Desert Fever

Seven a.m. I’m heading east. Pale morning light washes over the Oakland Hills. The sun is low in the sky. I squint and pull the visor down, twist it into the corner. I should really buy a pair of sunglasses. The Subaru has a special compartment in the roof for sunglasses; two compartments actually (one for the trick’s glasses, my friend had said the day I drove the car home from the dealer). But I like my vision unencumbered. The sun’s rays burn around the edges of the visor while I do seventy past the Plaza 580, where Now Hiring hangs below the Cattleman’s sign. What the hell is a Cattleman’s? I pass a miniature golf course, with a miniature Dutch windmill standing motionless at the foot of the 18th hole. A silver Porsche rides my ass, a bike strapped to its roof, its thin wheel trembling in the wind. I slide over to the right-hand lane. I’ve got a long drive ahead of me. Above the highway on a grass-covered hill is a white clapboard farmhouse, out front another sign, white lettering on weathered wood: “Thank You Jesus”. I crack the window, cold air streams in and I turn the volume up, someone’s covering Depeche Mode and I hit repeat.

Oh little girl
There are times when I feel
I’d rather not be
The one behind the wheel

The Porsche rushes past. I turn onto 5, and the traffic thins out. I pass exits with names like Crow’s Landing and Three Rocks. Hills rise gently on either side of the narrow interstate; they recede in the distance, each bluer than the last. A layer of mist hangs low over the fields through which the aqueducts curve, slow silver water twisting away in ribbons. A truck passes me, its cargo a small hill of sewer pipe bound together, gleaming in the sun. Another sign on the edge of the road: “Farm Water Feeds the Nation”. Jersey cows grazing; black shapes against the golden fields. Soon the landscape flattens, and what appeared to be mist hanging over the fields reveals itself as California pollution, hazy and blue, lying low and still.

It’s still early enough to believe in the romance of the solitary road trip. The map on the passenger seat shifts slightly in the breeze from the open window. I lay a book, J.R. Ackerley’s My Father and Myself, on the corner of the map to keep it still. I let the CD play through again. I am on my way to see my father. I will see others: his partner and their two friends, maybe my brother. But it’s my father I think about. My father, who found my website last year, who read for the first time that I had HIV, who read for the first time of my long-standing, long-withering resentment against him, a resentment twenty-one years old. My father, who wrote me that day an e-mail that contained one word in its subject line: “Devastated”. My father, who at that time was expecting me in three weeks for a visit I had planned months in advance. That day we exchanged e-mails, as is our custom, preferring the measured written word against the phone calls we both dreaded. And over time, over many days, we dealt in ever-increasing openness with the subject that had divided us, and over time I began the slow process of forgiving him, a forgiveness that left me a little lonely. The resentment had been a constant companion for twenty-one years, it seemed to fade even against my own will. But fade it did, leaving in its wake not a newly formed love between father and son, but rather a new awkwardness, all of the old rules between us suddenly wiped away. And this awkwardness stirs up longing for my dead mother, who in my nostalgia never treated me unkindly, who in my nostalgia was anything but awkward with me, who in my nostalgia loses all such flaws. And the road stretches ahead, still sparsely populated, and I’ve finished my thermos of coffee and I’m alone now, racing towards the remains of my family.

When driving alone, of course, one should stop frequently; to fuel up and to stretch one’s legs, to roll one’s head on the stem of the neck till the tendons creak, to buy bottles of water and caffeinated soda from a “Travel Center” gas station that sells chips and lukewarm nacho cheese and Hustler magazines and trucker’s caps and day-old Krispy Kremes for a quarter each. But I’m either stubborn or tenacious, or simply a glutton for punishment; on the eight-hour road trip that ends up taking ten, I stop only twice. The first is at McDonald’s (“Last food for 27 Miles”) because road trips warrant fast food. But everyone else has the same idea, and I end up at the back of a line that stretches towards the far exit. This, for shitty fast food. I eat in the car, preferring solitude instead of the hordes. Then I fill up the tank across the street before pulling back onto the interstate.

The first six hours pass quickly, a blur of flat fields and traffic, Life of Pi on the CD player. As the hours pass I begin to identify with the novel’s protagonist, a boy who finds himself on a raft in the Pacific Ocean, accompanied by an enormous and unpredictable Siberian Tiger named Richard Parker. I’m without a tiger, save for maybe the tiger in my head, alone in my Subaru, far more fortunate in resources than Pi yet feeling, nonetheless, that I am on a hazardous journey, and perhaps it is through a twisted sense of empathy and brotherhood to Pi that I allow myself only one more stop, at said Travel Center, where I buy a bottle of water, a Vanilla Coke and, because I can feel something coming on, two packs of strawberry-flavored cough drops.

By now I’m outside L.A., and the traffic has slowed to a crawl. I’m grateful for the companionship of Pi, because the next hundred miles takes four hours.

I pull into Palm Springs in the early evening, an hour before I am to meet everyone for dinner. I find my motel, a pink-hued Travel Lodge on East Palm Canyon Drive, thirty-nine dollars a night. I park near the office and emerge from the car. My knees protest, bending through their deep ache, my head swimming in the sudden stillness, in the cool desert air. My legs move as if through water, and a cough tickles the back of my throat. I can’t get sick, not now. I pop another cough drop and check in.

Palm Springs has a Hilton, and countless condos, and cute little bed and breakfasts, and clothing-optional resorts full of men on vacation. But I’m into the romance of things like solitary road trips and cheap, tawdry motel rooms. The Travel Lodge doesn’t have vibrating beds, but it’s colored pink, and has paintings on the walls so unremarkable that my vision slides past them. I lay down for a few minutes and the cramped blood in my knees begins to breathe.

My father is staying in a friend’s condo with a gated drive that requires several confusing phone calls with his partner before it opens. “What you do is, you drive straight through, and keep driving all the way to the end, we are at the very end of the parking lot, and you will, let’s see, you want to park before you reach the dumpsters and, let’s see, we will stand at the window and we’ll open and close the blinds so that you can see which unit we’re in…” Dick, my dad’s partner, is saying.

I’m nodding, going “Uh huh, yes, uh huh,” and by now there is another car behind me, waiting to get in and I go “Okay, I got it, yes, I got it…” and finally the gate opens and I drive through. It’s dark by now and up ahead I see a thin figure wrapped in a towel, motioning towards an empty space as if he’s directing a plane to its gate. It’s my father. I park and then get out and hug him briefly, I can tell he’s a little self-conscious in his bathing suit.

“I was just in the hot tub,” he explains. He’s grown back his beard.

“Rough life,” I reply, and we head past the swimming pool in the middle of the condo development’s courtyard. Someone is standing at the window, opening and closing the blinds over and over even as we’re walking up to the door.

Inside, Dick gives me a hug and I shake hands with their friends Douglas and Tom, another couple they’ve known since we all lived in Minneapolis. They stand around while I take off my shoes, asking me about the trip. Everyone looks older; my father’s beard is white and Dick’s arms have lost muscle; they’re thin, like an old man’s arms. I glance around. The condo is decorated in Mid-Nineties Desert Gay; lots of white carpeting and light, plush furniture and chrome-and-glass coffee tables and statues of Navajo women wrapped up in blankets and orchids that turn out to be fake when I touch them. My Dad takes me on the two-minute tour. Someone has a fetish for celebrity autographs; there are dozens of framed headshots hanging on the walls of all three bedrooms. “This is the Governor’s suite,” my dad says with a smirk, gesturing towards an open door. There’s a signed photo of Arnold Schwarzenegger just inside the doorway. In the master bedroom all the photos are in black and white, Greta Garbo and Humphrey Bogart and faces I don’t know.

“Check out this shower,” Dick says, flipping on a light in the bathroom. A partial wall of glass bricks surrounds a green marble shower.

“Oooh,” I say appreciatively. “You guys scored. This belongs to your friends?”

“Yeah,” Dick says. “Can’t beat the rent.”

Later, my brother and his friend Matt arrive. My brother is 28 and lives in Albuquerque. He’s four inches taller and about twenty pounds lighter than me, with a mop of reddish-brown hair and a nose like Ichabod Crane. He’s the only straight one in the family. Matt is shorter, stocky, with a pale, plain face and a dry sense of humor that he reveals gradually as we all sit around in the living room. I nurse a Diet Pepsi while everyone else knocks back a few MGD’s. My Dad sips from his beer, which is wrapped in a cozy. Everyone seems to be drinking pretty hard, and I try not to stare at the Cape Cod in my little brother’s hand. The cough at the back of my throat grows more annoying, and I gulp the Diet Pepsi. The saccharine clings to my tongue. Everyone keeps asking me about my job and if I like working with the dogs, and if I felt better I’d say yes, but instead I say, “it’s just a job”. And then my brother asks about my plans for school. “So what degree would you get?” Tom asks.

“An MFA,” I say. And I sort of nod, as if answering my own question, because there is an awkwardness in the air, and I know that I’m responsible for it, because I’m tired and cranky and I don’t feel like talking. And everyone kind of nods and watches me. “I’m kind of excited about it,” I offer weakly.

Then Dick perks up. “I have to go back to the grocery store tonight before it gets too late.”

“Again?” My dad says. He turns to me. “He’s been to the grocery store twice already.”

“I forgot something. It may be my last chance before everything closes tomorrow.”

“What did you forget?”

“I forgot the orange marmalade for the cranberry sauce.”

“You put orange marmalade in the cranberry sauce?” Douglas asks.

“Yes.”

“It’s delicious”, my dad says.

“It’s his favorite,” Dick says to all of us. “I’m just trying to decide which store to go to.”

“Is Vons having a strike?” Douglas asks.

“Yes, and I won’t cross a picket line.”

“We went there today and Dick made us turn around,” my dad says.

“We went to Ralph’s, which was further away and doesn’t have as good a selection.”

“Well, why don’t I go?” Douglas says. “I wanted to get some Cordon Negro anyway, I can get your marmalade.”

“Are you sure?” Dick asks.

“Of course. You just want orange marmalade?”

“Yes, sweet orange marmalade. Smucker’s. Get the big kind.”

“Like what?”

“Twelve or sixteen ounces. Get the sweet kind.”

“Smucker’s. Okay. What if they don’t have Smucker’s?”

“As long as its sweet. Don’t get the unsweetened kind, or the artificially sweetened kind. Ralph’s should probably have Smucker’s.”

“Should I go to Ralph’s?”

“Probably, unless you want to cross the picket line at Vons….wait a minute, though, Ralph’s might be a zoo.”

“This late?”

“With Thanksgiving tomorrow, absolutely.”

“Maybe I should go to Vons then.”

“It’s up to you.”

“So where is Vons anyway?”

It goes on like this for a few more minutes. I’m sinking deeper into the couch, wishing that I could go back to the motel already. And it’s undeniable now; I’m getting sick. My bones ache dully, and the noises and the colors around me are getting brighter. The conversation about Vons and the marmalade is exhausting me and I still have to get through dinner.

And that is how I end up spending Thanksgiving Day in my motel room, alone and sick, the “Do Not Disturb” sign slung around the outside doorknob. Me and the remote control and Thera-flu; everything filtered through a feverish haze. And there is a television conspiracy; every movie seems to feature Patrick Swayze. I call my father to tell him I might miss dinner tonight. He asks if I want anything, maybe something to eat? Something to drink? I tell him no, because I feel like hiding, because I feel like suffering alone. I feel guilty, I always feel guilty, about getting sick. Perhaps it is my Midwestern work ethic, so badly bruised after seven years in California. Perhaps it is having HIV. But I feel somehow responsible for my sickness, and a familiar shame settles in along with the chills and the body aches. I feel both punished and overdramatic, like I’m making a big deal over nothing. All day I listen to other travelers bang in and out of their motel rooms, children playing in the pool outside, cars idling in the parking lot and then pulling away. The sun is shining in a cloudless sky, but I keep the curtains drawn shut. Now and then I peek miserably out the window like a shut-in, squinting against the brilliant day, the parking lot swimming in my delirium.

HIV or not, I recover quickly. I always get the flu, never a cold, and it’s always the same pattern: one day of it coming on, a full day of incapacitation, and then back to the world the next day. I’m only on day two. And though I feel like shit, I feel even worse about missing Thanksgiving dinner after having driven all the way down. I call my father at five pm.

“I’m better than this morning”, I say, which is the truth, sort of. “I could probably come to dinner, but I don’t want to get anyone sick.” I want him to tell me the right answer. I want to stay in bed. I want comfort. I want my mother.

“Well, nobody’s said anything about not wanting to get sick. I’m sure everyone would like to see you. But I can’t tell you what to do, it’s your decision.”

Damn. I sigh. “Okay, I’ll be there soon.”

I go to dinner, and everyone asks me how I am and I tell them, “Better.” My fever breaks as I eat, cold sweat shines on my brow. I tell a few weak jokes, and my father laughs quietly. He’s sitting at my side, and I feel as though he’s leaning towards me. Everyone is cracking jokes and the chandelier is too bright and their voices too high, too loud. But my father is quiet, and maybe it’s just the fever, but I feel as though it’s just the two of us, as though we’re in a foreign country where we don’t speak the language, and everyone is laughing and speaking louder, each voice clambering over the others. And it’s a feeling I like, a feeling of comfort. I don’t say anything to him, I just give him a brief smile, and then turn back to my plate. I eat a lot of turkey and mashed potatoes and gravy. I pass on the cranberry sauce. I’ve never liked cranberries.

After dinner my brother is tying his shoes on the tile near the front door, preparing for a solitary cigarette outside. Everyone else is retiring with drinks in hand to the living room. My brother and his friend are leaving early the next day, and so I take the only opportunity that will present itself. I follow him outside. “I need to talk to you,” I say. “There’s something I’ve wanted to tell you for awhile now.” We’re standing out by the pool, and I gesture towards a couple of deck chairs, their white arms glowing dimly in the dusk.

“Okay”, he says, then laughs nervously. We sit.

And that is how, on Thanksgiving Day, I tell my brother that I have HIV. I tell him that I’ve known for two and a half years, that I found out a few months before our mother died. I tell him that not telling anyone in the family was the first mature act I had managed in years. I tell him that I am healthy, and that I wish I hadn’t gotten sick so that he could see for himself. I tell him my about my numbers, and what they mean, and I tell him what my doctor had said, that I could go years without meds. I tell him that he doesn’t need to worry unless I tell him to worry.

He cries a little. He wipes at his eyes with his sleeves. It’s getting darker. I watch the surface of the pool as I talk, glancing over at him from time to time. Lights from the surrounding condos play on the water. A thin stream of ants runs along the edge of the pool. We don’t stay outside very long. His friend is inside, waiting for him. We stand up and then we hug, and we say that we love each other, and then we go back inside.

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