We were leaving a place that no longer exists, reminiscing about a bar that had recently closed. I wondered why the measure of love was loss in this city.
"I don't follow you," Ricky said, beginning the game of touching my arm as we moved north on Seventh Avenue South, walking towards a late-night pizza joint.
"It's the first line of a novel by Jeannette Winterson. ‘Why is the measure of love loss?' I didn't understand it at first, but I think it means you don't know what you got till it's gone."
"Oh. Like Joni Mitchell," he said.
I brushed back, keeping my hand away from his. I wanted a bit of friction, too, but I wasn't ready to handhold. Though I had never met Ricky before tonight, I knew him from Wonderbar, the East Village dive whose closure we were both lamenting. It was the only bar in New York that ever felt like home to me. Its multi-culti caste of color-me-queers reminded me of my life growing up as an Air Force brat, where every kid I knew was mixed with something or another. Ricky partied there all the time. He was taller than your average fag; I remember watching him stick out in the bar's dank interior, even using him like a lighthouse to navigate the sea of bodies packing the spot. He caught me clocking him a few times, but neither of us took the extra step to exchange names.
I always figured I'd meet him maxing among the Andres and Big Bois at Wonderbar, crunk under Bill Coleman's poly-genre groove. Instead, we met earlier that evening at Bar d'O during a book party for the first volume of Think Again. Conceived by two fly boys—one from Trinidad and another from Toledo—the essay collection was a dissident cog in the AIDS industrial complex, challenging those working in HIV prevention to examine how fear and loathing of black gay bodies girded their prevention efforts. I had a piece in the book and came out to support the fête. Meeting Ricky there made me think again about all we had lost with the closing of Wonderbar; and what we might do to recapture those memories in the meanwhile.
I guess he felt it, too. We drank and talked, talked and drank until it was clear we both wanted to spend the night together. Drunk and hungry, we bade Bar d'O adieu and headed out into the November air, giddy as schoolboys in love. By the time we sat down to eat, our game of grab-ass had petered into silly innuendos and knee rubs under the table. I wolfed my pizza down. Turned my slices to breadsticks in a matter of minutes.
We were almost ready to leave when Ricky's eyes changed. Something was up.
"Khary, I want you to know. I'm positive."
I stopped, and in that brief pause a host of memories flooded my mind. I had forgotten about Paul, a man I'd met my first summer at Oberlin College. Like many a Negro before me, I had run north to Oberlin, Ohio in search of certain freedoms. Paul was the live-in curator of a Frank Lloyd Wright "Usonian" house built on the outskirts of the college.
One night we went drinking with his friend, Micah. Never before had I felt so alive in my own pursuit of happiness, so fresh and so free. We closed three bars in the city limits before heading back to the Wright estate, lounging within the modern wonder of wood and brick. Frank Wright designed Usonian houses as pre-Ikea American dream homes you could snap together yourself. He thought they might save our nation. With my knickers loose, I thought they might too. As the porn came on our clothes came off; soon the three of us were naked, our bodies interlocking like the fretwork of the redwood ceiling. In Usonia, our family fit together. We even moved our play outside for a time, and the boy who had led a life sheltered by the barbwire fences of his military childhood was suddenly fucking two men on a tree-lined lawn, protected only by the shadow of night.
The next day, I ran into Micah at the first bar we'd crawled the night before. He pulled me aside and quietly asked whether I had known that Paul was HIV positive.
I had no idea.
"Well it should be OK, we used condoms," he said, and I went back to my dorm room and began to cry. I was sure I'd been infected. I wondered why my first taste of freedom should come at so high a price. I held fast to this anxiety for years, folding it into my very character, always afraid an HIV test would confirm the worst of my fears: that black boys were the expendable subjects of social engineering. The most modern of creatures, we were the sacraments of a New World Order-those sacrificed so that others might live.
The fear of being just another nigger made it easier for me to forgo tests and medical check-ups for the rest of my college career. I didn't want the drama or the responsibility. I did still want the dick, though. Sex became a game of goldfish memory: How fast could I swim to the other side of the bowl before forgetting what I had done with him, and to him, and what he had done to me, and what had he done to me, and what was his name?
Four years later I found out I was a bone-marrow match with a sixteen year-old girl battling leukemia in Cleveland. Though I had no memory of ever registering—gay men are barred from giving blood, after all—the National Marrow Donor Program had tracked me down in New York City. They hoped I'd agree to become a marrow donor for the girl. Of course I would. Problem was, I knew the blood center would ask me whether I'd ever had sex with a man, or whether I'd ever had sex with a woman who had sex with a man. A "yes" to either question would mark my marrow ineligible for harvesting. They asked. I said "no" on both counts. I knew they'd test my blood.
The staff at the New York Blood Center kept telling me what a hero I was for donating bone marrow. They showed me photographs of firefighters who had given marrow transplants, pointing out the three who died on 9/11. You all are heroes, they said to me as they drew my blood for infectious disease screenings. You make us proud. Was this my version of life on the down low, submerging the most salient part of myself in the service of a greater good? How many people had done the same thing? I spent the next week on edge, thinking about the girl whose body had mumped its way to 250lbs during chemo. My ability to save her life depended upon the history of my sex, the fitness of my blood. She paced the waiting room of my thoughts, waiting for my news, stopping only to watch daytime TV, listening to Oprah tell America to hide her little girls because Bigger Thomas is back! Willie Horton is back! Nushawn Williams is back! Magic Johnson is back! Easy E is back! And girlllllll, don't be no fool now. Don't be no fool, baby girl; he will end your vagina monologue if you let him.
The results came by priority mail. I was too afraid to open the envelope. My breathing went shallow. I called up the center and asked them how my blood work went. A center rep told me the results looked pretty good.
"But what about the AIDS test?" I asked.
"You passed that, too."
The woman heard the relief in my voice. She asked me why I was worried.
Leaving the pizzeria, Ricky and I took a cab back to his apartment in Fort Greene. We made out in the back seat the whole ride, oblivious to the driver's eyes as we crossed the Manhattan Bridge into Brooklyn. When the cab pulled up to Ricky's building we were more than ready to head indoors. He paid the fare and led me up the steps to his brownstone walk-up. Inside, we began to undress, letting our layers pile upon the floor, shedding our skin on our way to the bed.
We kissed for a time, and my lips grew sensitive from the rasp of his beard. I made my way down his body and took his length into my mouth. It was a Cinderella fit. Ricky nudged the back of my throat with every thrust. There was no gagging, however; I'd grown gills. I pivoted, and soon his head was at my crotch, matching me stroke for stroke. The seesaw of our rhythm shook the bed.
Ricky rolled me upright. I wanted so badly to earn his trust. My legs were open; I could feel him loitering just outside my ass. His lips parted and pursed above me; a line of spittle fell from his mouth and landed into mine, hitting the back of my throat. I coughed. Ricky waited, and lowered another soft, clear jewel into my mouth, the saliva cool and congealed as blown glass-
And I realized two things:
That to love anything was to risk its loss. And risk, itself, is the oddest barometer of love.
Khary Polk is a Brooklyn expat, writer, DJ, and local food enthusiast, He teaches Black Studies & Women's and Gender Studies at Amherst College. Previous versions of this essay appeared in the anthologies If We Have to Take Tomorrow and Why Are Faggots So Afraid of Faggots?: Flaming Challenges to Masculinity, Objectification, and the Desire to Conform. Polk received his Ph.D. in American Studies from New York University, and is currently writing a book on race, sexuality, and the U.S. military abroad.