Rea by Hugh Ryan

BOMB 157 Fall 2021
The cover of BOMB 157, Summer 2021 features a photograph of a woman screaming against a hot pink background.
Rea Gif

Have you ever been struck so suddenly that your body enters a momentary state of shock, where it acknowledges the sensation of what is happening but not the meaning? That is—when you know that when reality returns you may be changed irreparably.

Throughout my college years (or from the fall of 1996 to the spring of 2000), I lived in that paradoxical second for two weeks out of every semester, in between my appointments with Rea. 

Rea worked out of a small, taupe-on-beige office in our college student health center. Now, more than twenty years later, I can’t remember much about the center itself. Not the building, nor the area of campus it was in. Was there a lobby? Did I make an appointment, or did I just show up? Other people must have worked there, but gun-to-my-head, I couldn’t tell you a single thing about them. All I remember from my biannual pilgrimage was the hot, wet flop sweat radiating from my pits, and the fear balled in my gut—and Rea’s voice.

That voice! Rea had a voice like the words were being scratched out somewhere dry and deep in her throat, not in her mouth at all. Low and firm, no bullshit, she instantly commanded every room she entered. People hopped to like hers was the voice of God—if God were a fifty-something dyke with emphysema (let’s hope):

“ELISA is a test for the antibodies produced as a response to the human immunodeficiency virus. The results of this test will be confirmed using a western blot. The whole process takes about two weeks. This is a confidential test. I can no longer give you an anonymous test because of some horseshit from the CDC.”

No one—no one—had ever before talked to me about sexual health and treated me like an adult at the same time. Once, the father of a high school friend had given me the first dose of the hepatitis vaccine while we stood awkwardly on my parent’s suburban porch. He showed up with no warning, and he was a radiologist, so in retrospect, I have questions about the legality and safety of his actions. But it was the closest anyone had ever come to talking to me about the sex I might be having, instead of lecturing me about how homosexuals die of AIDS—a lesson I had already learned from movies, books, TV news, AM talk radio, Cardinal O’Connor, Ronald Reagan, George FUCKING Bush (George W. FUCKING Bush would come later), church, family, friends, teachers, and a particularly gruesome educational cartoon that depicted the virus wearing pointy World War I–era German helmets (an image indelibly burned into my mind). 

Maybe that’s why Rea’s voice stayed with me—because it could cut through the homophobic Greek chorus that was always singing in the back of my head. Throughout my childhood I was convinced I would one day get AIDS; by the fourth grade, I already had a recurring nightmare in which I died of AIDS—during a Russian nuclear attack (it was 1987).

But never was the anxiety so bad as during the two weeks while I waited for my test results. Two weeks! Two weeks was a lifetime—a lifetime spent going over every sexual interaction I had ever had with the granularity of a crime scene investigator. I would stare at my hands, looking for cuts that could have provided the virus a way into my body, and only belatedly realize I was in class, wasn’t taking notes, and had no idea what was being said. All I could do was wonder. Wait. Wanting time to speed up, so I could get my results. Wanting time to stop entirely, so I would never get them. Just wanting time, more of it, a full human life-span’s worth, not the measly crumbs that gay men got. At eighteen, I didn’t know any older gay men, but the media had shown me an endless parade of twenty-somethings who looked sixty-five. Fear was a well with no bottom, and I tumbled in free fall for weeks at a time. 

When the worry got to be too much for me and I couldn’t sleep (I could never sleep), I would let Rea’s voice fill my head, assuaging my fears with risk factors and new medications: evidence that I didn’t have it, and that the world wouldn’t end if I did. It was like a mantra made out of gravel, and maybe that was why it worked. I don’t think hope can be something fragile. If it were, it would break right when you need it. Rea didn’t spin fairy tales and never minimized anything. She dealt in facts and sarcasm. In her mouth, AIDS wasn’t an apocalypse or a personal failing; it was a medical condition.

Rea taught me about transmission, phlebotomy, RNA, viral loads, spermicidal lubricant with nonoxynol-9, AZT, the triple-drug cocktail, making a homemade dental dam out of Saran Wrap, the uselessness of laetrile, Kimberly Bergalis, night sweats, the powerlessness of positive thinking, the difference between confidential and anonymous testing, and a million other things, small and large, that turned the immensity of AIDS into something I could handle. But for all the times we met, I never learned much about Rea. She was that kind of professional. Years later, I discovered that she had been a sexual health activist for decades, and had worked with Planned Parenthood and fought for abortion access all throughout the ’70s and ’80s. I’m pretty sure she knew a thing or two about fear, uncertainty, and moral judgment.

I stopped seeing Rea around 2001, and shortly thereafter, the first rapid test for HIV came out. By this time, more drugs had been developed, and those who had access to them suddenly had access to the future. Silence settled in around AIDS—a different kind of silence than the one I had grown up with but a silence nonetheless. I still hear Rea’s voice whenever I get an HIV test, but I hear it more now when I’m trying to help someone else in a moment of need. Some of the lessons Rea taught me, I didn’t even realize at the time: What we live through, we can learn from. What we know, we can teach. And one voice can stop an epidemic—at least for one other person, for a few weeks at a time, when they need it most.

Hugh Ryan’s first book, When Brooklyn Was Queer, won a 2020 New York City Book Award, was a New York Times Editors’ Choice in 2019, and was a finalist for a Randy Shilts Award and a Lambda Literary Award. His next book, The Prison on Christopher Street, explores NYC’s Women’s House of Detention and the queer case for prison abolition. He was honored with the 2019–20 Allan Bérubé Prize from the American Historical Association. He is a graduate of the Bennington Writing Seminars and is represented by Robert Guinsler.

“Rea” by Hugh Ryan was excerpted with permission from the book Between Certain Death and a Possible Future edited by Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore, out October 2021 from Arsenal Pulp Press.

Originally published in

BOMB 157, Fall 2021

Our Fall 2021 issue features interviews with Rabih Alameddine, Lileana Blain-Cruz, Suzanne Jackson, Candice Lin, Kevin Morby, Naudline Pierre, and Diane Williams; an essay from Hafizah Geter; short stories from Akil Kumarasamy, Harris Lahti, Holly Melgard, Edward Salem (winner of BOMB’s 2021 Fiction Contest), Adrian Van Young, and Diane Williams; a comic from Ricardo Cavolo; nonfiction from Hugh Ryan; poetry from John Keene and Marcus Wicker; a portfolio by Manthia Diawara; and Nam Le’s newly hand-annotated interview from 2009.

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The cover of BOMB 157, Summer 2021 features a photograph of a woman screaming against a hot pink background.