The National Gallery

It was because of the bike crash that I volunteered for an HIV-vaccine trial. I blame Brian. For the crash, not the trial. Well, I volunteered for various reasons, the accident was one, but mostly because I needed the money.

This was sometime around the summer of ’01, before Memorial Day, before the winter and the cold that blurred us into `02. I ran a bike for (corporate logo: VrooM!), a customized delivery service. The idea that you could order things online and have them delivered to your home was in those days a crazy novelty. But people seemed to like it. No time to hustle out for cat food? We’d get it for you. Have a craving for Ben and Jerry’s Triple Fudge Chunk but don’t want to miss your favorite TV show? A VrooM! courier would have the pint on your doorstep in half an hour.

Our founder and president was a small man we called Mr. Fiji because he was forever sucking at those rectangular bottles of Fiji water. He was younger than me, and I was only two years out of school. He had broad hands outsized for his narrow body, knuckles like marbles and fingers both thick and long. Between runs, he gave the couriers pep talks. He’d say how “good organizational citizenship” would earn us IPO options, and wave his hands around, flipping them front to back like semaphores, or with a fingertip describe invisible trend lines and market fluctuations.

Toilet paper, floppy disks, a frying pan, DVDs from Blockbuster — I had couriered it. But mostly it was pizza, sandwiches and burritos, and related items: six packs of Coke, cigarettes, beer. I worked part time. The tips were good. On big nights — Oscars, Super Bowl, Sopranos — I made decent money. VrooM!’s delivery radius was Logan Circle and parts nearby. I wasn’t pedaling across town to Capitol Hill because some legislative type was too embarrassed to rent porn videos in person.

“Whoa,” you say. “Back then Logan Circle was a scary place.” Sure, guys who’ve come through it, they’ll brag: “Everybody I knew was mugged at least once,” or “Every Saturday night we’d chase the prostitutes off our porch.” One time I did get a flat from a needle and occasionally I heard gunshots, though mostly distant pops. A steady traffic of Virginia and Maryland license-plated cars clogged the streets, near-idling engines coughing pucka, pucka, pucka as the drivers prowled for hookers. The pimps would bite their lips as I rode past, appraising my danger to their livelihood. But really, the worst threat was my allergies flaring up after pedaling through car exhaust.

The brave new world of VrooM! delivery ended the night I hit a Mercedes head on. My phone had rung, the double-beep that meant Brian called, and I’d looked down to fish it from my pocket. I never saw the car. I landed feet over scalp onto the silver hood, my tennis-shoe treads flat against the windshield, arms splayed as if I was making a snow angel. The crash bent the bike’s frame and turned the front tire into a Dalí clock. A large pepperoni with extra cheese was the other casualty.

I remember staggering to a bus stop as the Mercedes squealed off. I plopped onto the aluminum bench and used my reflection in the poster ad’s plexiglass to check my scalp for wounds. Someone had scrawled “faggots” over the covering in permanent marker. That’s when I noticed the ad. It showed a crowd of smiling men, a multicultural array — white, black, Asian, my ghostly half-image now as well. The text promised money to volunteers for a vaccine study at the NIH. Threading marinara out of my hair, I thought, perfect.

Let me explain. In those days, jobs came and went fast. None of us remained employed for long. I say us, meaning a couple friends and a few other guys I was friendly with.

I can’t tell you what we wanted. Maybe a psychologist could parse it now, diagnose us in denial of everything fate had spooled out for us. But it meant that we had certain requirements of a job, certain expectations as part of our identity: hours we could set, payment in cash, and no responsibility past the front door.

My friend Brian stripped at Wet three nights a week. After shunting gyros or shampoo around the city all night, I usually caught the end of his show. Up there on the stage, he looked so lean you imagined you could wrap one hand around his waist. Closer — and yes, I once jokingly stuck a dollar bill in his G-string — you realized the fan of his back only made him seem that thin. Every Sunday morning he’d wave a sweaty, beer-smelling bouquet of ones and fives in our greedy faces.

Brian and I were walking home from the P Street pool when I told him about the study. Blue sky that day. The late summer wind gently pushing from the north carried with it only the mildest of chills. We’d gone to the pool because Brian said it was a good place to find lost wallets. I think he just liked showing off that body of his — god-given, sharp and segmented as a scorpion’s tail. I only found a quarter in the deep end.

“You’re crazy,” he said. “You should dance.”

“I wouldn’t make any money.”

Brian took a hard look at my face. His eyes flicked to my feet spread over flip-flops, then the damp bathing suit that clung to the spud of my dick.

“You’re young,” he said as if noticing my age for the first time. “Come out mid-show when the old farts are drunk.”

Here’s how I met Brian. I shared a basement apartment on 2nd Street with a guy who called himself DJ St. Jon. He was way too cool for me — our low ceilings forever thumped with Martha W’s belting gospel or Tiesto-inspired mixes that St. Jon claimed were “the thing” at Ibiza. I simply nodded at his testimony. St. Jon and I got along. The guy before me was a deadbeat; I was still working as a newspaper reporter and could always pay my share of the rent.

Like a tolerant older brother, St. Jon would invite me to his shows. Nightclubs and groups, people in general, weren’t my thing. I was a solitary person and didn’t know how to belong. Whenever he left for a gig — fedora slung low over his eyes, his stash of vinyl in a briefcase handcuffed to a wrist, his G-man look — I’d give him the old show business sendoff, “Break a leg!” — and settle on the couch behind a library book.

But there were nights I’d panic. I imagined I was missing something, an experience or sight I’d remember until I died, and I’d find myself in a froth to go out. Of course, once I paid the cover, got my hand stamped, and finally passed through the pat-down line, the crowd of shirtless guys twisting in the strobe lights would send me scurrying for the DJ booth. I’d bang on the door until St. Jon let me in.

I ventured out only when I needed a drink.

One night, I was tapping at the booth door, trying not to spill my vodka-tonic, when someone behind me asked, “How come you get to do that?” It was Brian, though right then I didn’t know his name or anything else.

“Friend of the DJ.”

“Let me show you something.” Brian yanked me into a corner, ice and vodka sloshing into the dark at our feet. His shoulders eclipsed the strobe lights, and I froze beneath his winged shadow. I hoped he was going to kiss me. A glassine baggy and a key appeared. Balanced on the key’s edge was a powdery, white pile. It went up my left nostril as if I’d practiced for the moment my entire life.

“Party starts now,” Brian said.

In the booth I introduced Brian. He passed the bag and key to St. Jon. Later, I’d learn that Brian was forever with a stash. And every time I thought of him — and I thought of Brian a lot — I’d imagine him with his hand in his pocket, thumb and forefinger rubbing the slick plastic the way someone might worry a rosary.

The NIH’s lobby was a cathedral of steel beams and slanting shafts of sunlight. A nurse gave me a clipboard piled with forms to complete. Height: 5’ 10”. Weight: 145. Allergies: none. There was a page for family background. My official story was that I arrived without origin. Mentioning the past, I feared — like the superstition about uttering the name Mephistopheles — might conjure what I’d been so desperately avoiding. “How important is this?” I asked.

“We need to know everything.” She stood over me, her lab coat draped and pendulously circling her legs, the pockets heavy with thermometer, stethoscope, reflex hammer, otoscope; devices that peered inside people.

Pen poised, the bleach fumes wafting up from the sanitized floor threatening to make me sneeze, it occurred to me that we lived in the age of self-invention. So I invented stuff: my father shouldered his tour in Vietnam like a dirty rucksack; my mother spoke of her time as a Peace Corps volunteer in Kenya the way someone brags about a favored child. History was irrelevant. The emptiness of those blank lines, where any event was possible, seemed to endorse that notion.

I peed in a cup. The nurse drew blood.

She looked over the forms. “That’s really not the kind of family history we mean.”

I shrugged. “I wasn’t sure.”

“And you didn’t list an emergency contact.”

I’d hoped she wouldn’t notice. It’s not like anyone would come running. I put in Brian’s name.

“Who’s Brian?”

“My brother.”

“Brother?” Her pen scratched something on the clipboard.

“Same mother, different father.” I regretted not writing that my dad had hit me with a belt. That would’ve made good copy.

The nurse said, “You understand this is a safety trial.” Meaning they just wanted assurance the stuff wouldn’t kill anyone outright. I patted her white-sleeved wrist and said, “I’m not worried.” Future glory was all that mattered. In a hundred years, after they declassified the research files, historians would read my name and know I was part of it. Movies would have bit parts inspired by my life. When I was a doddering centenarian, handsome young men would interview me, and I would tell them the whole story while my heart pumped alongside us in a glass case.

The first guy I picked up at a bar, ever, had a spot at the back of his skull where hair didn’t grow. I know because he cut his hair short, military fade, exposing the patch. This was the third time I’d done crystal, and it must’ve been the good stuff, as much as that’s possible. Right after the first bump, I had an enormous erection. I beat off twice, the first time working my hand in rhythm to a mix of Domino Dancing whomping from St. Jon’s bedroom; the second, my fist in time with a dance version of the American Beauty title track. I got about five minutes of relief. My dick pressed painfully against the elastic band in my underwear and I loved how good it felt. I needed to fuck someone or someone to fuck me and it had to be soon or I’d take an axe to the furniture. I worried what I’d gotten myself into. I put in my contacts and left the apartment.

Cobalt was the nearest place. It was two floors of bars and a large dance area, and on Saturday nights the main customers were guys my age. My jaw grinding from the speed, I put on a big smile that probably more resembled death’s grin than a seductive lure, and waded into the boys hopping underneath the strobe lights. Dry-ice smoke hissed from a tube overhead. It burned my eyes and I was soon wiping at tears.

“It’s not that bad,” a guy yelled, leaning into my ear. He was the one I mentioned with the short hair. A star tattoo decorated his forearm just below the elbow.

“My contacts are killing me.”

“I’m a sucker for a weeping boy.”

“Then I guess we’re ready,” I said.

We went to his place. He had a condo in a new building on P Street, the advance scout for a gentrifying wave that would soon follow and change the neighborhood forever. A nice enough place if you like the generic of beige carpets, marble counters, and doorway trim so new and clean it looked capable of razoring open your skin if you brushed against it. The marble counters were handy for cutting lines and hoovering up every last, little grain.

He led me into a back room and that’s when I saw the empty patch on his scalp, a slice as long and thin as a cigarette, crossing diagonally from the nape. I wondered if he was born without follicles there, a serial killer, or a brain tumor survivor.

Hanging on the wall was a flatscreen TV as large as a mattress. He triggered it with a remote. I shielded my face as porn flared to life, almost life-size, two boys pounding away at each other. The guy stepped into another room and brought back blankets and pillows and spread them on the carpet. “I don’t do this in my bedroom,” he said.

I shrugged. Whatever. He took off his shirt. A star to the right of his navel mimicked the one on his forearm, the tattoo ink diluted by a pad of fat that must’ve come in after he was marked. The light here was better than in Cobalt. He was older than I’d realized, on his last party days. I was just starting out. The crystal made me think I deserved hot guys like the pair pumping away on the TV. The crystal made me horny as fuck. I could’ve serviced a crew of scurvy Vikings.

He lay face down and said, “Touch me.”

Not a serial killer I guessed. I peeled off my shirt and tossed it across the back of his head. He laughed into the blanket, a sound like a muffled cough. I unzipped my jeans and my dick sprang free. I kicked off my pants. I massaged his shoulders, firm and willing muscles, and sighed as I settled my balls against his warm back.

“Am I rolling,” he said.

“A real one-man party.”

I’m thinking this might be easy: a naked massage and a jerk-off session for a couple of hefty bumps. After that I planned to hit Cobalt again and find a really cute boy. But then he rolled over and wormed out of his pants. I heard the rustle of a foil wrapper and the burp of a gel bottle and then his cold finger coated my asshole. I exhaled as he pushed into me. I focused on the dark-haired boy on the TV, his face clenched as he endured the same punishment. A ball of electricity deep inside my navel conducted straight up my dick. I glanced down; afraid I’d see his dick, like the creature from Alien, pushing outward from inside my stomach. My cock head was swollen, purple, and gossamer-skinned. Everything hurt. I wanted to keep hurting.

My phone rang, the double-beep that meant Brian called, its LCD light flashing from the cave that was my jeans pocket. I scrambled away, the guys dick thumping wetly against his hip, me flooded with relief and agony. I flipped open the phone.

“Have you heard from Victor?” Brian asked. Victor was our dealer.

The guy looked betrayed. I held out a hand: one second. “No.”

“We were supposed to meet before I went on.”

The lube around my ass chilled in the air. I watched the screen as Brian rambled about how he’d been searching for Victor all night. The dark-haired boy had traded places and mounted the blond. Their smooth, seal-like bodies writhed on a wrestling mat in a high school gym. They rolled outside the competition circle and the action paused, a clenched ass, hipbones and hamstrings pressed tight. The camera held their faces smiling at each other, the blond boy’s thick salmon lips mouthed “Still in” and they went back to it.

“I have to go,” I said to Brian. To the guy I said, “Sorry. My friend’s cracking out.”

“Problem?” He was a seesaw of light and dark in the TV’s shifting glow.

“He dances at Wet. Likes to be high when he does. He can’t find our dealer.”

My eyes kept jumping to the screen. I couldn’t look away. And the boys made me want to leave, to go back to Cobalt and see who else I could score.

“Sounds like Brian,” he said.

The screen went dark, a pause before the next scene, and the guy disappeared. When it came back on, I grabbed the crack bag and snorted a bump off my pinky. I titled my head back. Everything slid into place.

I squatted down over the guy. “No, that’s not my friend’s name.”

I still had a bank account so there was no problem cashing the first check from the NIH. Bumps were my treat that Saturday night. With a dead credit card, while Brian and St. Jon looked on, I powered lines on the glass plant stand St. Jon and I called a coffee table. We shared two other pieces of furniture: a rickety IKEA television stand that wobbled more from my incompetent assembly than deficient materials; and a bus seat for a couch. I’d found it outside an auto mechanic’s garage that was being demolished to make way for an apartment building. Someone had taped a handwritten sign to the seatback cushion: FREE.

“Your tax dollars at work,” I said, offering St. Jon the first line by holding up a drinking straw cut down to a quarter-length.

Brian wore tank tops for easy removal. Tonight it was red, a griffon rampant on the chest as if squaring its paws to bridge the cleft between his pec muscles. He saluted, exposing an armpit shaved smooth. “It makes me want to enlist.”

“They’d bounce you out of the Army so fast,” St. Jon said. His eyes were wide, pupils swollen, from drugs, from desire, as he took in Brian’s body.

“Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” Brian said. “And I bet they’d take me now.”

We parted at the club. St. Jon to his booth; Brian into the crowd chasing a slim, shirtless Adonis rippling in the strobe lights. I took up with a guy who recognized me from my VrooM! job. Furniture polish. Late Monday morning I found myself laid out in a wicker deckchair on someone’s balcony, sipping the tweaker’s post-party cocktail of orange juice and swirl, and watching the sun, like my aching head, slug through low clouds.

My phone rang. It was the nurse. “Your bilirubin is elevated.”

“You got me.” I stood, hoping that would make me sound sober.

“Usually it goes up when someone fasts.”

I tended not to eat much when high. “I watch my weight,” I said. “Sometimes I overdo it.”

“If it’s this high again we’ll have to drop you from the study.”

It was time to go home. The balcony came off a bedroom. Inside the bed’s rumpled sheets, a familiar ache in my body, conjured images from last night. (Or was it the night before? Or both?) My shoes were lined up by the door.

In the living room I approached a tall, blonde man. He made me think of televised college basketball. “Thanks for everything,” I said. “But I have to go.”

“Do I know you?”

“Isn’t this your place?” I looked around. The window shades were drawn against the daylight. At the center of the dining table stood a bong, its smoke tube languidly hanging over the edge. The TV’s flicker blued the knees of two men on the couch.

I turned back towards the tall man. He gazed down at me with a stare intimate to the heavily self-medicated.

“Where’s the flat’s owner?” I asked.

“He just called your place a flat,” he said, talking across my shoulder.

This time when I turned around a moment of vertigo almost knocked me over. Even if I wanted to stay things were winding down.

The condo owner worked a piece of gum between his front teeth; the neon green wad flickered in and out of sight like a second tongue. An image flashed — the edges of those teeth scissoring my nipples. “Bump of K?” he held out a bag.

“I’m in a study,” I announced. “I need a break.”

My host raised an eyebrow. A head on the couch lolled my direction. “A vaccine trial,” I continued, launching into a synopsis of the study. Then I realized there were details I couldn’t drop, and so described the NIH, the stethoscope’s cold disk against my chest, and the forms I’d filled out. The tall guy shook his head and walked away. When the owner started scratching his stubbled chin — his eyes on something in the corner near the ceiling — I eased towards the door, wrapping up with a blithe dismissal of the experiment’s lurking danger, and then I’m pretty sure, as I stood halfway in the corridor — one foot still planted inside the threshold — a reference to myself as a biological commando.

The door slammed shut. From behind the steel someone called out, “Good luck.”

Before all this started, when I still wrote for a newspaper, and before I met Brian, I spent a lot of time at the National Gallery. A reporter’s typical week was seventy-two hours of straight work in the rush to deadline, pounding out copy as the sun rose. I lived on breakfasts of leftover turkey sandwiches oozing mayo, sidewalk cigarette breaks, and so much adrenaline I could barely fit my apartment key into the door handle when I finally got home.

Even then the work kept going. I remember once standing in the tub, water dripping from my elbows into the pool around my shins, and arguing quotes with an editor. That I had the phone with me in the bathroom never seemed strange.

After press time was two days frittering the hours in bed recuperating, thinking about next week’s headlines, pitching stories, and planning a Saturday night that would begin with cocktails right after lunch.

Monday it began again.

Me: I’m here to see the Senator. [flashes press pass, offers business card.]

Secretary: [picking up phone] Do you have an appointment?

Me: I thought she’d like to discuss the General’s comment about the unfitness of gay soldiers.

Secretary: [phone back in cradle] I’m sorry she’s not available.

Me: I can certainly write she had no comment. [notepad and pen out]

Secretary: [phone back in hand] Her campaign manager can speak with you.

Me: [smiling] Wonderful.

You can see why I enjoyed it. As I said, this was before I discovered drugs.

The museum had no admission fee. There were people. I could mingle, lurking unnoticed alongside the other lonely and dislocated, while the city pulsed around us.

One time I came upon a young man, part of a mother-father-daughter-son quartet. The four pressed to their ears those translators the museum rented to foreign tourists. The boy wore a souvenir Washington Nationals baseball cap. His jeans cuffs fell over his shoes and the frayed edges seemed to polish the marble floor like soft mops. I trailed them through the rooms, past arch studies of myth and swollen hells, and the angel announcing. By the time we reached Rembrandt’s darkly static self-portraits, Dad had finally caught on and came right up to me brandishing a face of clenched teeth.

I’ll admit that while I was following them my gaze might’ve danced mostly across his son, but not in the way you think. I was imagining what it’d be like seeing things from his angle. As I glided away, the plastic carriage of dad’s device creaked in his fist, and I knew that even if we spoke the same language, he wouldn’t have understood.

Within a week of the nurse’s phone call, a semblance of my normal sleep patterns returned. No more three days awake, and then four in front of the TV spooning up bowls of rocky road ice cream and napping in between reruns of the Golden Girls. But only a semblance. I’d drift off around ten, ten-thirty, and stay unconscious for a couple hours. Then without fail I’d shoot upright, panting, the clock on the floor beside the mattress flashing 12:00, trying to remember where I was, and unsure if I’d even slept.

The first time this happened I assumed the beckoning streetlight just outside my bedroom window was to blame. The next evening I tacked up an American flag as a curtain. But still I shuddered awake in a panic. I’d toss and turn and, only after what seemed like hours, finally go back down. Around the fourth or fifth night of this, I instead paced the apartment’s narrow common area, slapping my arms and legs, hoping the sting would keep me focused. The parquet floors clacked like a giant sliding puzzle. St. Jon shouted that I was keeping him up.

“I’m bored,” I moaned. “Everything is the same all the time.” The NIH only required I visit every Friday so they could record my vitals. Other than that, I was free.

St. Jon came out of his bedroom. He said he knew about going cold turkey. “Let’s try TV.” He pulled me to the bus seat.

The waxy dots where long-ago passengers had stubbed out cigarettes scratched the back of my thighs. I flipped channels, never satisfied.

“You’re making me crazy.” St. Jon wore a silver ankh on a necklace; he was in his pharaoh period. The oozy television light gave him a beet face, round and shiny. Mid-week TV offered cartoons, which made me laugh, but St. Jon said he preferred cooking shows.

I tried other distractions. Sweeping. Dusting. I soaped the walls and wiped off fingerprints. One night I even cleaned the oven. The fumes woke St. Jon. He flung open his bedroom door. Through a t-shirt clamped over his nose and mouth yelled, “Are you embalming somebody?”

So I went to the National Gallery again. I made sure to ignore everyone around me: the tourists, the families, the school groups on field trips.

For a while, wandering wall to wall, I was happily secure in the air-conditioned hush. The museum is a labyrinth of small rooms and connected galleries. On a weekday afternoon, you could easily find yourself alone in a forgotten chamber lined with obscure paintings not even familiar from college textbooks.

But somewhere deep among Dutch masters, footsteps drew me around a corner. The guy I saw across the way was as familiar as my own reflection. Not that I knew him. What I mean is — watching him absently fiddle with the buttons on his blue Oxford while shifting his weight from one tasseled shoe to another — I knew that he was AWOL from a job or a college class and had no interest in the still life hanging before him. He was, like me, burning time.

I eased close behind him. “The cracked mirror symbolizes vanity,” I said. Startled, he jumped, and had to resettle his glasses. My tread must’ve been quieter than I realized. As an opener, the line seemed better than “The fly means death.”

“So they tell us.” Bowing his pale head, he tried skulking away. There followed a merry little chase from room to room, me wandering out of sight for a moment, making him think I’d given up, only then to step back into view. He paused every so often to regard a canvas, an attempt to disguise his flight. But his gaze was forever split between the art and warily hunting for my presence.

Brian would’ve led the guy home, his words echoing on the glossy stone, “Party starts now.” I lacked Brian’s tools. And considering it now, I think I was after more substantial prey.

The guy broke for the open hall. I zipped ahead and cut him off beneath the rotunda dome. From the center fountain, naked bronze Mercury pointed his caduceus heavenward. We at his feet were nothing but poppies in a field of mud.

He cleared his throat. “What do you do?”

Washington had trained him well. I could’ve clutched my stomach and let out a great, bellowing yawp.

“Let’s get a drink,” I said.

At the bar he was nervous. His ID said twenty-one, but he trembled like a kid. He gripped his highball glass as if it might zoom to the ceiling.

I sipped my drink. Cool liquid washed my throat. I’d forgotten the simple pleasure of a vodka-tonic on the rocks. Brian dropped onto the stool next to me. “Haven’t seen you in a while.”

“I’m in that study.” I leaned forward, putting myself between him and the kid.

Brian snapped his fingers. “Right.” He raised a hand and ordered me another round. “Mark, take care of my friend.”

The bartender poured a fresh glass. “Just say when.” He let vodka flow until I said stop. He topped the drink with a click of the seltzer gun.

Already my fame spread.

“Not drinking?” I asked Brian.

He wrinkled his nose. “Messes with my tweak.” He planted a warm forehead against my temple and whispered into my ear, “Cute boy you have there.” He then sidled down the bar; cast me a wink and a thumbs-up before slapping the back of another friend slumped forward on a stool.

Suddenly I was starving. I ordered a hamburger, rare. It arrived with a mound of fries. Instead of ketchup, I swabbed them through the meat’s pooling, bloody juices.

“Want something?”

The kid shook his head. His bony knee bounced, and I steadied it with a hand. His eyes widened behind his glasses.

“Don’t be nervous,” I said. “My sacrifice is your salvation.”

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