It arrives on my doorstep and I unbox the thing like it’s radioactive, and for all I know, it could be. The wonders of modern medicine are beyond me, and bad news arrives in every manner of packaging. I bring it to my bathroom and set it on the countertop. With a fingernail, I slice the tape and unfold the cardboard harbinger.
Inside, it’s little and white and plastic, with a little white plastic handle and little white plastic latches, like something I played with as a child. Back then I’d have a red plastic stethoscope to go with, and a lab coat and probably one of those strange discs affixed to a headband that I never discovered the purpose of.
I can hear it then, a knock at my bedroom door, and I answer it, and there I am. Four-foot-nothing and plodding around in Dad’s loafers, lab coat dragging behind me like the train of a dress. I sweep into the room with a clipboard, chatting about lunch — bologna sandwich with carrots and ranch, though Mom knows I prefer salami and simply won’t eat carrots, though I did dip my thumb into the ranch and suck it. Little me stops by the bathroom door and ushers me in, and once we’re both inside he shuts it conspiratorially behind us.
“Now then,” he says, “have a seat.” I lower myself onto the rim of the bathtub while he sets up shop by the sink. He undoes the little white plastic latches on the little white plastic briefcase, and before he opens it he pantomimes the snapping of nitrile gloves against his wrists. He rubs his pretend-gloved hands together. “Alrighty,” he says. “Let’s see what we’re in for.”
Bashfully, I explain it was a hookup, though I don’t use that term. Instead I say something like “A smooch.” The 36-year-old “masc bear top no sissies” messaged me last week to say that a guy he saw last month just came up positive, and so he felt it was only right to let me know. And it was, but I blocked him anyway.
Doctor Me nods like he understands, though that doesn’t strike me as quite right. Our Catholic schooling neglected Sex Ed, assuming our parents would handle it, and our parents neglected it with the assumption the school would handle it, and if we’re being entirely honest neither party would have ever had a thing to say about HIV. No, this was a field I became versed in only years later, at nineteen, in bed beside a Planned Parenthood nurse twenty years my senior who’d shrugged and said, “Well, we can still mess around a bit,” when neither of us had a condom.
“Cooties,” the little doctor sighs, and I suppose that about covers it. He flips the lid on the little plastic briefcase, and inside is a rolodex of information cards. A drawer in the bottom reveals a small vial and a swab with an interface like a pregnancy test—with a rectangle where either one or two lines will appear—and the little doctor places these in a stand on the sink. He takes the swab and positions himself between my knees, that disced headband wavering in my face.
Up close, I see the freckles smattering his nose and round cheeks, and I wonder then what happened to them. Where did they go, those little dots that charmed Anna Ezell in the fifth grade as I clung to the poolside and she smiled down at me and told me that each one was a kiss from an angel, and wouldn’t I like to get another just then? I told her no, thank you, I had enough, then swam away, swim trunks hanging loose around my butt.
“Say ‘Ah,’” the little doctor commands, and I do. Clumsily, he reaches up and swabs first along my top gums, then along the bottom and, satisfied, returns to the sink, where he places the swab in the vial and swivels both out of sight. He returns and demands my phone. I hand it over, and he gazes at it for a moment, mystified, before tapping its black screen. He knows the passcode; it hasn’t changed for years. The same I used with the toy safe I got for my sixth birthday, the one in which I hid printed-out pictures of Robin Hood, specifically the animated fox incarnation. My older brother pried open the safe one day with a screwdriver and, beet red, I explained through my fury and embarrassment that I thought the character, with his sleek torso and smile to swoon for, was “just cool.”
Mini-me sets a timer for twenty minutes, and I blink as he hands the phone back to me. “Twenty?” I say. They’re able to ship an HIV test to my door in two days and for less than thirty dollars, but it takes all of twenty excruciating minutes to glean my murky future? “I thought it’d be a bit quicker,” I say, and the good doctor shrugs.
“We could watch an episode of Arthur,” he says. “Two episodes, actually, and when we’re done we can take a peek.”
I pass on this, and he doesn’t seem too disappointed. He hops over the lip of the bathtub and strips naked, flinging the lab coat and the stethoscope and the headband disc to the rug at my feet. I look away, but not before seeing the round of my belly, the freckles all across my chest and shoulders. Those freckles, at least, have mostly stayed. The water runs hot, and soon steam hangs thick in the bathroom and the little doctor is lost among a mountain range of bubbles.
“Why do your fingers get all wrinkly in the bath?” he asks from somewhere within.
“I’m not sure,” I say. “Something to do with osmosis, I think.”
“Like when water passes through your skin, or something.”
“That doesn’t sound right,” he says, and I have to agree. “I think it’s because your fingers are drowning, and all the air is leaving their faces, and so they get all crumpled.”
“Yeah, that sounds more like it.”
“Do you have a girlfriend yet?”
He splashes around a bit, and droplets of warm, soapy water soak into the back of my shirt. “Then,” he starts, coming up for air, “do you have anything?”
“A dog,” I say. “A big one you could ride.”
“No,” he says. “Like, do you have anyone?”
I lower myself to the floor, and turn so that my elbows rest on the bathtub’s edge. From the bubbles, his little face emerges, and we’re eye to eye. His hair slicks to his forehead. His eyes are wide. He looks scared to hear the answer.
Is it too much to ask him to say it? Is it unfair to make him speak the thing he knows, even at that age? The thing he’ll keep to himself for years, and after that, even if we don’t speak it, the thing they’ll know because we won’t exactly be hiding it, not from most, at least. But from some, yes. Always from some. And even they’ll know, anyway, probably.
I want him to say it. I want him to ask me the real question, for his own sake, because I know, and he doesn’t know yet, that saying it out loud for the very first time is the hardest, even if it doesn’t necessarily get easier after that.
“We have a lot of anyones,” I finally say, and the timer on my phone starts ringing, and even though he looks disappointed in my answer I don’t try to comfort him, because now it’s my turn to be scared.
He stands and steps from the tub, wrapping a towel around his chest like we saw all those glamorous women do in all those glamorous movies. He goes to the counter, but he doesn’t peek at the test. Instead, he asks, “What if you do have cooties?”
“I don’t know,” I say. “Then I’ll have cooties, I guess.”
“There are worse things.”
“Like hand-me-down underwear,” he says knowingly, and I can’t help but smile. Yes, Little Doctor Me. Like hand-me-down underwear and bologna sandwiches with carrots and also oysters and IPAs and men with “masc 4 masc” in their profiles and The Beatles and a thousand other things. They all must be worse than cooties, I tell myself, inhaling, holding the humid bathroom air in my lungs, and watching the mist curl around the jetstream of my ragged exhale.
“I get a lollipop whenever I go to the doctor,” he says, reaching for the test, hidden behind its little flap in the stand on the counter. “Do you want a lollipop?”
And I say yes. Yes, I would love one.