The Waiting Room
“Michael?” I call out into the waiting room. The smell of fresh paint and flowers is overwhelming, almost making me want to retch. An unusual sun streamed in from the wood-and-glass roof, surely to be replaced soon enough by the inevitable rain. Still, being in a brand-new medical center was always better than the Victorian alternatives.
“Michael,” I say again to the half-dozen mainly young men also waiting to be seen. When the clinic is busy, you’d call out “Scott” or “Paul” or “Iain” and have three or four rush to the door together, thinking it was their turn.
Finally, a man in the corner looks up from his phone, picks up his satchel and overcoat, and heads straight for me with the air of someone killing time now finding themselves following a used car salesperson. He’s smartly dressed, not usually so, but deliberately. The maroon tie is silk, as is the shirt which was certainly purchased at a department store for no less than £80.
This Michael also has a waistcoat on under his suit jacket. Odd, I think, as the last man I saw wearing a waistcoat as well as a suit jacket was our head of department when he was off to an infectious disease conference.
Michael gives me a polite nod as I hold the door for him, then follows me straight down the corridor to my office. I say office, I mean the sitting room that I requisition for my volunteer counselling sessions.
“Take a seat,” I say, pointing to the oversized comfortable chair as I sit down in mine directly across from him, with only a low wooden table covered with sexual health literature between us. Now I take a longer look at him. Average … was about all I could say. Average height, slight build, plain face, dark hair.
He looks barely forty but … tired, like he hasn’t slept well in a very long time.
“Nice to meet you, Michael. My name’s Patrick. I’m here to listen, or have a chat, or try and answer any questions, anything at all. Some people find it difficult to talk to the doctor about these things. I know sometimes they can be a bit off-putting, so that’s why I’m here.”
“I know,” he says with a polite grin. “I’m also a doctor.”
“Oh… really?” A doctor named Michael. I lean forward, but as casually as I can. Do I know him? From a conference, perhaps. Or from one of Simon’s dinners. That was probably it. Simon knows just about everyone.
“Yes, I’m a surgeon, actually.” He coughs as if to emphasize what he’s just said and crosses his legs, then starts gently wringing his hands together like he doesn’t know what else to do with them. “It’s, uh, why I want to go on PrEP, actually. If I get infected, I could lose my job.”
“Ah, I understand. Well, you know PrEP is only effective when taken correctly, and it won’t protect you from other risks. You can still contract other infections, gonorrhoea, chlamydia—”
“No, I know all that. I just need, you know, another layer of protection. I’m using condoms, don’t worry.” He says it with so much pent-up stress I fear he might explode.
“Michael, there’s a whole range of methods we can use nowadays. First of all, if you have a regular partner who is undetectable, they are un-infectious, even without condoms. Do you have a regular partner at the moment?”
“No, no, I don’t.” Michael looks not just at me, but through me, through time itself, and I look back at him. I can’t tell if he only now is figuring out who I am, or if he already knows and is trying to decide when exactly I’d sussed him out. He shifts again in the chair and crosses his legs on the other side. “I’m getting divorced, and—”
“Oh, I’m sorry to hear. Were you and your husband together for a long time?”
“Wife,” he says, clearing his throat. “My wife and I are getting a divorce and … well, Patrick, you know what it’s like to be single.” He says it with an arrogant smile. Not a smile, a smirk, as if we’d binned all niceties and pretenses. Like he might pull a latex glove and a bottle of poppers from his satchel and expect me to bend over like old times.
I smile gently in return, professionally, then raise my hand and shake my ring finger.
“Oh,” the smirk drains from his face. “Congratulations. How long?”
I blow out my cheeks and try to do some arithmetic in my head. “When did it come in, 2014?”
Michael nods. How funny, I think, that a married straight man remembers when Scotland introduced same-sex marriage. I wonder if that morning he’d opened the paper next to his missus and made some snarky comment that I still hear now and then from the middling classes.
“Coming up for five years now then, I guess.” I sense a silent chasm swallowing us both up if I dare to stop talking, even for a moment. “So do you have any more questions about PrEP?”
“No. I’ve done a lot of reading. It’s more for that extra layer of security, you know, because of my job so … I’d just like to get started as soon as I can.”
“I completely understand. Well you’ll need to take another test to make sure you’re negative before you start, and then the doctor will—”
“You’re… you’re not the doctor? I thought—”
“No,” I say with the laugh I always use when people confuse me with a professional. “I’m only a volunteer counselor. I’m a solicitor, actually. We both are. Well, Simon is a judge now. I just do this for fun. You never know who you might meet.”
“Okay,” Michael says, standing up with his satchel and overcoat ready to go. “Well, thanks, Patrick.” He starts for the door, then quickly stops himself, turns back and sticks out his hand. I take in the entirety of him, of the fragments of our moments together crystallizing in my memory. I reach out with mine.
We did not shake, not as men do, anyway. We just hold hands, softly, loosely, as two old lovers might when life has led them down different roads and they meet once again.
“I hope you’ve stopped smoking,” I say, knowing it would likely be the last thing I would ever say to him.
He grins, but genuinely this time. “I have other vices these days.”
The door closes, and then he’s gone.
I look at the pamphlets on the table that lay between us, the ones I should have given him to take away. He didn’t need them, though. Some people have already done the research, and already reached the conclusion PrEP is right for them. Good for them, I always think.
In the quiet sitting room, I think back to fifteen years ago when Michael and I met. It’s a small feeling, tiny, almost non-existent. Fifteen years before that, two ex-lovers meeting in a hospital waiting room, even if one was a counselor and the other a doctor, could only mean bad news. We would have been better off being two prisoners on death row. At least they had the option of clemency.
The science and physiology haven’t changed. The drugs one would have taken in 2005 did the same job they do now—preventing transmission whether taken by someone who is positive or negative. But Michael has changed. I’ve changed. How we look at ourselves and sex has changed. I think about our moments together, the conflation of events that happened to us over a few, soon forgotten weeks. At that moment in time, we were as far from the awful days of 1990 as I am from that memory now. How time changes us all.
Now Michael and I are just two ex-lovers, meeting in a hospital waiting room, one giving the other advice about PrEP, one reminding the other of the fear that used to permeate our world and stalk us like ghouls.
I had never been gladder that I’ve always chosen to live in the daylight.
—Harry F. Rey
Harry F. Rey writes sex-positive stories that explore authentic queer lives and loves. He is the author of the queer sci-fi series The Galactic Captains, and the royal gay thriller series The Line of Succession, along with a number of short stories. His forthcoming novel All the Lovers is a sex-positive coming of age tale dealing with sex, hook-ups, love and HIV in a pre-Grindr world. It will be published by Deep Desires Press later this year. You can find him on Twitter @Harry_F_Rey.