By Michael Milton, “The Art of Seeing”
In 1984, my boyfriend Jim moved from California to share my apartment–a tall-ceilinged space housed in a late 19th century wreck-of-a-hotel on Manhattan’s then wild and crazy Upper West Side.
“It looks like Holly’s place,” Jim whispered with pleasure and awe as I showed him around the apartment for the first time.
Jim was referring to Holly Golightly, the heroine of Truman Capote’s novel Breakfast at Tiffany’s. The film version of the novel had been our first date movie back when we were both going for our degrees at San Diego State University.
We adored the film.
And Jim was right; there was a similar spirit shared by Holly’s cinematic apartment and my own abode; a clutter of books, clothes, and street-found furniture which in my case I had done my best to mask beneath swaths of colorful material and throws.
I had hung a poster from the movie; Audrey in a black, full-length Givenchy gown, a giant pearl necklace adorning her impossibly graceful neck and an even more impossibly long cigarette holder dangling from her lips, a red cat lodged comfortably on her shoulders.
The day after his move to the city, I took Jimmy on his first tour, saving the best for last; a visit to the fortress-like Tiffany and Co. Building on the corner of Fifth Ave. and East 57th Street.
Jim bought a pretzel and cup of coffee from a nearby food cart and began his own version of Audrey Hepburn’s dreamy inspection of the wonders on display in the windows of the store.
At the time I had a job with a wealthy producer. He frequently sent Tiffany’s silver brush and comb sent out to friends and relatives as a congratulatory gift after a birth. If the gift was going somewhere in the city, I would immediately volunteer to make the delivery; not to get out of the office but to be seen in Tiffany’s.
I would strut proudly into the store. I rode the elevator (replete with a uniformed operator who tipped his hat and winked at all in the car at each floor.) I picked up my package on the third floor.
I assumed everyone in the lobby stared at me as I departed.
“Who is that young, large-ish man carrying a Tiffany bag probably containing one of those palest of blue packages tied so elegantly with a white satin ribbon?.”
Alert the media!!
And of course, I exited using the Fifth Ave. doors.
Jimmy called me “Holly Go-Sort-of-Lightly.” OK. I weighed considerably more than the impish Ms. Hepburn. But how wonderful it felt coming out into the sun with that bag tightly gripped in my hand for all the world to see.
New York City. Mid-1993. My partner now for ten years, Jimmy, was dying of AIDS. And before he exited this world, he made what I thought were a couple of particularly bizarre requests.
One of those requests which I had long forgotten came back to me with particular force recently.
By 1993, Jim’s once muscular body had shriveled and betrayed him hundreds of other ways each day. His long, lustrous dark hair had thinned. The balding patches could no longer be disguised by any of his attempts at a simple comb-over.
I didn’t like to think too much about all the daily horrors of those months. I figured the sooner I realized that life was never going to go back to the way it was, the sooner I could move on.
That sounds terrible yet it was the only protection I had from hopelessness ladled out by his doctors after endless tests and helpless head shaking. It took terrific energy to attempt convincing him each day that something good could be waiting for him just around the corner as weeks of uncontrollable diarrhea and lack of appetite weakened and discouraged him even further.
A photograph would remind me of the soft plaid black and white flannel shirt he gave me one particularly poor Christmas for us. Or I would catch the whiff of something baking, reminding me of the apple tarts he created in the fall, each with a perfect dough apple decorating the top. Or the sight of a New Age book on a sales rack–many of which we scoured in search of the right incantation or diet or shot which might have given him back his life.
In those moments of remembrance, “ancient” suddenly felt like yesterday.
I was at a dark bar not long before the great plague of the 21st century ripped through the world. I was watching a young couple eavesdropping on three nearby older patrons who were trading stories from “the other plague.”
“We all thought he just needed to stop smoking.”
“I was a total slut and here I am and he’s gone. Why?”
“First time! No condom, poor guy. Sex for the first time and dead a year later. What kind of God is that??”
Two different generations. Two different diseases, both savagely attacking not only the body but also at the apathy of the body politic.
“See us!? Hear us!? Help us.”
Last year I re-located to the west coast in the early days of the Covid crisis to join my newly widowed mother.
Shortly before beginning the long drive west, I saw my good friend, Marc, crossing Broadway near Zabars. I walked towards him and he held out his hand to stop me from coming any closer.
“I think I’m coming down with a cold,” he said. This was before mandatory mask wearing, back when Covid was only just beginning to ooze its way into the United States from other corners of the world. Just like the days when AIDS was called GIRD, a hoarse, icy whisper of the nightmare to come.
“Feel better,” I called back, off handed, just something we say figuring we’d see one another again.
Two weeks later he was dead. Covid. He died alone in his apartment just a couple of blocks from mine.
The news came to me the day I was packing up the bedroom of my apartment for the move.
It was in this room a couple of decades before I had set up a hospital bed during Jim’s last days. The metal bed was surrounded by feeding machines, an oxygen tank, piles of changing sheets and towels.
This was the room where Jim died, not alone, fortunately, but surrounded by loving friends and even a woman known for helping guiding the spirits of the soon to die, easing them on their way to whatever waited beyond.
I had two oversized, stuffed cardboard crates which had sat for years on the top shelves of my New York City apartment. They contained ALL the detritus of my past: awards, notes, letters, diplomas, report cards, newspaper clippings, chorus music, my old head shots, my friends’ old head shots, recommendation letters from people long gone but who had an early belief in me.
I was so distracted by the thought of Marc’s sudden passing I lost my grip on one of the box’s bottom. It tore open and paper flew everywhere.
I saw a black cylindrically shaped film container roll under the bed. I knew immediately what undeveloped film it held.
One Saturday night near the end of his life, Jim made a request of me.
“Let’s get up early and go over to Fifth Avenue.”
I didn’t question the reason why. Jim’s thoughts were already becoming less and less coherent. I agreed to everything.
Shortly after dawn we got up. I helped Jim bathe. He dressed all in black and had taken some care with combing what was left of his hair.
He made sure I had our camera.
Pushing him uptown in a wheelchair from our Upper West Side apartment was not particularly challenging. He weighed only ninety pounds.
At Tiffany’s impressive front doors, Jim told me to give him a moment. He left me by the curb while he wheeled himself up to the entrance. After carefully pushing back his hair, he turned back to where I was standing with the camera, an ironic moue playing about his lips. Suddenly, he magically pulled out a long, black cigarette holder, a reminder of the one Audrey Hepburn wielded in the movie.
He tilted back his head, holding the cigarette holder high. He nodded. I took his picture.
I promised to get the film developed as soon as possible.
I promised a lot then.
Now, hearing about Marc’s death, I imagined the wealth housed there on the corner of Fifth Ave and East 57th Street. Row after row of the most beautiful gems, amulets, rings and necklaces. Priceless, really.
Yet none of the glass cases contained the one thing that would have truly been of value to me 28 years before.
Nor did they have a case in which some vial or test tube held anything which would have been of any help in preventing Marc’s sudden, lonely passing.
There is something out of whack in this world. I don’t think anyone would argue with that.
And it is true there are times when diamonds simply aren’t our best friend.
Two terrible passings.
And I find I can neither forgive nor, hard as I try, forget.
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