all content © Albert J. Winn 2013


My friend who I have not heard from in over ten years is sleeping in my living room with a stranger. She called me a few days ago from a pay phone, stranded in a snowstorm at the Grand Canyon. I recognized her voice immediately. It has a wavering tremulous tone that sounds as if she is singing when happy, but turns to pleading when worried. I hear both in the few moments of our conversation. She has met an East German through the Internet, in the cybernetic version of a blind date, and is now bicycling across the United States with him. She found my number through information. They need a place to stay in L.A. She tells me quickly that she has quit her job, rented out her house in Pittsburgh and taken off after her father died a few months ago. I reply in rapid succession that my father has died, too, and that I am sick. I have AIDS.

As I switch off the phone and tell Scott we're going to have company, I remember another phone call fifteen years before this one. I was in graduate school in central Florida and my friend and her first husband were stuck. They had driven from New York to reclaim the furnishings of a dead relative and the Florida heat had beaten their van. The road cut through the endless deepening swamp unnerved them. Alligators lurked below and men in pick-up trucks with shot guns and rebel flags cruised by slowly. There was no safe place. A call to the information operator revealed my number. Would I please come and get them? It was only her pleading tone that time. Seventy miles later, I found them by the side of the road and towed them to my place.

When my friend and her East German arrive, I greet them as if they are adventurers returning from an expedition. She and I are happy to see each other and our embrace spans the years of our separation. We are immediately comfortable with each other in the way that an old friendship has of collapsing time. We have known one another since the first week of college. Talking fast and loud, laughing, practically screaming, we jump into the middle of each other's sentences. Scott comes into the room to see about the excitement. And to quiet us. We sound like a house full of excited children, which is what we are although now well into our forties. We convince each other that we still look the same. She seems at the peak of health. Her muscles are toned and her skin evenly tanned from her life outdoors.

She tells me her younger brother has died of cancer. Her family, devastated by the loss, was only beginning to recover when her father became ill. She divorced for the second time, filled her days with work and bought a house. After the deaths of her brother and her father, she saw the posting on an electronic bulletin board and now has cycled across the country with a total stranger. A man I trust implicitly because he is with her. In a few days they will be peddling off for Central America. I cannot remember a time when she seemed so happy. I am envious of her spontaneity. Now, I am the one who is stuck and there is no one to come and tow me to safety. I want her to see the illness inside me, to see that something is different, but I have regained my strength in the past year and my physical appearance belies my monthly test results. My new found robustness fools me sometimes and I tell myself that I will outlive the illness. I remind myself to recount the details to her later but a description of the wasting, night sweats, skin rashes, deadness in my feet means nothing now, since everyone says, "You don't even look sick!" I dare not challenge what seems to me a streak of good fortune. Traveling abroad, eating strange foods, inviting foreign microbes into my body was from a time when I was carefree. Now it would be pushing the limits of my newfound good health. I remember my years traveling and think I will never go any farther than the place I am in right now.

Over the next few days we catch up. I describe my father's death, my mother's decline. I answer questions about family rejection and denial; tell of a former lover who is very ill. I boast of a degree earned and an award received. We look at pictures from twenty-five years ago; yearn for her mother's cheesecake. Incredibly, the East German knows nothing about movie stars. Neither of them is interested in seeing handprints in concrete or following the map of the stars, so I am spared the usual obligation of showing guests around Hollywood. It is a relief. We spend more time talking, running errands and baking a chocolate cake while they await the arrival of spare parts for their bicycles.

Five days after their arrival my friend and I go for a walk, and I speak haltingly of a rainy night when we both lived in New York. Just after the break-up of her first marriage. The weight of that evening has saddened me whenever I thought of my friend. Outside an East Village cafe she lamented that because of her age and because she was single again, she would never have a child. The sound in her voice was desperation and I responded instantly. I offered to father her child realizing as the words tumbled out of my mouth that I wasn't prepared to be a father, that my offer was insincere, that I had gone too far. She remembered that she declined, but I remembered that I immediately withdrew my offer, that she cried and started to run away. I grabbed her arm to stop her, regretting everything I had said. I pulled her back towards me wanting really to pull us both back in time, to that moment before I uttered a word. I wished the evening had never happened. I wanted to erase the memory but we moved away from each other and eventually out of touch. I can tell that she does remember the hurt. Now, more than a decade later, I apologize.

It is time for them to leave. They spend hours packing their bags, rolling and re-rolling the tent to make it smaller, stuffing food supplies into sacks. We load their things into my car and drive them to the coast road to set them on their way. I insist. Los Angeles and bicycles are a bad mix. To me riding across town on a bicycle seems the most dangerous part of their journey. I have traveled to the places they are going, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras and I know. My friend and I hug again and I wonder if it is for the last time. I think that good fortune has given me the chance to heal an old would. As Scott and I watch them cycle away, I think of what might have happened had I fathered a child in those days before testing, before I knew about the virus that surely was inside me. And my remorse for the pain I caused my friend that night eases. Had we followed through on my impulse none of this would be happening. No happy reunion. No tearfully joyous farewell. Only endless sorrow. Infecting her and our child would certainly have caused greater agony than the sadness of that evening. Instead, she went on with her life and I with mine, and at least between us, it has now come right.

I would have liked to create life with my friend, I have always wanted to have a child, to give life, but I cannot. I must hold on to what I have inside me. The life fluids that come out of me are dangerous. I am reminded of it when I cut my finger. I am haunted by the thought each time Scott and I make love. The days preceding his regular tests fill me with anxiety. If he is infected, it can only be from me. I am more cautious now. I cannot give in to impulse where life is concerned. I watch the two figures on the bicycles become smaller. While my friend peddles down the road, traveling farther, racking up miles to new and distant places, I feel left behind. Standing still, I sense the life beating inside me and I think of the virus traveling silently through my veins.

* Hebrew: Turning, Repentance

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