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The Fury and the Angel: A Portrait in Guilt and Forgiveness

Res Publica

January 1991

by Gregory Dunn

He shifted in his chair and the cheap vinyl made the sound that cheap vinyl makes when one shifts on it, and it made his spine cringe with the tackiness of it all. The vinyl was the same as the jacket worn by the man sitting across and down from him in the waiting room—and just as repulsive to him. He wore leather, silk, and cotton blends and felt himself a bit out of place. Which he was. In fact, he never had any intention of ever coming to a place like this. So why, then, was he here? He asked himself the same question, and he answered back, “anonymity.”

Today he was the mysterious and ominous Mr. “M,” for that is how they keep track of people coming in for anonymous AIDS testing—by letter. He took out a handkerchief and wiped the beads of sweat from his forehead, which was nothing compared to the dark circles forming on his shirt under the Brooks Brothers’ Suit. He was nervous and had every right to be, for its not everyday one is chased by Furies.

The Furies of ancient Greek mythology pursued evildoers to the ends of the earth punishing them with fearful visages that no one else could see. One generally went mad or was driven to seclusion when visited by the Furies for long. But, then again, one generally did not tempt the wraths of the gods.

The actual testing was easy enough. A lecture on the known attributes of the AIDS virus, and explanation of the testing process, and a gift of a small booklet ironically titled “Living with the AIDS Virus.” After that, the kindly nurse pulled on rubber gloves too large for her hands and prepared the blood testing equipment. It was simple enough, just a small needle attached to a test tube to collect the (possibly) contaminated blood.

“Are you afraid of needles? Have you ever had a blood sample taken?,” she asked.

“I gave blood a couple of times. That’s all.”

“Well then this will be no problem. Those needles are big! If you can give blood, you can do anything.”

How about prepare to die?

A pinch and a sting and the deed was done. She carefully applied a band-aid, and gave him a slip of paper with an I.D. number on it, still preserving his precious anonymity. She then sent him on his (not so) merry way.

The testing was free, not that it mattered to him. The thing was the anonymity. He wanted no one to know he was doing this, he didn’t even want to face it himself. But still, he felt the need to tell someone. Death is all the more fearful when you face it alone. But, perhaps, the greater fear was the realization of the fragility of life an dhow weak all humans really are. He never felt that weakness before, or else he was deeply afraid to admit it. All his life he had prided himself on his independence and strength. He supposed himself a talented and successful man able to meet and conquer any obstacle. He was his own person, and that deserved certain rewards, in his view. A life of wine, women, and song was to be his. Yet, this was his downfall. Because for him, women were obstacles to be conquered, objects to be used, with no guilt. Until one of his past conquests came to hi one day and dropped the bomb—she had AIDS.

This exposed his fear, for this was one thing that was beyond his control; none of his talents could save him from his own mortality. Suddenly he realized his life was out of control, and had been for some time. All his confidently made plans could be shattered; all the common things that people want, family, children, and a long life, could be gone. All his past successes, all his conquests, now seemed shallow and contrived. He saw the big picture and realized that he had accomplished nothing. As he thought further, he felt responsibility toward his other partners that he may have infected. They were no longer objects to him, but real people possessing the same fragile life, and he could claim responsibility for breaking them and all their plans as well. These thoughts and this guilt pursed him like the Furies of old. They habituated his waking hours and crept into his dreams, disrupted daily activities with their ubiquitous presence, frightened him with their grotesque countenances. For not only could he be dying, but he might be a dispenser of death, even death personified. Would death be his only real legacy? All of a sudden, he didn’t want to be so anonymous anymore.

He wondered what was taking the nurses so long and nervously looked at his watch, more out of habit than out of a desire to know what time it was. Time had become a precious commodity to him. When you are young and fit, when you have everything going for you, you never think about the inevitable. It’s simply not a factor. So you live your life with wanton disregard, and that’s precisely when it hits you. You tempt fate; the Furies torment you. That’s how the game is played.

Another wipe of his brow, another look at his watch, another glance around the room. He wondered why the man in the tacky vinyl jacket was here, wondered if they were kindred souls, but quickly banished the thought at the sight of a small child dressed in pink sweats, a little girl of about age three playing at the man’s feet. Child care was given in this place too, and he wondered how life and death could coexist so easily here. But he didn’t think about it very long or very hard, for he became enchanted with the angel across the way. That bright pink bundle of life played so near, yet was now so far from him because he had taken that gift and so glibly frittered it away. The vinyl jacketed man he once looked on with contempt, as he did all like him, possessed the single thing that he had lost and so desperately wanted back. That man had it all—at least, all that mattered. He damned himself and held back the tears.

“Excuse me, are you M?”

He hadn’t noticed the nurse approach and was caught off guard.

“Uh, yeah. Yes, that’s me.”

“Follow me, please.”

He rose and followed either his executioner or savior to a small examining room down the hall and to the left. She asked him to sit, and he did. Very quietly.

“Here are your test results. They came out negative. You’re clean.”

He stared at his release papers for what seemed an eternity. But after only a few moments roe, thanked the nurse, and walked back to the waiting room.

There he caught a glimpse of his pink angel, and paused to silently thank her. She saw him, as well, and gave him a small angel wave good bye. As the Furies escaped into memory to her fair sight, Mr. M smiled, turned towards the door, and walked out with a lighter and more cautious step.

Gregory Dunn is a junior from Salem, Ohio, majoring in Political Science and minoring in Philosophy.

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