He was thirty-three years, two months, sixteen days, seven hours, and twenty-six minutes old when he sat down at the clinic and they pierced the plush pink pad of his favorite finger with the shiny stinger of a needle; sleeping beauty at the loom. It left a pincushion bead of blood, swallowing oxygen, maraschino-cherry-red sitting pretty and proper on his miracle-whip-vanilla-slow-churn-banana-split skin.
He was thirty-three years, two months, sixteen days, eight hours, and eleven minutes old when they sat him down again and gave him the sheet of paper with all the numbers printed on it and he said no there must be some kind of mistake, because there, halfway down the page, was the too-neat line of the too-wrong word. It stared back at him, breathless and accusatory. The p screamed at him and the s recoiled from him and the v laughed and laughed and laughed.
His mother had been dead for two years and soon he would be too.
In the mornings, Eddie wakes up and he fishes a tablet out of a bottle with a label covered in too many wheel-of-fortune consonants. He feeds spinach and blueberries and bananas and bee pollen into his Vitamix Explorian and he sinks the tablet into its algaic depths, pebble plumbing the vernal pool.
Four times a year, his seasonal allergies carve out time, clockworked. Four times a year, he calls in late to sit on an examination table, his doctor half-listening, half-nodding, all-typing Eddie’s worn-out answers into some outdated records system, and your condition, Eddie, think of your condition hangs heavy and humid over the linoleum-bottomed gap, a CDC bulletin, a hospital divider, one side’s infected, one side’s infectee.
In the evenings, Eddie runs, feet hitting the tread. He stares out the window of the Blink Fitness, five whole stories up, and he imagines the belt rolling forward, black carpet punching straight out the glass, stairway to pavement, trees shaking slickening dew onto his back. Someone’s out there calling his name, boyish and thrilled, but Eddie’s only running, inside and in place.
The window to serenity is glazed over. Eddie’s in hospital waiting rooms, in funeral homes, in folding chair circles, two-way mirroring the glass-blown pipe dream of support. He gets to know enough people that he’s ministering bed’s wedding to death. In sickness and in health, ‘til AIDS do us part. However it goes.
Eddie’s been trying to hold his peace. He’s efficient at sponge baths and he’s attentive at vigils. He only screams alone in his apartment when no one else is there to see.
In the nights, Eddie dreams. Eddie dreams and his blood turns inky and glacial and blue. Eddie dreams and his blood runs cold. Eddie dreams and his blood stops running and running or running at all.
It’s years and years that Eddie’s cheated death.
He’s Frankenstein’s monster, with the knife, in the drawing room. It passed him the business end of the blade and Eddie struck the center of his own wicker chest. He’s been leprous, reaping, holding out his devil-sold soul.
In Derry, everything else awakens, no longer dormant or benign. It shudders through him. Valves twisted open. All this joy and devotion coursing again through his circulatory, like a virus, like salmon swimming upstream. He’s been loved, and he’s loved, and he loves. He’s not immune to it. Maybe no one is. The proof is right there, once he remembers it: his own blood, pure, untainted, clean and perfect, paddling unbidden in the riptide currents of his best friends’ veins.
If they cut themselves open and poured it all back, his new insides would do nothing but stain it, ghostly pale, future-free. Theseus’s T-cells raising rotting, plague-soaked sails.
That’s what it’s like to lose time, to grow up. You can’t unmake yourself. You can’t reset. You can try all you want but you can never get it back.
When he wakes up in the hospital, the sun’s just beat him to it. It sneaks in through the cleft between the heavyset drapes. It stops them from blacking out and it yellow-brick-roads its way to limn Richie’s sleeping form, the buckled crest of his shoulders where he’s collapsed into the stiff lines of the upholstered chair.
Up and to the side hangs the blood transfusion bag with its pinot noir drip.
Eddie’s thinking about it while he watches Richie wake up.
“I can’t donate,” he says, when he does.
Richie rubs his eyes. His hair’s sticking up at the sides and Eddie sees the startled inhale shake through his chest, how his face flash-floods with relief.
“Eddie,” he says, and it sounds awed. Eddie feels it twinge through his fingertips. Or maybe that’s just the pulse oximeter. It tingles, either way.
Richie clears his throat and tries to straighten up, rolling his shoulders and cracking his neck.
“Of course you can’t, you lost like two pints when you got chicken satayed by Violent J back there.”
“No I mean, I can’t.” It’s hard for Eddie to get the words out, on account of the cannula in his chest.
Richie gives him a squinty, leveling look and he says, “Eddie, you know you can lie about that, right? Just say no, when they ask. They’ll still stick it in you, nice and quick.” He holds his forearm out to demonstrate, taut, sanguine sailor salute, like he wants to let Eddie be sure of something he already suspects.
Eddie closes his eyes.
“Richie, you can’t lie about my thing.”
It’ll take him a moment, because Eddie’s come at it from behind (hah! that one’s just for Richie), but Richie’s smart, and besides, he’s got that thing he wants Eddie to suspect. It makes you predisposed to understanding, the weight of history and all.
Eddie keeps his eyes closed and waits, watches the phosphenes, mint and pink and crimson, swirl behind the thin shutter of his eyelids.
“Oh, fuck,” he hears Richie’s breath whir out.
Fuck. He probably bled all over them, leaking and debauched.
“Look, I’m untransmittable,” he says. He blinks his eyes open and tilts his head toward Richie’s stricken face. “You should be fine. But you could ask to get tested, if you want.”
Richie’s not moving. Eddie tries not to cry. That’s one of the symptoms of it. Sluggish recoil. Shock and panic and disgust.
“I’m sorry,” he mutters. He turns his head back to the ceiling and counts the platelet tiles, envisions them falling and smothering him back to his half-life not-yet-death.
Then Richie is gripping his hand. Something – muscle memory? – flips on. That was how they always touched. Hard, like a hit, but under it, cushioned, like the threat or the promise of a kiss.
He holds them up together, braced and interlocked against Eddie’s cheek, his thumb edging the pinched corner of Eddie’s careful mouth, and he whispers, “You’re alive, you’re so alive. What do you have to be sorry for?”