The stairway of Tom’s brownstone was covered in a moss-like substance. Friction from the well-worn shag carpet made walking up four flights exhausting and the smell of mold reminded me that I hadn’t done laundry in three weeks.
Walls painted in a shade of red enamel, like that of a whore’s lipstick were adorned with exquisite paintings crafted in pastel—remarkable works of the human hand sketched with care and patience. Fine pottery bowls were placed on well-worn wood tables under the paintings of wildflowers on each floor, with no practical purpose, but for aesthetics and to serve as optical illusions.
Stephen led the way to his one bedroom apartment on the top floor—a hike that he and Jose had made thousands of times over the fifteen years while living at 60 Perry Street, yet the constant exercise did little to curb their alcohol induced obesity. Stephen’s calves were like bowling balls and with each step, the carpet beneath his flip-flopped feet sprung back like grass in a pasture that had been treaded upon by herds that return from pasture each evening.
“One more floor, girl,” Stephen remarked encouragingly. My face was covered in beads of perspiration and was as red as the hallway walls. I got a good look at myself in a large mirror with a stone frame which graced the landing on the third floor and with exhaustion, wiped the sweat from over my eyes before the sting of tears made me cry.
“Fred— are you decent?” Stephen asked as we walked inside their apartment. Fred was Jose’s nickname—given to him by Stephen three years into their decade long relationship. Jose looked just like a Spanish version of Fred Flintstone, the cartoon character.
“Charlie!” Jose yelled—“Come here white bread and give me some butter.”
I hugged Jose. He had his familiar scent—a mixture of the perfumes Grey Flannel and Dark Rum.
“My God! What happened? We were sick with worry about you when you were in the hospital. Your cousin prayed for you—every night he was praying over there—sick with worry about you—everyone from Three Springs was calling here trying to find out if you were still alive and what had happened,” Jose explained. He was pointing to a shrine that had been built into the hearth of a marble fireplace years ago, after Jose had officially became Stephen’s lover. The fireplace shrine was the centerpiece of the two-room, exposed brick apartment. The hearth was filled with an ungodly assortment of religious and secular artifacts, including a dusty copy of the Holy Bible, multi-colored glass candles in tube-like glass containers covered with pictures of various saints, Valentines Day cards from year six of their relationship, an authentic set of rosary beads which were Jose’s for he was born Catholic, and of course, a photograph of Stevie Knicks, whom my cousin Stephen worshiped as the Virgin Mary. They prayed to these fixtures not only for me, but for help in winning the lottery, for Jose was Puerto Rican and a gambler by blood.
“It’s nice to see you too, Jose. I cannot believe you guys are leaving New York. You have been in this place forever. Where will I pee on Gay Pride Day without your place in the heart of Greenwich Village? I’ll miss those parties on the roof and throwing water balloons at the drag queens below…”
“You gotta tell me, Charles…What happened to you?”
“I’m mad, Fred…mad as hell…it was all in my imagination…that’s all.”
“Charles, your hands are shaking,” Stephen pointed out.
“Yes—it’s the pills they got me on – Lithium—just look at me—all fucked up like this. Thanks for praying for me.”
“My hands shake every morning, too,” Stephen explained. “You’ll get over it soon enough. Sorry there is no furniture here to sit on, but we can offer you a cocktail—wine or rum?”
“Just water, thanks.”
“Suit yourself. Why take a pill that destroys the liver when there’s booze, Charles?”
“You’re right. I’ll have some wine, thanks.”
We’ve shipped everything that wasn’t sold on craigslist—and this is all that’s left of 60 Perry Street. Help yourself to the utensils in the kitchen.”
‘Do you still have that fancy garlic press from the James Beard Foundation?”
“No dear— that was shipped to Vieques, although I doubt they have garlic on that little island…”