“You know, if I had met you before, I would have fallen in love with you.” Brandon’s voice was quiet, a sepia photograph of sound that barely reached past his pillow. The staff’s prediction had been mistaken. He was degenerating faster than anticipated, straining every day to survive for one more. The pain of his struggle evidenced in the strain of his features, the dark shadows of his eyes. Still even now, Brandon was a handsome man; skeletal depreciation could not blur the beauty he claimed in his youth. His dark eyes held a light, his dimples rising like lotus blossoms out of the mud of his disease ravished face, and the dense eyelashes all a testimony to how exquisite he must have been before.
“And you don’t love me now?” Michael chuckled around the words. He leaned forward in the chair, holding Brandon’s hand in both of his own, his face resting on the pillow as if he were lying alongside him in the bed. He always moved as physically close to Brandon as he could, knowing the man missed most the intimacy of human touch.
“You know what I mean.” Brandon’s fragile squeeze had grown barely perceptible, as soft as his voice.
Michael did know and kissed the parchment thin flesh of the dying man’s hand. “I’m sorry we didn’t have more time together.” The words were true albeit futile. His time with anyone, especially someone with whom he shared any love, was limited, an inevitability that crushed him. He had no hope for more than a few months or years.
With a sigh, Brandon closed his eyes. “There’s never enough time. Life is tragically short.”
Michael released his gentle grip on Brandon’s hands and picked up the book lying on the bedside table. “I’ll read to you until you fall asleep.”
“Will you still be here when I wake up?”
“I’ll probably be gone but I promise to come back.”
Opening the book to the place marked from the previous visit’s reading, Michael began reading aloud, keeping his own voice soft, holding the book so that it hovered above them both. If Brandon wanted to follow along, all he had to do was open his eyes. During the first bed bound visits, this is how the two had worked their way through several books, reading alongside one another. Now, it was Michael’s voice alone, weaving a soothing spell like a chant in the room.
The book was Brandon’s choice, an ironic or profound one, depending on a person’s perspective. For Michael, reading a translation of The Tibetan Book of the Dead was apropos and although he never asked Brandon directly, he often wondered if his friend had made the choice for Michael’s sake or his own. It did not matter. The words were a comfort if only because it was something they shared.
There was a smell of decay saturating the room, the bed linens, and still Michael leaned in close to Brandon, so close that he could taste the changes in the man’s breathing before the machines picked up on anything, close enough to hear Brandon over the clicking and beeps of the technology that kept him alive.
This close, Michael could feel his way past the somatic to Brandon’s suffering beneath. Michael wanted to embrace the pain, the struggle that was blurred through the blessing of morphine and other pharmaceutical cocktails. These twinges of discomfort, the irresistible urge to move knowing that even a twitch would bring on more suffering than the possible relief a shift would bring. He reached toward Brandon’s suffering not to relieve it, because there was nothing he could do to make this easier for either of them. He immersed himself in Brandon’s being to give himself the strength he needed to stay and love this man, the resolve to let him love in return, knowing fully well that requited love would lead to death.
Had they met before, the end would have been the same, Brandon would die leaving Michael to mourn alone, and their love no less than what they shared now. Coming to Brandon day after day hastened the end and Michael allowed his gift to facilitate what medical miracles fought to stave off. Brandon understood and was ready to let go of life but did not surrender out of a duty to family and friends who rarely had the time to visit.
All love is doomed. That was Michael’s experience. His reality. Michael knew that Brandon was condemned by his disease and he was determined to love him through this transition. Every visit hastening the final visit and the only peace Michael knew was rooted in his knowing that Brandon’s end would be as full as love as he could make it. And so he read on, long after Brandon was already asleep and kissing his still full lips before leaving the hospice.
Lillith was lying on the very edge of the hospital bed, one leg twined over the legs of her lover, an arm carefully arranged around his body. There was an intravenous tube running from his arm to three plastic bags and her body was situated to embrace while not risking any accidents. The night before, Christian Palmer noticed her fever, anxious that she was infected with the as yet undiagnosed virus that had forced him into an extended hospital stay while they tried to cure whatever it was the was gradually eating away at his life. Lillith reassured him that the fever was nothing, even hinted that the reason she was on fire was because she was so close to him after so many nights apart.
At his urging she acquiesced to his desire, lowered the side of the bed and cautiously climbed in beside him on the narrow bed. She trusted herself to wake up at some point during the night and slip away without awakening her fiancé.
Exhausted from her vigil, she slept more soundly and later than she’d meant to but could not help sharing with him the warmth of her body.
The slide of the hospital curtain rings, drawn the night before, alarmed Lillith and she sat up alert while Christian continued to sleep beside her. Swinging her leg to the tiled floor, she came almost face to face with Marjorie Palmer, Christan’s mother. The older woman didn’t say a word, swerved around with a military precision, and shoved past the man who stood behind her. Edward Palmer, smiling and blushing, followed his wife after bobbing a quick but silent hello to Lillith.
Lillith sighed, gave the still sleeping man in the bed a light kiss on his temple, before following his parents out into the hospital corridor, adjusting her clothes and muttering to herself a gratitude that she’d not slept nude as she normally would.
Marjorie Palmer stood in the corridor of the hospital, her hands on her hips, not nearly large enough to actually block anyone but interjecting herself between the nurse’s station and the path that would lead to Christian’s room, shifting Lillith away from where her son lay ill and possibly dying.
“I’m sorry, Mrs. Palmer. I didn’t mean to startle you by being here so early.” Lillith hoped the other woman would believe that she had not actually been there overnight but she knew it was a feeble attempt and the anger emanating from the other woman would cut through any explanation other than what her eyes had already witnessed.
“Stay away from my son.”
“Christian’s my fiancé.” Lillith turned a dimpled smile to the man. “Hello, Mr. Palmer. Erm Ed,” she corrected herself. He had insisted she call him by his first name and it was still not a habit Lillith easily embraced.
Marjorie pulled away from her husband, coming closer to Lillith. “You’re the reason he’s in there.” She thrust a finger, pointing to the room.
Lillith looked at the door briefly, debating whether or not she should try to shove her way around Marjorie who was determined to block her progress. Or perhaps just leave the hospital altogether. “Marjorie, I understand how you feel.” It was more than sympathy, as she empathically attuned to the fear that was exploding into rage.
“How dare you? What do you know about my feelings?”
Lillith looked down at the floor, unable to explain her intuition sensing the fear that fueled Marjorie’s ire. There were other emotions as well. The guilt only a mother could feel in the face of powerlessness, unable to protect her son or heal him. And that was tinged with shame for having ever liked the young woman she was now blaming. Lillith could feel them all roiling inside as if they were her own confusion of emotions and she looked towards Edward, silently asking him with her eyes to do something.
“Marj, please,” Edward put his hands on his wife’s shoulder, mouthing a silent apology to Lillith who raised her chin just enough to acknowledge the mutual discomfort of the moment, a shared chagrin the two would someday chuckle over.
“I know you do not believe me,” the older woman’s voice was twisted tight with rage and unwept tears. Nearly as tall as her husband, she looked directly at him. “She’s the reason he’s in there. She made him sick.”
One of the larger nurses moved from behind the desk and joined Edward in an attempt to pacify Marjorie. “Please, Mrs. Palmer. You’re disrupting the entire floor and there are other patients.”
Lillith did not have to look around her to know that there were other visitors now looking out of the patients’ rooms trying to find out what the yelling was all about. A few doors had been closed by less curious family members to keep their loved ones from being disturbed. She yearned to reach out and offer some comfort to Marjorie. If they were alone, Lillith had no doubt that she could soothe the woman, saying nothing that amounted to anything yet somehow finding the perfect words. It was an empathy that complimented her more natural gifts.
Instead, she stepped back to let Edward and the nurse steer Marjorie down the corridor, even as she continued to ask why nobody would believe her and see that Christian was dying because of “that bitch,” her voice fading away as they moved from the more central location of the nurse’s station.
Returning to the room, Lillith found Christian awake and sitting up only slightly. He was moving carefully because of the intravenous tube attached to his left arm and oxygen tube that was inserted in his nose. She lifted her hand to the light switch and paused. He smiled and nodded before closing his eyes against the light before she flicked the switch.
This is how they both turned on the light for the other, pausing to make sure they were both ready for the change. Christian was smiling as he blinked his eyes open.
Lillith did not need to look at the chart at the end of his bed to know that the doctors, with their various tests and studies, could not find a cause for Christian’s illness. No test would give them the answers that they needed to cure him. Lillith knew there was only one cure for her fiancé.
Unfortunately, she was not yet ready to make the necessary sacrifice.
She pulled the curtain back around the bed. This was a private room at Lillith’s insistence. She went to the bedside table to rearrange the bouquet of American Beauty roses she’d brought to the room the night before. “I should change the water.”
Instead, Lillith climbed up onto the bed beside him, knowing that Marjorie would have preferred she sit in the chair like any other guest. The hunger she felt to be close to Christian made any distance between them unbearable. “I didn’t mean to wake you.”
“It wasn’t you. I heard my mother yelling.”
Lillith sighed and pressed her lips against his forehead, which felt cool and damp. “She’s upset.”
“She’s calling you a bitch and you’re saying she’s upset.” The look of appreciation and admiration on his face was endearing, an expression that would make any woman fall in love even more than Lillith already had. Christian’s transparent adoration was infectious.
“She’s more scared than angry.”
He lifted Lillith’s left hand to his lips, kissed her palm. “You’re burning up.” With his thumb, he rubbed the ring he’d given her months earlier.
Back then, Marjorie had been thrilled her bachelor son had finally met a woman he could love enough to propose; she was charmed by Lillith at first. Conflict grew over time but Christian’s parents lived in Maine and rarely came to the city except for the occasional visit. And it was on these visits that the tension in Marjorie grew.
Lillith knew that the resentment Marjorie experienced on these visits was complicated by a vague jealousy. From her past experience, Lillith knew that Marjorie displaced the jealousy and assumed it was about her being displaced from Christian’s life. The first time Lillith faced this complication of emotions from a lover’s mother, she accepted the simple Oedipal explanation although over time she came to realize that the jealousy was directed at her as much as it was over her.
These mother’s, unaware of Lillith’s true nature, were attracted to her. The mother’s experienced the same charismatic magnetism as their child and the shame was interpreted through a safer understanding. After all, how could Marjorie, or any of these other women, explain the desire they were feeling towards Lillith?
In the echo of her sympathy, she knew what underlay the anger of the mothers. And because she understood why they grew to hate her, Lillith found it impossible to reciprocate.
“I miss you so much.” Christian’s voice broke through her reverie.
“I know. I miss you too.” Christian’s hand felt feverish in spite of the heat of her flesh. Lillith recognized her own hunger empathetically manifesting in the flesh of her lover. “I should go, let you rest.”
“No.” The desperation in her voice was not rooted in her desire to be away from him but the hunger that was consuming them both. Afraid of Christian’s physical weakness she pulled away. “I’ll try to come back later, before visiting hours are over.”
“Promise?” In spite of his weakness, he gripped her hand like a vice.
“I’ll do what I can.”
It’s too soon, she thought. Not ready to let what they shared go, Lillith lay down beside him, careful not to disturb him too much. Christian maintained his hold on her until his fever made it impossible for him to stay awake.
Lillith was gone when a nurse later came to the room to change the IV bag, she returned the lowered bed rail to its raised position and covered the patient who continued to sleep, his breath labored but steady.