Living with HIV/AIDS has provided many valuable lessons in my life.
You might be thinking that I am referring to the life I’ve had since that day in April 1997 when I was officially informed that I was, in fact, HIV+ and that my CD4 count was 198 which immediately placed me in the AIDS-diagnosis category. I am not. At least – I’m not entirely referring to that.
The reality of my life is that I, as have many people of my and previous generations, have been living with HIV before it was even HIV; I was 11-years old when it was first reported in 1981 that the “gay cancer” which came to be known as G.R.I.D. (Gay-Related Immune Deficiency) was the suspected cause of 121 deaths since the mid-1970s. One year later, scientists renamed the condition as A.I.D.S. (Acquired Immune Deficiency Program).
By the time I was 30-years old, I had lost more friends to A.I.D.S.-related illnesses than both my parents had lost to all other illnesses combined. I did not personally experience the time in [insert any major city here] when you would see a person in the bar one day and find out they had died the next. I’m told that there was a time when it was not uncommon for two to three-dozen people in any large social circle would be taken by the virus within any given week. I was living in San Francisco August 13, 1998 when the banner headline for that week’s Bay Area Reporter was “NO OBITS” – quite a big deal when prior to that, the obituaries were almost a section to themselves.
Sadly, I allowed fear to prevent me from learning all I could about the disease; it wasn’t fear from the disease itself, rather it was the irrational fear that if any of my friends or family found out that I was educating myself on something so closely related to homosexual men, they might suspect I, too, was homosexual. All I really knew was that HIV was transmitted via sex – I did not know that fluid exchange was required for actual transmission. Even so, I could not stop having sex with men. I just took guys at their word when the answered, “No.” when I asked if they were HIV+.
The first time I came face to face with HIV was when I was 21-years old.
I had just walked into a bar, probably the third or fourth of the night, when a cute guy only a few years older than me was about to leave with the six-pack he had stopped in to buy. Within three-seconds of our eyes meeting he boldly asked, “Wanna come back to my place?” I answered with a smile and proceeded to follow him to his apartment directly across the alley from the bar.
I don’t remember his name. I do remember his long, dark, wavy hair, his hazel eyes, his smooth, olive skin, his gorgeous Roman-esque nose and the natural redness of his lips, which felt so good to kiss.
That first night, he and I had a few beers, listened to some music and necked like a couple of teenagers from a 1950s beach-bunny film. But that was it. No more than kissing and hugging and over the clothes rubbing. Our second date was much like the first. And our third date was much like the second. When our fourth date came (by the way, all these dates happened within the first week of our meeting), he said he had something to tell me.
I remember it very clearly. He had me sit on the couch in a very specific way so that he could stand behind me and not look me in the eye. He said he had to do it that way because he was terrified of the words he had to say. Even with all I had seen on the news (when I allowed myself to watch), I was oblivious as to what it could be; I remember thinking that he was going to tell me that he loved me.
After a silence that probably seemed longer than it truly was, he told me that he was HIV+. He explained that overall he was healthy, he explained that was the reason he had not let it go beyond where we had already been, he explained that he would like to move forward with physical intimacy but did not feel it right to do so without first telling me the truth; I was HIV- at the time.
He then asked the question which has ever since burned in my memory, “Are you going to be okay with this?”
The answer I gave is what fuels the fire, “I don’t know.”
He found that to be an acceptable answer. We talked a bit more about it and resolved the conversation with his request that if I do decide I have a problem with his status that I be up front and tell him; please, he asked, do not just blow him off. He could take the harsh truth, but he didn’t think he was strong enough to take cruel rejection. I said I agreed to the request.
Running parallel to my evolving social life was the beginning evolution of my career; I had recently been hired as a correspondent for The Delaware County Daily Times. My primary responsibility was to cover the council meetings of two local boroughs: East Lansdowne and Yeadon. However, as a young reporter trying to build a career, I thought it unwise to turn down any assignment given to me by my superiors – including those given to me at the literal last minute. I found myself postponing or cancelling many plans.
The fifth date with the boy with the Roman nose was one of the plans I needed to postpone. I assured him it was just an ill-timed coincidence and promised him we could get together the following evening. The following evening came and so did another last minute assignment. I needed to attend a council meeting the next night so I promised we could get together the night after that. The night after that was met with another call from the city-desk editor asking me to cover yet another story to which I agreed to do.
When I called to postpone for the third time in a row, Roman-nosed boy said with a mix of anger and hurt in his voice, “All I asked was that you don’t blow me off. If you can’t respect me enough to do that one simple thing, than I don’t think we should see each other again. Please don’t call me anymore.” He then hung up.
I try not to have regrets in my life as I’ve found they serve no useful purpose. Yet, I still wonder to this day if my behavior in that small period of time was my wanting to be the best journalist I could be or if I was using the assignments as an excuse not to see someone who had a disease that frightened me. I like to believe that it was the former, but if it was the latter, well, I still cannot judge myself too harshly. After all, who wasn’t terrified of contracting A.I.D.S. at that point of our history?
I often wonder whatever became of my handsome friend. I hope he was one of the ones who survived. I hope he might even be reading this and understand that whether it was ambition or fear or a combination of the two that kept me from him, it was really the foolishness of an uneducated young boy who chose to stay away from him – not him.
Several life lessons came from this particular incident.
The first was I learned that the level of ambition to advance in life prevents me from having a life, then whatever goal to which I am striving for will never be worth all the effort.
Second – if I am not careful, and when I do not consider the feelings of others in my life, I can hurt a person without intending to do so.
Third – when I encounter someone who is fearful of my HIV status, I try to understand that their feelings are their own and have nothing to do with me as a person.
I’m sure there are many, many more lessons to be learned from what I just related. I just can’t think at the moment what they may be. Some may become blatantly apparent after I post this piece and some may be personal to individual readers.
The one lesson I hope everyone takes away from this, whether negative or positive, is that we are all living with HIV/AIDS.