They always conversed through instant messages, but Kyle believed this particular conversation warranted a telephone call. He typed the message, asking for Brennan’s number only to remember it still written down on a slip of paper wedged beneath a package of paper clips. He rarely kept the numbers of the men he encountered online; there was no reason to.
Seated on his bed, legs bent and crossed, he listened to Brennan’s phone ring. His bedroom was undecorated apart from several wide bookcases, lined up one after another, filled with model airplanes. Meticulously adhered plastic models of aircraft from all the major world wars, vintage postal service planes, miniature passenger jets. While the dull mechanical rings sounded in his ear, he remembered the frank amusement with which Brennan discovered this room. He never touched a single model, but moved from plane to plane, as if inspecting them. Brennan continued even after Kyle wrapped his arms around his guest’s waist.
Brennan answered. His tone was precise and formal, the voice of customer service. Kyle croaked out a greeting. He suddenly felt petrified, in terror of whatever Brennan might say next.
“I’m glad you called,” Brennan finally said.
“I am, too.”
“When did you find out? I’ve already closed my chatbox.”
“November, just after Thanksgiving.”
“Not long before I did.”
“How did you find out? Did you go in for a test?”
“It’s kind of funny,” Brennan said. Kyle heard the creak of a recliner in the background. “Around finals, I got this sore throat. I thought it was just allergies, but it never got better. I even went to some 24-hour clinic. Bunch of fucking quacks. They just dumped some antibiotics on me and sent me home. Anyway, week later, my father has to carry me out of the apartment and drive me to the emergency room.”
“What was wrong with you?”
“That’s the funny part. I had fucking thrush.”
“I don’t think I’ve heard of that.”
“Unless you’ve got kids, there’s no reason you should. Only infants and old farts get it. So when I come in, some college student, and my throat is covered in this white—this white shit, they give me the test.”
“I haven’t been sick yet,” Kyle said, feeling this was a sort of confession. He was healthy. He had seen a specialist who recorded all the necessary levels, the amount of the virus in his blood and other statistics. Kyle had not tried to remember these numbers. He trusted his doctor to let him know if more aggressive treatment would one day be required. He didn’t want those stark, impersonal scores echoing through his mind like a passing siren.
“I almost died,” Brennan said flatly.
“How long were you in the hospital?”
“About a week. The doctor said there was scar tissue over eighty percent of my esophagus.”
“Good news is I got to postpone all my finals. I mean, hey, I had the perfect excuse.”
Kyle intended to laugh at this. It seemed the proper thing to do. But as the moment passed, he heard only silence. He had not made a sound.
“Hello?” Brennan said.
“I’m still here.”
“I just wanted to call because…” Kyle said.
“Do you want to hook up again?”
Kyle was stunned. The afternoon light drifting through the blinds took on a hostile glow. He felt exposed, with no means of steering the conversation.
“No. I mean, sure, if you want to. But that’s not why I—”
“I don’t get to Dallas that often anymore, but I’ll be up that way soon enough. You live in the same place?”
It took Kyle a moment to register that it was his turn to speak. “Um, yeah. Yeah, same place.”
“But this time, make sure you lock up those cats.”
“Sorry about that.”
“And I’m sorry about…” Kyle said.
“Sorry about what?”
“I—well, I gave this to you.”
“Yeah, we fucked in August and I got diagnosed just before Christmas, so I guess you’re right.”
The blandness with which Brennan made this deduction troubled Kyle. He had expected anger, threats, tears. This man, this boy, was going to be sick for the rest of his life, and it was because he bent over for Kyle moments after entering his apartment. Kyle had rehearsed the ways he planned to reassure Brennan that he never intended to infect him. How could he? He, himself, had no idea he was positive when they met.
“I’m just so sorry.”
“Don’t be. You didn’t know.”
“Hey, I knew the dangers before I started meeting guys. I knew this might happen, and now it has. No worries.”
Kyle felt his face flush. His heart raced, and he realized what he felt was unmitigated panic. This man he knew, aside from their summer encounter, as only a chatbox on a monitor had done something more disorienting than refusing his apology—he had insisted no apology was necessary. Anything could have happened next, and Kyle suddenly missed the certainties of anonymous flesh, how it appeared and left and did nothing unexpected.
“You okay?” Brennan asked. Kyle had again not spoken for too long.
“Yeah, I’m just…surprised.”
“Really, it’s okay. We can still have fun. And, hey, this time we really don’t have to worry about condoms.”
“What do you want to do?” Kyle asked. He took a relieved breath as the conversation promised to take a more manageable turn.
“Well, I thought we’d play with those paper airplanes of yours.”
Kyle laughed, a sound that surprised him.
“What do you think?” Brennan continued. “I want you to fuck me like a homecoming queen.”
Kyle leaned back on the bed, lying down. He smiled, finally and truly smiled, for the first time during the conversation. At last, this was something he could understand. “You gonna fuck me too?” he asked.
“Planning on it.”
“You want me to shoot my seed inside you?” His smile waned when he heard no response. His and Brennan’s correspondence before and after their encounter had been filled with crude, exciting slang for what they wanted to do to each other. Kyle thought they had returned to this sordid but recognizable place. “You there?” he asked.
“Yeah,” Brennan said then went silent. Finally, he continued. “Don’t use that word anymore?”
“Oh. Um, sure, that’s fine.”
“I don’t know. It’s always grossed me out. I didn’t say anything online because I wasn’t sure we’d meet again. But, yeah, it gives me the creeps. I’m sorry.”
“No, I’m sorry. I didn’t know. It won’t happen again.”
Kyle felt his lungs expand suddenly. He‘d held his breath for a long time. But the crisis had passed. So often with men, the first sign of discord sent the bastard packing. The rush of gratitude he felt when Brennan overlooked that word shamed him. Most fags wouldn’t give a damn. He and Brennan exchanged a few more vulgarities and promised to keep in touch online until Brennan returned to Dallas.
“Thanks for calling,” Brennan said. “That was really cool of you.”
“Sure. Thanks for…understanding.”
“We’re totally fine. No worries. Can’t wait to see you again.”
Kyle hung up the phone. He stayed flat atop the bed a few moments, letting the conversation bubble in his mind. Finally, he rose from the bed and left the room. It was time to feed the cats. As he walked through the living room, he passed his computer. He stopped, looked at the screen as if he didn’t recognize it, then sat down at the keyboard. He moved the cursor to his list of online buddies. He clicked on Brennan’s screen name. He clicked again and the option to delete the screen name appeared. After hesitating a moment, Kyle erased Brennan’s name. He sat perfectly still, He was waiting to feel something but felt nothing. Brennan was just another guy to vanish from his life. The only difference was that Kyle waved the magic wand. I made the poor bastard disappear, he thought. He hoped Brennan was getting the health care he needed. It’s one thing to cast a guy from your life, but quite another to lose one through death. Kyle prided himself on how honorably he handled his exchanges with other men.
Thomas Kearnes is a 35-year-old author from East Texas. He is an atheist and an Eagle Scout. His fiction has appeared in Ampersand, PANK, Storyglossia, Night Train, SmokeLong Quarterly, A cappella Zoo, Used Furniture Review, Word Riot, Eclectica, wigleaf, JMWW Journal, Splinter Generation, 3 AM Magazine, Knee-Jerk, LITnIMAGE, and numerous gay publications. He is a columnist for Flash Fiction Chronicles and a two-time Pushcart Prize nominee. He is currently marketing his first short-fiction collection, Pretend I’m Not Here.