"Did I ever tell you about the night that Emil died?" my brother Richard asked. His lover had been dead for more than three years.
I cocked my head. "Well, I was there, Richard, so I mean..."
"You were there after," he said, and downed his drink. "Don't you wonder what it was like just before?" He asked the question nervously, a perfect match for the cigarette he held in one hand -- a long broken habit, suddenly resumed -- and the empty drink in the other, which had been requested shortly upon his arrival to my apartment.
"It's not like I was trying to keep it from you, Mark," he said, and offered the glass for replacement. It was an odd thing for him to say.
I took the glass to the kitchen and unscrewed the vodka bottle, beginning to feel nervous myself. And there was another emotion stirring inside me. Envy. I fought the feeling that Richard had won the widow's lottery but the cruel emotion mocked me just the same. Well, you could live comfortably and drink in the afternoon too, it said. If your rich lover had died and left you all that mon--
Stop it, Mark. You're a jerk.
Richard talked as I cracked an ice tray.
"Emil had one of those lines that went way in inside him..." He was beginning a story I wasn't sure I wanted to hear.
"A hickman," I said.
"Yeah," he said, and reached for the drink while the ice was still twirling. "But something was wrong with it the night before. It was swelling. So we took it out."
I returned to the couch. Richard paced.
"The next morning the nurse came and Emil was being stubborn. He didn't want the new Hickman. I got an inkling what he was up to when the nurse said 'Emil, starving yourself is not a pretty way to go.' But Emil kept saying, 'no, no, I won't do this!' and I remember he looked so weary, Mark. Just exhausted."
This isn't the visit I planned, I thought to myself. I meant for my brother to see the new ceiling fan I had installed. But my handiwork couldn't compete with the story that was now rumbling out of him.
"I walked the nurse out and returned to Emil. He took my hand, and said, 'you knew that today would be the day, didn't you?'"
Richard looked at me but didn't acknowledge what must have been a growing expression of shock on my face.
"I knew Emil wanted me to say 'yes,' so I did. But inside I was screaming 'NO! NO!' "
Richard stopped, and I found the silence torturous. "Well," I said, "it sounds like he was, uh, in charge of himself."
"Oh, he was in control all right," he responded. "He told me to go get The Book. The one about how to kill yourself."
Richard's next few remarks would be lost on me. I couldn't get past The Book.
"So I'm reading him the chapter we had picked out," Richard is saying, "and it suggests washing down the pills with alcohol. We had some Seconal and I found some Scotch."
I knew about assisted suicide but had never heard of the mechanics of it firsthand, or considered the logistics a caring lover would undertake, or even witnessed the haunted result like the one that now sat chain smoking across my living room.
"I made some toast for him just like The Book said," he continued, "and while we waited for him to digest the toast I opened the capsules and put the contents into a glass."
I imagined my brother sprinkling powder into a glass while Emil looked on. I wondered what sort of small talk that activity had encouraged.
"I poured the scotch, a couple of good-sized shots, and he wanted it right away." His voiced trailed to a whisper. "I wanted him to wait, to wait, to wait... I wanted to hug him. I wanted to do it right, you know? But he kept reaching for the glass, and I would say, 'no, Emil, wait, please wait,' I want to say I love you again..."
Tears were filling Richard's eyes. His hand shook, knocking his glass loudly on the coffee table as he set it down and brought his hands to his face.
And even so, he went on.
"Emil downed the glass in one gulp and made a face, and then he just laid back on the pillow. It took about twenty minutes. Emil always said that when you go, you go alone. So I held his hand real tight..."
I stared at my brother. Tears streamed from his face. I couldn't tell exactly what I was feeling at the moment. Was it pity? Was it pain? How many kinds of pain can we distinguish within our souls??
"The Book said to wait twenty minutes after his heart stopped, you know, before calling the doctor. I kept leaning over him and trying... trying to hear his heart. But I couldn't because my own blood was pounding in my ears! And those next twenty minutes..."
"What were you doing..." I asked, startled by the sound of my own voice, "during those twenty minutes?"
"Screaming," he said simply.
Silence engulfed my apartment, underlining the word.
I sat beside him and he wept quiet tears. Please be all right, I thought. Please be happy again, Richard. My brother. My brother.
He received my embrace but his heart had taken distant refuge. It had long been numbed by the effects of the spent cocktail glass, sitting impassively on the coffee table, occasionally clinking with the sounds of shifting, melting ice.
Mark S. King worked for AIDS non-profits until 1999. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.