Boystown 4: A Time for Secrets
A Nick Nowak Novel
I finished packing the boxes with my portable radio, my electric typewriter, and the remaining contents of my desk. I stacked them up next to my beige, four-drawer filing cabinet. For that, I planned to simply tape the drawers shut and move it complete. I'd only been in business a couple of years. It wouldn't be that heavy.
There was more I could have done that afternoon, but I had to run to Meek's bank, cash his check, and then go to the doctor with Harker. Harker had been resistant to the idea of going to a specialist-I'd known he would be-so I'd gone ahead and made the appointment without asking him. After he made me postpone it a few times, we'd finally gone in early July and now, three weeks later, were going back to get the results from the various tests the doctor had ordered.
Dr. Macht and his lover, Dr. Locklear, had offices in a frigid white medical building on Halsted near Illinois Masonic. Their practice was unique in that it focused on the medical needs of gay men, something I hadn't exactly mentioned to Harker. On our first visit, as we sat in the modishly decorated waiting room, Harker had eyed the pamphlets on syphilis, gonorrhea, and amoebas.
"Where are we?" he asked.
I was tempted to tell an outright lie and say, "Pulmonary specialist," but I knew that wouldn't go over. So, I tried a joke. "We're at the doctor's office. Are you senile now?"
He didn't think that was funny.
"Is this some kind of queer doctor?" he asked.
"Yes," I said.
Harker was still frowning when we were called into Dr. Macht's office. After a short physical exam and a description of his recent symptoms, Harker was asked to do a stack of paperwork. A full history was filled out, along with forms that allowed the doctor to obtain his medical records. In exchange, we got the paperwork we needed to get the blood work Dr. Macht wanted and a prescription to treat some kind of infection Harker had in his mouth. Something I'd been unaware of. When the doctor was done explaining how to use the medication-dissolve in water and use as a mouthwash twice a day-Harker said, "You think I've got gay cancer, don't you?"
"I'm not sure yet," Dr. Macht replied. "But yes, that's what the tests are for."
On our way to the second visit, we didn't have much to say in the cab. I found myself thinking about things with Harker. We'd been together a little more than a year, living together nearly half that time. Commitment to Harker had crept up on me and clobbered me like a mugger. I hadn't exactly planned to end up here, but it's where I was and I was okay with that.
Harker, though, had always seemed certain. In fact, sometimes I think he was half in love with me before we'd even met. He'd known who I was-he'd said as much when we first met, having heard about me through the grapevine. I was the cop who got fag-bashed and run out of the department. Yeah, that probably spread from district to district like a bad flu.
In all honestly, I didn't think Harker knew much more than that when he made his move on me. Well, he did know I was capable of finding a killer he couldn't-a snake of a boss who'd very nearly gotten away with killing his secretary-though I have to imagine my catching him first had been more annoying than sexy.
The cab pulled over to the curb and we got out. The air had turned thick and muggy, which I took to be the reason I was sweating under my collar. I tried to catch Harker's eye. I had no idea what he was feeling. We hadn't talked about this since our first visit. I think we were both pretty certain what Dr. Macht was about to tell us.
We rode up in the elevator alone. It was only a three-story trip, but I took Harker's hand and held it a moment. When we got to our floor he said, "I'm okay," and pulled his hand away. In the waiting room, I didn't want to think about what was going to happen, and I didn't want Harker thinking about it either.
"Where did you tell your mother we were going?" I asked.
"Lunch," he said.
After Harker got sick his mother came to every doctor's visit with us. In fact, she spent every day at my apartment until Harker, unexpectedly, came out to her. She stayed away for nearly two weeks and then began showing up again and acting as though nothing had been said.
Well, there were a few changes. She did her best to arrive at the apartment when she thought I'd be gone, for one thing. For another, the few times she had run into me she looked at me as though I were Lucifer himself. It took a while for Harker to catch on. When he did he told me, "I'm not going to let her get away with that."
"Please don't do anything," I said. "I'm your lover. I remind her that you're gay. I don't mind being the bad guy for a while."
"I'll have a talk with her."
"Don't. Give her time. She'll come around."
"And if she never does?" he asked.
"Then she doesn't."
Dr. Macht opened the door to the waiting room and asked us to come back. He was a small, shaggy-haired man with a thick beard. He was several years younger than I was, almost young enough to be Harker's son. Dr. Locklear was around the same age. I'd gotten a glimpse of him in the hallway; he was much taller, a little hulking even, but still sexy. I suspected it was a common waiting room game to imagine them having sex.
We followed Dr. Macht to an examining room. The room was painted an overly-friendly pastel peach, but, despite the attempt at cheer, it was cold and impersonal.
"I thought we'd talk for a few minutes, then I'll do a more extensive exam," Dr. Macht said. He and I sat in the two chairs that were in the room. Harker, the patient, sat on the examining table.
My heart bounced around in my chest. Were we wrong? Did Harker not have gay cancer? Is that why we were doing another exam? Were we still looking for whatever he did have? Could he have something easy to fix?
Dr. Macht continued, "Your T-cells, which protect your body from infection, are very low. Yours are at one-ninety-five right now. Normal is five hundred and above. This is one of the indicators of Gay-Related Immune Deficiency. GRID."
"And everyone who gets this dies, right?" Harker asked.
"We don't know," Dr. Macht said. "We know that a high percentage of those diagnosed do die. That's true." He kept his voice even and gentle. I wondered how many times he'd had this conversation. Dozens? More? Then he said, somewhat to my surprise, "You're only the fifth patient we've had. That's how new this is."
"So, I'm something of a guinea pig," Harker said in a strangely good-natured way.
"In a way, yes," Dr. Macht replied.
This was what we'd expected. This new, strange, awful disease. But still, my adrenaline was pumping, tensing every muscle in my body. I wanted to run out of the office. I wanted to throw things. I wanted to hurt someone. I told myself to keep breathing and tried to make my mind blank.
Dr. Macht stood and pulled the drape around the examining table, closing Harker off from us. "If you could take off all your clothes and put the gown on, I'd like to do a more extensive exam." Dr. Macht looked me in the eye for a moment, then he squeezed my shoulder. "Would you like a coffee or a Coke?" he asked me.
I shook my head.
"How long have the two of you been together?" he asked.
"Almost a year."
"Fourteen months and two weeks," Harker said from behind the curtain.
I realized then that I'd missed our anniversary completely. I tried to think back to what I'd been doing. Had I been helping send a woman named Nora Pepper to jail for murder? Or had I been fucking her closet-case husband? I had a moment of feeling like a shitty boyfriend and promised myself I'd do better.
"Ready," Harker said.
Dr. Macht pulled back the curtain. It seemed a silly ritual. I'd seen Harker naked plenty of times, and Dr. Macht was about to look at him piece by piece. After telling Harker to lie back, the doctor began at his feet, the bottoms of his feet. He looked them over, then moved to the tops, separating his toes and looking between them. He worked his way up Harker's legs looking at each tiny mole as though it might augur some terrible doom.
Bert Harker was almost forty-five and not especially tall. His skin was very pale, and much of his body was covered in a silky blond fur. His eyes were an arresting blue, his hair was normally worn in a bristly crew cut, and his nose hooked at the bridge in a way that just got me. He was thinner than he should be, but he still managed to look sexy with his legs sticking out of the short cotton gown. Well, at least to me.
"Why is this happening?" Harker asked.
"We don't know what causes GRID," Dr. Macht said, looking over Harker's thighs. "Something is attacking your immune system. It may be some kind of bacteria, a virus, or it might a combination of agents. It could be a chemical you were exposed to. It could also be genetic. If homosexuality is genetic rather than environmental, then it could be a disease that travels on the same gene. Right now we just don't know."
Dr. Macht lifted up the gown and began to look over Harker's groin. With his penis exposed like that, lying to one side, he seemed so vulnerable I had to look away.
"Just last month the CDC said that there was no evidence of infectious disease," Harker said, surprising me. I had no idea he'd been looking into this. Had he gone to the library while I was at work? Had he called someone?
"I'm not sure I agree with that," Dr. Macht said. "However, if it is an infectious disease, it's not airborne. If it passed as easily as a cold or the flu then it would have spread indiscriminately."
The doctor pulled the gown back down over Harker's groin and then eased it down over his shoulders so he could look over Harker's chest and stomach.
"What exactly are you looking for?" Harker asked.
"Lesions. Purple or red. They're small at first and then grow." He looked over his shoulder at me and said in an intimate tone, "If you've seen any you could save me some time."
I shook my head stiffly. Abruptly, I stood up. "I'm, uh, I'm gonna go have a cigarette," I said and walked out the office. When I got to the hallway, I lit a cigarette as though my life depended on it. And maybe it did.
I wasn't sure why I had to get out of there. It was just…well, it all seemed so normal. We were talking about the most horrible things as though they were commonplace. It's wrong to have your body searched for lesions. It's wrong to wonder why you're dying at forty-four. And it's wrong that it's all being dealt with so…calmly.
There was an ashtray built into the wall between the elevators. I hovered near it. When I finished my cigarette I lit another. I knew I should go back inside, but I couldn't. Not just then. I was an idiot. I'd been expecting the diagnosis for nearly two months. It was not a surprise. It was simply a confirmation of something I knew. But still, all I could think was, "Now it's real. Now Harker will die."
I'd smoked six cigarettes by the time Harker came out. He gave me a big smile and said, "I don't have to come back for three whole weeks."
"Great," I said, though it hardly seemed like much of an accomplishment. "Is that all he said?"
"Well, he didn't find any spots. That's good. Other than that he said I should eat well, rest, and try to get a little exercise. If I have any shortness of breath I'm supposed to come in right away. He said I'm doing pretty well for someone with my T-cell count."
I think my mouth was hanging open. Harker seemed so okay about the whole thing. I wanted to scream.
He read my face and said, "This is what I was expecting, Nick. I didn't know what was going on with me for more than six months. Now I know. In a way, I feel relieved." He pressed the down button for the elevator and one immediately opened. We got in.
I did not feel relieved. I felt like the world was ending, but I couldn't show that to Harker. He seemed okay; I needed to help him stay that way. As the elevator descended, I tried to smile at him but did a shitty job. We walked through the lobby, and as soon as we got outside I walked to the curb and waved down a taxi. A blue and white Flash cab pulled over to pick us up. I gave him the address and he frowned into the mirror. It wasn't exactly a long trip. On the other hand, he got to charge extra for two of us, so what was he unhappy about? I almost picked a fight with him over it but bit my tongue.
As the cab pulled away from the curb, I said, "I got a new client this morning. Wants to find his long lost love. There's not much to go on."
"How did the client find you?" Harker asked.
I could have said yellow pages, I had an ad, but since I'd eventually have to explain that his lost love was a man, it wouldn't make much sense. I didn't list myself as "The Gay Detective."
"Referral," I lied.
"How little is not much?"
"I've got a first name. Vernon. A partial address from twenty-three years ago. And an occupation."
"Sounds challenging." He seemed bored by the case, and maybe it was boring. I certainly wasn't talking about it because it was interesting.
"I just have to figure out a place to start," I said, lamely.
"You're not going to be able to deal with this, are you?" Harker said out of the blue. "I should move back to my condo."
"You will not," I said firmly.
"No, it's better that way. You can have your life back."
"If you try it I'll come and get you. And you should remember I carry a gun."
He stared at me a moment then burst into laughter at the idea of me dragging him out of his condo at gunpoint. It took me a minute to get the joke. I'd been half-serious about the gun.
Things were lighter between us by the time the cab dropped us off in front of my apartment on Roscoe. Before we went in I said, "I should go get a couple videos and some take-out."
"Okay," he said.
"Gyros and a couple of stupid comedies?" I didn't say it, but what I meant was nothing with death.
"Sure. That sounds great."
The video store was just around the corner on Halsted. I figured I'd go there first. I glanced up and down the street. It looked pretty empty, so I leaned over and gave Harker a kiss. As I pulled away, he grabbed my arm and said, "No one knows. We're not telling anyone."
And that told me he wasn't as all right as he'd seemed. My stomach felt like I'd swallowed a good-sized rock. He didn't want to tell anyone. The illness was going to be a secret. Everything about my life, everything about my work told me that secrets were like knives. But they didn't just cut both ways; they cut any way they could.
I didn't like it. I didn't like it one bit. But I understood it.