First Published on Chaleuria
Fang Chi and Gao Zhun made arrangements for the test. They discussed where to go – the community hospital or the disease control center1 – and when to meet. Given Gao Zhun’s fear of running into familiar faces, they agreed to meet at the subway station after the morning rush hour. It was nine thirty now, but there were still many people on the train. With watchful care, Fang Chi made sure that Gao Zhun stayed close in front of him throughout the ride. He kept a gentle, reassuring hold on Gao Zhun from behind, and shielded him with a light embrace whenever the train became too crowded.
The train rocked from side to side as it moved along. They felt the warmth from each other’s skin through the thin fabric of the shirts between their bodies, but Gao Zhun remained unaffected by their proximity. His mind was thrown into chaos and driven to distraction by a single word: AIDS. It was all he could think about. It kept him awake through the night. The fear he had felt in the wake of the sexual assault was nothing in comparison to the sheer terror that consumed him now. Discrimination, terminal illness, death – fragmented images from awareness campaigns he had seen in the past flashed before his eyes, trapping him in a living nightmare from which there was no escape.
As if he could sense the paralyzing fear in the body before him, Fang Chi lowered his head. “Don’t be scared,” he murmured, his breath hot against the skin behind Gao Zhun’s ear, “I’m here with you.”
Gao Zhun felt his heart seize, clenching and twisting so hard that he was on the brink of tears. Then, giving in to his desire, he leaned backwards and collapsed against the chest behind him. After most of the passengers alighted at a major station, Fang Chi guided Gao Zhun toward some available seats. They sat down together, shoulder to shoulder; in contrast to the spaciousness of the seats, their closeness seemed somewhat unnatural and odd.
Although it was not cold in the train, Gao Zhun could not stop shivering. “If the test results come back positive…” he said weakly as he turned to Fang Chi with a face that seemed to have frosted over with ice-cold despair, “just leave me and let me die.”
It was unbearable for Fang Chi to hear such words from him. He reached over and grabbed the stiff hand resting on Gao Zhun’s knee. He slipped his fingers through Gao Zhun’s, locking their hands together, and began rubbing back and forth. Some passengers noticed immediately. Others even began whispering amongst themselves. Gao Zhun pulled away a little, but Fang Chi held on. “Let them think what they will. I only care about how you feel.”
Hand in hand, they held on firmly to each other for the rest of the ride, until the cuffs of their sleeves became soaked with sweat. When they reached their stop at last, Fang Chi had to help Gao Zhun get to his feet, almost as if he were scooping the other man up in his arms.
The disease control center was a three-story building located several hundred meters away from the subway station. People of all kinds could be seen streaming in and out of its relatively modest premises. The clinic for HIV testing was a large room on the second floor, with doors that were always kept shut from the inside. Fang Chi supported Gao Zhun by his shoulders and watched him take two deep breaths. Then, he opened the door for Gao Zhun and entered the room with him.
The room was white, with a row of yellow plastic seats running along its pristine walls. Half of the seats were already taken up. Most of the occupants in the room were young men. Within moments, the pair became the focus of attention. Numerous gazes fell upon them: some were sympathetic, filled with understanding for their common plight; some were indifferent, desensitized to the point of numbness; others were mocking and malicious, unabashedly reveling in the joy of schadenfreude.
Gao Zhun was overwhelmed with fear, so terrified that his vision had begun to blur. Fang Chi held him up by the waist and helped him into an empty seat at random. “Wait here. I’ll go look for the doctor.” But Gao Zhun clung to his sleeve, refusing to let go. “It’s alright,” Fang Chi coaxed with patience, “I’ll be back in a minute.”
When Fang Chi’s sleeve slipped from his grasp, Gao Zhun felt as if the world had collapsed all around him. Useless, helpless tears welled up in his eyes, quivering and threatening to fall at every flutter of his lashes. Seated next to Gao Zhun was a tall, slender youth dressed in a brightly-colored sweatshirt, sporting a fashionable root perm. With a mixed expression on his face, the young man observed Gao Zhun out of the corners of his eyes, stealing glance after glance at the older man from the side.
Fang Chi returned very soon, just as he had promised, holding something in his hands. Ignoring the crowd in the room, he headed straight for Gao Zhun and squatted down before him. “Give me your hand.” For some inexplicable reason, they became the center of attention once more; all eyes turned in their direction, flashing with amazement and envy.
Fang Chi remained unaffected. He pulled out some wet wipes from his pocket and began cleaning Gao Zhun’s ring finger with care. After that, he opened the packet in his hands and took out its contents: a test strip and a sterilized needle. Up to this point, Gao Zhun had been watching Fang Chi’s ministrations blankly. But when Fang Chi was about to prick his finger with the needle, he pulled back his hand all of a sudden. “No,” he protested as he tried to snatch the needle from Fang Chi, “I’ll do it myself.”
Fang Chi paid him no mind and avoided his grasp with ease. “It’ll be over before you know it. It won’t hurt at all.”
Yet, Gao Zhun remained persistent and continued to keep his finger out of Fang Chi’s reach. At this point, Fang Chi finally understood: Gao Zhun, frightened by the tiniest possibility of infecting him, was trying to be as cautious as he could. Even though his heart could not help but melt at the thought, Fang Chi hardened his expression and ordered, “Your hand. Now.”
Gao Zhun could never say no to Fang Chi – he did not know how to. He unclenched his fingers. The needle punctured his skin instantly. Holding Gao Zhun by the hand, Fang Chi delivered a crimson drop into the sample area. Then he added the diluent, kept the needle away, and sat down again beside Gao Zhun with the test strip in his hands. A deep sense of contentment welled up within Gao Zhun at this moment; even if the results showed up as positive this very instant, he would accept his fate willingly with no regrets. “How long will it take?”
“Half an hour.” Worried that Gao Zhun might work himself into a frenzy with anxiety, Fang Chi added, “It’ll be over before you know it.”
“Goodbye my almost lover, goodbye my hopeless dream…” – Fang Chi’s phone began to ring. After a cursory glance at the screen, he cut off the call. Not long after, it began ringing a second time, only to be cut off once more. When the phone rang for the third time, however, Fang Chi passed the strip to Gao Zhun and answered the call in resignation. “Hello, Ms. Bai?”
Fang Chi continued to watch Gao Zhun with a worried eye as he moved toward the doors. Gao Zhun, too, followed Fang Chi with his gaze as he exited the room, persistent as a boat in pursuit of its guiding star. All of a sudden, the youth beside him piped up with a casual remark, “Your boyfriend seems to treat you pretty well.”
Not understanding what he meant, Gao Zhun turned to the young man in confusion. After giving Gao Zhun a crude once-over, the youth asked with a mocking note in his voice, “Or is he not your boyfriend?”
At this, a number of people turned their prying gazes on Gao Zhun. Stunned, he looked beyond the youth and surveyed his surroundings for the first time since stepping into the clinic. He saw how young and fashionable most of the other occupants were: they were not much older than boys, their features were maintained with care, and their outfits were impeccable almost to a fault. They were all very pretty – cheaply so. Gao Zhun was familiar with their kind, having crossed paths with many of them in his line of work. But they sickened him a little right now as their speculations about Fang Chi filled him with disgust.
“No,” he replied with deliberate arrogance and condescension. “He’s my doctor.”
Someone jeered immediately in response, “Must be the kind that gives you ‘injections’ at night, eh?”
The boys burst into laughter, their collective mirth adding a dash of vibrant color to the sterile room. Gao Zhun furrowed his brow in disdain and turned away in disbelief. Just then, Fang Chi came back into the clinic and returned to Gao Zhun’s side with long, quick strides. “How are you holding up?” he asked as he examined Gao Zhun’s expression with care. “Are you scared?”
Gao Zhun was about to answer when the young man next to him leaned over with familiarity. “You’re a doctor?” he asked with eyes gleaming with youthful vitality.
Fang Chi glanced at Gao Zhun. “I’m a therapist, to be more precise.”
The youth responded with an over-exaggerated “ooh.” Then, striking a pose that he believed to be the most flattering, he added a little shyly, “If there are issues that I’m struggling with… may I look for you?”
Gao Zhun’s scalp began to prickle. At the very same moment, however, his phone started ringing. He looked down and saw that it was a call from the board of directors. “Hello?” He had no choice but to answer it, and his frustration showed in his anxious tone, “The price is already fixed, can’t be changed. Tell him it was me. I was the one who set the figure at 22 million.” He could not help but glance over at Fang Chi and the youth, again and again, as they carried on with their cheerful conversation, shoulder to shoulder.
“I often get nightmares and I have trouble sleeping,” the youth said. “It’s really bothering me. I don’t know what to do.”
“You can come for a consultation, just to see how it feels.” Fang Chi was very gentle; it was the gentleness of a practiced professional. “Free of charge.”
“Then…” The youth peered at him with a certain sweetness in his gaze. “May I have a business card?”
- Disease control center: The Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CCDC) is an agency of the Ministry of Health of the People’s Republic of China. The disease control center mentioned in this chapter is most likely to be the Shanghai Municipal Center for Disease Control and Prevention (SCDC).