By Eïrïc R. Durändal-StormCrow
Her words prick my ears like a wooden stake at a ghoul’s heart, blood rushing to the face, screaming at my lobes, tearing my lungs with an asthma attack, like the promise of a curse. I leave that day. I will be the runaway. I am the homeless who would rather famish himself to death than live with such a harpy.
The first night I sleep under Darren’s Bridge, 7 or 8 blocks northwest of Mother’s. The place has been riddled with hostile spikes to prevent the homeless from tenting around. I still manage to catch some Z’s while in a sitting position against one of the bridge’s main concrete columns. Next day, I walk all the way to nearest YMCA to take a shower, at the end of which, a man looks at me while rubbing his groin. He sports a Magnum P.I. mustache, wavy hair and white skin. White gay men, I think while I roll my eyes at him in disgust. He simply smiles and let’s go of his penis. I finish, dry off with some paper towels, get dressed and leave.
Those first days are the worst. I hold my hunger until the fourth day, by which I am already 29 miles away from the place that saw my birth. I saw once on a police show that dying of hunger is actually pleasant. I wonder how and when it will happen, and how far from this place I will be when I perish.
That night I end in an alley, outside a gay bar on Brighton Ave. It’s called Swordfight. I sleep there, in a surprisingly clean environment. After a while, someone pokes me on my right shoulder.
“You Ok, buddy?” asks a silver-haired man with manicured manners.
It’s not that honesty is my forte. It’s that my energy is too low to lie.
“You look hungry. Wanna have some breakfast with me?”
“I haven’t showered in days.”
“I’m sure it’s not your fault.”
He extended his hand and I grabbed it, the same way one grasps life when it is about to end. His gray eyes hid the world, but kind acts of strangers have always been my weakness.
“You won’t hurt me, will you?” I asked.
“Quite the contrary.”
He opened the door to his car and I stepped in, in full knowledge that, in this country, sheep turn to wolves every election year. His charcoal suit and ultramarine blue plaid tie gained me some trust. Some.
We drove to the nearest DQ and bought a couple of sandwiches, doughnuts, and water bottles. I’ve never been able to hold down any liquid other than water or watered down juice. We ate in comfortable silence, one of those during which your taste buds become your ears and all you hear is your mouth deconstructing flavors into electric currents that become colors and light structures in your head. When I finished my meal, I looked at him.
“Thank you so much, sir. You’ve been very kind.”
“Do you live close by?”
I know he meant “are you runaway?” and I’m glad for his political correctness. I go for the truth.
“I was kicked from home.”
The next question is supposed to be “why?” but he knows better and stays in silence. He has not finished his breakfast, after all. After he takes a sip from his apple juice, he asks:
“Do you have a place to stay?”
“No, sir.” I reply, not daring to meet his eyes.
“I have a spare room if and only if you’re interested.”
The first day at the hospital is always the worst. You never really know how your body will adjust to the room’s cold temperatures. You figure that you may succeed at anything in life if only you could manage to sleep without wetting the bed. I look at the plastic transparent tubes running from my right hand to the hanging UV bag. I am more tired than I have ever been, so tired that I can actually hear the effort of my muscles when I am able to slightly move my head for the nurse to rearrange my pillow. It’s hard to remember what happened. Memory’s in fragments.
“Damn, boy, who’s paying for your medical bills?” asks a nurse one day when she comes in to change the beds and finds a pool of blood where my ass made contact with the bed sheets.
“Dunno. Certainly not me.”
She leaves with a nonchalant purse of the lips. I am disgusted. I need to leave. So I rip off the IV needle stuck to my wrist, take a shower in my room, grab my clothes and make for the stairs. Someone grabs my arm. It was the nurse.
“You shouldn’t leave yet. Your labs are still out. You should at least wait to see if you were infected with an STI. If you go out like this, and you infect someone with something, you may be charged and prosecuted.”
I stay for another night. The results come in next day.
“Thanks, but I don’t even know your name.”
“I’m sorry. My name is Gabriel Fernández-Mora. At your service. What should I call you?”
“I’m Troy. Troy Chapman. Nice to meet you.”
“Nice to meet you too. Here. This is your room. And this, over here, is the bathroom. Why don’t you take a shower and then we can talk about you want to do?”
“Good. I’ll be working in my study. When you’re done, let’s talk over a cup of tea, yes?”
“Good. Here you go. Take these,” he says, handing me a clean pair of underwear, an Alice in Chains T-shirt, and a pair of black sweat pants.
“Thank you so much, Gabriel.”
He only smiles and leaves, closing the door to the room behind him.
I take my clothes off and step inside the shower. Contrary to the way I had seen it before in every house I’ve ever visited, cold water is to the left and hot water to the right. I turn the faucet to scalding right. I’ve always loved the feel of almost boiling water on my skin, purifying every pore from basic bacteria, ridding my mind from bacterial thoughts, such as my family, my mother, father, and sister becoming amoebas in my mind, bacilli with tails, cilia, and eyes, judging me with their amorphous looks. If I am part of this family, am I also a bug?
When I am done and after towel drying myself, I notice a brand new toothbrush on the bathroom sink. I brush my teeth with the white toothpaste in the cabinet and rinse off with ice cold water. I put on the clothes Gabriel gave me and toss mine into a bag I find in the room’s closet. I knock on his studio’s door.
“Come in, Troy. Feeling better?”
“Gabriel. Call me just that.”
He smiles and studies me. He sighs audibly and asks:
“What happened to you?”
“Got kicked out of home for being queer.”
“That’s not good. Have you heard from your parents?”
“No. And the police haven’t come looking for me either.”
“Ok. I will call your parents, just to let them know you are ok, and to give them my information.”
He calls my parents and I listen to my mother attempt to intimidate Gabriel by screaming to him. He hangs up. Then, redials.
“Yes, Ma’am. We were talking and I had to hang up because you were shouting at me. Could you please not do that? Speak civilly to me, please.”
“Who are you?” I hear her ask.
“My name is Gabriel Fernández-Mora. I’m an attorney.”
Magic word that one.
“Anyway, seeing as you feel the way you do about your son, I just wanted to tell you that he’s ok and that, should you wish to contact him, this is my phone number. He will be staying with me for the time being. A young man his age should not be living on the streets, don’t you think?”
She hangs up on him.
“Well, it seems we’re set. Do you like your room?”
“I had a little brother. He would be your age is he were alive today.”
“Carlitos died of cancer. So did my parents. Cancer’s everywhere in my family.”
“So, what? You want me to be your little brother?”
“Of course not,” he replies with a silly smile. “I just did my community a big service. Tomorrow, I’m enrolling you at a school nearby.”
That night I sleep more comfortable and warm than what feels like ever. At some point, her words come back to haunt and taunt me. Deep words like wooden stakes all inside me. I wake up crying. Gabriel knocks on my door and comes in.
“Are you alright?” he asks in the sweetest voice.
“No,” and I let go. I need the cry.
He approaches, sits on the bed and holds me tight. He smells of cedar. Just cedar. I could die at peace with my head on his hairy chest. When I calm down, he kisses my forehead.
“I’m going for a glass of milk. Want one?”
“There’s no right way to say this, so I’m just gonna be blunt,” the nurse says, his black arms resting on his faux mahogany desk. He is calm, measured, his voice approachable. “I’m afraid you came positive for syphilis, gonorrhea, and HIV.”
Of course I start crying. Am I gonna die? Will I have to pay for the whole treatment? Will they bill my parents?
“Who’s in charge of you?” he asks.
“You know I have to call the police, right? And Child Services?”
“Have them meet me at 54th Conrad Dr.” I reply, hoping he doesn’t find out that the address is fake before I leave.
“Ok, then. I’ll bill your parents at that address.”
“Good. So what now?”
“Well, now I give you a penicillin shot for the gonococcus and the syphilis. For the HIV, I’m gonna have to ask you to visit this clinic.”
He hands me a card.
I’m a millennial. Should I cry because I got the plague? No matter how much I try, I don’t. Mario never cried when he was told he had AIDS and 9 months to live. That was in 1994. Now it’s 2018. Why should I cry?
I remember Mario. We used to call him June, because that was his month. It was the month where hurricanes start in the Caribbean. He was born in 1966, the same day Hurricane Faith arrived in the island, the tropical cyclone with the longest track ever in the Atlantic Ocean. It started in Africa, came all the way to Puerto Rico, trekked upwards towards Bahamas, and made its way back northeast, becoming something else that ended up in Scandinavia.
He used to live with us, kinda like a big brother whose origins no one questioned. We knew that he was a cousin, that our Auntie had died giving birth to him and that Uncle Barry had left him in my mother’s care. My mother was 14 years old and she had to drop from school to care for him. No one else could.
“You know all I sacrificed for you, boy?” she would start whenever she got mad at him for coming back home late from parties. He would look at her from the glorious privilege of his 6’7” and smile solemnly. “That’s right. Show some shame, son!” After the reprimand, he would take a box of Bavarian cream doughnuts he had bought at La Panadería before coming home. Mother would lose her entire fury in milliseconds, would hug him tight, and kiss him thanks.
Mario made our lives happier. Especially mine. By the time I am born he already is nearing his twenties. It’s not the donuts, or his benevolent giant’s presence. Or his hairy chest that makes him look like a huge teddy bear that only needs a spear or a sword or a shield to go out like a fury into the night to protect me. It’s more than that. He doesn’t ignore me.
There’s this day when June takes me to the Botanical Garden, way before Hurricane Hugo ravaged it on September 10, 1989. We walk around the collections of orchids and flowering shrubs and trees, the duck pond, the turtle pond, all the ponds with their quaint little red bridges. We place a picnic mantle on the grass and eat snickerdoodles he bought from a recent trip to Boston.
“You know you will be it, don’t you?”
“Like what?” I reply.
“Like you how?”
He doesn’t respond.
“You better get ready, boy.”
I wouldn’t understand, or remember that conversation until five or six years later.
One day, he leaves, telling mother that he is gay and needs to build his life. He leaves with her blessing, a strange blessing because, as a Jehovah’s Witness, she was not supposed to encourage his “faggoty ways,” as my father would call it. But Mother had a special connection with June. It was the connection of sacrifice. After all, she had forgone studying to become a registered nurse in order to raise him.
He grabs his clothes, his collection of exotic animal-print polyester thongs, which were all the rage in the 80s, the few vinyls he had inherited from his estranged father, and his radio. Everything fits in a single suitcase that he raises over his shoulder like it doesn’t weigh the entire world.
He comes back 25 years later to die. He’s jaundiced, has several spots on his face, arms and chest, has lost weight in his legs and gained it in his belly, and looks generally unrecognizable, save for his beady eyes. Those eyes full of so much dark hunger for life, as if he were harboring an ancient deity of death aiming to escape a soul cage made by Queen Sheba herself. He dies some weeks later, in silence, and hidden from the rest of the community where we used to live. That’s the deal between Mother and him.
Needless to say, mother changes for the worst. June had requested a funeral, gringo style, that is, close casket, photograph on top, people remembering his jokes, puns, and scandalously public sex life. When his widower boyfriend starts playing their song on a piano, mother stands up and leaves. She can’t handle “Rocket Man” in such a broken and tear-rendered voice.
“What are you gonna do?” Gabriel asks when I tell him the news.
“What are you gonna do?” I reply.
We stand in silence. One thing is clear. Nothing’s broken between us. Maybe he doesn’t understand the consequences of his possible infection from me. Maybe there are none. Great advances have been made in the field of medicine since the 1980s. I still remember AZT in that decade and how people used to die from it. AZT, actually, leads to denialists, who start dropping like flies, scaring the hell out of people. Everywhere I look, I see men huddled together, talking in a rush, and trying to cry among themselves without anyone noticing. I see them everywhere, at parks, in bathrooms, at school, at the mall… I don’t know they are mourning their loved ones and faithful departed.
Now we have close to 40 meds for the virus and people don’t die from it or the opportunistic diseases that tag along. Well, in the First World, some people still die from it, particularly when they get sick of drinking pills every day.
“I want you to punish me,” I say. “I want you to do what you have never done to me. The unthinkable.”
We take those two weeks to plan everything: the venue, the grunge to drown the screams, the pain relievers, the ropes, the gag, the enhancement pills, the reasons to self-inflict the coming violence… Why would I do this? I ask myself over and over. Sometimes, a mere quota or speck of a reason lands on my planet mind, and just as easy, it evades me. What I am sure of is that there will be no secret word. And I need this to heal.
He punches me across the face and knocks me down, per the specifications. He flinches, but I appreciate how steady he tries to remain. He ties my hands behind my back and my feet spread eagled from each bed side. I am on my stomach, ass lifted by more ropes, mouth gagged, ears red, runny nose, and eyes stricken by tears. We agree on Angra’s Holy Land album. It somehow relaxes me. When he forces himself inside me, I feel excruciating pain. He takes an hour and a half with me. I pass and black out several times. When he’s finished, he tells me that he loves me and that he expects that this violence will cure me. And to never ever ask something like that of him again.
“Don’t worry. I won’t.”
“Then why did you do it?”
“Sex is the only thing that keeps my mother’s curse at bay.”
“That if I ever ran away to be gay, I would die like June.”
Eïrïc Rïchter Durändal StormCrow (t/c/c David Caleb Acevedo) (San Juan, PR) His work has been featured in the following anthologies: Cuentos de oficio (Mayra Santos-Febres), Nueva poesía hispanoamericana (Leo Zelada), EM: Edición mínima (El sótano 00931), Los rostros de la hidra(Julio César Pol), Open mic/Micrófono abierto (Hostos Review vol. 2), Los otros cuerpos: antología de temática gay, lésbica y queer desde Puerto Rico y su diáspora (co-edited by Luis Negrón, Moisés Agosto-Rosario and David Caleb Acevedo), From Macho to Mariposa (Charlie Vázquez y Charles Rice-González), Ó: Antología del Colectivo Literario HomoerÓtica(Ángel Antonio Ruiz-Laboy), De pinga(zos) (Max Chárriez), Palenque (Yolanda Arroyo-Pizarro), No cierres los ojos(Melvin Rodríguez Rodríguez y Ángel Isián) and Cuentos de huracán (Mayra Santos-Febres). His poetry books are Bestiario en nomenclatura binomial (Editorial Aventis), Empírea: Saga de la Nueva Ciudad (Erizo Editorial), Hustler Rave XXX: Poetry of the Eternal Survivor (Lethe Press), with Charlie Vázquez, Terrarium (Paracaídas Editores) and Pie forzado (Ediciones Aguadulce); as well as ðēsôngbərd (which earned him the Premio Nacional de Cuento 2013 from the Instituto de Cultura Puertorriqueña). He currently works as a translator and content creator.