I read Christopher Coe’s debut novella I Look Divine a few years ago, but just now got around to reading his novel Such Times, which (aside from being vastly superior) is a devastating look at the way AIDS destroys human relationships. More importantly, it is a compelling investigation of romantic longing. I wanted to cry on almost every page. And on a few, I did.
Coe himself died of AIDS complications a year after the book was published, in 1994. How I wish he’d been able to give us more than these two books.
After the jump: I’ve copied out, by hand, a selection.
from Such Times
Tonight the risotto has sea scallops. I used to like them. I made them many times for Jasper, with nothing but butter and cream. Sometimes I added a few gratings of nutmeg. Sliced, sea scallops could be made delicious in five minutes flat. They tasted like more than they were.
Tonight, with Dominic in Los Angeles, I ask our waiter to bring another plate, and when he does I pick out every one of them. Even removed, their pungent flavor overwhelms the dish. Dominic does the same to the squid. He objects to the way it’s been cut. His disdain is vigorous.
“Sweetheart, maybe your mother can help you, and you can leave her with a feeling she’d done something for you.”
This is my suggestion to Dominic.
A minute loses itself.
“Who’s talking about leaving? Who said anything about leaving, did I say anything about leaving?”
“A slip of the tongue,” I say.
“Excuse you,” says Dominic.
He looks at his glass, then looks into it. “This is the first time white wine has tasted at all the way it used to.”
Dominic and I are drinking a perfectly chilled Gavi dei Gavi La Scolca, a wine Jasper and I drank many times on picnics.
“This is nice wine,” Dominic says.
I look at the familiar lettering on the familiar black label and remember drinking this wine with Jasper, especially the first time we drank it, in Rome, on a picnic deep in the Villa Borghese. That trip was long ago, before Jasper and I stopped playing.
“Actually, sweetheart, this is a lovely wine,” I say to Dominic.
The light in this downtown L.A. dining room glares on Dominic’s head, not unbecomingly. He keeps his head smooth with frequent shaving. A man comes to his house twice a week and does it for him.
“Yes,” Dominic says. “It is.”
He says this with partial conviction. I doubt he is tasting deeply. I see, even more clearly tonight than before, that is has become impossible for me to take a sip of this or any other good wine—of a Brunello de Montalcino, a Corton Charlemagne, or a Batard Montrachet—as it is impossible for me now to bite into a piece of anything that has been cooked with the smallest flourish of excellence—even this somewhat pallid risotto—or to taste on a salad green a sprinkling of pear vinegar, or to smell avocado honey, without at once a thought of Jasper.
I cannot lie in bed alone without his coming into view. Some nights it feels that he is almost in the room. Not that he’s with me, but that he is in the room. If I could hold the thought, hold it long enough so that everything was in it, Jasper would appear in a corner, even perhaps at the foot of the bed.
He would look at me, I’d see his face. Then, physically, he would occupy a chair, stretch his legs out, make himself comfy, and we would talk again.
There are times I hear him.
When I do, his voice is as it was. It speaks as he did and talks about places we’ve been. He invents nothing new; everything he talks about happened.
He names the places he wants to go again. He wants to bicycle again to the Bois de Vincennes, to promenade again in the Jardins des Plantes. He wants to watch the shirtless boys splashing one another under the tall sprays of the Trocadéro fountain. He wants frog’s legs again at L’Ami Louis, to be in Rome when porcini are in season, to bite into them again the way they are grilled at Sabatini, in Trastevere. He tells me calmly that he would like another bellini at the Hotel Excelsior on the Venice Lido.
He wants to return to the island of Torcello, where we saw twenty-year-old men playing soccer in front of an old church with boys who looked twelve or eleven, their younger brothers, probably. Their game looked improvised. Jasper and I watched them for a while, and they summoned us, in a friendly way, to join them. I think we would have if we hadn’t had a boat waiting to take us back to Venice.
Jasper asks me, will I take him when I go?
“Of course I will take you, papa,” I tell him.
We talk aloud.
Sometimes I think, though, that he wants only to be in the places again. He hasn’t made it clear that he wants me along.
Among the dead, nothing goes without saying.