When I let myself into the apartment Cory is standing in front of the wall with a needle and syringe in his hand, a bright light turned toward his arm. He doesn’t look up at me.
He says, “you’re blocking my light.”
“Sorry, honey.” I say, and move out of the way as he slides the needle into his arm.
I watch as he pulls back on the depressed plunger and the vial fills with deep crimson blood. He pulls the needle out and unloads the blood into a small jar. His arm is bleeding a little where he’s pulled out the needle. I pick up a gauze pad from the table and lean toward him. Without looking at me, he nods toward the box of latex gloves. He takes the gauze from me and holds it to his arm while I struggle into the gloves. They snap loudly against my wrists. I hate these. He holds his arms out to me and I wrap the gauze, then tape, around his arm.
He hasn’t started painting yet, but his supplies are all around him. Paint brushes. Sponges. Gauze. Tape. Syringes. Whatever he’s experimenting with using as blood thinner today. Large white canvases tacked to the blank wall.
There’s a loud wailing I recognize as singer Diamanda Galas coming from the stereo in the corner.
“Will you check the tea?” he asks. I go to the kitchen where a large pot has been simmering long and slow with thick slices of ginger. I ladle two mugs for us. The peppery heat burns my throat and eyes. He’s tired and suspicious of western meds. He takes the ones he has to, but more and more the counters are filled with vials of herbs and tinctures, and the fridge is crowded with ginger and pineapple and dark leafy things.
Cory sips his tea, then he strips off his clothes. This is the ritual of our bodies in relation to each other. It’s summer. Los Angeles. The night is warm. Blood. Needles. Gloves. He’s still working out his technique. I watch how he mixes blood with thinner, checks the tautness of the canvas against the wall. But I’m also assessing his body. I can’t help it. It’s habit borne of our years together. He’s lost a little more weight. His cheekbones and jaw are sharp and chiseled and the flesh hollowed between them. But his eyes are bright, and his skin is a healthy-for-him shade of brown, his muscles flexing easily, his joints unswollen. I shift my body against a blank wall, taking a deep breath, learning to sit still and watch him work. There is a visceral strangeness seeing his blood, without urgency or intervention. I’m partially watching him and partially reading.
I’m reading a collection of poets who lived through war zones around the world. Diamanda Galas keeps perfect time with them, until she doesn’t, and I turn off the stereo.
“Read to me,” Cory says, as he takes out another syringe.
I read outloud:
It could have happened.
It had to happen.
It happened earlier. Later.
Closer. Farther away.
It happened, but not to you.
You survived because you were the first.
You survived because you were the last.
Because alone. Because the others.
Because on the left. Because on the right.
Because it was raining. Because it was sunny.
Because a shadow fell.
Luckily there was a forest.
Luckily there were no trees.
Luckily a rail, a hook, a beam, a brake,
a frame, a turn, an inch, a second.
Luckily a straw was floating on the water.
Thanks to, thus, in spite of, and yet.
What would have happened if a hand, a leg,
one step, a hair away –
So you are here? Straight from that moment still suspended?
The net’s mesh was tight, but you – through the mesh?
I can’t stop wondering at it, can’t be silent enough.
how quickly your heart is beating in me.
“Who is she?” Cory asks.
“Wislawa Szymborska, Polish poet. She was writing during the Second World War.”
“That’s the question.”
“What would you do? If there was a choice. If it isn’t random. We think we would do
the right thing, but do we?”
“What do you do?” I ask him, as he swirls his brush into the color, and begins outlining a body against the wall.
“Tell it relentlessly. Tell it loud. Don’t let them turn away.”
We keep talking about the problem of how to document. To bear witness. The conversation we return to and return to. We’re talking about me, but not talking about me. Cory has been talking more and more about legacy. His. The duty to remember. Mine. But how do we make sense of it as it is happening?
Holocaust Studies scholar and psychoanalyst Dori Laub writes:
Against all odds, attempts at bearing witness did take place, chroniclers of course existed and the struggle to maintain the process of recording and of salvaging and safeguarding evidence was carried on relentlessly. Diaries were written and buried in the ground so as to be historically preserved, pictures were taken in secret, messengers and escapees tried to inform and to warn the world of what was taking place. However, these attempts to inform oneself and to inform others were doomed to fail. The historical imperative to bear witness could essentially not be met during the actual occurrence. The degree to which bearing witness was required, entailed such and outstanding measure of awareness and of comprehension of the event – of its dimensions, consequences, and above all, of its radical otherness to all known frames of reference – that it was beyond the limits of human ability (and willingness) to grasp, to transmit, or to imagine. There was therefore no concurrent “knowing” or assimilation of the history of the occurrence. The event could thus unimpededly proceed as though there were no witnessing whatsoever, no witnessing that could decisively impact on it. (“Truth and Testimony: The Process and the Struggle” in Trauma: Explorations in Memory, ed. Cathy Caruth)
We’re quiet for a few minutes. Then he turns Diamanda Galas back on and she slides into “Gloomy Sunday.”
Memory works like this:
I close my eyes and slide back into the music and Galas turns into Billie Holiday... Steven and I were sitting on his front porch, leaning into each other. Another summer evening years ago. Billie Holiday was wailing at us through open door at dusk. Steven told me the story of the song. Called “the Hungarian Suicide Song” the original lyrics were about the injustices of humanity, and despair about war. It was in later versions that it was re-interpreted as a love song about suicide after the death of a lover.
“The death of a lover is so much more palatable marketing than the condemnation of humanity,” Steven laughed and shook his head, brushing his dreadlocks out of his face. He sighed, and sang the heartbroken love song along with Holiday.
Angels have no thought of ever returning you
Would they be angry if I thought of joining you?
Steven fades from vision as the song ends. I pull myself back into the room, telling Cory about the meaning and history of the song. How it changed. He looks up from his canvas and turns to me.
“Do you think those are so different? The war and the loss? Aren’t they the same thing? Isn’t it all the same war?”
We keep coming back to this same conversation about art and edges. He pushes. He isn’t afraid to challenge. This is his time-running-out terror. I’m still worried about being likable.
“You could channel Diamanda,” he says to me.
Instead I hover in the compressed, quiet-dirge range of Billie Holiday right before she lets loose into a wail. She was subtler at the low end of her range. Quiet. You had to listen harder.
This is our same fight. Over and over. Taking up space. Not taking up space. Who gets to. Who wants to. Who has no choice. His loud Puerto Rican infected faggot self. My quiet, Okinawan dyke self. But I move stealth, move quiet, move unrelenting into. Toward. I memorize him with my movement shadowed to his.
We remember through telling. And we remember through the body of it.
Cory has a smudge of blood streaked across his cheek.
As we argue our slow motion, familiar bicker, he takes a paintbrush and dips it into a jar of thinned blood. With the brush in his right hand he paints his left arm - shoulder, biceps, crease of his elbow, forearm, wrist, widened palm of his hand. He leans his arm, the whole weight of his body against the canvas, the wall under it holding him up. His eyes closed, his right arm held up at an angle, hugging the wall, the paintbrush pressing against the wall, a bit of blood dripping down from the tip.
Is it the difference in bodily experience - in bodily urgency, that allows me to witness Cory and Steven’s lived experience as it happens? My intact veins. I still feel the itchy constraint of the latex gloves around my wrist. I snap them in time with the wailing Galas, and then take them off.
I take a damp cloth and wipe a streak of blood from Cory’s cheek.
Is there any such thing as ordinary, non-symbolic touch anymore?
Eventually we tire of our argument. Cory is lost deep into his shrouds. I read another few poems, and then I go to bed.
After Cory and Steven die, someone who hadn’t known him will stand next to me looking at one of Cory’s shrouds and ask, “he had AIDS, right?” And suddenly I won’t know how to answer the question, stumbling over the tense. Cory will be dead. His blood is on the canvas laid out in front of us. Is it still infected? Does his blood still have AIDS? Epidemiologically, I know it isn’t infectious, but symbolically? Is it just symbolic of his body or is it still a part of his actual body? Does the outline of his body made from his blood on the canvas in front of us still carry the virus in its cellular structure? If it does, does that mean that Cory is still here?
At dawn I hear Cory in the shower washing the blood from his body. He crawls into bed next to me and drapes his arm across my chest. He falls immediately into an exhausted sleep. In the almost-light I can see the dark shadow of blood-residue under his fingernails.
I slide quietly out of bed, holding my breath as he stirs a little at my absence, his hand opening and closing against the space in the bed where I had been. I walk out into the living room. The canvases against the walls are partially and unevenly lit by the lamp and the early morning light through the window. The needles and syringes are all in their plastic tubs, the brushes soaking.
The red light of the stereo is still on and as I turn it of I can hear the competing versions of Gloomy Sunday in my head. Now, without Cory to argue with, I hear what I hadn’t heard earlier. The Diamanda Galas variation is closer to the original, yes, but also, the point of view is different. Like the original Hungarian Suicide Song, the Galas version holds an ambiguous point of view - the speaker - the singer - is both the rememberer and the lost beloved. The one who is gone. The one who has not survived and speaks as the echo of memory. The Holiday version that I’ve held so stubbornly to, isn’t just a love song - it’s the song of the survivor. The last one left.
Dreaming, I was only dreaming;
I wake and I find you,
Asleep in the deep of my heart, dear.
Is it possible that the uninfected body - that my body - metabolizes the story, inscribes it as it unfolds - in preparation of remembering it outside of the context of the shared moment? That bodies enact a translation that is less about language than about breath, movement, the endless reaching toward?
As though we could keep each other. As though I could keep him here.
I stand in front of Cory’s shrouds. On one wall one canvas is an arm reaching toward me. Another a leg. The side of face. Disembodied - dis-membered - Bodies-which-will-soon-but-have-not-yet-vanished.
Some of them are still damp, the blood brighter and glossy. Some of them have dried, the blood darker, and in some places, crumbling, disintegrating, just a little.
Bodies push through as if from behind the canvas, led by faces, bellies, cocks, all laid bare - at once the cellular and kinesthetic specificity of an individual and simultaneously mirroring the viewer, the witness. Calling forth in them/us/me the awareness of their/our/my own corporeal raw insides turned out, and the possibility of taking their place. At once trapped, displayed, set free.
I hold my hand flat to his flattened hand reaching toward me, and move quietly through the room, dancing with one body, then another.
Laub, Dori,“Truth and Testimony: The Process and the Struggle” in Trauma: Explorations in Memory, ed. Cathy Caruth. Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995.
Szymborska, Wislawa, “Anycase” in “Against Forgetting: 20th Century Poetry of Witness” ed. Carolyn Forché. W.W. Norton, 1993.
“Gloomy Sunday” original music and lyrics by Rezso Seress. Lyrics rewritten by Laszlo Javor.