“I gave my kid AIDS,” Mike says. Sitting alone in his pick-up outside the health clinic, he says, “Not even born yet and I killed it.”
He looks at the creased photograph of Kaycee wedged beside the speedometer and twists his wedding ring around on his finger. He grips the steering wheel with both hands and the shaking moves up into his forearms. A few thick raindrops pop the windshield, leaving puckered shadows on his face that slide down in dark streaks.
Closing his eyes, he leans his head back and squeezes the wheel. He swallows over and over against the nausea in his throat.
Last night, Mike wasn’t sick. Not that he knew of. He’d have been hard pressed to tell you what HIV or AIDS even stood for. He knew people got it and that they died, but he never knew any of them. Those people, they were a world away, on the other side of CNN best he could tell. Last night, what Mike was, was thinking about his new job on Monday. He was thinking about the camping trip this weekend with the guys. Tossing and rolling, he draped his arm over his wife, who’d taken a home pregnancy test earlier in the week that came back positive.
He’d never even heard of antiretroviral therapy or CD4 cell depletion. PNAP or contact retracing.
With the rain starting to click faster on the hood, Mike looks in the seat at the yellow folder filled with information—contact numbers and Websites. Support groups and financial assistance forms. Fifteen minutes ago, he’d gotten the first lesson in a class that would last the rest of his life.
“Positive,” the health counselor told him, her eyes the wide type that say things without saying them. She’d said more, but what he heard loudest was that one word.
And she was going on about a drug treatment called HAART. About behavior modification. But this lady across the desk saying something about the prolonged suppression of viremia, she was wrong. He didn’t get tested for this. People who hear the things he was hearing, they got tested because they were worried. They suspected. He just needed blood work for his new job as cook at Azia’s Gourmet.
Mike smiled, closed one eye, and said, “My name is Michael Ahrens.” Leaning forward, angling his head to see the file, he said, “A-H-R-E-N-S. Ahrens.”
And this counselor, she kept staring at him, those wide eyes not blinking. Tiny vessels webbed pink over the whites. After a few seconds, his hands started to tremor.
Looking out the office window, through the half-drawn blinds, Mike could see his truck parked outside. See the camping gear piled in the seat—his sleeping bag. A duffel bag with a couple changes of clothes and a water cooler icing down a case of beer. Behind that, the road dipping and twisting out of town to where the campsite was. Storm clouds were sliding and clawing over each other.
“Mr. Ahrens,” the counselor said, “I need you to tell me about your wife.”
And Mike looked at her. His mouth went gummy, and he started swallowing in tiny bursts. His skin pricked and shifted. Lost connection with his insides.
He opened his mouth. His voice broke and the counselor looked down and blinked. “No,” he said, no breath. Chin twitching. “I’m Michael Ahrens.” He rubbed his face hard. “I can’t have AIDS—”
“You don’t have AIDS, Michael,” she said. “You’re HIV positive—”
“It’s wrong,” he said. His voice high, he said, “I want another test.” He said, “I don’t use needles.” His hands palmed out mime-style, he said, “I only had sex twice before Kaycee.”
And yes, he knows it only takes once, but he used protection.
And yes, he knows condoms aren’t a hundred percent, but Jesus….
The counselor, she said, “I know this is difficult.” Crossing hand over fist on the desk, she said, “But it’s important we find out where you contracted the virus.”
Contracted the virus, Mike repeats, almost laughing. His eyes quick-blinking and snapping around the room.
The counselor said, “Could Kaycee have been infected before?”
“Not possible,” he said. “I was her first.”
Soft and serious, her eyes fixed on him again, the counselor told him, if that’s the case, they should assume it was contracted through one of the previous partners. She said they’d have to be contacted and informed of the situation. “They could be spreading it unknowingly to others,” she said.
Bouncing his knee, Mike’s face started to hurt.
The counselor thumbed through his paperwork and said, “Says you don’t have children—”
And Mike slowly leaned back, mouth wide, eyes wider. He put his hands over his face and pushed hard. Thought: if you’re gonna cry, this is the place. Now’s the time. And he did.
The counselor dropped the folder back on the desk.
After a minute, his hands still covering his face, he finally caught his breath and his shoulders stopped twitching.
Outside his hands, the counselor said, “How far along is she?”
He bit down hard, his teeth rubbing, jaw popping. Two positives in one goddamn week. The best news followed by the worst. Watch your step, son, he could hear his father telling him, walking through a wheat field when Mike was a boy. He’d said the same thing when Mike got his first car. When he went to college. Whatever you do, just watch your step.
Opening his eyes, Mike could see his wedding ring, enough light catching it in the dark of his cupped hands. He slid them away. “Six weeks,” he said.
The counselor opened a yellow folder and placed a stack of pamphlets and papers inside. She told him he should be aware that HIV can be vertically transmitted. That, being so early in the pregnancy, a lot of mothers choose not to have the baby under these circumstances.
And she told him more.
As if he could really hear it.
Something about being required by law to inform his wife and previous partners. About PNAP and CNAP—Partner/Contact Notification Assistance Programs—as an alternate method of doing so. “If you’d rather not tell them yourself,” she said.
God closes one door, He opens a window to jump out of.
She talked about more treatments. About support groups. Before he left, she said, “Michael, we’re way beyond where we were fifteen years ago. It’s incurable, but it’s highly treatable.” Standing, handing him the yellow folder, she said, “I’ve seen people live healthy and happy lives for several years.” Her eyes bulging, she said, “HIV is not a death sentence.”
Mike took the folder and left, keeping his head down as he passed through the waiting room. She’s wrong, he thought, and everything she told him was just a fancy way of saying, “The End.”
Because it is a death sentence. A murderer gets the death penalty, he may sit on death row for ten years, but everyday’s a countdown to the chair.
Still sitting in his truck, the rain sweeping hard against the side of the door, Mike stares at the window of the office he’d been in. Wondering if that lady, her eyes wide and white and unblinking, was in there right now, telling someone else what she’d told him. That you’re living with this disease, not dying from it. He palms his throat and cups a hand to his mouth. Cracks the window, letting the rain slip through on his face.
It’s funny, but the moment you hear the news, you can feel it. The disease, you can actually feel it running through your veins.
Watch your step, his dad’s saying.
On the dashboard, his cell phone lights up and vibrates in a half-circle. The screen says SHAWN and Mike’s stomach cramps. He lets the ringing stop, and a couple seconds later, it buzzes again. “Hello,” he says, his fingers blurry.
On the other end, there’s loud voices and blaring music. “Mikey!” Shawn says. They’re at the campsite. They’re drinking.
“Yeah,” Mike says, but his voice shakes.
“Where you at?” Shawn says.
Mike says he’s on his way.
“You finished?” Shawn says, and another voice gets close to the phone and screams: “So’s your dick gonna fall off or what?” then pulls away, laughing.
Mike pulls the phone from his ear and puts a palm to his forehead.
He can feel a cough coming. He feels the fever and nausea.
He tries to fake a laugh.
On the other end, the guys are still laughing. “Your brother-in-law,” Shawn says. He says, “He says to get your ass down here and help us with this beer.”
Mike doesn’t answer. Hangs up and switches the phone off. His brother-in-law, Kris. His best friend since grade school and Kaycee’s older brother. Mike looks at the office window again and thinks about walking back in. Asking how you tell your best friend you killed his little sister. Will PCRAP handle that for you, or do you just go up and say, Sorry? Just: Oops!
He puts his finger to the window and traces a worm of rain down the glass. There’s no way to hide this. Some secrets closets can’t hold.
Starting the truck and throwing it into drive, he pulls onto the highway headed toward the camp, thinking about taking the wrong step and falling straight the fuck through.
Mike turns onto the dirt road leading back to the campsite. He sees the bonfire glow above the trees. He’s been killing beers the whole ride out, and twice he missed the turn. Thinking about Kaycee’s face, about the shock she’s in for, he drove five miles past each time. Somewhere along the way, it got dark and the rain stopped.
He lets the truck creep in low and turns the headlights off, in case he decides to turn around and run. Let the doctor’s handle it all. Just escape and pretend none of this ever happened.
Cut his losses.
Getting closer, he hears the muffled music and stops, throwing it into park. How do you do this? How do you go up and fake it, pretend you’re not dying right under the skin? How can you face them? Face Kris?
Mike and Kris, they go back. Summer camp and peewee football. Puberty and girls. And if there’s one thing about Kris, it’s that he always got the girls. In high school, he averaged more leg a week than Mike had dates in a semester.
But he’s never had an STD in his life. No scares. No knock-on-woods.
Now, Mike can just see it. When it all comes out, it’s what you’d expect, best friends or not. Bang a thousand girls and dodge the bullets, that’s fine. Sleep with two and get the wrong one, you’re a dirty piece of shit. And look what you’ve done to his sister. To her baby.
He balls his fist tight until his hand loses color. It starts to vibrate, and he slams it into the roof of the cab. He does it again and again, until his wrist buckles and jams. Until dust and chipped foam drop down into his hair and in the back of his shirt. He looks at his knuckles, the skin flaked and peeled back. Blood forms and pools up. Slides over the side.
There it is, he thinks. All mixed in. Get to know it like the back of your hand.
Mike wipes his hand on his pants and slides the yellow folder under the seat. He grabs a beer out of the ice cooler and kills it in a few swallows. Tossing the bottle out the window, he throws the truck in drive and pulls forward, around the trees toward the fire.
“Bout fucking time,” Shawn says, walking up with a couple of beers in each hand. His hair and clothes soaked, a large mound of mud caked around his feet, he says, “What’d you, get lost?”
Kris is holding a stick jabbed through a hot dog in the fire, turning it over every few seconds. Parked behind him, his new RV, the front door standing open. Music blares from somewhere inside.
Holding out a bottle, Shawn says, “Cerveza?” Mike gets out of the truck, bubbles it empty. Squinting, Shawn says, “What’d you do to your hand?” He reaches for it and Mike pulls away.
“Don’t,” he says.
Kris walks up in nothing but a pair of cut-off shorts. He’s choking a large bottle of vodka. Taking a drink, he looks back at the camper and says, “So bro, there she is.” He says, “You like?”
Mike nods and tries to smile.
Slurring, Kris says, “Well, mi casa su casa.” He takes another drink and says, “Unless you fuck mi casa up, then it’s su ass.” He throws an arm around Mike’s shoulders and says, “Glad you made it.”
Mike pulls away. Grabs his cooler and walks toward the camp, the guys following.
Kris’ stick is still in the fire, and when he picks it up the hot dog is crusty black and flaming. “Glad the chef’s here,” he says. “I’m hungrier than a motherfucker.”
Shawn sits by the fire while Kris gives Mike a tour of the camper. Mike doesn’t talk, keeping his bloody hand in his pocket.
Outside, Mike opens another beer, kills it, and Shawn says, “You came to goddamn drink.”
Mike sits down and hiccups. Inside, Kris spins the dial on the radio, finds “Take On Me” by Aha and comes out laughing. “Remember this shit?” he says, stumbling. Dancing. He squats beside Mike, singing the high-notes into his bottle.
Mike reaches out and takes the liquor from Kris. And he keeps drinking, taking large swigs of vodka. Chasing it with full beers in a couple swallows. He tries to picture the alcohol mixing with the virus in his blood. Two poisons in battle.
Lightning whitens a thick cloud, and thunder grumbles.
Kris and Shawn, they eat burnt marshmallows and drink and talk. Mike sits there, hands on his knees, head down, smiling and nodding whenever they look at him. Answering whenever they ask. Pretending to be there. To be alive.
Kris talks about this girl, Mitzi, he fucked three times last Saturday. How she sings Madonna songs when she comes. How she’d do anything, and he means anything, after a four-pack of wine coolers.
Shawn says he wants to fuck Keira Knightley and Asia Argento. He says, “Till my dick falls off.” He says, “And Jessica Alba, Jesus Christ!”
Kris says he’d fuck anyone in Hollywood. “Even Kathy Bates.”
Mike gags and belches. He says, “That all you guys talk about? Who you’d bang and how?” Taking a long shot of Vodka, it runs over the corners of his mouth in a frown. “Fuck’s sake,” he says.
Kris says, “Dude, the fuck’s wrong with you?” Laughing, Shawn says, “Old lady ain’t pregnant a week, already got your balls in vice grips.”
Mike looks at Shawn and thinks of slamming his fist into his face like he did the truck. He thinks about mixing a little blood with both of them, level the playing field. Then they can sit around and talk about fucking girls all night. See if that heightens the conversation.
Instead, he gets up and staggers to the camper bathroom. He washes his hands, red then pink in the sink, and cups water on his face. Looks at himself in the mirror. His eyes are mapped red with lines and he sucks his cheeks in. Like death’s supposed to look, he thinks.
He slips his cell phone out of his pocket, turns it on, and calls Kaycee. After a few rings, the voice mail picks up. It beeps and he says, “Hey. It’s me.” Still staring at himself in the mirror, he says, “Just calling to say I love you…”
His voice lowers and breaks. His chin tremors and his face goes tight.
Slurring, he says, “…I’m so sorry.” He says, “I swear I didn’t know.” He hangs up and turns the phone off again.
Going back out, he takes another shot. Then another.
And Shawn’s going to a party next Friday.
And Kris has another date.
They’re gonna do some fishing. They ought to buy a boat. They all should start a business, a restaurant.
Always talking. As if Mike could hear them.
Mike looks at Kris, bites until his jaw knots and pops, and takes a drink. Right now, he hates him. This lottery winner of life. This prick who walks through rainstorms missing Every. Single. Drop.
Mike looks away, thinks of Kaycee. Reading baby books and telling friends the good news. Getting wet when she’s not even in the storm.
Watching her steps while she’s being stepped on.
Thing is, he knew something like this would happen. Since he was a kid, he could see God pissing all over his life. Whether it was a loss of faith or a faith in loss, the world was just so goddamn predictable.
Staring at the flames, his eyes half-open, Mike says, “I got AIDS,” but it’s under his breath, and they don’t hear him. Rain begins to click on the camper roof and hiss in the fire, sending up mouse-tails of smoke.
And they should all take a road trip. Maybe Vegas or Miami. Just get away for a while. Do a little scuba diving. A little gambling. A little jet skiing.
Mike cocks the vodka bottle over his head and shatters it in the fire, the flames sounding like a box being stomped. The momentum sends him face-first to the muddy ground. And he starts to vomit.
Kris and Shawn jump back, saying, “The fuck?” Saying, “You’re acting like a dick.”
Mike’s stomach pushes hard up under his ribcage. It’s loud and violent, and he can’t get his breath. His eyes bubbled in tears, it keeps coming up. On another day, it’d be the alcohol. But now, he knows what it is.
And this is everyday.
He finishes. Coughs and spits. Shawn and Kris are standing over him, backlit by the fire into silhouettes. Trying to get up, he tips forward, his hand slipping through the vomit. It covers his fingers. His wedding ring.
The silhouettes reach down, trying to help Mike up, and with his forearm he shoves them back.
“No,” he says. “Get back, you stupid fucks.” He says, “Don’t touch it. You fucking stupid?” He gets to a knee, twists, and drops down on his ass and elbow.
Kris and Shawn, they look at each other, at Mike, writhing on the ground.
“Just don’t fucking touch it’s all!” Mike says, and his voice cracks. Starting to cry, he says, “You’re so fucking stupid! How could you be so stupid? How?” He lowers his head, puts his hand to his face, and screams, “How could you be so stupid?”