David's head lolled to the side, his eyes bulging in darkened sockets too wide and too deep. He shouted my name as I entered his room in the AIDS ward. The shout surprised me in its insistence, as if coming from a schoolboy over-eager to get the right answer. I wondered if the infection had affected his hearing.
"Now what are they doing to you," I asked. I spoke over the voices of Lucy and Ethel coming from a television suspended overhead. Words always failed me in hospitals. "How are you" seemed so pale, questioning the obvious. From the corridor behind me I heard hushed voices, a moan, the wheels of a gurney turning on their axles, one loose and squeaking. I thought of that one shopping cart at the supermarket. A conspiracy, I was certain, because that's the one I always ended up with.
"Who'd have thought I'd end up here, like this?" David's voice hissed between clenched teeth, barely audible now above the soft hum of mercy at work.
"You haven't ended up. Not yet." I tried a smile, but the knot in my stomach somehow cut it off. I tried hard not to see the tubes and hoses draped from shiny metal poles that stood sentry over my oldest friend in the world, witness to my life. I tried not to allow my eyes to follow the circuitous routes of all those umbilical tubes as they wound around under the single cotton sheet that didn't quite cover his groin. A smell of urine, faint but distinct, and piney spikes of disinfectant impotent in their attempt to conceal, brought me to the edge of nausea. But this wasn't my time to be sick.
"I brought you these." The flowers I extended in my hand provided the only cheerful note in an otherwise discordant environment. But David's head had already rolled back to the other side, hanging at an absurd angle against the rake of the bed. I had lost him. He had turned to look back into himself and I stood helpless and alone before the steel and enamel, the draped windows and adjustable hospital bed, in a room much too large for just the two of us.
All these years later I sit in my living room, alone still, except for the drone of continuous CNN coverage of our "New War." I think of David. I watch the television as if in a trance, mute, words failing as always, as buildings fall, antiseptically, once removed from me. People jump or fall from high windows to escape the flames. Many thousands, reportedly, are presumed dead.
Through my open window sounds from the street add a counterpoint to the news coverage. I know these sounds and needn't even look around to identify them: chains rattle, a car is towed, someone shouts, someone else shouts, a car alarm screams uncontrolled. There, before my eyes a dark shape falls from the 80-something floor. A voiceover, shocked, incredulous, describes the scene, but isn't there a thrill of excitement in the voice? A child getting the answer right?
David is in my mind again. He lost. Every war has its battles, its winners and losers. They say this is our new war. What happened with the other one? Is it over?
|Neil Stannard is a professional pianist who has played in concert halls worldwide, including performances with Leopold Stokowsky, Pablo Casals, Christiane Edinger, Nell Rankin and Leona Mitchell of the Metropolitan Opera (yes, he's that old). He lives in West Hollywood, where he writes, paints and, of course, plays the piano.|