“The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.”—H.P. Lovecraft
[dropcap]E[/dropcap]ighth grade, I was playing four square during recess with my fellow St. Luke’s Lutheran schoolmates. A horde of cheerleaders appeared. They were led by Ashley, a thin wisp of tan blonde.
“You hang out with Nikki Jenson, don’t you?”
I nodded. “I’m dating her.” Nikki was a freshman from CHS, a public school; to most cheer-team girls, public schoolers were poor, did heroin, and carried murderin’ knives. Knives just for murderin’.
I stepped out of the game. Irritated, I said, “So what?”
In Ashley’s wake were her cheer-team tentacles, their hair flowing and flapping like Medusa’s.
“And you’ve, you know, done stuff with her?” Ashley said.
“I guess so, yeah. Some stuff.”
Ashley scoffed, flipped her hair. Cascading, all the heads behind her flipped their hair. “You know what she has, right?”
I shook my head. A dead mom? A dad who sends checks to her foster parent?
Ashley set her hands on her hips. “AIDS. She has the AIDS, Danny. Now you do, too.”
Synchronized, they turned away. Budding hips swaying in rhythm, they strutted back to their lair, the swingset.
Thirteen years old, I had AIDS.
Magic Johnson. I knew he had it. But what was AIDS? Our school had no computer to Google; my parents’ house had no Internet; the library’s limited hours (9 a.m.–5 p.m.) meant I could never catch a ride across town. I had no reliable person I could comfortably ask; I was the oldest brother—Tim and Mike, too young to help. Mom, she’d be too fixated on some Lifetime flick to do more than nod absentmindedly.
Oh! Freddie Mercury, too. Lead singer of Queen. He died from AIDS.
If Mr. I-Wrote-Bohemian-Rhapsody couldn’t survive it, I knew I was in trouble.
That night, I lay in bed, making my will.
To Mike, I bequeath my N64 (even the Zelda games) and J Reynolds electric guitar.
To Tim, I bequeath my aluminum bats, baseball mitts, and jerseys: Griffey Jr., Reggie White, Richie Sexon, Brett Favre.
St. Luke’s Lutheran hadn’t taught us about sex. Sex and its branching topics were taboo. You avoided sex—the topic and the act until marriage. Our Pastor’d said, If she bleeds the night of your wedding, then you know she’s pure.
She’s going to bleed?
Early that year, Mr. Sven tried. He popped in an 80’s VHS; I later found out he was forbidden to show this video, but it didn’t matter. A minute into the film, a kid tried holding in a sneeze and let out an avalanche of flatulence. The tee-hee-haw-hawing never stopped, so Sven gave up, turned off the VHS. Even today, you ask those kids about sex education, and that’s all they remember. A torrent of motorcycle farts.
I’d heard (and repeated) AIDS/HIV jokes from Dad’s favorite comedians—Carlin, Murphy, Pryor, Williams. But now it wasn’t a joke. It was reality. Like for Mercury and Magic.
I was going to die, right?
Couldn’t ask Dad—a church elder, a leader of the flock. I could only imagine that conversation:
A cordial, firm handshake.
“Got a Q for you.”
“Whatcha know about AIDS? ’Cuz I may have got me some. Yes, I know I’m thirteen and a virgin. But, live and let live…?”
A devout Christian, he probably knew as much as I did.
He’d probably ask, Isn’t that the Magic Johnson disease?
I couldn’t ask the Pastor, with his jowls and jiggly turkey-gobbler neck; judgment loomed too readily like a batter on-deck. Sodom, Gomorrah, he’d bring up. Onan, the prostitute Aholibah, and all the Roman lechers.
And no Internet at my fingertips.
Sitting cross-legged on the carpet in Dad’s bedroom, I folded back his paperback dictionary:
AIDS. Disease of the immune system characterized by increased vulnerability to cancers, such as Kaposi’s sarcoma, and neurological disorders.
Didn’t a Kaposi used to pitch for the Mariners?
Then I remembered the dusty classroom encyclopedia set. The “A” Encyclopedia. Yes, that’d work, I thought as I laid sleepless in my Space Jam sheets, staring at the white ceiling.
Nikki and I, we’d kissed; I’d squeezed and poked unfamiliar parts of her. Quite romantic. But that was it. She wasn’t a virgin. She’d bragged about this to me, about the guys who wanted her, about guys who’d already had her. But I was a virgin, so could I still get it? Was it like a cold? Or third-grade cooties? I didn’t understand. I just knew she wasn’t a virgin, and she had it, which meant I did, too.
Ashley’d said so.
I prayed, wriggling and sweating in bed. In religion, death is a win. Eternal bliss, a room with a view. But I wasn’t ready—too afraid. Fear and hopelessness except in death is a horrible way to see this world, and this night sparked my first foray into an endless battle with anxiety; the unsettling fear of the unknown.
During devotion the next morning, I hid the “A” encyclopedia on my lap, searching to learn my prognosis. I thought of the jokes I’d made after watching episodes of South Park. Insensitive. Detached. I didn’t get it. I had no clue.
The encyclopedia was no help.
But I wanted to backtrack. Correct my errors.
After school, I bought a sports magazine from Bob’s Mart with my paper route money. I hoped to find Magic Johnson’s address. I wanted to apologize to him via snail-mail. I wanted to ask advice. Terrified, I needed support. Who better than Magic himself?
I took Nikki to a movie. Just Married with Ashton Kutcher and Brittany Murphy. I held Nikki’s hand so tight for so long that she looked at me, pulling our sweaty hands apart.
“Are you okay?” she said, rubbing her thumb against my cheek.
“I’m sorry. I’m just—my brain feels like it’s on ’roids.”
I hadn’t found Magic’s address in the magazine. Why’d I think they’d have his contact info listed in Sports Illustrated?
She kissed my cheek. “I’m sorry. If I can do anything,” she said, rubbing my leg. “You just let me know.”
When she did this, I thought I loved her. Even though I was dying because of this relationship, I thought I loved her. Her smile. Her smell. Pina colada shampoo. Cinnamon gum. That she seemed to care. Compassion shown to me when I was most afraid; it was no different than why I paid attention during sermons: the fear-induced law followed by comforting gospel. Fear then redemption. Comfort—insane itching followed by calamine lotion.
I leaned over and kissed her hair. “I’m dying.” Dramatic. Lifetime Movie Network.
She pulled away. “What?”
“You have…it?” I said.
The guy behind me kicked my seat and shushed us.
“You know.” I said.
She shook her head, her hand holding my hairless chin.
“AIDS,” I whispered.
She laughed at me, and then checked my response. I had my “I’m serious” face on. She scoffed and stood up. Her thin body cast a shadow onto the screen. Guy behind us hushed a threat at her.
Nikki said, “You think I gave you AIDS?”
“Do you know how you get AIDS?”
I shook my head.
“Do you even understand what it is?”
“You don’t have it. I don’t either,” she said, her body moving in sync with the giant Brittany Murphy on-screen. “You’re a clueless idiot.” She walked down the floor-lit aisle.
I felt light, like my head was ballooning upwards and I held onto the ribbon string like a happy child. Throughout the rest of the rom-com, I wondered what else I hadn’t been taught, and what else I’d gotten wrong in my life.
Nikki called that night. She’d been “sleeping with a few” of the JV football players; at first, my gut screamed now they have it! But then I remembered I knew nothing.
Her cheating on me should’ve bothered me more, but I was too relieved that day.
If I had gotten in contact with Magic, I think he’d tell me knowledge can subdue fear, and I like that.
D. W. Anderson’s writing has been published in Colorado Review, Cream City Review, Flash Fiction Press, and his forthcoming novel, Drunk in the Warm Glow, will be released in fall 2016.