The Boys on the Side

Remembering anthropologist Tobias Schneebaum—and other members of an unconventional salon

When she could no longer make it across the street, my aunt and the boys would order food, mostly Chinese, and after drinks solemnly parade through the deteriorating apartment to the dining room. In her last few months, she shrank wholly into herself, but that did not discourage them. They'd chat with Novlet while they ate, then approach my aunt in her chair, and if she did not demand solitude ("Go away! Leave me in peace!"), they would shout details of their own lives into her nonfunctioning ears to maintain the idea that she was still with them.

By the time of my aunt's death in the summer of 2002, the boys were on their way out as well. Parkinsoned, Alzheimered, and weak-hipped, Tobias negotiated the trips to Peru and New Guinea required by Keep the River on Your Right, and the public appearances after it came out. He managed to accept, with the calm resignation of which he had always been master, the loss of his much younger lover and domestic partner (who had fallen in love with someone else) as he moved toward his death at the end of this summer.

Every few months for years, Floriano endured procedures to keep his failing heart alive, but last spring he died on the floor near the door of the West 13th Street apartment in which he had lived for so many decades. Tobias, only a few months shy of his own death, was taken by Kwame, his Ghanaian home health aid, to the burial and managed to say a few words.

My aunt is gone, and the boys are gone. Michael Cunningham's A Home at the End of the World gives us a conventionally unconventional family—two male former lovers and their pregnant friend. My aunt and the boys made a more peculiar one. They all had other family—my aunt had my parents and me; Floriano had a brother in Italy; Tobias, a nephew and sister-in-law—but their weekly dinners were fundamental. It was clear from early on that only death could stop them.

David Winner is a fiction writer and teacher.

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