This is a dark one that has been rattling around for a while.
Be warned, it's way darker than most of the stuff I write and it does not end well.
This also has the distinction of being a mostly true story. I've changed names and locations and obvious embellished some of the background, and the ending is mine (since I don't know what the real ending is). While it seems unreal, this is reality.
It was a guy I met while at a conference in the great North West a few years back. We got drunk – or at least I did -, traded bullshit and then, when I asked why he was single, he told me this incredible story. I'm in two minds about whether it's all true and whether I should actually document it, but as many have said, there is nothing stranger than the truth.
I've never seen him again, even though I've been to that conference a few times now.
In sickness and in Health.
John Stamper sat in his usual place in the diner. It was lunchtime on a Friday, his day for the diner. The waitresses – Betty and Veronica (he'd had a quiet smile about that; these two were as far from the Betty and Veronica of the comic books as it was possible to get. Betty was three hundred pounds and a brunette with scraggly hair that was slowly coming out and Veronica was a red head, with bad teeth, chronic halitosis and a tendency to swear at the littlest thing.) – smiled at him, like they always did. He just looked back and said nothing, as he always did.
He knew he was an enigma to the locals, and he was fine with that. He was part of the local scene without actually being involved in it. John had long ago come to the conclusion that should they know his full story, he'd not be welcome here. Ignorance and fear would see to that. So he limited his involvement to having lunch at the diner when he was in town and very occasionally a nice dinner at the local Outback. He was still puzzled that Heron Falls was large enough to support an Outback. He hadn't worried about it too much though, instead preferring to just enjoy the steak and lobster they carried. He didn't do it too often though – too many memories of meals there in the past.
He'd been around for almost three years – longer than he'd stayed anywhere in the last eight years. It would be time to move on some time soon, he could feel it. But he quite liked his solitude. If you had to remove yourself from humanity, northern Oregon was the place to do it. Quiet, views that took the breath away, and his nearest neighbor was almost thirty miles away.
John came to town once every couple of weeks – to stock up on groceries, send out any packages he needed to, which wasn't often and to get his physical mail; FedEx wasn't going to deliver to him where he was. His little cabin wouldn't show up on their GPS for a start, and knowing the trails to get to it required local experience.
The one thing John did have was a satellite Internet connection. It was required for his profession, that of contract software developer. He worked mostly in mobile development, for Ipad's and Android phones and tablets. His small company had had some success a few years back and he'd earned enough to live simply and not worry unduly about money, although he was by no means wealthy. He drove an old Ford F250 pick up – a fact that made him smile. His old friends would have been astonished to see him pull up in the old, beat up pickup, given the kinds of cars he used to drive. He and his Lexus were inseparable. But the Ford was serviceable, reliable and he could attach the snowplow to it if need be. It serviced his needs, and they were simple these days.
The small two bedroomed wooden cabin he lived in had been built for hunters in the early nineteen sixties. He'd rented it from the owners – a family from Canada – and in exchange for a lower rental rate, he'd spent some money upgrading it and ensuring it was habitable – a new roof, a drainage system so when the snow melted, it didn't inundate the cabin, a new sewage filtration system and had the satellite system installed. He'd even got the generator in the outside shed upgraded. He knew he wouldn't be there more than two or three years, but it was worth it for that time period.
He rarely left the area – only when he had to, for a specific contract that required him on site, or for his yearly check up back in San Diego, where his blood was tested and his medication adjusted if need be. Going back to San Diego was hard. He had to resist temptations to visit old stomping grounds and so far, for the past eight years, he'd managed. But it was hard.
He knew he was a figure of some myth in Heron Falls. He didn't socialize, didn't respond much when involved in conversation. He was civil but never volunteered much about who he was, his history or what he did for a living. He knew some people might have some ideas – you couldn't have the boxes delivered to you that he did without some people picking up on it – but he was surprised to come to understand that for the most part, he just didn't care any more.
He had no possibility of a deeper or closer relationship with anyone, and in the past, he would have enjoyed being a figure of mystery, playing up to it. Now, knowing there was no chance of a successful relationship, his whole outlook had changed. He was human, but not part of humanity in general any more. The small things that consumed people's lives he just didn't bother with. He had no idea who was in the top forty of the music charts, or who were the successful actors and actresses and he just didn't care.
There were only two things he cared about, and they'd made it clear they didn't want him to.
It was a clear March day when it happened. He was sitting in the diner, ignoring Betty and Veronica who fussed around and yelled weird lunch orders to the short order cook.
He almost always sat in the window area, so he could see out. And he saw her pull up. A big red shiny mustang convertible. His experienced eye saw that it was a 2015 model, GT and from the sound of it, it had some exhaust work done.
He watched her climb out – her long black shiny hair tied up with a scarf to keep it out of her face while she drove.
Internally he debated what to do. He could be out the back if he moved fast enough, before she walked in. But if he did, it would be obvious that he was avoiding her, and the locals would have one more thing to talk about. And if she spoke to them, to ask about him, or revealed any of what she thought she knew...
Either way, he concluded, his time here was done. Might as well stick around and see what she had to say, even if he didn't much care to hear it.
So he sat, spooning his chicken soup, and waited. And in she came. Same face – just more grown up. No acne now, he noted. Same hair, same smile as she looked around, taking in the room. Smiling at no one and everyone, as he remembered, with a tightening in her chest.
He saw her eyes alight on him, and their eyes met. He held it for a second, then looked down at his soup and carried on eating.
He could feel her standing over his table.
He glanced up at her with dead eyes. He wasn't her Dad. Not any more. She'd made that clear.
"I'm not your Dad," he hissed.
'Yes, you are, " she said, pulling out the chair opposite his small table and delicately placing herself into it. He couldn't help noticing how she checked the chair for crumbs first though. Her mother, through and through.
His eyes flicked at her and he said, quietly, and with no emotion, "No, I'm not."
"Whatever Dad. Whatever makes you sleep at night. We both know it's not true."
John took a deep breath, and glanced around. He could see Betty and Veronica at the short order hatch, looking over and murmuring to each other. He knew this would provide fodder for months for them. Old Joe had a girl at his table, and a Chinese one, at that.
"What do you want, Grace?" he asked at last, putting down his spoon and pushing his chair back.
"Dad, we've been looking for you for years. Sophia and I. Hell, even Mom. Eight years Dad. Eight years. Do you have any idea how much it cost to find you? Even Uncle Tony wouldn't help. I didn't think he would, but Mom did. It put a strain on their relationship for years."
Internally, John Stamper nodded. That sounded like the Tony Duzlick he remembered. Straight Gman through and through. FBI tattooed on the inside of his body. No sense of humor lived for the job and lived by the rules, down to the smallest thing. He wouldn't have gone outside the rulebook to find him; he was still glad he hadn't though.
Not that it would have mattered. John Stamper just didn't show up on most Internet searches any more. He had no Facebook presence; well, he did, but it hadn't been updated in eight years, any more than his twitter had been. He didn't have a police record – the only way to track him would have been through bank records, although even then his address was a P.O. box in Atlanta, that he then had a service forward on to his local P.O. box in Oregon, or via the IRS, but with the same cut outs.
John was aware of how the authorities worked. If they really wanted to find him, they could. But they'd have to really want to first, and they had no reason to, certainly nothing that would authorize the work required. He'd put just enough cut outs in place first to make it unobvious and that, in most cases, was enough.
Obviously not though, or Grace – his Ex Daughter, as he thought of her – wouldn't be sitting in front of him.
"How did you find me?" he asked.
"Really? That's it? I find you after eight years and the first thing you want to know is 'how did I find you?' Jesus Dad, have a soul?"
He just stared at her and said nothing. She rolled her eyes.
"Fine. Sophia's boyfriend was playing some game on his Ipad. Roller Blow I think it was called."
John winced. He remembered the work on that. The developer he'd been working for had been clueless and he'd ended up pretty much running the technology development for it single handedly.
"Anyway, He finished the levels it came with, and then the credits came up, and they were all flashy and he laughed about it, and showed Sophia, and she saw your name in there. She was beside herself."
John shut his eyes to mask his annoyance. He'd made it very clear to the developers WinkyWoo Inc, that his name was NOT be used in anyway, and they'd ignored that. There would be words with them come next week.
"When they showed me, and I looked at the game, I could see you all over it. The particle effects, the flow, the response. It was all you. I remember all the times we'd made small game together when I was a kid. I know what your style looks like Dad. I knew it was you."
John took a long sip of his water, trying to mask the rush of memories her words invoked.
"From there, we contacted those developers with the dumb name, and told them we were looking for you. Told them we were a Chinese conglomerate, looking to hire them and you, and we needed to talk to you. They fell over themselves to give us your email address and the bank details of where they'd been direct depositing the checks. We followed some convoluted path – thanks for that, by the way - and that brought us here. So we hired a local PI – they really have been reading too much Raymond Chandler up here, haven't they? – and it took a while. You threw us with the whole Joe Stamper thing Dad. Why did you change your name?"
"I didn't. My card has J. Stamper on it, and when I asked what the J stood for, I never responded. So they started calling me Joe and I just never corrected them."
Grace nodded and then Betty came up, pen and pad in hand, just bursting with curiosity.
"Hey Guys. Joe, I see you have a guest, can I get you anything?"
Grace gave Betty her winning smile, and said, "Do you have any berry pie? Ala mode? It's my Dad's favorite."
"Your Dad eh? Well, honey, you are in luck. We do have a berry cobbler. It's home made here and the best in the state. I'll just go and get two slices. Hot? Ice cream?"
"Warm and with whipped cream. Right Dad?" said Grace, whipping her smile over at John. He just sat there, immobile.
Nothing was said for a moment and then Betty, breaking the awkward silence, said, "Well, I'll just get those going then. Nothing to drink Honey?"
"Just water, thanks."
Betty walked off and they were alone again.
"So, you look a bit different Dad. The beard thing ... not sure it suits you. Makes you look like Uncle Gordon."
Gordon was John's older brother. A faded hippy, he had a big bushy white beard, bald as a coot on top, but with a ponytail from the tonsure he sported. It all looked ridiculous on his brother, but John, having been clean-shaven all his life, had let the facial hair just go. John's head was still bald, but there was nothing he could do about that.
There was nothing John wanted to say in response to that. This conversation would be all on Grace and he'd respond when he had something to say.
"Ok then," said Grace, grimacing as she did so, "the hard way then."
"Again, Grace, what do you want?" he asked quietly.
"What the fuck Dad. What do you think I want? Jesus. It's been eight years. Not a fucking peep out of you. No idea where you were, what you doing, if you were even alive. What the fucking HELL do you think I want?"
John looked at her sharply and said, "You know better than to swear at me, Grace. You want that, go play with your college friends."
Dammit, thought John, shouldn't have said that. Grace was smart and she'd pick up on that. And she did.
"College friends? How would you know if I'd been to college, Dad?"
John didn't reply.
"Been checking up on us, have we? Well, that's you all over. I suppose you know I'm married now?"
John knew. He'd even been there that day, on a motorbike and in full leathers so no one would recognize him. He'd been in an alcove of the church, until a warden had noticed him and insisted he leave. He'd watched the post wedding party in the gardens of one of the wineries just outside Chicago from the outside bar area of another bar, nursing his one and only drink of the day.
He'd seen Grace walk down the isle, with Sophia as her maid of honor, seen the man she was marrying. He'd even seen the woman he'd married, holding hands with her beau, oblivious to anything but the event in front of them.
He looked at Grace, looking at how she'd changed from the fifteen year old she'd been when he'd left to the twenty three year old she was now. She'd lengthened a bit – almost five ten now he judged, five inches taller than her mother. Her olive skin was clear now, free of the acne she'd had when he'd last seen her regularly. Same fine black hair that all Asians have. A wide smile, brown eyes. The same girl he remembered, just the adult version of her.
She took a drink of her water that Betty had just dropped off, watching him watch her, some amusement in her eyes.
"Yeah, you knew, didn't you? No surprise on your face. Dad, where the HELL HAVE YOU BEEN?" Graces voice raised at the end of the sentence, and John's eye's flicked around the diner. Others had taken notice.
"You really wanna do this here? Now?" he asked.
"Why the hell not? At least you are here. I don't know if you'd show if we arranged to meet later. You do a very good disappearing trick, Dad."
"Stop calling me that, Grace. I'm not your dad, either biologically or any other way. We both know that."
"Oh fucking really? You weren't in any of those pictures of you and Mom being handed me in the hotel in China then? You weren't there with all of us when we got Sophia, three years later? My last name isn't yours? You weren't the guy who taught me to ride my bike? Who taught me Aikido? Who consoled me when Brad dumped me? Who made me smoke that pack of cigarettes till I puked? Who hugged me when I was scared and sang to me when I was sick? None of that was you then?"
"Enough with the swearing young lady," John replied. "You are smarter than that."
"See, Dad? You just can't stop being my dad, even when you aren't there."
In an attempt to change the subject, John made a show of looking around and then asked, "No Sophia? She's not with you?"
"She's on bed rest. The pregnancy isn't going so easy."
"Pregnancy?" asked John, before he could stop himself.
"Yeah. Something you didn't know? You are slipping Dad. She's pregnant. For a second time. She lost the first one. She spent a month crying. Mom and I couldn't do a damn thing to make her feel better, and nor could Clark. You know about Clark, do you Dad? Her guy?"
John didn't, but again, there was nothing to say.
"What the fuck Dad? You just sit there with nothing to say? What the hell is wrong with you? You vanished, no one hears from you for eight years, and now here I am and you've got nothing say? Mom was right, you are just a coward."
That was too much and Grace knew it. She sat back, mouth open at what she'd said.
John sat very still. He didn't move a muscle, and just held the table, to stop his hands making fists.
"I think you'd better just go Grace. I see nothing has changed," he said, in a very low and controlled voice.
"No Dad. Not till I understand what happened. You ran out. You just vanished. Didn't you love us any more? What happened? I know about the shit with Mom, but you threw her away Dad. You pushed her into Greg's arms. Practically gift wrapped her. I mean, what the fuck? Giving permission for an affair? What the hell man does that?"
Grace voice was rising again – there were strong feelings being expressed, eight years of repression and bewilderment coming out.
John gritted his teeth. This was going to be harder than he thought when he saw her pull up.
He just breathed for a few moments, willing his blood pressure down.
Eventually, he said, in as normal a tone as he could manage, "As I recall, the last time I saw you, you made it perfectly clear what you thought of me being your 'Dad'," – he even made the quotation marks, something he'd never done before. "You were quite clear about your – and Sophia's – feelings on the matter. I wasn't required. I think your words were 'Who needs a dad who throws Mom away? Not with a better one in the wings'. Those were your words Grace. You wonder why I vanished? Ask yourself that question in light of that."
There was silence for a moment, and then Grace leaned forward and carried on the attack.
"For Christ's sake Dad, I was fifteen at the time. What the fuck did I know? I just said any old thing that got me a nicer room and the promise of a new car. I didn't have a clue what I was doing or what I was saying or the impact it would have. I was just following Mom's lead."
"Yes, I noticed the car when you pulled up," said John, thoughtfully.
Grace made a dismissive gesture and said, blithely, "It's a rental, Dad. Don't get your panties in a bunch."
Very quietly, looking into her eyes, John said, "No, it's not. I'm aware of the car you have Grace. It's not lost on me that it's the very same make and model of Mustang that I always said I wanted and would never have. Thanks for that, rub that wound. Do you want some salt with that?"
Grace had the good grace to lean back and look away, caught in a direct lie.
"Ok, so it is mine. I bought it because I knew it was what you wanted. I thought it was the only way to get close to you. I'm sorry. Perhaps driving here in that wasn't a good move. I just didn't think about that."
"Yeah, well, why change the habit of a life time?" asked John, instantly aware of what a nasty and malicious thing it was he said. It came out instantly and he regretted it.
Grace swallowed and he could see she was on the edge of tears.
"Well I'm sure I deserved that. Doesn't hurt any less though."
John slumped back, looking at his daughter, trying to decide how much he was being played. Grace was a master class manipulator, but even manipulators have feelings, and he wasn't being particularly nice to her, it had to be said.
Although, on the other hand, did he owe her any? She'd kicked him when he was down – down in ways she'd never guess. How much forgiveness and lightening up did she deserve?
No one said anything for a few moments, and then the deserts ordered arrived. Grace spent the time blinking and doing everything she could not to have tears ruin her makeup. When the food arrived, Betty put it down silently, giving both a sympathetic smile and then almost running back to the hostess stand, were Veronica was standing and blatantly watching.
They both took a few bits in silence, neither looking at each other.
Then Grace blurted, "Why dad? Why did you throw us away? Why did you push Mom into that guys arms?"
John considered his options while he ate, not looking at Grace. Trying to decide how much of the truth she could both handle and deserved. Finally, after finishing the cobbler he'd made his decision. This needed to end, so it had to come out. He knew that in doing so, his life would end in this little town, but that was just the way it happened. It had happened before and it would happen again. Time to move on anyway, now they'd found him.
"Fine. You want to know, here it is. You won't like it, and I know there is a lot of stuff Mom never told you. You can choose to believe that was out of support for me, but I suspect it's more about her looking bad, because once you know it all, you'll see she doesn't come out so lily white.
"I never 'pushed' her into the other guy. I gave her a gift, one that I had to give her for her own sanity. For reasons I'll get to, your mother's and my sex life had to end. I couldn't ... be physical with her any more. The problem was all mine, not hers. Just because I couldn't have sex any more didn't mean she couldn't. It just couldn't be with me.
"So I gave her a gift. Once a month, she could go out, get it on and come home and that would be that. She'd at least get that itch scratched. There were rules though – it could not be the same person twice, no one we knew, and not meeting in a place where we were known. No repeats, and nothing that could get back to us, she had to be discreet and not embarrass either me or her. Or you, for that matter. The fact is, your mother was never that needful for sex – I needed it way more than she did, but still, there's a difference between saying 'I'm not that interested' and 'I'll never have sex again'. I get that. I understood that. Hence the once a month idea.
"Needless to say, she broke some of those rules, but we'll get to that."
John stopped speaking for a moment and took a sip of water, while Grace digested this.
"Ok, so that's almost jibes with what she told me. She didn't tell me about the rules, and she made it more like you pushed her into this. I mean, I don't get it Dad. You are a proud man, what the hell happened that you and her couldn't get it on any more? Are you impotent? Have an accident?"
John took a deep breath. The moment of truth. "No. The truth is that eight and half years ago, I was diagnosed as HIV positive."
There was silence and a stunned horrified look on Graces face.
Eventually, she gathered herself and asked, "How did you get it?"
John laughed, mirthlessly. "It's always the same question from everyone. They sense a bit of titillation; some real life drama and they always want to know that first. Says a lot for people, you know?"
"Well, do you? I mean, were you messing around?"
John looked at her sharply and said succinctly, "No."
"Well, how did it come about then? It doesn't just happen?" Grace wanted to know.
"Does it really matter Grace? Does knowing where it came from suddenly make having it any easier? Does it make it suddenly go away? I don't think so. But since you ask, no, I was not messing around – with anybody. I wasn't – and am not – a drug user, no needles, nothing like that. From the specialist report, it looks like I'd had it a couple of years before the diagnosis. I was sick then, and now I look at the initial infection symptoms, it matches. We thought it was mono at the time, since the hospital had no idea what it was. The best we can judge, it actually came about because of a fight I was in. There was an altercation in a bar, punches where thrown and blood was spilled. I had scratches on my face, arms and hands from hitting the other guy and being dragged along a wall, and he did as well. Blood was mixed. That's about as much as we can honestly figure out. It's a very rare thing to happen – as far as the CDC knows, there have only been three reported cases of infection this way in thirty years, but there you are. I know how it sounds, but I was not screwing anyone else. Nor was I any kind of drug user or exchanging fluids with anyone."
John could see that Grace was having trouble coming to terms with what he'd said, so he plowed on.
"You are now going to hear some things about dear old Dad that you might wish you'd never heard, but what the hell, you can come here in your fancy car – did he buy that for you? I'll bet he did – and swear at me, so you can hear this too.
"The fact is that once I was diagnosed, I knew where it was all going to end. And it did end up exactly there. I knew that eventually your mother would leave me and that's exactly what happened. I tried everything I knew to head it off at the pass, but realistically, I knew what was coming. The only thing I did was put it off a few months.
"Once I was diagnosed, I knew I could never have sex with your mother – or anyone else – again. Do you know anything about HIV?"
Grace, the tears starting to tumble just shook her head, miserably.
"Ok, well, it's always present in the blood and other fluids. Even with the medication today, which is pretty amazing, and that kills almost all of the virus in the blood, it deposits its RNA – it's building blocks – into healthy red blood cells. Basically, even if you kill everything that is in the blood, your own blood will create new HIV cells that then go and destroy your immune system white blood cells, called T cells, that have a compound in them called CD4. CD4 is what allows the HIV virus to bond with healthy T cells and, basically, destroy them.
"The fact is that even with a reduced viral load – and mine is pretty undetectable with the medication I take– you are a carrier. It's there, and your fluids, if they are ingested into another body directly, like via a cut or a needle, will result in infection in the other person.
"I couldn't take that risk. Not with your mother. Just couldn't. I could barely look myself in the mirror anyway, the idea that I had infected someone else ... well, you know me Grace. What do you think?"
Grace was struggling. Some many pieces were falling into place now, but she still kicked out at some of the facts.
"What about condoms? Can't you just use those?"
"Well, yeah. But ... and here are the details you won't want – condoms aren't 100%. They tear. And with me, I have a particular issue. I'm uncircumcised Grace. I still have my foreskin. When I'm ... um ... erect, it's fine and the condom stays on. But if there is any loss in ... rigidity, then the foreskin tends to start unrolling, and it takes the condom with it, since that's tight against the foreskin. I've had more than one experience where it's rolled off entirely and I've had to fish around in the lady to find it afterwards."
There was an even more incredulously stunned silence as Grace digesting this tidbit about her father. She was both grossed out, embarrassed and horrified, all at the same time. Children should not know these kinds of things about their parents.
John, going for broke, plowed on. "The fact is that condoms, while useful, weren't going to cut it. And there's the other aspect of this that, yeah, we could have tried, but that would have meant your mother actually wanted to. The fact is, once she knew I was HIV positive, she was both extremely pissed that I had been having sex with her and exposing her to potential infection – even though I didn't know I had it – and she had zero intention of continuing to take that risk. She made it very clear to me that our sex life was over. Not that I really blame her. I probably would have said the same thing, to be completely honest.
"But there is more. The fact it – and more details you won't want to hear – is that I'm like the Anti-Rapist. I literally lose hardness if I don't think the woman is into it. And trust me, your mother wasn't. She just couldn't overcome the fear of infection, and I don't really blame her. But it all but guaranteed I'd lose some steel and then you've got the condom unrolling and well, that just increases the fear and it's all cyclical.
"I also think she also didn't quite believe how I must have caught this. I think she believed in her soul that I caught it by some weird sex thing, even though I kept telling her that wasn't so."
John sat still, then took another drink, and noticed one of his hands were shaking.
Grace sat there, shaking her head, not wanting to believe what she was hearing.
"What about ... other things? Toys? Um... " she thought hard about how to put the next idea, "tongues and stuff?"
She shifted, very uncomfortable and now, for the first time, really aware of the listening ears in the diner.
"You aren't listening Grace. She was not interested. She was just too afraid. No amount of education was going to shift the inherent beliefs she already had, all fueled by scary pictures from the 1980's and that damn movie with Tom Hanks. She was part angry but mostly just scared. I was the bogeyman. Hell, she wouldn't even let me kiss her, even though there is zero chance of transmission through a kiss."
"So, you couldn't do it, so you gave her the gift of getting it elsewhere? I kinda see it," said Grace, trying the idea on for size now she knew the reasons for it.
"Well, that was a risk. The fact is Grace, I loved your mother and always have. I wanted her to be happy, so I bite the bullet and told her to go out and get laid. It fucking killed me when did – sorry, shouldn't have sworn then. But it did. As a man, it just is the lowest thing. She never talked about it and I didn't want to know, but she did it. She at least had the decency to not dress up in front of me. God knows where she went – I couldn't handle knowing and just ... did the best I could. I couldn't even have sex with her when she came home. It was ... very hard. Very. Hard. But I did my best to bear it, since it was the only thing I could do.
"The reality is that I knew that if anything happened to me and your mother, I would never have another significant relationship with a woman. So I did everything I could to ensure that this one continued – as much as I could anyway.
"I didn't 'push her into another guy', I gave her a gift and some freedom. She is the one who broke the rules. It started out once a month, and for a few months, it was just that. It was hard but I just tried not to think about it. And then it became twice a month, and I didn't feel like I had the right to say no. Then once a week, and at that point I asked her what was going on, and she told me she'd met this group, and she wasn't doing anyone repeatedly, but it was fun and she was going through them, and if I had a problem, I knew where the door was.
"Did I mention that she'd already told me that if I left, she'd take you guys to Chicago? We were in San Diego at the time, and I knew I'd never see you if she did. I mean, she was right. Sitting in court and having to admit I was HIV positive, what outcome that would give? I would have lost you."
John sat back in the chair and played with his fork, finally meeting Graces eyes.
"I dunno Grace, looking back and being totally honest, I think all this just revealed more cracks and issues in our marriage than either one of us would admit at the time. This just brought it all to a head. I mean really, I was in shock and so was she, and she wasn't willing to even think about meeting me half way, although what that would have been I don't know. I think any gesture would have been welcome, just so I didn't feel like I was in this alone."
There was another beat of silence, before John took up the tale again.
"So what could I do? When she asked to go away for a weekend, it came to a head. And that she wanted to take you guys – I guess to meet whomever it was she was nailing, I lost it and told her no. She was pushing it too far. I had given her a foot and she'd taken a light year. She told me she was going to anyway. I guess you guys went to Sedona? Where he could meet you? That's what I gathered anyway.
"And it went of for another month, and that's when I gave her the ultimatum that it had to stop and she told me she was leaving me for this new guy. He could, and I'm quoting here, 'give her a life beyond caring for a sick guy'. She was very apologetic and wanted to 'work it out and make it up to me'. I asked her how and she had no answers. It just words to make her feel better. There was nothing she could or would do in reality. Any more than when she went off for her adventures and she promised to 'make it up to me' afterwards, that she had neither any intention nor any method to do any of that anyway. They were just words. So much with your mother is just words, Grace, I'm pretty sure you know that by now."
Grace sat there, blinking away the tears and said, "I'm so sorry Dad. We had no idea."
"No, I wouldn't expect you would have. There was no way I was going to tell you. I couldn't risk you thinking that badly of me, and it would have gotten out and I would have lost work and you'd have had to deal with it at school. Not that it mattered anyway, you ended up pushing me out anyway."
"Dad ... all we knew was what Mom told us. You'd thrown her away. Pushed her into this guys arms. I mean, she said right out you had told her to go get laid. I mean, it was gross, but we figured she had no reason to lie. And, I guess from her point of view, she didn't. But she was a bit selective with what she said, obviously. We just ... didn't know what to think. We saw you two drifting apart, we saw what was going on, but you just didn't ... connect. With her. With us. And we believed what she told us. We thought it was all the truth. Obviously it wasn't. Greg was ... well he was nice to us. I don't think he knows the truth. He did his best not to run you down, but you could see it in his eyes. He honestly thought he was rescuing us from our lives with you, and Mom, she just went along with it."
"Yeah, I figured. But I couldn't fight that without the whole truth coming out and the last thing either of us wanted was that. I knew it was a risk, giving her that gift. I knew from the moment I did it what the likelihood was. Your mother, Kathy ... she equates good sex with emotion. She has the best sex when she is with someone she feels something for. I knew that, but I just couldn't tell her she could have no sex life. That wasn't right either. She wasn't willing to do it with me, so what else could I do? I loved her. That's why the rules were there – never twice with the same person and so on, designed to stop her falling for anyone. And she just ignored those rules. I still have no idea where she met this guy and why she met him more than once, but honestly, like how I got HIV, it doesn't really matter. I wasn't there, I couldn't stop it and I never knew what was going on anyway, by design, to keep my sanity. It was inevitable really."
There was a pause and he looked at Grace, the memory of the pain still etched in his face.
"Do you have any idea of what that is like for a man, Grace? Sending his own wife out to get laid with someone else, and then her not even wanting to hold him when she got back? The total absence of any physicality in a relationship? It was doomed from the start, but I just wanted it to keep going. I realize now how stupid that was, but at the time, I was still in shock from the diagnosis. I think she was too, but she was the one with all the choices. I had none. It ate at me, constantly. Not able to be man enough, because I didn't want to infect any one, and having to watch her go out and get what she needed elsewhere."
He stopped and took another drink of water and then said, reflectively, "And honestly, I can't even blame her too much. I mean, I can see it from her point of view. I can see her being burdened by this. It's too much. For anyone to have to deal with. She didn't ask for my disease – neither did I – and the implications are just ... significant. And in the end, we couldn't over come them."
Grace bit her lower lip and then said, "Why are you alone now Dad? I understand why she left – why she decided to, but why are you alone? I mean isn't there anyone for you? Maybe a lady who is ... the same. As you I mean."
Suddenly the bitterness held in check for so long just poured out of John.
"You can't even say it, can you Grace? I am HIV Positive. Yes, it can – and probably will at some point – become AIDS, at which point I will die of some ridiculous disease like the common cold, when my immune system is so destroyed I won't be able to fight it off. I have it. I don't damn well want it, but it's there now and it'll never go away. I can take medication to control it, but my immune system will never be as good as yours and one day that medication will stop being effective, and then it's Good Bye John. It's my reality. Who the hell wants to live with that, I ask you? I know I don't. You have no idea how hard it has been just to not give in and end it all, over the years. And I've been tempted, believe me.
"Any non-infected hetro woman is not going to give that a chance, and why should they? There are one hundred and fifty million men in this country not infected. Why have more than coffee with someone who is? And you have to tell them, you know. You can't not. It's a felony to have sex with someone when you know you are infected and you don't tell them. That's attempted murder otherwise. There are people in jail right now serving 25 year sentences for that. Hell, a woman can know, then get pissed at you, and claim you never told her, and then what? How do you prove you did say it?