When I Was … Thirty-Five
by David Heulfryn
I didn’t see too much of Jack after he was married, but when we did meet, we both knew we weren’t growing apart. Jack’s priorities had changed, he and Holly had a small family now, a girl and a boy, so their time was devoted to their kids. We did manage to get together occasionally, but as we grew older, we didn’t drink so much.
On the other hand, I was single. I had just broken up with my boyfriend of six months and was slowly finding myself getting over him.
What happened next felt like a fist to the guts.
My ex-boyfriend rang me.
I hadn’t got rid of his number from my phone yet, so I was surprised when his name popped up on the screen.
“Hello.” I tried to sound unemotional.
“Hi, Rob. It’s Marc.”
I had been falling in love with Marc when he broke up with me; he didn’t give any reason except that it wasn’t working out for him, and he just walked away. It was one of the few times that I had cried on Jack’s shoulder.
“What do you want?” I sounded stern, determined he wasn’t going to leave me an emotional wreck again. I had to keep my armour up.
“I have something to tell you.”
“No, Rob. It’s important.” Only Marc called me Rob, I much preferred Robbie, but he always said it made me sound like a little kid. Slowly my name became Rob. Only Jack now called me Robbie, which always made it feel more special.
“What is it?” I sounded impatient. I didn’t want to speak to him and get sucked into whatever melodrama he had gotten himself into.
“Look, Rob. I wouldn’t call unless I really had to. I know I hurt you, and what I have to say isn’t going to be easy.”
Marc was a coward. He didn’t have the guts to break up with me in person; he did it by phone.
And he was still a coward.
That breakup call left me an emotional wreck. This second call left me a physical wreck. The moment we hung up, I dashed to the bathroom and vomited. I missed the bowl, and it went over the floor and over my clothes.
I called Jack; I needed him.
Jack found me lying on the bathroom floor. I must have passed out as he shook me awake.
“What’s wrong, Robbie? Are you sick?” Jack’s voice was low and calm. It seemed to soothe me. He noticed the dried vomit on my chin and shirt. The bathroom smelt rank.
“It’s Marc.” I blubbed.
“What’s that bastard done to you?” He said through gritted teeth.
It took all my will to stop my stomach retching so I could speak. “He’s positive. And he could have given it to me?” I broke down, hitting my head on the bathroom floor, tears streamed down my face.
Jack came to hold me.
I flinched and pushed him away. “Don’t touch me! I don’t want to give it to you.” I shouted and slid away from him, putting the furthest distance between us I could in my small bathroom. I curled up in the corner, shivering.
Jack grabbed my shoulders and shook me until I looked at him. “You’re not thinking straight, Robbie. Even if you are positive, I can’t get it from touching you.”
I knew he was right. I was just scared, terrified more like. Mainly for me, but also for Jack in case I had contracted HIV from Marc.
Marc and I gave up using condoms when I thought we were in a stable monogamous relationship. But this wasn’t the case. He had been fucking people behind my back. He claimed to be faithful to my face, and my blind love made me believe and see any signs to the contrary.
I threw myself at Jack and held him tight. “I’m scared, Jack. I don’t want to die. I was always so careful, you know that.”
Jack patted my back, “I know, Robbie.”
“I didn’t know; I thought we were settled, I thought we loved each other. How can he play Russian Roulette with our lives? He should’ve just said I wasn’t enough for him.”
I think Jack was crying as he held me.
“First thing in the morning, we’ll book a test. Make sure we know. We can then take it from there.” Jack made sense and him taking control soothed me.
I pulled back from Jack; his eyes were red.
He sniffed away some tears, “You stink.”
We both looked down at my puke stained clothes, and I looked at Jack’s. As we hugged, I dirtied his shirt with my vomit.
“Let’s get you in the bath.” Jack stood up and started to draw a bath. I stripped down and got in.
Jack left me lying in the bath while he cleaned the bathroom. I felt guilty that he had to clear up my mess, but Jack was a good friend. He chucked my clothes into the washing machine, and it seems some of his, as he came back into the bathroom in just his underwear.
I laughed. “Married life has certainly changed you. Since when do you wear baggy y-fronts?”
Jack looked down at his grey underpants, “since Holly started buying my clothes.”
“I remember when you started wearing small, tight briefs. They looked so good on you.” I sighed at looked at the wall. I was tired.
Jack carried on reminiscing, knowing it would take my mind off what Marc had told me. “You remember when we were nine, we came back to my place covered in mud. We’d been playing by the brook, and I slipped in. You were hysterical.”
I smiled thinking about it. “And you were crying. Afraid to go home in such a state.”
“And you jumped in to join me. You got dirtier than I did.”
I twisted my head to look at Jack; he was smiling. “You looked so sad standing in that brook covered in mud. I thought if I joined you, then you wouldn’t feel so alone.”
“And it worked, I stopped crying, and we laughed all the way home.” Jack smiled.
“Your Mum was mad, though. I’d never seen her so mad. She was furious; her face went so red I thought she would explode.”
“She made us strip outside the front door down to our skivvies, which were still quite clean, and she made us have a bath together.”
“I remember. I was so scared of her that I did everything she said. I didn’t care that she saw my winkie.”
Jack gave out a deep belly laugh as he remembered what I used to call my cock in those days.
“I was so embarrassed being naked in front of you that I covered myself up with my hands and jumped in the bath. I’m surprised you never tried to look.”
“I would have if I wasn’t so scared of your mum.”
Jack pulled down his y-front and stood in front of me, naked. I looked at him; he was beautiful, even if he had put on a bit of weight. Being married certainly suited him and expanded his waistband.
“Budge up, Robbie. I stink too, so it’s time we took our second bath together.”
I shuffled forward, and Jack slipped in behind me. I leant back and rested on his chest. He wrapped his arms around me and just held me. The feel of him against me made me feel better; feeling his arms around me settled me and just being with him made me feel like it was going to be alright.
As he held me, I felt like that naughty nine-year-old boy again.
Jack stayed with me that night. He didn’t leave me until I had an appointment for a blood test, and he was certain I would be ok. Even though I was alone, Jack would text and ring me, making sure I was coping.
On the day of my test, Jack picked me up from my flat and drove me to the hospital. I insisted that he come in with me. I didn’t want to do this alone and was grateful. The lady initially thought we were a couple, and I noticed Jack never flinched at the thought nor defiantly declared his heterosexuality. He just kept holding my hand, give it a gentle squeeze.
I whispered to her that he was my best friend.
I was glad he was with me as I didn’t really take in anything she said, but Jack listened intently. I just waited for the moment that she took my arm, tightening the tourniquet and drew blood.
It was labelled as hazardous, and the lady wore more protective equipment than any other nurse who had taken blood from me before. It made me feel like a leper.
She gave me a slip of paper with a date and time that I was to return for the results. I was still startled by the whole process, so Jack took it for me.
Jack stayed with me that night. We talked until we both fell asleep, utterly exhausted. We went through every what-if scenario and even looked up drugs and talked about how sophisticated they had become. Even taking the drugs, I could still have a life. Perhaps not a very long life, but long enough. But I could never have kids. This surprised Jack. Being gay, he just assumed I didn’t want children.
I confessed to Jack that I would love to have a child of my own.
I’d finally grown up, Jack declared, and said I would always be the favourite uncle of his kids. He said they both looked up to me and were always asking when they would see me again.
I loved his kids. Six-year-old Jack junior, who we called JJ, and seven-year-old Vicky, would give me the tightest hugs ever, and they loved it when I took them out. I allowed them to get away with things that their parents never would. I treated them and loved them like they were my own.
My time with Marc had made me grow up. He made me realise I wanted to settle down and possibly have kids. And I thought Marc was the one.
My life now stood at a crossroads. If I was positive, all I could look forward to was a life alone. Who would want someone who is HIV positive? There would be no future in the relationship. But the thought of me being HIV negative frightened me just as much. I now knew what I wanted, and if I was negative, would I be able to have it. At least if I was positive, I knew what my future was.
I didn’t understand why I was thinking like this, why having my life back would frighten me. I suppose it was the certainty of death that reassured me. If I had life, then if I fucked it up, it would be my fault.
I felt calm when Jack left me. I can remember after he hugged me, he kissed me on the lips, just a peck. But it told me that he wasn’t afraid, he knew a kiss was safe, and he felt I needed it.
That simple gesture of kissing me on the lips settled me and allowed me to sleep that night.
Three days later, Jack picked me up again from my flat. It was time for my results. Naturally, I was nervous, and before going to the hospital, he took me to a local café for coffee.
We didn’t talk about the test or the possible result. We just talked. Jack told me how, when they had told off little JJ, he said that he wanted to go and live with Uncle Robbie. I laughed. But Jack carried on. When she heard this, Vicky said if JJ is going to live with Uncle Robbie, then she wants to live with me as well.
I said they were welcome to live with me, but they might not think me so fun when I would make them go to bed early.
Those kids were so damn sweet. Occasionally I would babysit them, and they would stay over. I loved having them stay with me; it gave Jack and Holly space away from them. They even grew fond of Uncle Marc. When Marc left me, they saw how upset I was and just said that it would mean that I could spend more time with them.
It didn’t go unnoticed that Jack kept checking his watch, making sure we wouldn’t be late for the result. I was glad of that one hour of normality. But Jack had to spoil it and say it was time to leave.
I didn’t know if the smiling nurse meant good news or she was just trying to be encouraging.
She called me through, and Jack came with me.
I grabbed his hand as we sat down opposite the nurse with the paper in front of her. I squeezed Jack’s hand tight. It must have hurt, but he didn’t say anything. He just bore the pain.
The nurse wasted no time in delivering the result.
The sense of relief overwhelmed me, and I burst into tears. I turned and hugged Jack.
“You’re shaking,” Jack whispered to me.
This wasn’t a time to celebrate. I was lucky. Marc wasn’t.
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