A prospective student visits to find out whether he wants to attend our program. I don’t meet him. He’s only gone three weeks when Jax calls me and tells me she thinks she might have hepatitis C.
“I’m going to the doctor tomorrow. Can you drive me?” she asks. It’s the first time we’ve spoken since we broke up in January. This is March.
“Drive you?” I say. “You’re the one who has a car.”
“I guess I just meant…can you go with me? My mind is a mess. I won’t be able to concentrate on anything.”
“Can’t you just ask Jen or somebody?”
“If you’re busy, I understand,” she says.
But I’m not, of course. It’s spring break, so I don’t have to teach, and all I’ve done since Friday when classes let out is drink wine and walk Honey. I look at the empty bottles on top of the fridge, lined up like trophies in a case. I take out a pen to write on my arm. “What time is the appointment?”
Campus Health Services makes us sit in the lobby filling out paperwork before the actual check-up happens. Jax sits next to me with a clipboard in hand, writing and then sucking the end of the pen and then scratching out what she wrote, like someone taking an algebra test. It’s true that she looks worn down, and I recognize how stressed she really must be: her eyes are sunken in from lack of sleep, her lips are so chapped they’re cracking, her knobby wrists look almost broken. She must have lost ten pounds since I last saw her, nearly a tenth of her weight.
“This place smells like static,” I say. “All doctors’ offices do.”
She doesn’t stop writing, doesn’t look up, but says, “Static doesn’t have a smell,” and I say, “Sure it does,” and she says, “What does it smell like?” and I say, “This place,” and she keeps on writing.
The other people waiting are invariably and fervently undergraduate: Wildcats hoodies with matching sweatpants, eyes glued to their iPhones, Adidas sandals with Wigwam socks. This is routine for them; they drink and they fuck and they make mistakes, and when they sober up they come here, and I think We’re here too and I think Jesus Christ and I think This is the culture that Jax and I live in.
I look at her and can’t help myself. “So did he stay with you while he was here?”
That stops her. She meets my eyes. I read the pink calligraphy of hers. “Is this really a conversation you want to have here?” she asks.
“I’m just asking. Just curious.”
“He crashed at a bunch of people’s places. He crashed at Kirk’s house one night.”
“But you put him up too? He was in the house?” Her knuckles turn white. “Sorry,” I say. “I’ll stop.”
She keeps writing and I lean over to her, “That head nurse is a dead ringer for Gene Hackman, don’t you think?” and the sentence is barely out before she says, “You don’t have to make me laugh,” though for the first time all day I do hear something related to laughter, laughter’s second cousin, in her voice, “I just need you to be here. To just sit there,” she says and I say, “If that’s what you need me to do,” and she says, “That’s what I need you to do.”
So we sit as she fills the rest of the thing out and the nurse calls Ashley? and the nurse calls Nikki? and the nurse calls Holly? and Amber? and Tiffani? and finally Jax hands me the clipboard. “Can you look it over before we go in? My brain’s so scrambled, I feel like I forgot my own birthday.”
But before I get a chance to, the nurse calls Jax’s name, and she looks at me while the nurse looks at her, squints Are you going to come in and I raise my eyebrows and nod Do you want me to come in and she winces and raises her chin If you’re comfortable with that and we’re good at conversations like this, eye dialogue.
In the office I stand there like an idiot and the doctor, a lady doctor, seems to have no idea what I’m doing in here. I don’t say anything to clarify the situation. Neither does Jax.
“Any drugs?” the doctor asks and Jax says no, no drugs which is no surprise to me and the doctor says “Drinking?” and she says no, which I also know she doesn’t do but am actually surprised by the answer for some reason, maybe because I can’t imagine a life without booze anymore, and the doctor says “Are you sexually active?” and Jax pauses and I do my absolute best not to flinch when she says “Yes”—this is the hard part and yet it’s kind of not, because of course she is or else why are we here?
I try to tune the interrogation out by thinking about what I have to do the rest of the day, which is write a little and drink a little and pick up food for Honey. We found the dog together, me and Jax, last fall when things were good or goodish, and now Honey lives with me, a permanent guest in my house, this twenty-four-hour-a-day remnant of Jax that I have to feed and nurture and keep alive.
I’m not allowed in the lab where they have to take her blood and stuff, which ironically is the one place she actually needs me to be. So I go outside to smoke a cigarette as I let her answers sink in, the implications, the sleep I’m going to lose, until I feel a tap on my shoulder and turn to see Moriah, one of my students.
“Hey,” she says. “Got a light?”
Moriah’s a good student. Doesn’t talk a lot in class—not because she’s shy, but because she thinks she’s a lot smarter than all the other students. Which she is, but I don’t tell her that.
I hold my lighter to her cigarette. “What are you doing here?”
Her eyes bulge as she puffs, caught off guard or mock-caught off guard by the question. “Same thing as you, I guess,” she says and nods at the sign that says “Women’s Health.”
There’s no way I’m not blushing. “I meant why aren’t you home for spring break?”
“I am,” she says. “I’m from Tucson.”
“Right,” I say, though I don’t think I ever knew that.
We smoke for a few minutes in silence until she says, “What are you in for?”
“Are you supposed to ask me that?”
“Dunno. You don’t have to answer.”
But I haven’t talked to anyone who isn’t my dog for weeks, and so I do. “It’s not me. I’m here with a friend.”
“A lady friend?”
I roll my eyes at her and blow out my response with the smoke. “Why are you here?”
“Are you supposed to ask me that?”
“My idiot boyfriend.”
“Uh oh. What’d he do?”
“No—it’s not like that. He’s just really careful. Wants me to get tested before we . . . you know.”
“You guys are how old?”
I try to think of what I was like at that age but come up short. Did I love my girlfriend at the time? Who was I even dating at twenty?
She must feel awkward standing there as I think, because she says, “We’ve been together since the end of high school. You have no idea what a butthead he can be.”
“So why’re you with him?”
“I’m an even bigger butthead.” By which I don’t think she means: I don’t know what I’m doing. I think she means: We love each other in spite of this stuff.
“Don’t worry,” I say. “You’re still young.”
“What changes?” she asks.
I put out my cigarette. Then I look at her and shrug.
When the test is done Jax buys me lunch to say thank you and then we walk Violet and Honey in the park together and don’t say much.
“How’s she doing?” asks Jax, nodding at Honey.
“Good. We’re getting used to each other.”
The dogs are kicking up dirt and sniffing whatever’s underneath. Jax looks around the park and says, “This is the first place we ever hung out alone.”
I think back to those weeks after she first moved to town, when I first met her and put on the full court press to get her to hang out with me. She’d been with someone at the time.
“Going for a walk with the dog was the only surefire way I could think of to get you alone,” I say and she says, “That was smart,” and I go, “I have my moments.” She smiles and says, “You cut poop off Violet’s butt for me that day,” and I go, “Oh yeah,” almost in spite of myself, “with the sewing scissors. From your bag,” and she says, “That’s the most romantic thing anyone’s ever done for me.”
One week from now, she gets her test results back. They’re negative. But she keeps stressing anyway, convinced the virus is just dormant and hasn’t shown up yet.
One month from now, she writes an essay about the process of waiting for the results and the anxiety it provokes. In it, she lists celebrities who’ve contracted hepatitis C—Pamela Anderson, Kid Rock. She spells Allen Ginsberg’s name wrong three different ways. I’m not mentioned in it.
One year from now, the essay gets published in a pretty high-profile journal. By that time, we’re dating again after three more break-ups, so I buy her dinner to celebrate.
But that’s all in the future. Right now, we lie down on the grass next to each other, as unsure of what the other’s thinking as we’ve ever been. I reach my hand out for hers and she holds it back. It’s the first time we’ve touched each other in weeks.
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