Main | Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Two Muddy Pills

Gentle readers, many of you who've been here since the early years will recall that this here website thingy launched as a place for my short stories. In honor of today's tenth anniversary of JMG, below is a piece from my cache of unpublished stories. I first read this story in public before an audience of several hundred at last year's Broadway Cares forum on AIDS survivorship.

Two Muddy Pills

Ever since his HIV diagnosis in the mid-90s Rob had retreated from social life. He’d stopped going to clubs and he begged off party invitations. The gay male world had divided itself into two hemispheres, a division exemplified in AOL profiles where the uninfected often described themselves as "clean," meaning by inference that the HIV+ were dirty, dangerous, untouchable. Some positive men rebelled against this caste system, boldly announcing their status on t-shirts or with darkly humorous "biohazard" tattoos. But not Rob. He simply…disappeared.

In 1996 the FDA approved the protease inhibitor Crixivan, a drug that often caused dramatic facial wasting. This new and highly visible sign of HIV infection could not be cloaked by hours at the gym and men could often accurately diagnosis one’s status at a glance. And as they’d done with tattoos, some positive men took ownership of what had become known to some as the "Crixivan crease." My favorite example of this was my acquaintance who assumed the internet handle, Crixi Van Cheek.

But Crixivan also caused many positive men to rebound spectacularly. Viral loads plummeted. Energy levels surged. Optimism soared. Rob was one of those men and with my encouragement, he finally accepted a date set up by a mutual friend. The evening started out great, with both men eagerly sharing their mutual interest in old cars and (to my mind) a rather disturbing devotion to Stephen Sondheim.

After dinner, Rob and his date moved on for drinks at a posh lounge, where mistakenly believing that the other man had been made aware of his status, Rob took out his small pill box for his end-of-day Crixivan dose. You weren’t supposed to eat for an hour before or two hours after each of the three daily doses, which meant no food for a total of nine waking hours every day. Rob’s date watched silently, then put his drink down and walked out of the bar.

Almost another year passed before Rob would again socialize and that was only because it was Halloween, his favorite holiday. I’d gifted him with an expensive ticket to a gigantic dance party held at a cavernous warehouse, where the hired security was clearly unhappy to be confronted with thousands of shirtless gay men. We took position at a centrally-located bar where Rob immediately drew the interest of a nearby handsome bearded man, who smiled approvingly at Rob’s gladiator costume. The two exchanged flirty looks, but Rob, still completely gun-shy, refused to go speak to him.

At midnight it was time for Rob to take his Crixivan and from inside his pocket he deftly tapped the pills out of their box and into his palm. He stole another look at Bearded Man, who was still staring over at him. “Shit. I don’t want him to see me take these," he muttered.  I said, "You two are already not-fucking. What’s the worst thing that will happen if he finds out you’re poz? You’re going to not-fuck MORE?" Rob shook his head. “Just let me have this cruising fantasy for tonight, OK?” I suggested taking the pills in the men’s room.  Rob snorted, "The line’s a mile long and hello, security is in there watching for people taking pills.” I said, "Well, just go outside."  Rob said, “What if there’s no ins and outs?”

The pills remained in his hand.

A minute later a giant drag queen crashed into a barback, sending a tray of glasses tumbling onto the bar. Rob took advantage of the distraction and casually tossed the pills towards his mouth. The capsules bounced off his chin and fell into a muddy puddle at the foot of the bar. Horrified, he glanced over at Bearded Man, who was walking over.  Bearded Man scooped the wet pills from the floor and examined them. "Yuck. They’re falling apart. Crixivan, right?" Rob could only manage a slight nod. Bearded Man smiled. "I’ve got some in my truck if you wanna take a walk." Rob turned questioningly to me and I practically shoved him. "GO."

I watched them head to the coat check and then disappear through the giant rubber strips that defined the entrance to the warehouse. They never came back that night, but it wasn’t because of any "no ins and outs" rule. Halloween 2014 will be their 17th anniversary.

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