I met Nario at an AIDS hospice where I volunteered as a recreation coordinator during the period 1991-1994. He was a native of Equador and faced death alone here in the North. His family was too poor to travel to New York to visit him during his last days, so I served as his next of kin.
The virus ravaged Nario’s tan body, yet his black hair remained rooted despite toxic drugs available at the time. He claimed that with AIDS he did better drag, but longed for a time when he was a healthy man.
My responsibilities as a recreation volunteer for Bailey House required that I serve as a host during Saturday evening movie presentations on the seventh floor of the hospice. I rented the newest releases from a video shop on Christopher Street and set-up a large video projector and screen. I popped popcorn for the handful of residents who had the strength to take the elevator to the seventh floor to watch the movie presentation. Nario was always there, no matter what movie was shown. He said I made the best popcorn and thanked me for using tons of unhealthy butter and forbidden salt. He often shared stories of his life while we waited for the last kernel of corn to pop.
Mario had a lover who gave him HIV, yet he was never angry nor did he blame the deceased for his misfortunes. He often brought photographs of his lover to show me while the movie played. I’d ask questions and always remind Nario of how beautiful they both are.
“You talk like he is still alive and as if I still got a body like this,” Nario said, pointing at himself in a picture; shirtless and wearing a pair of sunglasses.
“How do we know where we go when we die? He’s probably right there over my shoulder laughing at these pictures,” I said. “Quite honestly, I’m so afraid of death that I volunteer here just to get my mind off the notion. People don’t die, they just go on,” I said, not really believing a word that came from my mouth, yet sounding assured in my conjecture.
The handful of residents who were watching Bette Midler and Shelly Long in ‘Outrageous Fortune’ suddenly lost interest in the flick and joined our conversation. We passed Nario’s photographs around the room, and soon we all were crying and laughing for Nario’s lover who had died and for a moment as the credits were rolling, life did seem eternal.
Although it was against Baily House volunteer policies, I invited a handful of the residents of the hospice to a bar-b-q I had at my duplex in Sunset Park, Brooklyn. I knew most of the staff who worked there and invited them as well. Nearly a dozen staff and residents of Bailey House came all the way to Brooklyn on the train. Nario was the first to arrive.
Nario’s social worker, Carol didn’t attend the party but she heard about it from Nario and a few others. She reminded me of the volunteer policy but was happy that the outing had done so much good for Nario’s mental well-being.
Nario died just a few days after the party. Carol approached me at the popcorn machine with a black bag–
“I know it is against volunteer policy to accept anything from the residents who live here, but I want you to have these. This was all that belonged Nario when he moved here. They are his photographs. I simply don’t have the heart to put them in the trash.”
“I’ll take them,” I said to Carol. “Stephen Lustica makes me greeting cards all the time. He call’s them ‘Lusticards’. I hold onto all of them. He cuts things from magazines and posts them on cardstock, usually based on conversations we’ve had. I cherish them. I’ll keep Nario’s photographs. Thank you, Carol.”
I’ve held onto the pictures of Nario with his black lover, and Stephen’s ‘Lusticards’ for almost twenty years now, never knowing what to do with them.
I recently started having reoccurring dreams about Stephen and Nario and Bailey House. Perhaps this means that my movie is just about over too, or perhaps, our gay friends really do watch over us from the other side like I once insisted. In either case, I figured out what to do with these images–
I’m still the volunteer coordinator for movie night.