*Featured Image: Angelou’s San Francisco Bay By Naylet Leon
Waiting in the Clinic for Nameless Lovers
By Dwaine Rieves
When the clinic called for physicians, I volunteered. Of course, I wasn’t gay—all I needed was proof. I needed to find the clinic and its patients repulsive.
I’m standing with a young physician when she opens the medical record, scans a page and, in a voice no one can miss, calls our next patient by his name, his true name. I cringe. What on earth just happened? The eager trainee must have heard me call the earlier patients by their numbers. She knew this was a gay men’s VD Clinic, the last place where you might publicly reveal a patient’s name. Before I can construct an unimpassioned plan for this teaching moment, a patient starts walking toward us. He seems elated, pleased to be next, the crowd indifferent, my trainee beaming.
I reassess the waiting room situation. Almost every patient belongs to generation Y, the oldest maybe X. My trainee is most definitely a Y. I am an H, the has-been doctor who’d forgotten our VD Clinic is now officially a “Wellness Clinic.” And while our patients are hopefully placing a priority on wellness this evening, I’m suddenly missing our old clinic of numbers and nameless lovers.
Thirty years back, I was the age of most clinic patients, a crisp doctor who wanted to believe he wasn’t gay. I needed proof, which was perhaps the main reason I chose to volunteer in the clinic. I wanted to wade in the medically safe shallows of this risky world, to witness the consequences of riskiness, to see what I might become, to maybe escape that possibility. Of course, I also wanted to help. Only a few weeks earlier, the Surgeon General had called for compassion and action. Homosexuality is an unavoidable reality, he reported, yet the risks for AIDS are manageable among all people, including homosexuals. Besides, patients are patients, regardless. So, when the clinic called for physicians, I volunteered. Of course, I wasn’t gay—all I needed was proof. I needed to find the clinic and its patients repulsive.
I prepared for my experiment as if my performance would determine my future. I read up on the latest treatments, studied the hippest sexual lingo. I kept reminding myself of the clinic rules, which placed a premium on confidentiality. No names, scant records, steely equanimity. All in all, solid back street medicine in a city—Reagan-era Washington, DC—where jobs and family, even a gay man’s very life, might hinge on the naming of names.
The Victorian row house stood bone white in the evening dreariness. Inside, double parlors were packed with men seated in cast-off metal chairs. Up front, a volunteer assigned numbers. I was directed to the basement treatment area. Here was a smaller waiting room, again chock-a-block with patients. A floor lamp provided the only light, the ceiling highlighted in a soft alabaster, people in the dimness below. Patients seemed tentative, respectful. No one was talking.
I settled into my work area, a set of cubicles walled off from the hall by make-do canvas curtains. Medical records consisted of a single sheet of paper: the patient number and date, checkboxes for diagnosis and treatment. No insurance filing. No copying. Records went nowhere. No one was telling.
A proper diagnosis seemed essential for that patient within me, especially one that might prove a balm to his failures. In this case, I was suspicious of the diagnosis, but I feared acknowledging it would only enhance my inner patient’s pain. Instead, assigning him a name seemed workable. So, I assigned that sick guy inside me an identity that, with its Biblical epithet, also carried an explanation—David, a man after God’s own heart. Healing had to follow. And yet, when I actually spoke that name, my patient worsened. It happened in an apartment on the outskirts of Nashville, a living room where a popcorn ceiling loomed too low, the light from a single lamp making the intimacy all too seedy.
The crosstown stranger was a few years older than me, talkative in a comforting manner. He claimed the sofa, me a chair some distance away. I sat with elbows on knees, hands enfolded. I didn’t want to know his name, and yet he promptly gave it—Bill. I then remembered. From the porno booth wall, I’d written down only the telephone number, forcing myself to believe that I would ultimately forget what lay beneath that number, his name.
Bill was from Kentucky, enjoyed living in Nashville although at heart he was still a farm boy. “So enough about me. Where you from?”
I sensed an interview, and before I could stop it, a reflex took over. “Mississippi,” I said, shuddering at the truthfulness in my answer, the surrender.
Bill gave an insightful smile and lowered his eyes. “Well,” he said, lifting his head only enough to keep most of his face in a shadow. “Why did you call?”
“Curious…I guess. Interested.”
I wasn’t prepared for this question even as I’d been asking it of myself for days. I made my eyes roam, trying to ignore Bill’s sincerity, his lingering question. I couldn’t. “You,” I said, my focus fixed on the pyre glowing in the lamp’s high basin. “You left your name.”
“And, my Mississippi boy, what’s your name?”
I sealed my lips. The room’s heat was too high, the light too foreign. I’d parked before his apartment’s front door. He’d flipped no lock. The exit was clear. Bill seemed to be sitting at a greater distance now, apart, abandoned.
“David,” I answered.
Bill spoke from his darkness. “You work near here?”
I told Bill I had to go, apologizing for having wasted his time. At the door, he hugged me. Told me to be careful. Never did Bill repeat my fictitious name, and yet never did he look as if he doubted my gibberish. It seemed my visit, my answering his public statement, had turned into a compliment.
My first night in the gay men’s VD clinic I stood before the waiting patients and announced the first number. No patient stood, so I repeated the five digits, louder. Heads lowered to re-examine cards. I peered across the faces, enunciating the numbers more clearly. No hand went up. I gazed down to my paper and as I started to repeat the numbers once more, a stately woman appeared at my side. “Baby, you’re looking at him.” She was audible to the others.
I blushed. The front row snickered. My sense of preparation collapsed, all equanimity now missing. Within me, David arose from his casket, his dead heart ominously beating. Oh, I’d noticed this woman in the back row earlier, noticed she was stirring. But I’d assumed she was someone’s all-too caring friend, a fag-hag as they called them. I’d also assumed my medical training had sealed any crypt of vulnerability within me. My patient shifted a hip and winked like Joan Collins.
I still feel the work it took to smile, to resurrect the shambles of a once implacable doctor. Later, in the exam area, my patient apologized for startling me. From him, I learned it was Dynasty night at the Green Lantern. And I also learned how becoming someone else, the silliness in such fakery, is not silly at all if some totally fake guy is the only one who can truthfully answer a question.
I’ve forgotten all the other patient experiences from my first night in clinic, other problems no doubt straightforward, my own diagnosis all too obvious.
The other evening, with my trainee shadowing me, we completed our clinic assignment as if nothing remarkable had transpired. But the fact was I had experienced a teaching moment before the waiting crowd, one where a furtive night in Nashville returned to reveal why I still prefer to call my patients by numbers, why I enjoy matching digits to a face. It’s a humbling mystery when my patient starts moving toward me, a sense that differs little from the shadowy self-awareness conjured by Bill, a stranger forever waving before a darkened door in my mind. It’s a mystery I doubt any patient can sense when, the two of us alone in the exam room, we exchange greetings, my name in the lead. No, this story is not really about coming out, my patients, Bill, or me. It’s about who answers when the system calls a number.