Previously in Unbound Fiction:
Initiation (August 15, 2001)
"Fraternity initiation, he said desperately—he had to bring a pair of panties, pretty ones, to the ceremony on Friday." A short story by Ann M. Bauer.
Learning Japanese (July 11, 2001)
"At recess, Min Hee and her friends go down and smoke cigarettes on the street. Don't tell Mom, she says, inhaling. I'll get you if you do." By Janice Lee.
The New Job (June 21, 2001)
"Each disciple—and Christ—had a pad, a pen, and a glass of water in front of him. At a small table off to the side, Mary Magdalene took notes on a stenography machine." By Sara Gran.
A Place of Safety (May 18, 2001)
"She recognizes a charred remnant of material, the thick corner of a book still smoldering, the twisted metal buckle of a baby's shoe." By Penny Feeny.
A Sign of the Times (April 25, 2001)
"If I wait long enough he's going to have to ask. He doesn't want to. Asking is like inviting cancer to eat out his insides." By Joan Wilking.
Interest (March 21, 2001)
"I had no idea. How could I? It was just a homework assignment. Perfectly
pedestrian. I've been giving the same one for years." By
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Atlantic Unbound | October 17, 2001
umber fourteen," the receptionist chirped. Gregory stood up and flattened the front of his slacks. He didn't look at the receptionist, but spit out the word "finally" before following the guy around to the other side of the cubicle cluster.
"Here's fourteen," the receptionist said to the counselor, and disappeared. The counselor stood up from where he was sitting at his desk. He was wearing one of those awful shiny fabrics. "Good morning," he said, offering a hand. "Sit down, I'm Nima."
He has some sort of speech impediment. Is he partially deaf? Gregory wondered as he sat down. In fact, he'd wondered the same thing each of the times he'd gotten his results from this particular man.
The counselor's voice was muted in the way that a deaf person's would be. Soft around the consonants. Lingering, nasal vowels. His desk was so neat it was as if the world around him wasn't falling apart.
Gregory speculated as to whether the counselor—Neecha? Nimo?—remembered him from the last half-dozen times he had sauntered into the clinic late, waited his turn, stared at his own fingers, wondered about the guy's voice, looked at the pictures of dead gay people in dusted frames covering the landscape of the counselor's desk.
Nima had given Gregory his results the last five times he was HIV-negative. Gregory didn't ask, but wanted to know, Does he remember us? The regulars? Gregory had written down what he'd worn in his day planner so as not to repeat the same outfit. He always thought, Fags remember the clothing on average-looking men more than they remember their faces.
"So, how are you today?" the counselor asked.
"Fine," Gregory said, even though it wasn't true. In fact—between the lost-stuffed-giraffe catastrophe, and then getting Abe's lunch sack together and driving him to kindergarten, and then finding a parking space in the Castro—his nerves were shot to hell. He had almost missed his fifteen-minute time slot.
A square of paper sat slightly to the left of the counselor's hand. That paper with the results. To the right, the sticker that Gregory had just handed to him. They had corresponding numbers printed on them. The counselor slid the sticker and the paper to and fro in a senseless pattern like they were the props in a street con's collapsible-table card game.
There was something different this time from the other times. The counselor had never done the sliding-the-paper thing before. Gregory took his handkerchief out of his back pocket and dabbed the wet from his forehead. The backs of his legs were hot against the chair. His stomach was a wadded-up bed sheet. He wondered if the counselor was going to go through the whole lecture on follow-up counseling before giving up the results. Regardless of the result, positive or negative, feelings can come up, and we offer follow-ups yada yada yada. Gregory could suddenly smell someone's lunch. His best guess was fried bologna sandwich.
The counselor's eyes darted back and forth between the square of paper and the sticker. Once. Twice. Again. Then he wiped the corners of his mouth and said, "Well, sir. You have tested positive for the HIV antibody."
In Gregory's imagination's version of this, all sound disappeared. Now, in reality, a baby was crying somewhere. A car alarm signaled in the background. A jackhammer split open concrete.
Gregory readjusted his rear on the chair. It had no armrests. He made sure to look like he was paying particularly close attention. He could almost feel his heart, his shaking knees. He suppressed the desire to say oh no aloud.
The counselor said, "There isn't any reason to panic. There are many ways you can maintain your health and lead a normal life. It isn't like ten years ago. The medications—the cocktails—have really come a long way."
Sun shone through into only one place in the clinic: the skylight above Gregory. Pigeons had done their number on the Plexiglas, but still, the sun was bright enough to cast shadows.
"Tell me," the counselor said. "How are you feeling?"
Gregory thought, There are so many things this guy will say. Here are the things he won't: You idiot. You fucking cliché. As if the system needs another white fag who knew better draining funds that could've been used for research. Gregory thought, And the reason the counselor doesn't say it is because he, too, is gay. And because if he's not already positive himself, he will be some day. Even with all the juju of good doing and community service and not-for-profit salary in hopes of keeping bad things at bay.
The things the counselor didn't know: Gregory's partner was gone. Not dead, but healthy and gone because "he'd fallen out of love," leaving him alone to tend to the three rental properties they'd purchased together. The occupants of one of the apartments were derelict tenants who did things like take down chandeliers and paint the bathtub sky-blue with acrylic paint. More importantly, the counselor didn't know that Gregory was now a single parent raising a son named Abraham. That Abe didn't understand why his other daddy no longer took him to activity night at the museum. Or that he liked his father to mix the peanut butter and jelly with a spoon in a bowl and smear it onto the bread as one spread instead of two. The counselor didn't know that Abe played soccer in the three-to-five league and sometimes came home with knee scrapes and wanted his daddy to kiss away the blood.
Gregory looked down at his hands. They were so red, it was as if all the blood from his pale face had drained downward. And he shivered. Visibly.
"I suggest," the counselor said, "that you immediately make an appointment to activate a treatment plan. One of my clients tested positive over a year ago, and his T-cells are higher than..." he paused. "They're higher than an average negative person's. And his viral load is still undetectable."
Away from the clinic, Gregory's son Abe stood on a playgound at a Montessori school. He leaned next to another child under a redwood tree, reluctantly giving up the pair of safety scissors he'd used to cut shapes from paper. The sky was breaking through the morning fog, and his son was learning how to share.
There was the clicking of a ballpoint pen. The kind Abe took apart to make spring-loaded, mini-cannons.
The counselor handed a list on yellow paper to Gregory, who was trying to keep it together. He suppressed urges. To vomit, to scream, to faint. He thought of the other folks who cut work and were queued up waiting on the row of chairs in the lobby. There were about forty more people today who were going to line up for results. They'd pretend to read Sports Illustrated and People, when in fact, they were replaying all of the actions that brought them here in the first place. Turning "I let him fuck me without a condom" into "he didn't come." The people out there with their little numbered stickers in the bottom-most corners of their wallets. The others who also decided for whatever reasons not to see a regular doctor—and chose the free clinic instead. They, too, had the blood drawn and waited out the two weeks.
"I know it must be quite a shock. Tell me how you feel."
Gregory sat on his hands to keep them from doing something he'd regret. He tried to form a sentence worth speaking, and suddenly went itchy from an internal heat. He knew it was ridiculous to think of that as a symptom, but he did anyway.
"What are you feeling?" The counselor asked.
"I'm feeling sorry for myself," Gregory managed to say.
"That's a natural reaction." His pen continued clicking. "It's okay."
"I am thinking of my son. What I'll tell him."
"I know how much you must love your child," the counselor started to say.
The counselor's desire to move on to the next client had a smell. Gregory said, "How would you know? Don't compare your fucking domestic partnership with some freak with a fetish for deaf guys to my relationship with my son."
Background and sounds dissolved. Gregory's eyes remained open, but his head fell to his shoulder. He appeared to be staring at the faded Hate Is NOT a Family Value bumper sticker stuck to the cube's divider—but, in fact, he was not. His body continued to shake, but his position on the chair didn't shift. From this altered state, he imagined things and he didn't.
He didn't imagine his child rushing at him, calling, "Daddy!" Wondering who is going to take him to soccer practice, or help him with his Venn diagrams. He didn't see a teenage Abe changing his diaper, feeding him Ensure through a Crazystraw. He didn't think of Abe's thick eyelashes, and he didn't think of how his son's eyes are identical to his own.
What he did imagine: Crushed strawberries. The smell of his mother's breath while she sings to him in their kitchen. Mason jars, hot paraffin, a splayed-open sack of sugar. Ants crawling in from the windowsill. A print of wildflowers on his mother's apron and the heat coming from the stove. The outside sounds of workmen widening the street.
Gregory's father walks in, kisses his mother, and pats her rump. Mentions something about "all the darned construction." Little Gregory scatters away from the scene, embarrassed and confused each time his father shows affection for his mom. His father finds him in the corner near the table, squats at the knee, tousles his hair, and says, "Just look at how beautiful your mother is. Look at how lucky we are."
Gregory's mother continues her song.
In that moment, Gregory wants to hate his father, but can't. He feels a gush inside him that was all sloppy, wet, and clear. It's love. And it's too much for his little body. He wants to pour it into one of the Mason jars, cover it in paraffin, seal the lid, and store it in the basement.
It is the moment that Gregory understands what his father feels for his mother, but not for him. Now and forever. As if needing a consolation, he throws his arms around his father's neck, feels the scrape of his beard. His father squeezes Gregory tight, and leaves traces of aftershave on the boy.
The counselor crouched down next to Gregory's chair with a Dixie cup filled with water from the humming cooler. "Okay," the counselor said. "I understand that you're upset. We can sit here as long as you need to."
Yes, Gregory thought. The anger. When did I learn to be so angry? Was it after all those years, after coming out? Feeling like quiet, dull kindness and common decency went ignored? What is underneath all the anger? he wondered. What was underneath all of the times I left Abe alone in his racecar-shaped bed and snuck out to some shitty park? Some shit-hole alley? How many times did I let someone yank down the pants that held my wallet that held the photos of Abe? His first haircut. His first tantrum. The photo where I'm bare-chested and pretending to breast-feed him. This ridiculous, passionless obsession. No more or less compelling than eating stale potato chips so you have something to go with a sandwich.
"I want to understand why," Gregory said, but his voice was so quiet, so tender, he could barely recognize it as his own.
"It's okay to cry," is what the counselor said next, but to Gregory it sounded like, Itz okaaaay do cwye. Nima placed his warm hand on the back of Gregory's neck. Something he said repeats itself.
Gregory started thinking, If it were okay to eat my child, I would. He thought back to when Abe was a baby, and he'd press the bottoms of his son's feet to his own lips and say, I want to gobble you up. Gregory wonders, How is it that feeling is everything and still not enough?
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Matthew Clark Davison currently lives in Italy. He has taught fiction at San Francisco State University and has recently completed his first novel, entitled Roadmap.
Copyright © 2001 by The Atlantic Monthly Group. All rights reserved.