Tell me we’ll never get used to it.
Richard Siken, 2005

The boy didn’t know what to do with sounds that entered his head and became something else. His parents would soon be caught in the glare of their weekly murder mystery, its theme a barrage of horns lingering too long on the tonic, the note of houses and pillows and safe spaces, before charging up a diminished fifth and arriving at the tritone, or what his music teacher called “our satanic interval”: it bedeviled the consonance that any ear ached for, whose achievement told the body where it was. Moments earlier, the boy had listened to the square of front lawn between his bedroom and the den, where his parents made themselves into the drinks they couldn’t let go of and were about to merge with a televised disaster story they’d survive. He’d heard a mockingbird stump through the grass, part its beak on an E that rang across the air, that slid down a major third and up one step, a mating call hovered over by the moon, incapable of calling back. The boy saw these notes dotted on a staff as if he weren’t in bed but floating high above them, the mockingbird’s tune overlaid with booming horns in a gob of scored pitches he didn’t know how to disentangle. He thought of his younger brother coiling in a tight S on the other side of the oval rug that separated them, how sleep was his hunger for the womb that made him. The boy thought of his own head pulped by sound becoming sight. And then he watched an archway rise up from the floor between their beds, its white like wobbling smoke through which he found another place, its details failing to come clear. He tugged the covers over him and was on his belly when the touch came, a triplet of touches on his lower spine, made by what he’d never identify as a hand. In the morning, sitting up, he looked down at the once shelved books he shared with his brother flopped in a mound on the rug you couldn’t see, clothes off their hangers and encircling them. This room, the boy knew, was in the middle of a turn into something else, when the turning stopped.

At 36, he was still a boy because the nurses called him one. He thought of his generation’s interest in contracting itself in terms of time, so that everyone was a boy, a girl, who couldn’t be permitted to grow up, since aging resisted the will to control it and ended in a process that no one had words for, as you wouldn’t be there to say them. He remembered Raymond Burr, the defense attorney and lead in the series of horror tales that ended well, weekly, through which his parents medicated themselves, along with much else, against the mess of feeling too much. Burr was big and wide, though his walk belonged to a smaller man judging the range of space he meant to cross. He lived in a California where people were always disappearing and defended the right person blamed for the wrong crime, a skill that each episode patterned. Burr would challenge one of the prosecution’s witnesses when something inside him began to glow, a luster whose signal said: you caused the lethal disappearance of which my client must be innocent. And that was a man’s picture in the early-to-mid 1960s, at least within the frame of a tube television set, this becoming aglow that lit up what had been wrongly obscured. The boy tried to focus on his doctor, holding a group of X-rays in the light that shimmied off the East River, beyond his isolation room’s window. These were the arches of his lungs, their tissue opalescent, polyped by a virus that would remain unseen. He imagined wings evolving over all of it, long bones feathered a pollinating green in a gesture towards flight and fertility, elsewhere. But that internal, that future flight was what he had no name for. A first person pronoun in the midst of vanishing, how does it speak? The words might sound like:

. I’m in a world where men are called boys and vaporize at a pace
brisker than the time needed to recognize that they were there. It’s 1993, 12 years
after the intial reports of GRID gave way to being reborn as AIDS, and I’m in New York
Hospital’s emergency room, sitting on a revolving chair whose wheels won’t turn, forcing
my attention on an admitting nurse, her name unknown, ungiven to me, who stretches up
like the snow- encrusted city outside, a place gone cold blue. She’s busy with telling
me what I am, on the basis of her decrypting the X-rays I’ve brought with me, as if–
together–they were a passport to some other country. I’ve cabbed them here from my
doctor’s office, a man who asks me to call him “Charlie” and who became a widower last
month, when Charlotte, the wife whose face he cupped in his hands for 50 years,
disappeared from the sheets she’d no longer get up from, though her body made their bed
a heated plate and lay there, beside him. That’s the whole of it, Charlie said, or the
whole he could bear to carry: death was a blazing–until it wasn’t. I’d come to him a
week ago with a hacking that wouldn’t quiet. It began a month earlier, in December, when
my father and I were shying from waves on that East Hampton beach where our family-dead
used to drink and swim and lunch and wrangle at love on the dunes, braving ticks. They
seemed to bristle around us as each wave stood up, refusing the air and its ice. I was
on a break from working on my second undergraduate degree. My first, in music, wouldn’t
bring me into classrooms where I’d think through essays with students who didn’t yet
know the strain that widens what you can’t believe you are. I returned to the country I
never knew how to live in after making music across Europe for all of the 1980s,
followed by men whose wives, girlfriends, and mothers were uninformed that I was there.
Arriving at Columbia University, I sped myself up in a crowd of words and books and
essays, forgetting the body’s need, sometimes, to stop. I’m on a broken chair, listening
to a nurse with ice-chips in her eyes: you’re a gay man with an opportunistic infection.
The X-rays indicate it’s a pneumonia, associated only with AIDS patients. So, you’re
dying. I’m admitted into a many windowed isolation room. Doctors wrestle behind their
masks with the contradiction between what they term my clinical presentation–more
brightly colored than it should be–and their diagnosis, even after multiply testing
negative for the disease they insist I can’t survive. I won’t be made into the man who’s
called a boy by nurses, undone by a syllogism, by this reasoning together of a body, its
inclinations, and their aftermath. But I don’t know if denial is how the disappearing

. I’d known disappearance before, as an experience of almost being
halved. In Paris, for a while I lived behind a gas station on the quai d’Austerlitz,
half of a two-part franchise run by Chanh. He’d studied philosophy at the Sorbonne yet
upheld his native Laos in the alternating chop and sinuousness of his vowels, in the
mint leaves he draped over steamed rice. But his love of wisdom sharpened his sense that
the daughter of the judge he hoped to marry would reject him, that her family must wince
at his feasibility. In the business of curtailing his capacity to rise, the State would
grant him citizenship, the right to supervise two Left Bank stations, and remove them
from him when it suited. He heard that give-and-take in how his customers wondered at
the easy music of his French, as if the brief stoop down to notice him made them,
somehow, taller. Chanh offered me the apartment in the rear of his station on the quai
because, years ago, he’d worked the reception desk at a Montmartre hotel: meeting the
newlyweds of my sister and her husband, together they rhapsodized over the city that
gave them room. Now, halfway through 1983, on a night when fog circled street lamps like
breath made visible, we were celebrating summer’s start. Chanh’s French “guy friends,”
as he called them, gifted with loans they’d lose sight of repaying, overfilled our
glasses with eau de vie they drove back from the South and its heat. I was
walking to the gas station’s mean cell of a toilet, pulling the door to, when the tiled
floor seemed to hump up and hit me above the right eye. And suddenly I was a kind of
two: a heap of flattened limbs and this male body watching the boundaries between things
judder, in a frequency hop and overlap that he–or I–could see. In one long quiver, I
found my sister with her new son in his Brooklyn bedroom, a tree twisting on the other
side of the window, urban, lost at the center of the building’s geometry in what
kindness would call a courtyard. She combed the boy’s scanty hair while dusk grew around
them and didn’t know why her husband came back, each day, so late. In a tremble, I stood
inside the doorway of my mother’s bedroom when East Hampton air made a sort of salty
mist over her dressing table. She looked in a mirror for the face that had said “yes” to
my father, not knowing if its force still held. And, a vertical line tautening above
that body on the floor of a gas station’s toilet, I became this hand touching the blood
on my forehead. Landing in one body at a single moment: was it really just another way
to leave?

. My hospital room’s peopled with loved ones who try to keep me from
the departure they fear. At 110, 20 pounds have veered from me. More will follow them.
The unproductive gag of my cough has gone mute, thanks to what my medical team pumps
through the IV I’m married to. Tom and Amanda, friends from Columbia, flank the side
rails of my bed and tell me about an out there I can’t imagine reaching. Tom’s
got a mini player with him. He arranges it on my bedside table, hands me a wrapped CD
set, whose mechanics I’m not up to managing. Their coupledom’s a pageant I don’t know
how to join, in a future set of possibilities that won’t be mine. I’m told how my life
will return to its track, that I can be whatever I want to be, but I’m not a train, not
a homily, and this likening of experience to what it’s not must be a sleep that any life
should refuse to settle into. When my father, mother, sister, and brother leave for the
day, I zoom in on some distinction between getting used to dying and being in it. I’m
out of bed, my IV-husband straggling behind me. The window yields a river so lushly blue
that it’s a crime to blink before it. I’ll stand in what my body gives me and
acknowledge that none of us can predict how long the staying lasts.

. My doctors flag me with being immunosuppressed. They worry it’s
invited in the double pneumonia making a tumble of my lungs, even as I continue to test
negative for the AIDS they now doubt I have. But suppression and tumbling have a
backstory, and I think of it as a wasting of my kind. Gay, lesbian, transgender: we
inhabit a country whose history has wanted us gone, and sometimes we help with the
going. That’s a skill set we can learn, faced with many who wish we weren’t here, who
teach us to take the power to waste and aim it at what will effect that work. As a
teenager, I danced in a company organized by Leila Katayen and Val Telberg, who smuggled
their lives out of the Soviet Union to perform a marriage of movement and photography
that their country was determined to disallow. Val would point his camera at dune grass
in a storm of wind, a blue scarf airborne over sand and project their images on each
company-member. Leila dressed us in semi-transparent sacks, urging on the sharp rise and
downward push of every limb, in time to electronic music by Alwin Nikolais, its abrupt
tones and silences answered by a flare of chords in the hope that one expressive medium
was transforming into another. But inside my sack, as we toured the East Coast, I became
the boy who liked too much the thinness that Leila praised, the grass and scarves that
Val shot close up, transported to an elsewhere that the lens showed no interest in
registering. Some transformations, I’d learn, had invisibility as their end. Kevin
modeled clothes for Comme des Garçons: he’d starve for a week to make them his and talk
about this unseen verge. On the edge of 1980, before I left for Europe, we
danced in New York clubs that came and went once they got the fame their owners yearned
for, whose achievement, Kevin insisted, made them cheap. So, they’d materialize
somewhere else, reborn by another name. We were dancing under the revolving ball that
spangled the crowd’s heave to Prince’s wail. We noticed how men we loved and some we
didn’t weren’t coming back. I’m a black man in a life of always trying to stand up,
Kevin said, but this virus and its changing names will have us all unseen, unfleshed,
unmade. Our nation that doesn’t care enough needs to hear those still standing speak
about the waste.

. I’m listening to Tom’s CD, replaying Arvo Pärt’s Trisagion.
Three-times holy: the Greek of Pärt’s title belongs to the liturgy of the Eastern
Orthodox Church, its practices a long look at the Estonian past that the Soviets worked
at wiping out. They exiled Pärt from his homeland because he wouldn’t craft music piping
the wonders of the State. But he took Estonia with him in the lamentation of its
intervals. The place drifts up and holds there, anchored by Pärt’s fashioning of the old
sounds, made new. The Greek may describe a holiness in triplicate, since God is holy,
holy strong, holy never ending, yet the hymn closes with the imperative to have mercy on
us, who qualify him. Pärt takes his string orchestra and puts it in a rhythm of three
propulsive beats, their sequence repeated, the double basses and cellos, the violas and
violins divided, so their widening registers leave a hollow between them. In that
hollow, I think of the devotional burdens that Pärt’s God must hold to, the taking care
of each piece of matter on the earth he made. I’m thinking, ordered or not by a
generative God, of how triple holiness ought to be directed at all earthly matter and
must merit the mercy of being saved. I’m leaving my isolation room tomorrow, free of
double pneumonia and that AIDS I never had, though carrying scarred lungs. Right now, I
look at dusky water and feel a casement window hinging open in my chest. And every pore
I’ve got sucks in the light that’s left.

26 years after that exit from my hospital room, it’s almost dawn. My partner, Neil, paints on the floor in our north-facing living room, his trowel and hands building up curls of mist over a blue rectangle, horizontally inclined in the middle distance. He watches for light he can get and remakes its pulsations on canvas. Among sheets, in our bedroom pointing south, I’m in a Brooklyn apartment on land where–in the 1630s–my father’s Dutch ancestors ravaged the bodies that preceded them, scratching at an older world in favor of the one they maintained was new. About that smoky archway ascending from the floor and almost open to some other place, about juddering, hopping between time zones and their variant locations: it comes to me that where we lie or stand or walk must be adjacent to where we think we’re not. The lives we plot for ourselves or allow to be plotted for us, when anything else seems beyond imagining, interface with what many don’t yet understand enough to entitle with a name. But otherness can be reached for, enacted in a single life’s stretch, and it can spread. Raymond Burr outlasted the role of Perry Mason that made him, sustaining a lifetime of loving men in a country whose laws negated such loving. He performed the possibility that you can buck at jurisprudence when its operations mean to disorder you–and still stand up. Today, my doctorate long behind me and at New York University, where I’ve taught for 23 years my medical team pronounced I wouldn’t live to see, students and I are going to concentrate on Audre Lorde. We’ll listen to her directive that silence won’t protect us. Any culture needs to be stretched by the speaking back committed to reordering it, rightly. I’m about to pull up bedroom blinds on this fragrant June green that hurts me around the heart, and I know I can never get used to it.

That’s some of what surviving tells me.

Bruce Bromley is the author of The Life in the Sky Comes Down: Essays, Stories, Essay/Stories, published in 2017 by Backlash Press and a nominee for the 2018 Victoria & Albert Museum Best Illustrated Book Award. In 2014, Dalkey Archive Press published his Making Figures: Reimagining Body, Sound, and Image in a World That Is Not for Us. “Unsettle” forms part of his third book, in progress, The Storied Cry: Essays and Essay/Stories. His poetry, fiction, and essays have appeared, among other journals, in Out Magazine; Open Democracy; Entropy Magazine; The Nervous Breakdown; Cleaver Magazine; Able Muse Review; The Tusk Magazine; 3:AM Magazine; Environmental Philosophy; Gargoyle Magazine; and in the Journal of Speculative Philosophy. He teaches writing at New York University, where he won the Golden Dozen Award for teaching excellence.