I met Orlando one sweltering fall day in New York City in the 80’s. He shuffled into the diner where I worked the lunch and dinner shift, and took a seat in front of an open floor-to-ceiling window. He folded his lanky form into the chair and clasped his slender hands together, resting his chin upon them. He had a shock of silky black hair and soulful brown eyes. As I approached his table with a menu, I noticed the dog sitting outside, tied to the No Parking sign; a gorgeous Afghan hound with eyes as dark and soulful as her master’s. Minimal words were exchanged that first day. He ordered his meal. I delivered it. He paid his check, then shuffled slowly out the door.
During his third visit, I learned his name. I spotted it on the hospital bracelet dangling from one slender wrist. I was curious but didn’t ask.
He started coming in every Tuesday and Thursday afternoon, his dog waiting patiently outside as he ate his lunch. As this wasn’t a busy time, we began chatting, and I learned he was undergoing treatment for AIDS at the hospital down the street. At the time, all we knew about this disease was that it constituted a death sentence, and seemed to only strike homosexual men. The hospital was apparently one of several in New York City treating men who showed symptoms. As I got to know Orlando, I learned he possessed a fierce desire to live and would do almost anything to extend his life. In the short time since his diagnosis, he had consulted three psychics for healing spells (which had not worked) and joined prayer a prayer circle (who kicked him out after learning he was gay and had AIDS). He was currently trekking from his apartment near Columbus Circle out to Queens, where he had joined a Buddhist community. He showed me the prayer beads he carried everywhere, and taught me a few of the phrases he chanted numerous times every day.
I tried to sympathize, but didn’t understand his obsession with living. Three months earlier, I had overdosed on Valium, intending to fall asleep and never wake up again. The attempt was meant to be the final act in a life that had derailed miserably after I’d become addicted to cocaine, then ventured toward heroin. The suicide attempt had not worked, as I’d been discovered and rushed to the same hospital where Orlando was being treated. Unlike his prognosis, doctors had been able to save me by pumping my stomach and other uncomfortable stuff. Since that fateful night, I’d been nursing an anger and frustration over not succeeding in my quest at self-annihilation. I’d been in a holding pattern and working at the diner. I needed money to keep the power on in my apartment across the street. I also got to eat for free.
I found myself anticipating Orlando’s visits every Tuesday and Thursday, and looked forward to scratching his dog, Lady’s, ears and giving her a bowl of water and a plate of scraps. I was still angry, frustrated, and despondent over the mess that was my life, but I’d begun hoping Orlando would find a way to prolong his.
One Thursday came and went, with no visit from Orlando. He didn’t show up the following Tuesday, either. When the next Thursday went by with no sign of Orlando, I was sure he had failed in his attempt to live. I was also jealous that he’d succeeded where I’d failed.
The following Tuesday, Orlando was back, looking happy and rested. His pale face had color and he walked with a briskness I’d hadn’t seen before. Excitedly, he told me several friends had pooled their money to send him on a short Caribbean cruise. The weather had been perfect and he’d enjoyed himself immensely. He’d also taken part in a healing ritual at one of the islands they’d visited. He continued going to the Buddhist temple in Queens and was positive he would beat this mysterious disease that had already killed several his friends.
I was happy to see Orlando, but saddened, too. He was fighting such a losing battle. What was there to live for? How could someone with an incurable illness want to prolong the inevitable?
By this time, Orlando had learned about my drug addiction and my failed suicide attempt. He knew how much I hated my life and how much I wanted to end it all. He also knew my most humiliating secret: I was afraid to make another attempt. I was trapped in a horrible limbo: wanting to die, yet afraid to try again, lest I fail (or succeed).
Orlando encouraged me to try Buddhism; to visit his temple, to chant. He brought me a set of prayer beads. I accepted them and stuffed them away in my closet. He painstakingly wrote out chants I never uttered. He brought me a little prayer book he’d “borrowed” from the temple. It joined the beads in my closet.
I continued to live in my self-imposed purgatory, yet I wished Orlando would achieve his quest to prolong his life. It seemed so unfair that someone so passionate about living had been handed a death sentence, while someone who desperately wanted to end her pain was forced to exist.
I said this to Orlando one afternoon, as we drank coffee and watched Lady outside the window, gazing soulfully in at us. He took one of my hands and squeezed it gently.
“Don’t feel bad for me,” he said. “Since being diagnosed with this thing, I have lived more fully than I have lived in years.”
I was confused.
“But, you’re trying so hard to prolong your life,” I remember replying.
He admitted in the months immediately following his diagnosis, he had desperately searched for ways to “undo” his so-called death sentence. But, as he neared the one-year anniversary of his diagnosis, he said he was more accepting of what was to come.
“When the day comes, don’t be sad,” he said.
I didn’t want to think about it, so I stood and collected our dishes, taking them to the kitchen. When I returned to the dining area, he was gone, but he had written a note on his bill:
Learn to live. You deserve it.
I never saw Orlando again, and as I didn’t know any of his friends, I didn’t know whether he had died, moved, or just decided to give another diner a try. I had a feeling, though, that he had known his time was coming, and didn’t want me to see him deteriorate.
One sweltering summer day, I took the subway to Queens, and made my way to the Buddhist temple Orlando had attended. I stood outside for a while, then stepped into the entry. There were shelves on one wall, onto which people had placed their shoes before entering the temple itself. I found an empty space and placed Orlando’s prayer beads and little book and prayer beads into it.
Not long after that, I gave up my apartment in Hell’s Kitchen and moved back to my family’s home in New Jersey, to heal.
And to learn to live.