I started volunteering at Cedar Sinai in 1991 in the AIDS Crisis Unit. Call it survivor’s guilt, call it my need to be the Angel of Mercy, or call it my way to take care of the friends and lovers I lost, healing those that could not be healed. I’d been volunteering for a few weeks and loving the experience. I could have been a damn good nurse. Shit, vomit, blood, bedsores—none of it affects me. I signed in for my third volunteer shift and Marie, the head nurse, a wonderful, portly women who proudly told me she’d turned sixty last week, pulled me aside and asked me for a favor. She always wore a different brooch on her uniform. Some were old-fashioned, like the kind my grandmother wore, and some were from her travels to state parks. I always made a point of complimenting her on them. Anyone still wearing a brooch in 1993, I’m instantly in love with.
She pulled me from around the desk into an empty room where someone had just passed.
“You know no one ever says a word about my brooch collection, isn’t that strange?”
She was holding two IV bags and put them on the bed. “Oh, listen to me going on about myself just being foolish. Anyway, I have a favor and you don’t have to do it, so be honest with me.”
I was so new at this; I had no idea what she was going to ask me. “O.K. What is it?”
“Several of the men have asked if someone would shave them. They itch, they’re uncomfortable, who knows, maybe they’re still vain. None of the volunteers want to do it; they’re afraid of the blood contact. I thought you might be willing to give it a try.”
I took my time before I answered. “Well, I’ll be wearing gloves so I guess it would be alright. What are the odds of the gloves ripping, me nicking someone, and coming into contact with their blood?”
She picked up an empty urine container and hooked the handle onto one of her IV poles.
“They’re really slim, next to none.”
“Alright, I’ll give it try.”
“Peter in room seven is dying for one…oops wrong choice of words.”
We both shared an awkward laugh. Marie picked up the IV bags, the urine container and shook her head.
“If we don’t laugh, we will go insane, eh?”
Shaving these men was very utilitarian for me. There was an extra meal tray on wheels, and I loaded it up with gloves, a basin with hot water, razors, several washcloths, and a face lotion that I bought at the farmer’s market. I brought the lotion with me every week. They told us to scrub our hands vigorously after each shift. I was glad the lotion would have a dual purpose. I would walk the halls maneuvering my shaving cart and quietly go from room to room and visit the men. Most of them were dying; some of them were waiting to find out, and some of them didn’t care anymore. My job was to talk to them, sit quietly, hold their hands, read to them, and just listen. If the men were well enough, all they wanted to do was tell me their story. If they could tell you about their life, then they were still alive. Their memories became their anchor to this earth. You can’t see me as I am so let me tell you what I looked like, who I was, who I loved, and who loved me. The men who had dementia told the same stories over and over, often three or four times in thirty minutes. Why did their minds choose those memories? There is a deep, dark, delicious well of memories in the brain. So why the one about the night he danced at The Saint and realized he had fallen asleep standing up, but his body was still dancing? Why the memory of getting a C in math in sixth grade when he studied so hard? Why the memory of getting a haircut and hearing Donna Summer’s Love to Love You Baby and she sounded like she was having an orgasm and not singing?
Why would these random memories float back, lazy river memories finding their way in as if they were momentous occasions? This random parade of memories these men told, held a deep fascination for me. What surprised me the most was it was rarely a significant memory. They only told me these memories once. The time I met my partner and he had laughing eyes, and that’s why I fell in love with him. The time I graduated from Chapel Hill, I made the commencement speech, and everyone stood up, I felt like a movie star. The second time my partner and I made love and he penetrated me, we went at it for hours, he left his body and swore he went to a planet of just endless sex and love. I couldn’t believe I only heard those memories once. They were never the ones in the cycle of repetition, the way an old EP would skip back to a part of a song over and over again.
Word got out that the Italian guy was willing to give them a shave. I would start my Tuesday night shifts at 7:00 p.m. and there would be a note pinned to the Volunteer board with names and room numbers of guys requesting a shave.
I was deeply invested in doing a good job for them. I wanted no nicks and making sure the water was hot but not too hot was key. My first night with my shaving cart I shaved three men back-to-back. It was only with the third patient that I became aware of what a sensual experience this was for them. It hadn’t even occurred to me. Even though I knew I couldn’t get infected if they bled, I still had a small amount of fear. As I soothed the face cream on my third patient, who was maybe eighty pounds soaking wet, he mumbled, «This makes me feel like when I was sexy.»
That’s when I realized that this was more than a shave for many of these men. I finished smoothing out the face cream and started to clean up. I emptied the water in the bathroom sink. I was always astonished at how much hair was in the basin. The hair stuck to the white porcelain sink like little ants. I now had a sheet with two paper clips that I draped over the men. I liked the role of being a barber. One of the men loved the swish and wind when I opened the sheet. He said the wind reminded him of a game he played with his dad when he was little. I would swish the sheet over him four or five times as he became a child again. When I came out of the bathroom this patient had the most relaxed smile on his face.
“Would you like me to sit with you for a while, or do you want to sleep?”
His nod meant sleep. As I was leaving, he turned his head, smiling, eyes closed and half asleep he whispered.
“Jon, you could have been a porn star.”
I didn’t answer him and, no, I could not have been a porn star. Dementia creates endless illusions. I thought, Oh, shaving him took him to a place when he felt alive and sexual.
A few months later I was visiting with Trevor, my favorite patient. He was forty-seven but looked seventy. He had a photo album and often walked me through it. He had beautiful, thick, curly black hair, a goatee, and he was part Cherokee, Irish, and Asian. Trevor liked to joke about his ethnicity.
“Have you ever heard of such a mixed breed? I’m not even sure I’m Native American. My mother says that, but she always made shit up.”
He laughed when I told him I got in trouble because I told everyone at school, I was Cherokee because I wanted to be like Cher.
Trevor sold rugs from all over Asia and India. He’d seen so many parts of the world. He was in love only once. They were together for eleven years, and his lover left him for a younger guy. He always ended that story with, “Isn’t all romance a cliché?” Then he would add, “They’re both gone, they didn’t make it, him and his trampy boyfriend…both gone.”
He loved to tell me about his life, favorite countries, his sex-capades as he called them, and how much he loved his niece and nephew. He was from Virginia, and his parents, who were devoted Catholics, disowned him.
“Jon, what kind of a God is that? My parents practically live in church, and they never felt God once, how sad is that?”
His only sister, Charlotte, never rejected him and kept him as close to her family as she could when their parents weren’t around. Charlotte had flown in twice, but her children were teenagers, she had a demanding job, and could never stay for too long.
Trevor asked me for a shave. I got my gear together and shaved him while he told me about a crystal cave in Halong Bay in Vietnam with walls that were thirty stories high. When the sun peaked through at certain spots it created a prism of rainbow light. He said it was still the most beautiful thing he’d ever seen. I was done, and as I turned to wheel the shaving cart to the bathroom, Trevor grabbed my hand with what little strength he had.
“Jon don’t go. Please do me a favor.”
“Sure Trev. Are you O.K.?” He looked scared or nervous.
He moved his IV tube off his shoulder. “Do me one big favor…please. Show me your cock. I bet you have a great cock.”
Tension filled every corner of the room as the air left. What was he saying?
I was trying to ease this sudden tension. “Well, God’s been good to my people, but, Trev, I can’t do that.”
“Please, just for a minute. Come on, Jon, you know I don’t have long. This internal bleeding gives me so little time. I’m getting another transfusion later today. They said it was my last one. This is the only chance I have.”
“Oh Trevor, I could get fired. I love this work. I signed an entire document, and being intimate with the patients was, like, number one.”
Trevor didn’t answer and seemed angry and on the verge of tears.
“Trevor, those doors are not locked. The nurses come in and out of here all night. Come on, you know that.”
He forced his body up in more of a sitting position. “Jon, pull the curtain back around my bed. If they come in, we will hear the door open. You’re wearing sweatpants; you can sick it right back in.”
“You know you are putting me in an awkward position. I can’t do this for you. I just can’t.”
“Please Jon, I just want to hold it in my hand. Feel a cock one last time.”
“Excuse me, Mr. Randy. You said you wanted to look at it. Now you want to hold it. This is so inappropriate. It’s a line I can’t cross.”
Trevor turned away from me like a child who is ready to put his hands over his ears. I emptied the water in the sink and when I came back, he was facing me, and tears dripped slowly down his face like an old rusty faucet.
“Oh Trev, I’m sorry, really I am. Maybe it’s that old Catholic school bullshit. I’m sorry.”
“Jon, this is my last plea…I mean literally my last plea. I gave up on that plea to God to keep me alive a month ago when he gave up on me. O.K. Just a five-second peep.”
I felt the urge to help him, but I would be fired in a split second if someone caught us. My heart was beating so fast I had to sit on the edge of the bed. I unwrapped the cellophane off a plastic cup and poured some water from his pitcher. The water was ice cold and gave me a moment of brain freeze. In my head I kept saying, Just leave. You can’t do this.
In a very ceremonial way, I got up and slowly pulled the mint-green curtain all the way around the bed. I left only a little room for me to be inside the curtain. This ritual made me flash on my brief attempt at being an altar boy and prepping the altar for the priests. I pulled down my sweatpants and underwear and took out my dick. Instantly it started to grow, like someone was holding a button inside it; with each push of the button, in slow increments, it expanded until I was rock hard.
“Wow, It’s so nice. Please can I touch it?”
I moved closer to him as I offered my dick like the holy sacrament into the palm of his extended right hand. My dick just stood there with Trevor staring at it as if it was magic wand that could heal him. He wrapped his fingers around it and held on to my cock for dear life. He squeezed it gently and pre-cum began to slowly ooze out. I was so disoriented because I was turned on and I was actually doing this.
“Look, there’s some pre-cum. What a nice surprise! It feels like Christmas.”
He gently rubbed the precum over the head of my penis. His fingers felt like my fingers smoothing out face cream after a shave. Trevor raised his hand to his lips and tasted the precum. I gently pulled my cock away and pulled myself together. I took a washcloth and wiped away the evidence on Trevor’s hand like a criminal.
“Trevor, that’s the only time that will happen. Please don’t ask me again.”
“I don’t need to. That was all I needed. I need to sleep now.”
I wasn’t even out the door, and he was asleep. I saw Trevor the next two weeks, and he never mentioned it.
I was raised to think that what I did with Trevor was a sin and I should feel ashamed. I should view myself as weak with a severe lack of character. I broke the rules. I discarded a signed agreement. This wasn’t about Trevor; it was about my need to be desired. I carried shame about this for decades. I never told a soul. I felt like someone who had no moral core. All that Catholic guilt haunted me in a way that made me think less of myself. I had to shed my guilt like an old coat that I no longer needed to wear, let it fall to the ground and walk away. I feel that I gave Trevor, someone I hardly knew, a gift…It would probably be his final gift. That’s all it was.
The following week I checked into the office. There was a huge dry erase board with names of the patients and their room numbers. I saw that Trevor’s name was gone and someone’s name replaced his. Room eleven, Andy. Life was that simple and that fleeting. Trevor became Andy. I went to Marie and told her that I needed some air. She nodded and waved me away. There was no need to say anything.
Jon Imparato began his writing career with Irrevocably Yours, a fifteen-minute monologue performed live for the Pacific Dance Ensemble. Jon has been working on a book The Good Inside the Grief a collection of personal memoir essays. You Had Me at Afghanistan was published in the literary journal Wrath-Tree Burning. The essay was also chosen to be part of Voice from Afghanistan LA Writers Center and Howl Round TV present a live reading of The Voices of Afghanistan designed to amplify Afghan stories. Jon was an actor and a writer in the reading. In the literary journal Lowestoft Chronicles his essay Vagina Warrior was recently published.