Post Road Magazine #30

So Big Like That

Glenn Deutsch


The first night Luz and I spent together, we stayed in her car awhile before going upstairs. We were parked on West Ninety-first Street, facing away from the co-op apartment building on Columbus Avenue where I was subleasing a two-bedroom duplex for myself and my then seven-year-old daughter. It was 1985, fall, the spindly trees on the side street were bare, and we were going to go upstairs to boil a live lobster. For now the lobster was trapped on ice, triple-wrapped in plastic bags, on the floor behind me on the passenger side. Luz's Oldsmobile Delta 88 had a bench front seat upholstered in maroon velour. A Playboy air freshener hung from the rearview mirror. My daughter was away that weekend with her mother, who was attending law school in Washington, D.C. We had separated two years earlier; yes, we'd been too young, too young to get married. Luz was smoking a Newport. "I can't believe how beautiful your lips are," I said at one point from my side. "Oh yeah? You like 'em so big like this?" She cocked her head back and pursed her lips almost imperceptibly, and this made her seem cute and quizzical and challenging. "I can tell," she said, "that you're gonna be trouble." We made the kind of talk you make when what's more important than the words is that feeling that prickles throughout the lining of your cheeks and makes your mouth water yet at the same time you feel thirsty, that makes your throat feel thick and constricted, and to restore the right amount and consistency of your saliva and relieve the sweet aching in your mouth, throat, heart, lungs, belly, everywhere, you have to kiss the other person, and in such a way that you not only share your saliva but sniff each other's exhalations. But before we could kiss, Luz gently broke away from me. She straightened her body and jammed several fingers into one of the front pockets of her Jordache jeans, which she'd tailored on a sewing machine to accentuate her waist and accommodate her butt; and, after bowing further-pushing her feet against the floor, her head into the head rest, and her hips outward-all the while squinting to keep the smoke from the Newport out of her eyes, she tugged out a little aluminum foil packet. Before long I was sucking on her mouth in plain view of my apartment building, sampling the plump lips, licking her gums, every so often lingering at the little gap between her front teeth; detecting and liking the bitter faintly metallic taste of the blow; she had briskly rubbed some on her gums after we snorted two lines apiece through a rolled-up dollar bill. Luz had put on a tape of jazzy Puerto Rican salsa, New Heights, by a group I had never heard of, Sonora Ponceña, and once in a while, over lyrics sung by a man or the singing of a woman who sounded like Celia Cruz or over the chorus's "la-la-la's," or grooving piano riffs, the ice would melt and jostle the lobster, or the lobster would struggle in the icy slush.


We met where we both worked, just on the other side of Central Park, at Mount Sinai Medical Center. I was standing near the top of the escalators in the Annenberg Pavilion, conferring with an administrator from Social Work Services, Barbara, earnest, mature, a stack of binders and folders wobbling in her arms. I was not yet thirty, a press representative in Public Affairs. Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed Luz riding upward, her black hair, her brown eyes, her cinnamonic coloring, those full lips. Somehow I continued discussing publicity goals with Barbara for a community health fair. Halfway up the moving staircase, Luz smiled, revealing a gap in her front teeth. Like Madonna, like Lauren Hutton. Like Brigitte Bardot. My heart raced and the butterflies rippled in my stomach. She who perforce would come closer was also youngish and statuesque. I moved my conversation with Barbara along while I watched Luz step off the escalator and saunter by us; I stared, craned, long enough to see her backside. Her skirt was shiny, green. How my eyes must've bulged, my head swiveled, my neck stretched. It was such an honest, almost slapstick-like reaction to her beauty. Twenty-five or thirty feet away, she looked over her shoulder and gave me an even merrier smile. That she was a secretary in Community Medicine I learned a short while later from a secretary in my department, who undertook to translate, but I already knew luz meant light.


"I'm worried you'll get it too; we shared more bodily fluids than most couples," said Luz, newly diagnosed with HIV a little more than a year later, after we'd had twenty or maybe a few more dates.


We tried making love afterward, twice. The first time, at my apartment. At some point finally Luz fit me with one of the dozen condoms a clinic social worker had given her when her results came back positive; mine subsequently were negative. We're brave, I thought, lying on my back, Luz kneelingly inching along my legs, watching my eyes, smiling. Still smiling, she mounted me. Hopeful? Triumphant? An act of love, defiance, or denial, or all those things, it was ruined in seconds as images came to mind of fluids dripping onto me and into me, and I went limp.

Another weekend, she invited me to her high-rise apartment in Brooklyn, which she'd only recently moved into. We got to where she waited naked on her couch. In the kitchen, I tore off a piece of Saran Wrap, returned with it folded in half to make a square, and kneeled. But the horrible plasticized rag was in the way, pathetic emblem of the contagion, and before long, Luz started to cry.


The way she was built down there. How appealingly the glans thickened and jutted when she was excited. Your lover shares with you that which will become earth again.


She liked to curl around and lock lips. I liked that way. Biting her shoulders and the heated nape of her neck and gnawing my way up to the bump at the base of her skull.


Breast reduction surgery and a tummy tuck some years before, following the birth of the second of her two children and a separation from her husband, had left Luz with keloids and hypertrophic scars-thickened, raised pinkish tissue-along the incision lines. Her surgeon had promised her Champagne-coupe breasts. She lost a boyfriend over it, she said, someone who liked her bigger. Terrible in a way though the scars were, marvelous was the entirety, the whole expanse of her chest. What a prominent rib cage, I remember thinking. The surgeon's reshaping of her bust and the defects it introduced made me more aware her heart dwelled inside, more, I suppose, than if I'd met her before.


For my thirtieth birthday, which fell on a Saturday that March, I would see someone else, the health editor at a fashion magazine, someone I not only dated but also wrote articles for, including one about dating in the era of AIDS. Luz and I had our birthday plans for Friday night. We stayed in at my place. We dined once again on boiled live lobster with her favorite side dish, diced canned tomatoes drained and mixed with salsa, and had Champagne and cognac to drink. She also brought a little foil packet gift. Around five the next morning, or about the time of my birth just fifteen miles away in Queens, naked once again now but standing proudly and surveying the horizon from the living room windows of my furnished sublet, looking past the other wing of the building into an amber fog and glimpsing several brownstone rooftops and fifteen or twenty darkened rear windows on Central Park West, still a little coked up, I beat my chest for several seconds to herald my thirties while Luz, who'd reached the mark a few months before meeting me, watched, amused, in her underwear, from the long couch.


Once, when my daughter wasn't staying the weekend at her mother's in D.C., or with my parents on Long Island, and Luz's two boys were home all weekend with her, we had a sleepover at her place, an East Harlem walk-up at the time. Saturday morning, with everyone still in PJs, we gave the kids cereal for breakfast. Then, behind the locked bathroom door, Luz sat me down on the squishy-soft white plastic toilet seat cover, which kept wheezing as she kissed and rode astride me. Then she turned around and she splayed her fingertips on the old pink and black mosaic tile floor. The kids were supposed to be watching cartoons. Before we could finish, we heard them all whispering outside the door.


After we'd been dating awhile, Luz told me she had assumed when I asked her out that I was "married with kids and living on Long Island." I had a neatly trimmed reddish-brown beard, light brown hair. I'm light-complected with greenish-bluish eyes, and my surname isn't particularly Jewish, but of course Luz had guessed I was Jewish. After all, I was in administration at an institution in New York City called Mount Sinai.

She may have thought I'd been looking for an extra-marital affair because we'd set our first date for a Friday night, it was just dinner, and on the early side, at that. Having gathered she was Puerto Rican and so part Spanish, I had picked Spain Restaurant, a sixties Greenwich Village relic situated a few red-canopied steps below street level in a brownstone on West Thirteenth Street. For a while we were the only guests. Our waiter gallantly seated Luz at the center of the rear wall banquette-later arrivals couldn't help but see her as soon as they stepped into the room-and then he put out the first of our gratis appetizer plates: crunchy, greasy lamb riblets. From my side of our little table I watched Luz put a first glistening riblet into her mouth. It's not that she burlesqued nipping the meat, or licking the tangy glaze-not at first, anyway-but I made such a performance of watching her mouth as if she were teasing me, that she laughed, throatily. When our entrées arrived and reciprocally I lavished my attention on a steamed mussel from my fruita del mar, she issued a lubricious gurgling chortle.


Getting around to our families, I said, in talking about my daughter, "Her mother is Chicana, from Texas," and Luz said, "Oh," with a nod and a lifting of her eyebrows.


We'd been going out seven months, it's a sunny Saturday afternoon in May, we're strolling upper Broadway, and we both hear an older black man say, "The best-looking couple on the street." We were passing by Zabar's, having crossed West Eightieth Street. He was sitting against a fire hydrant. I hadn't noticed if he was peddling used books or cassettes, or incense, or whether he had a table or was panhandling or just hanging out; he wasn't remarkably dressed, didn't look crazy, probably was in his early fifties; he just smiled at us and pronounced us that. We both smiled back, and the man's words in that instant made me love all the races of humanity. Narcissistic, but there you go: Luz and I were promenading along upper Broadway, and what a compliment had been paid us. Perhaps the man had appreciated the mélange of origins parading by, hip-by-hip, Luz's Spanish, African, and Taíno ancestry expressed alongside my Middle Eastern and Middle European Jewish genes. He blessed this expression. But undoubtedly, mostly hers. Good God, Luz strolled like a French or Italian film beauty. Everyone looked.


I was a prosperous young separated New York City dad of an adorable daughter whose mother, my wife, was in law school a few major cities away-all that until she graduated and our divorce became final, in 1986. The judgment arrived in my mailbox downstairs in the terra cotta lobby of the building on Columbus Avenue from the court in Wisconsin, where my now ex-wife had resettled and was already making plans to marry her longtime boyfriend. No longer could I tell myself I kind of had it all, all kinds of options as far as companionship went. The finality of divorce instead brought back to the surface of my mind seemingly everything that had gone wrong during the five years my now ex-wife and I had lived together in post-adolescent matrimony. The finality of it hurt psychically like the reopening of a physical wound, like the time in junior high I'd fallen hands-first off a bike into a gravely road days after accidentally stabbing myself in the fleshy part of my left thumb with an X-Acto knife and having three stitches. I couldn't help but stare back at my part in upending my daughter's life, and to when my ex and I began straying; to when her affair with now presumptive husband number two had turned serious and I stipulated I needed more "equilibrium"-a euphemism for wanting to go out and have a fulfilling affair of my own-not marriage counseling, which she wanted.


The fashion magazine health editor (I'll call her Beth) told me something, probably around this time, that her mother had told her: never date a man who hasn't been divorced for at least three years. Divorced, not just separated.


Luz let me know she wasn't seeing anyone else, and hinted we might want to be exclusive. I occasionally saw someone else who worked at Sinai, an office manager I'd met before Luz, whom she knew a little. For that reason, and just because some Friday or Saturday nights I wasn't available even when my daughter was away, Luz would have known I was seeing others. I was honest in saying I wasn't ready. After we took a few weeks off, I presumed she was also seeing others, or would be. I also remember that it was afterwards when Luz arrived one evening at my apartment for a date wearing a full-length faux fur coat and laughingly presented herself not only nude, but smooth-shaven.


Two or three days after Luz told me she had tested positive for HIV, I had myself tested under a fake name by a Sinai doctor, someone I was good business friends with, who said, to assuage my fears, "You have no idea how common this is." When my results were negative, it seemed less necessary to tell other partners, even less so three months later when my second test was negative, and much less so after my third test, around a year later, for a life insurance policy. I felt tainted anyway for a lot longer than that.

I'd had no experience with STDs, and this was a deadly virus I'd been exposed to through sex many times. And while it'd been established that women rarely transmitted HIV sexually, it wasn't never. I was shocked to realize I'd been in danger; and quite literally I couldn't believe I'd been lucky enough not to get infected. That's one explanation for why I would imagine the virus lurking in me despite proof to the contrary.


Luz and I remained friends after failing as mixed-HIV-status lovers. When a doctor on Long Island got media attention for theorizing AIDS was a virulent new form of syphilis and could be treated as such, I made an appointment for Luz to see him. On the phone afterward she said, kindly, "I don't think what I have is any kind of syphilis."


In hindsight, the feeling of taint may have been an expression of survivor guilt. I remember a wish arising in me to share in Luz's ill fate, to be sick, in solidarity. Happy thoughts about my comparative good luck would be tinged by thinking I'd somehow deprived Luz of hers. And my desire to help Luz nearly always came into conflict with my inability to do so. Through no fault of my own, I could usually be sure.


Beth and I hung out the last Sunday night of the Feast of San Gennaro, and then walked to Washington Square Park, where we sat on a bench. By now, September of 1988, we were seeing each other infrequently. I'd long since stopped writing for her. We were nearly just friends. In some ways, Beth and I were more compatible than Luz and myself. Our backgrounds were more alike; we were both outer-borough ethnic whites with good educations, not that that's the most important thing. Both women were loving towards my daughter, and I'd sized Beth up as a potential stepmom, whereas I hadn't done, so much, with Luz, maybe because subconsciously I couldn't see myself as a stepfather to her boys, though I liked them a lot. At any rate, they were close with their father. After Luz's diagnosis, I recall thinking that, with a mature commitment finally on my part, my relationship with Beth was a relationship that could survive romantically; no one going to die soon.

I'm not sure if what I was about to say to Beth was to ultimately make myself ineligible in her eyes, a kind of self-sacrificing clumsy attempt at closure, or if I'd meant it as an eleventh-hour way of checking if there was anything to inflame in her, an ever-balancing Libra, to see if she'd get really angry, possessive, and sympathetic all at once, to see if maybe the two of us really were in love-could be in love. On the bench now I told Beth about Luz being HIV-positive. I quickly put in that I'd repeatedly tested negative.

Beth was silent for a moment before hitting me over the head with a giant-size empty plastic Evian bottle. We both laughed-the empty bottle had made a silly whap-crackle against my skull. "You could have been more careful," she said. I doubt she'd have struck me with a full bottle. She asked then and several more times while I still lived in New York how Luz's health was holding up.


On the phone in late February of 1989, about two years after her diagnosis, Luz told me she was dating a firefighter. I sensed she was boasting but I didn't mind, considering. I asked, and Luz said she'd told him about her HIV status. But she had also called that evening to ask my help with an autobiographical statement: she was applying for a fellowship to go back to school for a master's in public administration. I was happy to oblige. Here was something I could do for her. By this time, I'd left Mount Sinai and was editing a magazine. I asked Luz to fax her draft to the office, and waited at the machine.

I remember that I used to write small wavery scribbles and would query with my elders if they could read it. My first few years in grade school established in my personality the will to achieve.

Except for greeting cards, I'd never read anything of hers when we were dating, and on those she'd usually just written a few sexy words.


"I can't stop shaking. It's like a tic in my whole body." Her temperature was a hundred-four. Her doctor had had her on antibiotics for a week. She'd left Mount Sinai for SUNY Downstate Medical Center in Brooklyn, where she was making forty-eight grand as an assistant to the CEO. "But I feel dumber. I can't think. Anyway, I've got to drink my meds again." She was getting AZT and antibiotics. The first big breakthroughs in HIV therapy wouldn't come for a few years yet. She slurred: "I'm a mess, Glenn. I've lost twenty pounds."


Maybe she did this with her other lovers, maybe she did that, which we didn't. I loved her in a way that I never asked.


It was a nonclinical biweekly newsmagazine I edited, The New York Doctor. It would be sold out from under me within months of my arrival, to a newsletter publisher who gutted the staff-but when Phil Zwickler, an award-winning documentarian and gay activist, came to me, I made him a contributing writer on AIDS policy and politics. I told myself I was working behind-the-scenes, doing what I could. He would later die of AIDS, in 1991.


In her draft of the autobiographical statement for the fellowship-which she'd typed or word-processed, and I can still read on the thermal paper I collected off the fax machine at the doctor magazine-Luz wrote that her grandmother in Puerto Rico had inspired her with confidence as a child. But when her mother brought her to New York,

there was a loss in parental guidance and encouragement. By the time I was in high school, I was practically on my own. I took care of myself and decided on what was best for me. Vaboom! I failed the ninth grade. When this happened, no one seemed to care. For me, failing the ninth grade was distressful and embarrassing. I realized that I had to correct my negligence to achieve my goal to complete high school. I worked very hard the following school year. For my hard work, I received honors of achievement and was then passed to the eleventh grade the following school year.

When she graduated, she thought she was done with school, and kept a job she already had, file clerk at Insurance Company of North America. Once again, she was inspired to do more, this time by an administrator at INA, "a minority woman with a similar background." Luz also credited her belief in God for her perseverance, and her husband for his longstanding support. In the last paragraph, she wrote she wished her children to be "as strong-willed and driven" as herself, and concluded:

I have reached that point of maturity that has made it possible for me to direct and plan my life. I have outlined realistic and achievable goals for my professional as well as my personal life. My greatest ambition is to be in a policy-making administrative position that will allow me to do good for the greatest number of people.


In the fourth grade I got in trouble for writing a book report on a four-volume series published that year, 1965, for the New York City Board of Education by a unit of Time Inc. Each eighty-page softcover edition of Call Them Heroes biographied twelve New Yorkers: "men and women who fought a special kind of enemy," as the back covers promised. "Perhaps the enemy was a city slum, or prejudice, or a language barrier-or all of these." My father, then an elementary school librarian on Long Island, was likely among the first to receive the books, and he brought home a set for me to borrow.

Mrs. Pergola, who made her pupils stand when called on-standard procedure at my public school in Queens-chose everyone else to read their book report before finally calling on me. Then, instead of handing back mine to read, she criticized my selection harshly while I stood. "These are not the kind of books," she eventually tried in a softer tone, "that anyone reads under the covers with a flashlight." By then I was crying.

It never became clear what she was objecting to. The next day, in the principal's office, I sat next to my father as he took up my cause, the freedom to think for myself. Mrs. Pergola wasn't there. We couldn't help noticing on a low bookcase by the window several large glossy boxes with a Call Them Heroes design on them. With a smile, Miss Oppido said the series was being added the following year to the sixth-grade curriculum.

I didn't see Call Them Heroes again until a few years ago, when my present-day wife surprised me with a gift of Books 1, 2, and 4, which she'd easily found online.

Each volume biographied a few Jews and Asians born into families without money and a gentile or two born of poor immigrants. Mrs. Pergola may have thought without saying that I was overly impressed by the many stories of African Americans (not the term used at the time) and Puerto Ricans who'd worked hard to overcome their challenges, like Mrs. Celia Vice, "an ex-school dropout who had the honor of leading the annual Puerto Rican Day Parade in 1960." Surmounting childhood poverty and episodes in which she "did not have direction or guidance" and was once "almost blind from eyestrain" and another when "she was paralyzed for six months," she became "the first Puerto Rican woman insurance broker real estate agent in Brooklyn" and director of a neighborhood center. Photos show her giving a plaque to the mayor, meeting Eleanor Roosevelt, working with neighborhood kids, and at home with her parents and children.

Luz was taking night classes when I met her and completed her bachelor's degree that way in 1986 at Mercy College in the Bronx. Even after she learned the following year that she was infected with the AIDS virus, Luz continued to work hard, and rose from secretary into hospital administration.


When I try to recall Luz's apartment in Brooklyn, the place itself, I can see one edge of the kitchen: some countertop, a drawer beneath, a cabinet above, some of the refrigerator to the left; and across the dining area, where I don't recall there being any table and chairs, the couch in the living area. I think she had ordered new furniture and it hadn't arrived. I know Luz had spent a long time on a waiting list before getting the apartment. Seeing the address on her autobiographical statement, I remember it was a spacious, balconied place on the twentieth- top-floor of one of forty-six towers in Starrett City, the enormous low- and moderate-income housing development close by the East New York and Canarsie sections of the borough. Had she shown me the views? Had we stepped onto the balcony that evening, drinks in hand? I think so, I think we did. We were twenty stories up, anyway, amidst 150 acres-or what a nice golf course has-of apartment towers, play areas, sitting areas. Three public schools down there, churches, a synagogue. Shopping center. Health and fitness center, with a competition-sized pool. That's not to say to my knowledge Luz ever imagined us living together in Starrett City. Or us, her sons and my daughter. Or that I would have started seeing that possibility if she hadn't gotten sick.


One day at lunch outdoors at a restaurant in Brooklyn near the clinic where she was being treated and the medical center where she was working, Luz told me how she had been tipped off that she might be infected with HIV: a woman from her old neighborhood, someone who didn't like her, revealed one of her former boyfriends was dying in a Bronx hospital. "Tu sabes," the woman had said, "from the pneumonia you get from la SIDA." On AZT, Luz had gained back the twenty pounds the disease had taken. She was fuller-faced, in fact, than in our Sinai days, and more conservatively coiffed and dressed. That hour we hardly ate, but both of us smoked her cigarettes. Lighting one more for herself, Luz said, "I think she told me for the pleasure of seeing my face register the news."


Later that same year, 1989, I moved to southeastern Pennsylvania to become managing editor of a then fledgling Men's Health. I never made it known, in story meetings or elsewise, that I had dated a woman who turned out to have been HIV-positive; on the other hand, looking at the issues I helped produce in my ten months on the staff, and from what I can recall of the magazine beforehand, there was an apparent quota of one brief item per issue, several lines worth, touching on HIV/AIDS. Excepting a personal essay that came in over the transom and I got into print, in which a Lower Manhattan Romeo concludes he needs to use condoms with AIDS around.


I tried reaching Luz twice by phone shortly after moving to Milwaukee toward the end of 1990 to be more involved in my daughter's life. I'd relinquished my school-year custody of her two years before. She was twelve now, ensconced in a west-side suburb in a family her mother had made with husband number two. I took a one-bedroom with a shared bath on the second floor of an old brick house on the city's near east side.

The first time I called Luz's apartment, her younger son answered, said hi, and handed the phone to his father. I'd never spoken with Luz's husband, a patient transporter at Sinai. They'd remained separated, on friendly terms. A couple of times, in a corridor or stairwell, he and I had acknowledged each other with a nod. Now he said, "She'd like to hear from you. She's at Bellevue." Bellevue and St. Vincent's were the hospitals in New York with the biggest AIDS loads.

"I've had the flu for three weeks," Luz said. She'd been on three different medications. The flu, she added, was unrelated to her HIV infection. She sounded heavily drugged, much older. At some point we went silent, and she slurred, "How you doin'?"

The second time I called, the boy said, "I'm sorry to have to tell you she passed away." As though he'd already said it many times. I hung up and cried, keened, mewled, and then I started pacing. I felt ashamed: I should have been a better friend, should have kept up somehow with her sons, shouldn't've been afraid to be defined or labeled by Luz's having HIV/AIDS, should have identified myself publicly as a lover of someone who was sick with the virus, not been afraid to publicly, personally weigh in. I was also, immediately after hanging up, angry at her. For dying. For not hanging on until there was something better than AZT. For leaving behind two kids. For leaving me to remember. Then I thought: How happy I'd be to have Luz as my girlfriend in heaven someday. It wasn't that I believed in heaven. It was still an honest thought, however, albeit a romantic one. Sentimental, if you want. I can even agree to maudlin. It's not like we were ever exclusive. I don't know what I was promising us.

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