The Diagnosis by Brad Windhauser

Carol sat erect, her frigid, stiff back against the wing chair in Martha’s tchotchke- filled living room, that, amazingly, was absolutely free of a single speck of dust.  The smoldering fire in the fireplace to her left crackled, and the flame died while the top log settled.  She was close enough to enjoy its heat without breaking into a sweat under her wool sweater. Carol turned her attention to the grandfather clock in the entryway.  The second hand had made a full sweep of the clock’s face before she returned her attention to her highness, Theresa, who had been asked—for the second time—what she thought of the book they’d been reading for the past few weeks.  In particular, Annie had wanted to know—asking her question with blushing red cheeks—what she thought of the character Denise, who’d been having a passionate affair with the detective, Brody.  Carol feigned a patient smile and took long, controlled breaths in and out of her clenched teeth.

With her bony fingers Theresa plucked lint from her dress’s hem.  She toyed with the small collection of fuzz, as if it were a coin she were polishing.  Carol’s blood simmered.  She tossed the bundle to the ground and then smoothed her dress.  Raising her eye, she settled on Carol, who met the gaze.  She picked up the tea cup that had been resting in her lap, lowered her head slightly, then she blew her tea as if it were the only candle on a delicate piece of birthday cake.

Carol didn’t care much for the author—his work was too formulaic—but she’d withheld her veto, letting Theresa see her selection accepted.  Though now, she couldn’t recall why she’d done it.  Their day was stretching into the afternoon and she felt her patience straining under the pressure of Theresa’s superciliousness.  You’d think menopause would have tamed the woman.

Theresa reached for tissue and Rita her nails.  She’d been quite enamored with the new manicurist’s work, the one she’d found downtown.  “Very clean, very reasonable, very smart looking,” she gushed, eyeing her nails.  “And fast too.”  Faith munched on some cookies and brushed the crumbs that had fallen on her leg to the rug.  Since her children had packed on the pounds, she’d had to remove sweets and snacks from her cupboard.  Martha tapped her foot and hummed a little.  Her husband’s flight was landing in a few hours and she was probably thinking about the errands she’d HAD to run before.  She’d mentioned them three times in the past two hours.  “So, Theresa, you were saying?” Martha asked, though Theresa had yet to speak.

Carol wanted to hose her down.  Theresa, with her fake smiles, her prim mannerisms, her beautiful, surprisingly modest sapphire wedding ring—married to a sweet, tender man she didn’t deserve.  These other women tolerated her because she brought moist cookies and expensive, loose imported tea to their book club meetings.  Carol sensed the trite praise of the book forming in that little head of hers, the praise she had been rehearsing in front of her bedroom mirror.  Taking those deliberate, unnecessary pauses between adjectives.  If Carol could have found another reading group, she would have gladly switched.  But you get to an age in life where it is simply too late to change.  She thought about her meeting with Anthony later, whose packed schedule had come between them the past two weeks.  This cooled her heals and she fanned herself.  She was sure her smile was visible.

Lowering her tea cup, Theresa glared at Carol.  Clearing her throat, she said, “Well, I must say, I enjoyed the passion the two shared—I think we all did,” her eyes swept the ladies, lingering a moment on Carol, “for I think everyone is entitled to that spark in their lives.  But I don’t know that I agreed with the author’s decision to kill her off.  Must all women be the ones punished for passion?”  Some of the women nodded. “Just once, I would like to see the man take the fall.  Don’t you think, Carol?  After all, it’s not Denise was some trampy slut, sneaking around.”

Carol dug her thumbs into her clenched fists.  “I thought Denise was a fine representation of someone who finally enjoys herself for a change, even if it’s not rewarded in the book.  In so many ways she was an accomplished female, though perhaps lacking in the personality department. I guess that’s what you get when you have to read too many books written by men.”

Theresa “hmm”-ed in that way Carol’s sixth grade teacher did whenever she answered in class.  That sound meant ‘well, isn’t that wrong answer just quaint.’

Hours later, in her bedroom, the curtains drawn, Anthony slipped into his underwear and then searched the carpet for his socks.  Anthony was on his hands and knees by the bed.

“There it is,” he said, standing. He shook his head as he plopped on the bed and put his socks on.  He smiled at her like a kid who had fallen in love for the first time.  That smile warmed her every time she saw it.  Carol had been buttoning her blouse when she paused to wipe a sliver of sweat from between her tingling breasts.  They drooped against her finger, and her thumb grazed a firm bump.  She froze.  Could that be?  She retraced it with her thumb.  She retraced it again.  There, under her right nipple, a firm nodule.  She held her breath.

“Everything all right, Carol?”

“Hmm?”

“Are you okay?  You look a bit pale.”

“Oh, yes, just nicked my boob, that’s all.”  She rose from the bed and entered the bathroom, where she closed the door, turned on the light, and removed her blouse.

She probed her breast.  There.  Shit.  A knock on the door.  “Carol, are you okay?”

She flushed the toilet.  “Yes, Anthony, I’m fine.  Something came on really quick, you know.”

“Ahh…” The floor creaked.  “Well, okay. I have to run.  I’ll call you next week, okay?”

“Okay, talk to you then.”

Moments later, she heard the front door open and close.

Shit, shit, shit.  She eyed herself in the mirror, threw her shoulders back, raised her chin, and clicked her tongue against her front teeth.

* * *

 Her doctor was handling her breast like it was a stress ball.  He shook his head a bit, like he still smarted from removing a splinter from his finger.  The thin calm she’d nurtured for the two days between grazing that lump and sitting on that cold examination table evaporated.  She’d been unable to find the discoloration she’d read about.  She’d been paranoid, right?  Her shifting legs rustled the parchment paper under her thighs.  She imagined what her two children would say when she told them.  She hadn’t shared her little discovery because they would have had her at the emergency room immediately.  Over-reactors, much like their father had been.  “Let’s get some blood work.”  Sal, her doctor, rolled up her sleeve and turned her forearm.  He felt for a vein.

“Shouldn’t a nurse or someone be doing that?”

“Little backed up in the office today, so I’ll get what we need.”

In a few minutes, he had her arm tied, her arm swabbed, her vein stuck, and the vial filled.  As he set the band-aid on her arm, his eyes focused the way men’s do when they are holding something back, bracing you for something they feel stronger to burden.  Just be out with it, Sid, she’d wanted to say, as he had been setting the Band-Aid on her arm; don’t stall because the big “C” lingered on your doctor-of-a tongue.  But her mouth was dry.

“We’ll see what we got here.  If you like, you can return to the waiting area.  You might be more comfortable.”

“I’ll wait here, thanks, Sal.”

He nodded and left.

Oh Walter.  He’d passed three years ago from cancer.  Hadn’t this family paid their cancer dues?  Her eyes swept the sterile environment, pausing at that glass jar stuffed with pure white cotton balls, and stopping at the hazardous logo on a box on the counter.  Now she remembered why she had trouble taking her cat to the vet some times.

When she was a girl and her baby front tooth finally wiggled, her mother declared they would be off to the dentist.  She could feel the dress that would be worn for that trip: damn velvet collars and ridiculous frilly fringe.  Cutting corners where he could, her father rifled through his rusted tool box.   She saw the ball of twine in his hand and bolted for her bathroom.  She unspooled some dental floss and made her own lasso.  Bye-bye tooth.  There would be no visit to the dentist for her anytime soon, thank you very much.

She stared at the pristine white ceiling.  Why do they call them test results in this context when they start something, not end it?   She checked her watch and swung her feet.  Theresa sitting there, blowing on her tea, flashed in her mind.  Carol clenched her fists.  Why hadn’t she at least grabbed a magazine from that damn waiting room?

Eventually, the door knob finally clicked.  Sal entered, and his eyes studied the floor like they were looking for change.  He closed the door. “Well, Carol, we had to make sure.”  He’d worn this face when he informed them that Walter had stage four cancer.  She had steeled herself for this conversation all afternoon, and now she cleared his throat. “We ran a few different tests. Carol, you are HIV positive.”

Time slowed, like when she’d sat with Walter through his cancer diagnosis; crawled, like when she’d held his shaking hand through his last breath; and stayed silent, like the whole time she’d sat in the front pew watching people’s mouths the day of his funeral.

HIV positive?

Sid rested his head against the door.  Before she could protest, she realized this was no negotiation: the deal had gone through.  HIV positive?  At 61?   She was light-headed.

How…?

Anthony.  56, kids, career.  How in the world?  They’d flirted harmlessly for so many years.  That first time, a few glasses of wine provided the liquid courage for her to let him inside her.  Anthony, do you even know? She clenched her fists.  Does your fucking wife know?  Carol pictured those piercing, judging eyes.  Carol’s heart cooled.

“Carol, how much do you know about this condition?”

Walter, are you watching this?  I…

“Carol, would you like some time alone?”

Sid placed his hand on her shoulder.  He grabbed a stool.

“Carol, now, whatever you know about HIV, you need to know that the treatment has advanced significantly. People live with this disease in ways unheard of a decade ago. But, unfortunately, this disease affects older people differently than younger people.  Because of a lot of the recent effective drugs’ side effects on high blood pressure and diabetes, your treatment will be more challenging than if you were, say, 30.”

“I don’t understand, Sid, what about the lump?”

“The blood test didn’t reveal any signs of cancer, so it is probably just a cyst.  Though one that should probably be removed.”

She turned this over in her head.  “I think I need to leave now, Sid.”

“Would you like take some literature with you?”  He reclined on the stool.  “In fact, I need to insist.”

“Not now, Sid.”  She passed him, but not before she snatched the papers he pressed into her hand and then shoved them into her purse.

* * *

After a few days, her “condition” settled into her mind.  Her second Campari and soda hummed in her veins as she thumbed through photos from her wedding, the kids’ high school and college graduations, Rebecca’s wedding, little Callie’s second birthday, and Brent’s commitment ceremony.  God, that was a beautiful day down on the shore.  She cried.  The ice cubes collapsed in her glass on the side table.  She tossed the crumpled, shredded tissue on the carpet.  She stood, poured herself another drink and went upstairs.

After drenching a washcloth, she cranked the box fan, killed the lights, and draped the washcloth over her eyes.  The water soaked her.  Pity party, table for one.  Could she keep this from her children?

Her thoughts revisited her coffee date with Rita yesterday.

“These new arthritis creams are doing nothing besides leaving greasy stains on my furniture.”  The conversation had found this topic for the third time.  She wrung her hands like they were a dish rag.

I want your problems, she wanted to say, but Rita had a right to her pain, as did Carol, and perhaps that was why Carol didn’t steal her thunder by mentioning her news.

If I can bury my husband, I can manage this.

On her bed, the water streamed.  The comforter dampened at her shoulders.

Your wife needs to know, Anthony.  Carol’s conscience demanded this.  So why couldn’t she grab the phone?  Anthony.  She pictured him writhing above her, his nails pulling her back.  Inside her.  She didn’t realize she’d been clutching the comforter.  Now that too had been taken from her.  If only her bitterness would get out of the way of her guilt.  She blamed him, though she shared in it.  She knew this.  But had he knowingly infected her? Joking about menopause being the best form of birth control? She wanted to smack that smile, that light from his eyes.  He was supposed to be her escape, her release from her grief for her husband.

She turned on the lights, and grabbed the phone.  Her eyes found the ‘HIV and You’ pamphlet on the nightstand.  Her fingers dialed the last 8 before she had time to dissuade herself.

It rang.  Please let the voicemail pick up.  It rang.  You’re probably busy ironing your napkins or embroidering something worthless and can’t be distracted.  It rang.  She was probably curled up with one of her insipid James Patterson books. It rang. She felt Anthony’s breath on her neck, his whispering in her ear.  It rang.  Carol hung up.

She should call her children.  They deserved to know and they might even lighten her mood. Staring at the phone, she imagined Rebecca trying to remove gum form Callie’s hair using peanut butter; the phone tucked under her chin, she’d breathe heavily, a sign that she’d be biting her tongue.  And Brent, what would he say?  “Oh, Mother,” in that sad, isn’t-there-something-you-could-have-done voice.  The last time she’d heard that she was telling him that the dog had to be euthanized.  Yep, can’t wait for that.  They’d call one another and devise a plan to help Mom, as if they were parents caucusing about how best to coach a child through an Algebra class.  Great, she would become a project.

I will be no one’s burden.

She snatched a pamphlet that had functioned just fine as a coffee coaster. There was a support meeting Thursday.  Did she have anything to lose?

 * * *

Her engine idled.  Parked in front of the community center, she’d let the meeting begin ten minutes ago. She imagined the small talk prior to the meeting, the kind you do at Easter with your in-laws.  Damn, this was going to be awful.  She would be a freak show among them, the granny whore who got tagged, someone to help them feel better about their own situation.  Turn off the engine and get out of this car.

She wedged herself in the back row among the well-groomed people, most of whom were facing forward.  Where’s the circle, where’s the Kleenex?  At least the coffee on the entryway table smelled fresh.  The last time she’d endured hard plastic chairs like this, she’d been sifting through magazines, waiting for Walter. Doctors were about to pull her into that room to tell her Walter’s last round of chemo didn’t take.  She’d already known—she’d felt the defeat in his drooping eyes as he moved slower to the bathroom, his shoulders sagging at the dinner table.  He would soon be gone.  She found her own Kleenex.  Why hadn’t the meeting started yet?

Everything tensed for a moment, like when the water quieted right before the tea kettle whistled.  A young man with longish hair, tattered jeans and a t-shirt too small for even his small frame had stepped before them.  He needed a bagel.

“Hello.”

“Hello.”

Sheep.  She just moved her lips.

“My name is Steven.  I got infected with HIV last year.  I was out partying; doing some meth, then went home with these two guys and had unprotected sex.”

Her thoughts wandered to her son, Brent; how adventurous had he been in his life?  Pictures of Anthony surfaced.  She stared at this child speaking, his hands trembling in the way they do when they’re hopeless.  His eyes studied the balled-up tissue in his hands, his voice wavering.  She felt this boy’s pain in a way that only the mother of a son could.  But these young men and women (could any of them be out of their 30s yet?)—some even looking too young to be in a bar much less someone fighting against this thing inside of her right now—couldn’t understand her pain or anger.  She didn’t feel cheated in the way that they probably did.  She had lived her life.  But she was done with the race, coasting on her hard work—her marriage, raising her children, embracing her retirement after Walter died.  This sounded selfish—perhaps pathetically naïve—but she would not breathe the oxygen in a room that couldn’t provide her with genuine hope.

A couple of people watched her scoot out the door.   Damn these creaking chairs. She needed coffee.  She opened the door and… oh shit.

When the door opened her eyes met Carol.  There, parked by the coffee table, pouring herself a cup.  Theresa.

“Hello, Carol.”  Her chilly voice was not surprised to see her.

Once the shock passed, circulation returned to her limbs.  She wished she’d handled this over the phone. “Theresa.”

“Bored?”  She dunked three sugar cubes in her Styrofoam cup and then blew the steam.  Carol wanted to smack those upturned eyes.  She’d found something tangible to hate in those pursed lips blowing air in that affected way.

“Yes, as a matter of fact.”

“I suppose you aren’t going to bother asking what I’m doing here.  And I in turn won’t ask you.  I suppose the answer is obvious.  Agreed?”  She’d resumed her blowing.

“As you like.”  Carol stepped towards the door.  Maybe she could skip the apology.

“Still thinking that you’ve been cheated, singled out for something you didn’t ask for and don’t deserve?”

Carol’s hand clutched the door handle as if it were the cord of a parachute.  Only God knew what words would leave her mouth if she turned around.  Perhaps she bit her tongue because she knew Theresa had every reason to despise her.  That taunting tone in Theresa’s voice didn’t help.  She watched Theresa’s reflection in the glass.  Carol’s finger tips burned.

“What, no response?  Same old Carol, the one who thinks life is all tidy and neat, and too complicated yet too easy to navigate unless you possess the necessary virtue and tested will.  Perhaps that is why you always loathed the mainstream books in our group.  Life doesn’t exist for everyone the way it does for you, you know.  Nor should it.”  She blew that damn coffee. “Sometimes people want to know that things can be resolved, that there is a chance for life to be like that too.  And sharing their lives on the page is no different than sitting in a room listening to one speak about problems you’ve never experienced but perhaps would kill for.  Perhaps you would rather have had blinders on forever or have had them removed earlier?”

The bitch had done it.  “I’m sorry if you hate me, Theresa.  But don’t dare judge me.  I have my demons, just as you must.”

“Demons.  Listen to you.  Save it for Anthony.”

Carol’s blood pressure rose.

“Silence again?  That is why you are here, right?  Because Anthony infected you?”

The sound of his name for the second time nipped at her ears, but she didn’t itch those ears, for fear that Theresa might notice.  Carol turned.  She wanted to draw strength from Theresa’s anger, but she saw peace in those eyes.  After a moment of silence, “I am sorry, Theresa, I really am, I…”

“Save it.  You’re not the only one.  And besides, if you’re feeling sorry for me, as if I never knew, about the others, about this disease, take your pity elsewhere.”  She approached and Carol stiffened.  She leaned into her ear and whispered:  “An old lover called me out of the blue a few months ago and told me.  Apparently, I’ve been infected for years and never knew.  So, you see, silly woman, as far as I know, I gave it to him.  As far as Anthony, well, for all I know, he has no idea.  So tell him if you like.  I suppose I should tell you why, satisfy what will be your curiosity, but why would I waste that explanation on you?”  She stepped back, and her eyes danced with victory.  She grabbed her coffee and walked through the doors. As they parted, a man’s voice filled the room.

 * * *

The next day, on the couch, one TV program bleed into another.  At least she’d left the bed.  The answering machine clicked.  Brent’s voice coasted through the speaker—the concern strangling his voice because he hadn’t heard from her in two weeks.  She’d bought a few days.  There had to be people like her, people to share with, people to learn from, people who would get her.  Her children were not these people.  Brent finally hung up.

She plied herself from the couch and entered the kitchen.  Oh, where the hell is that crap Sid gave her?  She explored the junk drawer.  Why did I have to go and bury it?  Oh, here it is.  Why do they make all the pamphlets with all the grim news look so colorful and alive?  Oh hell, where was some number she could call?  There, on the back, in that annoying warm blue.

I can’t do this.  I don’t want to do this.

She’d already tried the support group route.  What else was out there? That warm blue.  She pictured Theresa’s eyes so full of fire.  How long had she really known? Had she drawn some sick pleasure in knowing she’d probably infected him?  How many people had he infected without knowing?  Why hadn’t she called him or even taken his call?  Someday, maybe. The literature explained, the older you were, the harder it would be to maintain a healthy lifestyle.  She read.  The medications that were most effective didn’t work well for people—old people—like her, with her high blood pressure, potential liver problems.  Yeah, that’s what Sid had told her. Her heartbeat thumped and thumped.

She dialed the phone.  It rang.  Please don’t answer, please don’t answer.  Click, “Hello, Operation Outreach.”

“H-h-h-hi.  I wanted… I was wondering…”  The woman on the other end breathed with patience.  Carol eased.  If she didn’t do this, she would feel trapped for the rest of her life, as if she was hiding, hiding like Theresa, in the dark like Anthony, who was on the verge of having life snatched from him at any moment, not seeing the car barreling towards him, but could perhaps feel the trembling pavement.  Could any of this have been prevented?  A calm found her.  She felt like a stubborn lock that had finally given way.  She inhaled quickly. “Well, I wanted to know if you had any programs in my area so that I could volunteer.”

_________________________________________________________________________

About the Author

Originally from Southern California, Brad Windhauser lives in Center City, Philadelphia.  He has an M.A. in English/Creative Writing from Rutgers University (Camden campus) and an MFA in Creative Writing from Queens University of Charlotte. He has just started a new blog project, where, as a gay author, he chronicles his journey reading the Bible for the first time: http://www.BibleProjectBlog.com.  In addition, Brad is one of five regular contributors to 5Writers.com. He is also an Assistant Professor in the English Department at Temple University. His academic essay “The Power of Confession: the Closets of Dorian Gray” appeared in In-between: Essays & Studies in Literary Criticism (2005). A handful of his short stories have been published, most recently in The Baltimore Review (2008).  Regret, his first novel, was published in 2007, by Star Publishing.

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