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excerpt from novel

A Hand, an Egg, a Pie
by Amy Diane Prince

  You are in Florida. It is early morning. You wake up; the sheets are damp. You think you were sweating during the night from the heat outside. You turn on the TV. You think about the long drive you’ll have to Miami today. You start, in your mind, to collect clothes to wash and you remember that you should check the oil before you go. It is going to be hot again today, 90°. You love Florida. The phone rings. It is your lover, wishing you a good trip and offering again to drive with you. You want him to go but you don't say so. You hang up the phone and imagine his face, his small, even teeth and the way his hair falls into his eyes. You walk over to the closet and take out a shirt he left in your bathroom last weekend. You put it under your pillow. You get back in bed and call him back. His mother tells you he has just left. You want to tell her how beautiful her son is but you can’t. You stroke your chest, imagining his hands on you. You will see him soon. You will fly down the highway back from Miami and maybe you’ll get a ticket and you’ll tell him about it afterward, laughing and then you’ll say that 20 extra minutes with him is worth any ticket. He will stroke your hair and you’ll want him so desperately that you rip the buttons off his shirt. What you really want is to rip his arms off, to have them always under your pillow, waiting for you when you are lying in bed alone at night.

You roll over, stretching your body and listening to the coffee machine turn itself on. Your stomach begins to cramp and you barely make it to the toilet. You think you might have a bug. In the shower, you give your hair a hot oil treatment. It comes out soft and silky. You go to the kitchen for some coffee and decide to skip the milk; dairy products have been difficult for you to digest lately. You sit down with the coffee and fish out your nail clipper from the drawer next to your bed. As you work on the left foot, you notice something between your toes. It looks like a shadow. You try to get a better look at it, pull the lamp closer, attempt to rub it off. Your stomach starts to churn. You sit, naked, on the bed and begin a systematic examination of your body. You find three more marks on your legs. They are faint; nobody else would notice them. Your heart is beating too fast and you have to go to the bathroom again. You wonder how long before they show up on your face. You slowly drink the coffee and pour yourself another cup. The fan in the window blows hot air into the room. You put on deodorant, powder, moisturizer, cologne. You lay out your clothes and get dressed: first the white undershirt, then the Gap boxers, then a blue shirt and the dark gray suit with black pinstripes. You put on your red tie, the one you always wear to funerals. You pull your black tasseled loafers from the closet, put them on the floor next to your bed. You sit down to put on your black silk socks and then suddenly you can’t bear to touch your own foot. You look again at the small round bruise-colored shadows. You know how they’ll look next week, in a few weeks. You look around your bedroom. The carpet is recently vacuumed; the bureau shines from the wax you apply once a week. The window shade is open about six inches, just the way you like it.


I don’t know how to speak to you, to speak about you. Nothing feels right. Your name is too fragile– too static– cold. I try using the second person, the third person. I try different ways of naming the unnamable you. You died of AIDS. I mean, he did. I long for you. For him. He loved to eat big steak dinners, and even after he was thin and weak he’d insist on preparing huge plates of food for himself. He would take them into his bedroom and then leave them, forgotten, under the bed. You were ashamed of your legs, swollen and crusted with KS lesions. He died at home. You did. The morphine caused his lungs to fill with fluid; it was a sort of internal drowning. You’re long gone now. I’ve lived so many days and nights without him.

I try to get inside your head. I try to feel what you felt. I try to touch you that way.


Let’s start with the apartment. He has lived in it since he moved back to Florida, in 1995, when he tested positive for CMV in his eyes and started having dreams about being blind. He decided he couldn’t face another New York winter, so he packed his clothes, gave away his furniture, and went back to where he’d come from. The apartment– it is, first of all, immaculate. He vacuums twice a day, taking care to leave the nap standing up stiffly in the carpet and to use the special nozzle for corners. When he directs me to vacuum, which is every time I visit, I just make some quick brushstrokes and he never notices. I like tricking him that way. As for the kitchen, it’s basically about doing loads in the dishwasher. I’ve seen him run a "load" of two plates and a pitcher and once I caught him running the machine with nothing in it. He liked the sound, he said. He said it was comforting.

He is also big on swabbing– counters, the sink, refrigerator, stove, and cupboard doors. I cannot say this is on account of his illness, which perhaps would make more dramatic sense; the image of a sick man trying to scrub away disease, as he tried to rub off those first lesions from his body, is a classic, almost comfortable one. It fits in with our ideas about human nature, fills us with pity and lets us see, in the midst of unexplained chaos, a direct cause and effect, a behavior that has a root. But what is disturbing, much more unsettling, is the truth– he was always a swabber, a scrubber, always ran multiple loads of dishes and laundry. The truth is that when AIDS took over his body, he didn’t change a thing. He went on cleaning and cooking and doing endless loads of wash, and then he died.


From the very beginning, talking was what counted: the hours spent telling stories, comparing past disappointments, admitting fears, making each other laugh. At first the difference between us seemed remarkable and we didn’t understand how we could possibly be drawn to each other. Then we started talking, and we found we couldn’t stop. It’s not that we saw how much we had in common; instead, we came to realize how the difference worked, how it brought the other into sharp relief and defined our individual shapes in the world. Once I saw that, I couldn’t do without it.

We first met because he was courting a woman who lived down the hall. We were in our first year at college, and he looked like he had gotten off at the wrong airport. The atmosphere there, all hippie wannabees and neo-Marxists, was not the place for a prep school snob. He would come to class in a suit and tie and big tortoise shell glasses that made his ears stick out and his nose more prominent. Everyone else wore jeans and peasant dresses. People made fun of him but he ignored their snickering. He loved being an anomaly, loved looking different, loved the attention in whatever package it arrived. I never understood how he ended up there; he’d insist that the school was his first and only choice. Of course I didn’t believe him but it was impossible, as I learned through the years, to find a way in once he had become entrenched, once he had positioned himself on an issue or created a story that would become, for him, the truth.

He found a girlfriend with straight brown hair and a Back Bay accent, and swaggered around the campus with her on his arm. I can’t exactly say what drew us to each other beside the exotic measure of difference, but when Priscilla, his girlfriend, went out of town for the weekend, we ended up in her bed, talking all night. We held hands and felt a rush of desire, of that unexplainable intimacy that is at once utterly strange and utterly clear. When she came back and found a barrette that had fallen out of my hair she picked up the huge TV set in the corner and dumped it out the window. The two of them stayed in the room arguing for hours– everyone in the hall could hear them– and then had noisy, thrashing sex at the end of it. We could hear that, too. He came to my room later that night and we began a surreptitious friendship, meeting in the woods just off campus, or walking in the afternoons to a gas station that sold Diet Cokes from a dented, dusty machine.


You are caught in this moment. Your robe is satin– blue stripes on brown; no maybe it’s brown on blue. The thing is, it has a silky braided tassel and you love the feel of it against your skin. You stroke the fabric of the robe when you’re reading, or watching TV, or thinking of David. The tassel is a golden yellow and soft from many washings. You like to rub it against your face; you trace your cheekbones, your chin, the tips of your ears. The knots at the end are frayed and smell like talcum powder. You raise one end to your nose to sniff at it, then take it into your mouth. It tastes clean, soapy, and you begin to suck on it, just like you used to suck Picky, your baby blanket that now, reduced to a scrap the size of large matchbook, sits in your kitchen catch-all drawer. You look at yourself in the bathroom mirror, wearing a satin robe and handling the fat silk knot with your tongue– it makes you feel sexy. It makes you feel silly. And, like everything else these days, it makes you so anxious that you can’t resist the urge to stuff as much of it as possible into your mouth and bite down, screaming a muffled scream, stuffing your tongue into the hole of the knot and finally gagging on the whole soggy mess.


I can only sporadically conjure up an image of him when he was still well. Most of the time in my mind he’s gaunt, tired, moving towards death. Old photos of him look like a lie, like something touched up, like a fairy tale. Sitting in a restaurant, lying on the beach, standing next to a downtown Santa. Full cheeks that still hold dimples. A roll of flesh under the shirt, a coy smile.

Details: in the background of one photo, a tree newly in bloom shows through the window, the small buds outlined in shadow. In another, a coffeepot sits on the counter behind him. A demure pose, his hands folded in front of him in this one. The light hits his face from below in one photo, from the side in another. A carefully knotted tie here, a wild look of glee there, the top of his head cut off in another one.

More recent photos look like stock pictures of disease, or of famine: a sick man, a thin man. A dying man. This is what a dying man looks like: he looks like a spindly plant, like a well-dressed stick. He smiles at the camera. His teeth are too big for his face. His ears stick out where before they were hidden by hair. His skin is starting to look transparent. His neck no longer fills the opening of his shirt. You look at it months later and you don’t say to yourself, this is my friend. You say, this is the picture of a dying man. You can’t help it.


There was a time before that, too. There was a time when the mention of illness would have been laughable, when other things mattered much more. There was a time when he ate with an insatiable hunger: half sticks of butter melting over broccoli; thick roasts tied with string and cooked alongside carrots and potatoes; ice cream sundaes; hamburgers and french fries slathered with mayonnaise. There was a time when he ate, talked, laughed, smoked and drank, all at once. There was a time he would sit, perched daintily yet firmly on the edge of a chair, one leg crossed over the other at the knee, a tasseled loafer dangling by one toe. He would be holding a drink at that time– and most likely a cigarette. He would be making outlandish observations, pronouncements intended to shock. There was a time when I would sit, watching this huge man with his huge gestures, making himself a presence in the world. There was a time, even before that, when he wore flamboyant clothes: a tangerine colored cashmere blazer with the lapels cut out and no shirt underneath, leaving a wide swath of hairy chest showing, with three or four bandannas rolled around his neck, another around his head.

I have a picture of him from back then. He is leaning against a fireplace mantel, a silly grin on his face. He was serious about those outfits, though. He was serious and dared anyone else to laugh. He convinced so many of us to accept his eating, his outfits, his grandiosity as a usual, even desirable, part of the world.

He lied, too. Perhaps "embellished" is more accurate, more fair. One friend of his refused to believe a word he said unless it was corroborated by some other more trustworthy source. This friend would often call me as a double check; once he called saying, "We’re sitting here talking and this time there’s no way it’s true. He says the two of you went to Mexico City and he left you in the zócalo, saying he was going for a Diet Coke, and that he went to the hotel, packed, and left for the airport. He says he called you later that night from Miami and told you the air was bad for his skin and that he couldn’t stand it there for one more minute."

"It’s true. I was furious."


"It is. I stayed there, by myself, for four more days."

That time was true. Sometimes, many times, the story wasn’t exactly true. I almost always said it was, though. I almost always stood by him. As he gets sicker, this becomes even more important. I look at his face and there is nothing I won’t do for him. I will change his diaper, I will laugh heartily, I will tell him he’s still beautiful. I will tell him he’s going to be fine. I will bear false witness. I will prostrate myself. I will light fire to my fingers, turn my eyelids inside out, betray my friends, give up coffee, quit my job, I will eat liver every morning, slit my earlobes, pull a tooth out, shout "Fire!" in the subway, go without bathing, stop eating chocolate, stop looking for love. I will do it if he will stay alive to ask for it.


You are coming to New York. You’re aware that it might be your last time. I know which suitcase you’ll bring and I know what it smells like inside. You bought it for $45 in Guatemala City; at the time I thought it was too much money to spend on a bag. It was stiff, new pigskin, and you kept talking about how well it would age. There are strange designs stamped all over it and the inside has the rough texture of a raw hide. That morning, we’d greased it with pig fat to make it softer. It was the day before we left Guatemala, the morning we’d gone to Happy Dan’s Flapjack House. The soldiers standing outside the restaurant looked hot and itchy in thick wool tunics and boots up to their knees. We ate pancakes with cheese and made jokes about the tiny caged birds with oddly large bills. We didn’t think about the death squads, the disappearances, the curfews– we weren’t there for that. We wanted long drives in the mountains on tiny buses that sent us flying up to the ceiling with each bump on the highway. We wanted fresh blood sausages from the small restaurant we had discovered on a side road outside Antigua. We wanted a beautiful casita by Lake Panajachel where we would squeeze oranges every morning for juice and make fun of the dippy tourists who let their hair get dirty and wore woven bracelets around their skinny ankles.

So now you’re coming here. I know what’s inside your suitcase, too. I know what you need for travel these days. I know what you wear under your pants, and wrapped around your legs. I know how many pills you take and what you can and cannot eat. I know how many times a day you shit– you’ve made sure I know. You tell me all the details so I can follow the rules as they change– one week I have to be careful of your arm, because you’ve just had a catheter put in. The next week you tell me about the thrush that has ulcerated in your mouth and I remind myself not to give you anything hot to drink. You buy clothes and announce the new size, smaller, always, than the previous one. You are trying to make each step of this strange path fit into a life you had already created, trying to control and maintain your immaculate, carefully decorated world, and to keep yourself safe inside it.


I keep, in a small wooden box next to my bed, a motley collection of pieces of him, rags and tags that are my amulet, my own reconstruction of his life. A pink packet of Sweet’N’Low. A button I surreptitiously tore off from a Brooks Brothers shirt at Nordstrom’s the day after his funeral. A folded square of Charmin Ultra toilet paper. The Missoni label he sent me ten years ago, in promise of the sweater to come. His sunglasses which I’d scooped up from the bowl in his apartment where he kept his keys and change. A dry cleaner’s receipt. A Q-tip. A Blockbuster membership card, taken out one weekend in Florida so we could watch "The Prince of Tides." A piece of Doublemint gum. A label off a Diet Coke bottle. A rock I took from outside his apartment. A picture of us in college where I’m wearing his sweater and his arm is around me and both our smiles are genuine. A yellow Swedish fish, hard now as that rock.

Sometimes I open the box and run my hands through the bits and pieces, scattering them around on my bed. It’s not as sad as I had thought it would be. I thought it would give me a way to instantly transport myself to him, to feel him and feel the grief of his absence when I needed that. It doesn’t work that way, I guess. They just look like things, little scattered and random things. Sad-looking but not because they seem like him. It’s more the sadness of the size of the pile– so small. A small pile of little things, my tokens of a man. And they are, anyway, more me than him. My clumsy attempt to tell his story through the tangle and mess of the desire to tell my own. It is so far away from the essence of him, so feeble a portrait. It is like someone describing a bird in flight using only terms of physics and aerodynamics, or watching snow fall through a window and pretending there’s no glass in the way. It is the best I can do.

Things– bits and pieces. Scraps, objects, pale metaphors. They are separate flashing spots of light. I will them into a constellation in my head.


It’s a little hard to figure out. There are no margins that I can count on. I look for the edges of things and see a blur. Wait. Let me start over. I am looking out my window and I can just make you out. You’re leaning against a lamppost on the corner, alive and small from up here on the fifth floor. I cannot tell if you are real, don’t know if you’d disappear the minute I take my eyes off you or, more probably, turn out to be someone else. So this window– right now– is the most important fact, the most crucial lie, and I won’t let it go. I see you out there; you just glanced at your watch. Are you waiting for someone? Is it me? I want to go rushing, running pell-mell down to greet you. To touch you, to grab you, to stroke your arms, to feel and pinch, gently, your face. To gnash the skin of your cheeks with my teeth. To kiss you. To pummel your shins. Now I’m not thinking straight. Now I’m letting myself go. This is an unseemly moment. I’ll leave the window now; I will let you disappear. I know that sometime soon I’ll do a double take and watch a tall man in a coat walk my way. If he is wearing glasses then I’ll stare, stupidly, wondering how it is that you are walking the earth. But you aren’t. You pulled me into bed with you months ago. You could barely breathe. You called me to come closer. You started whispering, hoarsely, into my ear. Goodbye, you said.


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DUCTS summer issue 2001
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