"I never really understood how he could do it."
Maureen followed Mark's gaze across the room to where Collins had passed out in his chair, paper cup of vodka still loosely clutched in his hand.
"Do what?" she asked.
"Stay. Keep hoping. Care so much. Any of it."
"What do you mean?"
Mark sighed as he gathered his thoughts. "I stopped by the hospital one day last September. I hadn't seen either of them in days and I was shooting a story for Buzzline a few blocks away, so it seemed like a good time. When I got there...."
Mark tossed back the rest of his drink, then poured another couple fingers for fortification. "I got there, and realized that it was the worst time possible. Angel was on that antibiotic that made her more nauseous than usual, and she'd ralphed all over her sheets and Collins' pants as well. Collins had gone to ask the nurse for some scrubs to change into. They came back to the room just as I showed up, and the nurse was just finishing her tirade about the homosexual plague and how Angel was taking up a bed that someone more worthy could be using."
"The skinny one, with the bad dye job?"
"She was a bitch."
Mark gave a short, bitter laugh. "You can say that again. Collins just took it, and then he stood there and watched while she cleaned Angel up as if nothing was wrong, all the while telling her that he'd do it himself if she'd just give him the washcloth. Afterwards, when he'd changed into those sickly pink scrubs everyone wore there, I swear I couldn't tell who looked worse. They were both so worn down."
As she listened, Maureen set her cup down on the table next to her and ran her fingers through Joanne's hair, her head pillowed on Maureen's lap as she slept.
"Right before I had to get back to work, Collins left for a few minutes and came back with a rose from that vendor who was always down on the corner. Angel smiled, and it was like nothing bad had happened to either of them that afternoon."
Maureen shrugged. "They loved each other."
Mark sighed. "It's not always enough."
Companionable silence stretched between them as they each found themselves lost in their thoughts and memories. Later, though Mark couldn't have said how long, Maureen's voice jolted him back to reality. "Did you figure it out?"
"Why Collins stayed."
"Oh. No, I don't think I ever did."
Maureen was nearly asleep when Mark finally spoke again. "Maybe he just had to want to be there with her."
She smiled sadly at the wistful note in his voice as he continued. "A week or so before Roger had to go back to the hospital, there was one day in particular that I thought would never end. He'd been having these awful cramps. The pain gave him cold sweats, the damp sheets irritated his skin, and sitting up made the cramps worse. His father had gone back to Schenectady for a few days to convince his mother to forget the drugs and the reason he was sick and come visit already."
"Bitch," Maureen muttered, and Mark found that he couldn't disagree.
"I was the only one there with him that day. I was changing his sheets for what had to be the third time that day while he waited in the bathroom for me to help him into the tub to get cleaned up. He never had enough energy to deal with a shower on his own on days like that. It's not that I minded helping, but it the whole situation was frustrating for me and awful for him. It hurt, watching him dying in pieces like that.
"I guess some of what I was feeling was showing on my face when I got there, because he stopped trying to undress himself and just looked at me. Looked at me, like he never had before. It was intense. That's the only word for it. There was more strength in his eyes than there'd been in weeks, and then he took my hands and thanked me. 'Thank you.' That was it. Everything was... ok, after that. It was a good week. Then he started coughing, and that was that." Pneumonia, just like Mimi, and Angel before her.
Maureen reached over and squeezed his hand in sympathy. He pulled away roughly, and it occured to her that Mark never would have shared this much if they hadn't all spent the night trying to numb the pain of losing yet another friend.
"His father did a lot for us these last few weeks, but he never helped with baths. He told me more than once that-" Mark summoned up a lecturing tone, "-that his son was a man and, as a man, he would never insult Roger's masculinity by touching him like that." Mark scoffed. "As if he hadn't changed his diaper and washed him up a thousand times when he was little. Or hell, maybe he didn't."
"But he knew that you...." She trailed off, unsure of what to say.
Mark shrugged helplessly. "What was I supposed to do? He wasn't strong enough to fend for himself any more. After the first week with his father around, I stopped trying to explain that we were both straight and just let him assume. It was better, somehow, to not argue about that."
Maureen regarded him with a pointedness that belied the amount of alcohol she'd consumed earlier in the evening. "You don't have to be fucking to love someone, you know."
"Yeah." His laugh, when it came, was ragged and melancholy. "No kidding." He swallowed the last of his drink, then raised his glass in a toast. "To Roger."
"To Roger," Maureen echoed softly.
Eventually, the vodka took hold, and Mark found himself back across town in their apartment, watching the patterns made by the sunlight as it filtered through dirty windows to land on Roger's face. But memory was fickle, and the man in his mind's eye was hale and hearty, with skin free of cancer and a body too fit to hide illness. In his sleep, he dreamed of what could have been.