*Featured Artwork: from the collection “Futuro Imperfecto!” by Ciro Flores
He tells me that blood is slightly more accurate. Maybe just a percentage or two, compared to saliva swabbed from my mouth. So, blood’s what I want, and blood’s what we go with.
A prick, a jab in the meat of my arm. I watch my blood fill the syringe to prove that I’m fine, to prove to myself that needles don’t scare me. Being bled as if I’m a pig for the slaughter, and I’ll watch it all happen to prove that I’m fine. From syringe to a vial, which is mixed with solution then placed in a tray and turned from my view. Twenty minutes from now my blood will have answers. A stopwatch is clicked. The countdown begins.
There’s three of us in the room at the moment. Me, the tester, and the tester’s assistant. The tester is cute; his assistant is cuter. Rain has made a mess of my hair, has soaked through my shirt and the legs of my pants. Compared to these two I’m a male Cinderella, haggard and wet, leaves glued to my cuffs and the soles of my shoes. Worse, they both seem noticeably younger than me, and I can’t help but compare their glorious hairlines to mine, which, thanks to the weather and the passage of time, has definitely seen better days than today. I hope there’s no reason my age should come up—that I can suffer this time in relative silence. But the tester decides to examine my papers, the ones I’ve filled out before testing began, and asks me questions from the questions I’ve answered. An attempt to ease what he correctly perceives as my visible tension. He confirms my name. My address, my number. And before I know it, my age is discovered.
“You were born…let’s see…on October 19th?”
“That’s right,” I reply. The tester looks at his watch for a moment, then at my papers, then back at me.
“That’s today! So today is your what?” He rolls his eyes to the top of his skull where, I assume, he’s adding the numbers up in his brain. “Your 33rd birthday?!”
“Yeah, today’s my 33rd birthday.” I wish I could see the tester’s stopwatch. I wish I’d glanced at the clock on the wall the instant my blood was placed in the vial. I wish I wasn’t blind to how much time has gone by. I want to rush through this moment, these next 20 minutes, bring an end to the bullseye I feel strapped to my life.
“Well, I hope you have a very happy birthday. Got any big plans for the rest of the day?”
I point toward the vial I can no longer see. “That depends on how these results turn out.”
The tester stiffens a bit in his chair. “And what if you get a result you don’t want? Do you think you might do harm to yourself, or maybe do something that could be thought as unsafe?”
I wasn’t thinking unsafe on September 19th, wasn’t thinking where I’d end up exactly 30 days later. I was thinking my phone was about to go dead, so I was rushing myself to hook up with a stranger. His Grindr profile showed he was nearby; less than 1000 feet from where I was walking. He was in a hotel. Was visiting town. He was looking for now, and now worked for me.
“Hey,” he says.
“Hey,” I reply.
That’s it as far as pleasantries go. We get into the elevator and go up to his room. Through Grindr we’ve discussed all that we’re into, all the things we enjoy during sex. I know that he likes to be on the “bottom”. I know that he likes to be the submissive. I know what he wants and expects out of me. Neither of us know the first name of the other.
“I set up networks for different financial institutions,” he says, shutting the door to his room behind us. “I travel a lot all over the country.” There’s three different laptops arranged on his desk, all of them playing various forms of gay porn. Incense is burning in a glass by the sink; the air is thick with smoke and perfume. The only light in the room, aside from the images playing out on the laptops, comes from a lamp that rests in a corner. The shade of the lamp is concealed with a towel, which devours the light and empowers the shadows. Everything suddenly feels like a setup—a trap to ensnare unsuspecting gay men.
“Are you ready?” he asks.
We shed our clothes onto the floor. We don’t bother with kisses or words; there’s nothing romantic between our two bodies. Together, we fumble our way to the bed. He positions himself on top of my body, adjusting so that penetration is easy.
“Do you have a condom?” I ask.
He nods his head as he lowers himself. All at once I feel I’m inside him. “Yeah, I do.” But he doesn’t stop what he’s doing and neither do I, as if just having a condom is as good as having it on. After several minutes we switch up positions, and in between changing the shape of our bodies he takes a snort from a vial lying next to his bed. I’ve never seen poppers, let alone seen them taken. My mind is shouting for me to get out. Stop what I’m doing. What I’m doing is stupid…isn’t safe…isn’t me. But my physical desire strangles my logic, and I endure the sex that I’m having, the sex that I’m hating, until both of us finish exhausted and sweaty.
“This might be a question that’s a little too late,” I say as we lay still next to each other. Now that my physical urges have passed, my mind demands I do some reconnaissance. “But do you know if you’re negative?”
“Oh yeah,” he replies, as if to say, ‘why are you asking?’ “I have to be negative.”
“Why do you have to be negative?”
“Because I have a fiancé. And if I wasn’t negative, she’d know I’d been cheating.”
I leave his hotel room a few minutes later. It’s well past 3 o’clock in the morning, but I don’t catch the train and I don’t hail a cab, choosing instead to walk the two miles back to my home. I plug my phone into its charger once I arrive, and once it’s been charged I receive a quick message: had fun 2night. lets do it again.
My clothes are reeking with a mixture of sweat and sour incense. Shedding them feels like removing a malignant form of my skin. I don’t have the energy to hop in the shower. All I can think, all I can do, is dream of a million different “if only’s”. If only my phone had run out of power, had died before I could get his address. If only I hadn’t been feeling so horny, if only I’d insisted that we use some protection. I crawl into bed, confused and uncertain, so upset that I call out of work a few hours later. I claim that I’m sick, that I’ve come down with an illness. Even as I’m telling this most pathetic of lies I worry I might not be lying at all. I worry that I’ve come down with something that I’ve set myself up for, something that’s just lying in wait, growing in power, until it springs into action and takes hold of my body.
“Do you think you might do harm to yourself, or maybe do something that could be thought as unsafe?”
I shake my head at the tester’s question. “No, I wouldn’t do something that could be thought as unsafe. I’ve had enough of unsafe to last me a lifetime.” I’m trying to breathe as if I’m not screaming inside, as if panic’s a million light years away. “I can tell you though that if I get an answer I don’t like that it’s going to be rough. Like right here in this room, for me, it’ll get rough. Not to put you on the spot, but are you guys ready for that?”
The tester doesn’t need to think twice. “Absolutely. We know what it’s like to give somebody bad news. And we know how to help if that’s what you’ll need. That’s what we’re here for.”
We continue to chat, the three of us together, until I can no longer pretend that I care what we’re saying. I point at the stopwatch the tester is holding. “Mind if I ask how much longer I have?” He glances at the stopwatch, raising his eyebrows as he looks up at me.
“Another couple of minutes. But the reagent I put in your blood has reacted.” The tester takes a deep breath. “I can tell you the results if you’re ready to hear them.”
At last it’s happened. My 20 minutes are over, and now all I want is to have 20 more. Then 20 more minutes again after that, until minutes have been transformed into hours, then into days and then into years. I’m safe as long as I live in this limbo. I’m safe until I know that I’m not. I’m negative as long as I don’t know that I’m positive.
“Are you ready to hear them?”
I know that I’m not. I’m not ready to hear them. “Okay. Let me hear them.”