“Do you think the Dead Sea heals AIDS?”
“You know there ain’t no Dead Sea in Long Beach, right?”
“Just curious,” Adam chuckled as they stepped off the Long Island Rail Road and down the stairs, squinting at the sudden sun. Duncan was in his speedo and Adam in the trunks he’d insisted on wearing, despite his legs not being any noticeably bonier since he’d gotten his T-cell count.
“You hungry, baby?” Duncan asks as they pass the diners and bars along the main street.
“Nope. Couldn’t eat a bite.”
“You didn’t have dinner last night.”
“You know me, I eat like a bird.”
“Since when is that a thing? No, you don’t. AZT?”
“Let’s just drop it.”
“Why aren’t you eating?”
“Cause I don’t wanna throw up on the fourth of July.”
“You won’t throw up.”
“I always throw up.”
“Then eat and throw up. Just eat.”
“I’ll eat after. Don’t wanna cramp anyway.”
As the two began to see the sand, twenty or thirty queers dotted a section of the shore. It was back when Ella was alive. She and Aria—ever inseparable—laid beside each other and Kenneth sat cross-legged beside them. They’d already laid out towels and stabbed ACT UP’s flag firmly in the sand, its pink triangle waved proudly with the seaside breeze. Stanley and Brian hadn’t yet arrived—despite Duncan and Adam being an hour late.
“Where are the old timers?”
“No idea,” Aria replied from under her parasol. “Maybe they changed their minds. They would’ve been here already if they were coming.”
“Let them live, we’ll see them Tuesday anyway.” Ella said.
“You guys are coming to the zap next week right?” Kenneth asked.
“The convention,” he replied, almost exasperated.
“Why’re we protesting the Democrats?”
“Cause even Clinton could use a reminder before he gets elected. I have it all figured out. Yeah, security’ll be insane, but there’s a media party that should be relatively easy to infiltrate. ACT UP is going to—”
“C’mon, Kenneth,” Duncan stopped him. “It’s Beach Day. No shop talk. There’ll still be angry queers next week.”
“Don’t be so sure, at the rate we’re going,” Adam chided with a smile. Duncan used to love his gallows humor. Then they’d both received a death sentence. Now, Duncan suddenly wanted to shake Adam from this armor of irreverence, to bellow at him. Don’t you see the end of you is the end of my world? But he settled instead for grunting and glancing around the beach. Some of the hetero beachgoers averted their eyes from the wine-colored lesions slattered leopard-like across so many queer bodies. The queens were above noticing and continued to volley, smoke, splash, and laugh, thankful for a day on the seaside in the midst of the merciless, body-ridden battlefield of the last decade.
“Whatever, Adam,” Kenneth dismissed. “There’s a cure out there. It’s just a matter of them giving enough of a fuck to research it properly.”
“I’m surprised to see y’all here,” a concerned Southern drawl consoled from behind. They turned to see that it was Vincent.
“Why?” interrogated Ella. “We’ve had this planned for weeks.”
“Because of Brian.” Their stomachs dropped and their eyes widened. “Oh. I’m so sorry. Y’all didn’t know.”
“He was fine three days ago.”
“He got sick.”
Tears formed in Ella’s eyes and Aria hurried to kiss her. Kenneth just gazed downward, solemn.
“Have you talked to Stanley?” Duncan asked.
“For a second. Conrad’s looking after him, but he’s pretty distraught. Says he’s the only one left to carry everything.”
“What does that mean?”
“I’m not sure.”
Adam suddenly stood up and began walking toward the water. “I’m going to swim.” Only Duncan looks up.
Aria is first to break the silence. “I can’t believe—”
“Don’t say that,” Ella stopped her abruptly. “We don’t get to say that anymore.”
“You know what I meant.” They reverted back to grim silence and Duncan finally rose and followed Adam to the sea. Despite the July heat, chills ran up his spine as he waded then swam toward Adam, who was further out than everyone, bobbing on his back above the water. He flinched when Duncan called out to him.
“Are you okay?”
“Yeah, Mary,” he sniffed. “What’s another dead friend right?”
“Why do you think you gotta do this for me?”
“What?” Adam swam closer to Duncan.
“The jokes. You know you don’t have to play irreverent for me.”
“I’m not doing it for you.”
“Then why’re you doing it?”
A devastating helplessness enveloped Adam as he heard the question. So fearful was his face that Duncan thought for a second he’d been drowning. “I do it for me, okay? Let’s just drop it.”
“Fine. I need to dismiss it, okay? I need to shake it off…because…I can’t face this. Duncan.” He began to quietly weep. “I can’t.”
Duncan swam over to hold him. “I know…I’m here.”
“I’m scared. I don’t wanna die yet.” He sounded almost surprised.
The two cradled each other as the cool water lapped against their shoulders. Adam’s salty tears rolled down Duncan’s back til they were indiscernible from the sea.