THE WORLD UPSIDE DOWN
Berto woke me with a phone call early on a Saturday morning.
“Will you come with me to pick out my coffin?”
Still barely awake, I didn’t know what to say. I wasn’t even sure I’d heard him right.
“You want me to do what?”
He repeated what he’d said.
“I know it’s a lot to ask,” he added.
I wanted to say, It’s too much.
“Aren’t you jumping the gun a bit? You need to focus on taking care of yourself, taking your meds, eating right…”
“Joe, I do all that. None of it’s gonna save me. You know that.”
I wanted to say, there’s no one else you could’ve picked for this honor? But I knew why Berto called me. Breakup or no breakup, we still cared about each other. He—and I—hadn’t had another relationship after us. Sex? Yes, of course. We both had our aventuras, as he liked to say. Some of these adventures were fun, others indifferent, a few awful. But the good ones never led anywhere, for either of us. More than a year since we uncoupled—his idea, by the way—we remained close, although he still could be emotionally reticent. That remoteness, the I’ll-only-let-you-in-so-far part of him had frustrated me when we were together. So, as appalled as I was by his request, I also was deeply moved that he had asked me.
“Have you found a place yet?”
“Yes, on 28th Street near First Avenue. It’s run by your people.”
“An Italian family. Di Matteo. They’ve been in the business for four generations. Nice people. I spoke with one on the phone. He said, who is the deceased loved one, and I said, me, but you’ll have to ask around about the loved part.”
“Oh god, Berto…”
“Anyway, I made an appointment for Tuesday at noon.”
“This coming Tuesday?”
“Time is of the essence, querido.”
When I hung up, that’s when the tears came.
Adalberto, or Berto as everybody called him, was gravely ill. His body was failing him, but the brain still worked, although better on some days than others. Sometimes he lost the thread in a conversation or forgot the names of people he’d known for years and places he’d been. But not the places we’d visited together when we were lovers, and even after we were not but were still close enough to enjoy taking trips together. The last one was to Puerto Rico six month earlier, in May, to visit his family, his widowed mother, Mercedes, his tiny ancient abuelita, Julia, his two sisters, his nieces and nephews. One night, after dinner at Mercedes’ house, her fussing over him—“Why are you so skinny?”— and the kids’ shrill voices were more than he could take.
“Let’s get out of here,” he whispered to me as his nephew Pedrito el gordito, the little chubby one, kept trying to jump into his lap.
Berto proposed driving a few miles to Isabella, where there was an outdoor dance party, Mundo al Revés. The first time he wanted to take me there, back when we were a couple, I thought it was odd that a gay party was called “world upside down.” It smacked to me of what us out and proud types called “internalized homophobia.” “Why do they call it that? It makes it sound like we’re overturning the natural order,” I said to Berto. “Like we’re freaks.” He rolled his eyes and said, “It’s cute that you’re so politically correct but papi, lighten up.”
My militant radical politics, which I expressed more in my journalism—I was an editor and writer for an “alternative” newspaper when such publications still existed—than in actual practice, earned me the nickname “Gay Che.”
“Guevara was a homophobe,” I reminded Berto when he bestowed the moniker on me.
“Yeah, so they say. You don’t think he was fooling around with his compañeros when they were in the jungle, sleeping together and skinny dipping in the river? Come on, he was probably a bugarron.”
That was a word Berto taught me, and I loved the way he trilled the “r’s” when he said it. A bugarron was an ostensibly straight, and usually married man who had sex with men. I asked Berto if the term was just another way to say “bisexual,” but he said no, bisexuals acknowledged they liked both sexes. A bugarron, he explained, insisted on his straightness but would sometimes have sex with men for money or just for the fun of it. They supposedly only were “tops,” but Berto said the reality was different. Give them enough beer and pot, and they suddenly developed “helium ankles.” Berto knew this from personal experience.
We arrived at Mundo al Revés around 11 pm, just as things were getting lively. The day’s heat had dissipated and there was a pleasant cool breeze. Berto parked in the lot adjacent to the party space, an open field with tents where people could buy drinks and food or sit and rest. We walked toward the DJ booth set up under a tent at the far end of the field, both of us moving to the music. The DJ was playing “Ven Devorame Otra Vez”—“Come devour me again”— by Lalo Rodriguez, the big hit that summer in Puerto Rico. More than a little tacky, but that’s why we liked it. Suddenly Berto tripped and fell. I helped him up.
“A little dizzy,” he said, frowning.
“First time this happened?”
“Uh yeah,” he said.
I knew he was lying.
We walked more slowly until we reached the edge of the crowd and made our way into it, the usual mix of gay guys, lesbians, dragas, and a smattering of straight couples. One thing I always liked about the party was that this upside-down world wasn’t just the young and the pretty. Berto and I were thirty-six, and we hardly were the only mature ones. There were old queens and grandmotherly dykes, too. A few hustlers roved around the two bars and the perimeter of the dance floor, hunting for johns. And, as Berto noted, the occasional bugarron. We were sipping our drinks, Bacardí with Coke and lime, when he pointed out a tall, well-built guy with curly black hair and a lush mustache, who was dancing with a short, chunky woman in a red crop top and cutoff shorts.
“I picked him up one night when he was cruising the plaza in Mayagüez. He was drunk and looking to get fucked.”
“And you obliged, of course.”
“Of course. A real bottom. His poor wife.”
“Maybe she pegs him.”
“Pegs. Keep up with the lingo, papi. It’s when a girl fucks a guy with a strap-on.”
“You’re so au courant. Anyway, that woman he’s dancing with — I don’t think he’s with her, as in ‘with her.’”
“Because when he steps out on the wife, it’s with guys?”
“You got it.”
Berto was right. After the song ended, the woman went to join some friends and the bugarron headed toward the bar, toward us. When he saw Berto, he hesitated, then smiled and approached us. He and Berto greeted each other in Spanish and said a few words. Berto introduced me as “Joe, mi mejor amigo de Nueva York.” We shook hands. He and Berto chatted a bit and then Berto said to me, “Up for a little adventure?”
“What do you have in mind?”
“He said he’s really horny. He’s into you and wants a three-way. By the way, his name is Edgardo.”
Berto and I hadn’t had sex since our breakup. Oh, we’d occasionally kiss or pinch each other’s butts, playful stuff between two exes who remained affectionate, but no more than that. So the prospect of sex with him again really threw me. Especially since he was positive. Berto still looked good, his mocha complexion had its glow, he wasn’t at all “ashy.” He had dropped a few pounds, enough for his mother to notice. But he’d told her he was on a “macropsychotic” diet, quoting a line, from one of the first AIDS movies, that had made him laugh. Since “macropsicótico” made no sense to Mercedes, she didn’t get the joke.
Despite my misgivings, I said, “I’m up for it, sure.”
Edgardo was definitely appealing and my voyeuristic imagination kicked in. An image of watching my ex doing it with this married bugarron, and me joining the fun, took shape in my mind.
“There’s a motel pretty close by. They have rooms by the hour.”
“Ah, a no-tell motel.”
The plan was that we’d go to the motel in Edgardo’s car and he’d bring us back to the party when we’d finished. Edgardo drove on some dark backroads for about twenty minutes until we saw a sign with “La Cita” lit up and set inside a heart-shaped neon ring with “vacantes” underneath it. Edgardo said, in English, “Good, they have rooms. Sometimes no vacantes on weekends.”
He parked outside a room with “14” on the door and went into the motel office. When he returned he started up the car. He had a device that looked like a buzzer in one hand and when he pressed it, a garage door opened next to the room. He drove into the garage and parked. There was a door in the garage wall that Edgardo opened with a key.
“Does every room have its own garage?” I asked.
Berto nodded. “Maximum privacy. No one knows you’re here, not even the other customers.”
We followed Edgardo into the room. He turned on the lights but quickly dimmed them. In the middle of the room was a big, heart-shaped bed, with four pillows but no sheets, just a mattress cover.
“You’re supposed to bring your own sheets,” Berto explained.
I wondered how married men, or women, explained to their spouses why they’d come home with used sheets. The management had thoughtfully provided a couple of thin blankets and some hand towels.
A buzzer then sounded. Edgardo went toward the sound, which seemed to come from the wall next to the bed. I noticed what looked like a horizontal slot about a foot long in the wall. Edgardo pressed it and a tray slid out and opened, like at a drive-in bank. A man’s husky voice asked, “¿Cuántas horas?”
“Dos,” Edgardo answered.
“Treinta dólares,” said the voice.
Then a hand appeared in the slot and Edgardo gave it the thirty bucks. I laughed, reminded of Thing, the disembodied hand that would emerge from a box on “The Addams Family” to perform useful household tasks, like getting the mail or passing Gomez Addams his cigars. Does this Thing give out condoms and lube, I wondered?
No, those items were another thoughtful touch by the motel management, laid out on a small table at the foot of the bed.
Berto and Edgardo started kissing and pulling at each other’s shirts. I joined in. Edgardo’s breath stunk of cigarettes and beer. Pretty quickly the three of us were naked and rolling around on the sheetless mattress. It felt strange to be in bed with Berto again, to see and feel his brown body, to touch his uncircumcised cock, to hear his grunts and cries. Stranger, and more disconcerting, was my feeling that, although Berto had said Edgardo was into me, I ended up the third wheel in this threeway. Present but unnecessary. Because when Berto was on top of Edgardo, I saw the look in his eyes. Or rather, the eye contact between the two of them, so intimate it shocked me. What shocked me even more was my jealousy. My pissed-off jealousy. I decided right then I wouldn’t come. That’d show them how I felt. But they didn’t even notice, or if they did, they didn’t say anything. On the ride back to Mundo al Revés, they spoke only to each other, in Spanish, joking and laughing the entire time. Edgardo turned on the radio, which was playing, I’m not kidding, “Ven Devorame Otra Vez.” They sang along with the chorus, laughing and glancing at each other until the fucking song ended.
That night at the upside-down world was our fourth, maybe fifth time there, I’m not sure. It was definitely our last. A little more than a month after we returned to New York, Berto had his first opportunistic infection. “How very inopportune,” he said, affecting a British accent. Being diagnosed with an OI meant he was no longer just HIV positive. He now officially had AIDS. The infection was the one that was all the rage, that all the gay guys were getting, the pneumonia. His doc prescribed Bactrim but he couldn’t handle the side effects. So the doc switched him to pentamidine, which he inhaled through a nebulizer. He started referring to himself as “La Pentamidina,” and when his friends Eddie and Victor went on the treatment a little later, he called them “Las Tres Pentamidinas.”
“We can put on our drags and do a show at Escuelita,” Eddie said. “I’ll do La Lupe. The queens will love it.”
Eddie adored La Lupe, the wildly extroverted singer her fans called La Yi Yi Yi. He loved to recount the shows he’d seen, which would start out with her singing calmly before the spirits took possession of her and she lost control, shrieking and howling and thrashing her arms and shaking her legs. The performances would usually end with her tearing off her wig, “like a drag queen,” Eddie said.
“I’ll do Celia,” Berto said.
Celia Cruz was Berto’s diva. He had worked out moves for “Bemba Colora,” which he had shown me one afternoon a few weeks after we’d gotten together. He did Celia’s flashing eyes, her gestures, and dance steps as he mimed the words. He cracked me up. We’d been at his apartment listening to salsa and he was trying to teach me to dance to the music. “Ay Dios, you rock boys are hopeless,” he said to me. “Just listen for the clave”—he clapped his hands to demonstrate the three beats-over-two pattern—and move to it, like you’re walking, see, one foot like this….”
I got it down, eventually. I never was as good as Berto, of course, but he approved how I moved my hips and my “big Italian ass.” I was good enough that he wasn’t embarrassed to pull me on to the dance floor at Paradise Garage or his other favorite place, La Escuelita, with its powerful sound system churning out salsa, merengue, and disco. At Escuelita the music would stop for the 1 AM drag shows. I mostly found drag boring, but every now and then there’d be a queen who could really put on a show. Like the Peruvian ventriloquist, dressed in a wide, layered skirt, a floral embroidered blouse under a colorful cape, and a flat hat slightly askew over her wig. Berto was an anthropologist and knowledgeable about Andean cultures and he was impressed by the authenticity of the queen’s outfit. She held a dummy dressed in a brown suit with a bolero tie and a little straw Panama hat on its bean-shaped head. The routine consisted of La Peruana manipulating the dummy, who she called Alvaro, so that it stuck its head between her fake breasts and nuzzled them. Then she slid the dummy to her crotch and slipped it under her skirt while making loud munching and slurping sounds. Then, while grinding her hips, she’d alternate those sounds with shrieks—“ay papi, ay papito, no pares, no pares, ay, fóllame papi fóllame!” When the “sex” was over, La Peruana began lip-synching to “El Condor Pasa” by Yma Sumac, while Alvaro tried to distract her with kisses and titty nuzzling.
Berto was practically crying with laughter, rocking back and forth in his chair, one arm on my shoulder.
The people at the De Matteo Funeral Home indeed were nice, as Berto had said. Warm, kind, and solicitous, and they didn’t seem at all nonplussed about showing caskets to a customer who soon would be lying in one of them. One of the family members, a handsome middle-aged man, introduced himself to us as “Vincenzo.” As befit his trade, his manner was somber, but businesslike. He gave us the sales pitch. Placing one hand on a cobalt blue and expensive looking coffin, he told us, “A steel casket offers many families greater peace of mind because their loved one will be protected from all natural ground elements. All our stainless steel caskets are available in different styles and finishes.”
Berto glanced at me, one eyebrow raised.
“They’re all beautiful,” I mumbled.
When Berto heard the prices, he said, “let’s think wood.”
Vincenzo nodded and led us to a row of wooden caskets. “These are all artisan crafted from select hardwoods. Our selection includes mahogany, cherry, oak, and other beautiful hardwoods.”
“Can I try one out?” Berto said. “Just to see if the size is right.”
Vincenzo looked appalled, but just for a second. “I’m sorry, sir, but we can’t…”
“Just messing with you,” Berto said, with that malicious grin of his.
Again he asked about prices; again he decided to pass.
Unprompted, Vincenzo said, “We also have cremation caskets if that is your preference. They’re made of wood, with no metal parts. We have mahogany, oak, maple, and a simple pine.”
Berto hadn’t mentioned cremation to me. But he said to Vincenzo, “Yeah, let’s look at them.”
Berto settled on the mahogany. It was simple but had some style, not like the pine, which was just a plain box. It also was within Berto’s budget. He went with Vincenzo to the office to pay and make the arrangements. Back out on the street, Berto said to me, “I know you’re surprised.”
“Damn right I am. You never said anything about cremation before.”
“I’ve been thinking about it but I just made up my mind. I don’t want my mother to have to come to New York to visit my grave and it’d cost too much to ship my body to Puerto Rico and have a funeral there. This way she can just take me back in a box. Berto-in-a-box.”
Our shopping trip to the De Matteo Funeral Home turned out to be premature. Berto stuck around for another two months or so, dying in the hospital, surrounded by his mother, me, Eddie and Victor, and Marty, his best friend from City College. Richard and Eric, two friends from Columbia University, where they and Berto had gotten their PhDs, showed up but they arrived too late, after Berto’s body had been placed in a bag, zipped up and taken away, to the De Matteos, I assumed.
Before he was hospitalized, he was able to stay in his apartment, with visits by home health aides and a circle of friends who did his shopping, cleaned the apartment, brought him to doctor’s visits, and kept him company. I brought him food sometimes, Italian dishes he liked me to make when we were together, especially my “rigolettos,” his joke name for the rigatoni in tomato sauce that was his favorite. Eddie and Victor spent many hours with him, reminiscing and laughing about their flaming youth in the clubs, the backroom bars, the baths. Marveling at how they, three poor boricuas from East Harlem, el barrio, all had gone to college, gotten bachelor’s and then advanced degrees, and had established successful careers, Victor an architect, Eddie a nurse practitioner, and Berto an assistant professor of anthropology at Columbia. Eddie helped Berto with his “ADLs,” feeding him, getting him to the toilet, bathing him and helping him get dressed. One time Eddie got in the tub with him and they “fooled around a little,” Berto told me.
When Eddie showed up on a Sunday afternoon in late February, he found the door to Berto’s apartment open. He walked in, called —”Loca, where are you?”—and found Berto sitting naked on the toilet. Eddie asked the usual nurse’s questions to determine if a patient was “oriented in place and time” and got only gibberish from Berto. Eddie called an ambulance, rode with Berto to the hospital, and had him admitted.
Berto called me from the hospital. “I’m, I’m here, in this place, I don’t know…”
Eddie came on the line. He told me the hospital, the room number, the visiting hours.
“Joe, you should get your ass over here. He’s been asking for you.”
Eddie’s call made me feel guilty, as I should have. I hadn’t visited in days before he was hospitalized. No, more than a week, as Eddie reminded me. The last time was awful, Berto’s brilliant brain all muddled, conversation reduced to sentence fragments, an occasional flash of lucidity amid the non sequiturs, and more frequently, the silences. The outrageous, often pitch-black sense of humor that came out during the casket shopping trip to De Matteo’s a few months before, gone, vanished along with Berto’s few remaining t-cells.
When I arrived at the hospital, he was unconscious.
“How did this happen so fast?” I asked Eddie.
“With this fucking disease things happen fast.”
In the next days, Berto went into a coma and became completely unresponsive. His body was skeletal, its only movements an occasional violent twitch. When that happened, the nurse was called and he upped Berto’s meds. I asked the nurse if Berto could hear us when we spoke to him. He sighed and shook his head. I started to cry. I couldn’t help myself. I felt sorrow over Berto’s suffering and sorrow that I was losing him. And I was angry that he had this disease. If only you hadn’t decided we should be friends because you didn’t want monogamy. Because you wanted your freedom and I was “clingy.” Angry at you for fucking your brains out in Haiti and the Dominican Republic the year you were doing fieldwork. Angry at you because you never told Mercedes you were gay or why you were sick, leaving her in the dark, confused and frightened.
Eddie put his arm around me as I wept.
When I arrived the next day, Eddie was leaving for his shift at the Brooklyn hospital where he’d started working a few months ago.
“He doesn’t have long,” he told me. “I called his mother. She’s coming tomorrow.”
“You have a little time before visiting hours are over.”
We hugged, and I could feel his bones.
When Eddie left I moved my chair next to the bed and took Berto’s hand in mine.
“Papi, I wish you could hear me.”
His right eyelid fluttered slightly, and I thought I felt his hand respond to mine. Very weakly, barely perceptible, and to this day I’m still not sure if it really happened. But I kept talking.
“We had such great times together, didn’t we?”
I waited for a response, any kind of reaction, but his hand lay limply in mine and his eyes stayed shut.
“You introduced me to so many great people. Eddie. Victor. All the locas from New York, as you called them. Arthur and Manuel and Jeffrey and Ernest. They made my straight friends seem so boring. Yeah, I know, they were boring. You were right. That time we threw that party at my place and we were carrying on and dancing to Prince and they just sat there watching like a bunch of tightasses.”
I know it was stupid of me but I was hoping for a laugh.
“But you liked that I seemed more straight than gay, didn’t you? With my beard and the military cap. You called me Gay Che.”
“And you brought out the Latin in me, you know. Remember how I told you that my parents loved to go out and dance mambo when they were young? They had Perez Prado records, Cugat and Puente. When I told you that you said, Italians and Jews became Puerto Ricans on the dance floor back in those days. What happened to you?, you said. Well, you taught me well, didn’t you? Taught me how to move my hips and my feet. And my big Italian ass.”
“And when you told your friends you were seeing someone and that he was Italian, and they said, a white guy? and you said, he’s not white, he’s ethnic. I loved that.”
“I asked you once if you had a thing for Italian guys. You said no, I was the first. But you told me about that time when you were a kid and you were staring at these Italian guys hanging out, I think it was not long after you and your family moved to East Harlem and how you thought they must be Latinos and one said, what the fuck are you lookin’ at, and how they called you a spic faggot. And I felt so bad I had to apologize and you laughed and said, what for, you’re not like that.”
I paused to gather my thoughts.
“You made me fall in love with Puerto Rico. I didn’t know how beautiful it was. How great the people are. And man do they love to party. I never partied so hard as I did there. The World Upside Down was the best party I ever went to. Remember the first time you wanted to take me there and I said, why do they call it that—sounds like internalized homophobia. And you laughed and told me to lighten up, and then you said, what’s wrong with turning this fucked-up world upside down? Why shouldn’t we? That would be a revolution, wouldn’t it? And I said, listen to you, you won’t even come out to your family, which pissed you off.
“God, Berto, I wish we could go there again. Not like the last time though.” (I winced at the memory.)
“The first time was so great. I got over my PC bullshit after about ten minutes, remember? Two Bacardís and Coke and a couple of tokes and that did it. And the music. You didn’t like that salsa romantica that was so big in the 80s but then the DJ played that one from the 70s you loved by Richie Ray and Bobby Cruz, ‘Sonido Bestial,’ that you called psychedelic salsa. What a wild jam that was. We danced our asses off, didn’t we? You grabbed me, spun me around and I was right in step with you, didn’t miss a beat, and everybody was screaming wepa! wepa! And I did, too, and you laughed and hugged me and spun me around again and the song went on and on and the world wasn’t upside down, it was right side up, and we were so fucking happy.
George De Stefano is an author, journalist, and critic living in New York City. He has contributed features, reviews, essays, and opinion pieces to a wide range of print and digital publications. His ruling passions are culture and the arts (especially music, movies, and theater), politics, social science, social and political theory. I have written about all these topics, for such publications as The Nation, Film Comment, Newsday, Gay City News, The Advocate, Cineaste, In These Times, The Italian American Review and Gay and Lesbian Review Worldwide. He is also a contributor to the online publications PopMatters, The New York Journal of Books, Rootsworld, La Voce di New York and I-Italy.