Harper didn’t ever want to see him again. She wanted her last sight of him to be him standing in their tiny apartment with the two Valiums, looking dumbfounded and lost, finally feeling like she had felt for all those months in New York.
She was supposed to fly to San Francisco and start a new life and never see the bastar--Joe, again.
And she did start a new life. Sort of. She finds that in San Francisco she doesn’t have many skills that can translate into work, and that the initial Valium withdrawal was really harsh.
So she sits in parks most days and watches people. Watches the sky. Breathes in and out. The credit card is never declined at the hotel she stays at, or the restaurants she goes to for meals. In that way, he’s always with her, in her pocket, in New York, writing the checks that keep her alive.
She’s oddly grateful to him for that. She despises him most of the time, but sometimes she breaks down and remembers how much she loves him and how she’ll never forget that.
Stupid heart and genitals.
She thinks about calling him, but never does. And he never tries to call her. She doesn’t know. Maybe he’s dead of whatever that Prior fellow was sick of. She notices that people are sick in San Francisco too. So she investigates, listens to the radio, hears the term AIDS for the first time and decides to help. She volunteers at hospitals and talks to people who have no one else to talk to, people abandoned. They all, for the most part, seem amused by her. They don’t seem to mind her. They never ask her if she’s on drugs, and they rarely ignore her. Harper, for maybe the first time in her life, feels welcomed by these frail bodies, with their most inner parts entirely free of disease.
And so the years pass, and Harper stops worrying about ozone and starts worrying about AIDS, and she helps where she can.
The credit card never stops working. In the mail, mysteriously, she receives a new one when the original reaches its expiration date. She knows she should try and get a job and cut the damn card, but she’s so caught up in volunteering that she doesn’t have any time left. She always gets so caught up in things.
So when it’s four years later, 1990, and the wall has fallen and Reagan is gone and she feels so much better and like herself, he shows up, and she’s shocked. He’s tracked her down to the little coffee shop she frequents (the hotel room is gone and now she lives with some other volunteers). He looks different. Well, a little different. Not that different. He’s skinnier, and he seems more hunched and sadder, if a sadder Joe is possible. He’s grown a beard, which shocks her. Mormons don’t usually have beards.
But she knows she looks different too--she’s also skinnier, she now dresses in jeans and various activist t-shirts instead of baggy sweats and sweaters, she stands taller than she did in Brooklyn. She doesn’t hold herself anymore in an attempt at comfort, although when she first sees him, she instinctively folds her arms across her chest.
The beard looks good on him.
“Hey, buddy,” he says, quietly.
“Sit down,” she says quickly, maybe harshly. He does.
“So this is San Francisco,” he says, with a weak smile.
He winces. “Budd--Harper. I’m sorry. I know that doesn’t do much, but--“
“Take a walk with me, Joseph.” Joseph? Is she teasing him? Maybe.
So they take a walk around her neighborhood in San Francisco. It’s raining and windy and he hasn’t brought an umbrella so they stand under hers.
And for the first time, he tells her everything. About who and what he is, about Louis, about Roy, about the two little pills she gave him, about Hannah, about how he’s still clerking in New York, about how the Washington job never came through.
They’re in one of her favorite parks now, with a statue of an angel. He looks at it warily. Then he looks at her, and she can tell he’s about to start crying.
“You told me once that I was the only person you had ever loved. I don’t know if that’s still true, and I know I can never truly have you back, but...” and he hesitates, swallowing hard. “I’m alone now, truly alone. I don’t think you’d ever believe it, but I think I know how you felt, all those years ago. And I’m sorry.”
He thinks he knows. “You’re wrong, Joe. You can never truly know what it felt like.” He turns away sharply.
She feels a familiar pang at that, and she continues to speak: “But you’re right about something. I did love you. I still love you. I shouldn’t, but I do.
You’re lonely now. You need companionship, someone to hold your hand. Someone to make you forget yourself.
I needed that. I don’t need that anymore, but I needed that.
I can’t love you, Joe. Not like that. Not anymore. Not how you want.
But I can be your friend.” And--with a crooked smile: “Be your buddy.”
And she hugs him and for once, he allows himself to collapse into her arms. And she smiles.
Nothing’s lost forever, she muses.