Howard followed me out of Stuyvesant Park on a June night in 1995. Inside the park, in the shadows from streetlamps through trees, we had checked each other out, but hadn’t spoken. I turned left out of the tall iron gateway, walking north on Second Avenue, and Howard followed a few paces behind. When he caught up, we smiled at each other and proceeded side by side for several blocks—silent, until I stopped at my corner (24th Street) and asked “How far are you walking?” He stammered, “I uh live on the Upper East Side,” but recovered with “I’m Howard,” and we shook hands. “I know how this sounds,” he said, “but could I use your bathroom?”
Which he did. But when he was done, he made other intentions clear, and we were soon entangled on the futon sofa. He didn’t stay long. We traded numbers, and I called him once or twice, but didn’t hear back from him. Too bad: I liked what I learned of Howard that night, and he was the first man I’d invited into my narrow studio in the year I’d been single. He made me laugh, among other things. He was short and cute and, with his dark hair and pale skin, resembled my ex-lover. (That part worried me a little.) Brown eyes instead of my ex’s blue.
He was the first and only that summer, which stretched into fall, and I was talking with a friend in The Bar in the East Village when I spotted a familiar face. At first I wasn’t sure: he looked different. Better. Was it just longer sideburns? “I’ll be right back,” I said to my friend, and I sidled up to Howard. I could tell he couldn’t place me at first, but when I said “I think you’ve been on my couch,” his face lit in a big smile. We caught up briefly, standing inches apart, blushing and grinning, then he said “Look, I’m waiting for this guy I’m supposed to meet, but I’d really rather talk to you. Can I call you later?”
“Will you?” I said, raising an eyebrow.
“Yes! I promise.”
And he did. We got together later that week, and saw each other a handful of times. He would come over to my place (he had roommates), and we’d laugh and make out and hold each other, and laugh some more. You couldn’t call it dating; we never went out, and there seemed to be an unspoken agreement that neither of us was the other’s “One.” I don’t know why—not for lack of attraction, or common interests, or anything else I can put my finger on. Unless (for my part) it was too soon after leaving my ex. We talked a lot. I learned Howard used to be a ballet dancer; that he was Jewish; that he was studying to be a nurse. And that he believed in angels.
One morning, around 8:00, my door buzzer sounded. Howard on the intercom: “Can I come in for a minute?” When I opened my door, he was visibly upset. “I’m sorry I didn’t call first. I was on my way to the exam, and wanted to stop by. I’m so scared.”
“Get in here. Can I make you tea or something?”
“No. Just . . . could you just hold me?”
So I did, for a few minutes, then he had to get to the exam. He had stopped trembling though, and the smile was back on his face. As he left the building, silhouetted in the entry windows, I wondered: Maybe there’s more to this than I thought. But I didn’t say as much, nor ask Howard how he felt. He called later to tell me the exam went well, and he credited me. But shortly I stopped hearing from him (again), and something told me he had met someone else.
Which he had. Seven, eight months passed. I was thirty-five, working in a law firm, auditioning sporadically, still in my tiny first-floor apartment, still single. One evening the phone rang: Howard. “I’m sorry I haven’t called. There’s been a lot going on. Can we talk?”
I was glad to hear his voice, and didn’t notice anything out of the ordinary at first. Howard began. “Remember that test?”
“Yeah . . . ?”
“Well, I did really well, like I told you, and they put me on the floor at Beth Israel, in the AIDS ward. One night, I went to meet a new patient: Michael. I know it sounds ridiculous, but when I walked into his room, our eyes met and, you know, it was like we’d always known each other. He wasn’t sick, really, just in for some tests for a muscle issue, neuropathy in his legs. We didn’t even need to talk sometimes. We’d just smile. So when Michael got out a few days later—I know this sounds crazy—I pretty much moved in with him. He still needed some care, and who better than me, right?”
“Right!” I said, and laughed, a little. As glad as I was to hear from Howard, I had begun, to my surprise, to get jealous.
“I never liked the way ‘soul-mate’ sounded,” Howard went on, “but I don’t know how else to put it. It was so meant to be. I didn’t know two people could be so happy. It was ridiculous!” He laughed, but there was something in the laugh, around the edges. A pause.
“So he gets better and better and we’re delirious for like six months, talking about the house we’re going to build, crazy stuff. And then he got sick again. Really sick.” Another pause.
“Is he okay, now?”
“He died! He died, just like that. A couple of days in the hospital and he was gone. I couldn’t help him.” Howard wasn’t crying, but I could almost feel the knot in his throat, what I’d heard in the laugh, before.
“Oh, Howard. God.” I didn’t know what to say. I was so sorry for him. And also jealous. Where was that coming from?
We arranged to meet for dinner a few days later at Mumbles on Third Avenue, just a few blocks from where we first eyed each other a year before. Another warm June night; we’d be able to sit outside. I was eager to see Howard after all this time, but I was in for a shock, as once more I almost wouldn’t recognize him—this time because he was bone thin, his white shirt hanging loose, jaw and cheekbones pushing at his skin. My face gave me away. “I know, I look like shit. Don’t worry, I’m not sick,” he said, anticipating my question. “I’ve just been too sad to eat.”
I wanted to believe him. I had left—and been left by—lovers, but none had died. So when he said he’d get back to normal as soon as he regained his appetite, I hoped he was right. I wasn’t concerned for myself—we’d always been safe—but I was worried about him, so I asked if he’d been tested, assuming, of course, that he had. I couldn’t believe it when he looked down at his plate and said “No.” A gay former dancer. In New York City. And a nurse. And he’d never been tested? “Howard!” I said. “What the hell?” He promised to get tested soon.
Which he did. I spent July in Provincetown, Massachusetts, performing in a good musical with a not-so-good name—Fairy Tales—that moved our mostly gay audiences to laughter and tears like nothing I’d seen, let alone been a part of. Between that and a brief romance, I was happier than I’d been in a very long time. I felt whole. One afternoon I looked in the mirror and realized that—at almost 36—there wasn’t a single line in my face.
Three of the five actors stayed at a guest house in the west end of town, where one day I got a phone message from Howard. I called him back from a pay phone across Bradford at what was then a pizza and ice cream joint. It’s near the top of a rise where the street angles right and down the hill toward the dunes. It was a perfect Cape day—cloudless blue sky, hot sun directly overhead, cool in the shade.
“I’m positive,” Howard said. “My numbers suck. I don’t know what to do.” Even with his work and training, I thought. When it happens to you . . . . Then the worst part: “I’m tired. I’m scared. I think . . . I just want to go be with Michael.”
What do you say? I tried to convince him to talk to people, that there were lots of options, that he wasn’t ready for that. We spoke a while longer, and I told myself he sounded better when we hung up.
The play and summer ended, and I returned to New York, and (surprisingly) got another show right away: my first Broadway tour—Cats. It happened so fast, I didn’t have a chance to see Howard, but before I left he told me on the phone that he’d gone on the “cocktail” (the new drug combination therapy) and that his T-cells were up, viral load down. Howard had decided to stick around.
By 1996, Cats had been on the road for some thirteen years and I was to join its fourteenth national touring company. As I would soon find out, that meant moving every week, sometimes twice (“split-weeks”), but luckily I joined the tour for its month-long “sit-down” in Philadelphia. There I went through a speedy rehearsal process, mostly with the dance captain and music director. I was enjoying this bump in my career and the City of Brotherly Love, but after a couple of weeks, I started to feel sick. At first, it was just stiffness of the joints, and I thought I had a mild flu. I was able to keep rehearsing, and accomplished my “put-in” performance at Philadelphia’s Forrest Theatre, but from Pennsylvania to Kansas to Texas, the nausea, aches, and fatigue got steadily worse, and in early November, I landed in a hospital in El Paso with hepatitis B.
So much for that Provincetown romance. Once the nausea was treated, and I could eat again, I got better quickly, but I was confined to my hospital bed for the week. The tour left without me, and the telephone was my only connection to the rest of the world. Howard was one of the first people I called. He was so happy on the other end of the line: to hear from me, and to give me his good news. He had gained all his weight back, and felt like himself again. I could hear it in his laugh. We talked a long while and I told Howard I’d be back in New York in two weeks on disability leave before re-joining the tour. Right before we hung up, Howard said “When you get back to the City . . . would you hold me again?” After a surprised pause I said, “I think I can manage that.” Here was a shift I hadn’t foreseen, and now being kept out of the show a few weeks didn’t seem so bad.
I spent Thanksgiving week with my family in Virginia before returning to New York. I felt fine by this point, but because the doctors had told me to rest—and because I’d read up on natural hepatitis cures—I drank grape juice by the quart and took long, easy walks with my parents’ dog. Their house was tucked into twenty wooded acres, and on these quiet walks in the forest, I got the urge to make something from what I saw there. I gathered fox grape vines, pine branches, and strings of running cedar and wove them into a large wreath with a few pine cones and red winterberries. We mounted it in the gable above the garage door.
My parents and I drove to my sister’s place for Thanksgiving. The day after, I called my answering service, and retrieved a short message from one of Howard’s neighbors, someone I didn’t know. I thought maybe she was throwing a surprise party. Or else Howard was ill. I called her right away. She’d gotten my number from his address book. Howard had felt fine on Saturday. Had gone into the hospital on Sunday. Had died on Thursday. Pneumonia.
Howard dead. I didn’t know what to do with this. What to feel. It made no sense. Howard was healthy. He wasn’t “ready to go” or anything like that. He wanted to stay. I wanted him to stay. I told my mom and my sister, who did the best they could.
Now I dreaded the train ride back to New York. When I arrived, I went to see Howard’s neighbor with a favor to ask. In a health food store in Wichita, I had found incense and essential oil named after Raphael. I’d bought them for Howard because of his thing for angels, and because this scent was supposed to be for healing. I mailed them after I called from El Paso, but I figured by the time they arrived, Howard would already have gone into the hospital. So I asked the neighbor if I could retrieve the package and spend a little time in Howard’s apartment. She let me in, and left me alone. I’d never been there. Sure enough, I found the padded envelope in a pile of mail. I opened it there and lit a stick of the incense. I watched as the wisp of smoke spiraled upward and diffused.
At my old office the next morning, in a bundle of my own accumulated mail, amid the junk and bills was a light grey envelope addressed in a neat hand I didn’t recognize; on the back, Howard’s initials and address. He must have mailed it about the same time I sent his package. I turned the envelope over and over in my hands before I could bring myself to open it, this letter from my dead friend. On a plain, folded note card, Howard had written a short message: he loved talking with me, couldn’t wait to see me. He signed off with “Love ya to pieces.”
“Love ya.” Not “I love you” or even “Love, Howard,” either of which would have been premature, at the least. Or so I suppose. I still wonder what our unread letters might have meant—or begun—if Howard had lived, what we might have discovered, or rediscovered.
But Howard died, twenty years ago this fall. And every now and then I grieve, a little, and I’m still not sure why. He wasn’t my lover, and not quite a friend. Was it that, on the verge of another chance with him (our third), Howard became another near miss, one more “almost”? Maybe my grief for Howard isn’t about what we were, or knew, but for what we didn’t get to find out.
In Howard’s apartment, after I lit the “Raphael” incense and sniffed the oil, I read the note I’d enclosed. I’d meant to joke “How do you suppose they figured out how angels smell?” but I’d misspelled smell “spell.” I’d written “How do you suppose they figured out how angels spell?” It got me thinking: Maybe Howard was right. Maybe angels do exist—and we are each other’s angels. Maybe I was one of Howard’s, an angel with a spelling problem.
And maybe Howard was—and is—one of mine.