Rock Bottom

One year ago I was in the study room around the corner from my apartment working math problems at the white board after midnight. It was a month into the semester and I was three weeks behind. After talking with a graduate TA who put it simply–“If you’re not passionate about doing the homework, is this the right major for you?”–I turned my organization on its head and had spent the entire weekend getting myself caught up.

And I was almost there. I felt great.

I wiped the board free of my algebra, sprawled letters about groups and how they commute and associate, and I stacked my notebooks and my markers and went back to my room. But the night was nowhere near over.

I put away my things and brushed my teeth, and even though I was tired I was still wide awake. I sat down on the couch in our living–all my roommates, if they were even there, had gone to bed by now–and I opened an app called Scruff. It’s a gay men’s social app with a little more dignity than Grindr (but I used that one, too). Browsing pictures of half-naked and headless men, I took note of who was on and sent a few messages.

Some replied.

Some replies became conversations.

Some conversations became invitations.

In particular was a man I’ll call Cane. We had spoken a couple times before, so I felt like I knew him. He was older, so better conversation than most guys my age, and had a job, a house, a boyfriend. He told me he was HIV+, but I didn’t think getting together would ever be a possibility, so it didn’t matter, and when he told me I should come over, I teased: I have no car. You’d have to come and get.

I’m in bed and I don’t want to go out. Take a cab.

I’m a college student. I don’t have a money.

Don’t worry, I’ll pay for it when you get here.

I’m not from Raleigh. Never used a cab before.

So he gave me a number and said I should call.

I put down my iPad and started pacing up and down the hall. I could tell him no, but honestly I was interested. Handsome maybe was too insignificant–he was hot, sexy, a cute smile. The thought of cuddling up against another guy had my head spinning, and the thought of cuddling up between two–I couldn’t imagine what that might be like, but suddenly I was eager to explore, to discover.

But HIV. I wouldn’t, would I? I couldn’t, but could I?

I’d done a lot of advocacy for safe sex, had gone to safe sex workshops and everything, and I felt like I knew about the disease. Kissing’s okay, just wait two hours after brushing my teeth since the bristles can cause micro-bleeding in the gums. A few other things I’d been told were okay. I made a mental note of each of them. Sex was out of the question, but I put a few condoms in my pockets just in case.

God, I said, please keep me safe.

I grabbed my iPad and typed in, Ok. I’ll see you soon. He sent me his address, I called the taxi, I waited outside at two in the morning, kicking at the bricks in nervousness until it arrived, later than it should have been.

The driver couldn’t speak strong English. I gave him the address and he stuffed it in his GPS, but it didn’t come up. Maybe it’s a new development or something. I told him the abbreviated directions Cane had given me, even called Cane and confirmed them. The cab driver nodded, affirming he knew exactly where he was going now.

Thirty minutes later we should’ve been there. But we weren’t.

I sat in the passenger back seat, looking out my window, my heart sometimes beating too fast, sometimes not beating at all. We kept driving, but we kept not arriving. He stopped once to call another cab driver and ask for directions in a language I couldn’t understand. This is good, I told myself, it’ll definitely be two hours since I brushed my teeth now.

By three in the morning I was starting to get uneasy. What happens if Cane had gone to bed and wasn’t interested now? I tried calling him to clarify directions, but he didn’t answer. What happens if I told the man to take me back? I didn’t have the money to pay for this. Staring at the small screen with the running total made my stomach sink. So I kept waiting while we seemingly drove in circles.

Finally around four o’clock we pulled up along a large house in a small, new development. The street name was right. The house number was right. I called Cane again, but once more he didn’t answer.

“He’s paying,” I told the cab driver, “let me go knock. I’ll be right back. How much is it?”

“Eh,” he said, bobbing his head back and forth, “how about forty and I’ll call it even?”

Forty bucks? It shouldn’t have cost anything more than twenty, I thought, if he hadn’t gotten lost for almost two hours. So I climbed out, walked past the sidewalk, walked the curving walkway to the door. I knocked. I knocked again. Let this be the right house, I whispered, don’t let me be waking up strangers at this time of night.

The door opened and I relaxed a little when I saw it was Cane. He rubbed his eyes with his fists, groggy and blinking. I don’t really remember what he said. “How much is it?” maybe. I told him. He shrugged, walked back inside and grabbed his wallet, came out in his boxers and a t-shirt. We walked back to the cab, I stood in the driveway as he bent by the window, pulled out a couple bills, and handed them over without a hint of hesitation.

Back inside I asked if I could use his bathroom. A two-hour taxi drive can make a guy need to pee. “In the bedroom on the left,” he said, and I walked six or seven feet to the bedroom, then three or four to the bathroom. I did what I had to do. I washed my hands. I looked in the mirror. Maybe I was shaking, but I was here. He seemed as nice a guy as he had been talking online. And he’d paid more than I’d have asked of him without any complaints.

I opened the door and turned off the light. The room was dark. I couldn’t see anything. I think I even said it out loud. “Take your clothes off,” someone said, “and come in bed.” I hadn’t heard Cane’s voice enough to know if it was him; I realized later he hadn’t gotten back in bed yet, and it was his boyfriend, Jay, who had called to me.

But I listened.

I got in bed.

  1. Prologue: One Year Ago
  2. Rock Bottom
  3. Denial
  4. Anger
  5. Bargaining
  6. Depression
  7. Acceptance
  8. Epilogue: One Year Ago

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