Christopher Street in Manhattan’s West Village was covered in romantic mood lighting. A long time ago, I saw a man, Ben, sitting there looking sickly and unable to move. Now, he sat in his rocking chair looking out the window of his first floor apartment. My highschool friend, Taco, and I clung to the outside window ledge just as I had when I was young.
The string lights made a beautiful archway from Hudson Street to Bleeker. He has had the same first floor apartment at Christopher and Bedford for almost 50 years, from the afterglow of Stonewall to the AIDS epidemic. Ben lived through existing as a gay man in the South, being shunned by his parents, then moving to New York City alone, and living there from 1970 until he died. He had two or three partners. None of them I knew.
I’ve spent summers living with Uncle Ben since I was 10 years old, while I was working with American Ballet Theater. He would take me to five dollar massages after class and draw baths for me with epsom salt. I always loved how his bathroom window stood about 20 feet away from the backstage of the Off-Broadway Lucille Lortel Theater. I was surprised by many naked introductions with actors performing there.
Taco, Ben and I skipped up Christopher Street. He danced through the twinkling lights like a puppet and seemed to barely stay tethered to the ground. Taco and I held a blueish, heavy orb in our hands. It was going to cure Ben’s cancer. We smiled as a horse carriage trotted down from Central Park and stopped right in front of us.
It was almost evening, everyone just leaving their nine-to-five jobs. They waved and smiled at him as his puppet body jumped into the carriage overflowing with a bed of roses. All the restaurants that had closed down opened again. The Peruvian place, Hudson Deli, the Lucille Lortel Theater was overflowing with patrons. Diane Keaton was there. He called it his sleepy little village.
The streets were full. Uncle Ben laughed and wiggled his frail, puppet body. So happy was this man who had survived so much. It was almost like a concert. People danced through the streets while they went on their way, no doubt to find their own families. Maybe that’s why Ben was so happy, knowing he was not alone.
We gave Ben the orb. The heavy nature of it weighed him down. His puppet arms hung low from his shoulders. He smiled at us, but he was confused. Because he had seen so much death, he didn’t think it would ever happen to him.
“You’re my last roommate,” Ben said to me. One year before, I walked out on him because he was mad I left my t-shirt on the TV box. He had a peculiar and sad look on his face.
After one long last look around, he let the orb roll back down the roses, out of the carriage and into a gutter. Taco and I scrambled to catch it. By the time I turned back around, the carriage was gone. The lights and the roses were gone, the patrons were replaced by people wearing felt hipster hats. It was all gone. Taco was even gone. His real name was Zachary.
Night replaced twilight. I looked at my phone, expecting to see notes of condolences, but he had no one. His community was swept away in the ocean of AIDS. His existence was an afterthought of tragedy.
When I was small, he bought me a bubble blower. I’d send the bubbles out onto Christopher Street late at night from his first floor window. People would gather below. I’d laugh with delight as all walks of life poked at the bubbles. Uncle Ben sat in the corner, drinking Two-Buck Chuck, laughing with me.
When Uncle Ben was dying, he said to be by my grandmother, his big sister. He said there’s something I can’t understand, the death of a sibling. When Ben and my grandmother were younger, their little brother died — run over by a drunk driver. Their little brother was six. I have one brother. Siblings are the closest thing to you that you will ever get.
I didn’t know what to say to “There is something you can’t understand.” I’m 20. He’s 70. I’m sure there are loads of things he understands that I won’t for a very long time.