I am sitting with a friend at a coffee shop. We do this every afternoon and I enjoy the routine. In general, we don’t say much, and I enjoy that, too.
Today is no different. We are sitting together under a wide umbrella near the Beverly Center in Beverly Hills at my favorite outdoor cafe, The Coffee Bean. I like the Bean. Here, they use vanilla powder instead of syrup; the powder adds just enough texture to the drink to give it some added density and grit. I like that.
The day is hot and the sun has found a small patch of my exposed arm. My skin is burning in the direct glare, but I do not move my arm. I let my flesh burn slowly because I do not care about such things anymore. It’s just a sunburned arm, after all. I have bigger fish to fry, so to speak.
My friend, Numilekunoluwa, or Numi, looks up from the journal he’s writing in, one where he jots down random thoughts, impressions, and observations. This journal is his life and he goes through many such booklets each year. Such constant writing looks like a lot of work to me. I don’t have the strength for such work. I barely have the strength to sit here in my chair without toppling over.
“Eddie wants to see you,” says Numi in his strong Nigerian accent. “He says he wants to talk to you about something important.”
I nod and turn back to my arm, where I can see my skin now noticeably reddening. I open and flex my hand, spreading my fingers wide. My hand appears incandescent in the splash of sunlight. Bluish veins glow like neon tubes just beneath the surface of my skin. I try to make a fist, but I’m too weak to do even that.
“Don’t you even want to know why he wants to see you, man?” asks Numi. He sets down his pen, which for him is serious business. It means his journal will wait.
“To say good-bye, I assume,” I say.
“You assume incorrectly, cowboy. He wants to hire you.”
“He has a job for you, boss.”
He laces his fingers over his notepad and levels his considerable stare at me. His eyes are piercingly white against his rich black skin. “Do I look like I’m joking, kemosabe?”
“If by joking you mean looking scary as hell, then yes.”
“Is that another reference to my beautiful black skin?”
“You mean your terrifyingly black skin.”
Numi shakes his head and grins. “Do you want to hear about the job or not?”
A hot wind ruffles the canvas umbrella above us, rocking the metal pipe in the center hole of the glass table. Someone had shoved a piece of paper between the pipe and the table, perhaps to keep it from clanging. I reach over and remove the piece of paper. My detective’s curiosity still alive, I begin unfolding it. There is nothing written on it.
“Eddie knows I’m sick,” I say. The fact that Eddie hasn’t bothered to see me in two years is a source of some hurt for me.
Numi unlaces his fingers and eases back in his chair. His iced coffee sits in front of him, forgotten and pooling condensation. Numi looks away when he says, “I told him he should speak with you anyway, cowboy.”
I am about to sit forward until I realize that sitting forward takes more effort than I’m willing to give. So, I stay back in my bamboo chair and say, “Why would you tell him that?”
Numi continues not looking at me. He has taken my illness hardest of all. No surprise there. “Because you’re the only one who can help him, man, and you ain’t dead yet.”
It’s not that Numi forgets I’m sick. It’s not that he forgets that I’ve been diagnosed with an incurable AIDS-related cancer that has spread to my lungs. It’s not that eight months ago, I was given six months to live and that I’m now living on borrowed time. It’s that my old friend is in some serious denial, and he only wishes it was a damn river in Egypt.
“True,” I say. “I’m not dead yet.”
I look at my coffee in front of me and I want to reach for it, but my shoulder hurts so much that I don’t want to move. All I want to do is sit there and close my eyes and feel the hot sun on my arm. I have no business being up and about. The doc had insisted I stay in bed. But I figure if I’m gonna die, I might as well do it with a latte in my hand.
“Just talk to him, cowboy.”
I look at Numi and he suddenly grins broadly, showing a blindingly white row of tiny bottom teeth. I know this smile. It is a new smile meant for me, created for me. It’s a little too big, too unnatural, too patronizing, too euphoric. It is a smile that Numi gives only me when he’s willing my world to be safe. As if my African friend can will away my sickness with his bright smile. I wish he could. He has given it his best shot.
I take in some air, which rattles around in my chest. “Help him, how?”
Numi thinks it’s his smile that has willed me forward, and so he flashes it again, and this time reaches out and takes my hand. Numi is gay, and I am not. Lately, he has taken my hand a lot and I have let him. Mostly, I do not have the strength to pull it away. And truth be known, I appreciate his comforting touch. He is the only one who touches me, outside of the prodding and poking of doctors. Instinctively, I want to pull away, but I don’t. He squeezes my hand and his touch alone, his very strong touch, gives me a jolt of strength.
Numi says, “Someone close to him is missing.”
Now, I do pull my hand away and sit up. The effort alone causes a wave of dizziness that nearly overwhelms me. I feel myself swaying in my chair and I nearly vomit, but I fight through it.
After all, this is what I did years ago, before the sickness. Before I was diagnosed with AIDS. Before the cancer. Before all of that, I found those who were missing. I found them, one way or another. Dead or alive.
“Who’s missing?” I ask.
Numi shakes his head and then flicks his eyes over my shoulder. “I don’t know, man, but he’s coming now. He can tell you.”
A moment later, Eddie comes around and stands in front of me and looks down at me as he might a dying grandfather. His lips are pressed together and he’s sort of smiling, but sort of not. He’s happy, it seems, to see me again, but clearly sad to see me in this current dilapidated state. Mostly he’s unsure of how to react to me. I’m used to it.
He’s also a little standoffish, which I’ve also grown used to. Someone who’s dying of AIDS doesn’t elicit a lot of physical contact, although that doesn’t seem to stop Numi. Nothing stops Numi—at least, not when it comes to me.
Eddie settles for a gesture I’m used to. The gentle shoulder pat. I’m so used to the gesture that I barely notice it anymore, or let it bother me. Where once my close friends hugged me, they now pat me on the shoulder. And handshakes are nonexistent. It is my reality. I accept it.
Numi doesn’t accept it. Eddie’s little gesture bugs my Nigerian friend. I can see it in his alert eyes. He wishes people would treat me the same. Sometimes, he insists on it. But lately, he has eased up on people. Insisting that people act a certain way generally causes conflict. People do not want to be told how to act, especially towards someone with an infectious disease.
Eddie sits opposite me, next to Numi. I try not to think that he’s sitting as far away from me as possible, but I suspect he is. Such thoughts get me nowhere. Such thoughts remind me that I’m less than human, unworthy of contact or love or compassion. Sympathy maybe. Distant sympathy.