*attrition \ə-ˈtri-shən\ [Middle English attricioun, from Medieval Latin attrition-, attritio, from Latin]
1: a gradual reduction in numbers as a result of resignation, retirement, or death.
2: the act of weakening or exhausting by constant harassment, abuse, or attack.
3: repentance for sin motivated by fear of punishment rather than by love of God.
Julio and I are putting two MILFs through the paces on a pet-stained sofa when an effeminate pimp and an androgynous pixie enter the set. They stand off camera in silence, watching Julio and me work. Pixie girl hikes up her skirt, pulls her panties to the side and fingers herself.
Flea, the director, acknowledges the pimp and his girl’s entrance with a silent nod and continues filming. He pushes the camera in for a close-up with one hand, and mimes a motion that resembles shaking dice with the other: pop at will. Julio looks at me and we exchange nods. We’re ready. We dismount from our women and stand shoulder to shoulder, stroking our dicks. The MILFs sink to their knees in front of us and angle their faces upward. Julio and I pop together.
Flea says, “Cut. Hold for stills.”
Flea has swapped his video camera for a digital stills camera. The camera flashes as he snaps pics. When he’s done with the stills, I pick some dog hairs, glued in place by lubricant, off my dick. The MILFs leave and the girl that came with the pimp replaces them, kneeling before us. She wraps her lips around my penis and works on me until I’m erect again.
Flea checks the shot he just took on his camera’s screen. “Who’s the girl?”
Femme Pimp says, “Eris. She’s street legal: her test is good through the end of the month.”
Eris switches to Julio. She sucks him to get him going while she strokes me.
Flea says, “Who’s she shot for?”
“Alpha Man, Red Assholes Films…just a handful of scenes. It’s slow for her, so I’m taking her around on sets for some go-sees to help her out.”
I sit on the sofa and pull Eris on top of me, cowgirl. She’s not the best piece of ass I’ve had but whatever, she’s there. If you see a five-dollar bill on the sidewalk you’ll pick it up. Julio sits next to me and pushes her head into his lap. Flea orbits us, pointing his camera.
“I’m finishing up this MILF CHOCOLATE movie,” Flea says, “and then I’ve got BROTHAS LOVE PHAT WHITE ASS. She doesn’t fit into the lines I’m shooting right now. What about Gideon Roads? Maybe he’ll throw her into a bukkake.”
Femme Pimp says, “Already tried. He’s not interested. Don’t you have a blow bang coming up?”
Flea sighs. “I guess. What’s her rate per scene?”
The pimp quotes a sum that a would be insulting for a mope.
“Cut that in half, and maybe…”
The pimp points to Eris, bounding on my dick. “Come on, look at her fuck!…Hey, you wanna try her out yourself?”
Julio gets up from the sofa and leads the Eris by the hand down a hall. I follow them to a bedroom, and when Julio opens the door a team of dogs and cats run past our feet. When the last beast has exited I pull the door by the handle and it creaks shut behind me. Eris climbs onto the bed and gets on her hands and knees. Julio mounts her. After a while we switch off and I mount her.
The door creaks.
As I’m parking my car, I notice the brakes feel soft and I make a mental note to get them checked. The driver’s side door doesn’t lock, but nobody’s going to steal a rusted-through car with a carburetor. It’s the end of a workday, consisting of two Viagras and, including Eris, five girls on three different sets. The reek of pussy, ass and sweat clings to me the way cigarette stench lingers on a chain smoker’s clothes and fingertips. I’d have preferred to shower after last scene with Julio and the MILFs, but my clothes are infested with dog hairs and set grime (When was the last time you saw porn stars stop to fold their clothes? Never, we rip them off and toss them on the floor.) so it made no sense to clean up only to put them back on again for the drive home. I feel greasy. My pores feel clogged, like I’m suffocating through my skin.
Home for Amanda and me is a duplex on a hillside cul-de-sac of Melrose Hill. Named one of L.A.’s ten best neighborhoods, you could live your entire life in the city and never know this tree-lined oasis exists. No traffic. Neighborhood children’s laughter sparkles in the air as they chase after the ice cream truck. The fact that Amanda and I don’t live in the Valley was a conscious decision to compartmentalize my work, and keep it away from our home life.
When I enter our home, I leave the front door open behind me and take a moment to open some windows. A breeze sways the curtains, and light from the setting sun fills the space. Our sofa, dining room table and bookcase all bask in the golden light.
My mail is laid out for me in a neat stack on the table. Bills. Checks from different studios. An envelope from my bank. Inside it is a check from a studio and letter stating the check has been returned for insufficient funds. I scroll through contacts in my cell phone.
“Good afternoon, Sexual Deviants Studios, Kiran speaking. How may I direct your call?”
“This is Tyler Knight. Let me speak with Alex Kidd, please.”
“A bounced check.”
While on hold, I read more of the letter. The bank will charge a returned check fee to my account.
“Alex isn’t available, but he said to just go ahead and redeposit the check.”
“My my bank charged me a fee, and I want to be reimbursed.”
“Go ahead and redeposit it, and we’ll mail you another check to cover the charge.”
Amanda calls to me from the bedroom, and I go to her. A parti-colored bowling shirt, wrapped in dry-cleaning plastic, hangs from the bedroom doorknob. Date night. Amanda is buttoning up a matching bowling shirt in front of a mirror. She catches me in its reflection.
I walk past her and into the master bathroom without stopping to hug or kiss her, and she makes no attempt to embrace me. Shower first; a protocol we never break.
Amanda enters the bathroom, but keeps her distance. “You smell like cat piss.”
“How was work?”
“Not going to talk about it.”
“You never want to talk about it.”
I kick off my shoes. “Correct.”
“‘Why?’ You know why.”
“How are we supposed to have a normal relationship if you never want to talk about anything?”
My clothes weigh me down like spilt crude on a baby seal’s white fur. I peel off my shirt, pants, socks and underwear, and stuff them into the hamper. “We talk about everything, just not my work. You know that, so stop asking me.”
Amanda glowers at me as I pour a cup of blue mouthwash and gargle. I swish the minty alcohol over my tongue and teeth. It has a pleasant burn inside my cheeks.
She says, “This is not healthy, Erik.”
I spit out the mouthwash and foam fizzles in the sink.
I say, “I don’t want to bring that shit home with me. What we have together is the only normal thing in my life, and I’m not going to poison it.”
She scoffs and points to my clothes rotting away in the hamper.
I say, “Can we talk about this after I take a shower, please?”
I pin the shower knob to “H” and steam thickens the air. I lather up, rinse, and lather up some more. With some pumice scrub, I excavate the muck that has seeped into my pores. Next, I soap up the fingernail brush and scrub the left hand, then the right. Then I work some dandruff shampoo into a lather, scratching it into my scalp with my fingernails. It has a cooling menthol tingle and scent, so I let the foam sit in my hair for a while. I place my hands on the wall, lower my head, take deep breaths as the hot water massages my neck and back.
Looking down, I see Amanda’s scrunchie on the tub sill…I don’t want to fight with Amanda, and she doesn’t want to fight with me…She wants just wants to feel involved. Loved.
Clean clothes, including the bowling shirt, are laid out for me on the bed.
I say, “I’m sorry.”
“You hungry? Let’s go eat first.”
She smiles. “Okay, but it’s got to be drive through. I can’t be seen with you in that shirt, ha ha.”
We hug, then kiss. Her lip gloss tastes like green apples.
As we separate, something about my ear catches her attention. She picks something out of it. A dog hair.
I’m walking towards the Bon Voyage motel in the Valley. The motel has a reputation as a house of ill repute. Entire apartment buildings along this stretch of the street serve as drug dens. I used to live on this block, and because of an incident years back, I could have died here, too.
An LAPD cruiser on the other side of the street flashes its lights, cut across four lanes of traffic, and drives up the sidewalk in front of me. The doors fling open and two screaming police officers rush out, aiming their guns at my chest.
It only takes about four pounds of pressure to pull a trigger, firing a gun and sending a bullet into its target. Anyone with firearms training knows that you never place your finger inside the trigger guard unless you intend to shoot. Both cops approach me with their fingers inside the guards, wrapped around their triggers.
One cop screams, “Get on the ground! Now!”
The other cop contradicts his partner’s command, “Don’t move!”
The normal range of my voice is bass. In an attempt to sound less threatening, I raise its octave and make it resonate from my nasal cavity rather than my chest. “Could you make up your minds, please?”
“Put your hands on your head, turn around, and get down on your knees!”
People walking on the other side of the street look at me and point. Cars slow down to get a better look at me.
A cuff bites into my wrist, my arms are twisted behind my back, another cuff snicks into place around my other wrist. Hands push me forward and I fall onto my face. A knee digs into my back, pinning me in place.
The cop that cuffed me asks, “You have ID on you?”
I measure each word. “In my wallet, sir.”
“Any needles or sharp objects in your pocket?”
Hands dig into my pocket and free my wallet. The information on my ID are read off into a walkie talkie.
The cement has scrapped my cheek and it stings. I’m probably bleeding but I don’t dare move. I keep my cheek flush with the sidewalk. At the end of my nose, a colony of ants rips apart a caterpillar that’s too slow to get away. Farther down, a cigarette butt burns down to ash.
After a moment, there’s chatter on the walkie talkie.
A cop says, “This ain’t him.”
The other cop says, “You sure?”
“Yeah, wrong guy. Cut him loose.”
The knee in my back lets up, cuff are removed, and I stand.
Red and the blue alternating lights from the police cruiser strobe across their faces. Their name tags say: Borjas and Madero.
Borjas reads my More Than Waffles t-shirt and says, “I’ve been meaning to try that place out. Is the food any good?”
I don’t respond. My hands are at my side, my is posture is slumped. I control my breathing, and remain still.
Madero says, “Let’s go.”
They walk back to their squad car with its still flung-open doors.
The first time the cops drew their guns on me I was fresh off the plane, standing at a bus stop in front of the college I was attending.
To the LAPD, if you look like me, you’re a criminal, ipso facto. Whenever you’re stopped by the LAPD while walking, it’s:
1) “Yes, sir, no sir.”
2) no direct eye contact.
3) hands out of pockets and no sudden movements.
If you’re stopped while driving, include:
4) hands at ten-and-two on the steering wheel.
5) look straight ahead.
6) do not move.
You must be accommodating to the police while they reach inside your chest, rip out your humanity and dignity–sometimes at gun point–and discard them on the sidewalk, and at the slightest perceived provocation, close the book on your life.
It’s the 21st century, but I don’t feel free…Certainly not free to enjoy many mundane things others take for granted, like an evening stroll without concern of the predators in navy blue enforcing a de facto curfew…Always wondering, Is today the day I don’t make it back home to Amanda? It wears on me day after day, week after week, year after year. Trapped in–and by–my own skin. I want to scream.
“Hey!” I say, “Are you two going to tell me what that was all about?”
The words have left my mouth before I realized I’ve shouted them. I don’t care.
Madero pauses behind the driver’s side door. There’s the LAPD decal with “to protect and serve” printed in cheerful font on the door.
Madero says, “Yeah. My man, you almost got shot.”
He shuts the door. The flashing lights cut off and they speed away.
Eris answers the door after the first knock. Rashes cover her skin and her clavicles jut through the fabric of her dress. She smiles, revealing yellowed, film-covered teeth of a medieval Englishwoman. How the fuck could I have missed these details last week. I didn’t miss them. She’s changed.
She steps aside, allowing me to enter her motel room. Mismatched furniture. Thrift store paintings hang askew on the walls. Threadbare blanket on a mattress. Nicotine-stained curtains, drawn shut. You could cross the room in two paces.
I say, “Are you okay?”
She scratches the back of her hand, then picks at a scab. “Not really. I finally got a scene last week, but Reginald–remember the guy who was taking me around to sets? He has my money and his cell phone is disconnected.
I’m so sorry for having to call you, but I’m all by myself here and I can’t pay rent and I don’t know what else to do.” Her eyes lower to the floor.
Earlier today I did a scene and they paid me in cash. I give the money to her. “This should help for a while.”
Eris looks up at me, smiles and hugs me. “Thank you.”
She falls back onto the mattress, peels her panties off and opens her legs. There are sores around her vagina. “I have an itchy pussy but you can still fuck me. Oh! Don’t worry about the cream, it’s just Vagisil…Do you have a condom?”
I say, “No, I don’t, I just came here to help you. Besides, I know what it’s like.”
She picks at a scab on her inner thigh. “Ha ha, how could you know what an itchy pussy is like?”
I force myself to look at her eyes, not her crotch. “No, I uh…I’ve been in your situation before.”
“I was kidding, Tyler.”
Eris says, “I can suck your dick if you want.”
“No, I’m cool.”
She pulls her panties up and folds her hands in her lap. “Can you just…sit with me for a while?”
I’m a fish caught on dry land thirsting for the sea, but there’s a sadness desperation in her eyes. I capitulate and sit on the bed next to her.
“Okay,” I say. “For a little while.”
She stares at her hands. I fixate on a stain on the curtain that resembles a two-headed donkey. Neither of us speaks. Eris places her hand in the space between us, palm up. A clear gesture for me to take her hand in mine. I don’t. She retracts it.
I look to the door. Amanda and I agreed that I do what I must to keep the bills paid, as long as it’s confined to set. Amanda’s trust in me is absolute. God knows, I haven’t been perfect–just being here is a violation of her trust. It feels as though something heavy is hanging from my brow…pressing down upon my shoulders…pushing my face down deep into this sagging, piss-soaked mattress, and each breath is harder to draw than the one before it. A police car passes by the window. Its lights paint the ceiling red and blue as it speeds by. I walk to the door and open it.
Eris calls after me, “You’re the only person in the Valley who doesn’t try to take advantage of me. You’ve got a kind heart, Tyler. You’re a beautiful snowflake.”
The door clicks shut behind me, and it’s all I can do to keep from breaking into an all-out run. In the lobby I pause at a trash can, take a condom out of my pocket and toss it in. At the heart of every snowflake is a grain of dust.
Amanda wakes me with kisses, and we make love. I wait for her to climax, then I roll off of her without climaxing myself. I’ve got a full day and it’s important to save it for the camera.
We got time before either of us has to be anywhere, so dress and take a walk together through Griffith park. Our favorite place is Ferndell trail, a lush nook with a bridges that cross a rolling stream. Sunlight cascades through a canopy of giant sequoias. Dragonflies with stained-glass wings flitter in light. We sit on a bench, and listen to water falling over rocks.
Usually my call time is set up so that by time I walk on set we’re ready to roll camera, and I jump right into the scene. I dropped my first Viagra of the day on the drive over.
When I enter the house I notice the lights aren’t set up, the video equipment is still in their boxes, and plastic bins are scattered across the floor.
Flea and Trisha Marie, my scene partner, are sitting on some bins. Flea stares at his cell phone. Trisha, still dressed in her street clothes, is smoking a bowl of kush.
I say, “We running late?”
Neither of them responds.
Flea looks at me and says, “Daniel’s test came back positive. He has HIV.”
“What do you mean, positive? I thought he was still shooting Brazil with Alpha Man the Elusive Scoundrels crew…”
“They came back, and he took his HIV test a few weeks early.”
“Shit…did he get infected over there?”
“Nobody’s sure yet, but probably.”
Trisha pulls out a prescription bottle filled with kush from her jeans pocket, and starts re-packing her bowl.
I say, “How’s he taking it?”
Trisha says, “How the fuck do you think he’s taking it, Tyler?”
Trisha makes room for me on her bin and I sit next to her.
I say, “Alpha asked me if I wanted to go on that trip, but Amanda said no way…That could have been me. Anyone else from the Elusive Scoundrels crew infected? Alpha? Mitch Adams or Malik?”
Flea says, “No, they’re clean.” He shakes his head. “I feel terrible, man. Daniel is a such good guy.”
Trish passes the bowl to me. I take a hit and hold the smoke in my lungs. I offer it to Flea, but he waves it off. I take another hit and pass it back to Trisha. Flea goes back to staring at his phone, and Trish and I pass the bowl back and forth. A wave of euphoria washes over me and there’s a tingling sensation in my teeth.
Trisha empties her bowl and scrapes the resin with a car key. She says, “I don’t mean to sound insensitive, but…”
“Right,” Flea says, “What do you guys want to do?”
Trish says, “I’m already here. Let’s fuck.”
I shrug. Flea stands, opens the plastic he was sitting on, and pulls out the rape kit.
The scene is over and I’m driving on the freeway, talking to Amanda on the cell phone.
She says, “Is anyone else infected besides Daniel?”
“Nobody knows yet.”
She says, “And people still shooting?”
“I guess. My scenes for tomorrow are still on, and I’m still booked solid next week. Nobody canceled.”
“You’re going to cancel your scenes.”
I say, “That’s a lot of money, babe.”
“Are you fucking kidding me? Don’t be an idiot. You’re not working until everything is figured out. Not until it’s known whom he worked with since he came back from Brazil…this is exactly why I didn’t want you to go on that trip. Those putas over there are nasty, and you can’t tell me they test the same as you do here in the States.”
“Yeah…I’ll be home soon.”
A few phone calls placed to others in the industry reveal a few details: Magnanimous Adult Industry Medical, the adult industry’s HIV/STD testing center, has released Daniel’s real name to the general public; M.A.I.M. also set up a quarantine list for the people who have worked with Daniel since his return from Brazil. This list is posted on the Internet for all to see; Porn industry message boards are filled with rumors, half truths, fear mongering, and blame. Everyone from industry members to fans has their opinion, but nobody knows what’s going on.
I’ve been spending the past few days hanging out at home with Amanda. Right now, she out grocery shopping and I’m playing an online game of Counter-Strike.
My phone rings. It’s Dana Divine. I log off and answer.
“What’s up, Dana?”
She says, “Remember Eris, that girl you and Julio had fun with on Flea’s set?”
“Daniel worked with her before you fucked her. She’s HIV positive–”
I feel like I plunged through thin ice and into a freezing lake.
“–you need to retest right away, and–Tyler?”
I say, “Yeah…yeah, I’m here. Are you’re sure?”
She says, “Alpha Man shot her with Daniel and Mitch Adams right when they returned from Brazil–I think it was a double anal cream pie scene. The quarantine list just got updated. It says she’s positive.
Anyway, Flea took some pictures of you and Julio having your way with her. Flea shared the pictures with Alfred and I saw them, so that’s how I know you’ve been exposed.”
“Thank you for telling me, Dana.”
“Just so you know, Alfred posted pictures on the Internet of you fucking her. I told him not to, but he never listens to me…”
I say, “I gotta go, Dana.”
This has to be a mistake…confusion about what’s going on…
I Alt/Tab away from Counter-Strike and log onto the quarantine website. The list is a chart of sorts. Daniel’s name is at the very top as “Patient Zero.” Below his name are the names titled “First Generation”, people who have had direct sexual contact with Daniel. Now, there’s a “Second Generation” list of people, those who have worked with the first generation, adding scores of people to the list. Eris’s name, like Daniel’s, has its own branch.
This can’t be happening to me. This isn’t real. Okay, relax, calm the fuck down and think…Wait, she did seem different when I saw her last…thinner…those sores! But, that can’t be from HIV…could it? There’s no way she’d be symptomatic that fast…right? What the fuck do I know? Nothing. Fucking HIV…Why me?
The girl who answers the phone at M.A.I.M asks for the names of everybody I’ve had sex with since my HIV exposure. It’s impossible to remember everyone because of the sheer volume of work I’ve been getting lately, and even if I could, I don’t know all of their names. Often times I don’t bother to ask the names of everyone on the scene because I don’t care. I can’t think straight, and after I give her a few names I draw a blank. We schedule an appointment for me come into M.A.I.M. tomorrow morning to retest tomorrow.
Amanda…We had unprotected sex many times since my exposure. Goddamn it! What do I know about female-to-male transmission? What are the odds of me getting HIV from Eris, then me giving it to Amanda? What’s the incubation period? From what I understand, it’s extremely difficult for a man to get infected through vaginal sex with an AIDS infected woman. A lot of good those odds did for Daniel…assuming he got it from a woman…I don’t know a damn thing about how he may have been infected. If it turns out that I’m HIV positive, I’ve put Amanda’s life at risk the same as if I took a loaded gun, spun the barrel and put it to her head. Christ, the only thing she’s guilty of is loving me. I’m probably fine, so she’s fine, too. No need to panic, I’ll just wait until more information comes out.
I call Amanda’s cell, but I hang up before it rings. I need to tell her in person.
M.A.I.M’s office is on Ventura Boulevard near a coffee shop and a pet store. There’s a series of concentric circles, the M.A.I.M. logo, painted on the office’s blacked-out windows. Inside, you could easily mistake the reception area for that of a dentist office. The waiting room is full. People talk, but it’s mostly gossip about who’s dating whom, and which upcoming parties are worth attending.
I stand in line and wait. When it’s my turn, I tell the girl at the front desk who I am, and that I’ve been exposed to HIV. None of the other people in the reception area reacts to what I’ve just said. Conversations continue. I’m invisible. The receptionist gives me a clipboard with some forms, and I hand her my driver’s license. The forms include spaces for personal information, the types of tests I am taking today (HIV, Gonorrhea, Chlamydia), and a waiver of privacy so that my test results may be disclosed. My hands shake as I write, so much so that I have to ask for a second set of forms. When I’m done I hand the clipboard back and she gives me a plastic cup, which I take into the bathroom.
I fumble with my zipper, and it takes concentration to steady my aim so that my stream makes it into the cup. I screw the lid back on the cup, wash my hands, and splash some water on my face. After drying my face with some paper towels, I look in the mirror above the sink for a glimpse of my reflection. It’s not there. Panic crashes into me like an Arctic wave and I take a half-step back before I remember it’s not a mirror I’m peering into. It’s a sliding-glass window to pass urine samples through, and on the other side is laboratory space. I compose myself and leave the bathroom and head for the blood-drawing stations.
The blood-drawing stations are located in private rooms. I sit in the chair and roll up my sleeves for the nurse. She gasps when she sees the scarred-over craters in the crooks of my elbows. The holes are right at the spot where a junkie would shoot heroin, and they are large enough to push a pencil through. She doesn’t ask. She composes herself and ties a rubber tourniquet around my arm. The nurse swabs the area with alcohol and stabs at the scar tissue with a needle, but it does not penetrate the scar tissue. I make a fist and a vein bulges on my forearm. She stabs the vein and the needle glides in easy. Blood spurts into the collection tube, and it starts to fill.
The scars inside the crooks of my elbows are souvenirs from my homeless days when I needed money for food. I sold just enough life blood to stave off death. Whole blood is made up of red blood cells, white cells, and plasma. They only let you sell whole blood once every few weeks because your body needs time to regenerate its lost red blood cells. When you donate, your identification is shared in a database so you can’t game the system by going from center to center before enough time has passed. It takes weeks for the human body to regenerate lost red blood cells, but plasma, however, is replenished quickly and may be sold twice a week, so I switched.
The reason the scars are so large is because the gauge of the needles they stick in your veins for plasma collection are wide enough to drink a milk shake through. They have to be to prevent clogging. When you donate plasma, you’re hooked up to a machine that sucks your whole blood out of your vein, spins your blood inside a centrifuge machine to separate your red blood cells from your plasma. The machine keeps your plasma and returns your red blood cells back to you through the needle. This process repeats itself for several cycles until your plasma donating quota, based on your weight, is fulfilled. If you’re a larger man, you must give a more plasma per visit than a smaller man, but your pay doesn’t scale accordingly. You get paid exactly the same. For a man my size, it takes many repeat cycles of sucking, separating, and returning, and I could be hooked up to the machine long enough for me to watch a movie. You learn not to eat fatty foods before you donate, because excess fat in your blood may clog the needle, slowing the process even further. Now you understand why I hate needles?
When I’ve filled the collection tube with blood, the M.A.I.M. nurse removes the needle, swabs the area and puts a band aid on. This is to be the first of many HIV tests I have scheduled over the coming weeks. I’ll have the results for this one in a few days.
I’ve sequestered myself to my bedroom while waiting for my test results to come in. As morbid as it may seem, waiting in a room to find out if I have a disease that may kill me in a slow and painful fashion, I can’t handle the idea of going out in public and interacting with other people as though everything is okay.
Amanda checks in on me, asks if I’m hungry, and opens the drapes and windows. She gives me some space, but not much. She knows me better than anyone else does–that I tend to brood, and in a moment I may and be a danger to myself. She’s seen it happen before, and for far less. She leaves, but keeps the bedroom door open.
She returns with a game of Monopoly. She picks the thimble, I choose the shoe. While counting out the money, a lock of hair falls in front of her eyes and she smoothes it back behind her ear. She looks up at me, hands me my starting money, and smiles. Just looking at her smiling at me shatters my negative mood, and leaves me with no choice but to smile, too. She picks up the dice and rolls.
Few people return my phone calls these days, so I log onto an online porn forum and sift through the gossip for any information. I read that: some industry people say they can’t understand why this is being blown out of proportion; apparently, I have full-blown AIDS; some male talent not on the list price gouge, charging two and three times their usual rate; Daniel has gone missing; a second girl is infected with HIV. I log off and switch to the site for the HIV quarantine chart.
The online quarantine chart has grown. It confirms a second girl has tested HIV positive under Daniel. This brings the total of HIV infected, including Eris, to three people. On the chart, my name is listed under Eris as “first generation” exposed. A “second generation” list with other people’s names grows under mine.
There’s a girl I worked with whose name is not on the list. Trisha Marie. I should to call her before I call M.A.I.M.–better she hears it from the source than from a porn gossip board or from some M.A.I.M. employee. But I don’t have her number.
I make some calls, but nobody who has answerers the phone and will actually talk to me has it. After leaving a few more voice mails I give up.
There’s a news special on TV about HIV in porn. I watch it while I wait for people to call me back. The anchor, while getting some things right and raising important questions, digresses into ad hominem attacks on Daniel and Eris, because it’s easy. I turn the TV off.
I’m on the phone with Jack Hammer. He’s telling me about the porn industry “town hall” meeting that just took place, and how there was an agreement on an industry-wide moratorium on all shooting until the quarantine list has cleared.
He says, “Some other ideas were brought up, too…No more anal cream pies, oh, and no double anal scenes, because of the risk of the anal lining tearing. That, and prolapse.”
“Yeah, we’ll see how long that lasts. What else?”
“Some studios, VELVET and Decadent, are going condom-only, and they’re insisting that other studios do the same, but…”
He says, “There was a lot of push-back from some of the gonzo studios on the condom thing.” Their argument was, Yeah, condoms might be a bit safer for the talent pool, but it would hurt business because nobody want’s to buy porn with condoms. And since we all need strong product sell-through to earn a living–”
“Jesus, Hume’s Guillotine, anyone? Let me guess: M.A.I.M.’s testing and protocols are working anyway, so why make things difficult for everybody. There are some smart folks in our business, people went along with this?”
He laughs. “Yeah, pretty much. Check out the emperor’s new condom…”
It’s date night and Amanda and I just finished watching a movie. She insists that it’s important to keep our routine and hold on to normalcy in spite of and–especially because of–the events unfolding around us.
While she’s in the lady’s room I wander around the gift shop. I pick up an art book with works by Francis Bacon, a painter I’ve never heard of. I turn to the page of the painting, Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifiction. The first impulse upon beholding it is to slam the book shut. Three contorted figures, more beast than man, shriek in a claustrophobic room painted a hue between orange and blood red. The painting is a triptych, so even though they appear to be in the same room, each figure is confined to agonize in the isolation of its own panel. The description says that Bacon got his inspiration from Aeschylus’ Oresteia and the three Furies that hunt down Orestes for his sins. From the effect this reproduction in an art book has on me, I can only imagine the impact standing before the lush paint of the original would have.
It’s dusk, when we’re driving home. Amanda is talking on her cell. The imagery of that painting is still with me. How Bacon captured raw human emotion and foisted it upon the viewer…I’ve got to learn how to paint.
I glance in my rear view mirror, and what I see triggers an adrenaline dump. My mouth dries and my pulse speeds, but I will myself to remain calm. I check my speedometer, and when I reach an intersection I step on the brake and come to a complete stop. Then I signal and turn. When we get to the next intersection, I signal, stop, and turn again. My brakes are still soft because I’ve been putting off getting them fixed, so I apply them early enough to compensate for the increased stopping distance.
Amanda ends her call and puts her phone in her purse. She says, “Why are we driving in circles.”
I point to the rear view mirror. “Those cops are following us.”
Another intersection. I turn. The cops turn.
She says, “No they’re not. Why would they be following you?”
I come up on another intersection, and this time I apply my brakes a touch late and the nose of the car edges past the white line. There’s a clarion scream of a siren and a spotlight blasts through our rear window. The light is intensified by the rear view mirror, filling the cabin with the brightness of the sun. I pull over, turn the engine off, then return my hands to ten-and-two on the steering wheel. The cops cut the siren off but they leave the spotlight focused on us.
I say, “Don’t say anything, Amanda.”
A cop stands at my window, slightly behind my left shoulder. He says, “How are you doing tonight?”
I know he doesn’t give a damn, this is a feel out question designed for the police to gauge the attitude of whomever they pull over.
I say, “I’m doing well, sir.”
“What are you up to?”
I stare straight ahead. Through my windscreen. Focusing on a billboard a block away. Hands at ten-and-two. Digging my fingernails into the steering wheel.
He says, “Do you know why I pulled you over?”
“No sir, I do not.”
“You were driving too slowly.”
It’s a vacation billboard. People frolicking on a white sand beach…
“License, registration, and proof of insurance, please.”
I say, “My registration and insurance are in the glove box. My girlfriend is going to reach into the glove box and get them, sir.”
Amanda scrambles the contents of the glove compartment, including traffic tickets from the previous times I’ve been pulled over this month, in her search. Finally, she finds the papers and hands then to me. I take my right hand off of the steering wheel to accept them. Then I reach across my body with my right hand, left hand still gripping the steering wheel, and pass the documents across my body to the cop. With slow and deliberate movement, I use my right hand to pull my wallet out of my pocket, extract my license and hand that to him with my right hand, also. I return my right hand to its place on the steering wheel. He goes to his cruiser. In the passenger-side mirror I see another cop from the neck down, posted sentry at the back of the passenger side door. His thumbs are looped in his belt.
Amanda’s phone rings. She fumbles in her purse to answer it.
I say, “Get your hands out of your purse.”
“But, I’m just getting my–”
“Look in your side mirror. See that cop there? You want to get shot?”
The headless cop in the mirror no longer has his thumbs hooked into his belt loops. They are now at his side, elbows bent slightly as if he’s dying to say ‘Draw pardner!’
She says, “No, I’m sorry.”
She turns to toss her purse onto the back seat. The headless mirror cop flinches.
I say, “Stop moving!”
In my driver’s side mirror, I see the first cop, back lit by the spotlight, walking toward us. His hand goes to the butt of his gun as he gets closer. The steering wheel is a circle of butter dissolving in my hands.
Here we go…Okay, without looking, what clothes am I wearing? Baseball cap, t-shirt, shorts with a draw-string…They’ll take the drawstring out…My shoes have laces…no, they’ll probably take my clothes and shoes and put in county blues and slippers…
I say, “Amanda, if they take me into custody–”
“But you didn’t do anything!”
“If they arrest me, call my mother so she can contact her attorney.”
Her voice quivers. She tries to hold back tears, but fails. “Don’t worry, Papito. I love you, we have each other.”
The cop is at my window again, “Okay, you have no warrants, but–”
His hand still rests on the butt of the gun.
“–you still never told me what you’re doing in this neighborhood.”
I say, “If you read the address on my license, you’ll see that I live nearby, officer.”
“You did a rolling stop at the last intersection. Here’s a ticket for that. I’m also giving you a ‘fix it’ ticket for the crucifix dangling from your rear view mirror. It’s a hazard.”
He hands me the ticket and returns my documents. I reach across my body with my right hand, take them, then return my hands to the steering wheel. The cops return to their car. They keep the spotlight on us and wait for me to drive away first. I stuff the insurance, registration, and new ticket into the glove box with the other tickets. Then I rip Jesus off of my rear view mirror, turn the key in the ignition, and drive the last few blocks home with great care.
When I return home from my final HIV re-test, I close the door, shut the blinds, and head for the bedroom for a nap. My mind won’t shut off, and after staring at the ceiling I get up and log onto Counter-Strike. The server list of available games populates. The server I want is full, so I watch a game in spectator mode while waiting in queue to join in.
I Alt/Tab to the Internet. The quarantine list shows a third girl has tested HIV positive. She has her own section with names of those whom she has worked with listed under hers. It seems as though the list of names grows by the hour. The message boards have posts by talent who check the list several times a day to see if their name has been added. I Alt/Tab back to Counter-Strike and join in a game, but I’m not able to focus and I my character keeps dying in situations that are otherwise routine and avoidable.
Normally this time of day I’d be sparing with my friends at the boxing gym, but of course that is now out of the question…So is Jiujitsu, and a long list of other things I may never be able to do again if I’m HIV positive. Like making love to Amanda ever again…Assuming I have not infected her already.
I check my phone for returned texts or voice mails. None. I head for the kitchen, turn on the water and occupy my mind with scrubbing dishes. The water isn’t draining after I finish, so I get a bottle of clog remover from under the sink and read the instructions. Then I read the warning label:
“Keep out of reach of children. Poison: May be fatal if swallowed or cause permanent damage. Avoid contact with skin and eyes. May cause severe burns or blindness…”
I take the bottle with me into the living room and sit on the sofa.
Poison: May be fatal if swallowed…
fatal if swallowed…
There’s the sound of the front door opening, then closing. Keys landing on the table. Footsteps. Amanda takes the bottle from my hands and sets it on the floor.
She hugs me.
Then she leads me by the hand to the table, where she picks up her keys, and out the front door.
Amanda and I walk together along streets of our neighborhood in silence.
The sun is setting when we end up at our favorite bench in Ferndell. We sit. The stream flows. Squirrels go about their business. Amanda and I are alone. She takes my hand in hers and squeezes.
It’s night. My feet splash in ankle-deep water as I run in a swale behind an industrial complex. My socks and shoes are sodden, and the air is thick with the stench of burning flesh. Officer Madero gains ground on me. In his outstretched hand, a torch that glows bluish white that is so bright it hurts my eyes to behold. My lungs ache. Lactic acid building inside my quadriceps screams a chorus of pain, its volume rising with each step. I’m just outside of Madero’s grasp and I feel the heat of his torch as its light falls upon my back and shoulders, casting my shadow before me. The light sears my flesh and singes my hair away, and my shadow on the ground in front of me is on fire. Its ashes flake away, rising on convection currents and into the starless sky.
A phone rings.
I sit up in bed, reach over to my nightstand for my cell phone. The caller ID says, “Unavailable.”
I say, “Hello?”
“This is Trisha Marie.”
She says, “I hear you have something to tell me.”
I say, “Yes. Thanks for calling me back. This isn’t easy to say…not that it will be easy for you to hear, but–“
“Get to the point. What do you want?”
I say, “You…you may have been exposed to HIV. By me.”
“You gave me AIDS! How could you do that to me? My life has just started and now I’m going to die!”
“And you’re the one that killed me!”
She doesn’t say anything else, and neither do I. I listen, phone pressed to my ear as she weeps. She lets out a wail which echoes inside my skull and a light shines through the phone’s earpiece.
I’m being nudged…My eyes open to Amanda shaking my shoulders. She hands me my phone ringing cell phone. It’s M.A.I.M.
“Yeah, that’s me.”
“Your final test results came back. HIV ‘Not Detected'”.
I hang up and tell Amanda. She nods. Then she gets up and goes into the bathroom and the shower hisses. The door shuts.
When she returns she’s wrapped in a white towel and her hair is held up by her scrunchie. She sits on the bed and looks at me.
“So, now what, Erik? You planning on going back to work?”
“The quarantine list hasn’t cleared, and moratorium on shooting has not been lifted.”
“‘Moratorium’, my ass. I know people are still shooting, and some people who are quarantined are still trying to get work with forged HIV tests. I read it on the message boards. Regardless, that’s not what I asked you, and you know it. After.”
I say, “After the quarantine list clears and the moratorium is lifted? No…I think I’m done.”
She goes to the closet and lays out some clothes on the bed. She begins to dress.
I say, “Who knows, maybe the industry will be better for this experience.”
She turns to me and shakes her head.
She says, “People don’t change. Adversity doesn’t build character. It reveals it.”
Amanda and I lay on our sofa. A warm breeze blows through the windows and the first movement of Beethoven’s Ninth plays in the background on auto repeat. She’s sleeping with her head resting on my chest and our fingers are interlaced. On her lips, the hint of a smile.
We met at my last real job, a part-time gig for company that evaporated during the tech bubble burst. The firm was bleeding market share in an atrophying market, and it was an open secret the Great Layoff was coming. The day the firm gave everyone notices I was sitting in the cafeteria contemplating the upcoming rent and my non-existent job prospects. I looked up and she was there. She smiled, and that was it.
That night over drinks she told me she’s from a Latin American country where violent death is a fact of life. Everything I really know about her is from the day we met and onward. Details of her life before she first entered the States are black. While going through her things one day, I discovered the name on her university degrees are slightly different from the name on her birth certificate, which is a bit off from the name she used to introduced herself to me. Some things are best left buried, so I left the issue alone. Without her, I’d be dead or wish I was–that’s all the clarification I need.
Once, while she thought I was sleeping she climbed out of bed, knelt beside it, and began to pray in Spanish. Prayers of hope? Penance for past sins?
Maybe I’m her albatross…Maybe she’s mine.
My phone rings. The caller ID says it’s a director. I thumb the volume down before it wakes Amanda, and let the call go to voice mail. I listen to his message: I have some scenes coming up for you. Call me.
I turn the phone off and let sleep come.
A knock on our open front door by the mailman wakes me but not Amanda. I extricate myself from Amanda’s grasp, ease her head onto a pillow, and greet the mailman at the door.
Past-due bills I could swear I’ve already paid, asking for their money plus late fee charges…and returned check fee charges tacked on to the original sums.
Then there are a couple of letters from my bank. Enclosed with the first bank letter are two checks from Sexual Deviants: the original check I re-deposited, and a second check Sexual Deviants sent to cover the bounced check fee for the first check. They both bounced. The letter says my bank charged me returned check fees for both.
I rip open the second bank envelope. The letter says some checks I wrote (to pay the now past-due bills) have been returned due to insufficient funds. They’re charging me fees for those, too. The sum of all fees and charges I’m slapped with nearly equals the amount of the original Sexual Deviants check.
I grab my car keys.
I’m waiting for the light to change at an intersection. School just let out for the day, and a group of kids cross in front of my car. The girls wear knee-high boots, caked-on makeup, and carry fake designer bags. They walk to a Carl’s Jr. parking lot, where a much larger group of girls, most dressed like their favorite Hollywood celebutants, are hanging out. If these girls knew what adulthood has in store for them would they still be in such a rush to look grown up? The light changes and I cross the pull into the Sexual Deviants parking lot, across the street from the Carl’s Jr.
A procession of official-looking men streams in and out of the Sexual Deviants office. The ones leaving the office carry boxes of files, which they load into the back of an SUV. One of them holds the door for me.
In the reception area, a man in a vintage “STYX WORLD TOUR” t-shirt plays grab ass with a woman wearing pig tails, knee socks and a backpack. Laugh lines etched into her face by a lifetime of acidic tears give her age away.
I say to the man, “Are you Kiran?”
He says, “Yeah, and who are you?”
“Tyler Knight. Alex passed me some bad checks. I want my money.”
“You need to learn how to read.” He points to a sign on the wall: Talent checks may be picked up only on Tuesdays between the hours of 2:15-2:20 pm. Failure to follow the rules may result in permanent ban from Sexual Deviants Studios.
I glance at my watch: 2:28.
“Fuck that, get me Alex. Now.”
He says, “I’m sorry, but you just missed him. He left for Europe this morn–”
I take the bad checks from my wallet and hold them up. “I’m not here to fuck around with you. These check bounced enough times and for enough money to be a felony. Either you pay me right now, or not only will I see you in court, I’ll make it impossible for you to book talent from several agencies. The grief will cost you more than the value of the checks.”
Kiran says, “Hold on.” He leads the girl by the hand into the inner office.
More men walk in and leave with boxes.
He returns with a three-to-a-page checkbook.
I say, “I don’t think so. Cash.”
He leaves again. When he returns, he’s got a brick of hundred-dollar bills in his hand. He tears off the paper band and counts out my money. “Don’t spend it all in one place. Alex says you’re not worth your rate, and you’re not worth having to book two weeks in advance.”
“Yeah, yeah,” I say, “‘The food is terrible and the portions are too small…'”
I take a counterfeit money marker out of my pocket and draw on a bill. The line turns yellow and fades.
I say, “If you really want to impress me, deposit that money in your bank account and pay your goddamn bills.”
On the way to the car I roll calls to the directors who sometimes shoot me for this studio, including Dana Devine, and I tell them all to beware of bad checks.
While driving home from Sexual Deviants, I decide to swing by Eris’s motel room. I couldn’t tell you why, and I’ve no idea what I’m going to say to her. As soon as I knock on her door, I find myself hoping she doesn’t answer. She doesn’t. The clerk at the front desk says she’s moved out and does not know where she went. There’s a feeling of relief.
Before I sit in my car I notice something on the floorboard, glinting in the sunlight. A dog hair. I remove it from my car and shut the door.
I’m cruising along the freeway, windows down, radio off, listening to the 350 V8 rumble, when in typical LA fashion the traffic ahead of me slows to a crawl for no apparent reason. I step on the brakes.
Red tail lights come up on me fast; pumping the brakes doesn’t slow me. I thread the needle through slower traffic while stomping the brake pedal onto the floorboard. I don’t bother with the horn because it doesn’t work. Heart pounding, I pull the emergency brake, glide to the right side of the freeway and down the exit ramp. Coordinating driving, sobbing to Christ and stopping with the hand brake, I pull off into a side street and kill the engine before the car kills me.
I sit still. Cars drive past me. People walk along the sidewalk. I wipe my face on my sleeve, and then reach for the crucifix where it should be hanging from my rear view mirror, but it’s not there because I ripped Jesus down. He’s neither under the front seats nor on the back seats. He’s not in the glove box, but the pink slip is there. I write a note on the back of a traffic ticket explaining that the foot brakes do not work, and I toss the note and the pink slip on the front seat. Leaving the windows rolled down and key in the ignition, I get out of the steel sarcophagus and walk.
Amanda and I are napping on the sofa when the mailman knocks on the door. Amanda gets up from the sofa to greet him. She hands me the mail: bills, junk mail and more bills. No checks.
Even though the last of the exposed people have been cleared from the quarantine list, the moratorium has been lifted and my phone hasn’t stopped ringing, I’ve yet to step foot on a set. Among the work I’ve turned down, a director who wanted to shoot me in a premeditated sex tape with a celebutant. I hung up without even asking who.
Amanda and I haven’t put much thought into what I’m going to do for money going forward. We’ve got money saved to last for a little while, but then what? The mailman will keep bringing bills. At least we have each other…things will work out.
We put our shoes on and take a walk to the ice cream parlor down the street. We finish them on the way back home, and when we return home we sit on our steps and watch the kids play.
My phone rings. Work. I let the call goes to voice mail.
Amanda says, “Go ahead and call back. When you’re done, we need to talk about how it’s going to be from this point forward.”
And though all streams flow from a single course to cleanse the blood from polluted hand, they hasten on their course in vain.