The Unseen (a short story excerpt)
by Joseph Jess Rey
Los Angeles, January 1988
The deaths began at the start of the decade. Five gay men were diagnosed with pneumonia and, before anyone knew what was happening, we just kept dying. It was only a couple of years after this that I began seeing visions of lives I never lived.
This all comes rushing back to me, as it does every morning, when the sound of cars on the nearby freeway rips me from a restless sleep. By the time I’m showered, dressed and on the street, the sun is barely peeking over the partially reconstructed Library Tower on Fifth. The streets are already alive, everyone from businessmen and shop owners on their way to work, to the queers and punks on their way back from whichever haven protected them the night before. I belong to both of these worlds, but it’s gotten harder for me to die over and over at work, and then follow it up with a show. I belong to both of these worlds, often all at once.
When the “Tiemer Funeral Home” sign hanging over the doorway comes into view, it looks exactly as it had two years ago when Gerald Tiemer first gave me the welcome tour. I had just finished mortuary school, and he took a chance on me, which I’ll never forget. I knew that he hired me for a reason; he owns one of the few funeral homes that take in corpses who had contracted the virus, and I was one of the few willing to handle them. He told me he took them in simply because they need to be taken care of as much as any other bodies. He and I would handle them together, though over time, the responsibility became mine alone.
“Y’know Mez,” he told me the first day on the job, “my brother’s visions developed when we were teenagers—the day we found our neighbor dead in her backyard. She was our age, and my brother was really torn up over it because he had a thing for her. Ever since then, he has stayed as far away from corpses as he could get. So what in the world possessed you to choose this line of work?”
My reply came without hesitation, “I chose it because I need to be here. I need to because if I’m not, then who will be? What I see might just make me the best person for the job because those people deserve to be seen, y’know?” I pause before finishing with, “I want to be here for them.”
His only response was to nod quietly, as if he could understand every word I wasn’t saying and required no further explanation.
The moment I walk into the waiting room, the phone is ringing like crazy, and from behind the reception desk, a flustered Laura is already saying that three bodies are waiting for me in the back, not including the several more on their way. I make my way down the hall and into the walk-in cooler that we keep the bodies in until they are to be prepped. They are displayed on a few different tables, covered by large white sheets. All of the bodies I will be handling still have on their clothing, and they look to be peacefully asleep. I take a deep breath, let it go slowly, and get to work.
The first corpse is an African-American man who looks to be around his early thirties, though he probably wasn’t that much younger than me; his ashen skin and sunken cheeks age him cruelly. He still is strikingly beautiful, even in death. I pull his table into the lab and prepare for what’s to come. I put on my protective gear, from my face mask to my gloves, and grab the scissors. I begin to cut the clothes off of his body and push them into the bin next to my workstation. I disinfect the body in the necessary places and begin to shave his face. Shaving their faces and doing their makeup has always been one my favorite steps in this whole process because it’s the most visible part of my work. Whoever is going to view him will see this face, and I have to make sure the face they see is as close to the one they knew as possible. I will be his hands, in this moment, and I will show the world who he was.
I take off my gloves for the next step:massaging the body to break the rigor mortis. This needs to be done so that the embalming fluid distributes thoroughly, but the reason I do this without gloves on is to establish the connection. The moment my hands touch his cold skin, the visions come alive:
“Momma! Momma! Jared is eatin’ my chips!”
My hands are kneading his back while I watch him when he was a child, fighting with his older brother before the vision cuts, and all I see are flashes from his life.
His name is Leonard Wilson. I see him doodling pictures in his social studies class in junior high. I see that day, a few weeks after his 17th birthday, when he told his mom he was gay. I also see the several years he lived on the street because of it. But there are moments when the images slow, and suddenly I am in his memory. I am seeing what he saw, feeling what he felt. As I’m relieving the tension from the body he used to reside in, tension from a life that gave him no shortcuts, we’re also in a nightclub:
He can feel the disco beat pumping in his veins. The lights are flashing, and he thinks everyone must be at The Catch tonight. His favorite song is blaring all around him, and everyone is on the dance floor using their bodies to communicate.
“You make me feeeeel—mighty real,” Sylvester sings through the speakers as all of their bodies are against each other.
They use their bodies to say things they’ve never been able to say outside these walls. They’re saying that in this world that hates them for who they love, they can come here and be themselves. Hands are caressing each other on the dance floor as if to say: I’ve Got You. Together We’re Here.
“I feel real when you touch me. I feel real.” The words hold Leonard up.
These bodies are moving to the music—free of worry, free of time. Their Black bodies are saying that even when the other establishments aren’t safe for them, in this place and in this moment, they can fly. They have wings; they are the angels this city was named after. Even the police won’t come in here; they’re too afraid the virus will get them the moment they step foot inside. In here, Leonard sees his people and remembers that they are dying out in that cold world but that right now it’s okay to be in this moment. It’s okay, even if only for the night. He hears them! He feels them! Their bodies are vibrant, and their love is loud.
“I feel real!”
I release my hold on his body, and the music I heard a second ago is gone. I continue the embalming process and think about Leonard’s life. He was dazzling. He saw the world in so many colors, and he believed he was on the right track every moment. That night he was dancing to his favorite song, he had known he had the virus for a few weeks, but he was still living, not just surviving. He was alive. Now he’s not. Now, no one wants to even touch his dead body in fear that they’ll get the gay cancer. Now, no one cares to know what his life was or how hard he had it. Right now, he’s just a number to the world, but he isn’t to me. I got to share that experience with him.
I see you, Leonard. I see you.
Joseph Jess Rey is a queer Chicano writer, born and raised in L..A. He is a UCLA graduate in Literature and a 2019 Lambda Literary Fellow in YA Fiction. He is currently the Social Media Coordinator. for Lambda Literary and a Social Media and Marketing Assistant for Button Poetry. He is working on a collection of poetry that discusses race in the TV show Buffy the Vampire Slayer, as well as a magical realism novel about queer love and identity. Find him on Twitter @josephjessrey or at his website: josephjessrey.com.