Lyle and I move a bit away to an unoccupied couch. Now that there’s nothing else to do, I can’t help but notice our surroundings. There are people everywhere, with every kind of wound imaginable. One woman has an angry gash from her collarbone to her belly. A knife wound, by the indication of the shredded dress. She is being talked to by a nurse who quickly hustles her behind a door. There is a small boy blubbering as he watches blood dripping from his knee which is embedded with slivers of broken glass. I avert my eyes from the human suffering that is happening around me. I rather watch the nurses and doctors rushing from one place to the next, intense looks of concentration on their faces. They don’t even acknowledge each other as they hurry on their way, intent on their next assignment. The walls are a dingy white, as if tired of offering brightness and comfort. There is an older man arguing with the intake nurse, the volume of their argument increasing by the word. I shudder and shut my eyes to block out all the stimuli. I hate the hospital—as I’m sure most people do. It’s ironic that the place which is supposed to be for saving lives is loathed by so many.
The hours pass with monotonous regularity. Sometime during the evening, the inspector returns to question Lyle. It takes a half hour, which is twice the amount of time she talked to me. Lyle doesn’t want to talk about it, so we go back to waiting. We also take turns napping. First me with my head on his lap. Then him with his head on my lap. Neither of us is able to sleep for more than half an hour at a time, which doesn’t make for very restful sleep. Lyle tosses as he sleeps, moaning softly for Paris. I stroke his forehead, not wanting to cause him more agitation. It’s strange how this terrible circumstance has thrown us together. I like Lyle tremendously, but I haven’t really spent much in-person time with him. Most of our conversations have taken place over the phone when he and Paris were in Memphis for Paris’s sister’s funeral. Now, we are going to be spending much of our time together over the next couple weeks whether we like it or not. Fortunately, I like him because it would be even more hellish to spend this kind of time with him if I didn’t.
The hospital isn’t quiet—not even at four in the morning. There are patients still streaming in the door. It’s Saturday night, so many of the wounded are hopped up or drunk as well as injured. My admiration for hospital personnel increases tenfold as I observe the business they have to do. I know there is no way I could handle dealing with this kind of large-scale tragedy on a daily basis without flipping my lid. I lean against the back of the couch and close my eyes, even though it’s my turn to stay awake. I don’t know why Lyle and I decided that one of us needs to be awake at all times, but it suddenly seems ridiculous. If the doctors have anything to say to us, they can wake us up. Why are we keeping this vigil? What good is it doing Paris? I’m sending him good vibes, but what he really need is a miracle. For the first time, I allow myself to think the unthinkable. I open my eyes, suddenly shivering in fear.
Paris is more necessary to me than any of my appendages. I’d rather lose all my limbs combined that lose Paris. He is more important to me than any lover I’ve ever had, except perhaps, Claudette, the girl I partnered with for a year of my life in high school—the longest relationship I’d ever been in. I was shattered the day she killed herself after tiring of her battle with anorexia, and it was Paris who patiently put me back together. It’s been Paris holding my hands the last few months when the nightmares visit each night. It’s Paris who has cooked me tempting dishes every day, hoping it’d coax my capricious appetite to spring to life. It’s Paris who kept me from drowning after my father was killed by a drunk driver. It was Paris who showed me what it meant to love someone unconditionally.
I am closer to him than to anyone in my life, save, perhaps, my mother. I care more about him than about my own sister. He was gallant enough to take me to prom our junior year and to be the first boy to kiss me. He was also the first man I slept with our first year in college. I never knew why he was so loyal to me. Mr. Popular wherever he went, he stood up for me when there was no one else by my side. I shake myself, aware that my thoughts are sounding dangerously elegiac. I am not about to say an eulogy for someone who isn’t—. I can’t even think the word. I refuse to let it permeate my brain. It’s morbid to think that way when I haven’t heard anything from the doctors. Why haven’t I heard anything? It’s been seven hours. Or is it eight? Maybe it’s nine—it’s been a long time. Doctors hurry by, their strides purposeful. None of them even glance at me as they zip by.
Lyle snuggles into my lap and sighs softly. I look down at him, wanting to give him comfort. He had a lover die from AIDS, just as Paris has. While tremendously sad, that is to be expected to a certain extent in the gay community—especially for men. This, however, is something out of the blue. It’s not fair that Lyle has to deal with this on top of the AIDS epidemic. Then again, death isn’t fair. There’s no rule book that says if a group of people suffer horrible deaths of one form, they are precluded from suffering in other ways. It would be nice if life came with such guarantees, but it doesn’t. Some Christians seem to think if you believe in God and do good works, you will be insulated from the tragedies of the world. That is not the kind of faith that most truly spiritual people believe in.
I am not making much sense, and it’s because I’m tired. I watch the clock on the wall opposite. The hands seem to take infinite satisfaction in not moving. No matter how much I will them to move, they remain stubbornly still. I will have to leave in an hour or so to make it to the airport on time to pick up Mrs. Jenson if she’s not delayed, but I’m feeling lethargic. I really need to sleep a bit more if I’m going to drive. I obediently close my eyes. Just as I’m about to drift off to sleep, I open them again. I suddenly remember why one of us is supposed to be awake at all times—so we don’t oversleep and forget to pick up Paris’s mother. I struggle to keep my eyes open, but they keep closing on me against my will. I nudge Lyle in the side to wake him up so he can take over. He opens his eyes reluctantly and struggles to sit up.
“How you doing?” I ask softly, curling myself up in a ball on his lap.
“Not good,” Lyle says, yawning so widely, tears spring to his eyes. “I kept dreaming of Paris being drowned by unknown hands. His face was turning blue.” That is a visual I don’t need and wish he had kept to himself.
“I need to sleep,” I say abruptly, shutting my eyes. “Wake me in half an hour.” I am out before I even utter the last word. It seems like a second later that I’m being shaken awake.
“Rayne? Wake up. It’s half an hour.” I struggle to open my eyes which are feeling gritty. I’m feeling gritty, too, and in dire need of a shower. It’s four-thirty, and Mrs. Jenson’s plane is landing at six.
“I better go.” I sit up and push my hair out of my eyes. It falls back down, and I give up. This is not the time to worry about my looks. “You coming with me? Shit, I don’t have time to go back home and get Paris’s car.”
“I think one of us needs to be here,” Lyle says softly, digging his keys out of his pocket. “Take my truck. It’s in the lot, third row, not very close to the entrance.” I pull out a scrap of paper and a pen and have him jot down the make, the color, and the license plate of his truck as well as explicit direction to said truck. After making him promise to call me when he heard anything, I set off to find his Chevy. I have little difficulty locating it, but I’m slightly wary of driving it. I don’t drive on a regular basis, and I’ve never driven a pick-up. Thank god it’s not a stick, or I’d be in trouble. I slide in and start the engine. It’s strange to be sitting above everyone else, but it’s nice, too. Makes me feel powerful. I get to SFO early and with no problem. I go to the baggage claim to wait. My cell phone rings while I’m waiting.
“Rayne? It’s Lyle. Our boy is out of surgery.” I nearly weep in relief at the news. “He’s not conscious, though, and the doctors have put him in ICU. No one is allowed to see him under the doctor’s orders, not the cops. I’m going to see if I can do something about that.”
“I’m at the airport waiting for Mrs. Jenson,” I reply. I heard what he said, but I’m ignoring the message. “I’ll be back as soon as I can.”
“Did you hear me?” Lyle asks, raising his voice. “Paris is unconscious! They won’t let me see him.”
“I’ll be there soon,” I repeat, clicking off the phone. I shove it back in my purse before closing my eyes. I must have fallen asleep because I’m soon being shaken.
“Rayne, dear, wake up.” I open my eyes to a painfully-skinny woman who looks older than she is. Her white hair is pulled in an up-do. She is wearing slacks and a twin-set which look simple, but probably cost close to a month’s rent for me. Her face is deathly pale under her makeup. She has bags under her eyes that no amount of concealer can hide. Her lips are pursed as if she’s eaten something sour. She has two good-sized bags at her feet.
“Mrs. Jenson, I’m so sorry!” I spring to my feet and grab her bags over her protests. “I spent the night in the hospital and didn’t get much sleep.”
“How’s Paris?” Mrs. Jenson looks as if she’s struggling to keep control of herself—it appears to be a losing battle.
“He just got out of surgery, but hasn’t regained consciousness,” I say gently, not wanting to send her over the edge. “He’s in ICU, and no one is allowed to see him.” We start walking, though I’m not sure she’s registered the fact that she’s moving. “Do you want to go straight to the hospital, or—” I realize in embarrassment that I don’t know where she’s staying. I feel honor-bound to offer Paris’s room, but I don’t want her staying at the apartment. She must sense my dilemma, because she rushes to fill the gap.
“I booked a room at the St. Francis hotel in Union Square,” she says, attempting to smile. “I love the historical feel of it, don’t you?”
“Yeah, it’s a grand old place,” I say agreeably, not mentioning that I’ve never been inside that particular hotel. Of course, I’ve heard of it as it’s quite famous in San Francisco. “Would you like to stop there first? Perhaps take a nap?”
“I must see Paris,” Mrs. Jenson says firmly, her mouth set in a grim line. I pity the doctor who tells her that she’s forbidden from seeing him. We both put on our jackets before exiting the hospital. We don’t talk much on the drive over—it doesn’t seem the time nor the place for chitchat. “Is that man going to be there?” I am startled to hear her voice as we near the hospital.
“If you mean Lyle, then, yes, he is,” I say cautiously. I don’t want to add to her distress, but I’m not going to lie about it and risk a big scene at the hospital. It’s the last thing either of them needs.
“I don’t understand,” Mrs. Jenson says mournfully. “Paris is such a handsome, likeable boy. Why can’t he settle down with a nice girl like you?”
“Paris is my best friend, Mrs. Jenson,” I say, restraining a sigh. I am beginning to sound like a broken record. “We make great friends, but not good romantic partners. We just aren’t suited that way.”
“You could be,” Mrs. Jenson persists. “You’re much better for him than that man.” I wonder if that’s what she calls Lyle to his face. I have an awful feeling it is.
“Lyle is a sensitive, loving man who cares about Paris very much,” I reply, struggling to keep my voice even. The last thing I want to do is to start something with Mrs. Jenson, but I’m not going to let her put down Lyle without coming to his defense.
“It’s just not right,” Mrs. Jenson continues, ignoring my well-meaning words. “It even says in the Bible that it’s a sin for a man to lie with a man as if he were a woman.”
Well, I did say I wanted the Mrs. Jenson I knew, and this was her in spades. I take a deep breath, not wanting to get into a fight with this woman while her son is lying in the hospital, comatose. This is not the time nor the place to argue the morality of homosexuality. I vow to keep my mouth shut. I would have kept that promise except that Mrs. Jenson has to comment about AIDS being God’s punishment to homosexuals. Not even for this grieving woman can I let that one slide. I point out that the fastest growing demographic getting AIDS in the United States is of straight white women in their forties. There goes my good intentions. I am clinically unable to keep my big mouth shut.
She snaps out a comment about it being because husbands go out having sex with men and bring the AIDS back to their wives. Before we can have an all-out brawl, I ask about Memphis in a heavy-handed attempt to change the subject. She continues her own train of thought as if I’ve never spoken, informing me that one reason she moved out of the Bay Area is because of the gays and the strange people. She and Douglas, her husband, just couldn’t handle being around such eccentrics. She wasn’t this bad when she lived in Oakland, not that I can remember. I think marrying Mr. Jenson is what pushed her over the edge, religiously speaking. By the time she’s done speaking, I am biting my lip so hard, it starts to bleed.
“I’m sorry it’s a bit gloomy, but you remember the Bay Area weather.” I have decided the easiest way to avoid a scene is to have two separate monologues.
“This is God’s punishment,” Mrs. Jenson sighs heavily, a tear trickling down her cheek. “Punishment to me for lying to Paris all these years, and punishment to him for being homosexual.” That does it—the gloves are off. She can rant about homosexuals in general but when she starts dissing Paris in particular, I draw the line.
“Pardon me, Mrs. Jenson, but I must correct you. First of all, Paris is not homosexual. Like me, he’s bi. Second, I feel sorry for you if you believe in such a punitive god. Third, there is nothing wrong with loving someone of the same gender. Now, while I don’t expect you to agree with me, I do ask that you respect the fact that I have a different opinion.” I hear a sharp intake of breath and wait for her response.
“I’ll pray for you, Rayne,” Mrs. Jenson says thinly, her lips tight. “I’m sure someone as mixed up as you needs a lot of guidance.”
“If it makes you feel better about yourself, have at it,” I mutter, swerving into the hospital parking lot. “We’re here.” I screech to a halt, not particularly caring if she bonks her head on the dashboard. I immediately regret my childish gesture, but not enough to apologize. She silently follows me as I lead her to the ICU. Lyle is sitting there, slumped over, his head in his hands.