Friday, June 29, 2012

Negative: No Positive Spin Needed

I hate that HIV testing is part of my life. I can't lie about that. It sucks that HIV/AIDS exists in our world and that we have to put ourselves through the nightmare of fear and wondering as we wait for the results.
Every time I have sex with a stranger, a friend, a friend of a friend, I post coitally go into anxiety mode. As soon as the pleasure fades I begin to wonder Was I protected enough? Was I careful enough? You can use the seatbelt and the mirrors all you want, but sometimes you can't prevent the accident waiting just around the curve.
Is the desire to be with another person worth the fear of infection? The answer to that question is: No. Yet I can't get past the notion of putting my life at risk every time I choose to find gratification with another person instead of just my hand. As a single, gay man living in a large metropolitan city, with a large gay community, I am not alone in my anxiety. I may be alone in the way I agonize over it, but that's my own hang up. Trust issues!
I understand how HIV is spread, and I do my best in the way of preventive measures to stay healthy. That doesn't change how I torment myself. I'm my own worst enemy. The "What ifs..." play racquet ball inside my brain.
I chose to have my testing done at GMHC: Gay Men's Health Crisis. It's free of charge and there is no judgement. My counselor, Harold, took me to his office and asked me personal questions that I answered as honestly as I could. There should be no embarrassment. Sometimes I forget that. Information is necessary. Information is valuable. He wasn’t probing me for information to run on Page Six of The Post. He was asking me about my life to better access my situation. There's no shame in being sexually active.  
Thankfully, advances in HIV testing have made the nerve racking, gnawing-in-the-pit-of-your-stomach wait time less wait time than it used to be. My first HIV test was in the form of a DIY box kit that I bought at Duane Reade. I took it home, pricked my finger, put a drop of blood on each of the 3 circles, attached the coded number sticker that kept me anonymous, sealed it inside the envelope and put it in the mail. Then I waited - 2 to 3 weeks I waited. It was excruciating. I tried to not think about it. Difficult when you have a huge - possibly life changing - result hanging in the balance between knowing and not. I had never felt more light and alive than when the day came that I could call the 800 number and punch in my code to get those results. Well, to be honest, the knot in my stomach was like a fist twisting my intestines as I called the 800 number and punched in my code. Then came the light and lively feeling. I was negative. That was the first time "negative" meant so much to me. I remember calling my dear friend, Suzie and telling her my good news. We had wine that night; merlot if I'm not mistaken.
Since then I have had my testing done through my doctor's office. The wait time shrank to a week at the most. Still tough, but easier to handle.
Today, I experienced my first test with results in 10 minutes. I didn't have too much time to allow the nerves of worry to affect me. I didn't have any time to allow myself to forget the results were processing. I barely had time to finish the review of the film Magic Mike I was reading in Entertainment Weekly before Harold was calling my name. The results were in. Ten minutes of uninformed bliss. Ten minutes of rose-colored glasses. Ten minutes of all's right with the world. There was no going back. Even feeling in my heart the answer would be "negative" there was no putting the blood back in my finger. If for some reason the outcome was not the one I wanted to hear, my 10 minutes were up. If you've never experienced a moment like that then you have no idea how that "What if..." feels.
When Harold told me I was negative the sense of relief was still as affecting as the first time. Knowledge truly is power. The clinch released. The wondering "What if..." got its answer. It was over - at least for another few months. I was thankful and realized how blessed I am. I called no one. I walked in the heat of New York City appreciating yet another moment when "negative" was the most positive word in the world.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Return to Winthrop St. - Part 7

There was no alcohol in his room; no pot either. He was stuck in a state of sadness and anger. He wanted the scenes in his head to stop. He wanted the movie to break, to melt; he would have been content with a projector jam, but nothing was stopping the scenario of Bobby fucking him and his wishing it was Kinlin. Or of Clancy catching him and Bobby in the act when he didn’t even know Bobby was performing an act in which to be caught.

Atwood sat down on his bed a slumped and broken man. That’s when he noticed his open closet door and the basket of shower paraphernalia on the bottom shelf. Actually he noticed the basket of stuff sitting next to it. It was a collection of odds and ends; things that his mother had sent with him when he left home in August. He grabbed the plastic basket and searched through it. Inside he found sleeping pills. He remembered his mom telling him she’d put a box in his suitcase because “You never know if you’re going to be able to sleep right away in a new place.”

He was never so happy for his mother’s concern and overprotectiveness. Then he saw the bottle of cough syrup. It was the kind she had given him at night to help him sleep. He looked at the bottle. It had a high alcohol content. So, he had no beer, no liquor, no pot, but he now had sleeping pills and cough syrup. The movie in his head was as good as stopped as soon as he could get the plastic tamperproof wrap off the bottle and push the pill through its foil.

One pill, a deep swig of cough syrup, a wince, and an ironic cough later Atwood wasn’t sure it was enough. He hesitated briefly before pushing another pill through the foil. As he lifted it to his mouth his nerves knotted in the pit of his stomach. What if I don’t wake up? he thought to himself. 

His desire to block out the world was greater than his fear, but he broke the pill in half and took it. 

One-and-a-half pills and a little more cough syrup. All that was left was to lay in bed and wait for their effects to take over.

As a distraction while lying in bed waiting for the euphoric bliss of sleep to wash over his body he thumbed through a copy of Ateliera fashion magazine showing creation from workroom to runway. He was that interested in fashion, but had been intrigued by the premise and thought it would be interesting to read about the process.

He could feel the waves starting; pulsing through his brain. He was riding the motion as the room swirled in and out of focus. He had read the same paragraph five times and still didn’t know what it said. He meant to only look at the pictures, but something about sewing on all the beads by hand caught his attention and he started to read. He threw the magazine to the floor. His lids became heavier and heavier as the sleeping pills sedated his brain and limbs. All he could manage was to let his lids close. His ability to breathe still intact, he sank into the pillow and released all power to hang on. Sleep took over.


The colors were vivid. He had never seen water that was so blue and so clear at the same time. The sun was so bright he wished he had sunglasses, then realized he wasn’t squinting. The trees on the edge of the beach were full and hung heavy with fruit; golden plums and orange-pink peaches that almost glowed, red apples that were so succulent they seemingly begged to be picked. He couldn’t resist. The peach that he bit into released its juices into his mouth and down his neck. He laughed. He felt completely at ease. The sand around the beach was the color of brown sugar. It was soft. There were no hard or broken shells, no broken bottles on which to cut his feet. The sun’s rays hadn’t heated it to an unbearable temperature either. It was Eden. It was perfect. 

As he sat on the beach sucking every last shred of peach meat from its pit he was content; more at ease with himself and in harmony with everything around him than he had been in weeks. It was then that he noticed a row boat in the water. There was a person inside the boat waving at him. He didn’t know who it was inside the boat or where the boat had even come from. It seemed to have appeared out of thin air. Although truthfully he didn’t know where he was or how he’d gotten there so it didn’t seem so out of place that a boat and another person might be there too. 

As the boat approached the shore its occupant jumped into the water and pulled it the remainder of the way onto the beach. He had never been more relieved and excited to realize that it was Bobby. Shirtless, beautiful, and wet. 

“Hi,” said Bobby as he strode directly to Atwood, extending his left hand to help him stand while placing his right hand around the side of Atwood’s neck to hold him steady for a kiss. When their lips touched Atwood felt his body begin to tingle. The birds began to chirp as if singing their approval. Atwood hadn’t even realized there were birds. The serenity of the place was peaceful; creation at its most perfect. 

“What are you doing here?” Atwood asked when their kiss ended.

“It’s your dream,” Bobby responded leaning in to kiss Atwood again. “You conjured me.”

“Where are we?” asked Atwood. 

“Inside your head,” answered Bobby.

Bobby turned, taking Atwood’s hand and led him to the boat. He’d never felt water like silk before. It gently lapped at his calves as he and Bobby pushed the boat away from the beach. Atwood seated himself at one end of the row boat and looked out at the vastness of the water on which he floated. He was surprised that he didn’t feel overwhelmed by its magnitude or expanse. On the contrary he felt as if he were floating on a calm pond back in Ryland. Even as he compared this massive body of water to a pond he realized he couldn’t see across it to the other side. He sensed no fear at being lost at sea or the sea’s ability to swallow them whole should they float too far away from the beach. 

The center of the row boat was laid with fresh fruit and champagne. He marveled at his own ability to create with his mind the beauty of this place and to access what he desired. 

Bobby was beautiful sitting at the other end of the boat. The muscles in his arms flexed as he rowed them away from the beach. The sun glistened off of the droplets of water from the rising paddles that speckled his chest. He turned to smile at Atwood. Looking into Bobby’s eyes Atwood realized that the water was the same color. It wasn’t the clear blue he had thought it was earlier; it was blue/green and luminous. Atwood peered into the water’s depths. He couldn’t see the bottom, but he could see forms of plant life swaying in the current. He could see schools of small fish swimming close to the top. 

He was happy; happier than he’d been in longer than he could remember. The day was unblemished, the place utopian. The sunshine, the water, the beach, the fruit, Bobby. He wished he could tie it up with a little bow and stick a tag on it that read Perfect

He took his gaze from the water to Bobby who had stopped rowing to sit and watch him. He too seemed genuinely happy. He motioned for Atwood to come to him. Atwood obliged, avoiding disrupting the assortment of goodies lying in the middle of the boat. 

As he lay in Bobby’s warm embrace he realized the boat was steady. It was gently rocking on the small waves, but it hadn’t tipped from their weight being at one end. It didn’t even seem to be drifting. Without an anchor Atwood didn’t know how that was possible.

He didn’t know how much time had passed when he realized that he was no longer lying in Bobby’s arms. He felt a sense of unease. He was scared. He looked out over the water to see if Bobby had decided to swim. There was no sign of him. No splashing. No rolling waves. The water was mimicking the gentle roll of waves, but it wasn’t creating waves exactly. Something was different. Atwood squinted to look in the distance. He squinted. He hadn’t had to squint before. He felt his heart sink to the pit of his stomach. He was alone and he was frightened. 

“Bobby,” he yelled.

The word bounced back to him with a hollow echo. The peaceful serenity of the beach and water was changed. Something was different. He looked back into the water as he had before. It was the same color, but no longer clear. It was dense—opaque, maybe? Or cloudy? There was no reflection from its surface. The sun seemed to be dimming. There was light, but Atwood couldn’t figure out from where it was coming. He looked into the water again. This time he reached out and touched it. It was cold and thick. When he looked at his fingers they were covered with what appeared to be blue/green paint or heavily watered down clay. 

Confusion ran through Atwood’s mind. Where was Bobby? What was happening to the water? The sky, once a crystalline blue was now turning gray. The boat began to shift as if an unseen current was moving underneath. It now seemed like a speck on a vast watery plane. Atwood turned his focus to the inside of the small row boat. His brain was telling him to get the paddles and paddle back to shore. Reaching for the paddles he noticed the maggots that covered the once ripened fruit that lay in the center of the boat. Flies were flying from the empty, broken champagne bottle.

The sky continued to darken as Atwood removed the paddles from their holders and placed them into the sludge that had once been water. Paddling toward shore took every ounce of strength that he had and he didn’t seem to be making any progress. 

Lightening cut the sky with it’s jagged fire. Atwood’s heart was pounding. He was holding back tears. Being scared had turned into being terrified.

The movement under the water intensified. As Atwood looked out over the largeness of water in which he sat he felt defeated. Rowing the boat was getting him no where. He was stuck and the shifting underneath him threatened to break the boat into pieces.

He noticed a small figure in the distance. The knot in his stomach loosened. It was Bobby. He had just jumped into the water for a swim. He must have swum too far away for Atwood to see him.

The sky continued to darken. The water was as thick as flour without enough liquid. The air was getting colder. The lightening continued to slice across the sky like an enchanted whip.

Bobby was getting closer. Atwood was squinting to try to see better. He was amazed at how in the brightest sunlight he’d ever known he’d not had to squint, but in this darkening night he couldn’t see clearly.

As Bobby approached the water began to erupt. Water spouts shot into the sky and whirled around throwing cold, clay-thick pellets into the air. The wind picked up. Atwood was beginning to shiver both from fear and temperature.

The sea then calmed itself of its underwater turmoil. The boat went still. Atwood watched as Bobby approached. The water spouts grew to the size of tornadoes, but gave no movement to the water’s surface.

The fear Atwood had been feeling turned to a sense of foreboding. He hadn’t even realized he was crying until the tears hit his arms. He wanted Bobby to be back in the row boat. He wanted to feel safe in Bobby’s arms. He didn’t know what to do. He was a terrified child, lost with no parents. He looked around at the water spouts. They weren’t moving closer. Thank God he thought to himself. He looked at the beach. The fruit was still clinging to the trees, but it was rotten. The trees had no life. The brown sugar sand was now gray. It now looked like tiny pebbles. 

The tranquility had turned to chaos.

He turned back toward Bobby’s approaching figure only to discover that it wasn’t Bobby at all. It was Kinlin. He was standing at the end of the row boat. He was standing on the water or the sludge, paint, clay—whatever the water had become. Atwood’s mouth went dry. How was it possible? How was Kinlin standing on water? Where was Bobby? What was happening? Atwood backed as far into the corner of the row boat at he could, but there was no where to go. He was trapped. 

Kinlin stepped into the boat. He too was shirtless. The chill in the air intensified as he smiled his all-to-familiar smile. He sat down opposite Atwood and leaned back, lounging like someone completely at ease and familiar with his surroundings.

He looked up at the sky and the lightening cracked its whip again. The effect lit Kinlin’s perfect torso and made the flecks of color in his otherwise hazel eyes glow. 

“Come on, Atwood,” he cooed. “I’m here. I’m right where you want me. Come and get it.” Kinlin didn’t move. He sat perfectly still—reclined, relaxed. “I’m right here. You do want me don’t you, Atwood? My dick is right here. Come on. Suck it, Atwood. I know you want to and you know you want to. When are you ever going to get another chance? I’m giving you the opportunity of a lifetime. I’m offering you me.

Atwood closed his eyes. He closed his eyes tighter than he’d ever closed them before. He wished for Kinlin to be gone. He wished to be back on the beach. He wished for the sun’s return and the water’s clarity. 

When he opened his eyes the sun was shining. He now had to squint against its brightness. That seemed normal to Atwood. He wished for sunglasses. Again, normal. The boat was gently rocking. The water spouts were gone. The fruit in the middle of the boat was also gone. The beach looked like the beach. He reached out and touched the water—blue/green, translucent, and naturally heated by the sun.

There was movement in the water. Atwood felt his uneasiness begin to return. Bobby’s head surfaced right next to Atwood’s hand and the boat. He was smiling at Atwood and spit water straight into his face. Atwood laughed as he wiped the water from his eyes. The relief that flooded over him made his body break into a sweat from running the gamut of emotions from apprehension to complacency.

Bobby used his upper body strength to propel himself out of the water and back into the boat. Atwood kissed him and put himself right back into Bobby’s arms. He wanted to feel them around himself. He wanted the safety they provided. When he reclined back, content and secure he saw Kinlin was still sitting at the other end of the boat. Atwood’s eyes widened at the revelation and he jerked his head toward Bobby’s face. Bobby wasn’t looking at him. He was looking at Kinlin. 

Bobby’s face wore an evil grin. He followed Bobby’s gaze and saw that Kinlin too wore an evil grin. What was happening? Bobby’s arms tightened around him. Kinlin began to crawl across the row boat’s center toward him. Bobby wouldn’t let him go. No one was speaking. Atwood couldn’t get away. He was screaming, but no sound was coming from his mouth. Sound didn’t exist. He realized it was because he was underwater. He could feel the hot burning of his raw throat. Bobby and Kinlin were choking him, holding him under the water. He was drowning. Elements of his sequence with Bobby and his sequence with Kinlin had merged into one grotesque nightmare. He could feel the firmness of the sand on his back as his body was held in place. The water had cleared allowing him to see the faces of the two people who were killing him and the dark sky above them. Holding him tightly by the throat they wrenched him to the surface. Atwood heard their laughter as he gulped for air. 

Lightening cut the sky. Bobby, his arms of safety, and Kinlin, his oldest friend, had morphed into demonic, evil clowns. Their faces twisted with delight at his fear and impending death. Continuing to gasp for breath, Atwood lashed out at them, terror in his eyes. He saw their sharp teeth as they threw their heads back with cackling laughter one last time before Kinlin alone thrust him back under the water.


Atwood awoke drenched in sweat panting shallow breaths. His heart was racing. He was afraid to move. He lay as still as he could. He didn’t know where he was. He needed to get his bearings. He felt as if his heart was going to rupture through his chest. His room slowly came into focus. His beating heart began to slow. As realization of his surroundings set in, he began to calm. He turned toward the clock on his nightstand. He’d been asleep for three hours.

“Fuck,” he said. Mostly because of the intensity of the dream, but partially because it was still the middle of the night and he was awake. Again.

©Michael Rohrer 2012