The Heart’s History
by Lewis DeSimone
Lewis DeSimone is the author of the novel Chemistry and the recently released The Heart’s History (both from Lethe Press). In this excerpt from The Heart’s History, Edward, an HIV-positive man in his mid-thirties, is in bed with his younger lover, Robert. Edward’s sex drive has diminished as a result of his medication, so he has just suggested to Robert that he would have no problem with opening up their relationship.
Edward had told him all about it. On nights like this, with Edward holding him close, Robert would often beg for stories—stories from Edward’s past, the life he’d led before they’d met. He wanted to know all of Edward’s stories—the years he’d missed, the world he hadn’t known, the Edward who had lived back then. There were many Edwards, he knew that. He would never know them all.
At first, Edward hadn’t wanted to talk about the past. He’d just called it “different” and got that look in his eye—half wistful, half terrified. And he would hug Robert to him like a life preserver. But sometimes, Robert could get him to reveal the details, to paint the unfamiliar pictures in his mind.
The stories had seduced him, like verbal porn—a tape playing in the background while they made love. Edward would describe the past for him—the brave, decadent world he had come of age in, just emerging from his teens when the plague struck and everything changed. There were still remnants then, pockets of passion that were all gone by the time Robert allowed himself to love.
In the beginning, he had lived through Edward’s stories. They pulled him in, made him want Edward all the more, as if he were competing with the past. He saw himself doing what Edward had done—meeting strangers, holding them for a few minutes, parting just in time to seek out the next one. He didn’t need a past of his own. He had Edward’s stories.
The stories were life, another way of fixing Edward in his memory. Robert knew the history of Edward’s body almost as well as he knew the body itself, the slight webbing between his toes, the pear-shaped birthmark in the small of his back. He knew how Edward’s body moved. He could picture everything it had done.
His heart’s history was harder to imagine. Those were stories Edward seldom offered. Robert had to look for signs, traces of that past. Like a spy, he searched through old photo albums, piecing together the chronology of Edward’s life. He checked the backs of photographs for names; when he couldn’t find them, he would bravely ask. There was Hank—tall, blond, gangly at 24 or whatever age they were then. Paul—darker, brooding, with a face that seemed incapable of smiling. And others Edward couldn’t identify, sometimes couldn’t even remember. Robert imagined them all to be lovers, men who had passed through Edward’s life in a blur of flesh, but they could just as easily have been friends, perhaps even virtual strangers.
Robert reached for the lamp on his side of the bed, and cloaked them in darkness. “I wasn’t exactly a virgin when you met me,” he protested as they settled down.
Now it was Edward’s turn to cradle Robert. For years now, they had ended every night like this, Robert curled on his side, head resting on Edward’s chest. Sometimes he would even fall asleep in this position. It would take a minute or so to adjust, to keep the soft curls of Edward’s chest hair from tickling his nose, but the round firmness of the skin, the pectoral flexing beneath, made a perfect pillow, the heartbeat knocking faintly into his ear, a reassuring lullaby. Every night, he would drape one arm over Edward’s chest, the other curled beneath his own body, hand cradled under his shoulder, and wait for sleep. With Edward’s arm resting on his shoulder, Edward’s breath blowing softly through his hair, he would drift effortlessly into a deep sleep, dreams that melded smoothly with reality, and awaken rested, inspired.
Habit still drew him into the position, even now, when the muscle had wasted half away, no longer the firm pillow he craved, and his cheek felt instead the hard bone of the rib cage, as if the skin were merely a fabric pulled tightly over its form. Now, ear pressed against Edward’s flesh, he listened for the heartbeat—to reassure himself that it was still strong, still steady, still giving life to the body he held so close. He would clutch Edward’s side now, he would close his eyes not for sleep but in a kind of directionless prayer. Robert had no god to pray to, no higher power in which to invest his fears and hopes. His prayers were not words, but visions—images of Edward as he longed for him to be, images of health and strength and old age. If he saw it clearly enough, if he held this body tightly enough, the two might come together—dream made flesh.
“And by the way,” he said, into the darkness, “I don’t want anyone else.”
Edward patted his shoulder. “Just an offer,” he said. “Because I love you.”
“Thank you,” Robert said. “But no thanks.”
“I know you’ll always come home to me,” Edward told him. “That’s all that matters. And every time, we’ll celebrate.”
It would have been so easy—walking down Tremont Street with Tim, up a winding staircase to a tiny studio apartment, where the bed butted up against the fridge. It would have been so easy—wordless fumblings with his clothes, emotionless connection. Just bodies, just bodies writhing on a bed—comforting each other without any knowledge of how or why.
But he didn’t need that—not now, not yet. Tonight, he still had Edward’s arm around him, Edward’s heart still beating in his ear. Change would come. The polar ice caps would melt one day, and everything would change, and a whole new history would be written. But not yet.
Visit Lewis DeSimone’s Web site here.