Poem 196 ± December 17, 2015

Beth Aviv

Detroit, 1992

I know I’m not supposed to fall in love with Robert, but I am. At night I dream of him, by day, we’re best friends, nothing more. We talk on the phone every night while cooking dinner or cleaning up. We double date, he and Grant, my boyfriend and I.

I go over to his house to visit, to learn how to cook Chinese. Grant is in his leather Mission chair in the den watching The Heiress with Olivia de Haviland and Montgomery Clift. Next to him, a chrome IV pole hangs with bloated bags of itraconazole and foscarnet dripping into the catheter implanted in his chest. Robert has lived with Grant, whom he sometimes calls Carol, for ten years.

In the kitchen, with Robert leaning back into his new stainless steel counter, we laugh. We laugh despite the AIDS that has invaded his house, despite the fact that the man he’s loved for ten years weighs half of what he weighed two years before, despite the new Sub-Zero refrigerator filled with bags of drugs, despite the new kitchen drawers filled with bottles of iodine, hypodermic needles, gauzes and vitamins.

Behind Robert mounded on the new polished steel counter are piles of silk-white tofu, broccoli, onion, gluten, carrots, and a bowl of straw mushrooms. “These are circumcised mushrooms,” he says, pincing a straw mushroom between his thumb and forefinger. “Before they’re canned they have a tight skin that’s peeled back like a foreskin.” Robert holds the glistening bone-brown mushroom and pulls back a flap of mushroom flesh offering it to me to feel. I do. It is shiny and slippery.

“What I’d really like,” he says as he pours sesame oil into his charred wok, “Is some guy to come up to me and say in a deep voice, “I’ve got five hours.” His eyes drop to his crotch. So do mine. He is wearing tight black jeans.

I can’t stop myself from wanting him and wanting him to want me. He was the only one who called every day for six weeks—even if just to leave a message on my answering machine—while my six-year-old daughter was in the hospital. He helped me decorate my new, smaller house after I divorced. He taught me to garden: how to empty his columbine’s seeds like tiny pearls of onyx into my palm; how to turn my kitchen’s refuse into rich, sweet-smelling compost; how to split overgrown patches of bee balm and hosta from his garden and plant them in my garden.

“What about a woman?” I ask.

“Maybe in Windsor. Maybe I could go across the river and pick up a woman at a bar in Windsor.”

I watch Robert smash garlic cloves with the side of a cleaver, chop iridescent cloves, then stir them into his wok. The kitchen crackles with the garlic’s warm aroma. He adds onions and carrots and broccoli. In the wok the oranges get oranger, the greens greener. He is stirring quickly, moving vegetables up from the hot center to the sides where they stay warm. Then he adds the tofu and gluten and mushrooms.

After sitting down at the dining room table to a meal of brown rice and vivid vegetables that we share with Grant, after getting the dishes into the dishwasher, Robert complains that his back aches. He’s been working out and lifting weights in order to stay strong to carry Grant—when Grant can no longer walk. He knows what’s coming. He’s witnessed the demise of other friends, the slow decline in muscle and dexterity. Grant keeps losing weight and getting lighter. Carrying him from his bed to his wheel chair (when that time comes) won’t be as difficult.

I massage Robert’s back, rubbing his shoulders, rolling my thumbs into his well-built muscles, pressing the heel of my palms into his shoulder blades, running my open thumbs up his spine. Somehow he leans into my hands and both his feet rise as if he is levitating, as if he is the bridegroom in a Chagall painting. It feels like I’m making him fly.

“Oooooh,” he giggles. “I’ve never had a woman touch me like that.”

Grant, gaunt, glaring, stands in the kitchen doorway; the ceiling light reflects off his glasses. “What’s going on?” he asks.

Robert’s thick-soled shoes return to the ceramic floor and he is standing upright again. We’re both smiling, our faces red. Our hands fall to our sides.

“I was getting a massage,” Robert says.

Grant, who will die in six months, tightens his jaw and clutches the doorknob. Robert grabs a damp towel and rubs it in wide circles on the counter until the stainless steel shines. Then he turns to me and says, “I’ll never get used to this.”

Beth AvivBeth Aviv is the author of Bearing Witness: Teaching about the Holocaust (Heinemann, 2001). Her essays have most recently appeared in Salon, the Michigan Quarterly Review, New Letters, Raw Vision, and soon, Story Magazine. Beth lives in New York City.

This piece is not previously published.