"My ex-girlfriend has just been exposed to HIV."
That's how Meredith phrases the news about Geraldine, snaking through the AIDS help hotlines as she's transferred from one health facts parrot to the next.
"My ex-girlfriend has just been exposed to HIV," she starts again, twisting the phone cord with the hand that's not pressing the receiver to her ear, giving her shoulder a break. In the office we share copyediting porno mags, the magazines are spread all around, and the words she's saying now are weightless currency we toss between commas and hard returns. Vaginal. Anal. Whatever. Our boss--Geoff (with a G, for Christ's sake)--is a few feet away behind a half-closed door. If he hears this type of language over the news radio he's always got blaring, he won't even raise a brow.
"If you don't know," Meredith says, "can you just give me the name of a doctor or a specialists or someone who can tell me?"
Geraldine left to study the extinction of certain primates in the Congo. There's Jane Goodall's gorillas, and the estrus-bottomed baboons. There are the bonobo chimpanzees, not to be confused with the common chimpanzee, who live in an isolated region in the Congo, on the west bank of the Zaire. They are smaller than the common chimpanzee in stature and in number, dwindling in population now down to the four-digit range. Also unlike the common chimpanzee, very little is taboo in bonobo culture. The males fellate each other, brothers even, and the females rub their bits together. When greeting one another, they engage in sex acts like we humans would shake hands or, in our less frigid moments, hug.
Scientists say the bonobos have replaced aggression with sex, quelling conflicts with heat.
Bonobos share more DNA with us humans than any other species. 98.9 percent, something crazy like that.
Meredith was not my first best friend, but she has been my longest. Some people don't have a best friend. I don't know whether or not I pity them. To give you an idea of how long I've known her and how well I know her: I knew Meredith when she was straight. Not really straight, maybe, but straight by default. I knew Meredith when she daydreamed about a non-threatening teen idol-type winning her Meredith-sized stuffed animals at Oaks Park. When she spent twenty minutes every morning sitting cross-legged on the linoleum floor of her mother's kitchen, combing out her frizzy hair and scrunching it into uniformed curls, section by section, setting it with hair gel that came in a clear bottle to show that it was pink, and that it sparkled.
Today we take lunch at the same time, waving at Geoff as we leave, swinging brown paper bags filled with soggy sandwiches as we walk down the stairs and out into the mad lower Manhattan lunch hour. We walk toward ground zero and half-hunch, half-sit against the wall by the entrance to St. Paul's Chapel, where we watch tourists take photos with disposable cameras of the fenced-in concrete that has been poured over something that will never be gone. It is here that Meredith, fingers dusted in potato chip salt, brushes her hands over her pants and says, "I wished this on her."
The wind that gets caught between Battery Park and the South Street Seaport meets to whip sections of our manes against the sides of our cheeks, in our eyes, our mouths. Sex hair, we called it. I pause to try to touch her, and fail, bringing my arms across my chest. The wind is a little less cold. "I've wished things like that too," I say. "It's nobody's fault."
When they broke up two weeks ago, when Geraldine admitted she had been fucking a man, not just any man, either, but a local man, a native, I took down the photos of Geraldine that Meredith had tacked to the corkboard behind her printer. It was two days ago that Geraldine called with the news that this man had tested positive. Geraldine didn't know the language, didn't have any friends there, had to hike a mile and a quarter to get to the village where the Internet connection at the tourists' lodge sometimes worked. Half the world away, in our office, Meredith took to finding out about AZT and preventative treatments. These things exist. You think AIDS, you think DEATH. But there've been changes; they have these drugs, now, that taken in a 72-hour window might stop the virus. It's been more than 72 hours. That doesn't stop Meredith from trying.
Our office is filled with Post-it Notes, fax machines, and porno mags. Back from lunch, I'm looking at the poster of a porn star on the wall by the water cooler, two sticks and two circles, a mouth pursed partly open to show the tip of her tongue flicking against a white-hard incisor. Meredith sighs a sigh that is not just for show, rests her palm against the phone, and stares at her screen to find the next number. How the hell did we get here, I think. Not as a question.
When Meredith was straight, we'd take out my parents' Acura. We stained our teeth with espresso and nicotine and told amateur poets in the back of coffee houses to go to hell. A man in false eyelashes tore his nylons kneeling to stroke my fur-covered boots on the dance floor at The Rage. It's all a blur of shriek-scarred throats and tire tracks from going too fast. Before all this about Geraldine, I asked Meredith if the way to feel the glee of losing our innocence again would be to lose even more of it. But we learned to recognize the graphs of exponential formulas a long time ago.
Half the world away, Geraldine breaks awake with a sob. Outside the screen window there are footsteps snapping twigs, the gait of an animal, feet turning up moist soil that stinks of decomposition. Geraldine turns onto her stomach and pushes away the notebook she has fallen asleep on so that it falls to the floor. The animal outside stops, sniffs, and retreats. She fumbles to tug the pen from the spiral of the notebook and strains to write face on the paper napkin on her nightstand, remembering to remember that bonobos are the only other species who make love looking at each other.
Geoff comes out of his office and fills his cup at the water cooler. He looks at me and then at Meredith until she apologizes into the phone, presses the orange Hold button, and pulls the receiver a few inches away. He says something about watching the hyphens next time, girls, before he goes back behind the half-closed door and snaps off the news radio. A light blinks on the phones and Meredith's eyes meet mine. Lower Manhattan is silent for a second before a clear plastic lid, caught on air, flies up from Fulton Street and scratches against the window.
About the author:
Emily Hartwell Howorth lives in Brooklyn, New York. This is her first published story.