Survivor’s guilt. There comes a time when the death toll grows, when the people I’ve left behind come out, when I remember. And whether its AIDS or drugs or a random bullet in the night, it hurts that I go forwards and those I love sometimes do not. Why was I chosen to survive. Is it actually a curse to survive with these memories. It was not a battle fought in the sense of a guns and ammo, it was fought along thighs and with coke straws and with long, endless nights, with empty bottles of wine and all the things I never said to you, Micah Tarentelo, I remember you. Micah, are you still out there somewhere? Facebook does not have all the answers.
Seven years ago in San Diego, Micah and I navigated the alley to 25th Street and Jarocco’s. A long silver twine of water ran down the central ditch, marked with leaves and silt. Reflecting red from the stoplights, it punctuated with broken glass as we padded on either side, bleary, in need of cigarettes. Bits of Mexican radio and a maternal voice rising with a child came from behind pink stucco walls and window-bars. A vine with red trumpet-flowers twined along a chain link fence, with blue plastic recycling bins on both sides and a profusion of flies. The air was thick and warm, the humidity wrapping us in a bubble.
At the brick house in the corner we turned right, and aimed towards the bright door of the market.. The fluorescent lighting washed us out to wraiths as we dredged through the aisles in search of a Riesling and some Camel Lights.
Micah opened the cooler door and pulled out a blue bottle. “Does this one look okay?”
“How much is it?”
“It’s okay, I’ll get it, my disability went through.”
“You’re a doll. I don’t get paid till next week. What’s that for, anyway, if you don’t mind me asking?”
“Depression. I’m HIV+. Plus, I’m blind in one eye.”
“What? Micah! I’m…I’m so sorry.”
“Don’t be ridiculous.” He looked away, than looked back at me, his mouth softening, his thick eyebrows threaded with white. “Here.” He opened his arms, and I fell into them, holding him as if he might break. The fluorescence caught us in a silver glare that struck off the cooler handles, over the Canada Dry, along the shot bottles of Skyy and through the grating along the window, where a police car siren came squealing past us with a red flare.
Later that night, I picked up the wineglasses and strode back into the kitchen, the empty weight of my apartment hanging around me in humid waves. I lived alone, and apart from the dubious consolation of an office job, Micah was my only friend. Now I knew he was dying.
I checked the death index today, I looked him up. Micah S. Tarentelo. There was no record of his death. I keep checking, as the years pass, as his facebook profile abruptly disappears. As his phone is disconnected, as we lose touch. I hope not to find what I fear.
But that summer. I stared out at the rooftops from my lounge on Micah’s bed, the expanse swathed with cowboy sheets and bloodstains. It was two weeks later, and his boyfriend, Timothy, was out of town. The French doors were open on the summer night, the sky luminescent with stars over palm trees bursting to the skyline. Micah smoked a cigarette out the balcony, staring fiercely into the night. His arms were marred with bandages, his jaw clenched, the fairy-wisps of smoke drifting up along the tall green stripes on the walls surrounding. The bang came suddenly, like artillery downstairs, with a guttural roar behind. I took a long drink of the Shiraz on the bedside table. Band-aids and Dior pour Homme. The roar came again, and the sound of breaking glass.
Micah spoke, “There’s nothing we can do.”
“Are you sure, can’t we call the police?”
“I’ve tried. He’s a paranoid schizophrenic. They tell me that as long as he doesn’t actually come into the apartment, there’s nothing that they can do.”
“Good lord.” I took another drink, my lips staining purple.
There was a wrenching sound from below. I cringed. There was a yell. I yelped and skittered off the bed towards the stairs. Up or down, there was no relief, only upwards, outwards, towards the sky. To fly over the narrow courtyard with its row of kiddy pools and cacti. To the spines.
“Look, he said, “I don’t know, I don’t know anywhere else I can go. I know you can go home, and you should, there’s no need to stay here with me.”
I stared up at him, shredding the sheets beneath my fingers, knowing this was his boyfriend’s apartment and not my own, knowing that whatever I gave would not matter.
“No, I can’t.”
“I wouldn’t be mad. You can.”
“Then let’s dance.” He turned to the record player and put on a Johnny Mathis record, and as “Twelfth of Never” came on, he reached out to me.
I rose and let him wrap me in a waltz, fumbling in my steps as his broad arms wrapped my waist and a rattle and a shriek came from downstairs.
“Don’t think,” said Micah. He twirled me and I stepped free, wrapping back into his arms as he flicked his wrist. We were practiced. And just as practiced at turning away.
I fell to kiss his neck.
“That’s entirely enough of that.” Micah smiled softly and let me go, as his shoulder bandage fell. It was a drunken mirror accident: Vicodin and red wine and he crushed his way into his boyfriend’s floor-length mirror. There was blood all over the sheets now, dried blood, and I knew it was infected blood but I didn’t care. I rolled around in it, sprawling, my legs tunneling through the sheets.
I kissed his neck again.
“No, Allison, I can’t, I really can’t.”
“But – “
“It’s more than just Tim, it’s the fact that you’re about to leave forever, and I don’t want my parting present to you to be that. You know this. Even with a condom there is risk.”
“No, for the last time, no.”
I stared down at my hands, as Micah walked again to the window and stared out fiercely. He reached for his cigarettes, and pulled one out slowly.
“It’s a warm night.”
Downstairs, there was the sound of breaking glass.