Some Lame Joke about a Gay Hypochondriac and the World’s Largest Thermometer
The truth is, when faced with the possibility of becoming a father; one of the first things that I felt was unworthy. This feeling of unworthiness was not altogether new for me. In my final therapy session before leaving for graduate school my therapist asked what was frightening me most about the move from Los Angeles to New York. About third on my list was, “I’m afraid that I’m not worthy.” He stopped me cold. We talked briefly about where my feelings of unworthiness might be rooted, but the session was far too short to dig so deep, and I was on a plane a few days later.
It was about a year and a half after that session when I got the daddy call. I was headed from L.A. to Sin City in a Toyota Camry I’d borrowed from my mom; on my way to return my dog, Honey, to my ex-partner, who was now living in Vegas. We’d been sharing custody of our yellow, lab-shepherd mix since our split. This was my last spring break before graduation, and I was driving Honey home before heading back east to stick a fork in grad school.
My cell phone vibrated on the seat between my legs. I turned down the music, put in my ear buds and pressed the talk button, “Hello.”
“Hey, it’s Cara,” said the voice on the other end of the phone.
Actually, my friend Cara was the person who had first found Honey ten years before. Cara and I were working together at the time at Los Angeles Trade Technical College when she came into the office one day and told me that there was a stray dog wondering around campus. Not long after I had taken Honey home, I introduced Cara to my friend Dawn and eventually they became a couple, so in the matchmaking department, I consider us even.
“Hey, what’s goin’ on?” My standard reply.
Cara cut to the chase, “Dawnee and I have been talking about having a baby and both of us agree that you would make the perfect father.”
Cara continued, with her ever present upbeat lilt of possibility, “So, whaddaya think about that?” First, I told her that, although she was not yet thirty, I was forty-five. She countered that in our current day and age I was still plenty young, and that, biologically speaking, age was really only an issue on the egg side of the equation. Next, I reminded her that I was unemployed and accruing ever more student loan debt by the day. She reminded me that she and Dawn were both steadily employed, and that my ability to contribute would certainly improve after my graduation. Damn her unbridled optimism! It was time for the big guns.
“You know I’m HIV positive,” I said.
“I know,” she replied – again with the lilt.
Of course she knew. And I knew she knew, so what the frick? She went on to assure me that there was something to be done about that.
“The virus isn’t actually in the sperm,” she said. “It’s just in the semen, and it can be washed.”
Shit – HIV positive; that was my best ammunition. My surefire reality grenade against all that might be possible. But Cara could not be stopped. She went on to ask if my viral load (the measure of how much active virus is actually in a person’s blood) was still undetectable. I said that it was, and had been for most of the twenty-plus years that I had been living with the disease. Cara continued to speak as outside the hot, repetitious terrain continued to roll up over the horizon, fly past my windows and disappear into a fuzzy heat haze in the rearview mirror behind me. She explained how she and Dawn were interested in finding someone who wanted to be an active parent in the arrangement, not simply a sperm donor. They wanted to have a child, and they wanted that child to have a father. Me.
As the conversation drew to a close, I was simply asked to consider the matter, and reassured that there was no great rush to make a definitive decision. By the time I hung up the phone, I had pulled off of the highway into the tiny town of Baker and was parked behind the Arby’s staring up at The World’s Largest Thermometer. As man-mad tourist attractions go, it’s hardly on par with Mount Rushmore and the like, but nonetheless, jutting up from an almost barren desertscape, the neon phallus commands focus. As I stared up at the ridiculous monolith, my mind working quickly to concoct some lame joke about a gay hypochondriac and the world’s largest thermometer, the tears began to stream down my face. Before I even sensed the growing surge, the emotional floodgates had broken.
It was a good cry – long overdue. And as I sat there, slouched and sweaty in the snotty aftermath, I knew that it was complicated. That release. The baby proposal had caused the breach, yes, but the deluge that followed carried with it much more: regret about how I had ended my fourteen-year relationship before starting NYU, disappointment in the fizzle of my affair which had partly caused the end of that relationship, the dread of having to say goodbye to Honey again, the weighty stress of student loan debt – coupled with a housing crash that left my L.A. home under water, and on and on…. At the bottom of it all, however, was the same underlying feeling that I had confessed to my therapist about grad school; when it came to the possibility of fathering a child, I wasn’t sure that I was worthy.