Be Safe; Chapter Twelve

Chapter Twelve

 

The AIDS Clinic

It’s Tuesday. Gallagher grips the wheel of the Cri-Life van. Sitting next to him is Shoshanna and behind her are Rogarth and Eric P., and behind them sits El Ocho, who, even though he’s one of the few fiercely heterosexual guys of the gangbanger variety at Cri-Life with HIV, he wants to make it pretty clear to everybody, both inside the van and out, that he’s not queer. His condition is closely guarded, so he never talks about it, either in Rick’s Saturday morning support group, or in larger groups where men are encouraged to speak freely about why and how often they’ve beat and/or abandoned their wives and/or kids. One thing he truly dislikes is the interest his nickname—El Ocho—has fostered among most of the gay guys at Cri-Life, who spend a lot of time speculating on what exactly the “eight” refers to.

Shoshanna has HIV too, which she insists she caught from using dirty needles, a factoid that hardly has the ring of truth, given her considerable girth. The skin on her arms is pretty much pristine, which belies the fact that even under the best of circumstances, and utilizing uncommon skill at finding viable veins, overweight people are almost impossible to hit. Not only are the veins obscured by layers of cellulite, the veins are tiny hair-like vessels that spider off, seemingly in an effort to resist scrutiny or puncture. So the Cri-Life AIDS cohort kind of doesn’t buy her story, not that anybody really cares how she got it. Once you got it, you got it. It just seems silly to lie about it. She attends the HIV support group, and she dislikes Rick as much as anybody in the facility.

This is one of the few times when the House has agreed to let the AIDS residents drive themselves to the clinic, which has imbued this little errand with a holiday-like mien. Patients are usually driven there, dropped off, and picked up after one of the more senior residents in the group calls for pickup. But Gallagher’s Completion Date has been recorded, signed, and blessed by just about everybody in North Hollywood, so he’s been awarded the considerable responsibility of driving the van-full of residents himself.

As if he’s behind the wheel of a sports car, Gallagher whips the behemoth van up into the medical center’s driveway and has to slam on the brakes to keep from crashing through the lowered wooden arm that only raises to admit vehicles after the driver retrieves a proffered paper ticket from an automatic dispenser. There’s a time stamp on the ticket, and on the reverse side is the parking company’s name and logo—Secure Park or Secure-Easy-Park (which should actually read Profit Park)along with Thank You at the bottom. El Ocho approves of Gallagher’s driving, as evidenced by some vague utterance of endorsement to somebody named Holmes. Shoshanna yells “motherfucker” and Rogarth just braces himself against the armrest. Eric wants to scream, but he resists the urge and just giggles nervously.

The whole group de-vans, walks through the darkened parking structure and out across the sunny area where the doctors and clinic staff park their deluxe cars, and through the clinic’s front door, which is overtly unassuming. They proceed into the jumbo-sized Otis-manufactured elevator, the kind that most buildings of fewer than five floors use.

It’s the kind of elevator that seems to have been designed as an implement to finally choke any remaining joy from that process often thoughtlessly labeled as life, and fosters effects not unlike hopeful, wide-eyed children learning that both Santa Clause and the Easter Bunny have been rendered dead and stinking fictitious constructs of parental imagination. This only becomes apparent after everybody is inside the elevator and the button for the desired floor has been pushed. It’s a regressive experience. Instead of being quickly, efficiently, and sometimes thrillingly whisked skyward, as is the experience in elevators in most skyscrapers, time is intentionally retarded inside an Otis. The doors meander their way to the “shut” position, which in itself isn’t all that objectionable when viewed as a prelude to a hoped for speedy ride of efficiency. But even after the doors have closed, there’s a couple of moments of elevatorial rumination. After having arrived at the locked position, it’s as if the mechanism is recapping every single necessary step in its safety-first checklist before signaling to the motor’s cable mechanism to begin to rise or descend, a signal that’s reluctantly received and acknowledged with a mechanical groan and more than a little un-confidence-building shuddering. The elevator begins to ascend, but not happily, the message being, if I must. The frustration quotient of Otis elevator rides is only compounded if one’s destination is floor four or five, and other patients or customers or clients or whatever have pushed buttons two or three, in which case you begin to judge their characters as those of the impossibly lazy variety because if it were you, you’d have just as well taken the stairs.

Finally Gallagher’s group exits the elevator and heads to the clinic’s unassuming entrance door, with just a number as signifier—nothing that says “Such-and-Such AIDS Clinic Enter Here.” One can begin to sense the influence of federal HIPPA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act) regulations designed to maintain an impregnable wall of privacy designed to thwart any prying eyes, which gives the place a secret police kind of flavor.

The chilliness of the room makes all who enter wish they’d worn fur-lined parkas. Two handsome youths, minority-flavored, radiating purpose, tinged with humility, look directly at you from a large flat-screen television affixed to the wall. They’re both wearing vague smiles, and their teeth, which are firmly planted in beds of healthy pink gums, are enviably straight and white, and their clothes are clean. The boys exude an energy suggestive of nothing except an easy relationship with each other, with their audience and with the world. They project the sense that they’re touched with the courage necessary to propel them through impending adversity, or that they’ve just escaped certain doom relatively unscathed—“relatively” because let’s be frank, AIDS isn’t exactly a butt-load of lilacs and sequins.

The boys seem to be hovering around a shiny old car, or maybe a waffle iron, perhaps a book of some sort—it’s not even clear if they’re inside their living room or out in the wilderness. It doesn’t matter though because the gist of this video scene is that they’ve met the scourge of disease by drawing from the fount of good will and pragmatism that’s available to everyone who visits this clinic. And they’re flourishing. They’re brave. The implicit message seems to be, “You too can experience life as we do, if you do as we’ve done.”

As they continue with their easy grins and focus-starved gazes while still hovering around each other, a robust woman’s voice, knowledgeable, compassionate, slightly smoky, provides context. She is speaking Spanish, and one suspects she’s saying something about the clinic like, “At [insert name of clinic here] our knowledgeable and professional staff of board-certified doctors, competent nurses, assistants, social workers, and office staff are here to provide the very best of care to HIV-impacted people living in Los Angeles, regardless of their ability to pay.” This is probably what she’s saying because the widely recognized Spanish expression for AIDS—La Sida—peppers her speech, but mostly because this is the Español side of this particular loop that alternates with the English version of the video. Most of the flip-flop-wearing obese transvestites, pious AA acolytes, gin-sipping dowager empresses, black do-rag-wearing, hip-hop thugs, skinny love-struck cha-cha queens with the most elaborate ringtones, and toothless, gum-gnashing S&M tweakers with puffed up protease inhibitor veins on their legs, all stuffed into the waiting room, have seen it about a thousand and one times.

One by one the Cri-Life cohort is called in to be weighed and have his or her blood pressure and temperature measured and recorded, then sent back out to wait to be assigned to an examination room. Both Rogarth and Gallagher know better than to give in to their impatience and lodge a complaint with the office staff about the nearly ninety minutes they’ve been waiting to be called in to see a doctor. There’s usually more than one. Rogarth shifts his weight in his chair and continues watching the AIDS video. The only reading materials are printed versions of the video, but they’re mostly all in Spanish, so all Rogarth or Gallagher or Shoshanna can do is identify some common Spanish words that everybody knows: ‘ahora’ = now; ‘para’ = for; ‘quando’ = how much—probably—which is kind of like finding yourself in a scary part of town and anemically waving to the smattering of people you recognize because you shop at the same market, hoping they’ll recognize you too. And, of course, you can always admire the photographs of sizzling hot boys who the publishers of this tract want its readers to believe have AIDS, but they’re probably models who have a standing-room-only crowd of T-cells stampeding through their veins.

One-third of the complete body of a full-figured nurse appears in the doorway that leads to the examination rooms, and without looking up she calls out Rogarth’s name, who tosses the magazine he’s reading, one of the few in English, the one called Poz, with its surprisingly candid articles that describe sexual practices without any use of irony or metaphor at all. The language in Poz is as straightforward as it gets, explaining, under the harsh illumination of the editorially borne necessity of pragmatism, the properties utilized by quantifiable thrusts and their attendant amounts of friction created by the average-sized penis against the walls of the average-sized rectum in both the standing position and prone—along with assumptions and admonishments regarding the overall health of the anal canal, which again is spelled out in unvarnished descriptions either of anal walls that are blemish-free or which are scarred with either hemorrhoids or anal warts and/or their attendant damaged tissue—descriptions that explain just how easy or difficult HIV-tainted sperm will find it to finally infect a targeted CD-4 cell. These magazines always contain five-to-seven-page offerings invariably titled “Blowjobs: Safe or Not?” which Rogarth—and probably at least 90 percent of homos who’re reading the magazine—pass up because they’ve drawn the line somewhere. Rogarth will yield to injunctions from practicing unsheathed anal sex, but absolutely refuses to give up sucking dick, and won’t even consider for a moment, even if it’s been deemed “dangerous” by the expert class—sliding a latex-clad penis into his mouth, something he’s acquiesced to a couple of times when dealing with overly paranoid (because they fancy themselves members of some kind of unsullied social stratum like cops or heterosexual married guys) and is an experience he equates with sucking on a dildo.

Rogarth hates to dredge up certain memories, but he’d allowed himself, years earlier, to be coerced, while elbow deep in various leather-tinged sexual get-togethers, into sucking on a dildo that was offered to him by some G-string clad, muscle-bound fake cop, and who placed all his sexual/social capital into some vague category he referred to as “nasty.” Rogarth does, however, take some degree of solace in imagining himself to be just a minor member of a much larger group of the general population who’ve sucked on a fake cock. He’s pretty sure that Warren Buffet or even Hillary Clinton, during rare or even not-so-rare moments of exceedingly private sexual abandon, have slurped on the occasionally proffered latex molded ersatz penis.

He stands and follows the nurse through the doorway. “Room number three,” she says, and watches as Rogarth heads inside the third examination room where, instead of hopping up onto the examination table, he seats himself in the chair opposite the doctor’s computer workspace and chair, which for now are still vacant. Rogarth has made this decision so that he can stand and offer his hand to the doctor when he/she enters, something that he considers more dignified than having to either sit, with legs dangling over the sides of the examination table with extended hand, or to jump down, shake hands, then reseat himself onto the tabletop. “Hi, nice to see you,which, in Rogarth’s mind, flattens the doctor/patient paradigm into a more co-equal status, because he’s just about had enough of the God-like perch doctors occupy in the United States social hierarchy. He’s also pretty sure, though, that even this tiny gesture of protest will be recognized by the doctor as a condition described over several pages of medical school text books in chapters titled “Dangers and Trends Exhibited by Problem Patients and Their Underlying Meanings.” He fears these would co-locate his presenting problems in both the medical literature that deals with HIV, and also that enormous tome of mental problems called the DSM-V or VI, depending on how many Porsches or Lamborghinis freshly minted Southern California psychologists or psychiatrists have purchased on 500-month contracts.

The thought of being referred to a psychiatrist makes Rogarth’s eyes glaze over, and he yawns and actually considers whether or not it would be advisable to climb up on the table, stretch out, and take a little snooze while waiting for the physician. Fuck it, Rogarth thinks, as he settles further into the chair. It’s too cold to sleep anyway, and he briefly imagines legions of bloodthirsty bacteria making a continuous assault on this clinic, an assault that remains a futile exercise because of the impenetrable wall of chilliness fending them off.

To kill time, he studies the graphic posters interspersed on the wall that are nearly all overly colorful representations of both the human immunodeficiency virus itself and the treatments available to suppress its advancement. A couple of the posters with pictures of the virus could be, Rogarth opines to himself, a cross between the work of Paul Klee and Wassily Kandinsky, except with textual explanations of the shapes and the processes they’re involved in: “Fusion of HIV to the host cell surface, Host Cell, HIV RNA, reverse transcriptase, integrase and other viral proteins enter the host cell, Viral DNA is formed by reverse transcription, Viral DNA is transported across the nucleus and integrates into the host DNA…” and so on.

It’s safe to say that Rogarth, and probably most other patients who study these posters, have never really imagined these processes taking place inside their own bodies. Because envisioning such stuff seems like a pointless and self-defeating exercise, unless of course, in the process of contextualizing HIV/AIDS in particular and disease in general, one relies on the dubious wisdom of people like Deepak Chopra, who, in his self-conscious good health and wealthy/creative social standing, can (and often does), ex cathedra, dispense opinions that lay responsibility of actually being afflicted by HIV on some kind of metaphysical/spiritual deficiency rather than as simply the result of a biological process. In the United States of America, truthfully speaking, this suggests a healthy dose of injecting drugs into veins by way of dirty needles or, God forbid, unprotected butt-fucking, something that betrays the fact that Ms. Chopra doesn’t party that often and really doesn’t care for fags all that much either.

Just above and off to the side of the blood pressure machine is a gigantic poster haphazardly and pretty thoughtlessly conceived and executed that contains mostly textual elements—lists to be exact—along with enough graphic components to make it seem crowded–– explanatory pictures of happy, healthy people who’ve maintained an unwavering routine of prescribed pill-taking, along with the instruments that help them to remember their regimens, such as calendars and pill containers sectioned off in both days of the week and hours of the day. Overlaying the pictures of the pill containers are brightly colored cloud-shaped textual notices that exhort people to “Ask your nurse! Ask your Nutritionist! Available free at the nursing station!”

Doctors, it’s not difficult to imagine, during brainstorming sessions where final decisions were made about the content of this poster, more than likely put the ix-nay on any text that included the suggestion to “Ask your Doctor!” because doctors would simply tell their patients to ask their nurses, etc. The creators of this poster wisely chose not to include any graphic examples of people who’d forgotten to take their meds for any number of reasons, the main one being that protease inhibitors haven’t been around that long, and memories of the legions of walking dead are still fresh enough that people don’t need to be reminded of them. Interspersed throughout the examination room—and the clinic as a whole—are cute wicker baskets ornamented with paper cutouts of daisies and smiling suns with radiating sunbeams and which are overflowing with free-for-the-taking condoms packaged in a kind of pathetic clutching-to-nihilism genre of decoration, featuring heavy metal lightning bolts emanating from oversized, glowering, corroded conduits suggesting that they’re the vehicles best able to bear the dark sludge of some scary form of doom, along with explanations and warnings spelled out in misshapen fonts. All of this is designed, one can only imagine, to minimize any residual “dork” quotient that’s earned by unfurling a rubber sheath down over the length of your cock before taking the anal plunge.

Since his time at Cri-Life, and awash in his newly minted identity of “good citizen,” Rogarth, as he regards with a certain level of disdain the banks of unopened drawers lining the doctorless examination room, repeats to himself the phrase publicly uttered to the ranks of rarified journalists of musical periodicals by one Rosina Levine, the hermit-like dowager of Julliard and exponent of Schubert’s piano music, who’d condescended a visit to the Golden State before she quickly turned tail and made a beeline back to New York City, her beloved metropolis whose storied support for Art with a capital A was, even during Mme. Levine’s golden years, being wrested from the purview of artists like herself and into the clutches of that vulgar class of promoters known as the Impresarios of Broadway.

This trend continued past Levine’s death when impresarios began to be replaced by hedge fund managers whose artistic acumen made possible the seemingly endless panorama of marquis trumpeting the works of Walt Disney instead of Ibsen—a “shit sandwich,” one can only imagine, that would have provided the same degree of resonance to Mme. Levine as the atonal albeit outdated music of Xanakis as its elements, while attempting to be appreciated, bounced off her romantically-inclined ear drums, and which Mme. Levine banished to the same realm of annoyance as that of any obstinate mosquito who was determined to ruin her Central Park picnic. So fuck you, California, you unnatural desert wasteland with your pathetic allegiance to green energy, pretension to art…and money, with thick Russian accent: “There is nothing for me here. Rogarth is content, sober, agenda-less, and alone and unwatched with just himself and his seemingly endless patience, to wait amid banks of unlocked medical drawers brimming with unwanted syringes and imagined injectables.

Immediately following a tiny knock, the examination door opens and in walks Dr. J. Dawa, who smiles and inquires, “Hi, how are you?” before seating himself opposite Rogarth’s chair. Dr. Dawa’s one of the few overtly gay doctors at this clinic, which has caused Rogarth, and more than a few of the stricken homos here, to wonder about the composition of the medical team staffing what’s understood to be a clinic with an unusually high number of homos as its clientele. Either, Rogarth thinks, many of these doctors are hiding their gayness really well, or their curiosity about the study and treatment of HIV outweighs their dislike of gay guys, or they actually like gay guys so the HIV component is just a happy coincidence, or they’re truly altruistic and they like everybody and just want everybody everywhere to be healthy.

But Dr. Dawa’s certainly gay. He’s known in the community as “Giggles” because he’s always laughing at his own jokes—not really jokes, but what are really just run-of-the-mill observations about life in the USA that he seems to think are amusing enough to share a laugh about as they occur—but being just plain old observations, there are tons of them, so he’s pretty much giggling all the time. Rogarth has a certain empathy for Dr. Dawa, though, not so much because of his giggling, but because of the way Dr. Dawa walks. Gay guys are often ID’d as gay because of how they carry themselves, a walking style that is at once gravity-defying and incredibly preoccupied. The “gay walk” often begins and ends with acknowledgement of its breeziness, but not for Dr. Dawa, whose style of walking Rogarth has speculated, is similar, if not identical, to the kind of walk Rogarth himself spawned one unfortunate night of blazing LSD tripping down at the beach at Point Mugu at a time when he was on the verge of dropping out of high school, and a time when he had yet to “come out” as a gay individual.

At the height of this acid trip, while surrounded by a motley group of other high-school dropouts composed of both males and females, all of whom were fiercely heterosexual (or such was Rogarth’s belief), the entire group decided to brave a stroll down to the nearby jetty, a trip that necessitated traversing a section of beach that was covered with stones whose geologically sharp and adolescent angles had been worn smooth due to millennia of waves breaking over them. The stones themselves were merely a reflection of a process whose ubiquity, both in terms of expanse of time and the very nature of matter itself—stars, planets, moons, asteroids, mountains, cliffs, boulders, rocks, stones, pebbles, smaller pebbles, sand—a process not unlike AIDS survivors who’ve spent varying lengths of time imagining their own diminished selves, and waiting and waiting, fearing their bodies/minds/perception/awareness will, bit by bit, fall away, and who always seem to escape awareness of themselves. Because life goes on or what the fuck ever, because you gotta wash the dog or wash some dishes, or take your pills anyway, stuff seems to force its way into anybody’s diminished view of the world unless you just fucking don’t give a shit about anything. And just like human beings, this process of geographic erosion has rendered these smooth, glistening, convex shapes of plump ovals and circles resting on beds of their own smaller and distant future selves as completely invisible to anyone whose various preoccupations have allowed them to be perceived as anything beyond just stones on the beach, or people on a bus, or anything capable of accepting with a minimum of protest the label “generic.”

And this is the salient part of potent LSD and the concealment—or willful overlooking— of one’s gay tendencies: the truth about who you really are will come out, manifesting itself in what’s directly in front of you. Just like Republicans, whose belief systems are so strongly entrenched and shabbily supported, the moment their eyes open in the morning, that doubt about life or existence or anything simply dissolves, making way for one overriding, life-affirming thought when their eyes alight on anything, be it a windowsill, toilet bowl, or a cartoon program on television: “I thought so,” LSD will commandeer the most obvious element within the nascent homosexual’s considerably impaired LSD-shaped field of vision in order to have its way about one’s “essence.”

About two feet into the section of beach covered with these smooth stones, Rogarth, whose homosexual experiences up to that point in his life were pretty much all in his head, began to imagine that the faces of this multitude of thousands of glistening, rounded stones peeking through the surface of the wet sandy beach, were actually the very tips of the heads of giant erect penises. Thousands and thousands of big beautiful cocks just waiting to be caressed and kissed and licked and sucked and Jesus-fucking-Christ it’s getting hot out here, which were somehow buried deep down in the sand, something that if actually the case, would have clipped even the lumbering testosterone-fueled swagger of John Wayne into an overly careful mincing try-to-remain-aloft-for-as-long-as-possible-with-each-step gait because, well, it’s obvious. Stepping on the head of anybody’s dick would hurt like hell. That, and the abject reverence that had begun to fuel, at that exact moment, Rogarth’s curiosity about just what cock must really taste like, coupled with the thought of exactly how many cocks, beyond his own, actually exist on planet Earth, a thought that became the catalyst for Rogarth considering the first time in his life the nature of infinity.

It’s taken near constant vigilance for the better part of a decade, but Rogarth has for the most part been able to “cure” himself of this walk. But it hasn’t often been easy, especially when he forgets himself due to being higher than fuck. His unimpaired time at Cri-Life has helped him to keep the loftiness of his walk at bay, which allows him to silently judge Dr. Dawa’s walk unreservedly.

Rogarth has deduced that AIDS doctors are required to ask certain questions, one of which is the old standby: “Any thoughts of suicide since we talked last?” which Dawa faithfully utters.

Dawa is poised at his computer keyboard to enter Rogarth’s response into the more than likely medical database administered from both Sacramento and Washington DC—or wherever the CDC’s offices are, like Georgia or Alabama—that his computer terminal is currently connected to.

Rogarth wants to foreshorten this part of the examination, but for some reason he decides to tell the truth: “Of course I have.” He wants to add “you fucking moron,” but decides that that prolongation would simply serve as the catalyst for unspeakable and unknowable layers of complication that, for some weird, reason-defying subroutine that’s worthy of study in some humanities class focusing on genre, would manifest itself in the inevitable yet regrettable weaponization of etiquette. This is where recitations of discontent become manifested as please-and-thank-you-laden observations that serve to funnel the complainant’s morsels of displeasure, like cattle herded to their deaths while dutifully tramping up and down various ramps leading to a killing room, into a no-win realm of argument and to its ultimate proclamation: “There is no way I can answer that question, sir.” This will usually not only raise your blood pressure to the aneurism level, but also launch yourself right into a locked 5150 box somewhere in a downtown jail, and has the same effect as calling “time out” so that you can don a pair of fluffy, feather-filled fake boxing gloves before punching the beatific grin right off some idiot’s face.

Nevertheless, Rogarth’s candidness forces Dawa to ask follow-ups, beginning with a slightly anxiety-tinged, “Please explain.”

Rogarth wants to shake Dawa by his shoulders because he’s been saddled with the responsibility of explaining the unexplainable. He wants to display his arms scarred from shooting dope.

How the fuck should I know, you idiot! I shoot dope into my arms. I can’t speak for everybody, because I don’t know everybody, but I’m thinking that we, meaning dope fiends, on some level all want to die, but we’re so fucking scared of just about everything that we don’t want to make a mistake as we traverse that yawn-inducing tapestry that’s too often generously described as life. Which is why overdoses are such an attractive alternative to maybe blowing your brains out with a shotgun in the mouth, like we’re all little Hitlers who try to escape the responsibility of actually committing a reprehensible act by labeling it the product of offering to ourselves, and then accepting a fait accompli, whether it’s the annexation of the Sudatenland or the injection of too much dope into a vein. Oops! Too late now, I guess.

Pity—I would have made a helluva forty-year-old. As if—really as if, motherfucker—one could or would have the wherewithal to assign a value to the sudden realization that an overdose was either a) happening, or b) finishing, which probably would depend on what kind of dope you’re using, heroin taking on the role of guillotine with all its sudden finality. And even if you could squeeze out an opinion while sinking into that particular blackness, one would be hard pressed to give a fuck because perceived dying just doesn’t matter that much when you’re feeling so warm and fuzzy and pretty fucking sleepy. Or cocaine, which affords a pretty sharp and accurate awareness of your organs going all numb inside your body, one by one, and the surprising onset of paralysis, which doesn’t allow you to even scream for your boyfriend, lucky you, (“Hey, I need help here. I think I’m dying”). Or, if you think you’re keeping your drug use a secret, propriety would dictate that, dying or not, you should keep your mouth shut, a circumstance that lends a slight tinge of noble (at least temporarily) purpose to your paralytic silence. DOUGFIND

Some dope fiends would add overdoses of methamphetamine here, but I’m not convinced that bona fide overdoses can be caused by using too much of the shit, which, rather than causing death, too much meth makes your eyeballs bulge and shake like crazy. Or it just may be that suicide is the natural response to the unshakable and inescapable frustration that comes from the realization that dreams are what it’s all about. “Yes, that’s right, Rogarth! Good boy! To be or not to be, or more plainly, to dream or not to dream! Please continue, because if dreams are what we’re here for, then it stands to reason…” Please fucking stop me if you have the answer—that the more dreaming the better? Isn’t that it? And please don’t hit me with “It’s a matter of degree.” Please! I couldn’t handle that bullshit one more fucking time.

Knowing that this observation is probably insufficient as an explanation of a planned suicide, Rogarth instinctively tries to mentally prepare to resolve the looming chicken-or-the-egg cause-and-effect dilemma. As if his mind were a Rolodex, Rogarth considers and reviews the multitude of “salient” memories of inciting incidents throughout his life, being careful to gloss over the epidemic because he’s decided it’s just too fucking obvious. For some reason his brain alights on his earliest, meaning teenaged, recognition of profound joy brought on by serendipitous events, which time has eroded into—due to shifting appetites and prejudices—just another memory that he’d prefer had never happened.

Rogarth doesn’t really have a clue whether this is relevant to the suicide question, but for the moment he feels obliged to remember a certain afternoon when he was listening to a Bach cantata, the Easter or the Christmas, or maybe even St. Matthew’s Passion, while sitting on the edge of his single bed nestled inside his parents’ suburban ranch-style house with all that quilted, color-coded artwork, used brick, and avocado green carpet. And, through the window of his bedroom, he looked up to the sky, which was enjoying a period of breathless calm between hostile bouts of a violent springtime storm. At exactly the place in the music where an oboe solo took flight and began to glide majestically (can something be lonely and majestic at the same time?) over a comforting bed of appropriate harmonies that shimmered and shifted according to some terrible cosmic pattern, a swarm—it might be better to say “flock” because “swarm” drips with the foreboding portent of misfortune because locusts and boils and hail and shit, and “flock” is more like saying “bouquet” rather than “bunch,” but it was a swarm—a straight-up swarm of birds, probably starlings whose miraculous flight, seemingly afforded by the safety of surprisingly generous patches of blue sky interspersed between outcroppings of glowering gray storm clouds in joyous concert with Bach’s intentions, exactly mirrored the shape of the music. These birds were swooning and soaring and shifting shapes that tyrannically followed the music’s strict metronomic meter, an experience that was curious, awe-inspiring and intimate all at the same time and was so profound that Rogarth at once banished it to a protected place deep inside. But the memory itself was quickly overshadowed by the reality of his human condition. Even sensing the importance of this musical moment that had allowed him to fleetingly glimpse a cosmic benevolence that he was certain could resolve all manner of human-borne earthly problems, he, out of abject laziness, never bothered to relocate the music so that he might reproduce this phenomenon again, something that’s always invoked a sense of shame in him.

Short of sharing this memory with Dr. Dawa, though, this is what Rogarth said.

“Nah, doc, I’m just bullshitting you about the suicide. I wanna live.”

“You’re sure?”

“Yeah.”

“That’s a relief.”

“So what’s the prognosis, doc?”

“No one really knows, but we hope, don’t we, for a full life.”

“Where I can be healthy and get a job and buy a house and a car and all that?”

“Well, yeah.”

“And live to be—what—sixty?”

“Oh, don’t stop there!”

“Seventy? Eighty?”

“Pretty lucky, huh…” says Dawa, breathily giggling. “You using protection during sex?”

“Huh?”

“Sex. I changed the subject. You practicing safe sex?”

Rogarth imitates Dawa’s breathy giggle. Dawa cocks his head.

“Sorry,” Rogarth says. “I’m not having sex. I’m in a treatment facility.”

“Oh, yes,” Dawa says while scrolling down through his computer notes on Rogarth. “What’s it called again? Cry…?”

“It’s with an i…a made-up acronym. Chrysalis something or other. Chrysalis Rendezvous Inhabitant or some bullshit.”

Dawa giggles. “Sounds awful. So no screwing at this place?”

“Nope.”

“Must be hard. There’s no real evidence that you won’t be able to grow old like your parents or your grandparents, Rogarth.”

“Sounds great.”

Dawa considers offering Rogarth a morsel of counseling, but his time is valuable. He’s abruptly all business, telling Rogarth he’s going to issue instructions for the nursing staff to give him vaccinations against pneumonia, meningitis, and also a flu shot before Rogarth must head back to Cri-Life. He offers a frilly wave of his hand before ducking out of the examination room.