Lester Strong and David Waggoner: "XY on XY," 2008, page 1

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David Waggoner

LITTLE DARKNESSES often lead to more light. That was what Tim had told me when he died. Not exactly in that way. The nurses weren’t waiting for him to die. He had made sure of that. They had been sent off with their bedpans and bedclothes, and he was lying naked next to me. My belt buckle cut him the way a leash cuts a new puppy. It bruises. But you don’t worry about that. Why, because the bruise will go away. And Tim did.

He told me about his indiscretions. I like to call them that. It sounds so polite, considering that they led to all of this. The first was when he was sixteen. A car, maybe the color of the sky before a cloudburst, was going very slowly, kicking out gravel slowly, dirtying his shoes when it passed. He turned around to smile, thinking that politeness was the only way to guarantee a pickup. His finger was still posted out, the nails dirty from having worked on a farm his whole life. I had been in love with him since I was twelve. I read books. He tossed them, when I gave them to him from my book bag, hoping that he would find interest in them and then hopefully in me. But learning for him was about going out into the world, growing faster than you should, getting it right the first time—even if that’s not what turned out.

In Tim’s case, the car with the rusted sideview mirrors on both sides (as if it had been parked under a narrow train track trestle for most of its existence) pulled into reverse and then picked up speed as it approached its new passenger. I know all this because I was standing on the side of the road, too. But I had a bicycle. I took it down the embankment, stopping now and then to listen to the car as it took Tim away from me. I didn’t see him until he was twenty-two, fresh out of the navy, with a tattoo on his left bicep and a bald spot when he lowered his head and gave me a bear hug. He was larger than I was, at least thirty pounds wider around and taller, smelling of cheap cologne, his smile so wide it was as if the world had been swallowed in the breadth of seven years.

He called me several times a year, usually from places that weren’t listed in my school dictionaries. He told me about kings who wore yellow tusks in their ears, and girls who he bragged about were their daughters. He knew I wasn’t naïve; that can be said by the way he often told me how I’d appreciate the world if only I’d put the book down that I was reading. He told me to join the Navy, but said I should consider reading radar screens or something to that effect. I didn’t understand physics and never thought he did either, from the way he took his classes: not very seriously.

But then life can go in so many directions, as had that car with the rusted sideview mirrors. The car was eventually sold for a thousand dollars, although it might have been worth three thousand. Stolen merchandise never fetches the same price. It was 1984. There weren’t any calls for about six months. I thought that maybe he had gotten himself hitched. It was possible that he didn’t get married in the way we do out here. Maybe she was Vietnamese, the refugee of someone who had been powerful in their day. I had read about Saigon, even seen pictures of naked girls without any clothes running down a country road. No one had ever run naked down these roads.

But there was one day that it had happened. Tim and I had been fishing in one of the creeks that had spoiled the perfect flatness of the wheat fields off I-70, near the junction that takes you to Salina. The sun had already started to set, and there were little bats coming out of the dirty trees. The flying creatures never bothered us because we always smoked a lot, and for some reason the light from our cigarettes scared the bats from coming too close to us. Also, maybe the small fish, and the occasional larger catfish, looked too much like they had caught themselves on the hooks of our fishing equipment while swimming to catch mosquitoes. Tim wore only his pants, his white cotton underwear still stuck up in the telephone wires from earlier in the day when he had cut himself extracting the fishing hook from the catfish he had caught on a bet. He said I wouldn’t catch anything larger than he would. He was right.

The blood had at first seemed unreal. The hook lodged deep into Tim’s hand. Quickly he figured to clot the wound with his BVDs. He asked me to tear the underwear into thin strands of cloth like gauze for his wound. Then he asked me to press my index finger against the soft but hot spot where the blood tried to pass. The strange bandage worked and we fished for the rest of the day, glancing at each other as if we knew something had passed between us.

Then at night, walking wounded, he stripped in the early moonlight, wrapping me around his waist and his tenderness aroused me. I didn’t know what to do. But took my clothes off too, not caring if there were mosquitoes as thick as smoke in the air. He was my first love. We didn’t kiss.

Standing on top of a ridge I could see the end of the car as the dust sped behind it and I lost sight of Tim into the afternoon sun. Walking back to town, the sun setting against my shirt, I didn’t turn around that day until I had passed the first traffic light. There were trees, cars, dogs, and people on either side of the street that had been but asphalt going into no particular direction. Tim had left without saying where he was going. I received postcards with hula girls dancing on some magical island that I knew I’d never see in a thousand years. By the third night I had gone into mourning, as only a teenage boy could over losing his first love. I made a model airplane, slowly, without any haste. The glue got to me. Its odors wouldn’t wash out of the shirt. I kept the shirt on the back of my desk chair, ready for wearing when I was joining my toy navy, manufacturing a miniature force. The glue stuck between my fingers got onto everything in my bedroom, including the light fixtures, so that when I turned off the desk lamp it stuck to my hands and I dragged it down to the floor.

Underneath my bed—where I could see the lint from a year of not having a regu¬lar mother, only women my father knew for a short time—was my air force. It was in mothballs, I joked. There were dead spiders instead of pilots poking out of the open cockpits. I wondered what Tim was doing, was he flying yet? But I knew better. I knew from his occasional letters that he hadn’t gotten past the next town for a couple of weeks. In Atchison, he had moved in with the guy who had picked him up. The old man had a handlebar mustache. Tim drew a scary picture of Homer with a bicycle coming out of his mouth.

Homer had taught Tim how to drive, taking him to his driving test, paying for the license so that they could drive around the countryside, the top of the car rolled down when it was good weather. It was August. Rain always showed up at least once a week. For an hour or two it was hail. The small frozen chunks of sky sounded strange, Tim told me, like horses running over boards in a rodeo. Homer was supposed to take them to see the busting broncos; they were about five hundred miles away, but it would be a nice drive. Every other day I got a signal from Tim. Not in the form of a phone call, nothing like that. I would be fishing, casting my pole into one of our favorite muddy holes behind a barn. Or under the sagging end of a wet field. Usually by a small bridge, its trusses stressed by the thousands of cars squeaking across its overlooked existence. One time a car had gotten too close to the water and had slipped in during a spell of early winter. The driver, drunk from a local bar, was found four days after the blizzard, his mouth frozen open like a dead fish, his pale skin the color of the catfish. There was even the smell of what he should have caught in the backseat. But nothing was there, not even a bottle. He had left the bar, having consumed half a bottle of his favorite top shelf bar brand, and weaving in and out of the snowstorm, stopping to look at the windows along Culver Street, thinking that he could drive home to his wife without a breather at the diner.

Homer had boxes of empty beer bottles in the back of his dusty car. At least that’s what it looked like in the Kansas sun, the kind of light that you can only get where it is so flat, so hot, and so alone in the world. The beer bottles rattled once when Tim had called me from the road on their way to the rodeo. There was something cold and sterile sounding in Tim’s voice as he talked to me, as if he had already committed the murder and had thrown the bottles over the body to disguise the deed. Now that I think about it, as Tim was wasting away in the hospital, his flesh growing calloused from not being on top of anything but harsh bone and ligament, I had heard a few moans coming from inside the glass casket. Like bees inside the honeycomb; Homer’s voice traveled inside the many different volumes of his own drinking.

Tim had driven all the way to the rodeo in Tulsa with Homer in the backseat, until the odor was so bad it forced him to dump the body. Then he abandoned the car in a junkyard—the dealer never asking what the smell was, but discounting the price he was willing to pay for such a bad piece of metal. Tim took the junk dealer’s handful of cash; the first thing he did on the way out of town was buy himself a map of California, not the ticket to the bus. He stared at the colorful lines that connected Tulsa to San Diego, where he had been told to report in one week. With his fresh map in hand and a few drops of blood on his white tennis shoes, Tim boarded the bus.

As Tim had trouble breathing I closed the door—he didn’t want anyone to hear his dying. It was going to be just the two of us, sitting, talking when he could, and listening to death as she overtook some¬one else down the hall. It was as if Tim didn’t want to be alone when he was dying. He wasn’t about to let go if someone else wasn’t, either, taking their last look at the ceiling, thinking that it wouldn’t be so bad to not have to take in enough air to turn over in bed, and squeeze the guardrails. I wanted to talk to him, but he wasn’t interested in that form of communication. He wanted me to undress him for the last time. I had done this before, taking his underwear down to his knees; it was stained with some blood from the night before, when he had insisted on the tomato soup. It had run right through him. The trips to the bathroom had become unnecessary almost a month ago, when the bowl was placed beneath his middle section like a new form of torture: a metal pillow, hollow, almost like a rodeo seat on a bucking bronco.

Once when he had to take a shit, he talked to me about the rodeo: He had won the blue ribbon, and mailed it to me—did I get it? How long ago was that? I had asked him, as he was on to the next subject at hand, raising his bottom side over the sharp lip of the portable can. The nurse knocked a couple of times in between his adjustments. I didn’t feel the same about him when he had lost all of his teeth. I couldn’t kiss like I had, even when I knew he had murdered the old man, leaving him to rattle his way to death like some sort of rattler hidden in the middle of the junkyard. Everything was noisy about Tim’s last day to stay off the floor, as he put it. He wasn’t going to leave where they had put him. For it was his final days before dying.

That was when he told me everything. That he had never forgotten me, that he had shipped off to become a man; that he wasn’t happy with Homer, and that he had shot him in the honeycomb with a rifle. This way Homer was paralyzed as he lay dying. Barely breathing, smelling the odor of a hundred beer bottles suffocating him, Homer could hear Tim playing his guitar when he would stop to take a piss. The soil was so hot it would sound like steam rising from a tea kettle. Now a spider crawled across Homer’s face—not exactly his face, but over the curve of a bottle perched above his eyes.

Tim told me how he had done it: sounding like he was fourteen again, when he had taken his daddy’s hunting gun out of the shed, cleaning away a year’s worth of rust. But this time it wasn’t his father’s hunting rifle, but the old man’s, hidden in the back of the car underneath a pile of old porno magazines, their edges crinkled due to the changing seasons. It was all mail order stuff, the kind that came to Kansas in brown paper wrappers. One envelope was stamped Hutchinson, Kansas, New York, California, Houston, or Miami. Or Amsterdam. It was the envelope for Homer’s will. He had meant to fill it out, send it back to his lawyer; after all, he didn’t have children, didn’t have a charity. He wouldn’t just give away his money to anyone, not even a hitchhiker who had threatened him many times, stolen his wallet for a week and returned it empty but for the receipts that had been the result of wild spending. Tim kept his bills, mostly hospital, insurance, and AIDS pharmacy paperwork, neatly folded inside his Bible in the drawer next to his pillow. The book was always half open as if it was inviting you to take it and throw the papers away, since they weren’t going to do Tim any good. They were simply nuisances to get in the way of everything that he had to tell me. I bought a tape recorder and we taped every morning and every evening what he could remember.

“I murdered him like I would a jackrabbit under the wheel of my tire...except he got away, a couple of times. His blood must have been dark on his back, when they found him, face down with three bullets in his back where I dumped him.”

Tim coughed a couple of times before continuing.

“In fact, I had tried to kill him three other times. Once, when we were having sex. I had my hands around his neck; so tight did I squeeze that I felt his windpipe tremble inside my grip. It was exciting. He didn’t seem to struggle, as if he wanted it. But I didn’t want it then; I wanted to wait.”

Tim coughed uncontrollably, as if he felt the need for water wasn’t enough to dampen the dryness in his throat. I called the nurse by pushing a small button on the side of his bed. It was cold, the metal. The sheets were soaked with his urine and stained by his feces. They didn’t like changing the sheets. They said it upset him too much.

“Thanks,” Tim said to the Puerto Rican nurse, a small woman, with teeth the size of a doll’s. She didn’t speak enough English to pass a citizenship test, but her eyes were large and beautiful and seemed to show compassion. They were filled with tears as she withdrew the pitcher of water from Tim’s plastic cup. He didn’t want glass. He said he might drop it and then they would have to clean up after him.

He was kinder as a confessed murderer, or at least as someone who was dying who could retell how he had killed, not for his own salvation but for his own peace of mind. He knew he was going to burn in hell, but he wanted to have a few moments where he didn’t feel guilty.

He was always that way, even as a teenager. He would stare at a bug, squish it between his thumb and his forefinger without batting an eye; I couldn’t look. Where there had been a beautiful blue-veined moth, there was now merely black bug juice on the sidewalk. The stain wouldn’t go away after three rainstorms and I would have to stare at it every time I walked by it on my way to the schoolbus. It made me sick to think how destructive Tim could be. Even if it was only a bug and there were thousands of them destroyed by windshield wipers on cars as the first droplets fell from an angry summer sky.

I think Tim took his anger from the elements. As if he soaked in what was displeasing about nature.

Some people, for instance the Puerto Rican nurse, she didn’t let the hospital get to her. All the dying around her didn’t take away her small smile. It reinforced it. She wasn’t going to tell you anything but the truth; she could lie a little better than most by making you forget where you were. And she didn’t speak enough English to make a lot of sense. It was a strange phenomenon.

At dinner time the orderly brought in Tim’s lunch since it was the only meal he could stomach. The pills did him in for the first eight hours or so after he woke around ten a.m. He slept more than most people, but he was dying anyway.

Lunch consisted of red Jello cubes that moved when the tray was bumped. They fell to the floor when Tim violently coughed up the night behind him. It had been filled with many dreams; a few of them I could hear, as I slept lightly in the cold, Naugahyde chair. The hospital didn’t think too much about the visitor. He wasn’t supposed to grow used to the room. I had never liked lunch as much as Tim had enjoyed it.

“Don’t eat the Jello, here,” Tim said after spilling the red lozenges of dessert onto his hospital gown. He looked like a little boy, again, the time that he and I had gone to summer camp—the only time until he left me that he had seen another part of the country.

“Why not?” I laughed. I was happy that he was in a good mood. Was he about to die?

“It’s the goddam color of those AIDS ribbons, everywhere. I don’t like ’em much, and the nurses think they mean something.”

“But they do, Tim,” I said in a whisper.

“No they don’t,” he said. “Look at all those Hollywood celebrities wearing them, do they do any good for them? Doesn’t mean they’re going to win the Academy Award just because they say something about AIDS.”

Tim was right. All the nurses on the floor wore the red ribbon, as if it was an apology for being healthy. But it wasn’t good enough to wear them on a collar, or a sleeve, or even in one’s hair.

“Take the Jello and shove it up that cute orderly’s ass,” Tim blurted out as a male nurse walked into the room. The guy blushed.

“I don’t think so, Tim,” I apologized and tried to clean Tim up from his mess.

“I’ll do it, sir,” said the young man, barely old enough to know about death.

“Whatever.” I sat down and watched the procedure unfold—the final breath, the last words, the gentle easing into another world, that took me by surprise. It happened so gently, so fast. The kid squeaked as he walked around the bed, fitting the blanket closely to Tim’s body, shivering with his final fevers.

“Can I help?” I blurted out, not knowing what to do for my friend. My words didn’t sink in. Tim was looking at something in the room that I couldn’t see anymore. We always saw things together, but now he was alone. He sang a song, maybe something he had picked up in a cantina south of the border. I thought I heard a few lines of Spanish before he smiled and then closed his eyes for this world.

Dialogue: Positive/Negative

Lester Strong: Is “New Story” confessional in the sense that it’s something that actually happened to you?

David Waggoner: It’s not confessional in terms of actual events in my life. But it’s symbolic of some of the feelings I had for a very close friend who died in the early 1990s. He was the first person I was close to who died from AIDS. We had a very limited sexual experience with each other, very limited. But we were also very emotionally involved with each other. I hadn’t been tested yet. But as I saw him dying, it scared me into wondering if I were HIV-positive. It scared me into wondering if that was going to be my fate.

LS: In the story, the narrator is having sex with Tim, the guy who’s dying of AIDS, right in the hospital where he’s dying. Why?

DW: Because the two have had a deep love for each other, but it’s been a thwarted love. They weren’t able to consummate the love affair when they were younger. The narrator was in love with Tim, who went off to join the navy before anything sexual happened between them. At the time of the story, Tim is sick in a hospital bed, physically very weak, without any power, and the narrator is at last able to force himself sexually on Tim, who has finally come back into his life.

LS: Is it a consummation that Tim also wants?

DW: Yes. The two had possibly a perfect love that never really happened because Tim went off to his adventures around the world. He regrets having gone off in the first place.

LS: So this is a mating going on between then?

DW: It’s a mating, but it’s also a non-mating in a sense, because one is HIV-positive and dying of AIDS, while the other is ostensibly HIV-negative. They aren’t exchanging bodily fluids.

LS: If they’re having sex, they’re exchanging something.

DW: I’d call it mixing. They’re mixing emotions, but not bodily fluids. The narrator is not getting infected through the sex they’re having. I see the story as a commentary on the sexual apartheid that exists between HIV-positive and HIV-negative gay men in our society. I think there’s an almost permanent divide between these two groups. There are some HIV-negative gay men who are actually trying to get infected. But the narrator isn’t one of those. The sex he initiates is more about consummating a love affair that didn’t get consummated when he and Tim were young men.

LS: I don’t understand what you mean by “permanent divide.” The narrator and Tim are having sex despite the barrier of HIV/AIDS. There are all kinds of ways negative and positive gay men can have sex across that barrier without exchanging bodily fluids or endangering either of them. There’s also emotional closeness that doesn’t have to involve sex, like you and me. You’re positive and I’m negative. We’ve never had sex, but we’re still close friends.

DW: I see it differently. I think there’s always going to be something of a physical divide since there are limits on the sex acts you can do together. But I also think there’s an emotional divide that’s always going to exist between someone who’s HIV-positive—who has a “death sentence” hanging over him linked to the sex act—and someone who’s HIV-negative—who of course is going to die some day but who doesn’t have that kind of “death sentence” to live with all the time.

LS: You’re saying that just the fact of being infected with HIV changes the nature of one’s relationship to sex? To friendship?

DW: Yes. I think when you’re HIV-positive, or at least when you know you are, you’re a different person. You’re part of a marked minority. You live with the death sentence of AIDS hovering over you, and there are people out there who want to kill you. It’s hard. It’s hard to be HIV-positive. Most of my relationships have been with HIV-negative men, and they’ve mostly failed. Why? Is it because of our sero-status being different? I don’t know.

LS: But isn’t there more to a relationship than just sex? I mean, I can understand that you have anxieties about sex, but there are other ways of being intimate that may be physical but don’t have to do with sex and exchanging bodily fluids. You can hug each other, you can hold each other, you can cry together. There are all kinds of things you can do that are very intimate and bring you together but don’t involve endangering anyone. Are you saying that your HIV status has actually interfered with that ability to be emotionally intimate with somebody else?

DW: Yes. To be brutally honest, I think a lot of HIV infection is brought on by the fear of intimacy, and once you’re positive it can reinforce that fear. Being HIV-positive is more than just a blood test and taking a lot of medicines. It can lead to a lot of emotional disruptions that aren’t easy to deal with.

LS: I think male-male intimacy, of which being gay and having homosexual relationships is only one form, is hard under any circumstances. I don’t think our society even wants it to happen, which is why we have so much homophobia. Do you think AIDS-phobia just presents in more concentrated form some of the same problems that intimacy among men, male-male bonding of any sort outside of competitive sports and what we might call the “brotherhood of the military killing machine,” presents in the first place?

DW: I think it amplifies the problem. It amplifies the homophobia that exists in our society both internally and externally, in straight men, bisexual men, and gay men. Sometimes gay men can be just as homophobic as straight men. I think the word “amplifies” is good in this context.

Copyright © 2008 Lester Strong and David Waggoner. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopy, recording, or any other information retrieval system, without prior permission in writing from the authors.

Lester Strong and David Waggoner: "XY on XY," 2008, page 2