“You need to have it checked out right away.” Marcus turned away from Robert.
“How could you not notice that?”
Robert sat up enough to take a sip of water from the bottle on the nightstand and flopped again onto his back.
Marcus flung his feet over the right side of their tall bed and hopped down. Wearing only red boxer briefs, he began furiously sorting both his and Robert’s dirty laundry. Robert watched as he separated the darks from the whites. He could remember when Marcus’ every arm muscle surged as he performed even the slightest chore. Nowadays, it was harder for Robert to see the man he once lusted over. Marcus was a stack of chicken bones.
Marcus had served in the Navy for over a decade, which was a big joke with the Boys Town crowd. Although masculine, the minute he leapt into his first story, “Don’t ask, don’t tell,” became unnecessary, voice as effeminate as Liberace’s. Yet, he was never bullied. Robert thought that fellow enlisted men simply must’ve liked Marcus too much to harass him. The notion still made him smile.
“I thought you were gonna throw this out?” Marcus held a raggedy tee that read, “U.S. Navy.”
“No. You suggested that I dispose of it.”
It was the shirt that Marcus had given to Robert the morning after their first date, so he didn’t have to step on campus wearing the previous day’s clothes.
“It has holes.”
Marcus threw the gray shirt in the light pile and continued to sort. My Navy stint was a lifetime ago.
They hadn’t much in common. Marcus was black and Robert white. Marcus had a high school diploma, while Robert held a Doctorate in English medieval language and literature. Whereas Marcus could never pass in the straight community and avoided interaction, Robert could and did, colleagues and friends a mixed crowd. At parties, Marcus held court, audience in great guffaws— Robert watched, admiring his life partner, knowing that although he could be quite the conversationalist, his sense of humor elicited only slight chuckles, mostly from other intellects.
Robert had not put underwear back on. He raised his limp dick and scrotum and spread the scrotum with his fingers to examine it. How had he missed that? Had he? He sighed. The cancerous tumor in his stomach was growing again, medicine no longer working. A physician hadn’t confirmed, and he hadn’t told Marcus his suspicions, but he knew. Just knew. How much longer will I be able to teach? The couple lived in a brownstone near the university where Robert served as an associate professor.
Marcus had already been reduced to part-time work at a local Y. How ironic, Robert thought. He recalled the years when his partner had bounded through the door, words and body language competing for space.
“The Hummingbirds finally won ‘Capture the Flag’! You should’a seen Chineka Thompson’s face! She must’ve high-fived her whole team twice!” He laughed himself into an arm chair.
Sometimes, though, someone broke a limb or a parent had died. Those nights, Marcus spoke slower. But even then, Robert knew that Camp Ridgewood was Marcus’ passion. Marcus, who would leave the gay community if shaking a straight suit upside down meant keeping the place open another summer.
On the morning of his 45th birthday, the doctor told Robert that his disease had become active.
Marcus’ own bad news soon followed, and the two grieved, with much hard liquor and no Christmases. Then, one day, after Marcus examined Robert’s lymph nodes for swelling, he said, “It could be worse. It could be leprosy. At least nothing’s gonna fall off.” The men laughed the way the desperate sometimes do. They held one another, still convulsing, and tumbled off the couch—speechless, looking up at the high stucco ceiling for a long time, their hands found one another. That began what they referred to as their month-long “rash” of gruesome AIDS jokes.
Then, they resumed living.
Marcus stain-treated his YMCA T-shirt and stuck it in with the darks. His brows furrowed; when he saw his upper arm, it was as slender as his forearm, and when Marcus looked down, his ribcage was a visible staircase descending toward a drop off. Even sitting, his stomach didn’t protrude. A doctor recently prescribed marijuana.
Marcus held up one of Robert’s dress shirts, one of those in-between colors that could be sorted into either pile.
“Hey. What’cha working on at the U?”
“Nothing of interest.” Robert continued, knowing he shouldn’t. “In fact, I don’t know how much longer I’ll be able to work.” His voice quivered part way through.
Marcus tossed the garment in with the whites. He nodded without looking up, opened his mouth and closed it again. What could he say? He didn’t need an explanation. Nor did he want to comfort Robert.
Down to the last clothing item, a black robe that they shared, he pitched it in with the darks, stood, and picked up the basket. As he began walking across the apartment, toward the detergent on a kitchen pantry shelf, he couldn’t take his eyes off the robe. Picking up pace, he veered toward a bank of bedroom windows and, jerking one up, then the screen, flung the laundry out their third floor window and watched the pieces flail their arms and legs as they plummeted through large flakes toward frozen days-old snow.
Janine Harrison is a fiction writer, nonfictionist, and poet; she teaches creative writing and advises First Friday Wordsmiths at Purdue University Calumet. She rewrote Don’t Let the Accent Fool You, memoir of Oil Express founder Arthur Lukowski, and is anthologized in Heartscapes. Her work has also appeared in Skylark, The Mom Egg’s “Vox Mom” and other journals. Janine is former vice president and a board member of not-for-profit organization, Indiana Writers’ Consortium.