[A note to the reader: parentheses show the thoughts of the narrator at the time of the events he is describing]
It's hard after the fact to be sure, because the memory is affected by everything else that happened. I think I expected something, or suspected something, but who could know? There was something about her, something more distant than the usual chasm, even with the little faux-sultry looks I was getting, and her use of "sweetie," and what seemed to be her almost uncontrollable laughter. Was the ground thawing at last? Judith was completely agreeable on everything, kidding about everything, laughing at everything, laughing at nothing at all. It was as though she'd suddenly feel a laugh come on and couldn't contain it, like a hiccup, looking sheepish at her newly-found hilarity, as though she were experiencing some new and overwhelming state that pulled her every way there is, so that she was forced to laugh at the idiocy of it all. And so she was.
Before she took her bath she pulled me to her and gave me a slow, sultry kiss full of lips and tongue and warm breaths, and she made a promise: "I have a surprise for you in bed." She chuckled as she walked to the bathroom.
And in bed? Here the facts are clear enough. Judith checked to make sure I was ready to accept the kind of promise a woman gives with lips and tongue and warm breaths, caressed me all the way from my balls to the tip of Big Ben, even pulled on me twice. I'm sure it was twice. Then she gave me a simple goodnight peck and, turned away, and as I was starting to protest at this playful promise break, she said in her most syrupy voice:
"I had sex with George Mathis this afternoon."
(What?) I said it milliseconds after I thought it.
"Well, I just thought you should know. Good night, sugar."
What kind of joke was this? I was sure I'd heard her right. I waited for a punch line, and when there wasn't one, I asked: "What are you talking about, Judy?"
"I told you." Her voice was still honey and cloves.
I turned on the light.
"Why are you saying that?"
"Sex? With George?"
"Well, what's good for the gander..."
"What in the world are you talking about?"
That's when the scene went from troubled dream to absolute nightmare. If it had been a movie, the light would have changed to something garish and eerie, and there would be strange, discordant music. Instead, it was just the two of us in our regular bed. Freddie Krueger didn't step into the scene. Everything was as ordinary as it could be except that Judith sat up and turned toward me, and her voice grew tight and thin and almost teary with anger. "I sucked him too! Do you want to know what he tastes like?"
Chew on that a while. I wasn't sure she'd actually done what she was saying, but I didn't know what to think any more than any other husband would. I had to ask one more time.
"Honey. I don't know what you're talking about. What's going on?"
"Don't you 'honey' me, you bastard! How much have you slept around? How many times have you done it? How many women have you done it with? Or have they been men? My God, you're gay! That explains it!"
"How could I have been so taken in by you? Am I that stupid?"
"And you know what else, you son-of-a-bitch? You went and got yourself infected with HIV! And now you've infected me!"
"Get out of my bed! Did you have to ruin my life? Wasn't cheating enough?" She was crying openly.
Nothing prepares you for something like that, does it? Could it? I'm not even sure what I thought at first. That she was crazy? That this was an over-the-top joke? That... what? I wasn't worried, or sad, or angry, not yet. I just didn't get it.
"Judy! What's going on? HIV? Sex with George? This doesn't make any sense!"
I got off the bed.
"I don't have AIDS. I'm not gay. What are you talking about?" (Sex with George Mathis? Could she have done that? HIV? She couldn't have it. Could she?)
"I got tested today. The test was positive." She seemed to be trying to control herself.
"What? How? Why were you tested?"
"Because Dr. Schadenfreude thinks everyone should be, and he recommended it. So I got to find out that you infected me!"
"It was my regular visit! This morning! Damn it, you never pay attention to anything! All you can think about is screwing, isn't it? He has a fast test. And I'm HIV positive, you bastard! Get out! Get out! Get out!" Judith was shrill, screaming, red-faced, a banshee. I thought she was mad. Maybe I was right. I went as far as the door.
"What about George?"
"What about him?
"You sexed him? Did you really?"
"Yes. You're not the only person in this house who can get laid, you know!"
"Why not him? How many different ones did you do?"
"Get out of here!"
"There's one thing..." I had a thought. It seemed the only reasonable possibility.
"Listen first! Did it ever occur to you that your result could be a false positive?"
The tenor of the conversation changed right then. Judith stopped and looked at me for a second.
"Don't try that. You gave it to me. I've never, ever cheated!"
"Yes, you bastard! If I'm going to get sick because you've been screwing around, I might as well enjoy myself too!"
"Well, you didn't get it from me!"
"Are you saying you've never cheated?"
"I'm saying I'm not HIV positive. Damn it! I don't fool around." While she was thinking of how to answer, I thought again too: (George Fucking Mathis? That asshole?)
"Well, you can't get it from toilet seats, you know!" Judith doesn't do sarcasm well.
"But you can get a false positive from the test. Judy, shit! I did not infect you! Period! George Mathis?"
"I made him use a condom, which is more than you've apparently done!"
"When you gave him the blow job?"
"You can't get AIDS that way. So, yes, I sucked him, and he liked it. I swallowed it all. He really liked that and wants to get together again tomorrow. He wasn't even very clean!"
"It's not impossible to get it that way. Oh Jesus. Oh Jesus! If you're infected... but you're not because I'm not, and you've just done the stupidest thing imaginable."
"Me? I didn't infect my wife! You are an absolute bastard! You won't take responsibility even when it's obvious!"
Murky. It was murky, with strange, shifting tides of meaning. It was too much to comprehend. Any part of it could make sense. It would be bad, but it could make some sense. There was just too much, though. I had to get away from her and think. I had to get my head straight.
"Okay. Okay. This is what we're doing. We're going in to get tested together. Together! I'm going to call your doc first thing in the morning."
"And then you'll see the results of what you've done!"
She didn't sound completely convinced.
I lay awake most of the night. Judith was awake too. At one point I heard her moving around in the back of the house. I knew I couldn't be infected, could I? You can know, but you don't actually know, do you?
(Is it even possible? How could it have happened? What if she's actually got AIDS? Where else could she have gotten it? Could she be trying to shift the blame to me? Could she have become infected by another man—maybe George—and be trying to make me think I'm the cause? The best defense for her is always a good offense. Hell, she could have infected me! And she fucked and sucked George! It didn't take her any time at all. It must have been within a few hours of when she got the results. A person who could do that could do it with anyone.)
I spent most of my time thinking of Judith with George. No one could miss how he'd looked at her over the years, in the grocery, at parties, across the room. Not that he'd looked at her so much differently than he did other wives, but it was pretty obvious, and being obvious seemed to work for him. It got him divorced, and since then there had been a long string of women, most of them apparently married. Some of them had managed to save their marriages afterward.
I imagined Judith kneeling over George's penis. He'd held her head while she did it. I was certain of that. Judith would do the whole thing slowly, taking it deep and sucking especially hard as she pulled it out. How did she get George to use a condom? I'm sure he enjoyed her. I imagined him with a wide grin. Oh happiness, to have such a pleasant surprise come walking up to him! But maybe not such a surprise.
We didn't talk the next morning until Judith said, "I went on-line last night. The test is more than 99 percent accurate."
Shit. She didn't have a clue.
"But only half a percent of white women are infected. About half of all their positives are wrong! Didn't Schadenfreude say anything about that? That the fast test is just a screen?"
She stormed from the room, and we didn't talk again until it was time to go.
(So it's just a screen. So? It's still 99 percent accurate. What if Judith really is infected? What if I am? When did it happen? When for her? When for me? Could I have given it to her? How? It was impossible, wasn't it? Could I have got it from her? Questions, questions, questions.)
Then I thought again of George 's schlong and Judith's mouth. It almost pushed the thoughts of AIDS out of my head.
Dr. Schadenfreude was unctuous and non-judgmental and very careful not to be obvious that he thought I was at fault. "You probably know that almost all cases of infection come from mixing body fluids through unprotected intercourse or the sharing of intravenous needles." He seemed to fight a grin. I didn't want to be there. I could tell Judith was trying not to cry, and I felt sorry for her.
(She did George. She called him and went to him as soon as she found out, HIV thoughts swirling in her head, straight to the biggest horndog we know, to George, and she went right up to him and pushed her chest into his and looked him in the face and touched her tongue between her lips. That's how she'd do it. George would look her up one side and down the other, and fuck it! Fuck it! Fuck it all!)
I asked, "What's the likelihood of it being a false-positive?"
"There's always a chance. That's why we'll do a more definitive test." (Condescending bastard!)
Of course it would take several days to get the results.
Judith asked, "What do we do after we know for sure?"
"Well, let's not expect the worst. It isn't necessarily a death sentence anymore." Silence. "If the result is confirmative, I think you..." He moved a hand to indicate he meant both of us. "You need to..." he cleared his throat, "you need to alert anyone you may have been, ah, intimate with, or shared needles with, in the past decade. You should be compiling a list. Of course I would need to see it, and our office would contact the individuals. Very discreetly." Again he seemed almost gleeful.
I couldn't help it. "She's the one who needs to talk with sex partners."
I know I shouldn't have.
Judith gasped. It was the loudest thing I have ever heard. Her eyes grew round and she looked at the doctor, then at me.
"You SOB!" This was a hiss. "You cheating, lying, fornicator! You, who infected your own wife after screwing who knows how many people! You... bastard!"
"Please," said the doctor. "This isn't helpful." He touched the fingers of his two hands together in front of his chest and looked back and forth between us. "I know this is very difficult for both of you. We've found it can be helpful to have couples meet with a counselor, to work through the initial shock." This time he did smile.
"We won't need that," I said. I stood up, to be able to tower over Judith while I said it. "She wants a divorce and I'm perfectly happy with that." Then I stared down at her. "But I'm not moving from the house!" And I left.
We were moving carefully around each other. There had been no words at all from Judith when she got home. She'd been out for hours. Finally I stuck my head in the den and asked: "Been sucking George again?"
"Mmm, good. Nothing like fresh cock..."
"It's almost a meal in itself."
"Go do your boyfriends! I'll get you some grease!"
"Fuck you, you fucking bitch! You're the only one fucking anyone else!"
I got my jacket. As I opened the door she yelled, "Before you screw your boyfriends, be sure to warn them!"
That day, and the next, and the next crept at their petty pace. I've talked with friends who got divorced. They had it a lot like us, though none of them faced the possibility of death. Were we going to die? That wasn't the worst thing — not right then. It was the awful problem of simply having to see each other, to acknowledge each other. At least I think it was like that with Judith. It was with me. The house was filled with frost, then suddenly we'd be excessively polite to each other. Did I want some of the leftover roast? "No. Thank you." At times I thought I couldn't breathe. I'm not being metaphorical. I couldn't. It was as though someone was squeezing me. I'd have to get outside, and then I'd go for long walks in the park, but I always came back. Where else was there to go? Whatever was, was, wherever I went.
I was ready to go to work before Judith woke up. I should have stayed in bed but I needed something to keep me occupied. I walked into the bedroom doorway, and when she saw me she stood still, a statue, her eyes looking god-awful, the eyes of someone else who had spent another night waiting for the world to end.
"I just wanted to tell you that I'm sorry for what I said before." Judith stared. "It was cruel. And crude. Anyway, I'm sorry for that."
She turned her back and I went to work.
That evening the phone rang, but whoever called hung up when I answered. It did it again. The next time I grabbed it on the first ring. "Hello?" The result was the same. It rang again and I it go until Judith picked it up in the bedroom. Whoever it was didn't hang up on her.
I tiptoed down the hall as quickly as I could and stood just outside the door. She was trying to talk quietly, but she wasn't quiet enough. "No, he's still here... No!... Stop it, Mother!... Mother!... Because I'm not going to let him drive me out... I can stand it as long as he can... He can leave if he wants to... Mother!... Well just call my cell number next time..."
I went out onto the patio and stared at the evening clouds. They were peach and blue and white, and the edge of one glistened like gold leaf. You wouldn't know from them what was happening here, down below. The colors were gone long before Judith finished her conversation. Surely it hadn't taken that long to tell her mother her new theory, that I'd been getting some on the down low, and they probably shared what they'd heard on Oprah. I wondered how many people besides her mother she had told about the test. Good old queer Matt. I'm sure her family was all abuzz. I was certain she hadn't told anyone about George.
Once I had been the person Judith would whisper to over the phone.
She lived with two other girls and shared a bedroom. She told them to hold the living room phone while she ran back there, then to hang up.
"Where are you?"
"I'm sitting on the bed."
"What are you wearing?"
"Shorts and a sweatshirt."
"Take off you're your shorts."
That's when Judith had begun whispering.
"I can't do that! Someone might come in!"
But she had wriggled out of them. It was the early days.
"Now touch yourself."
"Do it." She was silent. "Are you doing it?"
"Wait. Okay. Oh you're evil!"
"Are you touching yourself?"
"Now rub yourself. Do it slowly, all the way down and up."
"Okay. Uh! Okay. Uh! I'm doing it. Oh, Matt!"
There was a rustling and I heard muffled female voices. When Judith came back on she said: "Sharron almost caught me!"
"Do it." And she did.
"Oh! Okay. Oh! I'm doing it."
"Keep going." For a moment the only sound was Judith panting.
"I am. Oh! Matt, they'll catch me!"
"Do it faster."
"They'll hear me!"
"I am! Oh God!"
We were so conspiratorial, and so close. We wanted to try everything and take chances. Years later Judith would turn to me, in the car or in bed, and ask, "Remember when we had phone sex?" That usually led to something hot. Then something happened, the usual thing. Time passed. Years passed. We became a middle-married couple, experienced in the everyday things that come between you, things like parents, money, phlegm, dueling personalities, bad breath, routine sex, different tastes in friends, snoring, the color of the carpeting, and who takes out the garbage. Everything. Nothing. We fought. We made up. We made love now and then. We never again whispered on the phone, but now Judith whispered to her mother. Did she gasp at some point and say "He'll hear me"? Like us — when we were an "us" — the conversation with her mother was about sex, but it was different.
(Could I have given it to Judith? Oh Jesus. Oh Jesus. When can I stop obsessing on this? I've got to stop thinking about it! How long would I have been carrying it? It's been so long. Stop thinking about it! I should be sick. Stop it! I should be dead. God damn it, I am not going to think about it any more! Maybe I'm just one of those people who never get sick from it. That's bullshit! I'd have known ages ago. But what if? What if? What if I did give it to her somehow, and what if she gets sick? Oh Jesus. If that happens, I need to take care of her. If she'll let me. If I can stand to be around her.)
It was midway through the fourth day that we got the results.
It had been weeks, months, but really under 100 hours. We'd both stayed home, avoiding each other, jumping whenever the phone rang. Our house was one big watched pot. I was about to call the doctor when we got it, the big call. Judith took it on the first ring.
As I came into the den she was saying "Yes?" Then "yes" again, more softly, sounding resigned. Then she gave a tiny sigh and said, "Okay. Okay. I understand." There was a pause while she listened, and I drifted closer and saw her collapse into herself. "Yes." She sounded like she had lost a child.
I hadn't thought it was possible. I had but I hadn't. How could anyone? Who had it, Judith or me? Or both of us? Hearing her, seeing her, gave everything a different cast, so different that goose bumps raced up my back. My chest filled with a strange, otherworldly feeling that reminded me of a very high note played on a violin. It was almost a beautiful feeling. Judith said, "Yes. We'll be over. Thank you," and the vibration ran all the way down my arms.
Judith put her head down into her hands and was still for several seconds. She finally said "No" to no one in particular. A meek, grieving little 'no.' Then, "Oh God."
She looked up, her face glistening, here eyes red. She tried to smile, but she couldn't keep her mouth right. I'd expected her to attack me again.
"Tell me. We'll deal with it."
"It's just... I didn't know." She clapped a hand over her mouth, and the tiniest part of a cry made it past her fingers.
"What do you mean? Didn't know what?"
She was almost breathless when she spoke. She was crying before she finished. "I didn't know the test could be wrong."