The Apple Tree

A short story by Gordon Sombrowski

Georgie sighs, looks out the window, thinks to himself, how pretty the apple tree is. He is right. The first blossoms are about to burst courageous. Georgie thinks, I wish I could be that apple tree. The apple tree has stood for about a hundred years, in the garden, across the street from his apartment building. The apple tree has gnarled boughs, twisted stems, a few hollows and holes where squirrels or birds have nested and, still, it stands, and every year it bears fruit. Though for the first time in all its span, it almost didn’t make the last winter. Its neighbour, the big spruce next door, lost its top in a windstorm, and ten metres of tree came crashing down thirty metres to fall right next to the apple tree. The old apple shrugged it off, hardly noticing that the crown of the spruce had pulled down one old dried out bough, and a part of the strand of Christmas lights strung along the stems of the apple tree.

Georgie looks out the window and plans his day. His Covid day. That is what he calls each day, Covid day one, Covid day two, now it is Covid day fifty-three. Every day so much like the next: breakfast, lunch, dinner, a walk down to the river, a walk around in the town park, a walk along the empty streets. All of it alone. Everyday Georgie is alone, but for the one day a week he drives to the grocery store, early when no one is there, he buys his groceries, his mask in place. But Georgie is not really alone. He has the internet.

Tom is the best of his many acquaintances, and he spends time online with them and Tom and with a bunch of the gang at work. He has organized to have a drink or dinner with Tom once or twice a week, and he always has drinks with his colleagues on Fridays, otherwise casual drinks or coffee with his other acquaintances all mediated by the computer screen.

Georgie has become an expert at internet socializing. He has discovered that he likes internet socializing, it is safe, and fills his need for company. It has not escaped his notice that this internet socializing, looking at a screen to see an image that is like the person, but is not the person, is a lot like pornography.

Georgie likes pornography. It is safe. Years ago he was in a bookstore that carried a lot of magazines, and there in the darkest back corner, he saw hidden on the highest shelf, above the magazines of pictures with nearly naked women on the cover, a magazine with a nearly naked man on the cover. He looked over his shoulder to be sure that no one was in that part of the store, and then he took the magazine down from the shelf and his fingers trembled with fear but gripped with joy as he flipped through the pages, there were so many beautiful men.

Georgie took the magazine and hid it under some of the naked women magazines he used as camouflage. He quickly walked up to the cashier, a bored old man who didn’t even seem to notice that Georgie had a magazine with naked men in it. Georgie fled the store and drove home as quickly as he could. At home, he threw the naked women magazines into the garbage and then slowly and carefully looked at all the men on the pages of the magazine. From then on Georgie was hooked, porn let him have some sort of sex life, alone, no risk of AIDS, no need for anyone to know. From magazines eventually Georgie was led to VHS and CD’s and now on the internet, Georgie’s sex life was celluloid and safe. Though, he had reached a point some years ago where he had begun to realize he preferred a good cup of coffee and a doughnut to looking at a naked body.

And now Georgie is hooked on internet socializing, he can drink his coffee or his gin and tonic or a good glass of wine depending on the time of day and eat whatever befits the occasion, and he can chatter as much as he wants and all of it is safe. And life can go on almost as though nothing has changed.

Georgie thinks, I could live like this the rest of my days – if I had the money. But Georgie knows he will have to go back to work at some point. As he said to Tom during dinner on Covid day 42, while Tom’s face hovered on his screen, “the government isn’t going to let us stay home indefinitely, Covid or not, we’re going to have to go back to work sometime. Otherwise, everyone will eventually be starving.”

“What do you mean starving,” Tom asked.

Georgie almost rolled his eyes; Tom could be stupid at times, “Tom if no one is working how is anyone growing food and transporting food and making all the many other things that we need. Eventually we all have to go back to work, or things will stop. Of course, you and me, Tom, we only have a few more years, and then we can finally stop working.”

Georgie had smiled to himself, slyly. He did only have a few more years until the Canada Pension kicked in, and if he carefully used his savings with the pension, he could stop working. He had added for Tom’s benefit, “and then I am going to do exactly as I want every day. No more having to do what the boss says, yes Tom, I will be my own boss, I will start the day with a mimosa, and finish it with a port, and never worry about having a hangover or being drunk at lunch or dinner.”

Georgie hardly drank alcohol, and so Tom just smiled and said, “I suppose you could Georgie, but as I keep reminding you, I’m hoping you’ll join me in some travelling.” Tom was always trying to get Georgie to do things together. Georgie mostly found excuses to avoid Tom’s suggestions.

Georgie nodded, “if we’re ever allowed to travel again.”

Georgie didn’t add, he would be happier if he could just watch travel shows and talk to Tom over the internet, and if the urge ever took him again he would find the right porn, and he wouldn’t have to leave the apartment ever, so long as the pension cheque came.

Georgie smiles as a robin chases another robin out of the apple tree, he has lived through a few crises, epidemics, pandemics, plagues, call them what you will, the four horsemen riding. Now he says aloud to the window, to the tree, “I will live through another.”

Georgie doesn’t remember the thalidomide crisis. His mother told him, he was born during that scare. She said, “I was so worried you would be one of those babies.”

She said, “Georgie, I was so scared about it that I wouldn’t take any pills of any kind, though the morning sickness was terrible.” And then she laughed and added, “and yet, and yet, we were scared about the atom bomb then too. So, who knows? Who knows.”

Georgie remembered those words, “Who knows”, and he would wonder what she meant. Over the years, Georgie sometimes wondered if she wouldn’t have preferred a thalidomide baby to the son she got.

Georgie remembers the 1968 pandemic, but not very much, beyond a vague feeling that there was something that was making his parents a little bit nervous, a little bit, maybe jumpy. The only thing he does remember is that it was called Hong Kong Flu. Georgie doesn’t remember it being a big deal, except when he thinks really hard he feels like the kids in his school might have made fun of the kids who looked to be of Asian background, though he can’t remember, the haze of childhood merging all that was bad with fears of the bogeyman.

But Georgie does remember a plague, a pestilence, a pandemic. Georgie’s entire adult life has been defined by that plague.

Georgie remembers the first time he heard of it: the gay plague. Not the exact day and time, but the year, he knows the year, and he remembers the day. It was hot, and he was lying in the sun, in his speedo, working on his tan. He was on the wharf of a mountain lake at the cabin his family rented each summer. He still clearly remembers the exact feeling when he read the words “Homosexuals Dying from Immune System Disorder,” he quickly scanned the article about an immune disorder leading to deaths in gay men. The words bored from his eyes into his ears. His ears hurt from an intense sonic ringing. The warm glow of the sun suddenly scorched hot, hot like a burning skillet being hit against his body and suddenly he was sweating, and he wanted to tear his skin from his limbs and torso. He tried to breathe. He carefully folded the newspaper together, hiding it under his towel. He stood up; his eyes teared, he walked to the edge of the wharf and dived into the water. He tried to stay under the water for as long as possible. His lungs tore for air but he didn’t want to surface. Even in the cold water he was burning up. Like all the flames of hell were searing him inside and out.

Georgie remembers those exact words, even now some forty years later. “Homosexuals Dying from Immune System Disorder”. He will never forget them.

That was the day Georgie decided he would not be gay. He said it under his breath when he looked at the mirror in the morning, he said it aloud when he looked at the mirror while he was preparing for bed at night. He said it when he was falling asleep, like a prayer, over and over like a mantra, “I am not gay. I am not gay. I am not gay.”

If to be gay meant that you had the disease and you were marked to die, in a horrible way, in a way that let people know you were gay: well, then Georgie wasn’t gay. Didn’t want to die for being gay. Georgie would say to himself, “You’re not really gay. I mean, Georgie, you like looking at pictures of beautiful women, hell you even fantasized about Mariel Hemingway, the other night.” Conveniently neglecting to remember that it was the photo in which she most looked like a youth.

It was true that at the time Georgie had very limited experience with gay sex, he fumbled about a young man in his dorm at university, but he also fumbled around with a young woman. Both events had been unremarkable and yet memorably unpleasant: mostly because they had both left him feeling there was something distasteful about sex. The woman had smelled all wrong, her body was too soft, and he had found their fumbling repulsive. The man had felt and smelled right, but it had all withered when Georgie heard him say, “Lord forgive me,” even as he kissed Georgie.

Those nights, under the covers, in the dark, when he heard his roommate was sleeping Georgie would think of the kisses and of the beautiful young men he saw daily walking the campus. Their likenesses to David Cassidy or if they were a bit older Paul Newman, the radiant glow of their masculinity burning him with exquisite painful embers of lust and shame.

But then came that damn inconvenient news story, and the ones that followed, all of them telling Georgie being gay meant you were going to die a horrible, horrible death. Georgie knew he had to beat the gay thing. He started dating some of the women at the university.

The dates all ran according to a similar formula. He would ask a woman out; she would be delighted. They would go to the most expensive restaurants in the city. Georgie would spend on better wines and order pricy dishes to impress. The woman would seem happy with the date. The moment of the good night kiss would come, Georgie would machinate feebly so that it was some sort of combination of kiss on the cheek, kiss on the lips, or whatever a more aggressive woman led it to be. But there was never a second date. Georgie felt dirty after every date, like he was cheating. And finally, Georgie gave it up. His bank account was happier, even though he was not.

His dorm mates always seemed to be impressed by the legal secretaries and nurses that Georgie preferred to ask out. The boys teased him rather crudely about what he got up to with these dates. Georgie didn’t tell them that mostly he simply drove around town after dropping off the date so that it looked like he had scored. When Georgie, finally, too disgusted with himself to continue, suddenly stopped going out on dates, he offered the excuse, “too much studying to do,” and as it was close to final exams the boys in his dorm didn’t think too much about it.

After a summer of working two jobs, and almost every waking hour, Georgie returned to university for the autumn term. He didn’t return to the dorm. Over the summer, he had decided it was easier to live alone. To not have to play the charade he had played every day in the dorm. He found a small studio apartment.

The term went well. One night, finished with studying, finished with being alone so much, for by this time Georgie had lost touch with all the boys at the dorm, Georgie decided to go out. He would have sworn he didn’t know where he was going. It was as though his intuition knew where to take him. He drove around the city looking at the bright lights, drove past the hookers on the stroll, and seemed to involuntarily park near the building that housed, “The Park,” the biggest gay club in the city. He looked at the small sign, the long dark passage to the entrance, and as though compunction was lifted by loneliness or lust or the longing for love, or just a touch, he left his car and went to the door of the club and opened it. Later he thought he must have been in a trance. He suddenly felt brazen, the doorman, a big beefy handsome man, took a look at him and let him in.

Inside the club the smell of men overwhelmed him: this was not the smell of a locker room which he didn’t really like, this was the smell of men yearning and succumbing and something else, something almost elysian it was so intoxicating, musk and orange blossom and hints of sandalwood and rosewood. There were several hundred men in the room, most in t-shirts and jeans, or no t-shirts and the tightest of 501s and work boots, their skin glistening as they danced.

Georgie’s heart was taken over by the bass beat, valves pulsing to this new rhythm, his feet began tapping, his legs following, his body throbbing as he was pulled into the teeming dancers. He could feel their bodies, their muscles brush up against his own, like questions, and he grinned in reply. The vigour of the dancing, repetition of the beat, the movement tranquilized Georgie’s mind, and he began to look around the room. He marveled at the joy he saw around him, at the exuberance of the dancers, at the gleam of sex in the eyes of some of the men, at the beauty of their bodies in tight shirts and jeans or shorts, the glittery little gold shorts fashionable then, and the sweaty bare pecs of the bartenders.

He danced until he was thirsty, and he decided he should have a drink, the bar was busy, but one of the bartenders caught his eye and he ordered a Greyhound, hoping it sounded cool enough. As he surveyed the room, he noticed some of the men leaned against the walls of the club. These men wore t-shirts that strained so that they were almost torn, or had naked chests, shirts hanging from back pockets, their jeans so tight the top button sometimes open. These men seemed to grimace in his direction, their stare intense, they frightened him, bulls in heat or hatred. He looked away from them to others whose faces seemed more kindly. He noticed a blond fellow, his shirt tight, but not too tight. The young man’s face had softer contours, large almond eyes, he smiled at Georgie, and it was a kindly smile. The young man walked directly over to Georgie and again smiled this time with more teeth and said, “Hi”.

Even over the loud pump of the music Georgie could hear a sweet drawl. The man began to talk to Georgie, who, between the music, the accent, and the nerves blocking his ears, couldn’t understand much. He replied to what he saw in the man’s eyes, with nods and smiles, and slowly he responded to the pressure of the man’s knee on his own. The man pulled Georgie toward him and said into Georgie’s ear, “let’s get out of here.”

The man’s firm hot fingers entwined themselves in Georgie’s and the man tugged Georgie towards the exit. Georgie let the pull draw him and he followed; at the door, the bouncer laughed and said, “Sure didn’t take you long honey.”

Georgie smiled. It made him feel good, made him feel like he was desirable. The man who was tugging him forward so insistently was beautiful. His blond hair, his lithe, muscular body, and deep blue eyes, with dark eyelashes so long they looked like they had been mascaraed and the dark eyebrows of a dancer in a harem.

Outside, the thumping of the music played on in Georgie’s ears, but now he could hear the purr of the drawl of the man, “Cole,” the man said, “you?”

Georgie, asked, “What?”

“What’s your name?”

“Oh,” Georgie realized he was tittering nervously, he said, “Georgie” instantly regretting it, and wishing he had said, George.

“Georgie, that’s sweet.”

Georgie laughed nervously, “Not sexy like Cole. Sorry.”

“No, no, I like Georgie.”

The two of them were out in the street, walking in the cooling evening air. Georgie’s fingers entwined in Cole’s. They passed near a dark vestibule and Cole pulled Georgie into it. In the darkness Cole’s mouth found Georgie, and Georgie could hardly breathe, but Cole’s mouth insisted, and Georgie’s responded. Instinct and urge took over, and Georgie let Cole do what he wanted, and what Georgie realized, as it all happened, was that he wanted it too. It wasn’t much, some kissing, and some sucking and slurping and two men who didn’t know each other at all sharing something so intimate that Georgie marveled that he felt no shame, that it could be so beautiful. Cole knew which words to use, and they made Georgie feel that this was right, that it was good to be alive, good to be Georgie.

Intoxicated by another human being – was such a thing possible?

Georgie asked the question the next morning. He was back at home in his little apartment, where he had fled minutes after waking up next to Cole in the hotel room that Cole had taken him to. Georgie had run out, he was ashamed of it, he had left Cole half-dozing, surprised, wondering and much-worried, saying, “Georgie what’s wrong, what is it, hey, don’t go, you don’t’ have to go yet.”

But Georgie pulled on his clothes and rushed out of the room, running down the corridor, not waiting for the elevator, running down the emergency stairs, running out of the lobby and into the street. He stopped and looked up at the Calgary sky, so blue, so luminous, so unsullied. He looked at the hotel tower. He looked for the window that might be Coles, and he felt another surge of shame, the shame of those who know they have been inhospitable. But then all that was washed away by a cascade of fear. His mind in the same moment it played over Cole’s beautiful body brought from the well of his self-loathing a jagged fear that rasped from his tailbone up his spine and into his head. His only thought I’m going to die. I’m a fag and I’m going to die. And then Georgie wanted to run away from himself.

He ran along the streets of the city, the Sunday morning quiet of streets with few cars and even fewer pedestrians gave him wide berth to run until he collapsed panting and dizzy with exhaustion and fear. He collapsed on the grass of a boulevard and began to cry.

Georgie thought, I must find the car, I must go home. Even that thought frightened him. He forced himself to walk, now slowly, a hopeless pace. “Face it man, you are going to die,” he said.

Georgie thought, you must accept it, Georgie, you must accept that you are going to die, we are all going to die.

At home, Georgie showered, as though he could wash the gay away, until the hot water ran out. Then he wrapped himself in his towel and lay on the bed and looked about the room and felt as though he were trapped, “dress and go out,” he said, “dress and go for another run, dress and get some studying done.”

But he just lay on the bed, and at times he sobbed a little and other times he just stared at the wall, and he recalled how Cole had made him feel, like he was real for the first time, and then he thought, but that is why I am going to die.

He whined, “I’m not gay. I was drunk.”

His conscience laughed back “But you weren’t drunk, you didn’t finish your drink.”

“But I had a drink before I went into that club.”

“But you weren’t drunk, my friend,” opined his conscience.

“But that guy, I was intoxicated with that guy.”

“Why, because you, my little chickadee, are a fag,” upbraided his conscience.

“Maybe I should just go out in a blaze of glory and find as many Coles as I can and die sooner rather than later.”

The silence of the room frightened him.

Then he thought, what about Mom and Dad and all of them? I can’t do that to them. But I’m going to die anyway. I’m going to die because of who I am. How can that be fair?

On Monday Georgie went back to classes, by Tuesday he was able to concentrate enough to work on his assignments, by Wednesday he was studying again, and he had coffee with a classmate, by Thursday Georgie was pretending life was back to normal. By Friday, Georgie was being tugged to go to the club again, and by Saturday night, he was dressing to go to the club, he wanted to find another Cole.

As he dressed, he looked in the mirror, and he thought, you go to that club, and you die. So Georgie took off his tight t-shirt and his jeans and he lay down on the sofa. He started watching TV. He didn’t even know what it was. He lay there wishing himself to get up and go to the club, but the heavy inertia of fear pushed him down into the sofa making him feel it was safest just to lay there and not move. A few times a jag of terror and grief came together to make him cry, for he knew what he was giving up. Eventually, he fell asleep.

Thus, Georgie lived for many months. University and work, and then after university was over, work and work, and work and work. Georgie had many acquaintances from work with whom he would get together for an occasional drink or dinner. His co-workers gossiped amongst themselves, always eventually asking, why despite being given the eye by many women Georgie never went on a date, never had a girlfriend, always went out with the group, always the life of the party, and always the last to leave the party – alone.

During that time Georgie tried to ignore the plague, in the way that people ignore things that are right in front of them all the time. It is easy to ignore things that are so huge they take up the entire field of your vision, try and ignore a mosquito, try and ignore a pebble in your shoe, but something as big as AIDS that was easy for Georgie to ignore because it was in the air he breathed, he was inside it, not outside looking at it.

Yet if anyone mentioned AIDS Georgie quickly changed the subject. He flipped past the stories about AIDS in newspapers or magazines, changed the channel if AIDS came up in the news. Georgie looked away as people died, but not without feeling something. Perhaps he felt too much: not just fear, but terror, and shame and grief and exasperation and the awful, awful knowledge that one day it would be his turn to die and when that day came everyone would know his secret.

At night, when Georgie was alone in his apartment and the TV was off, in that terrible time between distraction and sleep, he would stand naked in front of the mirror. He looked over every inch of his body. He looked for lesions, Kaposi’s Sarcoma lesions. Mostly the moles and marks didn’t change, but now and then he would find a bruise or see a mark he hadn’t noticed before, and his heart would beat faster, and he would take a pen, and he would circle the spot and then check it day after day to see what happened. Waiting for the bruise to disappear or the mark to grow.

Next, he leaned into the mirror and stuck his tongue out. He looked at the speckled pinkness and he wondered if the colour was right. If the light pasty white that he saw at the back of his tongue was thrush or if it was just his tongue. He couldn’t remember what his tongue had looked like before AIDS, so he didn’t know, though he looked at pictures of tongues with thrush – he thought mine looks like that, but maybe a little bit less.

Then in the dark in bed, he felt his lymph nodes: neck, armpits, and groin. He wondered, is this what they are supposed to feel like? He would touch them over and over until they were sore or until distracted, he would wonder about other symptoms. And he thought, what happens then?

Often, he would say out loud, defiantly to the darkness in the room, “Until then, I will live and wait my turn, and when I have the first symptom, I will kill myself, so no one knows.” And he would often fall asleep thinking about ways in which he could take his life so that no one would know.

And then it had a name: AIDS. Georgie also remembers the day when he heard the news that AIDS wasn’t just a disease you got because you were gay; it was a disease you got because you had sex with someone who had the disease, and gave it to you. Georgie’s first thought as he heard the news was, “Did Cole give me AIDS?”

From that day on, Georgie bargained, if Cole hadn’t given him AIDS, he didn’t have it, and so long as he didn’t come in contact with anyone gay, he wouldn’t get it.

On good days Georgie would feel relief, he didn’t have AIDS, and he wouldn’t get AIDS because he would never let another man touch him. Sometimes though, if he let his thoughts wander before he got busy doing something else, he wondered what life without someone to love would be like. Was it possible to be alone all the time? Was it enough to just have friends? Were they even friends? Or were they just people to spend time with who didn’t know him?”

“I can do it, I know I can really do it. So many others have done it, I can do it too.”

On bad days Georgie would awake terrified, his heart beating so that his chest hurt, his fingers tingling, his body slick with sticky salty wet sweat, his pyjamas, his sheets, all wet with sweat. He would pant, struggling for breath, “Oh God, Oh God! It’s started.”

He would shiver as he lay in the cold wet of his bed, curl into a ball and try to warm up, and he would try to cry. And then he would realize he had to get up and start the day because even if he was sick with AIDS, there was nothing he could do about it but wait to die or end it before anyone noticed he was sick. He peeled off the wet pyjamas and showered under a stream of hot water, and the shivering would stop, and he would feel his lymph nodes, and they seemed no different, and the day would start, but he had to wash his sheets. And he would think I will go to the doctor if it happens again tonight. And mostly it didn’t, and he wouldn’t go to the doctor, because he wasn’t sure how to tell a doctor that he had once had sex with a man.

In this way, many more months went by, and Georgie, lived each day wondering if this was the day on which the first symptom of AIDS would arrive, and his inexorable descent into a horrible death would begin. Until one day, Georgie read with great excitement that he would soon be able to get a test to find out if he had AIDS. At first, he thought, I’ll get the test, then I’ll know, then it will all be cleared up, and I can live my life like normal again.

As the days went by and the likelihood of getting the test increased Georgie began to realize, that if he went for the test, the doctor, or whoever was to give him the test would likely ask all kinds of questions, and he would have to tell them why he was getting the test, and then they would know. Slowly, but every day, sometimes several times a day, Georgie began to have the thought, I don’t need a test, I couldn’t have AIDS, I’ve lived for a long time now without getting really sick. There is no chance I will ever give it to someone else, so there is no need for me to get tested.

Georgie didn’t get tested, and he reasoned, he didn’t need to. The years went by, he kept himself busy working, never quite getting the promotions others did, never sure why and never daring to ask. Afraid he knew the answer. He took up hobbies, each for a time, and in his parent’s final years he did their chores, and sometimes he volunteered at his church. There never was another Cole, and now he was too old and grey and lumpy, so there never would be another Cole. Sometimes, on mornings when there was not much traffic, if he lay in bed too long and the sky out his window was a translucent Chinook shade of blue, he would wonder if Cole had survived. But as quickly as the thought came, he jumped out of bed and started his day.

At times Georgie would tell Tom, especially when Tom implied there was more to life, and he might be a part of that more, “I have my work, and I have my friends, thank you for being one of them.”

It is Covid day fifty-three.

He looks at the apple tree more carefully, “Is that a blossom coming?”

He notices the time, and looking at the gnarled tree says to it, “I better zoom Tom.”