Blood in the Water

by Jonathan Gleason

1.
I wait one week then two for the doctor to call…three weeks…a month. I bruise my jaw from clenching. I scour the soft tissue of my mouth. Prod the lymph nodes of my neck and armpits. I discover that you can manifest a whole host of symptoms with your imagination alone: headaches, dry-mouth, islands of flaking skin.

One night, I drink in a bar with a tiny stage and splitting vinyl on the stools. On a plexiglass box dispensing condoms in the bathroom, the bold, red lettering of PLAY SAFE stops me. As I stand there drying my hands, guilt passes through me: Why did I have unprotected sex with a stranger? The short answer is that it does feel better, that testosterone has an amazing capacity to blur the future. But the long answer is that I couldn’t risk rejection after coming so far, when he was standing in front of me, beautiful, shuffling his feet, mumbling over how he’d forgotten to bring condoms—a calculated move, I was sure, but that didn’t matter.

It would have been so easy to avoid this tangle of shame and dread. And for that the guilt lingers, dulls into a diffuse ache, a sense of doom. I stop leaving the house except for work. My fear is manageable in the four walls of my cavernous bedroom. I use winter in Chicago as an excuse— snow up to my thighs, the street a perilous rink of thawed and refrozen sleet. I put a jug of Tito’s on my desk, a glass on the nightstand, and drink as ice crystals bloom across our apartment windows and depression thins another day down to a sunset’s last golden thread of horizon.

2.
Online, I stare at a photo of Gaetan Dugas, cataloging his features: blond mop of hair, tent of a moustache, eager smile. In the picture, he’s striding forward, eyes in shadow, as if all the promise of the world lay just beyond the border of that photo. I’m struck by the strange feeling that if I stare at him long enough, perhaps I can coax a new story out of his face.

In a time when the private illnesses of some were rapidly becoming a health epidemic for everyone, Gaetan Dugas was imagined by Americans as the incubator, the epicenter, and the disseminator of AIDS in the United States. He was, “The Man Who Gave Us AIDS,” as the New York Post declared. And his story was “The Appalling Saga Of Patient Zero,”—a TIMES headline read, crossing moralizing with bad science. Dugas was the unrepentant monster willingly spreading HIV in dark rooms and bath bathhouses.

Historian Phil Tiemeyer says, “[Gaetan Dugas] has every trait of a villain that America is looking for in the AIDS crisis. He’s gay and unshamed about it. He’s beautiful. He’s even a foreigner who speaks with this seductive accent.” It’s true; he is beautiful. In the captions under his photos, he’s always referred to as tall, blond and handsome. And I suspect, as Tiemeyer does, that his beauty is exactly the point—the honey at the bottom of the wasp trap—a shorthand for all the danger we believe to be lurking in the benign. He also knew that the public was afraid of him, and he begged them not to be at the 1984 AIDS Information Forum in Vancouver. I’m trying to think of him not as a metaphor, but as a man. Did he have a cross section of body he privately loathed, some stock phrase friends knew him by, a gesture as indicating as a fingerprint?

3.
I stand in my bathroom above the sink where I’ve just flossed and spit, examining the porcelain bowl now stained red. I spent the day charting the varied and miniscule ways my body bleeds: paper cuts, picked scabs, potato peelers. Sometimes inexplicably—a red spot on my pillow in the morning, residue of a nightmare.

Illness makes the body real: an active player, suddenly more than a vehicle of the mind. Illness reminds us we are corporeal, weighted, fleshy, vulnerable. And illness makes us think about blood (and saliva and mucus and semen) its agents of transmission. But blood—bright red in the atmosphere—has a unique power to excite and startle. There is something impactful, dangerous, romantic about blood.

***

Our bodies bleed more often than they drown—

I know this from years managing a pool on a university campus. In the morning, the facility fills older patrons who use the pool for reducing classes. They have fragile skin: collapsed membranes, patchy with bruises, prone to bleeding. In the evening, children come to swim for a club team. I spend my time covering sliced skin on the soles of feet, plucking splinters that bleed for an hour, and providing tissues to staunch bloody noses.

—we are terrified of blood.

One evening, a girl dives so close to a platform that she removes half the flesh from her shin, revealing a white splinter of bone. As she sits howling on the edge of the pool, leaking her red-self into the water, we scramble to contain the blood; we fill the stadium ceiling with the heavy sounds of mopping; we don rubber gloves and long sleeves; we usher pools of blood-stained water into metal gutters—our eyes sting from the caustic vapors of bleach. Patrons clear the water and anxiously bath themselves in the locker rooms, too polite to ask about what could now be lurking in that water. A coach wraps the girl’s tender bird-leg in a towel and wheels her from the pool deck in an office chair, but not before the blood is dealt with, not before our fear is neutralized.

***

From a lifeguarding handbook: One should always assume blood is infectious.

***

When I think of pools, I think of an interview with Barbara Walters, in which Greg Louganis said, “I just wanted to hold the blood in. I didn’t want anyone to touch it.”

“It” being the blood in the water with all its imagined danger, spreading outward after his head hit the edge of the three meter diving platform in the 1988 Olympics. Before I could locate Seoul on a map, before I had sat through an Olympic event, I knew the speed at which viruses dissipate into chlorinated water [seven seconds]. I knew the fear of contagion. And I knew Louganis had done something wrong, but I sensed that it wasn’t entirely his fault either.

4.
“No one dies of AIDS anymore,” a friend pointed out to me. “Men who worried about dying young in the early 90s now check their blood pressure, take Statins, exercise.” She is correct to an extent. In an age of antiretrovirals and pre-exposure prophylactics, our fears are subtler, lonelier creatures. We worry now about the side effects of medication, the weight gain or the wasting, the uncomfortable conversations. We worry about being touched.

I remember, a year before I went in for my own blood test, someone asked me and a group of friends whether we would date someone who was “positive.” Despite the medication, despite the low risk, most people doggedly admitted that no, they wouldn’t. I can’t remember what I said exactly, probably something equivocal, avoiding the question. Now, faced with my own uncertainty, my cowardice resurfaces with an acid taste. How can I ask for something I was so unwilling to give?

***

At some point during my protracted period of anxiety, the newspaper arrives to tell me what I already know: “Gaetan Dugas, Exonerated.” Proof of his “innocence,” the article explains, sat in a book on a shelf for years. The symbol printed next to his name was the letter O not the number Zero, and the O stood for out of state, not zero for origin. It was only by coincidence that he was connected to several other early instances of the virus.

An O or a zero may seem trivial, but Dugas was central to the way people began talking about HIV in America. His place at the center of the epidemic was an excuse to repeat an old story about victims and villains in the spread of a new disease. A story which may be based in certain truths—we all both spread and contract diseases, and there are certainly cases of irresponsible and down right abusive behavior around illnesses—but is often hijacked by a special type of moralizing that masquerades as prudence. On a large scale, our thinking trends towards the binary, to the simplest version of often nuanced events. And when confronted with fear, we are bad at imagining ourselves and others as exactly what we are: both victim and villain, culpable and blameless, two things in one.

***

I attend a talk about HIV and its stigma, hoping I can combate my anxiety with knowledge. After the talk, I watch as attendees lingering amongst a sea of folding chairs, waiting for the speaker to leave, to avoid shaking his hand; a friend tells me he is regularly blocked on dating applications because he is open about his HIV status; Pat Robertson, host of the Seven Hundred club, suggests that gay men in San Francisco wear rings designed to cut and infect others when you shake their hands—fear taking the shape of a glittering weapon. We imagine others carry it; we use it ourselves.

In Florida sex workers can have additional years added to a prison sentence for being HIV positive. An HIV positive man in Michigan was charged with biological terrorism for biting a neighbor (never mind the virus cannot be passed through saliva). People in several states have been charged with knowingly spreading HIV—in some states a crime unto itself—despite informing their partners of their status and the risk. And these are only the most obvious acts of violence and criminalization. Isolation can be as damaging as any blow, which is why I did not tell anyone about my test or my fears; I wanted them to continue shaking my hand. My body is a vessel of great destruction, I admit that. Our most dangerous act is simply to live in close proximity to one another. But I am not a trafficker in biological weapons, I’m just a lonely possessor of a body.

5.
The call comes in the middle of poetry class. My stomach tightens. An unknown number. A Chicago area code. I bow awkwardly out of the room, hurry down the hall, and push into a breezeway. By the time I’m outside, I’ve missed the call and am left with only the flashing of a pending voicemail. I hang for a moment between the fear of knowing and the ache of uncertainty, then I give in and listen. A nurse’s voice on the other end patiently informs me that I’ve contracted a lesser infection in our hierarchy of fear—Chlamydia. More than any specific infection, it is something treatable, impermanent, unthreatening. They’ll send me a prescription, the nurse says. A short dose of antibiotics. Take it with food.

I don’t return to class. I walk home, elated, but strangely empty. Dazed, I think as I throw myself onto my bed. It is not until later that I realize fear fades like a wound scarring over, slowly, fails to vanish completely. In the tiny supermarket below the train tracks near my apartment, I’m still aware when my shoulder brushes a stranger. In my kitchen, I’m flooded with adrenaline when a drop of blood lands on the cutting board after I nick my thumb slicing vegetables. And everywhere I go, I continue to register, in a way I hadn’t before, when someone takes my hand.

***

I try to forget my body. So one night, I step into a man’s apartment on a lake. I’ve sought him out like a cure to my hollow fear.

He is tall and at ease; I nervously roll a wine glass between my thumb and index finger. We chat for an hour in the living room, under a chandelier he’s crafted himself out of old ceramic spoons. Then we take off our shirts. We play safe, as instructed. I watch him fuck me in a long mirror he’s stuck at the foot of his bed, examining the veins above my clenched fists, blue only by illusion.

When we’re finished we roll over, languid, the world materializing in many slow, still frames. A massacre of sheets and pillows across the mattress. He runs his hands over my smooth stomach and whispers, “I like touching something innocent.” His gift of innocence crashes upon me like a baptism of chlorinated water. I want to feel pure, to be touched, to lose my body the way blood loses itself in water. It almost works. But on the bus ride home I’m still there, a blurry outline in the window where my body meets the world.

Jonathan Gleason is an essayist, teacher and translator. Their work explores the relationship between physical bodies and their social and political situations. You can read more in Hobart, Atlas&Alice, and Pithead Capel, or Tweet them some facts about blood, scars and bones @j_a_gleason