Albert J. Winn
friend who I have not heard from in over ten years is sleeping in
my living room with a stranger. She called me a few days ago from
a pay phone, stranded in a snowstorm at the Grand Canyon. I recognized
her voice immediately. It has a wavering tremulous tone that sounds
as if she is singing when happy, but turns to pleading when worried.
I hear both in the few moments of our conversation. She has met
an East German through the Internet, in the cybernetic version of
a blind date, and is now bicycling across the United States with
him. She found my number through information. They need a place
to stay in L.A. She tells me quickly that she has quit her job,
rented out her house in Pittsburgh and taken off after her father
died a few months ago. I reply in rapid succession that my father
has died, too, and that I am sick. I have AIDS.
I switch off the phone and tell my boyfriend Scott we're going to
have company, I remember another phone call fifteen years before
this one. I was in graduate school in central Florida and my same
friend and her first husband were stuck. They had driven from New
York to reclaim the furnishings of a dead relative and the Florida
heat had beaten their van. The road cut through the endless deepening
swamp unnerved them. Alligators lurked below and men in pick-up
trucks with shot guns and rebel flags cruised by slowly. There was
no safe place. A call to the information operator revealed my number.
Would I please come and get them? It was only her pleading tone
that time. Seventy miles later, I found them by the side of the
road and towed them to my place.
my friend and her East German arrive, I greet them as if they are
adventurers returning from an expedition. She and I are happy to
see each other and our embrace spans the years of our separation.
We are immediately comfortable with each other in the way that an
old friendship has of collapsing time. We have known one another
since the first week of college. Talking fast and loud, laughing,
practically screaming, we jump into the middle of each other's sentences.
We sound like a house full of excited children, which is what we
are, although now well into our forties. We convince each other
that we still look the same. She seems at the peak of health. Her
muscles are toned and her skin evenly tanned from her life outdoors.
Scott comes into the room to see about the excitement. And to quiet
us. I am angered momentarily, he is stifling my enthusiasm, until
I remember how he and I often feel when meeting each other's friends
from before we were a couple. Introductions are quickly made, everyone
seems to like each other, the visit will go well, then Scott and
the East German leave us alone.
tells me her younger brother has died of cancer. Her family, devastated
by the loss, was only beginning to recover when her father became
ill. She divorced for the second time, filled her days with work
and bought a house. After the deaths of her brother and her father,
she saw the posting on an electronic bulletin board and now has
cycled across the country with a total stranger. A man I trust implicitly
because he is with her. In a few days they will be pedaling off
for Central America. I cannot remember a time when she seemed so
happy. I am envious of her spontaneity. Now, I am the one who is
stuck and there is no one to come and tow me to safety. I want her
to see the illness inside me, to see that something is different,
but I have regained my strength in the past year and my physical
appearance belies my monthly test results. My newfound robustness
fools me sometimes and I tell myself that I will outlive the illness.
I remind myself to recount the details to her later but a description
of the wasting night sweats, skin rashes, deadness in my feet, means
nothing now since everyone says, "You don't even look sick!"
I dare not challenge what seems to me a streak of good fortune.
Traveling abroad, eating strange foods, inviting foreign microbes
into my body was from a time when I was carefree. Now it would be
pushing the limits of my newfound good health. I remember my years
traveling and think I will never go any farther than the place I
am in right now.
the next few days we catch up. I describe my father's death, my
mother's decline. I answer questions about family rejection and
denial, tell of a former lover who is very ill. I boast of a degree
earned and an award received. We look at pictures from twenty-five
years ago, yearn for her mother's cheesecake. Incredibly, the East
German knows nothing about movie stars. Neither of them is interested
in seeing handprints in concrete or following the map of the stars,
so Scott and I are spared the usual obligation of showing guests
around Hollywood. It is a relief. We spend more time talking, running
errands and baking a chocolate cake while they await the arrival
of spare parts for their bicycles.
days after their arrival my friend and I go for a walk, and I speak
haltingly of a rainy night when we both lived in New York. Just
after the break-up of her first marriage, years after the breakdown
in Florida. The weight of that evening had saddened me whenever
I thought of my friend. Outside an East Village cafe she lamented
that because of her age, and because she was single again, she would
never have a child. The sound in her voice was desperation and I
responded instantly. I offered to father her child, realizing as
the words tumbled out of my mouth that I wasn't prepared to be a
father, that my offer was insincere, that I had gone too far. She
remembered that she declined, but I remembered that I immediately
withdrew my offer, that she cried and started to run away. I grabbed
her arm to stop her, regretting everything I had said. I pulled
her back towards me wanting really to pull us both back in time,
to that moment before I uttered a word. I wished the evening had
never happened. I wanted to erase the memory but we moved away from
each other and eventually out of touch. I can tell that she does
remember the hurt. Now, more than a decade later, I apologize.
is time for them to leave. They spend hours packing their bags,
rolling and re-rolling the tent to make it smaller, stuffing food
supplies into sacks. We load their things into my car and drive
to the coast road to set them on their way. I insist. Los Angeles
and bicycles are a bad mix. To me riding across town on a bicycle
seems the most dangerous part of their journey. I have traveled
to the places they are going, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras,
and I know. My friend and I hug again and I wonder if it is for
the last time. I think that good fortune has given me the chance
to heal an old wound. As Scott and I watch them cycle away, I think
of what might have happened had I fathered a child in those days
before testing, before I knew about the virus that surely was inside
me. And my remorse for the pain I caused my friend that night eases.
Had we followed through on my impulse none of this would be happening.
No happy reunion. No tearfully joyous farewell. Only endless sorrow.
Infecting her and our child would certainly have caused greater
agony than the sadness of that evening. Instead, she went on with
her life and I with mine, and at least between us, it has now come
have liked to create life with my friend, I have always wanted to
have a child, to give life, but I cannot. I must hold on to what
I have inside me. The life fluids that come out of me are dangerous.
I am reminded of it when I cut my finger. I am haunted by the thought
each time Scott and I make love. The days preceding his regular
tests fill me with anxiety. If he is infected, it can only be from
me. I am more cautious now. I cannot give in to impulse where life
is concerned. I watch the two figures on the bicycles become smaller.
While my friend pedals down the road, traveling farther, racking
up miles to new and distant places, I feel left behind. Standing
still, I sense the life beating inside me and I think of the virus
traveling silently through my veins.
T'shuvah. Hebrew: repentance, turning
taken by the author
version for easy reading
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