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Hydraphobia

By Gary R. McClain

July 2004

I remember spending the week after our first date waiting for the phone to ring, or at least for it to ring with Alby on the other end. I had asked him out, after all, so now it was his turn. But the pain ... I thought about him while I was getting ready in the mornings and on the subway ride to school. I thought about him when I was sitting in my office, waiting for the next student to come in to piss and moan over a grade. When students did come in to talk to me, I nodded and grunted, and thought about Alby.

My thoughts consisted mainly of fantasies of the two of us. Walking through my neighborhood, me in my jeans and worn-out leather jacket, him in his ad agency suit, looking handsome and lanky, maybe in a cashmere overcoat. Or at dinner again, staring at each other, the candlelight flickering, reflected in our eyes. Or back in my apartment, sitting on my couch, drinking wine, then standing and walking toward the bedroom together. Adolescent images, probably, but how can you be rational when you're on the cusp of true love?

I was hooked on him.

This is stupid, I said to myself, you should call him. You are both men, nobody has been preordained to be chaser and chasee, even though somebody usually is and I thought it might as well be me. What would a phone call matter?


That evening, exactly six days after our first date, the phone rang. You're a love-stricken school child and you know that leads to tears and drama, I said to myself during those two seconds that occurred between picking up the phone, taking a deep breath, and uttering a hello that was deepened by an exhale of breath.

"Mike?"

"Who else would be here?" I answered, recognizing his voice.

"It's Alby. And what do you mean who else? A handsome guy like you must have elses crawling out of the woodwork."

"The super sprayed last week."

It must have been obvious to him that I was excited. I again reminded myself that I was planning to be cool, but it was way beyond too late at this point. Yes, I was hooked. We made some small talk about how the week had gone. His agency was waiting for a decision on their new business presentation, he told me, and I told him the story of my successful Freud lecture that day.

"I'd love to see you teach, really watch you in action," he said. "You must be a killer."

"Well, I don't know. Usually I hope I can make it through a lecture without a few nod-offs."

"You're modest. I like that in a man."

We talked about getting together for dinner sometime soon. We volleyed some more conversation around. Yeah, we'll do that soon. Yeah, we have to get together. Yeah, right.

"How about Saturday?"

"Well..." He hesitated. "I may have to go into the office for awhile."

"So when you're ready, you'll call."

Here I go pushing again, I said to myself. But the words were out there and my guard was ripped open again. I mean, just what is second date etiquette and why should I have to wait?


That Saturday evening, after we had spent the day talking and walking and, finally grabbing some dinner, we ended up in front of the door to my apartment. I unlocked the door and turned on the light in the entryway. It cast just enough light to illuminate the living room and I didn't want to turn on any more of the lights. I walked in, with Alby following, and stood in front of the window overlooking the rooftops of the building across the alley, and on the next block over, an office high rise. Nothing spectacular, but at least it wasn't an air shaft. Alby stood behind me.

"If I were an artist, I'd want to paint this scene," he said.

"Why?"

"I don't know. The buildings just seem to go on forever. It's like being in a forest or a canyon or something. A concrete valley."

His voice was soft, almost sad, and I turned around to face him. He stepped back.

"What is it?" I asked.

"I know I've been holding back from you, making you do all the work. I'm not trying to be coy or anything. But I'm not ready for anything else yet. Is that okay?"

I was relieved in a way, that at least one of us was going to be rational enough to help me keep my promise not to jump into the whole sex thing.

"Sure," I answered. "But when?"

He patted me on the back a few times, good buddy style, and pulled away. "I'll let you know, after we do some talking."

"About what?" Visions of other boyfriends, or a reconciliation with his latest ex, flashed through my mind, and I reminded myself that I had to be careful here. "Is your white knight coming back on the scene?"

"No, it's not that. We just need to talk."

"Why do I feel like I'm going to hate this?" I asked. "Can't it wait?"

We had spent the day walking through the East Village, going from shop to shop, sitting in Tompkins Square Park, watching people and being watched. I was feeling even more comfortable with Alby. We made each other laugh. That's one of the things I liked doing with him the most, walking through the streets of New York, talking and laughing. It was as if there were two really important people in my world, Alby and me, and then there was the rest of the world, which we would deal with later.

Alby placed his hands lightly on my shoulders. I smiled and tried to think of something funny to say, but I couldn't.

"Let's get this over with," I said.

"I haven't always been perfect. In fact I never was."

"I don't expect that. Do you have unwanted children you haven't told me about?"

"Come on, Mike."

"Okay."

He hesitated again, sought my eyes out with his, and then leaned his face toward mine. "Mike, I'm HIV positive."

I felt my breath catch. No thoughts, images, fears, nothing. I was in the middle of an inhale, and it just caught in my throat as I felt my blood rushing toward my feet. I reached up and wrapped my arms around his waist and pulled him closer to me. I held him, tightly, to reassure him, or to reassure myself. This is no big deal, I kept repeating to myself. Nothing is proven. This means nothing. I said this over and over, in my mind, while I held on to him. We're just getting started together and nothing is going to fuck things up. Nothing.

"It's not a problem for me," I said finally. "It's not a problem."

I leaned back from him, and looked into his face again. He was expressionless, as if waiting to take his cue from me. I smiled at him, a smile that felt big and stupid and fake and I hoped the dusky lighting might keep him from seeing through me, and then pulled him toward me and wrapped my arms around him.

"I've been positive for a long time," he said. "Only my sister knows, and now you."

I tightened my grip. "I'm glad you told me. Now let's not fuck up the evening."

We held each other like this until he pulled away. We looked at each other.

I told myself that I felt relieved. It was out in the open. So what? He looked perfectly healthy. It seemed like a less insurmountable obstacle than if had told me he had another lover on the scene. And there was that other feeling, the one that I kept trying to push off, that vague sense of another kind of relief, maybe you could call it some kind of perverse feeling of security. He must need me. Yes, I would be there. Love would save the day. Or at least it would save us.

"We can pop in a video if you want," I said. "I've got the silent version of Metropolis. Have you seen it? It's really great."

"Do you want to talk anymore?" he asked.

I kissed him on the cheek. "About what?"

"There are other things you should know."

Before he could say anything else, I went to my bedroom closet to dig out the video. There was nothing more to say, I knew more than I wanted to. How would talking, or even thinking about it, accomplish anything? Maybe if we ignored it, the whole thing would fade away.

It was about midnight when the movie ended. We were sitting on the couch and he had his arm around me. The mood seemed right. There we were, with a couple of glasses of wine coursing through our systems, and no reason to get up early the next morning. I wanted him, with me, sleeping in my bed. I wanted to wake up with him. More than two dates before sex was probably a record with me ... all right, it was a record. I couldn't think of anything else that had to be proven.

I had kissed him -- smack on the lips -- earlier in the evening. It seemed important to show him that the HIV thing was no big thing. Not that I was sure if it was or not. I told myself I could think about that tomorrow, if at all.

"Do you want to stay tonight?" I asked. The videotape was on rewind; the lights were off, except for a couple of votive lights flickering in the windows. Very grad-school-first-date.

He smiled and rolled his eyes. "You're so subtle."

"Whatever."

"Where would I sleep?"

I lifted my hand from his shoulder and patted the back of the couch.

"This sucker folds out. You'll have the best night's sleep you ever had."

He moved away from me, sitting sideways so that he could see my face better.

"I don't know if this is a good idea. You know."

"I do know," I said. "And I think it's a damned good idea."

"Horny Mikie."

The candles flickered as a breeze came in through the window, throwing a flash of light in his eyes. They were opened wide, searching for something in mine. Reassurance, maybe, or the real truth. And sad. He reached over and took my hand.

"Are you sure you really want to do this?" he asked.

"Absolutely sure," I wrapped my arms around him and pushed my head hard into his shoulder. "I've never been surer."

"More sure," he corrected me.

"That too."

He squeezed my hand. "We have to be careful. You know that."

"Let's go to bed," I said.

"I will if you let me stand up before you squeeze me to death."

"I'll release you, for a minute or two."

I let him go, and we both stood. I turned around to blow out the candles, then turned back toward him. I pulled up the shades, letting in enough of the street light for us to see what we were doing. He was standing, with his hands hanging at his sides.

"Don't you know what to do next?" I asked.

"Are you sure you want this to happen?"

I laughed, then took his hand. "I'm ready already."


I was still on that first-night euphoria when I went in to school Monday morning, and I wondered if my students thought my glazed eyes were the result of true love or a double dose of antihistimanes. I was teaching a three-hour psych lab which starred a dozen or so white rats, which I managed to get through with only two sneezing fits -- both mine, along with a few squeals of fear, from one of my male students and more than a few of the rats, followed by one good bite from a rat to a student. We were doing an experiment that required affectionately fondling the little heathens to see if it improved their ability to withstand the electric shock torture we would soon be submitting them to.

That morning, I felt like the results might hold the key to my future.

By the time I finally had a chance to scrub down and settle into my office, the euphoria was giving way to a free-floating angst. I sat at my desk and thumbed through the notes for the next day's lecture. I turned the pages, reading but not understanding, re-reading and still not able to concentrate. Finally, I got up from my desk, locked my door, turned out the lights, and settled in to let the angst flow over me for awhile.

I sat first with my arms folded across the desk, with my head resting on them. But as the mental pictures became more vivid and horrifying, I got up and sat on the floor, in my favorite spot, on a worn piece of carpet remnant in front of my bookshelf. With my back against the shelf, I was assaulted by one image after another.

First, I saw Alby, sitting across from me at dinner. We were looking at each other and talking in hushed, desperate voices. Decisions to be made. Or walking down the street laughing together like any other couple, but clutching each other's hands tightly as if a gale wind might blow through at any moment. Then he was in the hospital; I was holding his hand and trying to smile at him. "Hi buddy," I would say. "How are you, buddy?" Wringing my hands.

I went back through every relationship I had ever been in, the good times, bad times, the gradual growing apart in some, the emotionally wrenching arguments, and discoveries of infidelities in others. I thought about how each relationship had been tenuous, uncertain, in its own way. Even in the best of physical health, no promises that the next week, month, the next day, it would be as good as it was right at that moment. Never a guarantee that there would be a next day.

This is no different, I told myself. A car might hit him tomorrow, and the HIV status won't mean a damned thing. One might hit me too. Either way, life is uncertain, I couldn't promise him anything more than he could promise me.

Was I already in too deep? Was I about to be pulled under by a drowning man? It was early on in the relationship, not even really sexual yet. I had time to get out, somewhat unscathed. I could let him down easy, or just start pulling away. The door was open.

Diiiiiiive......

I wanted him to go away. I wanted to run. I wanted to be with him no matter what. I wanted him to run. I wanted to pretend I was in the middle of a bad video and hit rewind. But I also wanted Alby.

Dammit. It was not supposed to be this way.

I sat in my office for the remainder of the afternoon. Students came by occasionally, and I watched their shadows through the frosted glass as they stood in front of my door, reading my office hours and, seeing that I was supposed to be there, knocking. They checked their watches to make sure they had the right time and knocked again, only louder. A few of them repeated this a few times, as if the room were so cavernous I might not hear them on the first try. A couple of them left for a few minutes, then came back. I recognized their shadows, their knocks.

My eyes wandered toward a poster that hung over my desk of a bright turquoise ocean and a blue sky, a white boat with red sails. It was a joke on myself, in a way. I've been terrified of water since I was a third grader and my mother sent me to swimming lessons. The instructor, a high school jock, spent most of each class hitting on the female lifeguard. She was the one who busted me, told him I was cheating by wading across the pool and not kicking. He jumped in -- the only time he ever got wet -- and held my head underwater until I took big swallows of chlorine. He gave me a few seconds to swallow and gasp, then held me under again.

Aversion therapy, the behaviorists would call this poster. Torture yourself with something you're afraid of and maybe it will go away.

Alby loved water and had taken a few sailboat lessons in college. As I stared at the sailboat, I imagined the two of us standing with the boat, in shallow water, and slowly pushing it away from the shore. First the water was at my ankles, then my knees, then my waist.

"Is there enough breeze yet?" I asked Alby.

"Not yet," he said.

We went out further. The water was higher than my waist, then up to my armpits. I could feel myself beginning to hyperventilate.

"Jump in," Alby said. "Let's go."

"I can't," I replied. "I'm scared of the water."

"Then I'll have to go alone. Give me a push."

"No. Not yet. Give me some time."

I continued to stare at the poster as the hours passed. In the late afternoon, as the sun began to fade, the ocean started to look dark, like a storm was moving in. The sailboat faded, became a shadow.

I slipped away into that world of half-awake-half-asleep that, if you play it right, can keep you from away from reality but also away from dreaming. But then I must have dreamed about something, because I jerked into a sitting position, feeling as if I was suffocating. I gasped for air.

When I caught my breath, I found myself in the dark.

The building was silent, probably locked from outside. I could leave now and not have to worry about being accosted in the hallway. I stood up. There was just enough light coming through the frosted glass window to allow me to fumble around for my backpack and keys. I felt for the door handle, letting my hand slide past the wall switch for the ceiling light.

It was really darkness that I wanted. Just enough light to see my way out without having to look at any of the details.

Gary R. McClain is a writer living in New York City. This story is exerpted from his as yet unpublished novel, The Price of the Ticket.


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