Short Story: Blister Pack

I am standing next to Hugo when I meet David. Which is part of the reason I go home with him I guess.

Hugo has taken my heart and fed it through a document shredder this past summer by constantly flirting with me, occasionally kissing me, and then reliably and repeatedly returning to his boyfriend.

Of course I should know better than to fall for someone who is already in a relationship, but my heart – no matter how much I argue with it – will not listen to such logic. Hugo is funny, Hugo is cute, and he only ever has to shine that electric smile of his upon me for any sensible resolve to vanish.

Tonight, some part of me thinks that seeing me go home with his friend is no more than Hugo deserves, and that perhaps the seed thus planted will grow into the jealousy required if Hugo is to finally realise that he is in love with me too.

It doesn’t, of course, work.

We have been drinking since five pm – this was originally supposed to be a simple aperitif, but with Hugo things invariably overstep their boundaries, so our aperitif has morphed, drink by drink, into an all night bender.

So I am drunk as hell, too, which is probably the second reason I go home with David.

Not that David is unattractive – he isn’t. He is a tall, fit-looking, swimmer’s build, red-headed thirty-year-old with a goatee beard and piercing blue eyes.

But going home with a guy I have just met isn’t something I do anymore. As Fairground attraction sang: I have been foolish too many times / Now I’m determined I’m gonna get it right / It’s got to be perfect.

At least, that’s what I have promised myself.

It is two-am by the time we leave the pub, and if the truth be told, I am having trouble standing. Hugo heads off to his boyfriend’s place and when it turns out that David lives just around the corner from me we decide to drunkenly negotiate the city together.

A few bus-swaps later we stumble onto the pavement and David says, “Can I offer you a coffee?” which makes me snigger, because “coffee” so doesn’t mean coffee, and yet a coffee is so what I really need at this point.

I follow him down some side roads and along a dark alleyway that smells of piss, and finally across a small courtyard and up three flights of stairs.

His flat would be big enough to be impressive were it not such a mess. Every surface is covered with junk: dried up dinner plates, piles of books, a cocaine sprinkled mirror, and even some random banknotes strewn across the sofa.

David makes a vague, drunken attempt to tidy some of this up, but soon gives up and simply pushes the various items occupying the sofa onto the floor. “Sorry it’s a mess,” he says, “but this is how I live,” which at least strikes me as honest.

He vanishes to the kitchen, and returns not with coffee, but with a bottle of vodka and two glasses. I think that vodka is the last thing I need.

He sits down beside me, close enough that our thighs touch, and sloshes vodka into both glasses before raising his in a toast. Through politeness, I follow suit.

He downs his drink in one and then starts dabbing at the grains of cocaine on the mirror as I sit and pretend-sip at my own glass.

“Sorry,” he mutters rubbing his finger against his gums. “I’m out of coke. I haven’t even got any GHB left.”

I shrug. “It’s fine…” I say. “I don’t… anyway…”

And then he grabs my hand, stands and quite literally hauls me through to the bedroom.

He pushes me sideways and my shins hit the edge of his bed causing me to fall onto the heaped duvet in the middle.

I fidget, attempting to move the mound from beneath the small of my back, but David is already on top kissing me deeply, and after a vague initial feeling of unease prompted by the fleeting realisations that a) he doesn’t kiss as well as Hugo and therefore is not Hugo and b) I have decided not to do this anymore; I give in, melt into it all and kiss him back. It feels good, and as we rip our clothes off and I see how ripped his body is, it feels even better.

I think, “God, why did I give up on this again?”

The reason of course, is that every date for years has been a disaster movie. But here is the proof that it can feel good.

David says, “I need to piss, don’t move,” and pulls himself up and stumbles out of the room.

I blink hard in an attempt at focussing more clearly on my surroundings and glance around the room.

On the wall opposite is a Communards poster I remember from my college years. I’m quite impressed that David has even heard of them.

In the corner, nestling in a pile of clothes, I spot for the first time an overweight ginger cat. He looks like Bagpuss.

I look at the bookcase and spot a couple of novels I like, and realise that I could actually have something in common with this guy.

On the bedside cabinet I notice a half-empty blister pack. I turn it towards me so that I can read the writing: Trizivir™ GSK.

I sigh deeply and roll back into the middle of the bed and stare at the ceiling.

If this were the first time I had ever slept with an HIV positive guy, then it might have taken some time for any emotional response to form, but the truth is that we forty-somethings have been living with this for almost as long as David has been alive.

Blister pack, 1987:

I hold Chris in my arms. He has lost so much weight that it has become almost impossible to hold him comfortably – his bones stick out so much that it feels like hugging a tool-bag.

A nurse bustles into the room and I make to move from the bed, but she blinks at me slowly, kindly. “You’re OK,” she says, then to Chris, “Time for another pill.”

She pops the pill from the blister-pack and hands it to him with a cup of water.

“What’s this one?” I ask.

“Antibiotics again,” she says. “Hopefully to get that lung infection under control.”

Chris renders a phlegmy, heaving cough as if to demonstrate her point before tipping his head back to down the pill. His shoulder blades dig into my chest.

Once the nurse has gone he says, “Do you think it’s true about Liberace? Do you think it was Aids?”

I shrug. “I don’t know,” I reply. “I guess. That’s what everyone’s saying.”

“I don’t think I want Liberace for company in heaven,” he says.

“Oh, I don’t know… a little light piano music,” I say.

Tears well up, but luckily Chris can’t see them. I swallow hard but do it slowly so that he won’t feel it. “Anyway, if you don’t want to spend time with Liberace, don’t join him,” I add once I think that I have my voice back under control.

“I don’t want to…” Chris says. “I want to stay here, with you. You know that, right?”

“Of course babe,” I say. “You’ll be fine, you’ll see.”

But I somehow know that he won’t. I can sense that this is his final lap, and this knowing is so emotionally punishing that if there were any way to not-cope instead of going through it all, we would both choose it. Because nothing has prepared either of us for this. No-one ever expects to have to deal with death at twenty-three. But there is no other option, so cope, we do. Go through it all, we do.

Blister pack 1990:

Steve grasps his hot-chocolate with one hand and pushes the pack of pills around the table with the other. “I don’t know what to do,” he says. “They make me feel worse. I think they’re killing me. I kind of feel like I’m better off taking my chances.”

“I really don’t know,” I reply, sipping my tea.

Everyone is talking about how toxic AZT is. In fact the side effects are so bad that plenty of people are saying that it is actually a conspiracy to wipe out gay men. But it is the only drug available, and the truth is that I don’t fancy Steve’s chances without AZT either. He has lost so much weight already, he is starting to look like Chris did just before the Kaposi appeared on his cheek. Which was just before the PCP took over his lungs. Which was just before he drowned in his own body-fluids as I held him, weeping.

“I might wait until I get some really serious symptoms, and then take it,” Steve says. “That’s what Adam has decided.” Adam is Steve’s partner. They both have Aids.

“I thought Adam had symptoms already,” I say.

“No… no, we think it was just the flu actually. He’s fine now.”

I shrug and nod. “Well that’s good news at least.”

“But then Adam’s blood counts are better than mine. Maybe I should take it. The doctor says I should, but I kind of feel like a guinea pig. I kind of feel like he doesn’t really know any more than I do.”

I’m sorry babe,” I tell him. “I really can’t… you know… have an opinion. Only you can make that call.”

“I know,” Steve says, then, “Oh, what the fuck. It’s die if you do, or die if you don’t.”

He pops a pill from the pack and takes a swig of hot-chocolate.

Blister pack 1997:

Adam pulls them from his blazer pocket, pops out a pill and washes it down with beer.

“Are those the new ones you were on about on the phone?” I ask.

“Yeah, Combivir,” he says.

“Well it looks like it’s working for you,” I reply. And it does. We all thought that Adam was going to die a year ago – he even planned his own funeral – and then the drugs suddenly took a leap forwards, and here he is having a pint in Comptons.

“The side effects are bad,” he says. “I don’t like to be too far from a toilet if you know what I mean. But that’s the price you pay I guess.”

“You’re putting on weight though, despite it all,” I comment.

“Yeah. I feel pretty good,” he says. “I started working out again too.”

“It shows.”

“The miracle of science,” Adam says.

A silence falls between us and I realise that we’re probably both thinking the same thing: that if these drugs had arrived just a few years sooner, Steve – his partner, my friend – and Chris – his friend, the love of my life – might both be standing here now.

“So are you still off to Lanzarote?” I ask to squeeze that thought from the air between us. Because the weight of history that it creates is always just too much for any of us to bear.

I sigh and glance back at blister pack, 2011.

Because I have held a lover as he died of Aids, and because I have had friends declare that they were newly infected with the virus and because I have dated and slept and lived with guys who were HIV positive and because I have gone for countless tests myself and nearly fainted with relief each and every time that they confirmed that wearing a condom and being careful around bodily excretions really is enough to keep the virus at bay,  my emotional responses are all ready and waiting. And despite my drunken state, they fire off immediately: I feel sorry for David for having to live with a life threatening illness. I wonder how a thirty-year-old could be stupid enough to catch the disease. I wonder if his treatment is working for him. I wonder why he hasn’t told me and wonder if he should have told me. I wonder if the pills on the side are, in fact, his way of telling me.

But most of all, I feel suddenly exhausted. Because Aids is ultimately just so fucking boring. It’s like a miserable TV drama that just goes on and on and on, day in, day out, for your entire life – only the TV set has no off switch. And whether you have the disease or you don’t, you still have to worry about it constantly.

And it would just be so nice if, just for once, I could have a kiss and a cuddle without that particular cloud of impending doom hanging over my head – hanging over the bed.

This sudden feeling of emotional exhaustion isn’t particularly conducive to sex, it has to be said. Motivated by a desire not to offend poor David who clearly has enough on his plate, I instantly decide to stay and go through with this. I always have safe sex anyway, I figure, so what difference does it make?

But despite that decision, the simple reminder of that great ogre Aids – an ogre that has been wrecking my and my friends’ lives for the last thirty years – is not something that makes me feel particularly rampant.

David returns and throws himself back onto the bed and starts kissing me again, and I let him do this and try really hard not to wonder what might come next, and what his viral load is and whether I have any ulcers in my mouth at the moment, and… and…

And I notice a strange chemical taste in his mouth now, a previously undetected bitterness in his body odour. Is it just the remains of the cocaine, or can I actually taste the Trizivir in his body?

He pulls my jeans off and glances at my limp dick and then stands and hops out of his own jeans. His dick stands tall and proud. “Mine’s ready even if yours isn’t,” he says with a cute laugh, and then he jumps back onto the bed, kneels before me and pushes my head down.

I take his dick in my mouth and perform some mental gymnastics and somehow manage to remove the theoretical-but-generally-agreed-to-be-infinitesimal risk that oral sex carries from my thought processes.

“Ah yeah, that’s good,” David says, sounding suddenly like a low-budget porn star. “Yeah, take it down boy.”

As he says this he starts ramming his dick down my throat which makes me gag and actually hurts a fair bit, and the thought comes back: “is this safe?”

And then my mouth fills with the taste of his pre-cum, and suddenly I am unable to forget.

I pull away from him and fight the desire to run and rinse my mouth out, forcing instead a smile. I start to kiss him, but he keeps trying to force my head back down again. After a third attempt, he freezes, frowns at me, and asks, “What’s wrong?”

“Nothing,” I reply, smiling.

He shrugs and grasps my head trying to push it down again.

“Nah,” I say, resisting. “Kiss me.”

But David pulls away. He looks annoyed. “I thought you were enjoying it,” he says.

“I was, you have a lovely dick. But now I want to kiss.”

David crosses his arms defensively. “Something’s up. Tell me.”

“No, nothing’s up.”

“I don’t believe you.”

“Ok… It’s just… look. I can taste pre-cum,” I tell him, attempting to combine the declaration with my cutest shrug.

“And?”

“And… I don’t like tasting pre-cum.”

“Right. Because?”

“Look. I know that you’re positive, and I’m not convinced that it’s safe. But it’s fine, we can do other…”

“Who the fuck told you that I’m positive?” he asks, turning red now.

“No one told me. Your meds are on the table,” I say, reaching out in an attempt at stroking his arm – an attempt that fails because he flinches away from me. “And that’s fine, but I’m not comforta…”

“Fuck you!” David mutters. “How fucking dare you try and make me feel bad!”

“Look, it’s fine David. Calm down and we can just… I just don’t want to suck you off, that’s all.”

“And I don’t want to do anything with you. Jesus. In 2011.”

“In 2011 what?”

“I can’t believe that people still behave like you. In 2011.”

Feeling suddenly vulnerable I reach for my jeans and start to wriggle into them.

“So what, you’re going to fuck off now as well?” David spits.

“No!” I reply. “I just… want… my jeans. Just fucking calm down will you?”

“You can’t even catch it like that.”

“It’s very low risk. Sure. But it’s not a risk that I’m prepared…”

“In fact you can’t catch anything from me, because as you so rightly spotted, I take my fucking meds.”

“That’s good David. That’s great. But I don’t know you that well, and I can’t leave my health in your hands. I have to look after myself. You get that, surely?”

“So you don’t even trust me now? It gets better and better,” he says, snidely.

“For fuck’s sake David, will you just … ?” But my voice peters out. Because David has left the bedroom.

I cover my mouth with my hands and sit silently for a moment before standing and – realising that I am suddenly sober – pulling on the rest of my clothes.

In the lounge David has returned to the sofa and is sitting beneath a blanket caressing his cat. He looks very small as if he has somehow folded his athletic body away.

“Look, I’m sorry if I hurt your feelings,” I tell him. “I really didn’t mean…”

“Hurt my feelings?! Fuck you!”

I shrug. “Maybe I should just…” I nod at the door.

“Nice,” David says. “Classy. Come here. Insult me. Then fuck off.”

“Look,” I say. “I can’t seem to make this better. So maybe that is the best thing.”

“No you look. I mean, what do you know about HIV?”

“I’m sorry? What do I know?”

“I have to live with the virus,” he says. “I have to live with the guilt. I have to remember every day to take my meds. I’m the one that has to go to the hospital to check my viral load. And if on top of that I have to put up with cunts like you who think you can catch HIV from a fucking blow job, well…”

“But you can,” I say. “There is a small but real risk. And I often take that risk. But not when someone who I know to be positive is ramming his cock down my throat, and not when I can taste cum. Those three together aren’t a very sexy combination for me. I’m sorry, but they aren’t.”

“You’re so fucking ignorant. That’s what gets me. The Swiss Study showed that…”

“Don’t even go there,” I reply, starting finally to feel quite angry myself. “I’m a fucking journalist. I write for fucking Health Now. So I know all about the Swiss study, so don’t even try…”

“Which showed,” David continues pedantically, “that you can’t even catch HIV from someone who is taking his meds.”

“No! Which showed,” I say, now raising my own voice, “that in a heterosexual monogamous couple with no secondary infections, having only vaginal sex, where one partner is successfully taking combination therapy and has had an undetectable viral load for over a year, that the risk of transmission appears to be unmeasurably small. So unless you have a vagina and want to marry me it doesn’t actually say that much about what’s happening here today.”

“So, suddenly you know more about HIV than I do. That must feel great,” David says.

“No David. Not suddenly,” I say, struggling to sound reasonable. My anger at this arrogant thirty-year old who apparently thinks that he is the world’s expert on HIV, simply because he has it, is rising, and if I don’t get away soon I may lose control here.

“I have known a lot about HIV for far longer than anyone should ever have to,” I tell him, my voice quivering, “And that knowledge has kept me safe. And I’m really sorry you have it, but it isn’t actually my fault.”

“Fault? Well it isn’t my fault either. Yeah. before you ask, he told me he was negative. So it wasn’t my fucking fault either.”

“He told me he was negative,” I think. “He told me it was safe.” “He told me he was taking his meds.” When were these ever reliable enough to stake your life on them?

“And I don’t need your fucking sympathy either,” David says. “So don’t be sorry.”

“I’m mainly sorry you were so determined to ram your cummy cock down my throat despite having HIV…” I think, but thankfully restrain myself from saying.

“I think you should leave,” he says.

“Finally. We agree on something.”

I grab my coat and wrench open the door, but I suddenly feel terrible. I suddenly feel like I have become the aggressor here. I remember Chris, and Adam, and Steve, and see David as a simple historical extension of our long-suffering past.

I glance back at him. He is staring at me, tears streaming down his cheeks.

“I’m sorry David,” I say. “I’m really sorry.”

“Fuck you!” he spits back, weeping now. “And Fuck off!”

And with the thought that nothing I can say or do will, tonight, fix this for any of us, I shake my head, and step out into the stairwell and start to descend the stairs.

Outside, it has started to rain, the courtyard is cold and shiny.

I cross it and head back along the alleyway and out onto the street, and wonder what exactly has gone wrong here tonight, and indeed what exactly has gone wrong since nineteen-eighty-three that this should still be going on, that we should still be having to deal with this shit almost thirty years on.

Aware of the taste of cum in my mouth and with an almost hysterical desire to get rid of that taste, I walk briskly homewards.

As I round the end of my street my phone beeps with an SMS.

It is from Hugo. “What the fuck have you done to David?” it says. “He’s a wreck. I’m going to have to go round there. I can’t believe you sometimes.”

I pause for a moment, the rain trickling down my back as I try to think of a reply. And then I slip the phone back into my pocket and carry on towards home.

Because the truth is that I don’t know what I have done to David.

I really don’t have the faintest idea.

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