On the windswept deck of a ferry bound for Patras, Arthur told me he was on his way to die. He’d strolled over to bum a cigarette and escape the fluorescent lights and loud chatter of the lounge, where rusty speakers bleated out the top hits of 1994. I cupped my hand around the lighter as he pulled up the lapel of his coat and leaned in close. It took a half dozen tries before flame. Arthur sat back hard into a plastic white deck chair and exhaled a plume of smoke quickly swallowed into the night around us. The glowing port of Brindisi receded until we were surrounded by oceanic darkness.
“Having AIDS,” he said, “is like slowly disappearing while you’re still alive.” He worried his thumbnail at the peeling paint of a deck pole. The stubble on his thin face was pocked with small bald circles. “Alopecia,” he said when he saw me looking. “From the stress.”
Two weeks earlier, one of my travel companions had departed our rented flat in Prague with his backpack full of dirty laundry. He never returned, and I spent three days scouring the city for traces of him. His disappearance rattled something loose in me, and I carried a crippling sense of dread that weighed more than the backpack I lugged from train depot to depot. I was trying desperately to feel material in this world.
Two of my best friends had come to my rescue from the states, plying me toward normalcy with beer and camaraderie and laughter, and they returned from the commissary with bottles of dark ale. Arthur took a few courteous pulls, then handed the bottle to me. I looked at it in my hand, hesitating for a few beats too long. He smiled and shook his head slightly. I took a long drink of his beer, and then I set the bottle down and took a longer drink from my own. The deck was bathed in sodium halide. Beyond the glow was the pitched absence of light. I knew there were stars out there, but it was easy to forget them in this sphere of peeling paint, an indifferent sea, and the man dying faster than the rest of us.
Before he told me what he was running toward, he told us what he was running from. Back home in NYC, Arthur and his business partner operated the biggest weed delivery service in the country. “We deliver,” he said, “Say it aloud.” Three days earlier, while he was organizing cash in their 25th-floor apartment, his pager vibrated with a 911 from his partner. Moments later, just a 1. “Every queen for himself,” Arthur said. He took the stairs while the police took the elevator, and he was on a flight to Rome a few hours later.
“We’re both running from something,” I said. My friends smiled, but I was gripped with a deep melancholy that wouldn’t recede. I wrote letters and phoned the one I’d left behind when I could afford a calling card, but the pregnant pauses in our conversations were growing larger than the miles I’d pushed between us. It was hard to remember what we were and growing easier to remember what we used to be. I carried that feeling from place to place, like a shadow that wouldn’t break from my heels.
We sat quietly for a few minutes while Arthur concentrated on rolling a thin joint with weed he’d bought from a young man in a Brindisi alley. He leaned toward me again, the joint jutting from between his pursed lips. I fished the lighter from my pocket and battled the wind. The smoke lifted away from us, trembling outward and gone. The space here was numbing, invisible land sliding beneath us while we floated between earth and sky.
“Come back to my berth,” Arthur said to me. “I want to show you something.” My companions eyed me warily, and I passed the joint to the left. The night was growing colder, effervescent sea spray coating the deck like morning dew. We didn’t have a berth, and the interior lounge was already crowded with travelers spreading out sleeping bags and blankets in patchwork flotillas.
I followed Arthur into the belly of the ship. I was suddenly self-conscious about how loudly my sandals flopped in the bright quiet. He stopped abruptly, checking the fob on his key to make sure it matched the number on the door. “Every fucking one looks exactly the same,” he said.
His berth was small and simple. It smelled like fresh paint layered over something less fresh. There were no windows. The room was lit by a single bare bulb swaying in a slow parabola. A pair of bunk beds dominated the space. His duffel and its contents were strewn across the bottom bunk. “Hold on,” he said, and he swept everything onto the floor. “There. Sit down.” My head was buzzing with beer and weed, and I stepped carefully over his belongings and sat on the edge of the bed.
Arthur fished through the duffel and found a creased envelope. He climbed into the top bunk, his head opposite my feet, and folded a pillow in half behind him, propping himself up. “This is a letter one of my clients sent me,” he said. “Close your eyes. Try to picture it.” He cleared his throat. “Wait,” he said. “Can I get you anything first? You want me to roll another joint?”
“No,” I said. “I’m okay.”
He smoothed the paper. I leaned back against the starch-stiff pillowcase and swung my legs up onto the mattress. My sandals were dark and worn against the white sheets, and I thought about kicking them off, but Arthur began reading.
Imagine a colony. A place where everyone shares the same condition. Bungalows stacked along a white-sand beach reaching into an impossibly-blue sea. You can like who you want, love who you want, fuck who you want—and the only consequences are the complicated, messy, human ones. No condoms required, which feels like a victory. DJs fly in on private jets. There is cocaine and ecstasy for the dancing and, later, valium and oxycodone and morphine for the dying. Five hundred dollars a week to share a bungalow with a man leaving the earth the same way we will. Eight hundred dollars gets you the space to die alone, exactly who you are, exactly who you want to be. We all disappear alone, together.
“You see,” he said. “I’m trying to find the right place to disappear.”
He climbed down from the upper bunk and rifled through the duffel, then turned toward me with a thick fold of US dollars in his hand.
“Take this,” he said. I shook my head. “Really,” he said, “I have more than I can use, and you and your friends are sleeping on the deck of a ferry.”
“I can’t,” I said.
“Please,” he said. “There’s no one else to give it to.” He tucked the money into the breast pocket of my flannel.
I stood up from the bunk. Arthur rose from his squatting position and reached out to put his hands on my shoulders, then paused. His arms quavered there and I nodded. His face relaxed and he gripped my shoulders tightly. His hands were shaking almost imperceptibly.
“You don’t want to vanish,” he said. “Make sure you do the work.” The ferry rocked on its ballast beneath our feet.
He bent to scoop his belongings into the duffel, and I squatted down to help him. I had never been so close to someone whose death was imminent. He had drawn up a clear blueprint for the last months of his life, and I was using an erasable pen to poach extra trips on my Eurail pass.
When I got back to the deck, my friends were already asleep, faces buried in their sleeping bags. I unrolled my bag and climbed inside. The sky was canvassed with fog, the blackness swapped with an ambiguous gray. I closed my eyes and imagined what it might feel like to dissolve slowly, to fade away in tiny increments like a retinal imprint. At some moment indistinguishable from any other moment, I disappeared into sleep.
I awoke to the limpid morning sunlight, the scuttling of gulls strafing the deck. Passengers were already queuing up to disembark. We gathered our belongings, and I scanned the crowd for Arthur. I thought I saw him once, but when the man turned his beard was full, his face portly. We continued to look for him, but it was soon clear he had decamped, disappeared like an ephemeral spring in the summer heat.
The three of us walked side by side down the gangplank. The port was bustling, frenetic. It felt good to be silent, to settle into the weight of the pack pressing down on my shoulders. We all carry what we can. I looked at my friends and imagined the things we might do to keep from vanishing. In my pocket was a calling card with minutes remaining, the roll of cash Arthur had gifted us. I was buoyed beneath the pale sun, moving toward and from something simultaneously. We would work to stay in this world, each one of us alone. We would do it alone, together.
Jad Josey lives on a special stretch of coastline in California with his wife and three children (and one silly-large cat). When he’s not writing, he manages a company hell-bent on keeping VW campers on the road. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Glimmer Train, Palooka, Jellyfish Review, Lost Balloon, (b)OINK, and elsewhere. Reach out on Twitter at @jadjosey or check out www.jadjosey.com.