Artwork by Costel Iarca
The retarded girl was ruining my big announcement. I let her spill her spiel because I was a gentleman and she was the only girl in the group. But her sob story was so goddamn pathetic, there was no way the news about my anus would be greeted with the proper cheer.
Her name was Sally. It was hard to tell what her dysfunction was by looking at her. Sure, her eyes slanted slightly upward through narrowed slits, like an Asian chick. And her mouth twisted in a half-sided grimace when she wasn't speaking. Maybe she had Down's syndrome. If so, that was the least of her problems because now she had HIV, too. We all did. That was what this whole group was about. Every Wednesday morning at nine.
The six of us and Evelyn, our counselor, listened as Sally retraced her downward trek. She said she was twenty-four. She picked lint from her powder blue angora sweater and ran her stubby fingers through her limp strawberry blonde hair, which was held in place by a pink headband. There was a tiny slur to her squeak-toy voice, making her sound not so much like a drunk as weirdly disoriented.
She and Derek had met in a chatroom about a year ago. I hadn't realized retards could use the computer, but that shows you what I know. Derek lived in Houston, four hours south of here. They chatted several times a week for hours at a stretch. Traded pictures. I would've plunked down a twenty to see what this winner must've looked like if he were willing to cyberfuck a women who appeared as if she'd been punched in the nose. Finally, one weekend while her parents were away, he came to visit her. They indeed had sex, more than once, in acts she related with stomach-churning detail. But by that Sunday, he was done with her and had stolen most of the family's electronic equipment, including her laptop. No more online hook-ups for poor Sally! A few months after that humiliation, her mother took her for an HIV test, and now she was here.
"Sometimes I want him to call me again," she said.
Most of the guys stared at her in quiet shock. Not me. I know a doormat when I see one.
Finally, Evelyn spoke. "Derek sounds like a very bad man. Do you want him to hurt you again?"
"He was nice to me."
"Sweetie, he doesn't sound very nice."
"He said I was beautiful."
"He just said that to get you naked," I said.
Evelyn lifted her hand to silence me.
"Well, isn't that what we're all thinking?"
"Victor, please," Evelyn said. "Cindy—"
"My name is Sally. S-A-L-"
"Sally, sometimes men say things to women—"
"And men," one of the group members added. "They say things to men, too." I'd never bothered learning his name.
Evelyn continued. "They say things to us that aren't true because—"
"Why?" Sally whined.
"Because they want us to do things for them."
"Like fuck," I said.
Warren snuck me a sly wink Evelyn and the rest of the group thankfully missed. I was more than a little mad for him. Halfway through each group, Evelyn dismissed us to the back porch of the clinic for a cigarette. Sometimes I believed those ten minutes I had alone with Warren (no one else in the group smoked) were the only reason I kept coming back.
"Victor," Evelyn said. "Wait your turn."
Sally gaped at Evelyn, apparently waiting for some words of comfort I could've told her would never arrive. That wasn't how Evelyn operated. She was stingy with condolences. Sure, she looked like a soft touch, the sort of woman who cried at weepy movies. Her gray hair was full and curly on top and shaved at the sides like a man's pompadour. Her only makeup was a thick coating of beige lip gloss. She always wore a baggy turtleneck and tight black slacks, even in the summer. A cluster of brightly colored plastic bracelets rattled down her forearm whenever she deployed her hand to direct the group's conversation. And that to her, I think, summarized her job: to offer guidance, but not necessarily compassion.
She nodded her head and gestured for Sally to continue. But I guessed she was finished. She stared blankly at all of us, waiting for something, maybe waiting for the fabled Derek to arrive.
"Have your parents thought about pressing charges?" Evelyn asked.
Sally shrugged and opened her mouth but then closed it again.
"You should really think about it," Evelyn said, "if only to make sure he doesn't do this to another woman."
"I don't want him to get mad at me."
Evelyn swallowed and placed a hand over her chest, tried to collect herself. She was getting frustrated. Sally was just another loser who couldn't defend herself in this horrible world. Evelyn didn't say that, of course, but I could tell what she was thinking.
As for me, my foot jiggled atop my knee, I was so excited to share my news. I was doing it for the good of the group, I told myself. So much of what these men contributed was negative, despairing. Interchangeable stories of bad men and no money. It was difficult not to snap at them, and sometimes I couldn't help myself.
The gap of silence in the room widened, and I hoped Evelyn and the others were as done with Sally as she appeared done with them.
Warren patted my thigh and said, "So tell us the good news, Victor."
I smiled and looked off to the side as if embarrassed. That was the trick to showcasing good news to a group seemingly devoted to woe: you were expected to announce it with humility.
"I finally had the operation," I said.
"Which one?" asked one of the men.
"I had the warts removed from my anus," I said. "It's clean as spring down there."
Evelyn cackled and rocked back in her seat, clapping her hands. I knew my candor amused her, such a switch from the halting, uncertain offerings of most of the other men. I wouldn't go so far as to say she liked me, but then again, liking me, or any of us, was not a job requirement for her.
"That's terrific news," she said. "You must be relieved. How do you feel?"
"Great. Ready to drive up to Dallas and resume the hunt." That glorious city of waiting, beautiful men was only two hours west. I preferred those fellows to the protracted quilting bee of men in Tyler, where I lived. Here, everyone slept with one another and later compared notes. I elected to have my fucks take place anonymously.
"Sounds like you've got yourself quite a plan," Evelyn said.
"You're using protection, right?" one of the men asked. This one—oh yes, I knew his name. Richard was the de facto leader of our loose-knit group. (Including all those men who attended only occasionally, there were over twenty of us.) About fifteen years my senior, I could tell he had once been handsome, before middle age had assigned him a gut and fleshy jowls. He had related his own harrowing tale of how he learned he was infected at least a half-dozen times, complete with "moment of clarity" received on what he at the time presumed to be his deathbed. He busied himself trying to organize our city's homosexuals into a political alliance—a foolish pursuit, I believed.
"Of course I am," I said.
"You know you can contract a worse strain of the virus even after the original infection."
"That's good to hear."
"It's sweet of you to worry about me."
"You're a good man, Victor. I just get a little jumpy when you sound so... so..."
"Free," Warren volunteered, then laughed heartily.
"You make me sound like a tramp!" I cried, smiling.
"Yes," Warren said, "but you're our tramp." He wrapped his arm around my shoulder and pulled me into an embrace. I melted just a bit, but kept my eye trained on the group. Evelyn beamed at me like a proud mother, but the look of skepticism on Richard's face did not escape my notice. As for Sally, she couldn't stop staring at me.
It was one of the last warm mornings of autumn. Warren lit a cigarette and pushed his sleeves up to his elbows. He then shook another smoke from his pack and handed it to me. A struck match soon followed.
"To celebrate your new asshole," he said.
I took a puff and watched the smoke dissipate against the cloudless white sky.
"Thanks, buddy. At least someone's happy for me."
"Nonsense. Everyone seemed happy for you."
"I detected an underlying layer of disapproval."
"Well, then, fuck 'em," he said. "We're more than the sum of our diagnoses."
"Why aren't you leading the group?" I teased.
Warren tilted back his head and laughed. He was a gorgeous man. I'd never asked his age, but he appeared to be around thirty-five. The lines around his mouth and eyes gave his tan face a chiseled look. His heather gray eyes lit up when he spoke of something exciting to him. He had a long, lean body, like a long-distance runner.
"Did it hurt?" he asked.
"The procedure. Whenever they did what they had to—"
"It was a laser. They just zapped them right off."
"No worries. They put me under."
He slid from the arm of the porch swing into the spot next to me. I felt the thrill of his body next to mine. He lowered his voice as if the group were still seated around us.
"Do you mind if I ask you something?"
"How long had you...?" He seemed at a loss for how to continue.
"Had I what?"
"The warts. When did you first get them?"
His face was inches from mine. I hoped very much he would kiss me but doubted this line of questioning was a prelude to anything nearly as spectacular. Perhaps my candor over those last few months ("How were you infected?" "I bent over for the wrong bastard.") had condemned me to sexual solitude. But it was far too late to play the shy boy now.
"You'll never believe me," I said.
"Lay it on me," he replied, smiling.
"Since I was twenty-two. Almost ten years! You'd be surprised how few guys noticed."
"Goddamn. You were still green."
"What's even funnier is I rarely had anal sex back then. I was into mainly oral as a kid."
"So did you even know what they were?"
"You're going to laugh," I said, flicking my ash.
"Don't let that stop you."
"I thought there were hemorrhoids."
Warren did indeed laugh, and then punched me in the shoulder. "Silly rabbit, those are inside your asshole."
"What can I say? I wasn't always a treasure trove of sexual experience."
He smiled sweetly in the face of my former ignorance. What was taking him so long to ask me out? I was fairly convinced he was at least halfway attracted to me. And the odds of finding an attractive, available male who also had the disease were so rare, we should've been overjoyed to stumble across one another. I certainly was.
I was about to finally suggest we go for lunch after group, but Evelyn appeared at the back door, waving us back.
"I hope that poor girl doesn't have another story for us," he said.
"That girl needs her own telethon," I replied, vowing to ask him out next week. Or the one after.
I had the operation the week before, on a Thursday. When I woke in the recovery room, the first thing I noticed was it wasn't a room at all. I lay on a gurney in a square section bordered by white curtains on all four sides. It amused me to think of what ailments lurked behind those curtains, the other patients who shared my operation day. I then spied my father sitting in a chair beside me. He dozed softly, a paperback Western splayed open on his lap. I reached out and gently shook his shoulder.
"Old man, wake up. I'm back."
My father stirred with a start. He look around himself until his gaze fell on me.
"You back with us?"
"Minus my special friends."
My father grinned and patted me on the shoulder. "You feel better now?"
"About the same. I'll tell you more when I get my first performance evaluations."
He grimaced and shook his head, but the impish gleam in his eyes let me know I hadn't strayed too far into bad taste. He and my mother had been swell regarding the aftershocks of my sexual travails, truly swell.
"Before I forget," I added. "Thanks for scratching up the money to pay for this. In return, I promise never to hit you up for cash for Botox injections."
There was no way I could've paid for the procedure by myself. I worked a lowly job as a clerk in a used bookstore, and my frequent jaunts to Dallas left me often broke.
"We just want you to be safe," he said.
"I'm afraid that ship has sailed."
As my father and I chuckled, my surgeon, Dr. Rabe, slipped through the white curtains and stopped at the foot of my bed.
"No grogginess?" he asked.
I shook my head and smiled. "Ready to break a heart or two."
"Well, don't get lovestruck just yet. I have a few directions before you discharge."
I turned to my father. "Could you wait outside for me? Doc and I have to discuss business."
He rose from the chair with one last pat on my shoulder. He shook hands with Dr. Rabe and left the makeshift recovery room. The doctor held his pensive look until my father's footsteps had receded into silence.
"First thing, you can relax. I managed to excise all the warts."
"You'll pardon me if I do a cursory check once you're gone?"
He laughed and held up his hands. "Of course, of course."
"So tell me the not-so-good news."
Dr. Rabe explained three of the incision wounds on my anus required stitches so I was to avoid sex for at least two weeks, time enough for the wounds to heal and the stitching to fall out.
"Also," he said, "bear in mind you still carry the papilloma virus, and—"
"It'll keep my other virus company."
"So you must be safe, Victor."
I smiled but felt it falter. "Safe..." I don't think the doctor heard me.
To my surprise, Sally had nothing to say at first during group the next time she came. As the men maneuvered from one topic to the next, she merely swiveled her head back and forth, seemingly following the conversation. As her mouth opened and closed repeatedly throughout group, it was difficult to tell whether she wanted to interject or merely suffered from a sort of nervous tic.
Richard spent twenty minutes describing all the preparations he and his committee had made for a Christmas dance to be held in early December. I was impressed he had wrangled a swank assembly hall on the north side of town. Perhaps I had underestimated the limit of his influence.
After extracting from the other men their promises to attend, he turned his head to look at me. There was something so plaintive and good in his eyes. I was for a moment unable to accept his invitation or utter anything, really.
"Victor, I hope you can make it."
"Sounds sweet," I finally said.
"We have to stick together, you know."
I managed a brief smile. "Divided we fall."
All the men in the group were looking at the two of us. A strange tension filled the room. I didn't know what I was supposed to say next.
It was a mild shock to hear Sally speak. "I like to dance," she said.
"Well, you're more than welcome to come," Richard said.
"Are there going to be guys there?" she asked, with a surprising lack of shyness.
All the man laughed and exchanged knowing glances.
"Oh, there'll be plenty of men," one of them said.
Sally smiled and leaned back in her seat, looking innocent as a kitten. After a pause in the conversation, Richard resumed explaining all the details of the dance preparations. Sally, however, didn't listen. She instead held me with her sweetly awestruck gaze. I felt the sudden need to bolt from the room and head outside for my ritual cigarette. I'd have to smoke it alone. Warren had skipped group that day.
As Richard droned on, I heard Sally's voice in my head as clearly as when she'd spoken the week before.
He was nice to me. Over and over again as the others listened to Richard. He was nice to me.
Evelyn had strange ideas for the betterment of our souls. A woman from her yoga class had told her about Serenity Gardens. At the beginning of group the next week, she herded the eight of us, including Warren and Richard, into the clinic's van and took off for the western part of the city.
I sat with Warren in the seat furthest back from Evelyn. We exchanged wide knowing smiles, and he gripped my hand for a moment, then let it fall back to my lap.
"Did you miss me last week?" he asked softly, too softly for the men ahead of us to hear.
"What did I miss?"
I told him about the Christmas dance Richard was planning.
"Sounds a little pansy-assed to me," he said. "I think I'll pass."
I tried to hide my disappointment. If he weren't going, neither was I. "You're probably right."
His voice still low, he asked, "Did that retarded girl come back?"
"Did she slay 'em like last time?"
Struggling to repress a smile, I replied, "She didn't say much, but I think she wants to come to the dance."
"The Christmas dance?"
"She asked if there'd be any guys there."
Warren hooted with derision. A couple of guys looked back at us. In the rearview mirror, I spied Evelyn cock an eyebrow.
"She was a bigger retard than we thought," he crowed, not caring who heard.
"Who's this?" Evelyn asked, turning the steering wheel to pull off the highway. We'd soon be at the gardens.
"That girl, Sarah," he said. "The sad sack."
"Be kind, Warren. Don't you mean Sally?"
"That's an unusual story, actually," she said. "I don't think she'll be returning to group."
"Why not?" Richard asked.
"Did Victor scare her away?" Warren joked. I tagged his arm, blushing.
"No," she said. "It turns out the only reason she was attending was to find herself a boyfriend."
There was a stunned silence for a moment, then the men in the van began to giggle like schoolgirls in the back row of the classroom. Warren let out a huge honking snort.
"You mean she wanted to date us?" he cried.
"When did she figure out we were all queer?"
"I had to explain it to her."
That revelation earned another round of mocking laughter. If you'd asked me before the trip began, I would've been convinced I'd be laughing right along with them. Instead, I felt a knot in my stomach and sudden revulsion to everyone in the van, even Warren. I felt a wash of gratitude as I looked out the window to see Serenity Gardens come into view.
"That's fucked up," Warren added, still chuckling.
"Just have to move on, I suppose," Evelyn sighed. Then, her voice brightened. "Here we are."
As the men climbed out of the van, I surveyed our destination through the passenger window. Serenity Gardens was an expanse of lightly wooded fields located on a steep hillside. Bluebonnets and other native flowers dotted the landscape. Narrow pathways of scattered stones snaked and crisscrossed along the hill.
"Victor, you coming?" Warren crouched in the doorway of the van, waiting for me. I again looked out the window and this time noticed Evelyn and the men milling around in a clearing. Richard gestured to his side as if pointing out which trail to take first.
"I'll be out in just a minute."
"Cool enough," Warren said and whisked shut the door behind him. I watched him circle the front of the van and join the others. I crossed my arms around my chest and lay down on the seat. I couldn't stop thinking about poor, clueless Sally. All she wanted was for a man to love her. At that moment, I felt a bond with the retarded girl that moved me nearly to tears.
He was nice to me.
I must've dozed off in the back seat, for the first thing I remembered was waking to the sound of the van door whispering open.
"Victor?" a man called. At first I thought it was Warren, but when I rose from the seat, I saw Richard poised in the doorway.
"Where is everyone?" I asked.
"We've been waiting for you."
"Waiting for me?"