{ Daylight in a Room for Waiting }
Matt Stroud
photos by J. L. Kidd

clinicIt's about 12:30 in the afternoon on a Thursday. Chuck makes a right turn out of the sun and into a dark hallway. The transition is blinding. The sunlight he abandoned leaves a residue in his eyesight that makes it hard to see. Darkness invades his vision, clouds his sight with an internal shadow of green-black. He makes another right turn out of the hallway and into a room. He staggers to a far corner. This room—a room for waiting—is well lit.
   Chuck is shaking. He thinks he's going to die. He sits. The chair he picks is too small for his body. It only just fits, unlike his shirt, which stretches tightly around his frame. His shirt is weathered, gray, originally white, occasionally poked with holes that look like entry wounds from a BB gun. His pants are similar, but blue. His eyes gleam, but sag from lack of sleep. His right leg is frantic, gyrating up and down and up like a tremor on the fault line of the Absolute concentrated on Chuck's right heel.
   He removes his right hand from his right pocket and looks down into it, onto a square-inch-sized piece of paper. The paper reads "22" in bold, black lettering. He glances up at a woman who just entered the room. She smiles and surveys, but her grin vanishes when she sees Chuck, the only person there.
   "Do you know where the pregnancy clinic is, by any chance?" she asks hesitantly.
   Chuck shakes his head no. The way his forehead and eyeballs are arranged—both eyebrows pointed down toward each other like a little, hairy V—indicates he's upset by something in addition to being nervous. It's like he's saying something like, "Go away," while he's whimpering something like, "Help."
   The woman leaves. A half-hour videotape has been running on a television screen close to Chuck. The television sits near the ceiling in an opposite corner of the room. The tape finishes another loop. In the quiet that follows, Chuck, alone, stops gyrating and begins whistling to break the silence.
   ["... Where ev'rybody knows your name ..."]
   In a few seconds Chuck will lurch from his seat. An onlooker might think he's won something huge, insurmountable: The Powerball! But he hasn't won anything. Chuck is waiting for a signed piece of paper—his reinforcement for existence—that will let him know "whether or not he should make plans for the future."
   A mechanical female voice interrupts his whistling through speakers in the ceiling-tile above him: "Number twenty-two to the front, please."
   Chuck lurches, leaves. The room's empty again.

Depending on the time of day, this STD clinic might be packed with people of any race, size, shape, sexual preference, educational background, religious affiliation or this or that; or, it might be vacant. The clinic—located across the street from CVS Pharmacy on Forbes Avenue in Oakland—operates on a diverse schedule. The clinic "provides free and confidential diagnosis and treatment of sexually transmitted diseases," and it's open from 9 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. on Mondays, Tuesdays and Fridays; 1 to 3:30 p.m. on Wednesdays; and 9 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. on Thursdays. Since Chuck decided to come early, he missed the late crowds and the long waits that usually come with them.
   You might be confused, thinking something like: "An STD clinic? FILTH! This is a lecture on being tested for the Clap or something, isn't it?"
   Or maybe you're cursing the topic, rejecting a menial sermon on morality. You might also be thinking, "Are you going to make me feel unsafe or are you going to make me feel dirty?"
   Well... yes. Yes. Maybe. Yes. But dig:
   "There's nothing we can really do to advertise," says Tim Curges, a public health administrator for the STD-AIDS Program of the Allegheny County Health Department. "People know the clinic is here. They just need to take advantage of it."
   Tim stands and expounds against a sidewalk's railing facing the pharmacy and streamlined traffic. He pauses before he speaks and explains that the best way to let people know that there is help available is simply through word of mouth. He takes his time speaking. He explains things that amount to this: An STD clinic isn't a basketball shoe, an anti-depressant or a voyeurs' VHS tape devoted to skin and exposure thereof. It's help and concern. And it's free. So if one person gets tested and gets help, he or she might be able to make a friend comfortable when they have to face a similar situation.
   "We can't force people to come here," Tim explains. "It's more about individuals preparing themselves to face what's real."
   Interviews are new to him, Tim insists. His job is to talk with families, friends. He tries to assuage tempers, fears. He imagines he's seen everything, but doubts that "everything" will remain as it is. When asked about the kinds of people who make use of the clinic, he shrugs and mutters simply, "We get it all. All kinds."

The surrounding colleges in the area have their own clinics. It's part of a health care fee students grudgingly fork over each semester. The fee is automatically appended to full-time tuition rates at all the universities in Pittsburgh. Most universities across the country work their tuition rates similarly.
   The clinic on Forbes Avenue is for everyone, however. No student identification is required, and no charge cards are necessary. All you need is some kind of proof that you are who you say you are.
   Staring at Chuck's files through reading glasses, the nurse begins. "Charles, have a seat. My name is Maddie. I'll be administering your tests today." They shake hands.
   "First, I'd like to find out a few things about you," Maddie asks directly.
   "What's this? Sum kinda' interrogation?" Chuck's accent tells us that home is somewhere below the Mason-Dixon Line. It also says that he hasn't been home in a long, long time—the southern part of his accent is beginning to fade.
   "Not exactly. But you're close," says Maddie.
   "Yeah? Well fire away, cap'n," orders Chuck.
   Maddie fires away. She asks Chuck some cursory questions. "What's your birthday? Do you have any tattoos or body piercings? Do you have any allergies? Have you ever been in prison?"
   Everything moves smoothly. Until she gets to, "How many people have you slept with?"
   Chuck shudders for a second, pauses, regains his stamina and speaks.
   "Well, ya' know, Maddie that reminds me. This one time, I was doin' hardwood floors in this old woman's house... that's what I do, ya' know... lay floors and dry wall for a guy in the North Heels... "
   "Hmmm." Maddie shuffles through some paper.
   "Well, this old bat kinda' took a likin' ta' me. So one day in particular she axed if I wanted a drink. And I say 'Sure, ma'am.' Well, wouldn'tcha' know she'd do something strange? She slipped a little a that Viagra into my Pepsi, plain as day. And we got ta' gettin' it on right there on the table."
   "Charles, I don't know what this has to do with... "
   "Well, hold on a second now, I ain't finished. Well now, this poor old lady, well, she ain't with us no more."
   Maddie frowns, "I'm sorry."
   Chuck continues."But I've never been allowed in that Burger King ever since."
   "Let's proceed."
   Chuck eases back into the armchair and pulls the cigarette from behind his ear.
   "Chuck, look at me." She drops his file onto the desk in front of her.
   Lowering the cigarette to his lap, Chuck smirks and takes a peek up at the woman dressed in white from under his cap.
   "Listen," she begs. "I am a nurse. My job is to help people."
   "I know it is, ma'am."
   "I want to help you."
   "I know you do, ma'am."
   "Then let me do my job. And put the damn cigarette away."

Back in the waiting room an hour has passed. The fifteen or so seats in the room have been filled. A small crowd gathers in seats outside the bathroom that consumes much of the far corner. There are people standing against racks of pamphlets and flyers that have titles like Facts About Gonorrhea and NGU Means Non Gonococcal Urethritis. A big guy wearing big baggy clothes crouches next to friends underneath the twenty-six-inch television in the far corner.
   Chuck swore at this television earlier. He said that it sits just high enough on the wall to be visible to everyone in the room, and just low enough to be irritating. In a period of about two hours there have been five people—three men, two women—who have hit their heads hard on the bottom of the tube.
   "This fucking thing is dangerous," he said. "Get it tested."
   A video continues to play on it. Interview after interview spins through portraying AIDS patients, concerned doctors, and counselors. All of the spokespeople agree on a message that denounces intravenous drug use and promiscuous sex, but promotes condoms and clinical STD care.
   "Number twenty-six to the front, please." The mechanical female voice strikes again.
   A woman in a tiny Motley Crue T-shirt and jeans stands up. She slowly enters one of the offices in the hallway that leaks from the waiting room. The big guy in big clothes, crouching underneath the television stands, hits his head, and teeters toward the bathroom. He laughs at the sign on the door that says, "Male Patients: Please Do Not Urinate... " The bottom of the sign says " ...before your exam," but someone covered it with duct tape.
   The results for STDs like herpes and Chlamydia come back in about a week. The flyer devoted to these diseases says that "chlamydia is a bacterial infection that is, according to the New York State Department of Health, approximately four times more common than new cases of genital herpes or genital warts combined." Many in the room wonder what this has to do with anything. Nonetheless, the results for these, and other STD's are confidentially released to the patient via telephone in about a week.
   Conversation in the room is bubbling, a relatively rare occurrence in the clinic, but something that may happen now and then if the air feels comfortable. It's an atmosphere where, if you listen from outside the room, you can't tell who's talking to whom. But if you walk in, you can pick a voice, a conversation, and a story.
   One goes like this:
   After a burglary conviction, a man is imprisoned for five months. During his incarceration, on one occasion, he is raped. When he gets out, he and his wife decide to have a baby, and do. Not until recently did he think of possible consequences he, his wife, and his child might suffer if he happened to pick up an STD from the son-of-a-bitch who took him during a time of weakness. He's here to be tested. His wife has no idea.
   Other stories range from incidences of infamous date rapes to cheating husbands, wives, boyfriends, girlfriends, and careless drug users. Amidst the voices, the bathroom door opens and the big guy wearing big baggy clothes wanders out. The bottom of his shirt and the top of his pants and crotch are covered with water.
   "Dat water come out hard."
   Two of his friends look up at him, point and start laughing. He smiles.
   Conversation pauses briefly. Now, silence leaves time for breathing.
   "Number twenty-seven to the front please."
   The announcements, depending on how many people are waiting to get tested, come every couple minutes. Each number is called three times. The first is so information can be gathered and the clinicians can find out whether or not you want an HIV test. The second is for the actual testing. The third is to give results and set up a time to call back for results that could not be determined immediately.
   "Number twenty-eight to the front please."
   Chuck walks back into the waiting room. It took him longer than he expected to return from his interrogation. He knew he was going to test positive for something. He just wasn't sure what he had contracted.
   He calmly explains, "It's hard to believe anythin' when you're talkin' to a drug addic'."
   Chuck was working days, as he mentioned, at a construction job. He decided to pick up a second job as a clerk at a smoke shop near his home. The second job was to help with bills he was having trouble paying. During his first week on the job he met his current girlfriend, Liz. They've been dating ever since they met two years ago.A couple weeks ago, Liz went to a routine appointment at her family doctor's office. She found out then that she is infected with syphilis, gonorrhea, and NGU, among other STDs. Her HIV test came back with inconclusive results. She'll be tested again.
   Chuck knows now that she is and has been a heroin user for a year and a half, but he didn't know until days ago. Chuck tested positive for NGU today and will get test results for other STDs in a week. Liz is nineteen. Chuck is twenty-seven. Chuck mentions that Liz's parents weren't too happy with her when they found out she was dating such a relatively old guy. Chuck didn't care then. He really doesn't care now, either. He says he feels like King Midas, only "the exact opposite" because everything he touches turns to shit.

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