I wasn’t hell bent on saving the world when I became an epidemiologist. I also hadn’t thought the job would involve so many tissues or cookies, but it did during those years when I worked the night shift at the mobile VD clinic. It was little more than a van with a few refrigerators that cruised around the city and stopped in front of gay bars to offer free testing. We fought the war against sexually transmitted diseases during the innocent decade before AIDS, when everyone was only concerned with chlamydia, gonorrhea, herpes, and embarrassment. I was young and nocturnal, got up at eight in the evening and went to bed at one in the afternoon if I was lucky. After a night collecting blood samples, we took them back to the stationary clinic and spun them to separate the plasma. The spinner machines were so loud I was sure I’d go deaf before I was thirty, but it was one way to drown out the radio and latest news of Vietnam. I wanted to be part of a battle we might be able to win.
Many of our clients had a few drinks before they got the courage to come in for a draw, so sometimes it turned into a talk therapy session about rifts with parents, siblings, grandparents, missed birthdays and funerals, orders to never come home again, and worries about who they could turn to if they were ill. Their hands trembled when they told me about past or present lovers or guys they had a crush on, and not wanting to give anyone the clap. I rubbed their thin fingers and wished I’d taken a course in counseling but could only act as everyone’s adopted little sister. I was young, a girl, and therefore a safe person for a chat, but it was never enough. The guys winced and looked away when I pulled on a pair of plastic gloves and wrapped their arm with a tourniquet, then searched for a good vein in the crook of their elbow.
“Get ready for a pinch,” I said. “Would you like a chocolate chip, peanut butter, or sugar cookie?” The question was enough to distract them for the second I needed.
Afterward the guys gave me a boozy hug, collected their cookie, and I prepared for the next patient. I’d never been part of the bar scene, not even after moving to the city for school, but they were the best places to find people who needed treatment. Sometimes helping them be safe meant making them feel unsafe, handing out mimeographed pamphlets about how everyone was vulnerable to the threat of venereal disease. Nurse Pokeum reminded me that most of the guys felt unsafe all the time, especially at a gay bar at one in the morning when the vice squad might come calling.
Nurse Pokeum was my sidekick in the VD van, or maybe I was her sidekick. We never discussed that. She was part of our schtick, an RN and a drag queen. Back at the stationary VD clinic she was Ray, her alter ego, but at night she made the van into a party, serving juice and making jokes about needling patients.
“If we’re silly,” she said, “they’re not as standoffish about getting a test.”
That was another reason why Ray decided to drive the van in the city’s fourth annual Pride Parade, while I tossed out Mardi Gras beads that had our card attached. It was good for one free poke. Ray and I had breakfast together after our shift, usually at the diner down the street from the stationary clinic, while I rubbed my eyes. I’d been blind in one eye since birth and was nearsighted in the other. That was part of my normal, but sometimes I got an eyestrain headache after a long night.
Ray wrinkled his nose when I took a couple aspirin.
“You okay?” he asked.
“Fine,” I said. “A few cups of coffee and I’ll be good as new.”
Sometimes I wished I had a backup eye, but usually I thought my narrow focus helped me concentrate on the client or blood test at hand. It was also beneficial when there was someone or something I didn’t want to see. I hid them in the empty space on my right and pretended they didn’t exist. In college that was useful after break-ups with two boyfriends and one girlfriend, all of whom had been in my science classes. It wasn’t wise to date in your major, but everyone did anyway. I wasn’t out as bisexual with many people, but I didn’t date around during those years at the clinic since I put my emotional energy into my work. The job demanded it. In my public health classes, they hadn’t taught us what to do when a guy started crying on our shoulder at two in the morning after being told about a positive test. I just hugged him and said it would be okay, we’d get him a prescription, but I knew it was a shock.
After a few more sniffles my client stood up and accepted another cookie while Nurse Pokeum explained the treatment regimen and asked if he wanted a referral to counseling services. It was hard to sleep during those years. I’d go to bed at two afternoon, dead tired, and wake at four with the sensation of a heavy thing sitting on my chest. It took a few minutes for the constriction to go away after I caught my breath. I couldn’t look away from that invisible monster, couldn’t hide it anywhere, and was scared to go back to sleep for fear of the pressure returning. It might have been the weight of the times, the weight of my job, the chaos we all fought every day. All I knew was it frightened me from rest when I most needed it.
Ray and I worried when our neighbor Jimmy went on a hunger strike. He was a grad student in psychology and tended bar part-time at Lulu’s Place. We parked the mobile clinic outside of Lulu’s often, and chatted with Jimmy when he was done with his shift. He told us about the veterans he counseled at the community center and ones he met at Lulu’s, guys who were amputees or used crutches or wheelchairs, ones who’d fought in World Two, Korea, and Vietnam.
“They’ve all got stories about shit they faced,” Jimmy said. “The least I can do is make sure Lulu’s has a ramp, a friendly face at the bar, and keep them at a limit of three drinks.” Lulu’s was the only accessible gay bar in town—it might have been the only accessible bar at all–and thus was frequented by several disabled vets. They needed a beer and a chat as much as anyone. With that kind of heart, I wasn’t surprised when Jimmy went on the hunger strike. He explained it to me when I found him sitting on a park bench Monday morning, across the street from the police precinct station two blocks from our apartment.
“I’m protesting everything, but mostly for Eric,” he said. Eric was another vet, formerly in the Navy, who’d been arrested for cross-dressing during yet another two-in-the-morning raid by the vice squad. I assumed “everything” meant the sad basis of our normal—nightly bar raids, undercover cops trying to pick up guys in parks and charge them with lewd behavior, and taking people in for cross-dressing which was forbidden by local statues. Some drag queens got away with it since they were classified as performers, but they had to be careful when they were offstage. Nurse Pokeum had never been arrested, but she said working in the VD van was a performance. Maybe the police didn’t mess with us because they would have been in trouble with local health authorities, but we were also traveling in a getaway car.
The cops had set Eric’s bail high—I didn’t know if someone was out to get him or if an officer had decided to “make an example” of the guy—but I walked past Jimmy every day on my way home from the clinic. He was stationed on that bench from eight in the morning to eight in the evening. I made sure he had a thermos of water and tried to soft-talk him into eating something. I wasn’t an activist, I was a scientist, and while I was all for protest and social change, those efforts usually required a crowd. I worried the police wouldn’t give a shit about one starving guy–they didn’t give a shit about the rest of our community—and by day four Jimmy was getting weak. I brought a jar of applesauce and rubbed his hand while lecturing on the long-term effects of food deprivation.
“Honey, if you lose this fight, you won’t have any more,” I said.
“It’s still my fight, and they still have Eric and a bunch of our people,” Jimmy said. “They’re in the back cages where those pigs don’t have to look at them, so I want to make them look at me. We’re humans, too.”
I didn’t disagree, and I admired his stamina, but I knew that kind of morality could kill him. With Jimmy stationed in the park, it was more difficult for me to find sleep than usual. I had waking dreams in which I carried Jimmy back to my apartment, sat him on the couch, and fed him cream of wheat while he teared up. When I woke I felt victorious and like shit.
The next day on my walk home, three guys who worked at Lulu’s were clustered around the bench begging Jimmy to eat some oatmeal and drink a little tea. He shook his head and sipped water. I frowned. It wasn’t yet noon, and I had just enough coffee and bravado to walk to the police department across the street and ask to visit Eric.
“He’s one of my clients, and I need to see how he’s doing,” I said, making eye contact with the officer behind the desk and flashing my ID card from the County Health Department. I crossed my arms, expecting the guy to give me guff, but he smirked, nodded, and took me to a small gray room. It was the dingy sort of visitation space I expected in a jail.
Eric looked like hell. He wore the standard gray jumpsuit, and while they’d let him shower and comb his hair, he was exhausted with dark moons below his eyes.
“How you doing?” I asked.
“Surviving,” he said with a half-smile. “They feed us. Kind of. And they say they’ll give me back my dress.”
“I can take your clothes home and wash them,” I said. “We’re working on your bail, and Jimmy’s on a hunger strike.”
Eric sighed. “I’ll be okay. I want to fight this my way, and I don’t want anyone else to suffer.”
“You’re sure you’re okay?” I said.
“As okay as I can be in here,” he said. “Got any good gossip?”
I didn’t have much but drama from my neighbors whose full-grown poodle had a crush on the corgi down the street. The story made Eric laugh, and when my fifteen minutes were up, he asked the officer to bring me his clothes. The same guy who led me to the gray room was still smirking when he brought Eric’s satin bundle, which I promised to wash.
“All our services at the Health Department are free and confidential,” I told the officers at the front desk when I left. “Stop by if you need a vaccination or anything else in the medical realm.” The smirking officer laughed, and the other one on duty only blushed. Maybe it was stupid of me to say anything, but they didn’t scare me. They were both around my age, and probably not the guys who’d picked Eric up. I figured those ones slept during the day so they could prowl at night.
“He’s mostly okay,” I told Jimmy when I walked back to the park with Eric’s dress. Ripped in a few places as I expected, but nothing that couldn’t be mended. “He doesn’t want anyone else to suffer.”
“Neither do I,” said Jimmy. “That’s why I’m doing this.”
I kissed his forehead before I left, then fretted to Nurse Pokeum that evening.
“We have to do something,” I said. “Someone needs to give a damn about Jimmy even if the police won’t.”
She sighed and muttered about vitamin shots. I didn’t think anyone would mess with Jimmy in the daylight, but I started getting up at seven-thirty in the evening to walk him back to our building before I went to work. I draped his arm around my shoulders, and said he had to stay with me until this was over so we could monitor his vitals.
“I’ll let you use my extra key.” I shook my head. “God, you’re such a pain.”
“Love you, too,” he said, giving me a half-delirious cheek kiss. I did love Jimmy, but not in a romantic way. It was a love that meant I wanted to curl next to him on that damn park bench and keep him warm. A love that meant against my better judgment I’d walk him to the park on my days off so he could continue the fight, but he wouldn’t even sip a little apple juice, and sniffed the water I gave him to make sure I hadn’t “tainted” it with calories.
I wouldn’t keep him captive, only be an escort, but his frail self was wearing down.
“When do we make him drink something more than water?” I asked Nurse Pokeum during another evening in the van across from Lulu’s. Jimmy was sleeping on my couch, but it was hard to keep my mind on the job. I knew I was a horrible person to plot against his hunger strike, but my practical side won out against the ideological. Sometimes persisting meant a pause to retreat and regroup.
“We’ll do what we need to do,” said Nurse Pokeum. “People can go a long time without food. Water is more of a problem, but fasting is a tradition in some cultures. It’s how people have visions and get in touch with something deeper. Something ethereal.”
I grimaced. My scientific training said it was all hallucinations, though part of me wanted to think Jimmy could crack the door to another reality and find a truth we couldn’t see, some secret to a higher state of being and oneness with the universe and all that hippie shit. But that wasn’t his point, and the specters of my anatomy and physiology profs reminded me that this would take a toll on his body.
Ray had more of an activist bent than I did, but with enough prodding he agreed to give Jimmy vitamin shots if he didn’t break the strike in three days.
“He’s got guts,” Ray said at breakfast. “Sometimes one person does change the world, but it’s hard to think of anyone besides Martin Luther King, Jr., and Gandhi. He might get attention if he kicked an officer, but they know they can get to him by not giving a fuck.”
“Maybe he should kick someone,” I muttered. The thought almost made me smile, but Jimmy was so weak they’d probably just laugh.
Ten days into the hunger strike, I dragged myself to the park at seven-thirty in the evening to collect Jimmy. He slung his arm across my shoulders.
“You’re impossible,” I said, kissing his forehead and feeling his disturbingly thin shoulder blades.
“I’m a renegade.” He smiled. A renegade that Nurse Pokeum and I would inject with vitamin shots in two days if he kept this up, but in the end it didn’t matter. The next morning the cops released Eric. It wasn’t because of Jimmy, but because the city decided not to press charges. The cops relented. Eric walked across the street to meet up with Jimmy in the park, and that’s where I found them both around noon. Eric looked worn, but far better than Jimmy who’d be recovering for a while.
“It won’t be the last fight,” Jimmy said, sitting on my couch and sipping diluted apple juice that afternoon. He couldn’t have walked down to the station much longer, his muscle mass was too far gone, so for once I thanked the city for their timing. Over a few days I brought him back to food slowly with chicken broth and juice, adding a little carrot and some noodles to the broth.
“I’m not letting you go back to your apartment yet,” I told him. “Or to work.”
“You have to rest, honey,” Ray said when he gave Jimmy vitamin shots. Our patient agreed to stay with me to recover and plot. In the late afternoon hours after I woke up, we had dinner and talked about how it felt to leave a small town for the city.
“It was a good change, and it was difficult,” he said. The same was true of the veterans he’d counseled at Lulu’s and the community center. He helped them fight for the education and job training benefits they deserved.
“I’m thinking about law school,” Jimmy said. I didn’t know if a law degree would get him into more trouble or less, but probably just a different sort. He also didn’t want any of the other bartenders from work to visit while he was recovering.
“I look old,” Jimmy said. “But the fight ages everyone.”
“Any kind of war will do that to a person,” I said softly.
Jimmy had been staying with me for a week and a half when I woke up from one of my nightmares, probably with a gasp and a jolt. It was his turn to shuffle in from the living room and lean over me with wrinkled eyebrows. I was struck by how gaunt his face had become.
“Are you okay?” he asked.
“Bad dream,” I said, sitting up. Jimmy hugged me. Usually I didn’t mind living alone, I hadn’t wanted a roommate since my schedule was so erratic, but now I could admit that it was nice to have someone else around. He’d shyly asked if he could work with me and Nurse Pokeum in the VD van for a few hours every night since he wanted to be busy, and Ray said he shouldn’t go back to bartending yet. I wanted to keep him close, and since his lease was coming up for renewal, I asked if he’d like to cram his bed and bookshelves into my place and split rent.
“You’re sure?” he asked.
I wasn’t but said yes.
It took a week for Ray and me to move Jimmy’s bed, desk, a few pieces of furniture, and all his books down to my apartment. Even after returning to school and his jobs he continued spending a few hours every week in the VD van, chatting with guys when they got their results. I was glad we had someone else for those difficult chats when tests came back positive. During slow moments we sat down, stripped off our gloves, and ate a cookie. Jimmy broke pieces off and put them in his mouth bit by bit, closing his eyes. He’d done that since the fast, so I wondered if the experience had changed eating for him. Maybe it wasn’t just food, it was choosing to go on for our clients, our community, himself.
I never asked, but I appreciated having Jimmy in the next room after my nightmares. By the time I recovered enough to breathe, he’d poke in the door and ask if I needed anything. I shook my head, but he brought a glass of water, sat on my bed, and rubbed my shoulders until I decided it was okay, I could close my eye and find the rest I needed. Someone else was looking out for me.
Teresa Milbrodt has published three short story collections: Instances of Head-Switching, Bearded Women: Stories, and Work Opportunities. She has also published a novel, The Patron Saint of Unattractive People, a flash fiction collection, Larissa Takes Flight: Stories, and the monograph Sexy Like Us: Disability, Humor, and Sexuality. She is addicted to coffee, long walks with her MP3 player, and writes the occasional haiku. Read more of her work on her website.