Eric A. Gordon is the author of the first biography of composer Marc Blitzstein, and co-author of the autobiography of composer Earl Robinson. He earned his undergraduate degree in Latin American Studies at Yale University, and a doctorate in history from Tulane University. For fifteen years, he served as Director of The Workmen’s Circle/Arbeter Ring Southern California District. He is Chair of the Southern California Chapter of the National Writers Union (UAW/AFL-CIO). His most recent book is a translation from Portuguese, Waving to the Train and Other Stories, by Hadasa Cytrynowicz.
Memoir of a Mattress
Rick and I brought our new queen-sized mattress in a van from New York when we moved to Los Angeles in 1990. We set it down, beatnik-style, on the carpeted floor of our oceanfront apartment on Ozone Avenue in Venice.
The persistent cough began in late 1991. By early 1992, Rick had a diagnosis of pneumocystis pneumonia, familiar to our generation as one of the first indices. I slept alone on our mattress the week he spent at Cedars-Sinai getting through that fateful transition from HIV+ to AIDS.
At the same time, the publishers of my first book remaindered it. My agent advised me to buy up every available copy – they’d come in handy. Indeed they did: Rick had trouble getting up from our mattress, so we built a platform of twenty-five identical book cartons, and placed the mattress neatly on top. For a year, Rick ricocheted between the mattress on Ozone and those in the AIDS ward.
In January 1993, Rick and I had sex for the last time. Safe, of course. On that mattress. Even at his weight of a ghastly 135 pounds, he could still give me the kisses I lived for and, surprising us both, he achieved a satisfying orgasm.
We lay in bed together. I asked him, “After you’re gone, will you watch over me?” He said, “You know, I don’t really believe in that.” I answered, “I know, I don’t either.” And we both melted into tears, holding each other as we had never before, the one conversation I consider our truest, most intimate farewell. We stood at the precipice of the Great Unknown, maybe more so for me than for him, for he had a clearer view of the future than I did. Every time I see an opera like La Traviata, or the musical March of the Falsettos, with their drawn-out deathbed scenes, I remember Rick’s suffering as an inextricable part of my autobiography.
Toward the end, Rick entered that final phase of dementia that precluded logical conversation: In early February he asked me, “Are you one of the people who work here?” He hadn’t a clue what month it was. Apropos of nothing but his certainty of imminent passage, he said, “I think I’ll die on the 14th.”
“Oh, Rick,” I said, “please don’t. It’s Valentine’s Day and you’ll spoil it for the rest of my life.” On the 21st he lay in his final coma. The Ativan he had taken a couple of days earlier was wearing off and he began convulsing uncontrollably. Hospice recommended crushed morphine around his gums, which I administered. It calmed him down, and he died an hour later, at the age of thirty-seven. On our nine-inch mattress from New York.
I attended ten weeks of a bereavement group that spring. We talked about papers, notices, estates, clothes, bequests, acknowledgments, feelings. No one mentioned mattresses.
My astrologer friend Debbi advised disposing of the mattress as a necessary act if I wanted to move on and find a new partner. I remembered a Puerto Rican friend who told me how mortified her family had been when an aunt of hers on the isla actually took a neighbor to court, accusing her of casting a fufú – a magic spell – with a bundle of herbs hurled against her door. I thought how ridiculous it would be for me all of a sudden to embrace such mystical gibberish, the very stuff of voodoo and superstition. What was wrong with my comfortable mattress, only three years old, that in any case held many precious memories? Why discard it and spend hundreds of dollars on a new one? My rational, practical sensibility won that argument hands down.
Years passed. I slept soundly on my nice, firm, familiar mattress. I welcomed new lovers into my life, and into my bed, but no one else appeared who would have watched over me forever if he possibly could. When I bought my house in 1999, the mattress came with me. Now I purchased a respectable bed frame and box spring for it. Every time I closed the door behind a lover, Debbi’s advice came back to haunt me. Could the mattress have put a curse on this new relationship before I even got around to mentioning that my former lover had died on that mattress? No, I said to myself, I’m in my fifties now, way beyond the modern gay man’s acceptable age range. And suddenly I was in my sixties, and getting more set in my ways. And living with HIV myself.
I had known the singer-songwriter Blackberri decades ago. I reunited with him in San Francisco in June 2012. I hadn’t known that he’d been to Cuba to train as a santero, a priest of santería. As the afternoon progressed, filled with stories of his practice, I felt the need to share my mattress problem with him. He said, “Give it to Goodwill!”
On July 6, 2012, twenty years since Rick’s last birthday, I went and purchased a new combination coil-foam mattress, fourteen inches high, and the accompanying box spring, new sheets and pillowcases, mattress protector, even an anti-bedbug casing. I spent that last week on our mattress, awaiting delivery of the new one on Saturday.
Blackberri reminded me to smudge the new mattress with sage. I mumbled a few promising words of fufú, to summon the watchful spirits.