“THE FRUIT BAT”

The nickname came first. His real name was Rudy, which the kids rhymed to Fruity. He looked it up online to make sure, but they all knew they meant he was gay. He just liked to look things up. The suggestion was that a “fruit” was easy-pickin’s, soft and pretty, low-hanging, as though gay and female gender characteristics were the same thing. He was more tough-minded than most of the guys, which they never realized, so he sort of picked up their “fruit” thing and ran with it.

He was a pretty good artist and began to specialize in paintings of piles of fruit that had, when you looked closely, the spheres of skulls and the long banana curves of snakes mixed in with the apples and oranges. He liked the textures, the reticulations and blushes, making their skins gleam, seemingly wet, beaded with some mysterious fluid or honey, and sometimes bruised with rot. The guys thought that was cool. They all called his paintings “Forbidden Fruit.” Like they knew what that meant. None knew anything about the Garden of Eden and almost everyone was under sixteen.

He didn’t always go to their level — literally. He loved parcours, high running over the buildings of the city, and since it was a warm climate place with lots of room for buildings to spread out instead of being high-rises — but a high crime rate so there were lots of connecting walls — it was pretty easy. The roofs in this dry place didn’t have a lot of pitch. There were almost paths across the skyline and ridges. He went out at night. In the daytime he had his favorite places to sleep, roosting near building exhausts if it were cool. So that accounted for the “bat” part of his nickname.

Lately the name had taken on a more ominous meaning, because ebola was a plague on the land and the virus was said to be carried by fruit bats with their sharp faces and wingspans a yard wide. The town wasn’t in Africa, but still . . .
He had not told the guys that he was HIV positive. How it came about was the same as usual — meaning it just sort of happened. He wasn’t having sex or anything. Not exactly. No IV drugs. But it was sort of a footnote to a life with a lot of subtle complexities that didn’t bear monitoring. For all he knew, he’d gotten HIV from his mother at birth.

He and his mother had lived in an old hotel that the college had used for dorms, but then times got good for them and the college built a proper dorm, so this sagging warren of rooms off halls just sort of devolved. His mother had birthed him young, which was why her family threw her out, but it was a rich family and somehow a trickle of money always got to her. She was an addict in a classical way: opium. Most of the time she was nodded out, so he just took care of the two of them.

This is not Hong.

Across the hall was a guy named Hong who had AIDS, not just HIV. He was a Ph.D. ethics scholar, very gentle and quiet. He looked out for Fruity and his mom. Then one day the mom just disappeared. No one saw her go, except someone said a taxi came for her. She might have died or been locked up somewhere. Eviction notices had come for the little studio apartment. She would not have left him if she’d thought of him, but she forgot everything. He just moved across the hall to live with Hong.

Hong made his living by contracting to grade papers for professors who preferred to give lectures and write their own books. He made careful marginal notes analyzing structure and explaining grammar but didn’t much address the content. At first he paid Fruity to be his courier since he hated to leave the building. Then, since as he said, Fruity was already his sub-contractor, he trusted him to correct the multiple choice test answer sheets.

That went well until optical scanners were invented. But by that time he was painting and they sold well on campus. Kids love that kind of stuff: the grotesque, the dangerous, whatever they were pretty sure their parents would hate. As every artist should, he had a good line of talk, thanks to Hong, who often discussed the papers he was working on. They sat with their shoulders together at the little kitchen table and talked about choices and situations and rule-based decisions.

When they fell in love it was not really like falling, but more like a natural progression, and the ethics of it seemed obvious, a matter of affinity and then bonding in which the physical merely followed the emotional. It was like eating the fruit after it had been painted so that it wouldn’t spoil. The skulls and snakes were there, but weren’t they organic and natural? Wasn’t the demonizing of them, the suggestions of death, only a way of dealing with the reality that was part of their lives?

Not that they were stupid. Hong maintained his regime and checkups. He got Fruity signed up with an invented student identity so he had access to HIV meds. They researched via their smart phones. And they were careful not to have sex with others because that would be wrong, quite apart from the infection, because it would break the intimacy that was their justification. They ate carefully, calculating nutrition and staying on schedule.

In spite of it all, Hong died. No one knew the Fruit Bat existed except some students and they didn’t know anything specific — just assumed. The apartment eviction notice came but by that time the Fruit Bat had been doing parkours long enough to know the roofs of the town and campus well, even places where he could stash his canvasboard and paints, though he mostly never kept more than he could carry in his backpack.

He was thin but graceful with eyes that were observant but never stared. People liked him and bought him coffee and doughnuts for the sake of his conversation, but he found he was running short on protein and learned to net pigeons to roast over a small camp stove. He reflected on the ethics and decided that pigeons were natural prey, meant to be eaten. He felt invincible, above it all, and enjoyed watching the people down below. His favorite place was the top of the chemistry building where the long graceful limb of an elm shaded one corner.

Then he saw the real bats. They had found a vent that gave access to an under-roof. At sundown they poured out like a vapor, barely noticeable unless one were prepared and watching. They were silent. He found one dropped on his roof, not quite dead, and examined it closely, carefully using a stick. It had a white nose. When he recharged his cell phone in the library that afternoon, he used the big computers to read up on the fungus that was killing off the bats across the country. Like the fungus that had killed off the frogs. All the little creatures. A bat is a predator, though it only eats insects. What is a fungus? Or a virus? Were they even alive? He had been feeling feverish. He was out of compliance with meds.

That evening, for the first time, he missed his footing and fell. The skull and snake had found him. In the short moments while the Fruit Bat was more or less really flying, he remembered that one of the topics with Hong was what people thought if they were about to die and knew it. Life flashing and so on. For him, the answer turned out to be, “I’m coming.” He had barely time to wonder if that were a sexual pun.

His autopsy was done by a sophisticated college crew. They found he was carrying the microbes for HIV, pneumonia. athlete’s foot, some minor infections and psittacosis but not rabies. They thought he had jumped on purpose and wrote “suicide” as the cause of death. But they were wrong. Who ever knows what goes on in another person’s mind?

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