The Opened Hand

I first met Jason in September 1986. I remember the heat in the city that day as I walked down Turk Street, looking for his hotel. The air on my face was hotter than the food container in my hand.

When I stepped into the lobby, the woman behind the desk looked at the bag I was carrying and buzzed me in without question. I walked up the narrow stairs, found his room number, and knocked. It took a moment before he came to the door.

I could see that he’d once had a powerful body. His head, his hands, his feet were large and bony, as if he were still growing, but his dark skin was pale and ashen. He was thin, with eyes yellowed, lips cracked.

He smiled. I handed him the bag. He thanked me.

He stood, his door still open, as I walked away. I was suddenly afraid. I hurried back down the stairs and got out onto the sidewalk. I was trembling. These streets, these people, this hotel. Jason and his illness. It was all too much.

I went home.

The following week I returned, though, and then the week after that, always adhering to the same routine. Pick up his meal, go to his hotel, get buzzed in, go up the dark stairs, and knock. Each time the door opened he seemed a bit thinner, the skin more stretched, the eyes more sunken, lips more parched. He would smile, I would hand him the bag, he would thank me, and I would walk away with his door still open.

On the Tuesday before Thanksgiving the bag of food was heavier than usual. I was told there was soup, turkey, a slice of pumpkin pie. As I went up the stairs I thought about him eating alone. I knocked, he came to the door, I handed him the bag, he thanked me. He stood with the door open. I didn’t walk away.

He asked me to come in. I stepped into the room and he closed the door behind me. He pointed to a metal folding chair that was near his bed. I sat as he moved past me and laid down. He rolled onto his side and looked at me.

“Thanks for coming in,” he said.

“Sure,” I replied. It was the first time I had spoken to him.

I felt the roof of my mouth getting dry. My lips felt like his looked, parched and cracked. I took a breath.

The quilt he was lying on had a pattern of leaves running over it. In the shadows of the room, it looked like he was lying on a forest floor. There was a faded brown shade pulled down over the window next to his bed. There was a stain in the middle of it, in the shape of a lion’s head. I watched the shade move slightly in the air that came in through the open window.

“What’s your name?” he asked. “I’m Ed,” I said, and then quickly added, “I’m your volunteer.”

He smiled. I sat. My head filled with things to say, but nothing felt right. I realized I was hugging myself around my chest, and I let my hands drop down to my knees. “There’s turkey this week,” I said, looking at the bag he had placed on his bedside table. He didn’t say anything, kept looking at me, smiling.

“I have to go,” I said, standing suddenly, tipping my chair backward.

“Okay,” he said, and smiled.

“I’ll let myself out,” I said as I picked up my chair and stepped back. I grabbed the knob, slipped into the hallway, and then closed the door behind me. I stood there, trembling the way I had the first time I met him. The smell in his room, the color of his skin, the cracked lips. I was afraid of it all. I hurried down the stairs and back out onto the street.

I wasn’t feeling well the following week, so I didn’t go to work on Tuesday, nor did I go to see Jason.

It’s December and the weather has turned cold and rainy. I carry Jason’s food under my black umbrella. When I get to his room and knock, the door opens on its own. I step in.

He’s lying on his back with his eyes closed, a harsh ceiling light shining down on his bare chest. The room is cold, the window open, the shade moves slightly. The lion’s-head stain is watching me, intently. “Why are you afraid?” it asks. “He’s the one who’s dying.”

I step forward with the meal in one hand and my umbrella in the other. Jason opens his eyes. “Hey,” he says. I see now that he’s covered in sweat, as if burning with fever. He keeps looking at me. “Come, sit down,” he says. “I don’t bite.”

I close the door behind me and lean my umbrella against the wall. I cross over to the chair next to the bed and sit down, holding his meal on my lap. We look at each other.

“I’m not hungry today,” he says.

The eyes of the lion stare at me.

I put Jason’s meal on the floor.

I watch his hand as it slowly comes out from beneath the blanket of leaves and slides upward across his chest. Then he gently raises it and moves it toward me. I reach out and hold it in my own.

His fingers are large, big as mine, the skin shiny and black, and though his grip is not strong, it’s still firm, and he smiles at me as he holds my hand in his.

We sit quietly for a moment. Then he slowly brings me closer to his body, gently coaxing, guiding me to go with his hand as it returns to his chest. I shift in my seat, relax my arm, and let him take me. I can feel his palm against mine, feverish.

He lays our hands on his chest and then begins to slide them down, slowly slipping them under the quilt. My fingers disappear beneath the pattern of leaves, and I can feel the faint trail of hair that is brushing gently against my knuckles. I watch as the shape of our hands together moves down along the length of his body, until it stops on the head of his penis.

I look back at his face. He smiles slightly and whispers, “Is this okay?” I nod my head.

With his hand on top of mine, he begins to rub his cock. I can feel its quick response against my knuckles. The warmth under the blanket, his fever, and the friction of our hands together create a heat and a smell that fills the room. As our movement speeds up, he takes his hand away and leaves mine there. I keep going.

I move my hand up and down. Like the rest of his body, his cock feels thin and ropy. I rub my palm back and forth and watch his face as he sometimes looks at me and, at other times, closes his eyes and gently pulls on his nipples.

A soft moan rises up from between his lips and he suddenly stiffens, pushing his head back, and he cums. I can feel the warm fluid seeping through my fingers as he closes his eyes and arches back on the bed.

His breathing slows. I gently move my hand out from under the quilt and let it lay there, near him, on the edge of the bed. I see his cum there, pooled in my open hand, the thick white milkiness of it covering my fingers. I know that the virus is there, the creature that is killing Jason and is now itself dying on my skin. I close my hand and make a fist.

There’s a moment of shyness now between us, and he avoids my gaze. He takes my hand and wipes it clean on the quilt. We don’t look at each other the way we had before, and the stain on the shade is no longer a lion; it’s just a circle within a circle within a circle.

I make a move to get up and he does the same. “No,” I say, and put my hand on his chest. He lays back down. I get up, open the door and, before closing it, say, “I’ll see you again soon.”

Down the stairs I go, through the damp hall, out into the street. The rain is falling heavily and I have left my umbrella in his room. I walk along with my hands in my pockets. Feeling the sticky wetness on my palm, I pull out my hand, and hold it open. The rain washes it clean.

Christmas and New Year’s came and went. I’d gone home for two weeks, leaving San Francisco behind. I thought of Jason from time to time and wondered how he was.

The first Tuesday after my return, I went to pick up his meal. The usually friendly volunteer coordinator saw me coming and looked down for a moment. As I stepped up to him, he said that I had a new client now and would be delivering a meal to someone else.

“What is it?” I asked. “What happened?”

“Jason passed,” he said, watching me as he put the container of food into a bag. He paused. “Do you need to talk to someone?”

“No, no. I’m fine,” I said.

I picked up the bag and headed out. The address was on Eddy Street, the Hotel Earle. The name was Jim.

As I walked along, I thought of Jason and our last time together, the way we had held hands, the way he had asked me to touch him, the lion in the window shade. I hoped he was well, wherever he was.

I entered the Hotel Earle. The man at the desk had me sign in, and I went upstairs. I found the room number and knocked. The door opened. A tall thin man was standing there. He was leaning on a cane and his arms and face were covered with dark purple lesions. A terrible smell came through the doorway.

“Hi,” I said. “My name is Ed. I’ve brought you dinner.”

“Thanks,” he said. “I’m Jim.” There was a slight pause before he moved back. “Do you want to come in?”

“Sure,” I said, and stepped into his room.

Ed Wolf is a writer, storyteller, and health worker in San Francisco. When his time comes, he wants to be outside, with no ceiling above his head.

Jim Unwin is an artist based in a leafy suburb of southwest London. When his time comes, he wants to die surrounded by many great-grandchildren, all of whom agree he is wise.