Under the Radar
Kenny. I can talk about him now. I can still see how he looked at the airport when he came home from the rig job that first time. The job required six months on, then six months off, but it paid a bundle, so he took it to pay off school loans and to save up for his dream restaurant, the next step to our destiny, he’d said. I can still see his inky-black eyes sparkling under the backward orange-and-white Orioles baseball cap, his long hair, in a knot, poking through the cap’s size gap in the back, hair he usually stuffed into the pipe section of his toque blanche, his chef hat. Back then everyone wore long hair and wide sideburns that look silly by today’s standards. Kenny hated those mutton sideburns and stayed clean-shaven but did wear hair bigger than mine, something we laughed about then. I can still see Kenny’s jaunty walk, his wide bell-bottom jeans, his sexy, slender waist with his stomach muscles poking through the lightweight tee-shirt. I can still see how his biceps and triceps strained his shirt sleeves. How surprised I was by those taut muscles, something that came about from his stint on the rig. Something had to fill up his time when he wasn’t working, and finally it was the gym, for lack of anything better to do. I’d teased him about having the same physique as the Tasmanian devil but secretly felt thrilled he finally started exercising. Mistakenly, when I saw him looking so defined, I thought we’d jog and work out together during his time off the rig. That never happened.
Whenever I think about him, it’s the image of him looking muscular and fit, his complexion glowing, his eyes flashing, his smile wider than the horizon as he came toward me that day filled with high energy, rather than the emaciated and frail way he looked when he died. I anticipated hearing all his stories about rig life and sharing mine about nursing life. At that point we’d been together for six years, engaged for two. When he proposed, he’d hidden the most gorgeous, ridiculously large jade-and-diamond ring in the middle of a chocolate mousse pie—my favorite—and slipped it on my finger, telling me to never take it off, pudding clinging to the gold and obscuring the diamonds’ shine. The ring, he said, had belonged to his grandmother. His family and mine met up at his parents’ house for a dinner to celebrate, and while Kenny cooked up a special dinner, his mom dragged out his baby pictures. I gazed at those photos, wondering what our own children would look like, if they’d have his wide-gapped smile and inky-black eyes or maybe a combination of both of us. His eyes, my smile. My green eyes, his big hair, his smile and my eyes—the possibilities felt endless and our future, exciting.
I cherish the ring, still. Even when we were engaged, I never wore it to work. It seemed too outrageous at the hospital, too delicate with the constant hand-washing. Kenny’s nieces will get it after I’m gone. To be honest I’d felt some uncertainties about us before he left for the rig but was never sure. I didn’t mention them to him because he might have been insulted, and I didn’t want to hurt him. Kenny and I rolled along together, ticking all the boxes of the steps we were expected to take.
“Hope, darling!” he yelled, waving his free arm, flashing his gap-toothed smile, holding his luggage in the other, setting it down when he saw me.
I ran to him and threw myself into those muscled arms. He oozed exuberance and crushed me in a fierce hug, nearly squeezing the breath out of me. We kissed like any other long-separated couple. He picked me up and swirled me around in a circle!
“Look at you,” I said, squeezing his biceps when he finally set me down. “Rig life agrees with you!”
He laughed. “It’s boring as fuck. They sometimes run movies in the big theater. Not much to do but work. And go to the gym.” He flexed his biceps. “Look! Finally exercising. I hate every minute of it.
“You look maaaaaarvelous!” he sang as he swooped me up in his arms. We’d waited six months for this moment.
Back then, before wifi and FaceTime, before text messages, we chatted by pay phone every few days at odd hours in the allowable six-minute intervals we had, always in the middle of the night. I waited for those calls and felt as if the world had tilted the wrong way if he didn’t call. Walking toward the airport garage, holding each other by the waist, we caught up. I told him about working at the medical center, and he talked about rig life: the galley staying open 24/7 for the two hundred people living on it, and a team of chefs and sous chefs working in shifts. He described the danger for the men working the drill and how monstrous and frightening it felt during violent storms and hurricanes.
“It’s a harbor, an airport, a hotel, and a refinery rolled up in one,” he said. “My roommate’s from the UK, but we never see each other. It’s like living with a ghost,” he said. “The opportunities to advance can’t be beat.”
On the ride home he told me his ideas for fusion food, equipment he wanted to own in his dream restaurant, and I told him how it felt to lose a patient, even when the loss was expected, and how more men entered nursing, many former military corpsmen.
“I submitted a menu proposal for the company’s next annual meeting. It could mean a huge promotion if they like it.”
“Brilliant plan,” I said. “Would that mean you’d have to extend your contract?”
“It would. Just a year. Babe, I can’t turn down that kind of money,” he said.
“That would mean our first years of married life, we won’t be living together,” I said, trying not to cry. “I already started looking for a gown. We just need to settle on a date.”
We’d met at Tattoo’s, a now-defunct joint downtown. He worked in the kitchen while I waitressed to pay for nursing school textbooks and lab fees. A scholarship paid for everything else. In those days everyone smoked a little weed, got a little drunk, got a little high, but Kenny and I both came from tough, working-class backgrounds, which meant neither of us could afford to party. We worked, and at Tattoo’s we were the only sober people in the joint at the end of our shift, and that’s how we started talking. Tattoo’s had been the second place he worked after chef school. Not wanting to pay him a salary that matched his degree, the first place fired him after he created a menu and taught everyone how to cook it. We’d already been seeing each other pretty regularly when Tattoo’s did the same thing, and that’s when we moved in together.
“Did you miss me?” I asked.
I’d missed him, longed for him, thought about him every minute of every day, the first thought in the morning, the last thought at night. I waited for him to notice how I’d kept his old beastie in good shape, having the tires rotated and oil changed on the schedule he set before he left. He drove. Like a wild man, so happy to be in control again. He held my hand as he maneuvered around corners too fast.
“Of course, darling!”
He kissed my hand, sending my heart into loopy swoops.
“You can work in the rig dispensary. We’d be together,” he said.
I shook my head. “I want to stay here. Lots of hospitals and the chance to see all kinds of medical conditions.”
“It’d be temporary,” he said. “The work might be interesting enough—rig life is dangerous.”
I promised to think about it. Although we were supposed to get married during that break, every time we passed a bridal or florist shop, or a caterer or a photographer, or a gown shop, he failed to latch onto any of the hints I tossed about setting a date. I asked him directly when we’d tie the knot, though he pretended not to hear me. Something felt wrong. Despite all the anticipation and longing to be with him, despite satisfying sex we enjoyed in the first few days after his return, despite his affection, warmth, care, and love, something I couldn’t name made me anxious. The sex diminished, our emotional distance increased, and I started snapping at him. We visited our families but Kenny spent increasing amounts of time with his friends, and I felt guilty for snapping at him all the time and neglected. He could at least spend my off time with me, I yelled at him over the phone one night after I’d worked a twelve-hour shift and came home to an empty place. He could have at least prepared dinner for me, I shouted. The following Sunday, when he was cooking us a fancy breakfast, the uncertainty got the best of me, and I exploded, demanding to know what the hell was going on, demanding that he break up outright if that’s what he wanted to do.
“I don’t want to talk about it,” he said, looking straight at me, his eyes focused like a laser on mine.
“You better start talking about it or I’m leaving you.” Those words tumbled out of my mouth before I could take them back. I didn’t mean them.
The aroma of his French toast with coconut cream stuffing, of bacon and shrimp with grits, intruded, came between us like a wall. I wasn’t hungry. In my soul I knew he was dating someone else, maybe someone who spoke his language of roués, spices, and sauces and not someone who smelled like disinfectant, rubbing alcohol, of body fluids and medicines, of sickness and death.
“I’m not stupid. Who is she?” I shouted, afraid of the answer, my arms crossed.
“Are you insane?” he shouted. “There’s no other woman. I promise you that.”
How dare he make a fool of me. “I don’t believe you.”
He took both of my hands and squeezed them and I threw them off. I didn’t want him to touch me, since he had stopped being intimate with me weeks ago. Undaunted, he crushed me into a deep embrace, reassuring me repeatedly here was definitely no other woman.
“You seem to have plenty of time for all your friends but none for me. It’s worse than when you’re on the rig because here, you have a choice, and you’re not choosing me,” I shouted.
I burst into tears. A long silence followed.
“Kenny, whatever it is, you need to come clean. Are you on drugs?”
“Please sit down,” he said finally.
He faced me and held both my hands.
“We’re not getting married. There will be no wedding.” His voice sounded gentle and timid.
“What are we doing then?”
“It’s not you.”
“Really, Kenny?” What a shabby line! I wanted to laugh and cry at the same time.
“Hope, I love you. I love our lives together. But it is me. That’s the truth.”
Another silence between us. He continued holding my hands.
“Look at me. I think I’m gay. I keep my head down and my mouth shut on the rig because of the feeling I’m having for men. I’m sorry.”
I wept. I loved him. That kind of thing—people didn’t discuss. What I had been unable to articulate smacked me in the face. His innate goodness, his sense of humor, his work ethic, his sense of fun and play, his sexiness; how could I hate him after years of loving him? Or be angry for wanting to be himself? Or consider him a sicko or criminal?
“It’s okay,” I said, stroking his arm, unable to stop crying.
There’d be no wedding, no children, no growing old together. Just unbearable loss. He could have married me and hidden the truth. Relief and peace flooded his face, as if a giant boulder had been lifted from his shoulders. That day we spent the most wonderful hours together, and I witnessed him flower, his true self finally blooming with a radiant loveliness and light.
“I was afraid you’d reject me. I don’t want to lose you. I want you in my life.”
“What’s going to happen with your job?”
“I can’t afford to lose my job. We can’t tell anyone.”
I pulled off the engagement ring and handed it back to him, freeing him of any obligation toward me. He refused to accept it. He put it back on my finger.
“You promised to never take it off,” he said.
“Things between us…will never be the same, Kenny.”
We hid the truth from our families and, thereafter, kept up appearances, each sneaking around with other lovers as if we were cheating on each other instead of protecting his status. We moved into a larger, two-bedroom apartment, brushing off incessant questions about a wedding date. Kenny extended his rig contract for another year while making inroads on national food shows, doing cooking demos and guest appearances on new cable shows in his off time, laying the foundation for his post-rig career in New York City, far from family pressure. He cut his hair, grew an amazing mustache, developed a sophisticated European style, and became part of the NYC gay scene. He no longer wore bell-bottoms with raggedy hems when I picked him up from the airport. Finally, when the contract ended, we told our families we broke the engagement, blaming it on differences of where we wanted to live. While Kenny didn’t hide his gayness, he didn’t flaunt it either and never officially came out to his family.
“It’s really none of anyone’s damned business,” Kenny told me over the phone one night. “Why should they know anything about me? Or my life? I don’t go asking people if they’re having an affair or who they’re fucking.” He sounded indignant.
“Why rob your family of the chance to prove themselves?”
“They’re strict and stifling. They’d tell me I’m damned to hell for eternity.”
Our strong bond surprised us both, as did our candor, care, and the love we shared as we each dated others, advanced our careers, and even after I met the man I married. Kenny served as a witness in our wedding since my husband had accepted him and our relationship early on without reservation.
“People make public pronouncements every day,” I said. “Isn’t that marriage in a nutshell?”
“Not for people like me. We’re stuck flying under the radar, considered criminals in a lot of places.”
“Maybe things will change. Everyone loves the Village People,” I said.
“You still tell bad jokes,” he said.
A few year later HIV/AIDS emerged as a mysterious disease, one then without a name, one that incited fear in my colleagues, some of whom refused to treat patients with it. I began interrogating Kenny about his choices until he finally told me to stop. But I couldn’t. He didn’t see the hysteria, the protocols for double gloves, goggles, and face masks, the opportunistic infections killing people, the derision and panic among my co‑workers, the slow, torturous deaths. The fear.
“I’m doing everything with everybody, Hope honey. This is not a dress rehearsal. This is my life. If I ever need a nurse, I’ll call you first,” he said, as if he was now telling bad jokes.
He did call me first, but only after he couldn’t hide being sick anymore and lacked the energy to work. Kaposi sarcoma lesions covered his upper back. His doctor told him to get his affairs in order. My husband and I moved Kenny into our home, transforming the den into his room with a hospital bed. Our families scolded us, told us we were endangering our sons, but how could I turn my back on my best friend, a man I’d loved for so long? My husband, knowing the stakes, embraced kindness, saying our sons would learn more by what we do than what we say. Kenny’s family helped, though I doubt they connected the cancer to HIV/AIDS, or maybe they chose not to know.
Kenny. I can talk about him now. Sometimes, when I’m alone in the house, when my husband and now adult sons are out, when the radio and television are off and silence drapes the house, a cardinal with its red beak, its black mask under its silly, feathery crown, flutters outside the windows of the den. Kenny’s presence fills the room with the joy he radiated when he was alive, and endless waves of a deep, abiding, unconditional love wash over me, paralyzing me to the point of tears. It comes at the most unexpected times with no logical explanation to account for the sensation of bliss that overcomes me.
Rosalia Scalia’s fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in The Oklahoma Review, North Atlantic Review, Notre Dame Review, The Portland Review, and Quercus Review, among many others. She holds an MA in writing from Johns Hopkins University and is a Maryland State Arts Council Independent Artist's Award recipient. She won the Editor's Select award from Willow Review and her short story in Pebble Lake was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. She lives in Baltimore City with her family.