Twelve years ago I was living in Brooklyn with Eric and Joe. They were ex-lovers. When Eric was getting evicted from his place, Joe and I let him take the extra room in our ground-floor brownstone apartment. It was supposed to be temporary until our other roommate came back from New Zealand, but Joe and I were both so smitten with Eric that when our other roommate came back we told her Eric was staying and she’d have to find some other place to live.
We loved Eric for a hundred reasons. He was tall with dark, chin-length, blunt-cut Sting hair. He had a rack full of sturdy Buffalo China diner ware. He cooked lavish dinners for attractive friends. He always did the dishes, no matter who made the mess. He hung art for a living. He traveled to Italy to hang the Venice Biennale and came back with stories about Peggy Guggenheim and about how nothing was better than having sex with a man who was whispering Italian in your ear. He anchored our Christmas tree to the floor so well that we practically had to cut it down to get it out of the living room. He unclogged the shower drain with real tools.
When Eric told me he was HIV-positive, Joe was surprised that I didn’t move out. It didn’t occur to me. Eric was healthy otherwise, and he was the best roommate I’d ever had, so what was the problem?
The problem was that Eric decided to go on a macrobiotic diet to cleanse his system and he lost so much weight you could see his skull under his skin. He joined a group called The Waters of Life that advocated drinking your own urine to boost the immune system, so he had big jars of his own pee sitting on a shelf in his room. He got so weak that I finally had to drive him in to Beth Israel hospital, where he stayed for seven days. When he asked his mom if he could then come recuperate at home, she said not if you’re drinking pee. So he came back to Brooklyn with us.
Exactly twelve years ago today I was in our kitchen in Brooklyn making myself a peanut butter and Nutella sandwich to take to work. Eric shuffled in — he was twenty-eight years old and he could barely walk. I tried to laugh off the fact that I was going to eat a chocolate sandwich — embarrassing, when he was living on miso paste and seaweed. He gave me two-fifths of a smile and started rummaging around in the silverware drawer. Joe was still asleep. I headed for the subway.
I went to the movies after work, and when I got back to our apartment the door was open, all the lights were on, and a cop was standing on the stoop. Joe came running down the hall, put his hands on my shoulders, and told me Eric had killed himself. I burst into tears, and was secretly glad that I could cry, instead of just standing there blankly and saying, “What?” In the kitchen were three of our friends, all gay men, all wearing white, sitting around the table. Steve said, “We were just talking about how we all woke up this morning and just felt like wearing white.” I had put on black that day. If you put it in a novel everyone would think you were trying too hard.
Joe had been looking in on Eric from time to time during the day, thinking he was just napping, but around six o’clock he tried to give him a little shake to wake him up and Eric was stone cold. Joe screamed. There was a huge blood stain on the futon underneath him. Eric had taken a knife from the silverware drawer, wrapped himself in a white sheet, lay down, and stabbed himself twice in the chest.
We sat on the stoop until nearly two in the morning before the coroner’s van came to pick up Eric; the cop stayed in the living room, respectfully declining offers of iced tea. The driver of the body pick-up van, a black man in a white shirt, explained to us that they had priorities about picking up bodies. “You get the ones in public places first.” I forget what came second; private homes were third, which is why we waited so long. It was a nice night, though, and I think everyone was glad for a reason to stay together and talk.
There are a million more things I could describe, from the way I cried when I met Eric’s brother, who looked just like him, to the memorial service in Prospect Park where Steve poured all of Eric’s pee out into the grass, to me going back to my parents’ house wearing a “Men: Use Condoms or Beat It” button and being dumbfounded when, after telling my righteous, religious brother that Eric had died, he said, “Good.”
The other day I went to a gallery opening wearing a pair of Eric’s shoes. They’re the most comfortable shoes I own, just beat-up black oxfords, but they’re so well made that the shoe repair guys always compliment me on them. At the gallery opening a nice gay man said, “I like your Annie Hall shoes.” I thought about saying, “Oh, they’re my dead roommate Eric’s shoes.” I’ve done that once or twice, I’m sorry to say. Instead I just said, “Thank you,” and I thought about Eric again, how he was learning to speak Italian, how we wouldn’t let his mother take his Buffalo China away, and how I never mind doing the dishes anymore, no matter who made the mess.