No Funny Business
by Liam O’Brien
“Would you like to see my place?” Sam asked, and tapped his hand, anxious, on my knee. “No funny business.”
“Sure,” I said.
He drove me deep into the woods. Those ruts full of mud, and the dimness between the trees. Eventually came a clearing, and a field, then the house. Shingled, rambling, trellised for grapes and wisteria. I took off my shoes. We went up the spiral stair to his kitchen, where he showed me a chair and offered iced Lipton. The room was done in red. Art nouveau posters, and a hardy pale miniature of Michelangelo’s David on a side table. That luminous rainy light, coming in through many windows.
“Oh,” I said, “did you know a lot of surgeons use David as a model for trans guy cocks?”
“That’s so interesting,” he said, not blushing. He looked at the statue. “I guess it makes sense.”
I finished the awful tea. I said, “Hey, I know you said no funny business, but if you’d like to, I would.”
He said, “I would too. But there’s something you should know.”
Hang on, I thought. That’s my line.
“I’m positive,” he said.
“Oh, that’s fine.” No thinking. As easy as if it were easy. He came and bent over my chair and kissed me. I was shivering.
In his bedroom, the windows were open. Rain on the screens, and a light wind coming through. I shivered more once I took off my clothes. It smelled like new mowing. Sweet peas, dahlias. But all very wet and chill.
“Tell me what you like,” he said.
I sucked his cock, no condom. We used one when he fucked me, but he didn’t last. He said he was sorry, that happened a lot. I said don’t worry, and used my mouth on him again—that slight rubber taste on his skin. He couldn’t come. He said it had been a while. We lay in the sheets, still cold, shivery. I held the back of his neck in my hand. He fucked me with his hand later, and I did come. And he drove me home.
When I sleep with poz guys now, I joke to myself that we’re going on each other’s resumes. A little curiosity.
In 1991, Lou Sullivan died of “AIDS-related complications.” He was thirty-nine. “I took a certain pleasure,” he wrote, “in informing the gender clinic that even though their program told me I could not live as a Gay man, it looks like I’m going to die like one.”
Lou was slight, with a funny oval face. He looked great with a parrot on his shoulder. An interviewer once asked him if he was happy in his choice to live as a gay man, despite the apparent “price” he was paying. “I couldn’t think of any other way to live or spend my time,” Lou said.
One of my friends made gold medallions with Lou Sullivan’s face on them, in the style of a Catholic saint medal. St. Lou. The back reads “Our Father of Open Gates.” I wear mine most of the time.
B and I stood outside the big university hospital one spring, after he’d had blood drawn for an HIV test. He was eating an energy bar. I was a little shaky. I never get used to these tests, getting them or going with friends, no matter how many. The hospital building is brick and glass. Across the road from where we stood in brief sunshine, someone had lowered an enormous flag to half-mast.
“I wonder what that’s for,” I said.
“Nancy Reagan,” said B.
Neither of us spat or anything.
There were two poz men I knew, growing up on the island. One teacher at the high school, a mentor, a talented actor. I learned his status only recently. Larry had an article in the local paper in 2008, so I knew about him. He drove the bus that runs from one end of the island to the other. The largest smile. And something about his face—a look of being preserved in brine. Cured?
“Preserve your virginity, children,” he says in the article. I would get on his bus and sit right up front, near him, wanting to speak. It was as if a force came out of him, friendly but completely stilling. I couldn’t say a thing.
I still see him from time to time, take a ride on his bus. I think dirty thoughts about him, daydreams he’d maybe disapprove of. Does anyone really use dental dams, Larry?
Our friend Bryn died in January, 2016. She was poz, and she killed herself: would you call that a complication? We went to the Cathedral of St. John the Divine for her memorial. It was too cold that night, and too dark to see the round bright blue of my favorite stained-glass window. The place was full of trans boys in suits—Bryn had a thing for us. A big thing, actually. She was always dating trans men and making fun of them.
But really, the cathedral was full, and it’s a big place. And most of the people filling it were trans. I cannot describe how strange that felt. Layers of black cloth, white cloth, black cloth. Some in pink or gold.
We sang “What Wond’rous Love is This?” and “There is a Balm in Gilead.” Prayers, candles, censers, all the “smells and bells.” Jack Waters read one of her stories aloud—“Other Balms, Other Gileads.” Heather Acs read the “Tiger Blood Litany.”
“YOU HAVE TIGER BLOOD AND ADONIS DNA,” Bryn wrote. “YOU ARE EVOLVED BEYOND THE GRASP OF A MERE VIRUS THAT HAS CLAIMED THE LIVES OF 39 MILLION PEOPLE.”
It’s futuristic. Shades of the cyborg self, the one that clings on with titanium fingers. There were bursts of emotion as Heather read, coming in clusters, moving across the cathedral. By the time we sang, “Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing,” I was crying too hard to hit a single note without cracking.
It’s not possible for any gay death to happen outside HIV/AIDS. I don’t think it is. Father Angelus, my grandfather’s best friend, died in a hospital in New Jersey in 2016. He was eighty-two. I think it was his heart.
“Do you think Angie’s gay?” my grandfather asked me and my boyfriend once.
“Gosh, I don’t know,” I said.
“I’d have to know him longer,” Stephen said.
“I think he is.” Da was driving, and his hands on the wheel were trembling, as they have for years. “I always used to wonder.”
Angie retired from his parish in New York City several years ago. Da said he was too radical for the bishop. Before his retirement, he did HIV counseling at a Catholic center. He started a shelter for homeless men, and an interfaith series of lectures on tolerance.
After he was sent to New Jersey, Angie told me, he missed going to see live jazz.
“Some nights I take New Jersey Transit in and go to the Fat Cat or Birdland,” he said. “I stay too late to get the train back, so I just sort of drowse in the hallway until they start running again.”
We were at a family reunion. He was always invited. He showed up that day in turquoise corduroy jeans, a pink polo with a red plaid shirt over it, and a single pink gemstone earring. A terrible outfit, but he was a beautiful man. Even at eighty? Because he was eighty? I wonder what it is that I find beautiful. The eyes get very tender. The bones are fine, and the skin is loose and soft. What do I want, when I desire older men? Do I want to fuck my history, the men I would have loved, who died before that could happen? Or do I want to fuck my future, the men I could become? I want to hold on in both directions. I cleave to who’s still here.
I would have spent the night, gladly, with my grandfather’s friend. I would have gone to the jazz clubs with him, holding him in the hallway until the trains began again.
Liam O’Brien grew up on a small island. Recent work has appeared in the HIV Here & Now Project, New South, The Iowa Review, the Lambda Literary Spotlight, Electric Literature, and the Denver Quarterly. He recently completed his MFA at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where he was an Iowa Arts Fellow. He is one of the founding editors of Vetch: A Magazine of Trans Poetry & Poetics.