D an can't tell if he's breathing. It doesn't matter, ability even to ponder the question means he must be breathing. It is a bother to open his eyes even a small bit, that must require more effort than breathing. He can raise his eyelids slowly raise a few millimeters and then they slowly shut, vague outline of a curtained window, a dark room. There is cool fresh air entering his nostrils without him even breathing. Nice. Pleasant. Relaxing. A nice, pleasant, relaxing room. He could stay in this place a while, a little nice, pleasant, relaxing vacation.
Funny how breathing is barely necessary if you don't move at all. Dark shapes float against what little light seeps around the curtain edges. His eyes must not have completely shut. Too much effort. The first shape has stopped and moves aside like a guide presenting, ``Here you will note how the members of this ancient culture used deep mediation to lower their metabolic rate and survive the long, long winters.'' One of the other shapes leans over, a closeness Dan associates with familiarity. ``Danny, it's your mom and dad. How are you feeling?'' Dan takes a breath through his mouth and exhales, his way of saying, ``Hi mom, hi dad.''
``Can he hear me doctor? Does he know we're here?''
``Most likely, though he needs to be kept sedated. He had a seizure and was in a lot of pain when they brought him in. And the CMV has destroyed most of his vision.''
n the earliest days of the epidemic political gays opposed a separate AIDS ward fearing it would be a quarantine area, an inhouse leper colony, maybe even with a separate elevator. But it quickly became obvious that consolidation of resources was medically sound. The initial AIDS ward on the 5B quickly became swamped and was moved over to the larger 5A unit where the chalkboard behind the nurses station displayed first names only for privacy. The less severely afflicted were placed on the other fifth floor wards in rooms with the traditional hospital patients. And had their full name displayed.
That was how one afternoon while passing a doorway a visitor heard, ``Lee, get in here and congratulate me! I made it to the big time this trip—5A!''
The visitors lounge was called the Liz Taylor room, because the actress would show up unannounced, with no publicity, and chat with patients. She'd donated a piano and others brought in stereos and VHS players and televisions and record collections, expensive top quality items, the best, possessions the owners no longer would need. The room was decorated for the various holidays, Rita Rockett gave Sunday brunches and visitors and the mobile patients communed there.
Others were just bitter and became even more so in late December hearing piano and singing from the lounge, ``. . . home for Christmas . . . if only in my dreams.''
The second wave of the epidemic brought a new type of patient, the IV drug users from the Tenderloin, and their visitors had different priorities from those of the first wave. They might look in at the patient but their interests were focused on other things. Visitors were allowed onto the ward round the clock, 24 hour access with little oversight, hmmm, an IV drip bag of morphine connected to a comatose AIDS patient? No problem. Soon everything of value in the Elizabeth Taylor room had disappeared. After that the TVs and radios and video players were all locked down with thick metal cables.
eizure, Dan heard the doctor say, such a pleasant sounding word. Sei-zure. Sea-azure, an azure sea. To float in a nice warm blue ocean, pleasant, relaxing. Sea-azure, a warm azure sea. He was four years old, he wanted to play in the yard but his mother said no. ``And you can't go outside barefoot, it's too cold and I'm not going to put your shoes on for you.'' He stood there holding his little red sneakers and glared at her, frustrated, chocking tears. He moved to in a chair in the den and placed the little canvas shoes by his feet and looked down. He took a laces of one in each hand, crossed them, pulled, looped, four year old Dan figured it out. ``Alright you can go,'' she said when he returned to the kitchen to show her, ''but stay in the back yard where I can see you.''
``What son? Say that again, I couldn't hear you.'' Leaning over the bed, her ear tilted towards his face, ``Shoes? You want your shoes? Is that what you said? You want your shoes? You have to stay here darling, you can't leave the hospital until you're better.''
ess awoke frightened. He couldn't find his glasses, he didn't know where he was and he became even more frightened once he realized. He did not want to be alone when he died. He didn't want to die of course but that part he had little control over, the being alone part, well, now he saw that Larry was there, Tess had just missed him. ``It will be alright,'' Larry said, ``if I can't be here I'll have one of our friends fill in. Promise.''
That was why there are three guys in chairs in the hallway by the room door, soda cans and white Chinese take out boxes at their feet, and two others in the room. Someone there at all times. Tess would not be alone.
When he had awoken in panic that first day Larry had found his glasses and said, ``Always put them on the same spot on the bedside table so you'll always know where to find them.''
Tess gazed at him, myopic eyes through the thick lenses imploring, ``Always? You mean I'm always going to be here?''
arm water. The first time Dan vacationed in Hawaii that's what he remembers the most. The warm water. And the cute guy he saw each afternoon lying in the sand at Queen's surf that stared at him. On morning Dan awoke with a rash across his back and down his thighs that sent him to the ER, with no immune system you never know, there the guy was at the main desk. ``Go in that room,'' pointing, ``remove your clothes and put this on,'' handing Dan a folded pale green gown.
The air conditioned room was chilly as he waited, barely covered by the thin fabric of the open back robe. The guy came in and shut the door and told Dan to lay on his chest so he could examine the rash.
After the inspection the guy said, ``OK, I'll go get the doctor.''
Dan raised up, ``You're not the doctor?''
``No, I'm admissions, but I've been staring at that cute ass of yours at the beach all week and just had to know what it looked like.''
andy told his lover to bring the address book and he sat up in the hospital bed as they went through the names to find those still alive that he wanted to come visit, all on the same afternoon. Seven met in the Liz Taylor room and discussed what this request must mean before they walked the hallway together to find Randy asleep. They debated, then Terry gently shook him awake, ``We're all here Randy. We're all here.''
Randy pushed the button that winched him upright and looked at his friends crowded into his little world. ``I'm so glad you came.''
Randy smiled looking to the one nearest, ``Terry,'' he said, ``remember that time we . . .'' He chuckled at a memory, smiling even more before fading. ``I'm so glad you all are here.''
Terry took hold of his hand, ``It will be all right Randy, we're here.''
Randy shut his eyes and relaxed, still smiling. ``Go to the light Randy,'' someone in the room said and it was echoed by others, ``Go to the light Randy, go to the light.''
Randy opened his eyes wide and sat up when he understood what they were doing. Everyone was now in a circle around him and seemed to be performing some ritual, ``Go to the light.''
``Hey! I'm not dying just now! Is that what you thought?'' He shook his head, ``I just wanted all of you together so I could tell you how much your friendships have meant over these years, how much I've loved all of you, how much fun it has been just knowing each of you.''
Randy shook his head again as he lay back, ``I may have AIDS but you're not getting rid of me that easily.''
an floated back from his Hawaii vacation to hear his mother, ``He's smiling doctor, he must know we're here.''
``It's difficult to say, most of his eyesight is gone and he's not responding to the pentamidine so there's really no way to tell what he's aware of.''
``You mean there's nothing more you can do?''
``I don't want to get your hopes up, some people do recover briefly, but he only weighs about eighty pounds and he'll never walk again or see again and the pain will probably just keep increasing.''
She looked at gaunt form, barely recognizable as a human, lying there in a nest of tubes: breathing tubes and feeding tubes and infusion tubes, and she tried to match what she was seeing with the lifetime of images of her son. ``There's really nothing more you can do?'' she asked.
Dan tried to laugh when he heard the word ``stopcock,'' the infantile snicker in high school science lab, as the doctor, before leaving them alone there, explained its function, how it regulates flow. ``You turn the valve to here and he will be out of pain for a while, you turn it to here,'' he paused, ``and he will be out of pain forever.''
ranz checked in at the nurses station when he came on for the evening shift and then made first rounds, the floor quiet, a hospital settling in for a hopefully uneventful night. That's how most of them go, quietly, uneventfully, a graceful transition from one world to another. Forms to fill, discharge papers, but rarely urgency or crisis. The ordinary sameness of one day routinely following the next, this methodical efficiency of the epidemic. Sometimes a patient might rally and appear in the dark hall pulling his drip bag pole, moving towards the light, ready to go home. And sometimes Franz will come on to see a nurse stand to face the chalkboard, reach to smear out a name and write in a new one.
The flat green chalkboard every schoolkid spent years staring at, first names and room numbers over the palimpsest smudges of previous patients, dead or recovered enough to go home to die. AIDS roulette, pick a number, the house always wins.
It's the Filipino nurses that get him, you volunteer to be here, they could be on any other ward, house staff is never forced to work 5A. Franz knows these patients, these women don't. They sit quietly conversing in Tagalog, above them the endless supply of names San Francisco provides, first names only just like the chalkboards you used to see on entering the baths.
The wheel never stops, barely past childhood, these innocents rushed to the circus that was San Francisco before , the glorious midway, all in fun, place your bets folks. ``We were too young for this,'' Franz wants to scream down into the empty hallway. The house always wins.
He turns the corner to see a lanky blond woman midway facing the wall with her head bowed. He's seen her up here before. Gert had stopped by to visit a friend and while looking in the rooms found that she knew two other people on the ward. Now she's gently banging her head against the concrete in a slow methodical rhythm.
As Franz passes behind her holding the clipboard with this night's list of names he mutters, ``Feels good doesn't it.''