Exterior Decoration

Art by Sean Kane

Standing at the living-room window, Ray looked up from his morning coffee and saw that the garage door of the house across the street, which just yesterday had been a shade of beige, was now painted a sumptuous red. Ray froze mid-sip. He suspected that Cliff, still asleep in their bed, had snuck out and done it in the middle of the night.

Ray had hidden the paint, the brushes and the roller in various drawers and shelves around their house, but when inspiration struck, no matter how tired or stunned by medication, Clifford could sniff out latex paint with the tenacity of a police dog. Since they’d moved into the house, Cliff had painted their living room a color called Rainy Slate, and then, a few dissatisfied days later, a color called Old Parchment, and finally a pale blue called Fog, which made the walls seem moist and insubstantial. At first, Ray found it hard not to indulge Cliff in his aesthetic experiments; Cliff was a decorator after all, or had been before he went on disability, a man who loved to gaze at paint samples, their very names — Almond, Sand Castle, Jade Escape — transporting him like poetry. Eventually, however, Cliff’s aesthetics grew aggressive, seeping beyond the confines of their house; the more Cliff resigned himself to the uncertainty of his health, the more intolerant he became when faced with the world’s ugliness and disarray. "Chaos is loosed upon the world!" he’d quote as they drove through the city. Or, more prosaically, he’d grouse about the graffiti on a bus bench, the bleak uniformity of a strip mall, or a bronze lump that passed for public sculpture. It might have been a side effect of the steroids, or the antidepressants, or the protease inhibitors, or any number of experimental drugs that were mingling in Clifford’s bloodstream, but in recent months he seemed to believe that his acts of decoration would eventually change the world.

The first of these occurred at Christmas, when the poinsettias bunched on the Donahues’ front steps had been mysteriously moved to a spot beneath their bay window and arranged in a perfect semicircle. A few weeks later, Peter and Mehee Hyun discovered that their old porch light had been replaced by a chrome fixture neither of them recalled installing. And only last month, while Ray was at work, Cliff had decided to repaint a cinderblock retaining wall two doors down the street. After Mr. Cabrillo, the wallrightful owner, called to complain, Cliff justified the act by telling Ray that burnt sienna went better with ivy than the original yellow, which he called "acidic and hideous," as if the color were a personal affront.

"But it’s not our wall," Ray had tried to explain.

"It faces our property."

"So does Bingo when he lays on the Cabrillo’s front steps, but you wouldn’t go over and dye his fur."

"I might," said Cliff, sprawled on the velveteen divan he’d bought at an estate sale. "He’s getting a little gray around the muzzle."

"Clifford, you can’t go around redecorating the world because this or that offends your taste."

"You say ‘taste’ as if it’s superficial. But taste is a deep and instinctive drive for order, an essential part of who we are. And my taste, let’s face it, is highly refined."

"Call it whatever you want. The point is, Mr. Cabrillo is pissed. I don’t know about you, but I’d like to live here for a while before we get run out of the neighborhood on a rail." Thanks to Ray’s promotion at the phone company, they had bought this house in the Silver Lake hills after spending four years in a cramped one-bedroom apartment. Their former downstairs neighbor, a portly man with darting eyes, woke them up at least once a week by knocking on their door and shouting, "I know you’re doing aerobics. I know you’re doing aerobics. You woke me up. I need to dream." Ray thought it was clear from the bleary state in which he opened the door that he was the one who’d been awakened, but Benton would pant and babble to himself, finally trying to barge into their apartment, though "barge" was too strong a word to describe the timidity of his assault. Getting rid of Benton had been as easy as nudging a helium balloon back into the hallway and gently shutting the door behind it. In any case, Benton’s early-morning visits highlighted their need to move into a larger, quieter place, especially after Cliff’s T cells had dropped below 200 and the need for rest loomed in their future.

"Okay," Cliff had said at last. "You win. I’ll apologize to Mr. Cabrillo about the wall."

 

"And . . .?"

"Um, to Bingo, too?"

"You’ve got to repaint it."

Cliff sat up, folded his arms. "Not that awful yellow again. A man’s got limits."

"Clifford, you will paint the wall whatever color Mr. Cabrillo wants it painted. It is not your decision. One does not get up in the middle of the night and decide to remodel a neighbor’s property."

"You’re enunciating," said Cliff. "I hate it when you enunciate."

"I’m enunciating because you do not seem to understand what has happened here. Decorating has ramifications!"

"That’s what I’ve been trying to tell you all along! Taste affects everything!"

And now, as if the incident with the retaining wall hadn’t been troublesome enough, Cliff had tried his hand at an even bigger canvas: the Heartleys’ garage door. Ray gulped the tepid dregs of his coffee and recalled that Mr. and Mrs. Heartley opened the door by pushing a button inside the house, so it was possible that they might get into their respective cars that morning and drive off to work without seeing it close behind them, conspicuous and crimson. It was 7 a.m., and though Cliff needed his rest, especially after such an industrious night, Ray decided to wake him and insist that he do whatever he could to restore the garage door, or at least compose a note of apology before the Heartleys returned from work.

No sooner had Ray entered the bedroom than Cliff stirred. He’d been so unpredictable these days, so likely a candidate for scolding, that excuses seemed to bubble from his sleep. "It was too white," he mumbled, opening his eyes. His dry mouth crackled, lips as pale as Old Parchment. "It was bright as a damn klieg light. I could practically see the thing with my eyes closed. You want me to get a good night’s sleep, don’t you?" Ray gazed down at Cliff, a groggy man tangled in blankets, and could barely muster the wherewithal for a confrontation. He sat at the edge of the bed and smoothed Cliff’s hair, flecked by telltale drops of red paint. Cliff propped his head in Ray’s lap. His bare arm was veiny and lean, yet solid from steroids. "Don’t you think it gives their house more character?" asked Cliff. "It’s Chinese red, a royal color."

"Oh, Cliff."

"What?"

Ray sighed. "It doesn’t make any difference what I think. Or what you think. The Heartleys get to have it whatever color they want. This hit-and-run remodeling can’t go on. It’s . . . unneighborly." Ray stopped himself from saying "insane," a word that might set Cliff off, cause him to worry that he was experiencing the early stages of AIDS dementia, something he feared even more than physical pain. It had happened before — once, after misplacing his car keys, Cliff began to question his sanity, convinced that everything he did and said seemed strange, his small blunders and lapses of memory destined to get worse and worse until he was finally mired in confusion, a young man abandoned by his once refined senses. Ray reassured him that misplacing one’s car keys fell within the range of acceptable mistakes, and that any perfectly rational person, taking so many medications, might be subject to bouts of odd behavior. But ever since Clifford’s tasteful reign of terror, Ray was beginning to wonder himself. Still, his lover’s eloquence and sudden, unguarded enthusiasms made it hard for Ray to believe, at least for very long, that someone so vital could be losing his mind.

"I get so wired late at night," said Cliff. "Everything starts fluttering. You should hear what goes on in my head, little complaints that won’t let go. Colors are off, proportions all wrong. After a certain hour, there’s no peace until I get up and do something."

"Why don’t you watch TV?"

"There’s nothing on except infomercials, and two minutes into them I start thinking that I can’t live without a fruit dehydrator or a Miracle Mop. It’s dangerous. I have to hide my credit cards, but of course, then I know where they’re hidden."

"You could wake me. We could talk."

"Do you have any idea how you look when you’re asleep? You positively radiate the benefits of oblivion. I need you asleep for inspiration."

"You used to love to draw. Why don’t you take up drawing?"

Cliff laughed, nuzzled Ray’s leg. "I’ve taken up painting. It’s more of a challenge."

"Right," said Ray. "For me."

The doorbell rang, and they looked at each other with apprehension. "Great," groaned Cliff. "Everything seems so different in the daylight. If the sun stayed out all night I’d be a much more responsible person." He kept his head firmly planted in Ray’s lap, as if the weight of his cranium might keep Ray from rising to his feet.

 

Ray slipped free and took a deep breath. He had no idea how he was going to explain the situation to the Heartleys, and he hoped some halfway reasonable excuse might strike him before he reached the door. Ray would have to treat Vince Heartley with kid gloves, and not just because of the garage door. Shortly after Ray and Cliff had moved into the house, the Whittier earthquake shook the city, and the Heartleys had called an impromptu neighborhood meeting of what Vince had dubbed the Regional Alert Team. "RAT," said Cliff, "a fine acronym in a time of crisis." Ray insisted Cliff come along because he wanted the neighbors to get used to the fact that the two of them were a couple. And so Cliff squeezed into his best turtleneck and went.

Seated in the Heartleys’ living room, Ray listened with what he hoped was ingratiating interest while Vince, barrel-chested and gravel-voiced, dragged out his collection of fire extinguishers, water-purification tablets and state-of-the-art flashlights, demonstrating them for the Cabrillos and the Hyuns and the Donahues, all of whom complimented Vince on his expertise. Cliff, on the other hand, peered around the room and took in every nuance of décor, reciting Yeats’ line about chaos whenever an aftershock rattled the house. The Cabrillos had brought Bingo, who growled and bared his teeth at every tremor. "Dogs can sense a quake right before it happens," said Hector Cabrillo, scratching the agitated rottweiler behind the ears. This came as unnerving news to Mehee and Peter Hyun, huddled together in the middle of the couch and watching the dog for signs of doom. "Our area may not have sustained much damage today," Vince announced to the traumatized neighbors, "but tomorrow could be a different story. Preparedness is the best safeguard against disaster. I know this for a fact, people. I’ve been in the National Guard, so me and adversity are old friends." Vince began to itemize the contents of his first-aid kit, and, to Ray’s mortification, Cliff interrupted by asking, "Are these the original window treatments? Or were they here when you bought the house?" Vince ignored Cliff and forged ahead with — Ray could almost see him think it — the more manly and important topic at hand. Delores, however, who had decorated the house herself, was charmed by Cliff’s inquiry. She and Cliff whispered in a corner while Vince continued talking, and all his angry sidelong glances couldn’t dampen their enthusiasm. Soon, the Cabrillos and the Hyuns and the Donahues lost interest in what Ray thought was Vince’s unnecessarily gory lecture on triage; instead, they were eavesdropping on a whispered conversation about horizontal versus vertical blinds. "The thing with verticals," blurted Arthur Donahue, "is that you don’t have to dust them." His observation met with nods of agreement and a pat on the back from his languid wife, Sherry, whose long pink fingernails betrayed her distaste for housework. Meanwhile, too proud to beg for his guest’s attention, Vince unfurled streamers of surgical gauze and, with a somewhat desperate theatricality, wrapped himself in a glinting Mylar blanket.

Later that night, as they undressed for bed, Ray accused Cliff of disrupting the first (and only, as it turned out) meeting of RAT. "Couldn’t you have at least pretended to listen to Vince? Don’t you think there’s a time to put interior decoration on a back burner?"

"What better time to discuss the ideal environment," said Cliff, "than when the earth is heaving herself to pieces? Besides, I think about death often enough as it is. ‘I’ve been to the phlebotomist’s,’" Cliff boomed in Vince’s gravelly voice, "‘so me and adversity are old friends.’" Cliff peeled off his turtleneck like an old, constricting skin. "Really, Ray, the neighbors were far more interested in miniblinds than they were in knowing how to stanch the blood flow from their carotid arteries. Delores Heartley wants to be my best friend, for god’s sake, and Arthur was overjoyed to find another male with whom he can discuss the art of dusting without feeling that he’s compromised his masculinity. If you want to be upset about something, I suggest you worry about how Sherry Donahue is going to dig herself out from under the rubble with those fingernails of hers. Besides," said Cliff, poking Ray’s chest, "you’re just jealous I was such a huge hit."

Ray grabbed Cliff’s hand and pulled him close. He could feel Cliff’s ribs, the force of Cliff’s breath against his neck. What did an argument about social conduct mean in the scheme of things? So many of their arguments came to seem ludicrous in the face of AIDS, which tended to give Ray the long view — especially tonight, given the shifting tectonic plates, the erosion of the coastline. Five years before, they’d had to negotiate safer sex and get used to being a sero-different couple. Now, without forethought or talk, their combined body heat did what only skin can do: burned away the differences between them. And so they had kissed, quickly stripping as tremors shook the house.

 

The doorbell rang at ever more impatient intervals, and Ray picked up his pace; he could picture Vince standing on the front steps, large and florid with pent-up resentment. Ray forced a benign smile and opened the door, wondering if he had enough cash on hand to pay for the damages.

The man and woman on the landing wore blue uniforms, silver badges glinting in the sun. They stood side by side, their posture perfect, like figures atop a police-department wedding cake. "Good morning, sir," said the female officer. She adjusted her hat, and a strand of auburn hair fell across her forehead. "Mind if we ask you a few questions?"

"Not at all," said Ray. He peered into the street, wondering, with a flush of embarrassment, if everyone in the neighborhood would notice the squad car parked in front of their house, police code crackling from its radio. "Would you care to come in?"

The officers squared their shoulders and touched their guns, as if Ray had invited them for hors d’oeuvres and an ambush. They warily entered the living room, clearly trained to assess any environment at a glance — a talent not dissimilar to Cliff’s. "The color’s called Fog," Ray offered. "My partner picked it out." The officers looked at each other. Ray gestured toward the velveteen divan and asked if they’d care to sit down. "We’ll stand," said the man.

"Whatever you’d like. Can I get you something to drink?" Ray heard the obsequious tone that crept into his voice whenever he dealt with authority figures or people in uniform. At work, he was all grinning compliance when it came to his superiors. At home, he treated the mail carrier like a visiting diplomat, offering her iced tea and moist towelettes when the weather turned hot. Ray’s five siblings had shoplifted, cruised Hollywood Boulevard by the raucous carload, and routinely set fires in the dumpster behind their apartment complex, while Ray was what his mother called a model citizen. She’d never grasped the fact that her son was homosexual, and so, when she pleaded with her other children to be more like him, they looked at her with pity and turned up their music. Despite the torment visited upon him by his siblings — Brownnoser! Teacher’s pet! — Ray had always found that being a do-gooder had certain advantages, the most obvious being the way it kept him in people’s good graces and allowed him to live in relative peace. Who in his right mind wanted trouble?

"Is that Vince?" Cliff chimed from the bedroom.

"No," said Ray. "It’s someone else."

"I’m Officer Flores," said the woman. "And this is my partner, Officer Novakovich."

"How do you do," said Ray. He suddenly remembered that he’d thanked the highway patrolman who’d given him his last traffic ticket. Thanked him! Any time, the cop had said, revving his cycle and speeding off.

"Do you happen to know anything about the garage door across the street, Mr. . . .?"

"Praeger. The Heartleys’ garage door?"

"That’s correct," said Novakovich.

"It’s red," said Ray, stalling for time. How could he implicate Cliff without getting him arrested?

Clifford’s voice wafted from afar, faint yet emphatic. "It’s Chinese red."

"Your partner?" asked Flores. "Mind if we speak with him, too?"

"Sure. Let me get him. Will you excuse me a minute?"

"A minute," she said. "We need to fill out a preliminary investigation report, and we don’t want to keep the victim waiting."

"The victim?"

"Mr. Heartley."

"Oh," said Ray. "Of course."

In the bedroom, Cliff was hopping on one foot and tugging his jeans on with such haste, Ray worried he might fall over. The blinds were still closed, and in the dim light, Clifford’s eyes looked overly bright. "I can’t believe it," he said. "This is simply unbelievable."

"What did you expect?" Ray grumbled, quickly trying to make the bed. Keeping things neat helped him think, and he needed a plan.

"I expected he’d be out of our lives for good."

"You . . . huh?" Ray stopped smoothing the sheet.

"Can he hear us doing aerobics from across town? I suppose his hearing is better than Bingo’s."

Ray’s heart began to race. "What are you talking about?" ã

"Benton. I’m talking about Benton. Isn’t he at the door?" Cliff’s battle with his jeans suddenly stopped. He stood in the dark, hair matted, jaw slack, his unbuckled belt hanging from the loops. It was as if all the hinges that held him together had suddenly swung loose. Ray yanked open the vertical blinds, half hoping he would turn from the window and see Cliff restored, not simply to the man he’d been, but to the man he’d been before they’d met, before his body succumbed to a virus, moment by moment, cell by cell. Cliff stood in a blaze of morning light. He blinked and breathed, wearing one of the crisp white shirts he used to wear when visiting a client, a shirt, Ray noticed, that now seemed much too big and officious.

 

"Sir," came a voice from the living room. "Mr. Praeger?"

"How will we ever get rid of him? Will we have to move again, Ray? Is there enough paint for our new rooms?" Cliff’s voice trembled though his eyes were dry.

Ray wanted to whisper something comforting, but he heard himself say, "Stop it. You’re scaring me." He lunged toward Cliff, hugging him so hard it startled them both.

"Mr. Praeger, is everything okay?"

"No," shouted Ray. "Everything is not okay. Give us a minute, for Christ’s sake."

Outside, static erupted from the police radio, abrasive as sandpaper. Over Cliff’s shoulder, through the open blinds, Ray saw Vince and Delores peering into the street from a window above the garage. The Donahues and the Hyuns and the Cabrillos had gathered around the police car. They talked and nodded, thoroughly delighted, Ray was sure, that an otherwise boring day had been disrupted. Above the heads of his neighbors, as far as Ray could see, houses of every size and color studded the hills — temporary shelter, according to Vince, till the big one hits.

"Mr. Praeger," said Officer Novakovich, "your minute is up. We’d like both of you to step out here ASAP. This is not some little Halloween prank we’re dealing with. If we find that either you or your . . . friend are in any way responsible, and if the damages exceed five grand, we’re looking at a felony."

"Will you go deal with him?" pleaded Cliff. "I can’t handle Benton, not this morning. You always tell me how easy it is to push him back into the hallway and shut the door like nothing happened. You say he’s light as a helium balloon. But that’s the thing about being crazy, Ray; it makes you lighter, not heavier. Sooner or later your feet leave the ground. And there’s so much to do and say before you’re gone. That’s why Benton talks to himself. That’s why he’s always out of breath." Cliff stepped free of Ray’s embrace. "That’s why I’m never able to sleep." He rested a hand on Ray’s shoulder, urged him back to the waiting world.

But Ray, flooded by a strange calm, refused to move. At least not yet. Despite Cliff’s glassy, bewildered eyes, his face looked handsome, chiseled down to the necessary flesh. It would be months before Cliff died of spinal meningitis, delirious from a morphine drip, ripping the IV from his wrist and howling because of how much it hurt, cursing the nurses who ran into the room, calling Ray by the wrong name. For the moment, though, Ray Praeger almost believed that if the two of them stayed exactly where they were, if they didn’t say another word, the day might never deepen into evening, their troubles might remain at bay, and Ray could linger with the man he loved, without regret or consequence.

Bernard Cooper is the author of Truth Serum: Memoirs and Maps to Anywhere, a collection of essays. He teaches in the writing program at Antioch University and lives in the Franklin Hills section of Silver Lake.


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