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COMING UP FOR AIR


by Ginger Nance

The cracks in the ceiling plaster all ran out form one large, central fracture, like a river and its tributaries. The patterns were a nice change from the forced cheeriness of the rest of my hospital room. I couldn't pretend that the bright peaches and baby blues of the room made me feel better. A wave of pain in my chest forced me to look away from the ceiling and fumble for the nurses' call button. The cold sweat I broke into felt soothing against my burning skin. I didn't even see the nurse enter the room, but the snap of her latex gloves startled me enough that I stopped coughing.

"You're coughing up blood again, Robert. Let's get you out of that gown and clean you up." My gown had bloody smears across the front where I had wiped my hands. Every time I've stayed in the hospital, Lisa has been my nurse, but she still flinches slightly when I take off my hospital gown and expose the lesions on my chest.

I put on a fresh gown and cleaned my hands with towelettes, which Lisa threw into a container marked "biohazard," my favorite reminder of the fatality of my condition, along with the old garment and her latex gloves. When she leaned over me to open the drip on my IV, I caught the faint scent of tobacco. I also noticed a quick gleam of light as something shiny fell out of her pocket. A Zippo lighter landed in my lap, and I picked it up and held it before me. Lisa blushed and took it back. She said something, but I didn't hear her--I was standing at the bar of a small, smoky club on New Year's Eve, 1995.

Geoff had surprised me with tickets to Aqua's ultra-hip, ultra-expensive New Year's party, and now he was taking full advantage of the open bar. His habit of getting completely hammered always annoyed me, especially since he rationalized it as rebellion against the straight-laced business environment he worked in but hated. His more attractive aspects-intelligence, spontaneity, and a romantic nature-were usually strong enough to make me overlook the drinking, so I didn't push him too hard about stopping. I was nursing another screwdriver while he flailed around the dance floor, and all I could do was roll my eyes when he spun into a table and fell. Tired of watching Geoff make a fool of himself, I scanned the crowd until I recognized a face. I waved at my old neighbor, then waited for him to weave through the pack of bodies. Adam used to live in my building, but a promotion at work had prompted a promotion in his address a few months ago.

"Robert! What are you doing here? I didn't think this was your scene." I grinned and shook Adam's hand, but my attention was held by the gaze of the clear green eyes of the muscular, auburn-haired man who was with him.

"Well, I do prefer smaller, quieter parties, but Geoff went to so much trouble to get these tickets--"

"Oh, so you two are on again?"

"You could say that. If he keeps crashing into tables that could change." My voice sounded more bemused than my heart. Geoff and I had an on-again, off-again relationship that was in its third year of uncertainty, mostly because of the drinking. The green eyes kept staring at me as Adam fidgeted for a moment. He had never been fond of Geoff, but tried not to show it.

"Man, where are my manners? Rob, this is Ben. He works with me, just moved here about a month ago from California."

The green eyes now had a name to go with them. I murmured the usual polite greetings as I shook his hand. A petite blond in a short skirt sauntered by and smiled at us. New Year's was the one night of the year when it didn't seem to matter that Aqua was a gay club.

"Helloooo--" Adam's voice trailed off as he followed her into the throng of people. Ben shook his head and lit a cigarette, smoothly snapping the Zippo shut. He offered me one and I accepted, even though I don't smoke. Taking a drag from the Marlboro, I tried to think of something to say. Ben played with the lighter, light glinting off the cover as it snapped open and shut. Another blond in a tight dress pushed past me, trying to get to the bar. Ben's eyes followed her. Damn, I thought, he's straight.

"She's pretty cute, eh? Why don't you go talk to her?" I couldn't believe how lame I sounded, but thanks to the woman's efforts I was now standing very close to Ben-so close that our arms were touching.

"She is cute, but not my type." He smiled and looked into my eyes. "I prefer tall and dark, and a Y chromosome. Someone more like you."

I almost choked on my screwdriver. My first reaction was to look for Geoff, and for the first time in three years I was relieved to see him passed out in a booth. He knew how I hated it when he made a fool of himself after drinking, but he had gotten into an argument with his boss earlier in the week. Too bad I was the only one who ever saw these little "rebellions," but this time I was grateful for his thoughtlessness. Looking at Ben and then Geoff, I realized I was sick of his childish behavior. Ben continued to gaze at me, and for a moment I wondered if he had ever lost a staring contest. As I told him to follow me to the parking lot, I also realized that I was drunk.

Three sharp knocks sounded on the door. I felt groggy, like I'd been awakened in the middle of a dream, but then I heard Adam say, "How are you doing, Robert?"

I was surprised to see Adam. He hates hospitals, and since I've gotten really sick, he hasn't kept in touch. I think I've talked to him twice in the past three months. My left eyebrow betrayed me by raising into an inquisitive arch.

"I know--I've been pretty distant lately. But man, look at you, at this--it just freaks me out. I mean, don't take that the wrong way, but, you know?" I knew, his reaction wasn't too different from that of many others. At least he was honest enough to tell me that I freaked him out.

"Don't worry about it. So what is important enough to bring you here to see me, the dying man, and all the way to the hospital, to boot?"

"I was going through some old albums the other day and found this. I don't know if you still want it, but about four years ago you asked me for a copy."

I chuckled. The picture was from a Halloween costume party. Adam, the eternal frat boy, had bought a couple of kegs and invited everyone he knew. Geoff had surprised me-as he often did-by renting us elaborate pirate costumes. I had chided him for spending so much money, but he had kissed me and told me I was worth every penny. Just for that, I had let him wear the fake hook. With his fair hair and light blue eyes, Geoff didn't look much like a pirate; my dark looks made me the more convincing buccaneer. At the party, we started pretending to steal Adam's stuff for our loot. One of his friends took a picture of us trying to carry Adam off to add to the pile. We had so much fun that night.

"God, I'd completely forgotten about this, Adam. Thanks for bringing it." I tried to ignore the slight ache in my heart. "I can't believe that an old picture would be enough to warrant a visit, though. What's up, really?" I reached for my water.

Adam's eyes flickered around the room, looking for something to rest on besides me. "Well, I was at the gym the other day and I ran into Ben. He's back in the city now, and he, uh, asked about you."

The straw was still in my mouth, but the water was forgotten. I could feel my heart pounding, and I hated myself for reacting to that name. I hadn't seen Ben since that New Year's. I never told anyone about it, but when I tested positive and Geoff left me, I think Adam made the connection, which probably freaked him out even more. I slowly set the water back down. To my surprise, I started to laugh.

"Robert? You okay?"

"Yeah, yeah, I'm fine. Sorry. So, um, what did you say to him?" I wiped the tears from my eyes. This was too rich-I was lying in a bed, coughing up blood, and Adam had run into Ben at the gym, of all places.

"I told him that you weren't doing too well. I didn't say anything about the, the--well, I just said that you were in the hospital. He mentioned coming to visit you, and I didn't know what to say. I don't think he has any idea why you're here-I could be wrong, but I thought I could at least warn you that he might visit."

"Well thanks," I said. I was half sarcastic, but I don't think he picked up on it. He glanced at his watch and stood up.

"I hate to leave so soon but I have a meeting--uh, I'll be back sometime, okay?"

Once Adam left, I breathed in and exhaled slowly. Shit. Could Ben really now know that he was carrying this? Could he really be perfectly healthy and oblivious? Two hot streams slipped down my face quickly, like they were as ashamed of their appearance as I was. Since I found out I have HIV, I've prided myself on being controlled. When Geoff tested negative- twice-and left me, I was completely calm. The first time I caught pneumonia and spent two weeks in the hospital, I handled everything myself. I even took a cab home instead of letting someone drive me. Not once had I cried- I was pissed off that I had gotten myself into this mess and was determined to take care of things on my own.

After that, time passed slowly. My cough was getting better, but each day increased the overwhelming sense of dread that was growing in my stomach. Was Ben coming? What would he say? What would I say to him? I started watching TV so I wouldn't think about him all the time. Thank God for baseball, or I would have gone crazy from reruns.

One night, Lisa came in to watch a Braves-Phillies match-up. She was from Philadelphia, and I was raised in a suburb of Atlanta. We made bets on the trivia questions, and she had been kicking my ass. As an architect, I could name the designer of every stadium in the league, but my memory for stats and records was horrible. Geoff had been better at that sort of thing.

"Trivia time, Robert. Ready to lose another dollar?"

"Ha. Ha. Ha." I said sarcastically, turning the volume up a notch.

"And now for tonight's AFLAC Trivia Question. When was the last time an Atlanta Brave hit for the cycle in a game?"

"How am I supposed to know that?! I'm a Phillies fan!" Lisa exclaimed.

I laughed. "Prepare to pay up, sweetheart. It was September 23, 1987, against Houston. Albert Hall hit the cycle, and I was there."

I had been a senior in high school, a not-so-great pitcher for our baseball team, but my dad was so proud that he bought season tickets for the Braves so I could "watch and learn from the pros." It was also around the time I was figuring out that I was gay. My childhood had been so white bread that I had never really thought I was all that different. My dad, who was the minister of the local Methodist church, told all of the women who wanted to set me up with their daughters that I was too busy with homework and baseball to date. It seemed a good enough excuse, so I used it, too. But after seeing Brian for the first time at that Braves-Astros game, I knew I would never date anyone's daughter.

Our seats were great, at the front of the third base line, and Brian was the ball boy on that side. He had chased down a foul ball and, after scanning the faces of all the people begging for the ball, tossed it to me with a wink. I had been mesmerized by this lanky boy with the big dark eyes, and had barely paid attention to the rest of the game, except when Hall got the hit that completed the cycle. Fate must have been on my side, because the next year at sign-ups for the UGA intramural baseball team, I saw him again. We dated for three years.

When the game was over, Lisa begrudgingly handed me my dollar and headed home. I loved her for spending so much time with me off the clock; she was about the only friend I had anymore. That same night, I had a confusing dream I couldn't remember, except I knew Ben and Adam were in it. The suspense of waiting for Ben was driving me crazy-now I even thought about him in my sleep.

Exactly one week after Adam's visit, I was suffering through a rerun of "The Facts of Life" when someone knocked "Shave and a Haircut" on the door.

"Now what, Lisa? Can't I watch bad 80's sitcoms in peace?" My dread made me quite irritable, and Lisa had started provoking me on purpose. She thought it was funny to see me get worked up over nothing-said it proved there was life in me yet. I played along; it usually helped pass the time, but today I was not in the mood.

"I'm not Lisa, unless you want me to be." Two green eyes peered at me from around the door. My stomach tightened into a knot-he was finally here. I felt self-conscious and quickly smoothed down my hair. Ben looked as good as he had three years ago. His muscles rippled underneath his t-shirt as he moved, triggering a pang of desire. I tried to forget the feel of his hot skin against mine, his breath on the back of my neck. I was supposed to be angry, not horny, for God's sake.

"So how's it going? Are you feeling okay, or is this a bad time?"

"I'm feeling fine." I smiled. "Ben, it's been a long time."

"I know," he said. He sat down in the chair by my bed and looked directly into my eyes, the same way he had at the club so long ago. I was trying to remain calm, but my heart felt like there was someone inside, pounding away at a door that would never open. We small-talked for a few minutes about the special project that had taken him upstate for eighteen months, and the last building I designed before I had to take a medical leave of absence from the firm.

We both looked up as the door opened and Lisa came in. "Oh," she said, "I didn't realize you had a visitor. You need to take your pills, though, so call me when you're ready, okay?" I nodded blankly. As she turned and shut the door behind her, Ben whistled lowly and appreciatively.

"Nice ass. You are a lucky son of a bitch to have her for a nurse."

I was confused. "Aren't you gay, Ben? I mean, you did f**k me once, unless I was just imagining things."

"I guess you could say I'm an equal-opportunity player," he laughed, "you know, I like to have it both ways."

"Oh, so you can't make up your mind what to be. How lucky for the men and women of the world." I couldn't believe what as asshole I was being, but any desire I felt for him had been driven out by three years of anger for what he did for me, and about 30 seconds of anger at his degrading remarks about Lisa.

"Geez, Robert, lighten up. I wanted to talk to you about something important, not discuss my sexual preferences."

"Oh, well, sorry. What do you want to say to me?" I wondered how he was going to apologize, especially if he had just realized that he had HIV when he heard about me from Adam the other week.

"Robert, why the hell did you do this to me? Why didn't you tell me?"

The anger in his voice surprised me, and I tried to form words even though I didn't know what to say. As if he sensed my confusion, Ben leaned closer to me and opened his mouth.

"Look," he said, pointing at his mouth. I looked at his mouth, and before I even had time to wonder why, I saw the little white patches on his inner cheek and tongue.

"Oh man--"

"These are pretty new, but I've been having horrible headaches and I wake up at night with a fever and soaked sheets. You know what this means. "

I sure did. I remembered how I freaked out the first time I had gotten Thrush, and had tried in vain to get rid of it with my toothbrush.

"Are you going to give me an explanation or are you just going to sit there?"

"What are you talking about, Ben? I guess I can understand how you didn't know you hat it, since you're just now becoming symptomatic, but I don't know what you want me to explain. Would you like to hear about PGL? Lesions? What?"

Ben laughed softly. "Is this what you do? Wait until this shit happens and then educate us on what's to come?"

"Us?" I asked. "Ben, I'm still not following you. You're the one who gave me HIV, why are you so angry with me?"

"You don't know what you're talking about, man. I didn't have any diseases before I screwed you-the worst thing I've ever had was the chicken pox. I only slept with clean people, I know I shouldn't have just picked you up like I did. I just hope you can live with yourself, knowing I'm going to die because of you."

"Oh, clean people? How do you know someone doesn't have a disease, because they don't look like they do? Ben, screwing anything with a tight ass and a smile will get you a disease. I'm the one who's sorry I fell for your smooth-operator act."

"Go to hell." He stood up and stormed out of the room. As quickly as a tornado, and with as much force, he had come and gone. I was the house whose roof had been torn off. I couldn't believe he thought I gave it to him. I have slept with three men, and he was the only one who hadn't used protection. I knew Geoff and Brian, my old college flame, were both negative .

A muscle in my jaw quivered furiously and I twisted the sheet with an iron grip. I breathed slowly. My anger began to fade. Ben's life was going to be much worse if he kept up this wall of denial, and I almost started to feel sorry for him. As I calmed down, I realized that Ben's last words were still running through my head: "I hope you can live with yourself--I'm going to die because of you."

Ben was denying the cause of his illness, and it occurred to me that my method of dealing with AIDS wasn't much better. Like a movie in fast-forward, the past few years of my life began to fly through my mind: every new health complication, every newly broken relationship. I could see every pill, doctor, friend. I had spent so much time focused on dying and being angry at Ben that I hadn't even thought about living.

The guys at the clinics annoyed me with their support groups and positive mantras; I was the silent, angry one who didn't want anyone's help. I had wasted the last two years of my life because I just accepted what this disease was doing to my body. I felt like a weight had been lifted from my shoulders. I always thought that phrase was so cliché, but now I understood it.

"Whoa, Robert, slow down," I said aloud. Ben may have caused me to start thinking differently, but I wasn't ready to make any life changes in the next few hours. The day had been stressful enough. I pressed the call button for Lisa to bring me the pills.

The next morning I started looking through some of the pamphlets on coping with AIDS that had sat by my bed, untouched. The tone of them was a little too "after-school special" for my taste, but the message made sense to me. I put them back and picked up the other paper lying on my bedside table. It was the picture Adam had left me. As I stared at Geoff's smiling face, I thought about the first time I had met him.

The company he worked for was remodeling part of their building, and I was picked to draw the plans. He and his boss, a no-nonsense woman in her mid-forties, had met me for lunch to go over the details, but she had to leave after being beeped about some emergency back at the office. Geoff had the most beautiful smile I had ever seen in my life. I was young, just out of college. This was my first major assignment, so I was incredibly nervous. He put me right at ease, though, and I even felt comfortable enough to crack a friendly joke about his boss.

"Oh I know," he had laughed, "she's a real pit bull, all right. Sometimes I can't even believe that we're blood-related."

My knees had turned to jelly when he said that. I knew I was going to get fired, but he smiled at me again and said, "Don't freak out. Trust me , this is not what I planned on doing with my life. I wanted to be a veterinarian, but when Dad died my mom roped me into the family business. I've never had the nerve to tell her that I hate doing this, and I can't really believe I'm telling you about it but--I don't know, you seem like an understanding person."

I had smiled back, relieved. Practically in love.

I picked up the phone and dialed. I was calling Geoff's mother, she'd have his number. The poor woman had been so grateful when she found out that Geoff was negative that she became the one supporter I hadn't managed to alienate. Ironically, I never thought she really liked me when we dated. The two cards on the shelf of my room were from her, and she even called about once a month to make sure I wasn't dead yet.

My own parents didn't even know I was gay-I couldn't break their poor God-fearing hearts like that. They thought I had some mysterious illness that the doctor couldn't accurately diagnose. Their own poor health kept them from traveling up to New York to find out the truth, and I never told them that I spent more time in the hospital than the two of them combined so they more or less left me alone. Rena and Lisa, they were all I really had.

"Rena, this is Robert. I was wondering if you had Geoff's number? I need to ask him something."

As tumultuous as our relationship had been, I knew deep down that I still loved Geoff. He couldn't understand the way I treated him once I found out I was positive, and I was too obsessed with my impending tragic demise to try and work things out with him, so one day he had just left. He had been pretty angry, but mostly because I wouldn't tell him how I contracted HIV.

"Thank you, Rena. No, nothing's wrong, I swear. I'll talk to you later, okay? Bye."

I took a deep breath and looked at the seven digits I had scribbled on the magazine cover. I flipped through the pages, even though I had already read it. How could I tell him that I wanted a reconciliation? How could I explain everything that had happened? Damn it. I decided to just come out and say it. I picked up the phone again and slowly dialed.

"Hello?"

Geoff's voice filled my ears. I almost hung up, but instead managed to say, "Geoff? This is, uh, this is Rob..."

"I know who this is. My mom just called me--she was all in a tizzy. Why are you calling, Robert?"

"I know this sounds really sudden after all this time, but I wanted to say that I'm sorry, Geoff. On New Year's Eve, the year you took me to that party at Aqua, I cheated on you with some guy I met there. He is the one who gave me HIV. I saw him yesterday, and he believes that I gave it to him. He also made me realize that I can't do this alone."

The words tumbled out of my mouth like water from a dam. I was amazed that I was being so coherent, even though my speech was rushed. My mind was a mess--thousands of thoughts and feelings and memories racing around in all different directions.

"Robert, you can't just call me up suddenly and say something like this. Not after the way things ended. I need to see you, there are a few things I'd like to know, too."

"Well, I'm in the hospital right now so I can't really go anywhere."

"Oh. Are you...okay?"

"I've been better but yeah, I guess you could say that I'm okay."

I didn't feel like telling him the condensed version of the past few years of my life. I wasn't completely sure he really wanted to talk to me, much less hear about forcing down 112 pills a week, or sores that don't heal, or never knowing if you'll wake up the next morning.

When I hung up the phone, though, I felt relieved. He had agreed to a meeting, a chance to talk about everything that happened. A counselor at one of the clinics had told me how important it was to be honest and get rid of baggage, but I thought he'd just been watching too many daytime talk shows. Now that Geoff was coming, my whole body felt lighter. That night, I slept peacefully.

The next morning, even Lisa commented on what a good mood I was in. "You should smile more, Robert. It really looks good on you."

When Geoff came, I was surprised that I wasn't nervous. The second he stepped into the room I felt comfortable; it was the same way I felt the first time I met him. He just looked at me a moment before speaking.

"What happened, can you at least tell me that?"

"Th-that New Year's...I was just tired of you." I couldn't think of the words to explain how I felt. "You always drank and I didn't like it. It-it wasn't the Geoff I loved...you...when you drank. It was this guy who couldn't tell his mom that he didn't want to work for her. I, I felt like... I don't know what I felt like. I was just...tired."

Well, I wouldn't win any awards for eloquence, but I had tried. Geoff rubbed his hand over his face.

"I know that I have a drinking problem. I've been getting help for it, and I'm trying to change. It's a long process, though."

Neither of us said anything for a moment. Geoff's voice cracked when he finally spoke again.

"I tried being angry with you, Robert. For a long time I was--angry and hurt and sad. I'm angry that you ever cheated on me, but I'm not mad at you. It hurts to much to see you like this. It hurt even more that you wouldn't let me help you, even if I was mad because you wouldn't tell me how it happened."

"Geoff," I was fighting back tears, "I'm sorry. I don't know what else to say. I'm just glad you didn't get this, too." I couldn't help it; I broke down and cried. Geoff sat on the side of the bed and put his arms around me.

After a while I stopped crying, but he didn't let go. We sat in the same position for what seemed like forever.

"Robert, we can obviously never have anything like we had, but I want to be a friend. You shouldn't have to go through this alone. I'd like to help you, if I can."

"Thank you. I could really use someone for support. You know I'm not good at this sort of touchy-feely stuff, but seeing Ben again made me realize how screwed up my way of dealing with things was."

Geoff smiled and touched my face. "I have to go, but I'll call you tomorrow. Is that okay?"

It was more than okay. After Geoff left, I turned on the TV. Oprah. God I used to hate her show. This time, however, I didn't change the channel. After Oprah, I turned the TV off and looked up at the ceiling. The events of the past few days had worn me out--personal epiphanies were tough, but it was good to be feeling something other than anger again. I studied the cracks in the plaster until I drifted off to sleep.

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