith’s voice, watery, weak, a shadow of its former self, call out. If the garbage disposal had been on, he wouldn’t have heard it. But the sound of his own name coming from his lover’s lips filled him with a kind of insane joy and optimism. The irrational part of him wanted to take it as a sign, a U turn in the road toward death.
His Keith was getting better! Getting better in spite of the fact that all these other men with AIDS were dying quick, painful deaths. Keith would be the exception to the rule. He always had been. Robert felt a sob catch in his throat and hurried toward the stairs.
“Robert?” Keith’s voice sounded again, querulous and weak as a kitten, as Robert ascended the stairs. But it was Keith and he was calling for him.
Robert rushed up the spiral staircase, tripping once, a startled laugh escaping from his lips. Keith had not spoken in days and the sound of his lover’s voice, weak as it was, was like balm on his soul. And who knew? This AIDS thing was still so new. Who was to say there weren’t people out there who could beat it? People with imagination and fortitude.
People like Keith.
Robert hesitated outside the bedroom door. Inside, it was quiet, and he dreaded going in there and finding Keith on the bed asleep, a sheen of sweat clinging to his sunken cheeks, his breath phlegmy and labored. What if Keith’s call was just a momentary peek through the twin curtains of fever and consciousness? What if, worse, what he heard was simply the product of his own overly-hopeful imagination?
What would be, would be (hadn’t some virginal blonde even once sung about it?). Robert steeled himself: deep, cleansing breath, let it out slowly, and entered the room.
Keith was awake. His face looked even more drawn and tired, the color of ash. Robert would have said it was impossible for him to look any sicker even this morning, but now he did. In the air, despite the cinnamon and vanilla scented candles in the room, was the smell of sickness and shit.
But oh Lord! Keith was looking at him. Looking right at Robert. And he was seeing him! For the first time in forever, their gazes met once more and connected. Robert approached the bed warily, as if a sudden movement would send Keith plummeting back into unconsciousness.
“Honey? Can you hear me?” Robert stood, wringing his hands, heart fluttering, beating against his ribs.
“Of course.” Keith’s voice was a croak. Gone were the bass notes that had made him sound so sexy and assured. Keith reached a bruised hand out over the covers and patted the bed. “Would you sit next to me?”
“Oh, of course!” Robert took two steps and weighed down the bed, reaching out to brush a strand of hair off Keith’s forehead, biting his lip at the heat radiating off his flesh. “I’m so happy you’re awake.”
Keith swallowed. The swallow took a long time and looked as if it took all of the sick man’s effort. He let out a weak sigh and turned his head. He looked up at Robert and managed a wan smile. Robert closed his eyes and laid his head gently atop Keith’s.
And then Keith began to talk, his old voice suddenly returned, strong and sure. “I have just a few things to say, Robert. And I need you to shut up and listen. No interruptions. The first thing I want to say is ‘Merry Christmas.’ I’m so sorry I couldn’t be a bigger part of things for this, our first Christmas together, but that decision was taken from me and it doesn’t look like Mr. Claus is seeing fit to give me a chance to make it up to you. The second thing I want to say is that I love you with all my heart. I searched forty some odd years for you, for what I’ve always dreamed of, and what I thought I couldn’t have when you dropped, like a gift, like an angel, into my life last winter. You were what I hunted for all my life: a family. You are my family. Don’t ever forget how precious that is. The third thing I want to say is that you’re an idiot, running around, burying your head in the sand and trying to make a Christmas that neither of us has the capacity to enjoy. And last, I love you for that. I love you so much for trying…for hoping against all odds that this moment would come and I would let you know how much I appreciate you. For hoping that we might share one final kiss before I have to go. And my love, I do have to go. But I couldn’t leave without you hearing these four words. You. Are. My. Family.”
Robert wanted to cry, but there was cold stillness inside, almost as if the frigid air outside had invaded and possessed him.
He lifted his head, stopping himself from recoiling at the feel of a crusty lesion on his cheek. He reached down and squeezed Keith’s hand, knowing with all his heart that Keith wanted to say all those things. But the reality was that Keith had only enough breath to whisper, “I need…” A big hard swallow, tears welling up in Keith’s sallow eyes. “You.” Keith pushed out the word you, Robert thought, with all the breath he had left. And that was all, really, Robert needed to hear.
The eyes Robert stared down on were now not only yellowed and red-rimmed, but vacant.
Keith was gone.
Robert patted his cheek. “I know,” he whispered. “I’ll always know.” Could it be that Robert could already feel his lover growing cold? He bit his lip hard enough to taste his own blood, and then reached over to pull Keith’s lids down over his eyes. Robert didn’t know what Keith stared at now, but he hoped it was like the death lore he had read about and that Keith hovered somewhere near the ceiling, taking one last look at the two of them on the bed before departing toward a warm and welcoming light and a place where there was no more pain, no more suffering.
Robert stretched out next to Keith’s body on the bed, fitting himself against Keith’s bony form and wrapping his arms tight around him. He buried his face in Keith’s neck, searching for just a little scent of what Keith once smelled like (bitter, like the incense he remembered from Catholic mass when he was a boy; it wasn’t really a cologne, just the smell of Keith). But his smell, like his spirit, had moved on.
Robert closed his eyes. There would be phone calls to make. Arrangements. A new life ahead, one which would find him suddenly alone, freed from the burden of caretaker, and imprisoned in a grief he supposed would never leave him.
But now, there would be sleep. On this Christmas night, he needed to drown in the comfort of one last slumber with his lover, spoon style.