I was on my way to Ponce, Puerto Rico to visit Luis, a friend who was dying from AIDS-related cancer. Luis was so close to me I often referred to him as "little brother." I didn't think I could face seeing Luis in a state of suffering and physical deterioration. He had been ill for some time, and I had watched him go from being the epitome of luminous, spirited, youthful beauty to a frail, ashen old man in a matter of eighteen months. One would think I would have been better prepared for the ordeal; in the last ten years, so many friends, ex-lovers, and colleagues had died from AIDS, drugs, and other diseases that I had often joked bitterly about feeling like a survivor in wartime. But this experience with Luis felt different. I didn't feel as hardened or tough. It simply came down to one death too many.
What to do? The time to get on that plane and make the dreaded journey to his home town and say goodbye had come. I felt the combination of weird elation (I had to face this dark moment at all costs) and fear (what if I fell apart and failed him?). The day before I left, I walked around my neighborhood in a strange, trance-like state and ended up in one of my favorite bookstores. I knew having the right book along for company could mean everything in the world, but I also knew I was probably asking for too much. I kept picking up books and putting them down. Poetry, memoirs, even books dealing with death left me cold. Either they were too light, too literal and obvious, or not close enough. I needed a book that would help me transcend, transform, and accept a terrible loss, but it had to be a book also far-enough removed from my situation. I also needed the armor, the weight and heft of the book -- any book? -- as (perhaps) precious object or protective talisman I could hold in my hand. Of course, it occurs to me even now that perhaps I give too much power to words, and those writers who know how to use them.
The novel I chose was Salman Rushdie's The Moor's Last Sigh. Playful, epic in scope, oozing black humor and extravagant puns, filled with eloquent meditations on art and mortality -- the byzantine world Rushdie created was perfect for my situation. His was an ornate universe inhabited by unpredictable, unforgettable characters who fretted about mortality. My situation exactly, yet not my situation. My friend was dying, a gaunt bag of bones having difficulty breathing and speaking. I sat with him in his dark, air-conditioned cell of a bedroom, massaging his arms and legs while the temperature outside soared to the nineties. Sometimes while he slept, I opened my book. With only the weak light of a small lamp to read by, I focused on Rushdie's rococo language, and tried not to think about my friend's labored breathing.
The Moor's Last Sigh provided intellectual escape, but also helped me confront the arbitrariness of death. For that is what a great novel can do -- take us to heaven; then, when we least expect it, drop us right back down into hell. And when it works, it is all sublime fun. Reading for me is a profound, selfish pleasure, in which I am transported to dreamtime. Yet my dreams can be as harsh and violent as any so-called reality.
Were the grim urban beauty of Manhattan and the lush tropicalisme of Puerto Rico akin to chaotic Bombay and the arid, majestic landscape of southern Spain? Yes, and no. Was my friend Luis anything like the doomed Moor Zogoiby, and did I see myself as the Moor's fierce tigress of a mother, Aurora Zogoiby? Not at all and absolutely yes, of course.
I finished reading The Moor's Last Sigh on the plane back to New York. Away from Luis, who would die a few days later, it was difficult for me to concentrate on Rushdie's book. The novel became less important, somehow. The tears I refused to shed while I was by Luis's bedside finally flowed. Fortunately, the flight was half-empty so no one paid me any attention. The air in the cabin suddenly seemed as stifling and hot as the tropical islands I had left behind, glistening thousands of feet below. I've been taught well how to weep in silence. I hid my face behind Rushdie's book.