The customer was sitting in a dark corner of the bar. He looked paler and more alone than usual, and was wearing a suit. There was a bonsai tree on the table in front of him. I'd had too much to drink the night before (stupid, stupid, stupid) and had told him - a customer - about me.
Back in those days, I didn't see any option but to keep my illness a secret at my job, until I could make enough money to go far away, discretely, for good. Now I was going to fuck it all up telling customers - when I didn't even have any friends I could trust. It was hard enough to lie already; my heart wasn't in it. How was I going to continue working with him sitting there knowing?
I bummed a cigarette from a bartender who said he was a writer. Then I walked over to the man's table, sat down, and lit the cigarette with the candle by the tree, the flame warming my face.
"What's with the little tree?" I asked.
"It's for you. For luck and long life."
I closed my eyes.
He said, "I'm never coming back to one of these places again."
"You know," I said, "It has nothing to do with this place."
"I don't care," he said. "I love you."
"You have something important to tell me?" my mother said.
She was cupping water in her hands and spilling it with unbearable sweetness, like a baptism, over the dying bonsai tree in the kitchen sink. I wanted to scream.
My brother had quietly orchestrated the whole thing, flying in from New Orleans and arranging for Mom and my stepfather to come. They were so happy to finally see where I lived. I'd been out of touch for years.
My brother hadn't pushed or questioned me all weekend, until a few minutes ago, an hour before they were to leave. Taking me aside, he'd said, "Now. Tell them now."
"I cannot do it, " I'd said. "I can't."
So he'd arranged that, too.
"You have something important to tell me?' my mother was saying.
I was sitting in my window seat in the warm, paned light, watching the water spill from my mother's fingers onto the brown tree.
My mother kept cupping the water, tears now streaming down her cheeks and dropping on the tree.
"Charles."she said, her voice steady but loud. My stepfather was in the other room. "Charles."
He came in.
"She has something to tell you."
"What is it honey?" he asked, a smile on his face as if expecting a joke.
I couldn't find my voice.
"HIV," my mother said.
"Oh - " his voice breaking - "honey...."