“Knock, knock! Michael, are you decent?”
“As decent as I’ll ever be, asshole.”
I push those heavy doors with my shoulder as I balanced a cake and a bunch of flowers. “Surprise, Motherfuck-“ he wasn’t alone in the room after all. Standing by the bed was Michael’s mother, Polly, and a bunch of other people and little children I didn’t know.
“James, you’ve met my mother. Guys, this is James, my roommate. James, this is everybody.”
“Hey everybody. Don’t mind me; I’ll just put this in the fridge, and these in some water. Michael, the rest of the gang is on the way, I’ll wait for them downstairs at Starbucks.” I went about arranging the flowers as quietly as possible.
“Uncle Mike, does it hurt?”
“No. It doesn’t hurt. The doctor was great. I don’t feel a thing.”
“I’m glad. Will you come over for Thanksgiving next week? Sandy said you won’t be able to make it.”
“I did not! I just said Uncle Mike might not make it because he needs to rest. Right mom?”
“Don’t worry kids, I’ll be there. Save my seat.”
Polly went over to where I
was arranging the flowers. “So James, I hear you’ve broken up again with your
Goddammit Michael. I smile, “Yeah. It didn’t work out. He needed to move out west. It’s just as well. If I went with him, I wouldn’t have been there in the apartment when Michael had the heart attack.”
“That’s true. Thank you for taking care of him James. The family really appreciates it.” She picks up some stray leaves that fell on the table and throws them away in the small trash bin in the corner. “I told Michael to stay with us uptown, but he insists on staying at your place with Gabe. Speaking of which, where is Gabe?”
“He’s probably at work. The flowers are from him.” I lied.
“I would’ve thought he’d be here.” She said pointedly.
“Well, he’s been very busy lately. Honestly, ever since they started developing that parcel down at West 23rd Street, even I hardly see him.”
She shrugs and takes the vase and brings it over to Michael’s bedside. “Come children, your uncle needs to rest. We’ll come back tomorrow. Say goodbye and get your coats.” Polly comes over and gives me a hug, and out the door they went, in single file.
I turn to Michael. He was looking at me sheepishly. “You told your mother about my breakup? Why?”
“I was not aware that it was classified information, buddy.”
I sat by the edge of the hospital bed. “I mean it wasn’t classified, but I would’ve thought it was something that you could, I don’t know, keep to yourself?”
“You still miss him, don’t you?”
“Of course… Of course I do.”
He looked at his toes peeking out from under the blanket. “You know there’s still time, right? Why don’t you call him?”
“After what was said? I don’t think so.” I felt his hand on mine. “Look, buddy, at least you can try to see if you can take it back. He’s a good guy, if not slightly flaky. You two were great together.”
“Oh he was a good guy, alright, but I don’t know. I felt a little relief when he left. That can’t be normal for great relationships, right?”
He shrugged his shoulders.
I take my phone out. No messages.
“Enough about me, silly. Where’s Gabe?”
He shrugged his shoulders again. “I don’t know. He’s at work, I think.” He tried to lift his arm, reaching across his chest to scratch his shoulder, but he winces in discomfort: the tubes get in the way. I reach over and scratch his shoulder through the fabric of his hospital gown. I feel a low rumble from his throat as he closed his eyes. He takes a deep breath and I feel the rough brush of his beard against the back of my hand.
I just sit there, scratching his shoulder, until I hear his breathing slow down. I sit there, staring at my phone. I look over at Michael, now fast asleep. I stand up and quietly slip out of the room.
“Good Lord, what the fuck did they feed you at the hospital?”
“Fuck you, buddy, shut it and keep pushing.”
My knuckles are already turning white at the effort of pushing Michael’s wheelchair up the steep ramp of our apartment building. After much grunting and possibly a couple of burst blood vessels, we finally get into the lobby. “Goddammit dude, you are fucking heavy!” He laughs, “More of me to love, buddy. More of me to love!”
I smirked at him. “Great. Tell me, have you gotten that out of your system, big boy? Remind me again why I’m doing this, when you have a perfectly healthy boyfriend running around the city?”
“Because you love me. Don’t deny it.”
I snort in reply as the elevator doors opened and I wheeled him in. “Besides, Gabe is busy.” I give out a melodramatic sigh. “He always is.” The elevator stops on our floor, and I wheel him out to the hall. My phone rings and I stop abruptly.
“Easy does it! Hey!”
“Sorry, sorry. Wait let me take this.”
“Can we at least get inside first?”
“Shhhh… Come on dude, this is a boy.” He snorts and starts fiddling with his phone.
I push the talk button, and bring it up to my ear. “Hey. What’s up?”
“So I was thinking, maybe we can try out this new place I found in Chinatown? I heard you say that you felt like having crab, and this is apparently one of the best places in the city.” I felt a smile creep across my face at the prospect of a date. “Oh yeah, Yes I did… I mean, I’d like to try it out.”
“Great. What time are you free later? I can drop by to pick you up, or would you prefer to meet there?”
I look at Michael and he’s still busy with what seems to be a particularly intense round of Candy Crush.
“I think I’m good by seven o’clock? I just need to have my roommate settled and I can be on my way. Just send me the address and I’ll meet you there.”
“Alright, I’ll text you the address and I’ll see you later.” I put the phone back in my pocket, and I start pushing Michael’s wheelchair towards the end of the hall. He puts his phone away as well. “So… Is that a date?”
“Not that it’s any of your business, nosey, but yes.” I open the door and push him into our small living room. “We’re going out later.”
“I heard. Which dirty dating app did you use to meet this one?”
I feign shock. “Wow. What did I do to deserve this much judgment?”
He shrugged his shoulders. “You haven’t exactly been hunting in the better side of the woods lately.” I help him get up from the chair, and we start moving towards his bedroom, his arm around my shoulders. “I hope he at least has a job?”
“Oh, listen to you, mister. Seriously? But if you really must know, yes, he has a job.” He sits on the side of the bed with a grunt as I take off his UCLA t-shirt, and help him put on a fresh one. He lies back as I take off his pants and shoes and lift his legs unto the bed. I open up his bag and dump his medicines unto the bed. I took a small basket from the dresser and sat down beside him and start sifting through the half dozen or so plastic pill bottles. “He’s a professor.”
“Oh, is that your new thing? Reliving a sordid teacher-student role-play fantasy of yours?” He stretches his arms and begins to absentmindedly toy with one of the bottles of meds on the bed.
“Of course not.” I admit it wasn’t too convincing. It was, indeed, my thing.
“Bullshit, buddy. I know how extra credit turns you on. What does he teach?”
“Economics, I think.” I grab the bottle from him and put it inside the basket. “Now, I know you had a heart attack, and not a stroke, so I trust you would know which medicines to take and when. They’re all here and I’ve refilled your water bottle. You have some crackers to tide you over, at least until Gabe comes home. The remote is right here between your pillows should you want to watch TV. Do not get out of bed, except if you need to go to the bathroom.” He nods, “And you need to get ready for your date?”
“Yeah.” I stand up and pull on the blanket to tuck him in. “You have to rest.”
“Yes, Mother.” He closes his eyes and turns to his side. I remember him tell a joke that only sociopaths sleep on their backs, and I smile. I wonder if there’s any truth to that. I turn off most of the lights in his room, and I gently close the door behind me.
I woke up with the sun in my eyes. I felt around the top of my bedside table for my phone and checked the time. It was almost 11 in the morning. I slowly get up, slipped on some boxer shorts and went out, letting out a huge yawn in the process, and close the door of my room behind me.
Michael. Crap. I wonder if he had breakfast already. I make my way to his room, and open the door.
He was lying in his bed, his face covered by his CPAP machine. The tube snaked its way to his bedside table littered with Oreo wrappers. Gabe was nowhere in sight. I walked up to him and sat by the edge of his bed. I carefully place my hand on his arm and gently shook him awake.
“Hey you, wake up. Do you want some breakfast?”
He opened his eyes, and took off his mask. “No.” His voice was still hoarse. “No, I’m fine.” He turned and lay on his back. “How was your date? Did you get an A?”
I smiled at him. “Silly bear.” I pushed a couple of strands of his hair away from his eyes and smoothed it out. “It went well. The restaurant was good. I didn’t care much for the crab, but the rest was actually quite yummy.”
He closed his eyes again. “Do you want to rest some more? I was just about to make something for myself, and I was wondering if you were hungry.”
“He spent the night?” His eyes still closed.
“Yeah. Well, I mean, after dinner, we got some ice cream and headed here. But he left a couple hours after.” I noticed that the sheets on the bed were undisturbed on the other side. Gabe’s side. I look at Michael. “Gabe didn’t?”
He opened his eyes and smiled a sad smile.
“No.” he sighed. “No he didn’t.”
I moved to sit beside him, and cradle his head to my chest. “I’m so sorry.” He cried, quietly, I could feel his tears, hot against my skin. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry, don’t cry. Michael don’t cry.” I whispered in his ear. He just sobbed, silently. I feel his strong arms around me shake as he tried to contain his sobs in vain.
I ran my fingers through the tufts of his hair. I slowly rocked him to the slow rhythm of my breathing. His sobs became fewer and further between. I felt his grip on me loosen. “I’m sorry.” I shushed him then and pressed him even closer. “There’s nothing to be sorry about.” I say. “Everything’s going to be okay. Stress is bad for you. Just try to be calm and take deep breaths. I’m here.”
“Are you really?” He whispered.
“Of course! I’m right here and I won’t go away.”
“Good.” He closes his eyes again and takes a deep breath. “I’m glad.”
“What happened?” I ask him softly. “Can’t it be fixed?”
He pulls himself away from my embrace. “No. I don’t think so.” I pull out a couple of tissues and gently dry his tears. “That’s ridiculous, Michael. You guys have been married for years!” He sighs, his eyes downcast. “It can’t be fixed.”
His eyes lock into mine. “It can’t be fixed because I don’t want to fix it.” His eyes, those clear pools of the bluest blue you can imagine, staring into mine.
“Okay.” I understand. “I’m just here.”
I held him in my arms for what seemed like years. As if we were frozen in time. As if we were drowning in each other, and I never want to come up for air.