You’re standing in front of a bathroom sink in a public restroom rinsing soap from your hands when a blast of hot water splashes your pants and burns the tip of your dick, which happens to every man at some point, especially to slutty, unsafe, pathetic men like you, who seems built to absorb splashes and burns. At the hand dryer, you glance at your Betty Crocker wristwatch, a gift from Pierre Roustening, your French roommate (and first kiss) in 1990—the summer of enlightenment—whom you met because of your keen ability to successfully beg your parents to exchange one icky-brown Boy Scout uniform for one week of cake baking/decorating camp, singing playfully, “Baker’s man can bake you a cake as fast as you can.” But you still remember the tenderfoot motto: Be Prepared. Which you’re not. Nowhere close. Panic and unrest wallops you upside the head like a rolling pin, causing you to empty the weight of your stomach in the toilet bowl and cry big tears, the kind of big tears you didn’t cry at your chronic mother’s and vacuous father’s funerals who both died as poorly as they lived—drunk, ignorant fools. You rinse your mouth with cold water and spit in the sink, refusing to look in the oval mirror, scared you might see the beginning traces of the HIV test you took last week, the one that may or may not be positive. Who will want to look at you then? You tidy up the bathroom, of course, take three deep breaths, of course, and suck it all in and up, of course.
You resume a hunchback position over on a laptop at a wobbly wooden table two-feet from the restroom and surf the web, nothing in particular, finding on Youtube a same-sex marriage proposal at Home Depot with fourteen million views. You smell a woodsy-scented cologne approach from behind. You spin around and fall fast for a set of sea-blue eyes affixed to lean masculinity wearing model-black hair, a white Ralph Lauren polo shirt, dark-blue Lucky brand jeans, and a satisfying pair of brown curl-at-the-tip dress shoes. Athletic. Tweezed. Six-two. Gay, of course. You name him Woodsy Wayne and call him a great big dick tease. You like him so much you lean in and listen for the soft-click-lock of the bathroom door. You can’t call the clinic for two more hours anyway, so why wait around like absolute despair when you can plan your and Woodsy Wayne’s wedding.
Woodsy Wayne from Augusta Maine drinks champagne in a private plane. You suddenly realize you were not some prolific poet in some past life. No matter, you and Woodsy Wayne are busy picking tapestries, bedspreads, and stainless steel dessert spoons on Rodeo Drive. Then come the vows, the rings, and all-the-I-do’s. There stands your newly constructed four-story house with a sprawling yard in a gated community. No more trailer houses with mullet-gut neighbors sitting in plaid pajamas on plastic chairs inside a dank garage drinking Boone’s Farm from a red solo cup. You deserve a well-made deck, triple insulation, and double-pane windows. You warrant being kissed in public, and often. You love Woodsy Wayne so much for designing t-shirts and running marathons to raise money and awareness for causes like yours. Of course he chose you to be his happy-ever-after. I mean, look at yourself. And him. Together. You’re total amazeballs. Everyone believes it and says so. Everyone wants what you have. Everyone.
You’re startled when Woodsy Wayne kicks open the bathroom door and leaves a black scuff mark on the bottom of the door, you’re annoyed by the way he scurries off like some bratty teenager and sits across a Hollister twink with gel-height hair and V-neck chest tightness. Whatever. You detest scurrying; you’ve had enough scurrying for eight lifetimes. Fuck Woodsy Wayne. And his gay-baiting twinkazoid, too.
You Google WEB MD: Six Critical Steps after Initial Diagnosis when you smell Curry Spice approach from behind. You spin around and recoil in displeasure at a set of mud-brown eyes affixed to fat masculinity wearing scraggly hair, a two-decade-ago porn-esque moustache, a black sweater, and denim shorts with an unsatisfying pair of penny loafers and black ankle socks. Please don’t be gay. We don’t want you. You try not to lean in and listen to the soft-click-lock of the bathroom door, but bad habits are so hard to break.
You dive headfirst into the informational pool of WEB MD: Finding a support group in your area is an essential step to staying physically, emotionally, and spiritually well. For support groups in your area, please enter your zip code. You type 05602, recounting the seven, one-hundred-and-two-degree fevers over the last month flaming like a blowtorch across your skin. The nausea. Vomiting. Unexplained weight loss. Diarrhea. Dry mouth. Headaches. Dizziness. Isolation. Fear. Every common symptom. All the red flags. Tons of cold showers. Bowlfuls of Chicken Noodle Soup. You’re the idiot to blame. You’re the slutty, unsafe, pathetic man who did it. You. Yourself. I.
You’re surprised by the calm manner with which Curry Spice steps from the bathroom and gingerly closes the door. When he blows dry his fingers, as if playing a flute, you laugh. Which grabs his attention. Of course. He extends a hand and smiles, but you don’t respond. You’re so not into two-decade-ago-porn-esque moustaches and penny loafers with black ankle socks. Buh-bye.
“Have a good day,” he says, taking surprisingly big steps toward a small table in the opposite corner of the café.
Chin in your hands, you think about the words good day and buh-bye. And judgment. And lack of self-respect. And physical appearance. And aging. And the stigma of HIV and AIDS. Twenty-five million men and women in the world have died from the disease. Tears come. What a pussy. Something you’ve never tried. Of course. At least there’s that.
Curry Spice is behind you. Again. You don’t turn around or look up, perplexed and impressed when he lifts your chin with large, warm fingers and says, “Hey. You okay?”
“Why can’t their kind just blend in,” a male customer says to another.
“I know, right,” a female customer answers. “First marriage and now this.”
“I’m Talan.” He sits across the table. “What’s your name?”
His foreign accent sounds sexy. Mysterious. Enticing. Upon closer reconnaissance, he smells more like coconut with a hint of lemongrass. And his brown eyes, light-brown eyes, are a few shades lighter than mud.
“Bad day, Ethan?”
“Sadly, it could get worse.”
“Perhaps it’ll help if you get it off your chest.”
So many chests. So many sex parties. So many shots of tequila. So many chances to say no. So many times screaming yes. “I wouldn’t even know where to start.”
“The beginning’s always a good place.”
As if unpacking from a long trip, you bring out the tight jeans, the muscle shirts, the multi-colored thongs, and the latest pair of navy-blue eyes that a few months ago left you at midnight in a hotel room, sore, sober, and ashamed.
“That many, wow.”
You laugh. “I know it’s not funny. I know I shouldn’t laugh.” Your heart ticks clockwise. It’s been awhile. Afraid it might stop, or rewind, you keep talking, revealing the upcoming phone call to the clinic and the HIV test result you cannot barter, fathom, or control. “It’s just me.” You set your forehead on the keyboard, wishing it was Woodsy Wayne who was sitting across.
“Why do you do that to yourself?” Talan asks.
“At first I did it to feel numb, but then numb wasn’t enough. Now it’s about numbing the numb because there’s just so much of it.”
“I definitely understand feeling numb.”
The pre-set alarm on your wristwatch beeps. “Guess it’s time.” You stand. “Thanks for the talk, though. It was really nice of you.”
“I can stay if you want.”
“It’s up to you.”
“I’ll be right here if you need me.”
You step in the bathroom, lock the door, sit on the toilet seat, and pray to a God you don’t believe in, unable to recall or recite one encouraging Bible verse from ten years of Sunday school and Vacation Bible School. You dial the clinic’s phone number and press send, wondering if life from this day forward holds nothing but a death sentence. You hang up before anyone answers. “Our Father Which Art in Heaven,” you whisper. The room spins. The walls shrink. You dial again. Not knowing is the hardest step of all. Ring one: inhale. Ring two: exhale. Ring three: regardless the outcome, you need a pedicure. Ring four: “Hallowed be Thy Name.”
“Public Health Center, how may I direct your call?”
Recklessness haunts you. The poppers. The blackouts. The blood on the sheets. The cherry-flavored condom, still wrapped, sitting on the hotel nightstand. Why didn’t you ask for his name? Why don’t you ever ask for a name?
“Hello? Is anyone there? Hello?”
“Sorry. Doctor Richardson’s office, please.”
“Please hold while I transfer the call.”
You bite your fingernails through a series of classical ballads, wishing for a touch of soft, pop rock.
“This is Nurse Fronita. How may I help you?”
“Hi Fronita. It’s Ethan Grover. I’m calling about my test results.”
“Oh, yeah,” she says and pauses. “Hold on a sec.” Does the pause mean something bad or something good? When did life become hinged to one specific word? “Cashmere. Cashmere. Cashmere,” you whisper, a favorite splurge, a demi-god, a comfort through this whole ordeal. Then Nurse Fronita whispers the one word you’ve been dying to hear for two weeks, causing you to grow faint and collapse to the floor, inadvertently smacking your head against the toilet bowl. In the darkness, an image surfaces of you and your mother at the beach: building sandcastles, laughing, splashing, dog- paddling. You begin drifting alone into deeper waters. Your mother is calling for you to come back. She uses your full name, waves her arms, jumps, flails, swims out to rescue you, brings you to the shoreline where she kisses, holds, and loves you. She definitely doesn’t slap your cheek, push your face in the sand, and call you a cock-sucking faggot. You open your eyes. Your head is resting on Talan’s leg. A greasy man wearing a black uniform with a large set of metal keys is standing over you. “What are you two doing in here?”
“How many fingers am I holding up?” Talan asks.
“Two,” you say.
“Can you stand?” Talan helps you to your knees.
“You guys gotta get outta here. This isn’t one of those kinds of bathrooms.”
You bury your face in the center of Talan’s black sweater—cashmere, of course—and cry the biggest tears of your life. You wrap your arms around his shoulders and whisper into his left ear, “Sometimes being negative is a good thing. I’ve been given another chance.”
“I’m so glad,” he whispers in your right ear. “I wish I’d have been so lucky.”
Of course. Of course. Of course.