Jeremy said he wanted to take a break from dating and try celibacy, or at least masturbation. He’d just gone through his fifth HIV scare in a year. Not one of those fake scares, either. The real fucked up kind, where the guy calls you because his T-count is low and he was hospitalized. Jeremy told me the guy was “apathetically apologetic”, they’d been bare-backing for the last six months, but that was his fault. I’d told him it would catch up one day, and he knew. He just thought he’d be dead before it happened.
He conveyed all this to me in the check-out line. Then I took him to get swabbed. I waited in the room, watching The Vagina Monologues. It was playing on all three televisions. Better than the female . . . never mind. There’s nothing quite like the Gay Men’s Clinic.
I took the opportunity to get vaccinated against the human papilloma virus (genital warts) while Jeremy waited nervously, for twenty minutes, to find out his HIV status. He was green with envy as he watched the needle slide into my arm. HPV was one of the many resentments he couldn’t let go of.
I held Jeremy’s hand as the phlebotomist took several vials of his blood. He was white as a ghost when he teetered back into the waiting room. There were a few people ahead of him, so we sat together. His fingernails were almost non-existent by the time they called his number. I thought Jeremy was going to pass out, when he stood to discover his fate.
But that all changed when the swab came back negative. He went diva, telling me that he knew the test would turn out that way. He said he wasn’t even worried about it. “Triumphantly ignorant,” flew across my mind, but I didn’t say it to his face.
The instant we got inside the door, my brother walked to the fridge and took out a beer. He sat down and turned the telly on. I stopped trying to take the beers from him when he was sixteen. He was only nineteen now, but he swaggered like a thirty-year-old firefighter. He got the Indian body.
I went to the bathroom and stood under the shower, watched the dirt swirl down the drain. I wanted to yell at him; sit down and tell him just how much I thought he was fucking his life up. But it wasn’t my place, even if he was my brother. Some soap got in my eye.
When I came out, Jeremy was crashed on the couch. He’d managed to finish off five cans. I sighed and threw a cover over him, got all the cans into the recycling bin. It was only ten, so I decided to go and sit with some friends at the Roadside Café.
The place was loud. All the guys were lined up on the far side of the bar, around the pool table. I ordered a Sierra and sat down to watch the game. Frank slapped me on the back, shouting, “Hey! It’s Taylor!” I nearly lost my drink. The guys looked up from their game and greeted me.
“Did you take the kid to the clinic?” Randal asked me. I told them that I had, that he was clean.
“This time!” Carlos interjected. I nodded and agreed. We played a few rounds before taking to the street. We walked around, bullshitting, talking about our days, fifty hour weeks and benefits that raked in more than we took out.
It was almost midnight when I got back. Jeremy was still passed out on the couch, only difference was, he’d taken off some of his clothes and turned the fan on. The television was off. I stumbled into my room and took my clothes off, fell onto the bed and relished the flavor of my sheets. Saturday.
Jeremy was already awake, and warming tortillas for carne asada, when I stepped into the kitchen. He was all smiles, albeit a little goofy because of his alcohol intake from the night before. But I wasn’t one to talk this early. “Morning,” he said. The food smelled great. He handed me a tortilla and I tossed on another one, while he piled some meat in my hand. I served him and we stood, eating and talking.
“I was really scared yesterday,” he told me. “I thought that was going to be the one.” I reminded him that it could be, still. “I know,” he said, “They told me to come back in another four to six months, to see if it’s for real.”
“What are you going to do until then?” I asked, “Six months seems like a long time for you.”
“You’re telling me!” He scratched his nuts and grabbed around a little bit. I imagined him doing things with all the guys he’d said he had.
“You know I love you, man. But, would it kill you to use a condom once in a while?” He looked like my little brother right then, back in the days when we were first getting to know each other.
His answer was a quiet, “No,” I knew it was something he was struggling with, but I was still scared for him.
“When are you going back to the Park?” I asked. He worked in a national forest outside of the reservation.
“Dunno,” he told me, “I’ve got three weeks paid vacation, thought I’d stay here a while. Maybe a week and a few days, if that’s okay with you.” I told him it was fine, I was happy to see my little brother. Kyle, my youngest brother, and Jeremy, were the only ones who weren’t in juvie, in county or in the pen.
We sat around my pad the whole day, playing video games on my Xbox and joking, reminiscing on the old days in Indian Country. He told me our aunt, Shelly, had another baby. She was still on WIC; her house still wasn’t clean. Our brother, Kyle, a high school junior, was in band and getting a 3.4. Our grandma was still working for the tribe, still talking shit and smoking cigarettes in her hot-as-hell home.
I asked if he’d heard anything from our mother, but he dodged it and I didn’t press anymore. I was only asking because I’d hoped she would have resurfaced after six years incommunicado. But, with each year’s passing, it looked less and less likely. Which was good, I guess, she wasn’t really a mom to us, and our sisters were more willing to visit us in California, knowing she wouldn’t be there to start fights . . . or try to stab us.
At the mention of Mom, his face got cloudy and so did mine. I didn’t spend nearly as much time with Mom as he did, but I was there enough to understand what he went through. She was the worst to Jeremy and Kyle. Jeremy paused the Xbox game and suddenly hugged me.
All the feelings swelled from deep inside, and I realized the innate loneliness I felt was the yearning for my family. I’d moved too far away from home, and I knew it. I’d run all the way up to Fort Bragg to get away from Sagehen. I was sorry then, that I hadn’t stayed to help Jeremy get through the rough times, or taken custody of Jeremy and Kyle when our mom had run out. But here he was: my brother. “I missed you so much!” He said.
“I missed you too, man.”
He sniffed. “It was so hard after mom left and we moved to Big Hill with Dad. I missed her so much. I wanted you to be there with us so bad, but you weren’t.” It was complicated then. I’d had to worry about my own legal troubles, plus deciding if I should flunk out of college again or find a job with a ladder. I didn’t have the mindset for that, back then.
I hoped my brothers had understood when I told them. My sisters weren’t as critical as they were, but my brothers were young: ten and thirteen. We shared phone calls back and forth, and I came to visit them whenever I could—at least once a year—but it wasn’t enough. Then when their Dad went off the deep end and disappeared, too, he’d had to take care of our brother, Kyle.
I did what I could from the Bay Area; I’d just moved out of my adoptive parents’ house and was sending money for bills. I’d finally ended up just moving out there, still helping Jeremy and Kyle get through school by paying for the groceries and bills. It wasn’t enough.
Kyle and Jeremy had had to get work, licking stamps for the local warehouse. Our big sister, Sam, came back from Texas. We worked together and made a good home for ourselves. But then I was called back to the Bay, to take care of my aging, adoptive parents. It was another two years before I came back.
Everything had changed. My brothers were transformed from the tortured preteens, neglected and depressed, that I remembered, into teenagers driven to do well for themselves. Jeremy wasn’t getting in trouble in school anymore. My sister wouldn’t take credit for the change, either. She said it was because I’d come back, had kept my promises to them.
On the day Jeremy graduated from high school, he told me the turnaround was because he wanted to be like me: responsible and “cool”. Kyle had lost weight, started swimming, and the doctors had finally decided his heart condition had improved enough for him not to have surgery. But both of my brothers were still prone to bouts of depression and radical mood swings. Just like me.
I left again, to pursue a business venture in at a small, Fort Bragg bakery. Sometimes, when I would visit, we would get into fights and go to sleep furious with one another. But the next morning, always, we’d make up. Life was too short, and our family was too small, to fight with each other. I’d been away for two years.
I didn’t even know Jeremy slept with guys until seven months ago, when we were on the phone. It was his fourth HIV scare. Before, he’d been adamantly straight and I’d even heard he’d screwed a few girls back in his early high school days. There were lots of rumors about him in the beginning, but I didn’t think they were true. I’d caught a lot of good-natured ribbing, for being gay, from both of them. Nothing I took seriously. They called me a faggot once or twice, but they stopped when they realized it bothered me more than they thought it would.
There were some homoerotic moments, too, but I didn’t take that seriously, just added it up to them testing my boundaries, or experimentation or something . . . curiosity, practical jokes. We never really did anything. One time, I caught Jeremy with one of my soft-core mags, but he played it off like he was grossed out and looking at it to make fun of it.
I’d sent the swab kit as soon as he told me he thought he might be infected, but this was the first time he’d ever gotten a full check up. When I asked him why he hadn’t told me earlier, he told me he thought I’d make fun of him, or tell someone. But he was my brother, no matter what, and nothing could change that.
We fell asleep together on the couch that night. Just like old times. He still kicked in his sleep. I laughed when I woke up on the ground, with a bruised shin. Jeremy was totally unaware, and woke up briefly to ask why I was making so much noise. “Don’t worry about it,” I ruffled his hair, “go back to sleep.” My bed was waiting for me.
I took the week off from work, and drove Jeremy to see the ocean for the first time. It was cold up in the north but even so, he jumped in. On our last morning, when he was packing after breakfast, I made him promise to be more careful, to stop sleeping with all those guys and to find himself a boyfriend. He said he’d try, but it was hard out there in the middle of nowhere. I told him I knew. He just nodded and said, “Yeah.”
As he was walking through the door, he turned and asked me, “So when are you coming out to the country again?”
I told him I didn’t know. I had to find a job out there. He grinned and told me the park was always hiring, and Kyle would be excited to see me again. It had been almost a year. I told him to mail me an application, but he pulled one out of his bag.
I had to smile.
He watched me fill out the whole thing, hanging over my shoulder the whole time, telling me what to say and what not to say. Even though I was older. Some things never change. I love my brothers.