What We Give, What We Take
excerpts from the novel by Randi Triant
When my trailer burned down last year due to faulty electrical wiring, I moved in with Spin. It was the first time I’d lived in a home that didn’t have wheels or cement blocks underneath it. His house is a small purple Cape off Commercial Street, the main street in Provincetown.
Out back, in a garage, Spin’s got a lab—“the still”—that would rival any biotech firm. It’s always best to put yourself front and center to avoid attention. Spin agrees. Small-town cops normally don’t think the drug trade lives in a garage painted fuchsia and surrounded by iris beds.
Spin’s wiry from his head to his thin feet. He’s usually dressed in a wife beater, tight cutoffs, and some Converse high tops, one purple, one yellow. It’s not my style, which is khakis and a pressed shirt. Evidence that I came from an imaginary good home. People who live here think we’re lovers, but we’re not. We’re not even friends. I stick to picking up women in town only for a short stay.
As much as I try not to get involved, I’m worried about Spin. He’s HIV-positive and while he’s always been compact, now he’s shading into the land of the skinny.
“Have you been dipping into the still?” I ask him. We’re eating breakfast in the backyard—currant scones that he baked. The man is a constant source of surprise.
He stops mid-chew, the scone filling out his cheek like a chipmunk with a nut.
“Nooo,” he says.
“You okay?” I press on, although an old voice inside my head from my childhood is saying, Back away.
He swallows. His Adam’s apple seems like a big goiter to me.
“I’m all right,” he says, confidently, but then looks away too quickly.
There’s a part of me that wants to ask him again about how he’s feeling, to force him to tell me the truth, but that other voice is back, the one that keeps me alone, safe. Don’t say a word.
Gathering our crumb-filled plates and dirty coffee cups together, he walks toward the house. Spin’s having a hard enough time as it is. He doesn’t need me telling him how sick he’s starting to look. To point out to him how he’s never going to be accepted by the men he pursues: dark-haired, strong jaw-lined boys whose bodies ripple as they strut through town. He doesn’t have the mandatory GI Joe good looks. His hair is all wrong. No matter how he grooms it, it’s the inside of an electrical box.
The truth is, though, I have the same genetic flaw as my mother: We’re experts at excusing ourselves as soon as anyone demands some sort of involvement.
During the hot, summer days in Provincetown, the scorching sun at the beach gets on everyone’s nerves.
Some days at three when my shift ends, Spin takes a break from the “still,” stopping at the PO on his way to the beach.
“Wanna come?” he asks. I tell him no and that’s that. I avoid going to the beach. It’s not that I don’t love the ocean or the sight of a pretty woman, in a bikini the width of dental floss. I got polio as a kid. Sand is not exactly a steady surface for a forty-year-old man with two crutches.
But when he comes by this afternoon and asks me, I’m still feeling bad this morning.
It takes us an hour to walk what everyone else does in minutes. We’ve drawn more stares than if we were buck naked. My white shirt is unbuttoned. I’m drenched in sweat. With my khakis, I’m wearing my heavy oxfords. Not exactly beach attire.
“He’s driven,” one of the gay boys says about me as we pass by.
Spin snaps our blanket in the dead air. He smooths it over the hot sand. He practically hops up and down he’s so happy. His thin chest looks even scrawnier against the expanse of sea and sky. He has the physique of a boy who builds sandcastles. He’s wearing a backpack, adding to the schoolboy illusion.
Throwing my sticks down, I find a spot on the blanket and sit.
“Aren’t you hot with that shirt?” he asks as he unshoulders his pack. I know what he wants. He wants me to lift the curtain, wow the audience. My small, rippled waist leading up to broad shoulders, the muscular arms—this is his bait for the sharks circling around us.
He lies on his stomach, facing me, eyes closed, his toes tapping the blanket. Immediately, I notice it. A purple lesion, dime size, on the back of his thigh. It should be hidden by his shorts, but he’s cut this pair too high.
I look away and watch two men in the water. They’re grimacing as the water inches up their thighs.
It’s no good. I’m drawn back to that lesion. Maybe I hadn’t seen it correctly. The afternoon sun can transform the beautiful into the ugly: a sunburn in a dark club looks healthy, on the beach it’s painful to look at. Maybe it’s not a lesion. Maybe it’s a spider bite. A mysterious grape stain.
It’s a lesion. The more I stare at it, the more it seems to throb. Should I tell him? That second voice of mine kicks in: Not your problem.
“Take off your shirt,” Spin murmurs. “Everyone’s staring at us.” This is, of course, exactly what he wants. But does he? With that angry sore on his leg?
“Roll over, will you? I can’t talk to you that way.”
He opens one eyelid.
“Roll over,” I say. Still, Spin doesn’t move. I take off my shirt and he flips over.
Minutes later, he starts to turn his body again, but I stop him with my hand on his shoulder. I’ve never touched him before. I’ve gone out of my way to avoid it. Touching someone is open to interpretation. But I don’t care what message I’m sending as I grab his shoulder, other than don’t move. He stares at my fingers on his bicep.
“Don’t,” I say quietly.
“Don’t what?” He smiles.
“There’s a lesion on your leg.”
“What?” His smile falters. He tries to lift his head, but I’m still holding him down.
“On the back of your leg.”
“Shit.” He closes his eyes. “What am I going to do?”
I think he means now, but when his eyes open, they’re wet.
“How long?” I ask him. He doesn’t answer me. He doesn’t have to. Somewhere in me I know.
Nearby sunbathers are pulling their stuff together, umbrellas are folded, sand chairs gathered. It’s time for T-dance where they’ll show off their glistening bodies, dancing with wild abandon, proud of how full of life their bodies are. How good their lives are. How much they’re loved.
I place my shirt on Spin’s chest. “Here. Put this around your waist.”
He massages the collar before he sits up, ties the shirt around his waist. “Pete, I’ve wanted to tell you—”
“There’s a trailer for rent,” I interrupt him. Whatever it is he wants to tell me . . . it can’t be good. “I’m looking at it at six tonight. I really appreciate you letting me stay temporarily.”
It’s a lie, of course. I hate myself for saying it. But how can I take care him? I don’t know the first thing about taking care of anyone, other than myself. I don’t know the first thing about sickness or death.
“Well, that’s great,” Spin says, forcing a smile. I want to slap him hard to make him angry. It would be easier for me then. For him to grab one of my sticks and smack the living daylights out of me. Better yet, take the goddamn sticks with you, so I’m left until a park ranger comes and takes pity on me. Let me fry in this fucking sun.
But Spin isn’t angry, or at least he’s not showing he is. He knows I’m leaving when he needs me most. Still, he says in the gentlest voice, “We should get going then. You don’t want to miss your appointment.”
He stands and then starts to pull the blanket out from under me.
Randi Triant is the author of the novels What We Give, What We Take (April, 2022), The Treehouse, selected as an AfterEllen ultimate summer read, and A New Life. Her short stories have appeared previously in literary journals and magazines, including A&U and two anthologies of writing about HIV/AIDS, Art & Understanding: Literature from the First Twenty Years of A&U and Fingernails Across the Blackboard: Poetry and Prose on HIV/AIDS from the Black Diaspora. She has taught writing at Boston College and Emerson College. She lives with her wife in Massachusetts.