by Dale Corvino
“Do you remember when we met?” Nico asked me over a FaceTime call. Nico had long ago lost his hair and shaved his head; his facial wasting had been treated with injections of fillers. He battled the signs of aging he never expected to face with liberal applications of lotion.
“You were dressed up and tan…You hauled that giant suitcase up five flights…” I answered. The face that appeared on my phone screen—flickering somewhere between restoration and reenactment—smiled in recognition. We hadn’t seen each other since Nico moved to Santiago years ago.
“Do I look the same?” Nico asked, preening while displaying his profile.
“It’s uncanny,” I deadpanned. “I can’t believe we are mugging at each other a continent away!”
“Yasss child. Tecnologia.”
Nico had long called everyone ‘child,’ which he’d picked up from his first roommate in Detroit, a Southern black woman. They shared an entire floor of an empty department store downtown, and would yell out “Yasss child” to find each other.
“Joseph was with you…”
“Oh, yeah…” Nico answered. A tear tracked down his visible cheek.
Nico’s dandified appearance—new shoes, Italian suit, colorful scarf—had me convinced he would never be satisfied with the simple railroad flat when he first visited. He’d responded to a notice I’d posted in the housing office of their art school.
“I got this place through a friend of my dad’s. It’s cheap, being a walk-up. But life around here sure ain’t, plus supplies are expensive.”
“Yasss and clothes and shoes and stepping out…” he flung his scarf around his neck.
It was startling how much of the small apartment Nico managed to take up already, but I was drawn to him all the same.
“I know it’s small, but I thought…”
“I’ve got cash in hand for the deposit and a month’s rent,” Nico said, cutting me off and handing me a stack of bills. “Now let’s check out the roof.”
I wanted this exotic creature in my life, to counteract my moody self-absorption, and a provincial cast I couldn’t seem to shuck. This will be good for me, I thought as I led Nico up the top flight of stairs.
Nico’s boyfriend, Joseph, was a closeted grad student from a wealthy family. After a fight, he’d demanded that Nico move out of his apartment, and had accompanied him to my place on moving day. Though I lacked experience in gay relationships, I’d rightly deduced that it had been hard to keep in the closet as Nico’s boyfriend. Joseph, who was running a fever, broke it off with finality right there on my doorstep while I tried not to watch. Joseph was all aggrieved posturing, while Nico was subdued. As Joseph stomped off, Nico closed the door behind him and rolled his eyes.
“Are you okay?”
“I feel a fever coming on, too. Check,” as he put my hand on his forehead.
“You do feel warm.” I assumed it was hypochondria, or heartbreak, or some combination.
Nico was now showing me the view out his window, a busy commercial street in the Bellas Artes section.
“I remember saying I was trying to save money, but looking back, I think I was inviting change into my life…” I said.
“Yasss…Just call me Cambio Internacional,” Nico answered off-camera.
Soon after moving in, Nico took off to Madrid. He had a portable easel, and painted wherever he traveled. His professors loved his paintings, whereas they were less impressed with my tentative, plodding work. Nico’s subjects included haunted carousels, bodily mechanisms, and debris fields, all rendered in raw pigment. He returned from Spain with that giant suitcase stuffed with books, clothes, medication, toiletries, liquor, and flattened auto parts he’d run into busy streets for. He’d ink and pull prints from them, acing his printmaking class.
One rare night when we were both home, Nico made an international call. He was yammering on ostentatiously, switching between French and Italian. Upon hanging up, he turned to me.
“Yasss child. My friend Franca, fabulous. I met her in Rome, she lives in Paris now.”
“Ok, that was a pretty long call…”
“What are you doing tonight? We’re going to Suzanne Bartsch’s party. You should come.”
“Don’t you have to know someone to get in?”
“You know me! We just have to do something about your clothes…”
Nico rifled through his closet and pulled an outfit for me: an oversized striped jacket, a printed tee shirt, and a bead necklace. He teased my hair as high as he could make it.
We got to the venue—a strip club on other nights Bartsch had taken over—and were immediately whisked in by the doorman. Nico dragged me to the dance floor and strutted through the crowd. I met Nico’s circle of friends who pronounced me adorable! We partied until the club closed. In the taxi home, Nico kissed me, just once, fast but hard so the driver wouldn’t notice.
“You remember the time we fucked?”
“Yasss child, I turned you out.” Nico brought the camera to his mouth and pursed his lips.
“The first and the last time…”
“I was your lover, your mother, your pimp, and your other,” answered Nico, laughing.
One night, I went to the opening of Suzanne Bartsch’s latest party and a hangout afterwards at the Odeon. The next morning, I stumbled up the stairs in my disheveled club outfit to find Nico struggling to unlock the door.
“Nico! You missed Suzanne’s best ever…”
“Yasss child. You’re getting into it. I just came back from the hospital.”
“Oh! How’s Joseph doing?”
“He’ll be fine. How was the party?”
Nico awoke after a few hours and ran into the bathroom. The commotion woke me up. On my way into the kitchen, I noticed that Nico’s sheets were soaked in sweat. He emerged from the bathroom looking worn. I looked at him expectantly.
“Joseph is dying, and I have AIDS,” he said.
I tried to speak out against the gasp Nico’s announcement had provoked.
“That fever I was running the day I moved in? That was the onset.” He wrapped himself in a blanket. “My diagnosis—let me remember what she said—rapid deterioration within a few months.”
I couldn’t breathe.
“You need to get tested,” he added solemnly.
When I returned to the clinic for my result, the nurse sat me down in a small office.
“Your test came back negative,” she said.
I lost my breath again, and the color drained from my face. She meant that my blood did not show antibodies, but to my ear—unfamiliar with medical parlance—negative sounded bad. She grabbed me by the shoulders and explained.
Nico found an experimental drug trial testing AZT. He would face a battery of opportunistic infections: thrush, parasites, Kaposi’s. As he surfed from one drug treatment to the next, his ear for language served him well with the lexicon of drugs, symptoms, and pathogens. My job was to maintain the routines of our flat, absorbing new habits into our compact household. We invested hope in each inhibiting agent with the promise to stop his healthy cells from betraying him. Each test result was a transmission from the front line, drawn somewhere through his tan body. With every new treatment, his prognosis improved incrementally. There were side effects: the lipodystrophy, a constant metallic taste, exhaustion. He permanently lost his sense of smell after a bout of meningitis. He faced each setback with astounding nonchalance. The first time he stepped through my door, I thought Nico’s flamboyance was weakness, but I’ve come to see it as emblematic of his bravery.
“I’m still here!” Nico yelled as I panned the phone to show him the view out my window. It was winter in New York, summer in Santiago.
“And I’m still in Hell’s Kitchen…”
“From Hell’s Kitchen to Bellas Artes, from my tin can to yours…” Nico joked.
“And the string between us…”
Dale Corvino (dalecorvino.com) has published essays on Marilyn Monroe, Blondie, and kink. His short fiction has appeared in Ovunque Siamo, Jonathan, and Chelsea Station, and his creative nonfiction in Carte Blanche (CA). He’s participated in live storytelling (RISK!), received the 2015 Christopher Hewitt Award for Fiction, and was a finalist in the 2017 Saints and Sinners Short Fiction contest. His latest publications include the anthology Hashtag Queer and the upcoming nonfiction anthology Queers Around the World, both from Qommunity Press. He lives in Hell’s Kitchen with the sullen young man of his dreams.