Art by Lidia Altagracia
“What? A blemish? Where?”
The old man bent over and kissed his husband’s cheek. “Nowhere. But stop touching it for Christ’s sake. You’ll catch corona.”
The younger man chortled at his husband’s reflection in the vanity mirror and pushed him away. “We’re not in California. I think we’re safe.”
“It’s coming closer by the day. Illinois. Massachusetts. Someone even died out in Washington.”
“Yes, died. It’s a very serious thing. So please stop touching your face.” He kissed the young man again before retreating to the other side of the bedroom to change for the day.
The millennial neglected the boomer’s advice (or was he one of the silents?) and continued applying retinoids, collagen boosters, and various other cosmetics as he had done every other morning for the past four years. This ritual and its evening counterpart had commenced the day after he looked across the Episcopal altar at his groom and thought, “May I never be as wrinkled as that.”
“Geoffrey,” said the young man once he had finished.
“Did you think anymore about what we talked about last night?” A few seconds passed without an answer. “Did you hear me?”
“I heard you, David.”
“Well, what do you think?”
Geoffrey returned to the vanity and put his hands on his husband’s shoulders. “Are you unhappy here in Georgetown?”
“I told you yesterday: I’m not unhappy, but we could be more plugged in if we moved closer to 14th Street.”
“You’re there almost every night.”
“Exactly. So why not move there?”
“All our friends are here,” said Geoffrey.
“Your friends. Not mine.” On either side of the Carrera couple’s townhouse lived two single queens who had been friends with the elder Carrera since the ’70s, and within a two-block radius resided no fewer than a dozen more men who regularly attended the dinner parties Geoffrey threw. None of these men were within two decades of David’s age, for all his contemporaries (at least the ones he associated with) lived in the more fashionable downtown areas or, if they were economically desperate (relatively speaking), Petworth or Mt. Pleasant. None of them could afford to buy in Georgetown, nor did any wish to. David moved there at the insistence of Geoffrey, who made it quite clear when he proposed that he had no intention of giving up residency that, due to decades of subjugation to long-antiquated fashions, he considered essential for membership among DC’s haut monde. Upon accepting the marriage offer, David wasn’t thrilled to be exiled to what to him seemed—and, four years later, still seemed—a northwest wilderness as bleak and remote as the Yukon, but he considered it a mere sojourn. In the six months leading up to the proposal, Geoffrey had been in the hospital four times with various infections. That, combined with two cancer scares the year prior, led the moneyed elder Mr. Carrera to insist on a short engagement and the inheritance-minded younger Mr. Carrera to expect an even shorter marriage.
But life seldom sticks to our forecasts. Their first anniversary was also a celebration of twelve months without medical incident for Geoffrey. As was the second. And third. And fourth. As David’s sentence to the geriatric wasteland of Georgetown extended, his escapes to the various bars and clubs along the U Street corridor grew more frequent, and his longing to return to that center of single, gay DC progressed into a chronic ache. On occasion—very rare occasion—the disappointment over the unexpected longevity of his marriage made him fantasize the unspeakable.
“Let’s discuss it in a month or so,” said Geoffrey. “After the virus passes over. I don’t want to be letting germ-ridden buyers into our home, shaking hands with realtors, and all that in the middle of an outbreak.”
“You’re really afraid of this, aren’t you?”
“Deathly…as it were. It could be the death of us.”
“It’s not that serious, is it?”
“For the lucky ones, it isn’t, but for the rest of us? Wheezing, gasping, choking on our own pus. I want no part of it.”
This description curdled David’s blood and sent a quiver from his core to his limbs. He pulled a Z-Pak out of a drawer and popped the last remaining pill.
“Over that cold, yet?” asked Geoffrey.
“Went away two days ago. Better keep it away and my immune system up if this is as bad as you say.”
“Oh, baby.” Geoffrey sat down beside his husband and hugged him close. “We’ll keep each other safe. Wash your hands, don’t touch your face, and we’ll be fine.”
“I hope so.”
“For now, let’s enjoy ourselves while we can. Get up, or you’ll be late for your brunch.” David dressed and was putting his shoes on by the front door when Geoffrey asked, “Where are you all eating?”
“The Penny-Farthing. That new place in Shaw.”
“I’ve been dying to try it. How ’bout I join you?”
David thought quickly. “Oh, I’m so sorry, but you know how strict they can be with reservations. Won’t let us add a fifth last-minute.”
“Ah. Never mind then.” The old man kissed his husband and sent him on his way.
Ten minutes late, David arrived at the hostess table right as the rest of his party did. “We’re actually going to be five today,” said his friend Drew, pointing to some twink David hadn’t expected. “Is that ok?”
“We’ll make it work,” sighed the hostess before leading the men to their table.
The brunch proceeded in normal fashion with everyone recouping his investment in bottomless cocktails less than a half hour in. As the other four recounted adventures from the night before, vented frustrations with the President, and shared whether they’d attend Miami Winter Party, David kept quiet, staring off into the crowd until Drew finally asked, “Is something wrong?”
“Nothing serious,” said David, shaking himself out of a trance. “Just distracted. I didn’t realize someone died of coronavirus yesterday.”
“Lot of people have died.”
“An American, I mean. Geoffrey was telling me what awful things happen to your body when you get it. Terrible.”
“It’s way overblown by the media,” said Drew. “It’s been here—what?—a month, and only one person died. It’ll all fizzle out soon.”
“What if it doesn’t?”
“It’s like the flu. The flu kills something like fifty or a hundred thousand people every year, but we don’t worry about that. It’s not gonna be even close to that number.”
“I’d worry if I was one of the unlucky ones.”
Drew squinted and cocked his head. “Why would you die of it?”
“Same reason everyone else does. All that shit it does to your lungs.”
“You know, like, ninety-nine percent of people survive, right?”
“That can’t be true.”
“It is,” said one of the other guys across the table.
“And the dead are all old people,” said another. “People like us only get a cold from it.”
Drew nodded. “See. Geoffrey has more to worry about than you.”
“I see,” said David. He took a sip of mimosa and smiled. “So I have nothing to worry about? I get it, and I’ll be fine?”
“Nothing,” said Drew. “Absolutely nothing.”
David giggled, ebullient from both the champagne and this information. “Wonderful news.” He allowed a few more giggles before composing himself and affecting a graver countenance. “Geoffrey, though. I need to protect him.”
“Relax,” said Drew. “Wash your hands and stay away from him if you think you’re getting sick.”
David nodded. “Dirty hands, hanging around him when sick. If I do those things, then…”
“He could die.”
That Saturday evening, David was preparing for a night out with friends.
“What are you doing?” asked Geoffrey as he entered the bedroom.
“Trying to decide what to wear to this underwear party,” said David from his closet.
“You know my opinion—you look sexy in anything.” This compliment elicited no response from David, who continued to rummage. “I’m wondering whether maybe you shouldn’t go out tonight.”
“The Mayor was just on TV. Someone in DC has the virus.”
“You don’t say.” David’s nonchalance belied how piqued he was.
“Yeah. I’m thinking of the large crowds at that party, and how you’ll—” Geoffrey had long figured what David did with other men when he went out on the weekends but had never uttered it so long as his husband was home when he woke up the next morning. “And what everyone will be doing that could help the disease spread. It maybe seems like now’s the time to take a step back and not do anything to exacerbate the problem.”
“You said it was one person who had it?”
“Well, there you go.” David emerged from the closet wearing some zebra-striped trunks. “In the whole city, just one. I’ll be fine tonight.”
“But it’s spreading out there.”
“Just one person.” David took Geoffrey’s face in his unwashed hands and held him close. “Don’t. You. Panic. We. Will. Be. Fine.” Geoffrey laughed. “Besides, if this gets worse, then I wanna live it up while I can. Might have to stay inside two or three weekends after this.”
“That’s a good point,” said Geoffrey, more relaxed.
“So what say you, daddy? Do I have permission to go play?”
Geoffrey smiled. “Go play.”
And play David did. By midnight he had made out with half a dozen men and blown two. After emerging from a ten-minute bathroom-stall rendezvous, he met up with Drew, who said, “Someone’s awful slutty tonight.”
David kissed his friend. “This corona might be the end of the world. I intend to live it up while I can.”
Twenty men and four hours of sleep later, David awoke the next morning without a fever—a measure he took immediately upon rising. Whereas he typically limited his Sunday-morning workout to free weights, he made a point to incorporate resistance machines this day and performed only one set on each so he could utilize every single one at the gym. After a brunch, at which he dropped his silverware twice and declined the waiter’s offer for a new set, he returned to the gym, this time hitting up the steam room, where he hooked up with every reasonably attractive guy who accepted his advances over the course of an hour. On his walk back to Georgetown, he went into every open storefront, picking up and thoroughly handling the inventory, and hugged or shook hands with each acquaintance he passed on the street. When he arrived home, he threw his arms around Geoffrey and kissed him all over.
The week continued in a similar routine for David, and every morning, his temperature check revealed nothing abnormal. Meanwhile, Geoffrey fevered for the latest news on the virus’s spread, growing more anxious each day until his apprehensions over his husband’s constant going out finally boiled over on Saturday night. “Are you stupid, or are you selfish?”
David pulled his hand from the front-door handle. “What?”
“Has to be one. Over ten cases in the District now, and you’re continuing to go out? You selfish, idiotic queen.”
“You can’t speak to me that way.”
“How else should I speak to someone trying to kill me?”
David’s heart palpitated. “That’s a hideous lie.”
“You know what I mean. It’s as if you were trying to kill me how often you’re going out. Think of the bars tonight. Shoulder-to-shoulder. People breathing, coughing, and whatever else you and your friends do to pass germs around.”
“Stop it!” David pushed Geoffrey onto the couch and held him down. “It’s just as we said last Saturday. Any day now, they’ll close this city down, and I’m not gonna get the spring I wanted.”
“Is that all you can think of? The spring you wanted? Who pays for that spring? Who’s paid for every DC spring you’ve had?”
“Any debt I incur’s paid off the second I crawl into bed with you each night. Y’ever think who else I could be crawling into bed with if it wasn’t for you?”
“Stop,” Geoffrey said, writhing under David’s hand pressing harder against his chest. “You’re hurting me.”
“I’m twenty-six, Geoffrey. Twenty-six. I’ve spent most of my twenties with you, and I’m not gonna relinquish the rest of them to some senior hell you seem to enjoy. You had your youth. Don’t I get mine? Don’t I? Yeah, there’s a virus out there. Yeah, it can kill us. But I’m not gonna let it kill whatever’s left of my best years.” David pulled back and made his way out the door, adding, “Maybe I’ll see you in the morning,” before slamming it shut.
The bars that evening were sparse. Even all his friends but Drew chose to spend the night in. “I don’t feel much like partying tonight,” said Drew as they looked out at the five or six other patrons in the third bar they went to.
“Come on,” said David. “We can still have a good time. Let’s dance.” He dragged Drew over to the dance floor, where David hopped around while his friend barely swayed to the music. After a few minutes, a former hookup of David’s walked in. “Hey, you!” David couldn’t remember the guy’s name.
He smiled and came over, stopping a few yards away. “Hey, you too.”
“Come closer,” said David. “You should know I don’t bite.”
“Thanks, but I’ll keep my distance. Not even sure it’s a good idea to be out tonight, know what I mean?”
“No, I don’t.” David put his drink down and approached him. “Come on. One last hurrah before the city shuts down?”
The hookup took a few steps back. “Maybe some other time.”
David persisted. “Come on.”
The hookup put up a hand. David grabbed it and tried to suck on a finger.
“Fuck, dude. What’s wrong with you?”
“David,” said Drew from behind. “What’re you doing?”
“I’m—I’m sorry,” said David.
“Fuckin’ psycho,” muttered the hookup before leaving the bar.
David shuffled across the room, followed by Drew, and threw himself onto one of the many empty seats. “What was that?” Drew asked.
David wiped the sweat from his brow. “I’m afraid, Drew. I’m afraid. I’ve wasted my prime with a man I don’t love, and now the world’s coming to an end.”
“The world’s not coming to an end.”
“I feel like it is.”
“The world is not coming to an end.”
“Boys grow older, and they grow more manly. Men grow older, and they just grow…old. We glow up, then there comes a point when we stop glowing up. Have I reached that point? Have I turned the corner? This is the youngest I’ll ever be. Is it my peak?”
“You are young. You are attractive.”
“The most I’ll ever be? We can’t tell the future, but maybe every day after this, I’m decaying, getting closer and closer to what Geoffrey is. This spring is shot. Will summer be shot too? After that, I’ll be a full year older by the time spring returns. How much of my peak will this virus take from me? How much more of my peak will this goddamn marriage take from me?”
Drew let a few seconds pass before speaking. “Do you want my true thoughts on your situation, or are you just looking to vent?”
Drew was the first friend David made upon moving to DC five years ago, only a few weeks before meeting Geoffrey. Not once had he ever hinted derision at David’s choices or urged hesitance as David chased a septuagenarian meal ticket, nor did he jump for joy at the engagement or deliver a wedding toast whose sincerity was undoubtable. As David took a few calming breaths, he recognized the five-year precedent of neutral silence his friend was suggesting they break and pondered, predicted, feared what might come out of Drew’s mouth should he accept the suggestion. “No,” he said. “Let’s just go.”
When David arrived at his front door, he emerged from a pedestrian form of highway hypnosis and remembered saying goodbye to Drew but not why they had decided to leave so early. He recalled that bit of information upon walking through the door and finding his husband still on the couch in about the same position he left him hours before. Geoffrey lifted his head. “Thank you for coming back. I—” He grunted. “I tried getting up a few times, but I’m a bit stiff.”
David nodded. “I’m sorry.” His voice was little more than a scratchy exhalation.
Geoffrey extended his hand. “Can you help—”
“Excuse me,” David said, running into the nearest bathroom. “I’m sorry. Excuse me.” He vomited into the sink, looked into the mirror, and vomited again. After washing his body in the shower three times, he figured he was sterile, threw on a robe, and ran back to the living room, still dripping. “Here. Let me help you.”
He pulled Geoffrey up and guided him up the stairs. “Just a little stiff,” the old man said. “Wrong position.”
“I know. We’re almost there.”
David changed him into pajamas, tried to ignore the bruise on his chest, and crawled into bed beside him. “I’m so sorry for what I said earlier. I’m sorry for how I acted.”
“I’m sorry too,” the old man said, drifting off to sleep. “I was wrong. You are so good to me.”
The next day, the Mayor effectively closed all bars in the District. Regardless, the shock of how he discovered Geoffrey the night before left David with no desire to go out, replying to an invitation to brunch with “Are you stupid, or are you selfish?”
He devoted the next few weeks to protecting Geoffrey from the virus, only leaving the house once a week to pick up essentials and assiduously resanitizing himself upon each return. Every time he considered laxing up—to scratch his nose, to open a door with his hand instead of an elbow—he remembered his confession to Drew that Saturday night and the pathetic state he found Geoffrey in upon his return. The shame and guilt kept him in line and seemed to shield the Carrera household from COVID-19.
For a while, that is. On Easter Sunday, David awoke in a sweat and took his temperature for the first time since his self-imposed quarantine began. As he looked down at the four-digit figure, he recalled his confession to Drew almost a month ago not as a source of shame but as a moment of honesty, and he remembered the state he found Geoffrey in not as a reason for guilt but as a reminder of the future his late twenties and perhaps early thirties would hold should his marriage continue.
“I’m not coughing,” he thought. “I don’t feel drawn. I can taste. I can smell. I’m not sick.” With that, he put the thermometer away, crawled back into bed, and kissed his husband.
By Thursday, Geoffrey was coughing and developed a fever exceeding David’s. On Saturday, he was admitted to the hospital, while David was told to sit home until he was judged clear of the virus.
“Negative?” asked David when a doctor called with his test results.
“Yes, negative. Your husband was, no surprise, a positive.”
“That’s impossible. How else did he get it then? I’m the only one he’s been around.”
“Your clothes, food packages, mail. This thing can live on some surfaces for a while.”
David felt his forehead. “I’ve had a fever for days.”
The doctor sighed. “You coughing?”
“Still have your taste?”
“Well, taking everything together, my guess is you don’t have it. Maybe your test was a false negative, but what’s more likely is you have something else like a cold or your body fought off the disease right before you were tested and your fever is just lingering.”
“I see. So…it is possible I could have given it to Geoffrey.”
“Don’t blame yourself. Just stay home until your fever subsides, and call your primary if your symptoms worsen. Ok?”
“Ok. Thank you.”
In the subsequent days, the ICU called every mid-morning and mid-afternoon to report on Geoffrey’s condition. “Stable.” “Stable.” “Worsening.” “We’ve hooked him up to a ventilator.” “We’ll call you every few hours now.” “Worsening.” “Worsening.” “Worsening.” “Mr. Carrera, I’m sorry to tell you this, but I don’t think your husband will make it through the night. Next time we call you will either be a miracle or…”
“I understand,” said David. “I thank you for all you’ve done for him, and I ask you to call me the moment he passes. Thank you again.”
David hung up the phone as the nurse recited more details about his husband’s condition. The anticipatory ebullience he had first felt over brunch with Drew seven weeks earlier returned, prompting him to giggle. He giggled as he remembered his first temperature check in March. As he remembered Geoffrey warning him of the virus. Geoffrey proposing. Geoffrey unexpectedly making it through the first year and the three after that. He giggled, and then he laughed, so tickled at what was occurring that he didn’t notice just how rapidly his temperature was rising. He laughed and laughed and laughed until he collapsed to the floor.
“Hey,” said a masked Drew, opening the door from the Carrera household’s living room into its kitchen. “I hope you don’t mind. I let myself in.”
“Oh, I didn’t hear a knock. What’re you doing here? We’re still on lock-down.”
“Come,” said Drew. “I want to show you something.”
The new widower followed him into the living room to find eight other masked men, none above the age thirty-five, standing as far apart as they could.
Drew stepped forward and offered a cake box. “We know you couldn’t have a proper funeral, so we wanted to throw an impromptu memorial service and something to celebrate your recovery.”
He took the box from Drew’s hand. “I see. Thank you, I suppose.”
“It’s a coffee cake. How about I go into the back and cut it up for everyone?”
The widower peered into the box quizzically as if he were seeing such a confection for the first time. He shook his head.
“Oh,” said Drew. “You don’t like—”
“Pan-resistant,” said Geoffrey. “That’s what they said David died of. Super-bugs. Same germs as when I was born but a hundred times stronger. God…” He vacillated between amused laughter and bemused weeping. “They found him lying here in the living room. Tried every drug they had, but he was dead by the time I woke up. Can only imagine where he got it. The bathrooms at those Saturday-night meat markets you frequent? A PrEP-enabled bareback? Was it one of you, maybe? Hmm?”
“Sir,” said Drew. “We just wanted to—”
“Help? Do something? Ha! And you just wanted to go out in March. You just had to do whatever you could to spread diseases around so old, disposable wastes of pruning skin like me would catch the new ones and the best among you would catch the old, now-incurable ones. You’ve done enough. Leave, and take your germ cake with you.”
The millennials hurried out, leaving Geoffrey alone, unknowingly standing where David stood when he received the now-discredited news of his husband’s imminent death. Through the silence, he thought he heard the youthful, bubbling giggle that first made him fall in love with that young man. “I can hear you,” he whispered. “My love, I can hear you.”