the short story project


The Test

“I’m here for the AIDS test,” Michele rehearsed standing outside the building on West 13th Street in Greenwich Village. Her therapist told her this clinic would test anonymously as he wrote out the address. Walk-ins were fine. The gray entrance door had dirty horizontal stripes under the lintel, some fading, like someone started a graded watercolor wash but gave up. There wasn’t a sign for the clinic, just rusted metal numbers nailed into the brick above the door. Michele pulled out the crumpled paper with the information from her coat pocket. Smoothing it out, she checked she was at the right address.
Shivering in the early April breeze, she pulled her lightweight coat tighter around her thin frame. If she tested negative, would her children have to get tested? If she tested positive…she couldn’t allow herself to think of that. It was 1985. AIDS was a death sentence. Tears stung Michele’s eyes. How could she face such a thing? “Stop it, shut up, just go.” she hissed. Looking around, she was relieved to see she was alone on the street.
Michele wiped the tears escaping down her cheeks. Her watch showed 3:30 in the afternoon. She took vacation time from work to get this done. If she would just move, she could get it over with and get home to her new single-mom, head-of-household life. Brushing blond bangs from her eyes and adjusting her glasses, she stepped into the vestibule.
A dim wall light hung over the directory that looked like a menu in a greasy spoon. The “Clini “ was in room 3H. Looking to the left up the stairs, she saw the lighting on the first landing was brighter than that by the elevator further down the hall, so she started up the stairs to the third floor. The walls looked like they had been painted with French’s Classic Yellow mustard. The bare floor, with its swirls of white, brown and black, tried to look like marble. Her steps echoed.
Maybe they’ll ask when the last time we had sex was, she thought. When was the last time? Michele stopped. Gripping the rail, she realized she couldn’t remember, and it saddened her that she thought in terms of having sex, not making love. Michele continued climbing.
A sign on the third floor wall pointed left to 3H. Her heels clicking against the floor announced she was coming, so Michele tiptoed when she reached room 3F, passed 3G and quietly came to room 3H. Its door was that same mustard yellow, but peeling paint revealed it used to be maroon. Large black letters, “Clinic – Testing”, covered the upper half. Michele rang the bell. Almost immediately the buzz let her in, like she was expected despite her tiptoeing.
The waiting room was small and drab with a dark floral carpet. Low lighting. Muted fabrics. One small window with closed Venetian blinds all the way to the sill. A foot-worn path led to a desk where a girl sat protected by a clear plastic barrier.
“I’m here for an AIDS test,” Michele said softly into the small circle cutout.
“Sure. Please sign in at that table by that door,” she said pointing to Michele’s right.
“Do you need any information? Do I need to answer any questions?”
No, just sign in, in that notebook, and take a seat. Someone will be with you soon.”
When she opened the book, Michele saw pages of signatures: Mickey Mouses, Donald Ducks, Bozos, Albert Camus and Mary Browns. She signed in as Leigh Smith. She liked the spelling of that first name. That last name could be anyone. Heading for a puffy brown chair in a corner she sank into it, wedging her purse next to her like a bulwark.
Scanning the room, there were couples, singles, people who looked perfectly fine, people who looked ill. Everyone sat as if he or she was the only one there. No one met another’s eyes, no chitchat. A fleeting thought came to her to feel badly for all those people, but she didn’t. She worried about herself.
Turning to stare at the Venetian blinds, Michele chewed on one nail after another, trapped in thought. All this because of that night. That was when Frank came out. Her husband, the father of her children, confessed he was gay. Confessed he always was. Confessed he hid that part of his life. Confessed, now, he had fallen in love with another man. Confessed he couldn’t stay. Michele could still feel the punch in her gut as he spoke. Kept that secret all these years. Lived a double life. Not any kind of apology. He hoodwinked me. But then came, How could I have not seen anything? How could I have been so stupid?”
A girl called out, “Leigh Smith.” Startled, Michele looked up and the girl smiled. “Please come this way,” she said as Michele approached. The girl led the way through the door near the sign-in table, down a hall, to a white room with a desk strewn with manila envelopes and lab sheets. “Just have a seat and wait here. A technician will be in soon.”
Michele sat down in front of the desk. Nausea started in her stomach, inching its way to her throat. She stood up and started pacing to force it down. She was taking deep breaths and exhaling when a tall, young man wearing a white coat breezed in carrying a black case.
“Hi,” he said pushing papers around the desk to make room for his case. “You ok?”
“Yes, I’m fine.”
“My name’s Bill. What test are you here for?” he asked while he raked his hand through his dark hair.
“AIDS,” she whispered.
“I’m sorry?”
“AIDS” she answered louder.
“OK, just have a seat.” He pointed to a chair with a long armrest.
Bill walked to a sink she hadn’t noticed and washed his hands as he explained the procedure. Michele couldn’t stop watching him as he walked to the desk and pulled out packets of alcohol rub, gloves, and sealed plastic bags holding test tubes, a syringe and a rubber tube from the black case.
“It’s more than one tube?” she asked.
“Yeah, it’s three but I only stick you once.”
Bill picked an envelope and lab sheet from the desk. Michele’s feet tapped double-time to the wall clock’s second hand as, one by one, Bill peeled off numbers from the lab sheet and affixed them to the envelope and test tubes. She clasped her hands to keep them still.
I want to get out of here. she thought. “I can’t watch,” she said.
“Not a problem. You can look away, look down, wherever.”
Michele heard the rip of the alcohol packet, then felt cool moisture on the crook of her arm. A shiver went up her spine. Latex fingers poking. “You have a great vein there,” Bill commented. He tied the rubber tube. “Now just keep your arm straight and make a fist. Hold still. This’ll be quick.” She held her breath when she felt the sting. “Please God, please make this test negative!” The sound of Bill clicking caps on test tubes filled the room. And then it was over. Michele dutifully applied pressure on the cotton ball until the Band-Aid was in place.
“Call this number in a week to check if your results are in,” Bill said as he handed her a card. “Your lab number is right next to it. Reference that number when you call. Would you like to speak to someone today? There’re counselors here. Of course, we’ll discuss your results and any options, if necessary, when your test is in. But, if you want to speak to a counselor now, you can.”
“Um,” she stalled. Fear gripped her. Michele couldn’t bring herself to speak with a strange counselor now, even in this safe lab, because she couldn’t bear the possibility of someone, anyone, asking, “How could you possibly not have known?”

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