During the AIDS epidemic, San Francisco SPCA volunteers
and their pets visited hospitals throughout the city.
By then I had been to the memorial quilt
laid out in the vast caverns of Moscone Center,
its glittery panels festooned with rainbows,
pink triangles, fancy fringed cowboy shirts,
tiaras, even a magic wand with streamers
and a star. People walked the edges
in a wobbly procession, reading names,
holding themselves, being held,
while boxes of tissues sat in the shadows
like chaplains with little to offer. By then
I had seen the young men, gaunt and weary,
as they rode the train to the Sunset District.
They gazed at the floor or out the windows
as lights came on, lovers found each other,
friends walked arm in arm to dinner.
But it wasn’t for them I went to the hospital.
I went for anyone who might be there. I went
where they sent me, because I was weary
in a different way, and because I had a cat
named Butch, benevolent and fat, perfect
for the job. The nurse glanced up the hall
and led us to a locked ward. Nurses know
when doctors are out on rounds or napping
in the lounge. Nurses know what risk is
and what it is not. You don’t worry
about toxoplasmosis when hope is gone.
She left us in a room where a man lay
motionless on his back, his dark hair
boyish, his eyes clear, his smile frozen
yet radiant. His hands were as flat and stiff
as gloves lost to a storm, the bones
of his body a topographical map.
Butch squeezed through the bedrails,
settled his massive body against the frail one.
The man lifted his arms, skimmed his palms
over Butch’s fur. Between the ears. Down
the neck. Along the back. Over, over,
over. He never spoke, never took his eyes
away from mine. If you want to know
what I remember most about that time,
it would be that room: the three of us
ephemeral, eternal, holding each other,
being held in the incandescent emptiness
of the pink triangle I still carry.
Brett Warren is an editor whose poetry has been published in The Comstock Review, Green Fuse, Halfway Down the Stairs, Cape Cod Poetry Review, Unbroken, Right Hand Pointing, and Provincetown Magazine, among others. She holds a BA in English literature from the University of California, Santa Barbara, and lives in Massachusetts with her husband and two smart-alecky blind cats.