It was early in the afternoon on a nice spring day, warm and fresh-smelling. Rehearsals for “Much Ado About Nothing” were going well and the director had decided to let them break for an early lunch since they’d accomplished so much. David shrugged out of some of Claudio’s costume, grateful that there was still almost a month to go before the Oregon Shakespeare Festival officially opened, and decided to check his voicemail before grabbing something to eat.
The first message was from his younger sister, bitching about how unfair their mom was being about her latest boyfriend. Then his dog-walker, wanting to talk about scheduling her vacation. The last one was from his agent, saying that someone named Scott Avila was trying to get a hold of him and said it was an emergency.
Frowning, David dialed the number his agent had dutifully passed along. Twenty-seven minutes later he was still sitting on the steps of outside the main rehearsal hall, blinking vacantly and trying to breathe like a normal person.
“Hey,” a soft voice said, concern obvious. “You okay? I thought you were just going to check your messages and then grab some food.”
Jason sat down next to him holding a stack of cardboard boxes from the cafeteria. The smell of his favorite ravioli made David’s stomach churn. He shook his head a little, trying to will away the wave of nausea.
“David? What’s wrong, man?”
He could hear the reassurance in his best friend’s voice but couldn’t make himself look up at Jason. Not vomiting and remembering to breathe were taking up pretty much all of his concentration at the moment. In a detached sort of way he wondered if this was what panic attacks were like, and suddenly he felt a lot of sympathy for people who had them often.
A cold bottle of water nudged into his hand. It was open, so he took it and slowly lifted it to his mouth. The first sip went down all right so he took a longer one. Breathed. Drank again.
Jason’s presence was soothing, patient, and the tightness in David’s chest began to relax a little. They’d known each other for three years now, been cast in the same plays together each theater season, practically lived in each others’ pockets. They’d bonded over being fellow Texans, good ol’ boys who just happened to want to be actors and had both followed their dreams to end up at the same Shakespeare festival. Jason, at twenty-seven, only four years older, had stepped into the role of big brother and best friend that David had sorta needed at first, unsettled and a little bit homesick in a new place.
Maybe still needed, sometimes.
David cleared his throat. “I, uh. I got a call from a, uh, friend. Scott.” He took a deep breath and felt things start to go a little wobbly again. “He has HIV,” he said in a voice just barely above a whisper.
Jason raised an eyebrow, surprised, the unspoken “And?” obvious.
David closed his eyes, breath leaving him in a deep sigh. This was so not how he had envisioned this particular revelation. He put the water bottle down and curled into himself, elbows on his knees, forehead in his hands. “He was the first guy I slept with.”
The silence from where Jason was sitting was unbelievably loud for a few moments.
“Oh. I didn’t know you slept with guys,” Jason said. The cringe in his voice was almost enough to make David smile, knowing that his friend hadn’t meant to say that out loud.
David shrugged, head still in his hands. “A couple. Why, is that a problem?” he asked, tilting his head to glance at Jason sideways.
Jason fiddled with his own bottle of water and shrugged. “No. Just didn’t know.”
Raking his fingers through his longish hair, David sat up, keeping his eyes focused on the copse of trees in the empty lot across from them. His heart was still beating too fast but at least this sort of adrenaline, from telling someone, from coming out, was somewhat familiar. Not comfortable, but certainly far more manageable than the other crisis staring him in the face right now.
“Just a couple,” he repeated. “Well. Three, I guess, if fooling around counts.”
Jason kind of grunted and nodded, and David felt his stomach begin to twist up in knots wondering if his friend was really actually cool with this news or not. He had a lot of faith in Jay, though, and honestly? His brain was a little too fucked up about the other issue at hand to get too worked up about something that he knew would work itself out one way or the other.
“So... okay then.”
A warm, heavy hand rested on his shoulder for a moment, squeezed, and then let go. David managed to twist the corner of his mouth up into something approximating a weak smile for a moment.
“Tell you what,” Jason said after a pause. “I’m gonna call someone and see if we can fuck off for the afternoon. We got a lot done this morning and you’re pretty rattled,” he said, gently removing the phone from David’s hand.
David stared at his empty palm, listening to Jason call an assistant director and get an affirmative, and then a taxi to get a ride home rather than waiting around for a bus. A gentle shove got him up and inside the building and the dressing room to change into his street clothes while Jason bustled around, only leaving David alone for a minute while he was washing off his makeup to dash over to his own room and grab his stuff.
It was kind of sweet, he noted absently, how Jay turned into such a mother hen when someone got hurt or was upset about something. He was probably really good with girlfriends and kids and stuff.
They got ready to leave and rode back to the house David had bought when the Festival had signed his contract for the next three years. They sat in silence, mostly, only talking about unimportant trivialities like agreeing on whose place to go to. The dogs were at David’s, which meant it was kind of assumed they’d go there, and that was where they usually hung out anyway – Jason always said it was because David’s house was way more comfortable than his small rented apartment.
David collapsed in the living room, letting his three dogs – Lucy and Ethel, two fairly large mutts, and Bubba, a tiny terrier – wiggle and lick away some of his tension. Jason disappeared into the kitchen and came back with beer. They drank in silence for a while, until Jason cleared his throat.
“So. What are you going to do about this?” he asked.
David usually appreciated how straightforward his friend was, but today? He cringed and finished the rest of the bottle, wishing he could put off having to think about it for a while longer.
Like, forever, pretty much.
“I guess I need to figure out how to get tested,” he finally said.
Jason nodded, then furrowed his brow. “You’re really sure you need to?”
David gave him a look of utter disbelief. “Uh. Yeah? I wouldn’t be this freaked out if we’d always been safe, would I?”
“Well, I don’t know. I mean, I’m sure you’re concerned about him, too. I didn’t know,” Jason said, flustered.
“I know you don’t,” David sighed. “We didn’t exactly part on good terms, but yeah, I’m worried about him. It’s a little overshadowed by my worries about myself right at the moment, though, no matter how much of an asshole that makes me.”
“Nah, it’s understandable. So what then? Just gonna call your usual doctor?”
“Fuck, I don’t know! If it was all that simple I’d just do it and not be so freaked out,” David snapped.
Jason gave him a skeptical look.
“Ok, fine. I’d be freaked out. But less. Probably.”
He looked up at Jason and saw a half-smile that matched the one pulling at his own mouth. Jason went to get another round of beer, and David decided to let the dogs outside. Sitting on the back porch, drinking, he mulled over the possibilities out loud.
“I don’t think I want to go to my regular doc about this. I mean, I like her and all, but... It’s too juicy, you know?”
Jason raised an eyebrow questioningly.
“I mean, I know they have to keep things confidential, but it’s bad enough of you go in for a rash or something, you know? We’re not movie stars or anything, but people here recognize those of us the festival hires year after year. I mean, it’s not just the doctor who has to keep it hushed up, but the nurses and lab techs and everybody. And then suddenly the local newspaper is doing a cover story that I’m gay and have AIDS,” he ranted.
With a shrug Jason finished his second beer. “You might be being a bit of a drama queen there, buddy. But I get what you mean. So what are the other options then, if that one won’t work?”
“I don’t know... Isn’t there anonymous testing?”
“Yeah, I think so. There is at home in Texas anyway; I can’t imagine there wouldn’t be here.”
“I don’t want my name on this, Jay. What if it’s positive?”
“Yeah, okay. I mean, it won’t be, but we’ll find somewhere else.”
David gave him a surprised look. “We?”
“Sure,” Jason said with an easy nod. “I’ll go with you. I could probably stand to get tested, too. Just in case. I mean, I haven’t been and I probably should be.”
A surprising sense of relief washed through David. He leaned to the side a bit and bumped Jason with his shoulder. “Thanks, man.”
Jason smirked and bumped him back harder, all solid best-friend big-brother non-girly comfort. “No problem.” After a few moments of silence he said, “I think I saw some HIV tests in the drug store, by the condoms once. I think you just do it at home and mail them the blood sample.”
David gave him an incredulous look. “Dude, from the drug store? Would you really trust it? I mean, if it came back negative, I’m not sure I’d believe it.”
He got a shrug from Jason.
“Just think of how often those home pregnancy ones are wrong,” David continued, shaking his head. “I don’t think so. I want someone who’s actually got some medical training to reassure me that they haven’t screwed things up at a lab.”
Jason shrugged again. “Yeah, okay. Whatever. It was just a thought; this is your show.”
Great, David thought, rolling his eyes. Just what he’d always wanted.
Gathering up the empty bottles, he sighed and stood up to go inside. He dumped them into the recycling bin, then turned on his laptop and sat down at the kitchen counter. Jason had evidently decided to stay outside, throwing tennis balls for the dogs to go chase, and David listened to them while he looked up what the city had to offer in terms of free and anonymous HIV testing.
A familiar hand on his shoulder jarred him away from wherever his brain had zoned out to as he looked over the Oregon AIDS Project web site’s information. David wiped his sweaty palms on his jeans and took a couple of slow breaths to try and calm down his pounding heart.
“Um. So here are the hours. It looks like we can either drop-in or make an appointment. I don’t think we have to worry too much about being recognized or anything, but an appointment might be better all the same. Here’s the, uh, map,” he babbled, clicking over to the next page and hoping Jason couldn’t see the slight shake in his hands. “It’s all free, of course, and we can give them our names or just our initials and then it’s two weeks until we have to go back and get the results and –”
“Dude. Breathe,” Jason interrupted with a slight chuckle. His hand squeezed the back of David’s neck, finding the trickle of nervous sweat that had collected there. “I’m not gonna say anything trite and promise you it’ll be all right for sure, because I can’t and you wouldn’t believe me anyway. But you’ve got to stay calm or these next few weeks are going to be pretty bad, all right? And I can promise that I’ll be here with you.” The hand slid from David’s shoulder to his jaw and turned his head gently to the side to make eye contact. “No matter what, Dave. I promise,” he said, like a vow.
David nodded, swallowing around the lump in his throat. Breaking eye contact, he reached up and removed Jason’s hand from his face, giving the fingers a slight squeeze in gratitude before he let go. “Wow, chick-flick moment,” he joked, although it came out strained.
“If the panties fit...” Jason grinned.
“Oh, it is so on,” David growled. “I’m going to kick your ass at Halo and make you wear panties under Benedick’s clothes tomorrow as punishment.”
“Sure thing, buddy. After all, I bet you get lonely being the only one in girl’s underwear,” he snickered.
His friend’s laughter, coupled with his promise and their usual harassment of each other made the anxious knots in David’s stomach loosen up a little. Enough to ignore them for a while, at least.
He would get through this. And he didn’t have to do it alone.
In thanks, he almost let Jason beat him at their first game.
They only had to wait for three days after David’s call to get an appointment and luckily it fell on one of their few days off, which meant that during the whole day leading up to it, as he dropped things and tripped over his feet and ran into door jambs, and the only ones he’d pissed off were his kneecaps, rather than the entire production team. Okay, maybe the dogs too, after that one time he just barely caught himself from falling onto Bubba. He seemed to forgive his clumsy owner, though; dogs were good like that. And the “I’m sorry” dog cookie probably helped.
Jason had called and offered to drive, which was good, because with the state he was in David would have been lucky if they made it there alive, never mind getting home after. They were on time for the appointment, and the clinic was nice and clean outside, although a little run down and not in the best part of town. Inside, it was full of tacky office furniture from two decades ago and a burnt-orange carpet stained with God knows what. It wasn’t filthy, but it didn’t seem as clean as he thought a clinic should be, and it brought home to David that the place was staffed by volunteers and was obviously in desperate need of funding.
The lineup of people waiting for the drop-in tests snaked out the door, men and women of all ages sitting on the low curb and one cracked and weathered brown leather couch. Some of them looked decidedly grungy, probably homeless, and in need of a bath and a good meal. David tried really hard to not make up any hypothetical stories about them, to not have any judgmental thoughts about why they were here to be tested for STDs.
After all, he was here too, and if anybody was going to judge anybody, well. He hadn’t made the best decisions either, had he?
He was glad they’d made an appointment and didn’t have to wait in that lineup; he was already freaking out sitting in the waiting room, and waiting for an indeterminate amount of time would probably have made him fucking fall apart. His hands were shaking, and it was all he could do to breathe at what seemed like a normal rate and try to fill out the forms they’d handed him, pressing hard on the clipboard so that his writing wasn’t full of tremors.
A woman went outside to the drop-in line and counted off twenty-five people and told the rest to come back tomorrow. A number easily twice that started getting up and trickling away.
“Jesus. There’s so many people out there. They look like they need this free stuff more than we do,” David said, the guilt in his voice crystal clear.
Jason’s knee knocked against his, comforting. “So we’ll make a contribution. Just chill, ok?”
David’s name was called first, although he heard Jason’s announced before the door closed behind him as he was shown into a little closet of a room with an older woman, maybe his grandmother’s age, who took his clipboard. He blushed a little while she looked over his answers about his sexual history and tried not to fidget. She was very neutral as she explained the process, made sure he understood, and asked him if he had any questions. He didn’t. She got out a sterile kit and asked him to roll up his sleeve while she put on the gloves.
He felt dizzy as he laid his arm on the table, his pulse pounding in his head. The nurse asked if the sight of blood made him faint and he said no, it didn’t, but honestly? Today it just might.
It didn’t, though, and the little vial filled up quickly. The removal of the needle stung and made his eyes well up, or maybe it was just his overwhelming anxiety coupled with the kind smile the nurse gave him. The moisture didn’t spill down his cheeks, though, which was nice, and he only sniffled once as he thanked her and took the papers she handed him with instructions on how and when he could get his results.
He walked outside, knowing Jason would be with him in a few minutes, and tried desperately to stop shaking, to not throw up, to breathe, and not to cry like a little girl.
Three out of four wasn’t bad, he thought, and he must have been breathing since he hadn’t passed out yet.
Somehow Jason managed to get him home, although David had no memory of it. He knew he was being an ass, but he couldn’t quite make himself snap out of it, out of the blind and all-consuming and very very real fear that he could die. It was one thing to know he was mortal and going to die someday, in an abstract way, but sending off a little vial of blood to see if it would be someday fairly soon was, well. Just about the most God-awful feeling he’d ever fucking felt.
And horribly, terrifyingly real.
He drank two bottles of beer and ate one measly slice of the pizza Jason had ordered while they sat and watched some baseball game on TV until it was dark. He managed to rouse himself enough to say goodbye, apologize for being a jerk all day, and give his friend a manly clasp on the shoulder. He closed the door behind Jason and leaned against it for a moment, letting the white noise in his head blot out everything.
The sound of Jason’s truck driving off got him moving again, turning off the TV, putting the pizza away, feeding the dogs, locking up. He stripped off his clothes and fell into bed, eyes wide open, breath hitching slightly, what am I going to do? the only thought in his head besides the nearly-wordless desperate prayer, oh God, please, no.