blackbirdonline journalSpring 2021  Vol. 20  No. 1
an online journal of literature and the arts
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from You Are Here: A Memoir of Arrival
installment 6

Since Wesley Gibson’s death in December 2016, Blackbird has contemplated ways to ensure his literary voice maintains a presence in the world. With that end in mind, we are in the process of reproducing his book, You Are Here: A Memoir of Arrival, which was published in 2004 by Back Bay Books, an imprint of Little, Brown and Company. Hailed at the time by Mary Gaitskill as “dark and sparkling, wonderfully intelligent, flip, and deeply felt,” You Are Here provides an excellent vehicle for honoring Gibson’s many strengths as a writer and his generosity of spirit as a friend. All excerpts appear with the permission of his family and publisher. Our first, second, and third installments of You Are Here can be found in v17n1, v18n1, v18n2, v19n1, and v19n2. Additional excerpts will be serialized in forthcoming issues.
   —Blackbird editors

I thanked them for listening—it couldn’t have been easy—and they made noises about if I needed something  . . . I didn’t bother to say that I had a list about a mile long. They meant if I needed more listening.

One good thing. Now that I’d vomited all that out, I felt like I’d been dropped from a building. For once, sleep was my friend. I didn’t have to stalk it, wondering if it’d ever show up. Its embrace was simple and uncomplicated and over-whelming.


I woke up pinpricked around the ankles. They itched with an intensity that I can only describe as preorgasmic except that the orgasm never comes.

I had noticed, a few days before, that the guy I’d slept with had had a similar condition, only worse, and I had mentioned it, and he’d told me that they were mosquito bites from where he’d been swimming at his uncle’s lake the weekend before. I wouldn’t say that I felt all that reassured—he’d also told me he was HIV positive—but I figured I wasn’t going to be sucking his calves, or anything else for that matter, so we dove into bed, one of us with misgivings. It had seemed impolite to tell someone you’d changed your mind about fucking them once they already had their clothes off. Part of that was my southern upbringing—I probably would have apologized to a drive-by shooter for getting in front of his bullet—but another part of it was the misguided notion I’d picked up from AIDS activism that it was politically and morally wrong to ever make a PWA (what an antique phrase that sounds like just three years later) feel self-conscious. Also, I’d had more than a few beers. It had been a while.

Now this. So I called my new paramour, and I told him that unless the mosquitoes from his uncle’s lake had decided to buzz down to the city to take in a show and bite the fuck out of me too, then he didn’t have mosquito bites.

Bedbugs, he said, quick as a Jeopardy! contestant.

Bedbugs. OK. I’d heard of bedbugs. I generally associated them with nineteenth-century slatterns on straw mattresses, but I was willing to consider them for argument’s sake. I would agree that they might be bedbugs, and he would agree to go to his doctor, since he’d gotten us into this mess, to make sure they were bedbugs. He would go tomorrow, right? Then I would call again on the off chance that they weren’t bedbugs. Absolutely. No problem. His doctor was a swell guy who squeezed him in on the slightest notice.

Bedbugs. I washed everything I had that was made of cloth. I sprayed Lysol disinfectant directly into my own mattress. I called John to see how he was doing. Clipped, distracted reassurances that he didn’t need anything between maws of silence until he suddenly said he had to go and hung up before I could even say good-bye. I ran into Alan, who casually mentioned he’d been out blowing some guy in the Rambles after brunch at a gay bar across the park from us. When he didn’t bother to ask about John, I told him anyway. He said something along the lines of OK, yeah, well, great before slinking off to his room, where I heard him turn on the MTV. I was starting to not like Alan. I was starting to think he had about as much compassion as one of the twigs he broke underfoot at the Rambles.

I called about half a dozen different friends to tell them the latest and most harrowing John installment. Today I could do that without crying, but that didn’t mean I didn’t want sympathy, advice, some human consensus that someone was suffering and dying and that it was horrible. They all agreed that it was indeed horrible, and then matter-of-factly, to a person, or perhaps more to the point, to a New Yorker, asked if there wasn’t any way for me to get my name on the lease, so cold-bloodedly my hand practically froze to the receiver. It was like discovering that all these people you’d trusted were actually members of the Gambino crime family. Most of them, it was also clear, really wished I could be a little more upbeat. This death thing was getting to be a real drag.

Before, during, and after these activities, I scratched. I scratched when I wasn’t even thinking about scratching. That night, as I tried to sleep, nature turned up the heat of the itching about ten more burning degrees. It was like being trapped perpetually in that moment just before you sneeze, and then never sneezing.

Next day. Call John for identical twin of the conversation we’d had the day before. Watch TV, avoiding all illness-related shows. Smoke. Do not think about lung cancer. Eat tuna-fish sandwich. At Telesessions, learn how to itch inconspicuously with side of tennis shoe. That night, call for bedbug update.

“So,” I said, “what’s the verdict.”


“Really? Bedbugs? Your doctor actually said that?”


“Wow, that’s . . . hard to believe. What did he say we should do?”

“He told me to get a new mattress.”

“A new mattress?” I said, not wailing, that would be undignified, but not a study in stoic acceptance either. “I can’t afford a new mattress.”

“Oh, you don’t have to get one. Just me.”

“But mine are getting worse. They’re like up to my thighs now.”

“Just wash all you stuff.”

“I’ve already washed all my stuff.” Tone slightly under control, but not completely.

“No problem then. The doctor said they’d probably go away in a few days.”


“They have to say probably so you don’t sue them. So, you want to get together again? I really had a good time the other night.”

Actually, I had too. He’d been big dicked and energetic in bed. He listened to garage rock by bands I’d never heard of, and read James Wilcox novels. He had things like sixty-year-old Armagnac lying casually around his apartment. The back of his neck, sprayed with shavings of gray hair, was cute. I’d liked rubbing it, burrowing my nose there. He’d smelled like France: unfiltered cigarettes and wine in cellars and some sort of sharp soap.

“Uh, sure, me too.” Then I added, half as a joke, “Call me when you get a new mattress.”

He laughed, and that reassured me. If this were anything to really worry about, he wouldn’t be laughing. Would he?

This time I used enough bleach to float an armada. I sprayed the Lysol can into my mattress until it was nothing but a hiss of air. I stood around in a pair of shorts that I planned to burn when I was done with them, not daring to sit on any surface, trying to watch TV. It turned out that watching TV while standing wasn’t relaxing. It was annoying. I felt betrayed. I smoked, which also proved to be not as much fun when it wasn’t coupled with anything but reaching down to claw your legs. All the bad habits that had added such zest to my life were zapped of their healing powers. My vodka sat barely touched on my bookshelves, taunting me with promises it could no longer keep. It finally occurred to me to call Jo Ann.

“Guess what?” I ground out.

“What?” she said, cautiously. I have to say that of all my friends Jo Ann was the only one who could be relied upon not to imply that you should buck up in the face of death and homelessness.

“I have bedbug bites.”

“What?” she repeated, sounding startled.

“Bedbug bites,” I said, grimly.

“Hmmmm . . . What do they look like exactly?”

I described them.

“Uh . . . You know, when I came back from France I had something like that. And it turned out to be scabies.”

Unbelievable as it may seem for a gay man in his mid-thirties never to have heard of scabies, I hadn’t. I’d had the clap, crabs twice, a “nonspecific STD.” It wasn’t like I was a novice in the field. But scabies was a new one, and the bogey-man of my hypochondria leaped out of the shadows for one of its pummeling embraces.

“Oh God,” I said, immediately assuming that this was just the tap on the back of the shoulder that is the invitation to your long, lingering death. Visions of gaunt John with tubes up his nose thwacked the breath out of me. Never mind that Jo Ann seemed to have survived nicely, not even rating her run-in an honorable mention in any of our bitch-a-thons. Mine were different. I’d gotten them from someone who was positive. They’d filled up on his blood and now were gorging on mine. I was dizzy with dread.

“It’s nothing,” she said quickly, probably guessing that I had already jumped to the edge of the cliff and was now staring into the abyss.

“Nothing like crabs nothing?”

“Like crabs nothing. They give you this medicine and it clears right up.”


“You’re fine.”

“It’s just. I don’t know. With John, everything seems even scarier than it usually does, and it already seemed plenty scary before.”

“I know.”

“Aaacchhh. How are you?”

“Fine,” she said unconvincingly.

“You don’t sound fine.”

“What can I tell you? Life in Ithaca. I watch COPS. I smoke. I take a hit off my asthma inhaler. I’m supposed to have a boyfriend but David’s always either up in his plane or playing hockey or growing things he has to check on back at the science lab. I have no friends. I can’t write. If it wasn’t for having to walk my dog, I’d probably hang myself.”

“Maybe we could do a Sid and Nancy thing.”

“That was a homicide/suicide.”

“Same dif.”


The next day I made an appointment at the Callen-Lorde Clinic at the Gay Community Center. Bedbugs. Boy, was I thick. I called John, expecting more of the same. Instead, when I went through the motions of asking if he needed anything, he said, “Would you mind bringing the mail by?”

“Sure,” I said. I wanted to do something, operating under the theory that doing something would make me feel slightly less bad than doing nothing. It was grim being in the apartment alone. Nothing actually echoed; but it echoed. Some Salvation Army air was already settling around John’s crystal wizards and dreamcatchers and posters of science-fiction places, as surely as dust. I felt like I had fallen through the looking glass and into a diorama.

“Anything else?”

“Uh. There’s a little suitcase already packed in my room by the bed. If you don’t mind.”

“No, no, not at all.”


I’d never been in John’s room. It was vault dark and vault quiet, with heavy tapestry curtains over the windows. It smelled like dust and blankets. A collection of brass things that looked vaguely Buddhist glinted from his bedside table. A little brigade of what looked like store-bought medicines huddled on the dresser. The creeps I had overrode any curiosity that might be brewing. I snatched the little floral-printed suitcase and stole out without even turning on the light.

John was sitting there, the snaking wands of the tubes still taped up his nose, watching Sally Jesse Raphael. The audience was in a lather. The bed beside him was pristinely empty, straitjacketed in perfectly creased folds. Everything smelled chloroformed. The afternoon sun made the room feel like an overexposed Polaroid. John looked OK. He was breathing normally and was flesh colored. When he noticed me he shifted, sitting even more upright.

I held up the suitcase and then sat it beside the bed. I lugged off my pack, where I’d stashed the mail. “How you feeling?” I said, as falsely jolly as a shopping-mall Santa. “You look good.”

“Oh, I’m great, great,” he said. “They drained like two quarts from my lungs.”

That prickled my skin with anxiety, but I stuck with the ho-ho-hos. “Well, that’s, good.” I unzipped my pack and handed him a heavy stack of mail. I’d only glanced at it, but most of it looked thick and legal, which had made me wonder how long it would be before I came home to the circling vultures of an eviction notice and no electricity. Maybe all those hard-assed New Yorkers were right: I should find out about getting my name on the lease. But how do you nudge that into a conversation with a man in a blue paper gown without seeming like some villain in a cape, twirling your mustachios? Maybe there was no way. Maybe you just brazened it out. Maybe I wasn’t a person who could afford decency and ethics anymore. How would I feel, a few months from now, either back in Richmond at my old waiting job or down at the shelter staving off predators? Grim. That’s how. Like it was the end of the line. Maybe if I wanted to survive I was going to have to start eating the flesh of the dead in the airplane crash my life was becoming. But I couldn’t, not today anyway, not with the wastes of John staring me down.

John sprinted through the mail, saying, “Um-hm, um-hm, um-hm . . . ” over every envelope, like it was just as he’d suspected.

I stood there, a picture of nonchalance, finally looking out the window for something to do with my eyes, and then studying the view like it was Central Park from the top of the Plaza, instead of the tarred tops of a few buildings.

“You wouldn’t believe what happened on The Price Is Right today,” John said out of nowhere. “This idiot from Detroit accidentally bid enough to get herself up on stage. Then she couldn’t even win the first prize in the clock game. I’m sorry, but they should just send people like that home. Stop the game and call out the hook. It made me so mad when she won on the wheel. Life is so fucking unfair.”

John clearly expected some outraged response, so I said, “That’s terrible,” knowing it sounded feeble compared to his outburst.

“It was. I called my sister today. She’s coming next week when I get home from the hospital.”

His sister? The one who’d left about fifty unanswered messages on his machine? When he got home from the hospital? “That’s great,” I said. “About your sister. And about the hospital too. So, you’re, OK?”

“I’m fine,” he said, looking at me, quizzically, like would some nurse’s aide come and corral me back to the psycho ward I’d wandered away from. Not wanting to contradict him, I tried not to look at the three IV bags dripping into his arm. It wasn’t easy.

“Good,” I said. “You look better.”

“Yeah, I’ll be home this weekend,” he said brightly. “Guess who was on Rosie O’Donnell this morning?”

“The shah of Iran.” I couldn’t help it.

He made a dismissive, motoring noise with his lips and said, “No, silly. Alec Baldwin.” He waited for some reaction.

“Oh. I, really, like him.”

“Like him?” John said. “Hello? Nurse? Could you check his pulse, please? No. What you meant to say was that you are prepared to die for him.”

“Yeah. He’s cute.”

“Cute?” Same tone. “Honey, bunnies are cute. Alec Baldwin is the superstud of the entire universe. Got it?”

“Got it.”

“Cute. Oh, brother. My friends Brian and Cissy are coming by tonight.”

Friends. John had friends. This was a banner headline. If he had friends, real friends, then they’d be stopping by to check on him. They’d be hauling stacks of magazines over to the house, Tupperware bowls of homemade soups. They’d stop me in the hall and discreetly ask me how he was really doing. There’d be someone to tell how he was really doing. There’d be somebody with the real authority of accumulated affection to bully him back into the hospital if he needed it. It sounded like we were turning a corner here.

“That’s great, John.”

“You know, some movies really get my goat.”

“Me too.” I didn’t know what that had to do with anything, but it was easy enough to agree with.

“I just don’t know why they have to make some of them.”

“They’re bored.”

“There was this movie on today. It just, well, they just go out of their way to make people feel bad, that’s all. Why would anybody want to go and do that?”

“They’re sadists.”

“Without the poppers. Listen, would you mind going to get me some fried chicken from the Colonel. There’s one a couple streets up. I noticed on the way down from the . . . on the way down.”


“Hospital food. I didn’t mind it so much when I was the nurse. There’s some money in my suitcase.”

“My treat.”

“No way, mister.”

“Your money’s no good here. You made me dinner that night.”

“Well, don’t think this is going to get you out of making me dinner when I get back home.”

“Yeesh, you’re demanding.”

He laughed out loud. He loved that, the idea that he was demanding, some high-octane diva throwing her weight around the set.

I found the KFC right where John said it would be, and it seemed weird, that he’d noticed from the ambulance, that he’d then made a mental note. It was 4:00, postlunch, pre-dinner, deserted. Three teenagers who were different shades of brown sat around in their paper caps. One, a heavy guy with a sweet face, was scraping at a spot on the table. Another, a twig-thin girl with hair that looked like it had been designed by M. C. Escher, had her arms crossed like, don’t-fuck-with-me, ever. Finally, there was a girl twisting her high school ring while she glared at it. I decided that she was the smart one who was going to be a U.S. senator, but had parents who insisted that a job at KFC built character. It was clear, from her bitter smile, that she’d never forgive them.

The choices were overwhelming. 2 pc. 3 pc. Breast pk. Extracrispy. The Colonel’s Original Recipe. There were about nine different sides. You got two. An exact calculation of possible combinations was something an MIT grad student might consider for a grant proposal. I wanted to do the right thing here. After several minutes of agonizing, I decided to go traditional. Breast and drumstick. Original Recipe. Mashed potatoes and coleslaw.

“Um, hi there, excuse me. Could you, so, I guess I’m ready to order.”

They looked up at me as one. Bland contempt. The boy, who had switched to sawing the edge of the table with a white plastic knife, said, “What you want?”

I told him, with the sort of winning smile they regularly featured in their commercials. It had suddenly become vitally important that they like me, that later, when they remember me, they call me that nice guy with the great smile who’d made all their days. Sometimes it hit me, this completely irrational desire to have strangers adore me. I’ve stood in line at Tower Records, sick with worry that the cashier would think the CDs I’d selected were out-of-date, whack.

The boy sighed gigantically. His chair, as he pushed it back, screamed bloody murder against the floor. I guessed that meant he hated me, that we’d gotten off on the wrong foot. I was disappointed, but I never actually expected people who made five bucks an hour to be but so polite, particularly when they were required to wear a red-striped shirt that Bozo would have scorned.

There’s something dispiriting about an empty fast-food joint. The flat and shiny colors of everything plastic, the brightly lit signs clamoring with deals, the taffy of old Beatles songs stringing the air. You feel the grease. You see the french fry that the broom missed crushed into the grout of the pseudotile. This is the best we could do? This? All the wizardry of the human mind and this is it? Ticket, please. One-way passage to the planet where the people had made something of themselves. I didn’t want John to want anything from here. I wanted him to want something finer, something celloed and tangerined and timeless.

But he didn’t. His order came. I forked over the five or so bucks. The girls at the table were speaking in low, serious voices. I have to admit, the bag did smell good. The boy with the no-longer-sweet face clattered my change on the counter.

As I entered John’s room I held up the bag, shaking it enticingly. He was beside himself. So this was what one of his real smiles looked like. Every other one he’d ever used seemed like a lie. He swept the box out from the bag, examined it greedily. Halted. “Oh, I should have told you. I don’t really like the breast.”

“Sorry. Do you want me to go back?”

He thought about it. “Nah. I’m not going to eat this now anyway. I’m saving it for later.”

“You sure?”

“Don’t worry about it,” he said, tinkling bells of disappointment. The first thing he’d wanted in God knew how long.

“I really wouldn’t mind.” I would have minded, of course, but not as much as having failed at what felt like one of those last-meal requests.

“If I really want something, I’ll get Brian and Cissy to go later.”


He picked up a supermarket circular, part of his mail, and began to read it. I mean read it. The way you would read a German philosophical treatise. I glanced at the TV strapped to the ceiling. Jenny Jones. An implant show. The box of chicken sat open on the bedside table, like the socks your aunt used to give you for Christmas. I’d bring flowers next time. It wasn’t just a florist conspiracy. Hospital rooms needed flowers to shatter their sterility. When I looked back at the end of the bed, I was startled to see a doctor standing there, an Indian-looking man with a thick, three-finger moustache. De rigueur white coat.

“John,” he said.

John continued to read the circular. He seemed to be staring at a tinned ham that was on sale for $6.99. If you were a card member.

“John,” the doctor said more firmly.

John looked up, looked down, whipped to the next page of the circular. Six-packs of Coke were going for ninety-nine cents a pop. Cheap. I waited for the doctor to try another tack. A man used to balancing the scales of life and death had to have reserves of doctor’s savvy that would force a person reading a supermarket circular to pay attention to him. But he just stood there, impassive, treelike even, staring at John. Was that what they taught them back there in the medical school?

“John, we need to start the chemo. Today.”

John continued to read the circular with bug-eyed avidity.

“John, if you don’t start the chemo today I can’t be responsible for what will happen.”

John, feigning absorption with all the subtlety of a silent-film star. Me, breathing like he was a deer I might startle. The doctor, not a trickle of emotion on his face.

“John, if you’re refusing the chemo I’m going to need you to sign a waiver.”

John decided it was time to turn the page. Or maybe he really was just gonzo enough to actually be reading about a price-slasher on Clorox bleach. Limit, four per customer. I tried to imagine buying four one-gallon jugs of Clorox. Lugging them home. Finding a place for them under the sink with the paper plates left over from a party, the roach motels, the things bought once and forgotten, like Twinkle silver polish for that one silver thing you found in a thrift store once and vowed not to let tarnish. Or maybe your mother gave it to you when she still believed you might turn out to be a person who could actually keep nice things. But I couldn’t imagine it. This, clearly, was a sale for people who had storage space and some requisite faith in a well-ordered world where stocking up on bleach just made good common sense. It was a sale for suburbanites. It was not a sale for New Yorkers. They couldn’t afford to waste space stockpiling bleach.

“John, do you hear me?”

John leaned into the circular, like he’d gotten to the footnotes.


John nodded. It was more like a tremor. The doctor stood there for several more seconds, contemplating him. Then he looked over at me with his somber eyes, black as oil, but beautiful, like the rainbows you sometimes saw in oil might suddenly surface there. I lifted my shoulders and eyebrows in a slight shrug that I hoped wouldn’t be perceptible to John. Then suddenly, as if some beeper had gone off in his head, the doctor about-faced and left with the long, quick strides of a busy man, the necklace of his stethoscope tapping at his sternum.

Issuing from the TV, some talk-to-the-hand, I’m-all-that blather rising up from the many-headed monster of a studio audience bearing witness to some sordid family they’d scraped from the bottom of a trailer park. I didn’t even look up. The odor of Colonel Sander’s famous Original Recipe was lacing itself into the hospital fumes and inventing something that smelled like southern-fried formaldehyde. I thought about those poor mashed potatoes, congealing in their plastic cup. I was about to say something along the lines of “John, are you sure about this,” when he cut me off, folding the circular and slinging it on top of his other mail, then yawning dramatically, stretching out the sticks of his arms, which were sunsetted in bruises where the IVs were stuck.

“Boy,” he said with one showgirl of a smile, “I’m beat.”

“Uh . . . ”

“Beat. I need to take a little nap.”

“John . . . ”


I got it. Nodded. Put on my coat. Hefted on the backpack. He dimmed the smile about fifty watts. He didn’t look tired. He looked worse than tired. His eyelids shuttered down, down, down, then fluttered with sleep. That, you couldn’t fake.


In my twenties, I was the kind of hypochondriac who was the bane of my doctor’s professional life. He actually took to calling and suggesting that I not keep what were becoming weekly appointments. When he could convince me to cancel, I promptly made another appointment with whatever specialist I deemed appropriate for that week’s illness. I would have broken the back of an HMO, but there were no HMOs. One of these men, a neurologist, wrote my name across my arm with his finger, as if I were an Etch-A-Sketch, and told me that he could perform that seemingly magical feat because I’d shredded my nerves with worry. He then gave me a grave look and the name of a reputable psychiatrist.

In my thirties, I became the kind of hypochondriac who never went to the doctor. Thanks to AIDS, death was no longer a sport and a pastime. It was everywhere I looked. I decided I didn’t want to know. It was this 5.0 version hypochondriac who found himself at Callen-Lord, which turned out to be a strangely comforting place. It had all the clichés of a waiting room—table with magazines, potted palm—but it seemed to be manned almost exclusively by volunteers. There were lesbians with political-statement haircuts; and then there were the mostly plump gay men ambling around with clipboards who seemed more like homeroom monitors than scary medical types with the power to pronounce the moment of your death. Everyone had aced reassuring-smile school. It felt homemade, no more threatening than a mason jar of your granny’s pickled green tomatoes. I filled out a form and was pleased to discover that I wasn’t checking off any symptoms. I’d gotten there early so I was shown, almost immediately, back into a cheerfully lit room that was surprisingly short on decoration, considering. I hopped up on the paper-lined examining table. My examiner was one of the plump men, an eager red-haired guy who had probably been on the yearbook committee.

“So,” he said in his no-problem-is-too-small manner, “what do we have here?”

“Oh,” I said, chuckling, “it’s nothing. Just a little case of scabies.” This was a favored tactic of mine. Once I got to the doctor, I essentially wanted them to tell me that nothing, or nothing serious, was wrong. So I guided and cajoled them toward that conclusion.

His smile tightened. “And what makes you think it’s scabies?”

I didn’t like that, because the implication was that I, a mere layman, might not realize that I was actually terminal. He hadn’t read the game plan. “The symptoms,” I said flatly, my voice edged by the threat that if he did diagnose something more serious then I was taking him out with me.

That softened him up, a little. “Well, let’s see what we have here.”

I rolled up my pants to the knee. My pink-spotted legs were something out of Dr. Seuss. He looked intently. Grimaced. “I don’t think that’s scabies.”

My heart began the fifty-yard dash and it didn’t care if I tagged along or not. I suddenly realized that the formerly cheerful light was more from the vee-haff-vays-of-making-you-tawk school. I shifted in an attempt to regain my balance and the paper crackled ominously under me. I knew, from Marcus Welby, M.D., that in the next scene I’d be sitting in an oak-paneled office signing a living will. “Why?” I asked, the word a razor on his throat.

This time he wasn’t intimidated. “It doesn’t look like scabies.” He looked at me dead-on in a let’s-face-this-thing way.

I wasn’t facing anything without a fight. “It looks exactly like scabies. I looked it up on the Internet.” Which was the God’s honest truth. A friend who believed that the Internet was Canaan (if Canaan had been crossed with Sodom and Gomorrah) had convinced me to pop by for a look-see. Which I had. And my symptoms had been classic. Textbook. Any fool could have diagnosed it. Except this one. “I’m just here for the medicine.”

“I don’t know about that,” he said, making a skeptical face in case I was the kind of person who needed his conversations illustrated.

I took a deep breath to mix the helium filling my head with some stabilizing oxygen. “What do you think it might be?” As I waited for him to say the A-word, something porcupine quilled tingled in the tar of my chest.

“Tertiary syphilis.”


“Tertiary syphilis.”

I knew, from biographies of French symbolist poets, what “tertiary syphilis” meant. It meant blindness, a diaper, barking at your own shadow in the madhouse. Death was the final prize. I also knew, for a fact, that I didn’t have tertiary syphilis because you didn’t catch tertiary syphilis from anybody. You developed it after years of first- and second-stage syphilis. And I had definitely caught this from a certain person whose neck I intended to wring like a barnyard chicken’s as soon as I stomped out of here. “This is not tertiary syphilis.”

“Well, I’d like you to have a blood test.”

I’m sorry, but I was not the kind of person who could show up for a simple tube of salve and have some evil queen wave a wand over it, abracadabra, and turn it into a needle in my vein. I had to work up to that. “I don’t want a blood test,” I ground out.

He considered me with the same disappointed little expression that you might use on a child in a high chair who could not keep the strained string beans from bubbling up out of his mouth. “It won’t take more than a few seconds.”

“I don’t need a blood test.”

“I think you do.” He tried a tiny, tentative smile on me.

“I. Do not. Have. Tertiary syphilis. You don’t. Catch. Tertiary syphilis from somebody.”

“All right.” He put his PaperMate behind his ear and let the clipboard drop to his side. He’d had it. Clearly he had a brat on his hands here who was determined to flout medical convention. “I’d like the doctor to have a look at you.”

I sighed. “All right.”

“Follow me,” he said, like: It’s your funeral.

I hustled the backpack over my shoulder and trailed him through a warren of cubicles that made the place look like some fly-by-night real estate scam. He pointed to another room, identical to the one we’d just vacated, and said without stopping, “In there,” in his best prison-matron-before-the-frisk voice.

I hopped up on the twin sister of the other examining table. Same cracking paper. I was frantic. OK it wasn’t syphilis I knew that but maybe it wasn’t scabies fucking Internet it was AIDS damn damn damn why had I slept with that fucking guy I knew he was fucking positive I mean fuck I mean fuck fuck all that stupid literature about safe sex ha great God I didn’t want to die not like that the way I knew you died and all the time before the coughs that turned out to be nothing until they turned out to be some hideous thing only Southeast Asian monkeys used to get like my poor friend Kevin dying and dying and dying and I was not a person I was not who could suffer who was but I really wasn’t I knew myself I almost fainted the first time I found out I was negative literally had to put my head between my legs fuck fuck fuck I didn’t want to die my family’d be horrible already weird enough about me being gay and my mother could not deal with illness could not the embarrassment first I’d lived gay and now I’d die it too like an affront like I’d planned it that way I’d be fucking dying and they’d be fucking embarrassed I wouldn’t die at home wouldn’t couldn’t my friends would just have to take care of me there I’d be dying on somebody’s couch . . .


It was the death squad, that orderly or candy striper or whatever the hell he was with his arms crossed over the clipboard held to his know-it-all chest, and a real doctor, in real doctor drag, with salt-and-pepper, daytime-TV hair. Under almost any other circumstances I would have found him threateningly handsome I couldn’t have even fantasied about him; but tonight my head was nothing but clusters of soap bubbles glassy with fantasies of my own death.


“Let’s have a look here,” the doctor said, almost jolly.

I dutifully re-rolled up my pants. He stared. I stared. We all stared.

He looked up at me. Kindly smile that crinkled his eyes. “You know what? I think you should have a blood test.”

If my muscles hadn’t been watery with fear I would have leaped from the table to savagely slap the I-told-you-sos from Candy Striper’s face. “Why?” I barely got it out.

“Just a little precaution.”

“Against what?” My voice quavered like Katharine Hepburn’s in one of her later movies. I waited for him to say. It.

“It might be tertiary syphilis.”

Tertiary syphilis? Were we back to that? What about AIDS? What about the cockhead I’d slept with who was the reason I was here in the first place? What about not having any damned health insurance so I had to go to places like this to begin with? What about this stupid fucking world where everyone seemed to be dying? What about scaring the shit out of somebody because you couldn’t make a simple diagnosis of scabies? My terror wobbled over into anger that was getting caught up in the concentric circles of relief that he hadn’t said AIDS. Tertiary syphilis? What medical school in the Caribbean had he graduated from?

“This is not tertiary syphilis. You don’t catch tertiary syphilis from someone. Do you?”

“That’s true.” He was trying to be reasonable. I could see that.

“I caught this from someone. Last week. It’s scabies. I looked it up on the Internet.”

“It’s just a little blood test.”

“It’s not to me.” OK, now my eyes were brimming with tears. That was definitely not good. The camera pulled back for a medium shot. I could see it all clearly: two understandably chagrined men regarded me pityingly, wondering why they’d ever gone in for this volunteer stuff to being with, what with cranks like me wandering in from the cold. How could I explain to them that all blood tests had become inextricably entwined with AIDS tests for me? That I just couldn’t stick out my arm and make a fist on a moment’s notice? Every time I did it the silhouette of the hanging judge rose up behind the doctor’s shoulder. I needed to make careful preparations for the occasion. I needed time to rummage through my survival kit for a bad-news strategy: stoic acceptance, or, of-course-I-didn’t-have-it-so-what-was-I-worried-about; anything to keep the wolves out of the yard. I knew that I was being unreasonable. I knew, I knew, I knew. Nobody knew better than me.

I probably could have told them all that. They were, after all, gay men. But I’d never had to describe this particular dread because I’d never been subject to a pop blood test before. The fear just marauded through me, blind, inarticulate. Still, some filament of clarity burned with the message that if I was going to get out of there with my prescription for pesticide and without a bandage in the crook of my arm, I was going to have to pretend to be a reasonable person, something I was relatively expert at, something I’d had to do every day of my life from about the age of five. “Look,” I said, faking an easy smile at the good doctor, since my syphilis was fait accompli for Igor. “Tell you what. You give me a prescription for the scabies medicine and I promise to come back next week and get a blood test if this hasn’t cleared up.”

“I really wish you’d have a blood test now.”

“Look, you yourself just said that you can’t catch tertiary syphilis.” I was explaining this to them now in calm, slow-learner cadences. “I caught this from somebody. His symptoms are identical to mine. This could be scabies. Couldn’t it?”

He looked up, searching the ceiling for the answer, smiled again, tolerantly said, “Yes.” I watched him consider me. I watched him peer through the lace sheers of my docile little act and see the stubborn fright lurking behind them. I watched him realize there was no way a needle was coming within squirting distance of my arm that night. “OK. I’ll write you a scrip. But if this hasn’t cleared up by next week, you have to promise to come back and have the blood test.”

“Deal.” He didn’t reach for the Mont Blanc and the pad corsaged into his lab-coat pocket. He seemed to be scanning me for signs that I wasn’t the kind to welsh on a deal, especially a deal in which I was a potentially communicable menace. I tried to look like a person of quiet integrity until I couldn’t stand it for one more second. “Deal, deal, deal. Cross my heart and hope not to die.”

He reached. He wrote. He tore.

Candy Striper didn’t take it like a sport. Vanity wounded, he turned on his heel and barreled out the door in search of other poor bastards to terrorize with more of his hysterical misdiagnoses.

Three days later, Wednesday night. My scabies were better, but far from gone. I veered, almost hourly, between the calm assurance that I was getting better and the absolute certainty that it was some bizarre AIDS-related syphilis, some mutant syphilis that was speeding on two wheels towards the charnel house. The trapdoors of it kept opening up under me and snatching my breath away. I checked my skin every ten or fifteen minutes, deciding that it looked better, it looked worse, that it didn’t matter because we were all going to die anyway. Currents of panic swept me up and deposited me into lakes of despair, where I paddled around, contenting myself with fantasies of suicide. The real problem with suicide, as Dorothy Parker pointed out, was that there really wasn’t an acceptable method.

Jump from a building?



A gun?

Same cosmetic complications.

A straight razor?



No thanks. That usually meant drowning in your own vomit.

A car in the garage seemed reasonable, drifting gently away, like a balloon. But who had a car or a garage in New York? Oh sure, Trump and a few other capitalist overlords, but it wasn’t exactly my crowd.

On some level I knew these weren’t real fantasies because determined suicides overcame these objections all the time. For me, there were little alcoves tucked away inside my consciousness labeled IN CASE OF EMERGENCY, BREAK GLASS. They were what got me through the hours.

I called Jo Ann.

“Hi,” she said, sounding happy to hear from me. Jo Ann usually sounded happy to hear from me, just as I was always happy to hear from her. Inexplicable love. How else would we limp through the battlefield, cradling our broken limbs?

“I think I’m dying.”

“You’re not dying.” One day, I would be; but Jo Ann had agreed to hold my hand and so it was manageably terrifying.

“You wouldn’t believe this itching.”

“Yes, I would. I had it, remember?”

“I must have, like, sixty bites on my legs.”

“You’ve got to stop this.”


“You’ve got to stop doing this to yourself.”

“I know that, but I don’t know how.”

“You’ve just . . . got to. There isn’t really any other choice.”  

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