A month ago, continuing my exploration of risky behavior, I hooked up with a guy from Craigslist. I refer to him affectionately as my Randy Old Goat, because he has more lovers than anyone in his 60s can be expected to keep up with. There’s the boyfriends, the other girlfriends, the wife, and now me. Randy is a sexual champ who admits it helps to be retired. He’s a smart and decent guy, who, like all guys my age or thereabouts, hates condoms, though he will use them. I’ve noticed that condoms can be an obstacle for guys in my age group, whose wood gets softer over time. The question is, which is more tedious, using condoms with all their drawbacks or performing the workaround—get an STD test, share the results with me and keep me apprised of all your contacts.
So Randy and I went to the San Francisco City Clinic, the highly effective, city-run STD clinic. I knew their reputation, and while both of us have health insurance, I wanted him tested by experts. Of course, I would have a test, too, but I had no worries. In spite of my (self-created) reputation as a wild woman, I’ve really had very few "contacts" in the last 20 years.
The clinic was orderly and comfortable. There were only a few people sitting in the clean airport waiting room chairs and one or two in the line to check in. I had not shared my fears with Randy, but I had half imagined something hellish like the waiting room at San Francisco General Hospital (crowded, everyone looking sick or crazy) but sleazier. Those other patients looked like us, only younger. I relaxed. Randy was less impressed. With his different frame of reference, Randy didn’t realize just how civilized the clinic turned out to be. Fearing a long wait, he suggested that we leave and see our own doctors.
“Look, you rich, white, entitled Marin motherfucker,” I explained, “we’re doing this here.” I’m sometimes surprised how gritty and urban my natural environment looks to him.
“All right.” He smiled. He really is a sport.
While waiting, we discussed what we were going to say. I wanted the clinic to take us seriously as possibly infected individuals or they would not test us. I advised Randy to play up the boyfriends. I had my own, condom-free sex with a previous lover to report. I need not mention that he got tested first. I wanted them to find whatever they found.
I have dodged some bullets and not others. I caught a disease of junkies as a teenager. It was once thought to be sexually transmissible, but was later dropped from the list of recognized STDs. I see the fact that I can’t give it to anyone through sex as a gift of the universe to me personally. In the 80s, around the start of the AIDS epidemic but before the virus was discovered, I dated a bisexual man. Both he and his boyfriend participated in the exciting world of baths and sex parties. I got to play a little, too.
Back then, the cause of AIDS was a matter of speculation—too many drugs, too many infections, maybe a disease agent. We assumed that a strong immune system would protect you. People were getting sick around us, and we kept doing what we were doing. Later, after I had broken up with my boyfriend, both he and his friend became positive. The friend died. I never caught HIV. It seems ungrateful to be careless now.
We did not have long to wait. We were called into examination rooms and interviewed by nurses. We gave various samples. We were told to look up our results online the following Tuesday. We were told “If a test comes up positive, we’ll call you before the results are out.”
No one called by Tuesday, so I dutifully looked up my results online. No stress, no worries, all pro forma.
I was “weakly” positive for syphilis.
I sometimes wonder what it feels like to be one of those guys who gets busted by DNA for something they did 30 years earlier, what it feels like when the cops come to the door. I wonder if they think, “How will I explain it to this person, to that person? How bad is it going to get? When and how thoroughly do I give up?” I wonder if they feel the sudden skin puckering, blood rushing to hide, brain on pause feeling. I was frozen for a moment, stunned.
Then I started doing what I do—looking stuff up. I found the following dismaying information: the result of the VDRL syphilis test, stated the way my result was, could mean either a false positive, a former infection, or tertiary syphilis, that state of syphilis where you begin to sink into dementia. It seemed to explain some things, but isn’t that what you always think? No wonder I was tired. No wonder I couldn’t concentrate. No wonder I seem to lack the self-command I once had. My brain was being eaten by syphilis.
I thought about the contacts I could have infected. I thought about my husband and his girlfriend. I thought about my lover Blue, who had the foresight to get his own STD test before our affair. I thought about Randy, his wife, his boyfriend, the boyfriend’s wife, the other girlfriend, the one with a boyfriend. A hall of mirrors of sexual contacts.
My lack of self-control manifested itself in the need to inform all my lovers immediately that I was possibly syphilitic. I knew there was a chance it was a false positive, but I panicked at the idea that Randy might have sex with his wife. I knew, of course, that we had (most of the time) used condoms, that I had no oozing sore that could have infected him—in fact, I didn’t recall having a dramatic chancre sore down there, like the one on the syphilis poster at the clinic, ever—but I couldn’t take the chance. I imagined him leading his innocent wife to the bedroom and wanted to scream, “Stop!” I texted and emailed madly.
The next day, I tried calling the clinic but naturally, no one is ever available to come to the phone. I was losing faith in the clinic. Shouldn’t they have called me by now, even without my calling them? I called Randy. “I have to go back to the clinic. You probably shouldn’t come over today. I can’t have sex until I know. In fact, I may never have sex again.”
The unflappable Randy said, “Don’t be silly. I’ll go to the clinic with you.” I had refused my husband’s offer to stay home and take me to the clinic—I’m enough trouble—but frankly, I could do with someone to hold my hand.
Aside from a bit of head-butting with the receptionist, who seemed not to understand what I wanted, the visit went well. I was seen by a counselor within 15 minutes. He explained the possible meanings of the test result, which was pretty much what I had learned on my own, but more authoritative. I learned that the blood tests were only run once a week, so the lab was just then running the confirmatory test using the same blood sample. He offered to let me talk to a doctor.
If having syphilis that day had a silver lining, it was Dr. Joseph Engelman. Being in the froth that I was, I didn’t notice how damned attractive the man was, but I knew I was in the presence of an exceptional physician. He saw me immediately. He was in no hurry. I was the only patient in the world. He stepped me through the symptoms and progress of the disease and verified that I had no symptoms. He explained the thing that immediately made my claws loosen their grip on the ceiling tiles: almost no one gets tertiary syphilis. You take antibiotics sporadically throughout your life for various ailments and without realizing it, you wipe out the syphilis. Even if you have advanced syphilis, you can’t give it to anyone without the sore.
He also reassuringly explained that I was not in a high risk group.
“I was totally wild when I was young,” I said, failing to add that I was not much better now that I was a semi-invalid with nothing to do except mess around.
The doctor waved away my protestations of crazy wildness. He was not impressed. I guess at that clinic, I was competing with some real pros. But he remembered what I had said.
Last night, I checked online for the confirmatory test results and they were negative. Today I shot the doc an email, asking him to interpret the results. Had I had syphilis and gotten rid of it, or what? He replied that I had never caught it, even when I was “young and wild.” How does a doctor in a busy clinic remember the exact words I used two days earlier? A public health doctor who pays attention. The man is a saint.
So I’m left with the syphilis hangover. What the fuck did it all mean, apart from a lapse in protocol on the part of the clinic, who should have called me and told me not to panic in the first place? It might be over dramatic to say that I will never be blase about condoms again. I know that men in my age group are unlikely to give me a disease, even Randy Old Goats, as long as their contacts are stable and they take precautions. One thing I have never achieved is perfect consistency in anything, so why should this be any different? I seem fairly lucky at dodging bullets. Nevertheless, I can’t help but be more conscious of the condom issue.
The lasting impression is the chain of contacts, the feeling of being in bed with a half dozen people, most of whom I’ve never met. Not so much creepy as awe-inspiring in its connectedness and a graphic illustration of the responsibility I have, as a good sexual anarchist, to each of those people.