Parting Gifts

by Kevin Isom

On the day of his 27th birthday, Martin moved to Atlanta and invested in hair.

He'd been losing his own hair for some time, but now his illness was progressing and his bald spot was growing. Martin decided that if his time on earth was to be limited by AIDS, then, by gum, he was going to have hair. He cashed in a life insurance policy and plunked down three thousand dollars for the best hair-replacement money could buy.

I met Martin shortly after he'd done the deed, and I watched, silently amused, as he spoke animatedly about how the hair would be imported all the way from Europe and matched perfectly to his own. His green eyes sparkled, and a flush rose to his hollow cheeks. I found myself hoping that the hair harvest in Europe would be particularly good this year.

That was when I first felt drawn to Martin. Anyone quirky enough to be enthusiastic about strands of dead protein was clearly someone I could care about.

As we became better acquainted, he would call every few days to ask me to walk through Piedmont Park with him, to see if the colors of the sky had changed any. He said he could discern a difference in the blue every day, and that if you watched carefully enough, you could see a whole range of hues and shades over time.

We would spread out our blanket and lie on our backs on the hillside, watching the sky above us. I would point at the clouds and joke that this one looked like Bill Clinton standing firm, or that one looked like Newt Gingrich presiding over his lesbian sister's wedding. Martin would only glance at me quizzically and say, "You're insulting the clouds."

As the days and weeks passed, we moved closer on the blanket, until our shoulders began to touch. It was a pleasant closeness, and good for talking on our observatory hill. I began to wonder how I could ever bear to say goodbye to Martin, so I quietly started to treat each day as if it were a moment of a continuing farewell.

Martin, though, was never without a plan. Now that he had hair, he wanted the next logical thing for a person slowly dying. A permanent lifemate. Martin wrote a letter to Jake, a past beau in another city. In less time than it had taken to get hair, he and Jake had rekindled their relationship, and Martin was planning to move so that he could be with Jake. Focus evidently pays off.

The day before the move, Martin brought a bottle of champagne to Piedmont Park, to celebrate on our hill. I didn't feel particularly jovial, but I raised my glass to his.

"Bottoms up!" I said.

"That's strange," Martin replied.

"What is?"

"Well, isn't that an awkward position to drink champagne?" I knew I would miss this man.

As we drank our champagne, Martin said, "Wait, that's not all." He pulled a small brown envelope from his pocket, as a smile played around the edges of his lips. "I want you to open this after I'm gone," he said. "But not before, understand?"

"You're only going to Birmingham, Martin," I replied. Still, I knew what he meant. I tucked the envelope into my pocket and put my arm around Martin's shoulders. We watched the sun descend over the Atlanta skyline, as the blues were joined by red, purple, and gold. For a moment, colors made the world.

Martin wrote to me from Birmingham to tell me about his newest projects. He was helping Jake remodel his house. "I nearly drank a pint of lacquer the other day by mistake," he wrote. "It might have killed me, but what a finish." I winced, but at least I knew he was okay.

Six months later, Martin died quietly in Jake's arms, beneath skies he could no longer see after blindness had set in. Strange, then, that suddenly all I could see was blue.

I kept the envelope he had given me on my desk for months, as if by not opening it, I could keep Martin around. Until one morning, when my curiosity outweighed my sadness, I picked up the envelope and tore it open carefully. There, nestled in blue tissue, was a small strand of Martin's hair. Or at least the European version thereof.

The note attached read, "Genuine Italian hair. You may pet it and play with it, but, please, don't tease it. Love, Martin." No doubt about it. This was clearly someone quirky enough for me to care about. Someone well worth the long goodbye.

Kevin Isom's columns appear regularly in newspapers and magazines throughout the U.S. and Canada. Other work has appeared in Paris Transcontinental and The Harvard Gay & Lesbian Review.
©1996 Oasis Magazine. All Rights Reserved.