The clinic was downtown, right near Dad’s office, right near the restaurant Julia and Cindy had opened up, right near the investment branch of CIBC Wood Gundy where Laura Jarvis was holding tens of thousands of Grandpa’s dollars for me in trust. Sure, other towns have these kinda clinics and yes, I wish I’d thought of that. It was fine, though. No one saw me walk in there all burning with the meaning of it.
My risk of infection was actually nil. I’d made out with people. My first kisses, with Julie C., were closed-mouth under a pine tree by the wood-post-and-wire back fence of my primary school. I might have had chapped lips once or twice. I’d never have kissed little Julie, her straight blonde hair always carefully in place with a hair band that matched her outfit, when I had a cold sore. Open-mouthed, my first kiss was in the little nook by the staffroom of my middle school with Melissa S. There was lots of saliva, so much saliva that it ended up dribbling down our chins. When I first kissed Stephanie P., she had braces that scraped the skin above my upper-lip and below my lower-lip, but there was no blood. The only needles I’d ever had were administered by my dad or in a hospital or dentist’s office. The only sex I’d ever had was digital. Did I have vicious hangnails when I ineffectively fingered Joanne H.? It’s funny what you think about when you ask for an AIDS test.
I had most of the other STD tests done, too. I skipped the gonorrhea test because all I knew about gonorrhea was that the nurse said I had, “like, zero risk of it,” and that they would need to swab my urethra to check for it. No thanks.
I was clean, of course. Not that having an STD is unclean. Negative, I mean. And I was relieved.
I went to Navy Park, down by Lake Ontario. I watched the gentle waves wash up on the rocks. With each swell, water rushed up gurgling between two nearby rocks and it reminded me of my blood rushing into the phials the nurse popped off of and onto the opposite end of the syringe. When they said, “Negative,” that meant, “Positive”, right? The counselor who told me the results seemed really calm, but she didn’t seem excited, she wasn’t excited for me. She just asked, “Do you have any questions?”
I walked from the water to the nearest payphone and dropped in my quarter.
“Trafalgar medical clinic, how can I help you?”
“Hello, it’s Dr. Warriner’s son, Mark. Can I speak to my father?”
“Yeah, hi Mark. No problem.”
“Hi. Thanks,” I said, but the receptionist was gone. I used to know the receptionists, but I had forgotten their names.
Dad cleared his throat. “Yeah, Mark, hi.”
“Hey Dad, how’s it going?”
“What do you need, Mark?”
“With blood tests and, you know, other tests, when they say negative that means they didn’t find what they were looking for, right?”
“That’s what I thought,” I said. “That’s what I told them.”
“This friend who was asking.”
“Was it Hannah?”
“What? Oh, no. Not Hannah. Another friend. Charlie.”
“How’s school going?”
“Okay. Have a good day, Mark.”
“You too, Dad.”
I started the long walk back to the school. Just south of the path under the QEW, on the upper eastern edge of the ravine cut by the Sixteen Mile Creek, I passed by a Volkswagen Beetle painted red with big black dots like a ladybug. On one of our first afternoons together, a ladybug had landed on my jeans and Hannah had pressed her hand against my leg and held it there until the insect crawled onto her finger. “Some people consider these signs of good luck. The dots are supposed to remind you of the many blessings in your life.”
I smiled at the VW Beetle leaning into the ditch. The doors opened. The driver got out easily. The passenger, holding a wreath, had to navigate the ditch. They walked solemnly into the graveyard I always forget about, the cemetery orphaned there by recent commercial expansion into this area.
I was that student who could miss classes and go to their teachers and say, “I’m sorry I missed class, I had an appointment,” and offer to bring a note only to have the offer refused. Which is what happened.
In my last period—Finite Math—my buddy Trevor was like, “Why’d you even come back to school?”
“What else was I going to do?”
“Isn’t tonight the big night with Hannah?”
“I don’t know,” I said, “I don’t want to put too much expectation on it.”
“Here,” he fished in his bag and pulled out a condom, tucked it into his palm and reached across the aisle of desks. I took it, even though I’d secreted away a stockpile over the years.
“Thanks.” I put it in my pocket quickly.
“Not in there,” Trevor said.
“Not in your pocket. The heat can make it weaker. You don’t want it to break.”
“Uh?” I looked around.
“In your backpack.”
The teacher, Mr. Maris, looked up from his marking and said, “That’s enough boys.”
I nodded and set down to work, but Trevor wasn’t finished. “You know what I’d be doing right now?” Nicole W. looked back at us, annoyed. Trevor pretended to jerk off under the desk.
“So you don’t come too fast.”
“Boys,” Mr. Maris said. “I don’t want to ask you again.”
I worked for a while. I knew Trevor wanted to say more to me. He kept shifting in his seat and sticking his pencil in his mouth and tapping on the desk. Eventually, the noise of conversations in the class would increase, that was just the rhythm of it, and I waited for there to be four other conversations going at significant volume before I turned to Trevor.
“Okay,” he said. “Uncle Trevor’s got one more tip.”
“Uh, ‘Uncle Trevor.’”
He giggled. “Think about other stuff, right. Stuff that is upsetting or gross or just totally unsexy.”
“Like baseball,” I said.
“You like baseball,” he said.
It was true.
“So,” Trevor said, “I had this crazy dream. I was, I don’t know, looking at Melissa’s bare back and she had these, like, weird holes in her back, holes that I couldn’t see the bottom of.”
“What the fuck? Like cuts?”
“They weren’t wounds. They were maybe more like nostrils. But they had skin flaps over them, that opened and closed.”
“Weird. Like eyelids?”
“Yeah, but with no eyelashes.”
Nicole was looking at us again. I put my head down lower to the desk and started whispering. “That’s upsetting.”
“Sometimes that keeps me up at night.”
“So, think of something like that.”
I made a face. “Imagine.”
Trevor giggled again.
My scalp started itching and I shivered. “Thanks, I guess.”
“You can ask Uncle Trevor anything.”
“I’m such a lucky nephew.”
When I got home, I lined the condoms I had up along the counter in my basement bathroom. I looked at each package and was surprised to find expiry dates. The “Xtra THICK” condom Trevor had given me and this thin slimy orange one swimming around behind the clear plastic back of its wrapping were the only ones that weren’t past due. As I was throwing the other ones out, I flashed back to the public health clinic and the nurse with the wooden phallus and its abstract simplicity. As the nurse showed me how to coax the condom on over the tip and down the shaft, I was glad Hannah hadn’t come with me like she’d offered to.
I hung onto one of the condoms, got myself ready and slipped it on. I tried getting myself off like that, with the condom on, but first I started thinking about Trevor’s dream and all those fleshy valves, then my mom and sister came home and I could hear them upstairs arguing about practicing the piano. Though there was nothing to keep in there, I pinched the tip like the nurse had showed me to do, pulled the condom off and tied it up like some limp balloon. I washed my hands.
Dinner was pasta and garlic bread and this salad with sweet onion and garlic vinaigrette. “Hannah’s coming over tonight,” I reminded mom.
“Mm,” she said through a mouthful of romaine and Vidalia. “I forgot.” A chunk of food flew out of her mouth and landed somewhere on her lap. “Hu,” she laughed as she covered her mouth with a napkin.
“Will she still be here after dance class?” my sister asked. My sister loved hogging Hannah’s attention.
“Probably,” I said.
They left at 5:30. I did most of the dishes, then I went and brushed my teeth. It had been my intention to leave the remaining mess as a protest for all the garlic in the dinner, but I needed to fill a bit more time before Hannah arrived, so I did all the pots and pans and even wiped the counter.
Hannah arrived at seven after six, which gave us just over an hour before my mom and sister got back. Hannah had on this lovely red dress that was form fitting at the top and through the hips, but flared out around the knees. She spun and I saw that the fabric dipped low on her back and you could see acres of her skin. “Hot,” I said and immediately started to feel bad about my outfit—a YMCA day camp T-shirt I’d had for years, my favourite blue hoodie and a pair of jeans I hadn’t washed in at least a month.
She wrapped her arms around me and pressed her body against mine and before she kissed me she asked, “Excited?”
“Yes,” I said, but it didn’t sound like me talking.
She held my hand and led me downstairs to my bedroom. I could see Hannah’s skin lying in a gently contoured, thick sheet over her shifting spine and shoulder blades. I shuddered remembering Trevor’s dream. “Are you okay?” she asked.
“I’m fine,” I told her.
Even as she undressed beside my bed and whispered for me to get undressed, I had to push away thoughts of some malformed body from someone else’s nightmare.
Eventually, Hannah asked if I was feeling sick and I said I was and we lay there cuddling and even though we were both covered by my flannel bed sheets, our skin touching was making me feel terrible. I moved away from her and pressed my fingers against my closed eyes, but I could feel the lenses shifting under my eyelids and I had to get my hand away. Hannah rubbed my arm.
“I’m sorry,” I said, sitting up.
“It’s okay,” she assured me, but I could hear that it wasn’t.
I got dressed. I put on a record. Hannah got dressed. We sat there listening for a while before Hannah called her dad to pick her up.
“Oh Hannah,” Mom said when she saw her, “you look lovely. What’s the occasion?”
“Nothing,” Hannah said.
“Well, I love the dress.”
Hannah and my sister played Go Fish on the glass table in the front room. I lay beside them on the couch that was used so infrequently that the cushions were still convex.
I kissed Hannah’s cheek as we said goodbye. She told me to feel better.
“Was everything okay?” Mom asked me.
“I don’t know,” I said and went downstairs.
I stared at myself for a while in the bathroom mirror, then I fished the expired condom I’d used earlier out of the garbage can and flushed it down the toilet.
Hannah and I didn’t talk on the phone that night. Mom came down while I was reading and sat on the edge of the bed. She said she loved me, then sat and waited for me to say something. Anything. I asked if she could turn the overhead light off on her way out.
When she was gone, I put my book down and turned off my bedside light and lay in the dark.
I don’t know when sleep washed me off.
Toronto, November 2015
Emoji Sequence: The talented and productive, Anita Doron, director and co-writer of The Lesser Blessed, among other films both feature-length and short
Story: Lee Sheppard