It was a warm September afternoon and the sky was clear. A slight breeze carried with it the light scent of drying leaves. Dave reached the top of the stairs leading up from the blue line at 23rd Street and 8th avenue and scanned the area. There was new scaffolding up around the Chelsea projects. A couple of high school kids sat on the bars, probably avoiding going home. A tall girl wearing distressed leather boots, chambray shorts and a fedora waited to cross the street; an FIT student no doubt about it. Chris was across the street waiting for him.
“Hey,” said Dave, “how long have you been waiting here?”
“About twenty minutes” Chris replied.
They hugged and then began to walk uptown. The free clinic was on 29th Street between 8th and 9th avenue. Chris knew the way. This was Dave’s first time visiting such a place. Though he did not show it, his stomach was constricted with nerves, and a feeling of dread sprouted in the depth of his mind as he thought of the ways in which this day could unfold.
About two months earlier, towards the very end of July, Dave had an “isolated incident” (as the director of the clinic, Lynette, would later call it) with a 24 year old Puerto Rican with tattoos who had conveniently run out of rubbers. 24 year old Puerto Rican males unfortunately, are considered a high risk statistic when it comes to HIV, and being far too self-informed on the subject for his own good, Dave was scared. In retrospect, Dave knew what a stupid decision he had made. He had been intoxicated on the night it happened, and there was a vast number of nights before it happened where absolutely NOTHING had happened with anyone at all. Finally, for the first and only time in his 21 years did “the thrill of the moment” and many lonely nights bring Dave to do what he definitely knew he should not do. In the New York City public school system, Sex Ed starts as early as the 5th grade.
“I’m scared, Chris. What if this doesn’t go well?”
“Don’t say that, Davey. You’ll be fine. You are fine.”
“Yeah, well I just want to get it over with.”
The two reached 224 W29th Street and looked at the building front. The doors were made of clear glass. Through them you could see another glass door at the end of a granite tiled hallway past the brass gilded elevators. Beyond that door there was a large black man in a suit sitting behind a large black desk. Black vinyl. Tacky. Dave had barely made it past the first of the two elevators when the large black man had rushed from behind his desk, swung the glass door open and said “the clinic is closed until 2:30PM”. Dave looked at his phone and the time read 2:15. Chris caught Dave’s exasperation and gave a look as if to say “it’s just fifteen minutes. Let’s go outside and chain smoke”. So that’s what they did. They each had two cigarettes and then shared a third. The whole time, they remained silent, communicating only through puffs of smoke and the sharp, small sound of flicking ashes.
At 2:29PM Lynette bustled out of the glass door and beckoned the two inside. She had a bubbly demeanor and a nice smile. She also had a massive mole on her chin with just one white hair growing out of it. It was very distracting. It might be strategic if you think about it. Lynette handed them both clipboards with forms to fill out. They were asked all sorts of invasive questions like: In the past year have you done cocaine? If so, did you a) Swallow it b) Inhale it c) Inject it d) Smoke it, or e) have it spoon fed to you by a transsexual? Did that transsexual have HIV? If you do not know, please give us your grandmother’s shoe size. You had no legal obligation to even put your name on the damned thing. Dave thought it might just be something for people to do while they wait to be called into the little private room.
Chris got called in first. He disappeared around the corner and Dave heard a door click shut. There was no one else in the waiting room. There was a water cooler in the corner, and a giant basket of condoms on a black square vinyl coffee table. They also offered key chains. On the walls there were posters for prescription drugs and support groups, and right in the middle of the far right wall there was a small poster with an accurate drawing of a man with his back towards the viewer and his pants pulled just under his ass, and it read:
Looks can be deceiving. What is sweet to the eyes, is not always a prize.
Dave wasn’t sure if this was clever or pathetic.
By the time Chris got back, the waiting room’s seats had all been filled, and all you could hear was the scratching of Bic pens on clipboards. Lynette called Dave into the room and as he walked to it, he resigned himself to what was to come. At this point, Dave was out of the “window period” and whatever result the rapid test would yield was considered to be definitive. The last two months had been extremely nerve-wrecking. Adding to the stress was a sudden case of strep throat that had Dave in bed for about two days. They say that about 90% of people who first become infected with HIV will experience flu-like symptoms within the first two to three weeks of incubation. As he thought back on the ill timed sickness, his breath caught tightly in his chest and he had to really focus on calming down. In through the nose, out through the mouth. Something like this could destroy my life, he thought. How could anyone ever love me? How would I tell my mother? Not knowing was agony.
Within minutes, Lynette pricked Dave’s finger, squeeze a few drops of blood into a little tube and stuck it in the reactant solution.
“Do you have any questions for me, honey?” Lynette asked.
“No” said Dave, and he flourished the piece of paper in his hand, “I just want to know the result. I already read just about all I want to know in this pamphlet.”
“Alright, honey, just take a seat outside then, and we’ll call you back in when your results are ready.”
Dave went to join Chris. The two sat in the waiting room, this time chatting freely. In the corner, Dave couldn’t help but notice that one of the guys that had come in was really attractive. He had dark beach blonde hair, green eyes, dark eyebrows and a perfectly lithe frame. He kept stealing glances at Dave too, but really, the free clinic is probably the last place to find a date, don’t you think?
Ten long minutes later, the two were called into different rooms. Dave’s hand went to Chris’ shoulder and lingered for just a second. Chris gazed back knowingly and gave a smile as he disappeared around the corner once more. Moments later, they were both in the waiting room again.
Everything was brighter at that moment. Dave could not help but smile. All the nerves were completely lifted and a great feeling of airiness bloomed within him.
“So you’re coming to yoga later, right?” Dave asked.
“Yeah definitely. Let’s get the fuck out of here and have a drink!”
“It’s only 3 o’clock, dude.”
“Shut up. My treat.”
The two walked down to the Standard Hotel Beer Garden and took a seat each sipping from a pint and feeling jovial.
“Chris, what would you have done if it didn’t say negative?”
“Well, you would have had to carry me home because I probably wouldn’t stop crying for a couple of days. Then I’d pack up my life in a suitcase and travel to as many places as I could before I died.”
“Do you think you’d really do that?”
Chris laughed. “No. I’d probably just go see my mom in Connecticut.”