We recently submitted our third writing assignment for the Creative Nonfiction Workshop class I’m currently taking. I have taken a couple of old blog entries (you know the ones that you keep telling yourself to rewrite, because it could be better than it was, because there is something good hidden within the hastily written post) and fine tuned them into, I think, better stories. Almost all of the things I post on my blog are written in the blog editor — written quickly, often late at night, hastily proof-read, lazily edited. In many ways my blog acts as a journal of sorts — not quite the free-writing one does in a diary, but nothing of the well-toned writing that could be submitted for publication. This term has given me the opportunity to rework some old pieces, and, as an added challenge, to keep the writing to around 750-words (give or take 10%).
If you’ve followed me for any length of time, you’ll know that I often ramble on for awhile. So editing not only to fine tune the sentences and words, but to pare down, to make the story as focused as possible has been a good learning experience for me. And, I’ve posted the two previous workshop submissions, and now I offer the third. Some of you may remember this story from a few years ago. The original ‘journal/blog’ post was around 1,950 words. The new version is 826 words. (If you’re curious, you can read the original here).
Here is the new, slimmer essay:
There are two men walking down the long, sterile hallway of an old medical building. One man is weeping uncontrollably; his head is slumped on the second man’s shoulder. The second man has his arms around the first man, holding him up, supporting him as they walk; his face overflows with concern for the first man.
The two men are partners, lovers.
One has just found out that he’s HIV+.
It isn’t the man who’s crying.
A few weeks before the walk down the hallway is when this story begins: Christmas Day, 1988.
Ronn and I were celebrating our first Christmas together. The events of the afternoon and evening were erased from memory when the phone rang – it was Ronn’s sister, Theresa. Something was wrong. Ronn’s half of the conversation and his tears told me she was ill.
The call ended. Ronn’s tears became tears of deepest anguish: not tears that simply fall from the eyes; these were tears that welled-up deep in his soul, carved their way through his heart, then flooded out of his eyes. He was unable to speak. For nearly two hours I held him as he sobbed and gasped for air.
At last he spoke, “Theresa has AIDS.”
Two weeks later, we went to the City Health Clinic to get tested. The moment we arrived at the clinic, I knew my test would come back positive for HIV. A voice said “I’m HIV+.” Perhaps it was only a sound that rushed up from my chest to my brain and made a noise that seemed to say “I’m HIV+.” A specific image flashed in my mind: a glimpse of a sexual encounter I’d had a few months before I’d met Ronn. I don’t know why that specific image appeared in my mind — it wasn’t the only sexual encounter I’d had before meeting Ronn. There was nothing about the man that suggested he might have been infected. The vision was so sharp, clear, and real that, twenty-six years later, the image is still seared in my mind. Whether it was my body telling me, or my brain bracing itself for the worst, I’ll never know for certain.
A surreal calmness sheathed my thoughts for the two weeks we waited for our test results.
When we arrived for our test results appointment we were escorted into a small room. Other writers might tell of a stark room that foreshadowed the results, or tell of a bright room that contrasted with the grim news to come. I only remember that we both sat in a school desk. The nurse, also sitting in a desk, faced us.
The nurse looked at Ronn and said, “Your test has come back negative. You’re not infected.”
There was a long silence.
Finally he looked at me, and spoke the words I’d known I’d hear, “John, I’m sorry, but your test came back positive. You are infected with HIV.”
There was a loud gasp, and an even louder sob. So unexpected was the sob, I thought for a moment that it came from me. I realized it was Ronn. He sat there, slumped over, hands covering his face, sobbing, and his chest heaving. Because we were seated in desks, there wasn’t much I could do but reach over and hold onto his arm, squeezing it in reassurance.
The nurse sat quietly for a minute or two, and asked me “Are you doing okay?”
“Do you have any questions?”
I shook my head. I just wanted to leave. I wanted to get Ronn out of there.
We sat there for a few more minutes; the only sound was Ronn’s weeping.
Looking at me, the nurse said, “Are you sure you’re okay? We’ve got counselors here if you’d like to talk to someone. I know it’s tough to process. We’d like to be sure that you’re doing okay before you leave.”
The words just came out: “Why are you asking me if I’m okay? Don’t I look okay? Don’t you think you should be worried about the one of us who doesn’t look like they’re doing ok? Do you have counseling for him?”
“I’m sorry. We don’t have any counselors here for the partners of HIV+ people. I can give you a list of support groups and therapists who would be willing to talk to Ronn.”
“What the fuck good are you then if you’re not able to help those who need it?”
“I’m sorry. We don’t usually… Maybe I can go see if one of the …”
“Forget it.” I stood up. I walked around my desk, and knelt down beside Ronn.
“Let’s go,” I said, softly, “Let’s get you home.”
I helped him out of the chair. His crying was so intense he could barely keep himself upright. He leaned against me. I put my arms around him, and, together, we made our way down the hall, to the car, and, finally, home.