It’s 1991, and Dan Calzolaio has just moved to Florida with his lover, Mark, having fled Chicago and Mark’s addictions to begin a new life on the Gulf Coast. Volunteering for the Tampa AIDS Alliance is just one part of that new beginning, and that’s how Dan meets his new buddy, Adam.
Adam Schmidt is not at all what Dan expected. The guy is an original—witty, wry, and sarcastic with a fondness for a smart black dress, Barbra Streisand, and a good mai tai. Adam doesn’t let his imminent death get him down, even through a downward spiral that sees him thrown in jail.
Each step of Adam’s journey teaches Dan new lessons about strength and resilience, but it’s Adam’s lover, Sullivan, to whom Dan feels an almost irresistible pull. Dan knows the attraction isn’t right, even after he dumps his cheating, drug-abusing boyfriend. But then Adam passes away, and it leaves Sullivan and Dan both alone to see if they can turn their love for Adam into something whole and real for each other.Excerpt
FROM Dan Shoemaker’s Gmail
Adele O’Dair to me show details 2:49 PM (1 hour ago)
Sorry for the delay in getting back to you on the CAREGIVER manuscript. Dan, I think this is a wonderful, innovative, and heartfelt piece of writing.
Memoirs, which were all the rage just a couple of years ago, are becoming a bit passé these days and, to be blunt, I really don’t think I can find a suitable market for it. As your agent, I feel it’s my responsibility to tell you when something works and when it doesn’t.
CAREGIVER was really touching (even a crusty old Brooklyn broad like me teared up at a few of the scenes), but you’re about art and I’m about business and I just don’t think, from a business standpoint, the time for this is now.
Of course, by walking away from this, I am giving you my tacit permission to shop it around yourself (just don’t go to another agent behind my back, okay? Otherwise, I’ll have to come out there and kill you).
Now, send me some more of that romance you were starting to write. That, I can sell!
“What the fuck?” Dan whispered to himself, staring at the passionless prose facing him on his monitor screen. He had spent the last year and a half pouring his heart, his mind, his soul, and sometimes even his sweat into the manuscript.
The story was solid. It made you laugh. It made you cry. It made you think. There was timeliness and social relevance to it. It resonated. It had “sand,” as his old college creative writing teacher would have said.
What did that bitch Adele know anyway? He contemplated just hitting reply and summarily firing her ass. He could probably do better on his own. After all, what had she done for him, other than sell a popular line of romance mystery novels that had landed him here, in a house on a bluff above Seattle’s Lake Union, with views of not only the water but the Cascade Mountains as well, when the sun deigned to show itself? Yeah, what had she done for him other than ensuring he was set for life, even if he never wrote another word? What had that bitch done for him other than help to spawn a legion of fans that eagerly awaited his next book… as long as it wasn’t Caregiver?
Not much. Dan rolled his eyes.
He got up from his glass-topped desk and peered from his second-floor office out at the perfect June day spread out before him. The sun shone brightly. A few cumulus clouds floated high up, just enough to break up the monotonous, crystal-clear blue expanse of sky. The Cascades, in the distance, looked slate-colored, still topped with white snow. On Lake Union, a seaplane landed and sailboats lazily cruised the calm waters. Just another day in paradise, here in the Pacific Northwest.
A day that had no deference for Dan’s mood, which was lousy.
Adele had been the first person he had allowed to read Caregiver. The book had been too personal, too close to his heart to let anyone else see it, including the able-bodied gentleman who shared hearth and home with him and who was, right now, downstairs, sunning himself on their deck. Now he certainly would have had an interest in the story, but the time wasn’t right for sharing it with him.
And she had called it a memoir! When had he said it was a memoir? He plopped back down at his desk, brought up his correspondence folder, and looked at the submission package he had sent her the week before. And there it was, right in the first line of his note: a novel. Not a memoir.
So what if the story was set in Tampa, where he had lived? And big deal if the main character shared the same name, the humble yet forthright Dan, with him! And who would care that Dan had actually been thirty years old at the start of 1991, a new transplant to Florida from Chicago, and had joined the Tampa AIDS Alliance Buddy Program as a way to meet people and make some friends? All those attributes were the same as his protagonist’s, but that didn’t mean that main character was Dan Shoemaker.
The book was a novel, a story, a romance, just as Adele wanted. Literary agents! They were business people. What did they know—really—about literature?
He clicked through his documents folder and found Caregiver. He brought it up on the screen and began to read.
It was just fiction. So why, with the very first line, was his vision blurred by tears and his swallowing blocked by a lump the size of an orange in his throat?
THE sun glinted off Dan Calzolaio’s windshield as he made his way west along Route 60 toward his two o’clock appointment with Adam Schmidt, the guy he’d been assigned through the Tampa AIDS Alliance Buddy program. Dan’s pulse raced and his adrenaline was high with a combination of nerves and anticipation.
The sun was merciless and Dan questioned why he had set up his first appointment at midday. It was July, for crying out loud. The Ford Escort rumbled along, its air conditioning long dead, making Dan sweat as he breathed in the warm air rushing in his rolled-down windows. On the radio, R.E.M. sang their new song, “Shiny Happy People” and the rhythm was sinuous and entrancing enough to make him—almost—forget the heat and the whine of his engine as it strained against the heat.
He sang along with R.E.M. to calm his nerves. For the three Saturdays before, he’d gone through the AIDS Buddy training program at the Tampa AIDS Alliance headquarters on North Dale Mabry highway, getting a crash course in the disease he was passionate and compassionate about and that he secretly feared (didn’t all gay men? After all, a positive diagnosis was akin to a death sentence). AIDS was a killer, there was no doubt about that, and the man he was about to meet, this Adam Schmidt, recently relocated down here from Chicago (just like Dan!), suffered from a checklist of symptoms they had discussed in Dan’s training. He had early stages of Kaposi’s Sarcoma and had weathered two bouts of pneumocystis carinii, the pneumonia that was all the rage with AIDS victims these days. And, as the thin little file Dan had on the seat beside him said, Adam was depressed.
Who wouldn’t be? Dan wondered. The guy, only twenty-six, was dying.
What must that be like? Dan pressed the gas pedal down farther and imagined himself getting his own AIDS diagnosis. What would he do? He knew: he’d come to just this stretch of highway, with its two lanes and long straightaways, rev the car up to 90, and then, when he saw a semi headed his way, he’d jerk the wheel to the left and—boom!—it would be all over. No pneumonia, no long hospital stays, no wasting away to a skeletal wraith, covered in lesions, as he had seen in pictures.
Dan shook his head. Thoughts like these would put him in the perfect mood to meet the depressed Mr. Schmidt. The two could have a good cry together and then Mr. Schmidt would call up the AIDS Alliance and ask to be assigned another buddy. He would say that he had enough on his plate without some clinging Gloomy Gus hanging around and making him miserable, thank you very much.
And Dan couldn’t blame him. He had learned in training to be upbeat and positive. They had told him to be a good listener and try to determine what his buddy needed—whether it was a shoulder to cry on, someone to take him on an outing to the beach, a cook, a confidant, a personal shopper. The job description for AIDS buddy was short and simple—just be there for your buddy and do whatever you can to help him (or her) out.
But above all, Tampa AIDS Alliance buddies were expected to be cheerful.
“Cheerful, right,” Dan whispered, wiping sweat away from his forehead with his hand and then rubbing his palm on the thigh of his denim cut-offs. Was he dressed too provocatively? He had worn only a gray tank and the shorts, which even he had to admit were cut a bit too high. Jesus, what was he trying to do here, anyway?
He had not donned the clothes to look seductive or trashy, but to beat the heat, which today hovered around 95, with the humidity probably in the same range. Dan’s dark brown hair, wavy, curled at the nape of his neck and clung to his forehead, pasted there by sweat.
Still, he was surprised Mark had let him out of the house showing this much skin. His man had a jealous streak a mile wide.
Dan’s thoughts came to a rude halt when he saw the turnoff for the Brandon subdivision where Adam Schmidt lived. His Escort also came nearly to a screeching stop as he slowed too fast to try and make the right-hand turn. Tires squealing and throwing up a cloud of dust, Dan took the turn too quickly and too wide, heart pounding and grateful there were no other cars in the intersection. He barked out a short laugh that had nothing to do with humor and everything to do with nerves bordering on hysteria. Now don’t piss yourself, boy!
In no time, he pulled up in front of the small, pink stucco home on Hibiscus Street and put the Escort in park. He sat in the car for a moment, slowing his breathing, as he listened to the engine tick down and then grow silent.
Other than its bright pink color and its sago palm in the front yard, the house looked pretty much like every other home on the block. Pure Florida west coast suburban—single story, screened-in backyard that may or may not contain a pool, a broad front window with either blinds shut tight against the sun or jalousies pulled the same way. The neighborhood was silent and the hum of air conditioning units gave testimony to the fact that everyone was hiding out inside, trying to stay cool in refrigerated air. Either that or they were hidden away in their privacy-fence-enclosed backyards, doing the same heat-beating routine in a pool filled with sparkling, turquoise water.
Dan had come to know Florida neighborhoods pretty well in his three months as a resident of the state.
And this neighborhood, shame on him, was not one where he would have placed an AIDS victim. Dan shrugged, mentally berating himself for his prejudice, but this ’hood simply seemed too Florida Donna Reed for a young gay man dying of AIDS. When he first started the program, he would have imagined his buddy living in a squalid apartment on Armenia, near 2606, the leather bar he had heard about up there.
Thoughts like these were just what he had been cautioned about in his training. People with AIDS, or PWAs, could be any size, shape, or color; they could come from any walk of life. They could be gay (and in all probability, were), but they could also be straight, as Michelle, one of the women he went through training with, had discovered. Her buddy was a single mother of four who had dabbled with IV drugs. Dan wondered how that was going.
“Enough speculation, enough random thinking,” Dan whispered to himself. You’re just delaying the inevitable. You wanted to do this. Now get out of the car and march on up to the front door. Adam is waiting for you, and you’re ten minutes late already. He’s probably looking out the window at you right now, from between slatted blinds, wondering what kind of nutcase he’s let into his life. Enough! Go!
And so Dan hopped from his vehicle.
He started up the walk, not knowing what to expect, but imagining someone very weak, emaciated, whose skin was marred by KS lesions. No matter how bad he looks, Dan, you will be cheerful and friendly. You will not let the effect his appearance has on you internally show externally. Got that?
Dan rang the doorbell.
When the door swung open, Dan’s grin disappeared and his mouth dropped open, yet nothing came out. He cocked his head. His eyebrows furrowed.
“Well, don’t just stand there,” a seductive, Bette Davis voice intoned. “Get in here. I am not about to pay to air condition the great outdoors, especially not when the great outdoors happen to be located on the Gulf Coast.”
Dan still didn’t know what to say as he followed the feminine figure inside the little stucco house.
Mentally scratching his head and desperately wanting to act as though he was in on the joke, Dan stood near the doorway and took in what he supposed to be Adam Schmidt, since it didn’t appear anyone else was home.
Adam wore the classic little black dress, a string of pearls, black leather kitten heels and sheer black nylons. His nails were painted a shocking red, a shade the gayest side of Dan was absolutely positive would have been called “Jungle Red.” Adam’s wispy blond hair had obviously been blown dry and sprayed into place. His angular features had been enhanced with a good concealer, a little blush, mascara, pale green eye shadow, and slash of red across his thin lips that perfectly matched his nails.
Adam put a hand on one hip and gave Dan the once-over. “Since you appear to be speechless, I’m going to assume you’re Dan something-or-other, something Italian. You’re going to be my new best friend, my buddy, right? But not my fuck buddy—God forbid!” Adam may have had AIDS, but it had no effect on his ability to weight his words with sarcasm.
Dan smiled and forced himself to move into the room. “Sorry. I, um, the cat had my tongue.” He stuck out a hand, feeling like an idiot. “Yes, I’m Dan Calzolaio. And I’m looking forward to getting to know you better, Adam.” Had a single human being ever sounded more nerdish, more square? Dan felt his face going hot, despite the wintry chill from the air conditioning. He regretted once more his nearly naked ensemble. He looked down at the goose bumps rising up on his forearms.
“Isn’t that sweet?” Adam turned toward the living room, which continued the surreal theme that had begun as soon as Adam opened the door. It was done all in shades of pink and vibrant green, with overstuffed rattan furniture that appeared as though it had been swiped from the set of The Golden Girls. “Come on and have a seat, Dan. I made us a batch of Mai Tais. You like Mai Tais, hon?”
“Oh yes. Love ’em.” Dan tried to recall when he had actually had one of the tropical drinks and drew a blank. He hurried to grab a seat on the couch, hugging himself to keep warm.
Adam observed him with an impish grin. “Cold? I’ll be right back.” Dan expected Adam to go into the kitchen to get their cocktails (Mai Tais at noon?), but Adam headed down a hallway. Dan could hear drawers being opened and shut.
Adam returned and flung a pair of sweatpants and a long-sleeved T-shirt at Dan. “Put some clothes on, sugar. As fine as all that tan flesh is to look at, it pains me to see you so chilly. Why, I can even see you’ve got your headlights on!” Adam giggled and Dan looked down at his chest, where Adam’s gaze was directed. His nipples poked through the thin cotton fabric of his tank like two pencil erasers. He hurried to put the sweats and T-shirt on over his clothes. “Whose are these?” he wondered.
“My boyfriend’s. You and he are about the same size.”
Adam disappeared into the kitchen and returned with a tray upon which were two tall glasses, each garnished with a Maraschino cherry, pineapple wedge, and a lime peel. Adam paused before Dan. “I know. I know. It’s kind of early for cocktails, but when time is short, you reprioritize. And I think the time is always right for a Mai Tai. Don’t you?”
Dan was surprised at Adam’s casual mention of time being short, but snagged a drink from the tray and sipped. “This is delicious.”
Adam set the tray down on the coffee table, picked up his own cocktail, and sat in the chair opposite Dan. “Oh, I make a mean Mai Tai, along with a whole bar full of other drinks. It’s one of my many charms.” Adam sipped, his blue-eyed gaze meeting Dan’s over the top of his glass. “So what prompted you to do the Sister of Mercy thing and keep me company in my death throes?”
Dan nearly choked. But Adam smiled serenely at him, and there was something, at that moment, Dan noticed about the man across from him. In spite of the drag, the bravado, the sense of poise, Dan could see that Adam was scared. Instinctively, he picked up on the fact that all of Adam’s mannerisms and his outrageousness was a carefully orchestrated screen to hide his terror.
No, Dan wasn’t psychic. He simply knew people… and maybe that’s what drew him to do the “Sister of Mercy” thing. “Ah, good question,” Dan replied, relaxing a bit, feeling the alcohol (he wasn’t much of a drinker) and warmth from his new ensemble. He leaned back into the cushions and spread his legs out. “I thought it would be a good way to meet dying folks.”
Adam’s carefully tweezed eyebrows went up.
“You know, get in their good graces, so I could get in the will. Easy money, my new friend, easy money.”
Silence hung in the room for a moment and Dan feared he’d gone too far. Then Adam guffawed—no, he exploded with laughter. He pointed at Dan. “I suspect you and I are going to get along just fine.”
The two men began to talk and the afternoon light rose and fell as they shared who they were with each other. They each described in-common memories of Chicago, wondering if they knew the same people. They had both hung out at Sidetracks and Roscoe’s (Adam also admitted he had been a regular at the Unicorn, the Halsted Street bathhouse, and Dan held back his own such admission, although he could have easily described the layout of both the first and second floor). During the course of their conversation, Adam forced three more Mai Tais on Dan, made him laugh more than once, and Adam finally let down his guard enough to tell Dan about contracting AIDS and what it had meant to him. “I remember when I first got a clue. There was a little bruisy-looking thing on my ankle, so tiny.” He reached down and touched his ankle. “I thought it was a blood blister. I had gone hiking the weekend before at Starved Rock. Turns out it was my first KS spot.” Adam’s gaze had gone faraway as he remembered, and Dan wondered if he was sad. But Adam laughed. “Hey, it really came as no surprise.” He shook his head. “Me and my tomcat ways. As my Mama used to tell us, ‘Those who stick their hands in the fire must expect to get burned’.”
At no time, not even for a moment, did Adam appear sorry for himself or to want sympathy. In fact, Dan thought he could very likely end up wearing a Mai Tai if he deigned to offer a bit of compassion. So he asked a stupid question. “Do you know who infected you?” He regretted it as soon as the query emerged from his mouth, thinking he was insensitive and rude. What did it matter, anyway?
“Who knows?” Adam asked the air. “As I may have mentioned, I was a bit of a slut back in the day. You might say I was a rooster who crowed, ‘Any cock’ll do.’ And I was also a girl who thought a drink or two would do nobody any harm. So I never asked God, why me? It’s more like I ask Him, what the Hell took you so long?” Adam laughed, but there was something in his eyes that was not laughing.
Dan shook his head.
Adam continued, “I mean, honey, up in Chicago, I’d had more dicks than a convention of Richards!” Adam laughed and groped in an end table drawer, bringing out a pack of Marlboro Ultra-Lights. “Thank God, I’m able to smoke again. The damn pneumonia made me quit for two weeks.” He lit up. “You want one?” He held the package out to Dan, who leaned back and away from it.
“No thanks. I don’t smoke.”
Adam flung the pack on the coffee table. “I should have figured.”
Dan debated whether he should say anything, but he thought Adam would have wondered why he didn’t ask, so he did. “So, the smoking. Isn’t that especially bad for you? I mean, not to sound stupid and all, but with getting pneumonia and stuff, I’d kind of think you’d want to quit.” Dan toyed with a loose thread on the arm of the T-shirt, staring down at the floor. He looked up at Adam, whose cigarette dangled from his lips.
Adam drew on the cigarette, then directed an elegant stream of blue-gray smoke into the air above their heads. “Sweetie. You’ve had training. You watch the news.” He cocked his head. “Didn’t you pick up on the fact that AIDS kills?” Adam leaned forward and put his hand on Dan’s knee.
Dan didn’t say anything. He didn’t know what to say.
“I like to smoke.” Adam shrugged and took another drag. “So sue me. I’m pretty damn sure I’m not gonna die from smoking, so why on earth would I deny myself, in my final days, this one little pleasure?”
“Why indeed?” Dan smiled and nodded. He got it.
“SO I’LL pick you up this Saturday. We’ll go to the beach.” Dan stood on somewhat unsteady legs near Adam’s front door. He prayed he’d have the presence of mind to make the drive home safely, back to Mark and their little apartment near the airport.
“Sounds good, sugar. I’ll pack a thermos of Mai Tais for us. You think your beloved will want to come with us?”
Dan somehow knew his unemployed, heavy-drinking, and charming “beloved” would have nothing planned. And a day at the beach, with cocktails, would be pretty close to his idea of heaven. “I have a good feeling that Mark would love to join us. And I know he’ll want to meet you.”
Adam thought for a moment and said, “Don’t worry. I’ll dress like a guy. I just did this to see how you’d react. A little test. Believe me, honey, flip-flops, T-shirts, and shorts are a hell of a lot more comfortable than panty hose and heels.”
The two men laughed, then stopped as they heard a car pulling up in the driveway.
Adam’s eyebrows went up. “That must be Sullivan.” He looked pointedly at Dan. “The boyfriend whose clothes you’re wearing.”
Dan glanced quickly through the frosted glass of the front door and saw a tall silhouette coming up the front walk. “Should I take these off?” he whispered, without quite knowing why he was whispering. After all, the man was still outside.
Adam waved the idea away. “Just bring them back on Saturday. I’m sure he’s not gonna mind.”
A thought popped up in Dan’s mind; he wondered if Sullivan also had AIDS and, if he didn’t, how did that work for the couple? He would have to ask Adam about it, but not right now.
Sullivan came in, and for the second time that day Dan’s heart hiccupped when a door opened. Adam’s boyfriend stood, framed by the doorway and the late afternoon light, which was now almost as dark as twilight. The typical Florida afternoon thunderstorm had rolled in while Dan and Adam had talked. The sky behind Sullivan’s head was purple/gray and smudged with dark, almost black clouds gathering near the horizon. Thunder rumbled.
The moment would freeze in Dan’s memory for a long time. The two men’s eyes met: Dan’s brown and Sullivan’s a pale gray that had an almost pearlescent quality and nearly matched the sky outside. The longest lashes Dan had never seen on a man framed those same eyes. Sullivan had smooth, creamy skin that accentuated the black stubble on the angular planes of his jaws and the rosy color above the stubble. He stood somewhere around six-foot-three or so, Dan guessed. His hair was black, curly, and long in the back. Lanky in a Chicago Bulls T-shirt with the sleeves cut off and a pair of black athletic shorts, his presence was imposing. His big feet were encased in a pair of black Converse high-tops.
Adam shattered the moment with a vicious poke to Dan’s ribs, making Dan jump. “He’s mine, sugar.”
Dan laughed and the spell broke. He felt heat rise up in his face and extended his hand. “Dan Calzolaio.” Dan felt like his grin, embarrassed, probably came out looking something very close to the smile of a chimp.
Sullivan’s grip was firm and he squeezed hard enough to almost hurt Dan. “Sullivan O’Connor.” He nodded to Adam. “I’m his, as he said.”
“Got it.” Dan grinned. “Well, I was just on my way out.”
Dan rushed away from the house just as the first, heavy raindrops began to fall. He felt shaken to the core, for many reasons.Visit: http://www.rickrreed.com Follow: http://rickrreedreality.blogspot.com/
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