My friend and I are sitting in the clinic waiting room. Waiting. It’s an unassuming place; cream walls, magazines (British Vogue, Heat, Positive Nation), a room framed with doors that open suddenly. Names are called. People stand and follow. A woman with white hair asks me if I want a cup of tea, but I don’t. All I want is for this to be over, everything to be fine. More than anything, I’d like this room to remain unassuming.
My friend’s name is called and he gets up to follow the counsellor, pausing to throw his jumper back at me to look after. He disappears into one of the little rooms and I flick through a magazine until, inevitably, my name is called out too. It still makes me jump. I pick up my bag and his jumper and walk towards the place where the sound of my name seems to have made a tear in the vacuum of the clinic. I expect to hear a rushing noise, but none comes.
The councillor invites me to sit down. She is small and mousey and I can’t help but think of all the bad news she must have to give people each day.
“How many times have you been tested?” She asks.
“Twice before,” I reply.
“And when was the last time?”
“About two years ago.”
She scribbles on her pad.
“You’re here to support your friend, aren’t you?” She looks up and smiles.
I nod and my heart leaps, but I see his jumper safely by my bag.
“I thought it was time to get tested again too.”
That’s the short answer. The long one includes a list of everyone I’ve slept with, ranking them for ‘risk’, mentally beating myself up for the couple of times where lust and circumstance may have put me in danger, imagining my life with HIV; telling my friends, my sisters, my future lovers. At drama school we would have called it wringing
. To get into character we would contort our bodies, letting out a deep moan and gradually making our way to the floor, twisting our arms, our legs, mouths, and toes, until we’d tired ourselves or the class finished.
The counsellor asks me a few more questions and then we seem to be wrapping up. “Oh, and would you like to be tested for syphilis as well?” She asks.
I think of the extra blood they’ll have to take. I hate blood, hate needles. The bastards seem to go hand in hand.
“Why not,” I say, as if she’d just suggested tea.
When I return to the waiting room, my friend is back in his chair.
“All OK?” I ask.
“Fine. Just have to do the test now.”
We sit silently, having run out of things to ask each other. It was my place to distract him with conversation and I’d succeeded during the walk to the clinic and in the elevator and for the first 15 minutes we waited here.
“Oh, I’m fine.” I say, squeezing his knee.