Interviewer: Tell me about the day you found out you were HIV positive.
Me: June 15, 2007 is my birthday and I’m 43 years old.
Me: Obviously, this statement is confusing without some explanation. My first birthday, a.k.a. “the day I shot forth from the protection of my mother’s womb” was on Wednesday, January 13, 1971. My other birthday, the day I was reborn, gasping for air and grasping for buoys to avoid drowning was Friday, June 15, 2007, my HIV birthday.
I may have contracted the virus over a year prior to that date. I was treated for a horrible case of what turned out wasn’t strep throat in October of 2006, and I had been feeling odd for several months before that.
Interviewer: Odd, how?
Me: Lethargic, sleepy during the day. No appetite—food tasted bland; weight loss and loss of strength. I would lift weights and afterward my body would hurt for several days and feel dried out inside, with the kind of muscle aches you feel when you have the flu, only I didn’t have the flu. I often felt like I was about to get sick and never got really sick, you know? Always at the edge but never going over.
Interviewer: So what happened on June 15, 2007?
Me: I received a call from Wake Forest University’s graduate department of counseling, congratulating me for being accepted with a full scholarship into their program. I spent the better part of the late morning calling friends, my mom and my sister, and telling them the awesome news. I recall looking in the bathroom mirror while I was on the phone with my boyfriend Mark out in San Francisco and seeing the dark circles under my eyes from several weeks of poor sleep, marked by night sweats and headaches, sticking my tongue out and seeing it coated chalky and white with film as I lied and said, “Oh, things are great here—just working hard. Guess I’ll have to decide what I’m going to do this fall now”.
I had promised Mark that if I didn’t get into a graduate school in North Carolina that I would move out to San Francisco with him. He was supportive of my decision—whatever it would be. I was still on the fence.
Then I got a second call from a woman with the Health Department, and she said she needed to see me. I said sure. She’d left a letter on my apartment door the day before. Later, I found out she had also attempted to call me at work when I wasn’t working. I knew something was up because the timing was right—I’d taken an HIV test when I was at a Bear Run in Myrtle Beach.
Interviewer: What is a “Bear Run”?
Me: It’s a weekend retreat for furry, over-weight gay guys and their admirers to get together and party. They have contests about who is the hairiest, has the best ass, looks sexiest in a thong, and has the best beard/mustache combination. It’s really an excuse for a bunch of guys who don’t usually feel accepted by mainstream homosexual society to get together, eat, drink beer, play mini golf, and have lots of sex parties with other guys who are like them, or who like them, for a long weekend at a hotel at Myrtle Beach and then go back to their otherwise boring, mundane lives.
Interviewer: You’re not a bear, but you’re a fan of bears.
Me: I was at the time…moving on. I opened the door to my apartment to a large-boned, six-foot-two blonde woman with wide hips and really long, straight blonde hair. All she needed was a horned helmet and she would have been straight out of “The Ring Cycle”. I invited her in. I made her some tea…it was Earl Grey. I remember the type of tea, but I can’t remember what her name was. Seems like that would be important: To remember the name of the woman who told you information that would change your life? It casts her in a rather insignificant role in my story, considering the gravitas of the information. She was my Deus Ex Machina. She changed the entire course of my narrative. Instead, the only name I remember is Earl Grey. Perhaps the information was more important than the messenger. Except that it was sort of perfect that the messenger looked like a Valkyrie minus the winged horse…
Interviewer: So how did she tell you?
Me: She told me over Earl Grey, on my balcony. She requested something healthy and herbal, sans caffeine—blackberry, or Red Zinger. I had Earl Grey, and she said that would do. I remember thinking of Captain Jean Luc Pickard from Stark Trek as I dunked the tea bag in the water and the way he used to say he wanted “Earl Grey, hot”…I remember wondering what Patrick Stewart would do in my situation.
As I ushered her out to my balcony and pulled out a chair for her, I felt my eyes burn with the sensation of trying not to cry because you know you’re in serious trouble. Instead you fight back tears in a show of petulant strength and defiance. I delayed the inevitable with small talk—anxiety driven chatter about being accepted into graduate school at Wake Forest, my recent trip to San Francisco and a trip to the Russian River, and “how is your tea? Hot enough for you?”, and reminding her I’d been tested a month ago, and that I was lucky my tests had come back negative in the past. She said these exact words: “Well this time, your results came back positive. This time you weren’t so lucky.”
This time I wasn’t so lucky. As if “luck” had anything at all to do with it. Fuck you, you judgmental Wagnerian cow.
Interviewer: Sounds like the news made you angry.
Me: I was furious that this woman I’d never met had the audacity to come into my home and give me bad news. Bad news should never be delivered by a stranger.
Interviewer: Kevin. What did you do when you heard you were HIV positive?
Suddenly, I see the man behind the curtain. I look closer. I stare at The Interviewer, defiantly at first, and then, something deep within me begins to soften like a dried up sponge dropped in water. The Interviewer looks like me, only he’s poised, polished from his fingernails to his shoe shine; he’s recently had a haircut. His demeanor is that of someone who has suffered, someone trained to listen. He has empathy. I meet his soft green eyes with mine, his body is like mine. No. It is mine. The interviewer is me and I want me to cut through the dramatics and answer this question directly, without bullshit.
“Kevin. What did you do when you heard you were HIV positive?”
Me: The Valkyrie asked if she could smoke. I asked could I bum one. It was menthol, but I didn’t care, although I found it ironic that she had been so concerned about a healthy tea option.
She told me that I needed to sign control measures about disclosing my status to others, about using condoms when I had sex. She told me she would link me to a doctor at Baptist Hospital in Winston and get me into care. She would need a comprehensive contact list of everyone I’d had unprotected sex with in the past year.
Here’s the strangest thing: We started talking about her problems instead. I listened to her as she flicked ashes on my balcony and shared with me about how difficult and stressful her job was, how her son was caught in a custody battle between her and her boyfriend, how her boyfriend was a deadbeat dad and a major player. Using my talent as a detective, I guessed that her taste in men ran African-American, since she called him a “player and deadbeat dad”, and because she smoked Newports.
I both patted myself on the back and shamed myself for being a racist when she pulled out a photo of her son and I saw I’d guessed right.
She should have had empathy. She should have made me her first and only priority, and I fucking put her first, just as I had done with everyone else in my life. I’d just been hit by a city bus and then steam-rolled before I had a chance to get back up from the pavement, and yet, I was more concerned about how the bystanders on the sidewalk were holding up.
“Sorry you had to hear all this about me,” she said, “You caught me on a bad day. This is a tough job.” She laughed.
I was too dumbfounded at her lack of empathy to respond with anything more than, “Hey, it’s okay.”
I walked her back to her car. She put her briefcase in the trunk, put the paperwork she’d had me sign in the back next to her son’s car seat and a sippy cup—relics from her personal life and mine both passengers now, and drove off. End of scene. Blackout.
Interviewer: What did you do after she left?
Me: I went back to my apartment. I swept up the cigarette ashes, disposed of the tea bags and put the cups in the dishwasher. I brushed my teeth because the menthol taste was disgusting. I went to the balcony and sat in the folding recliner and looked at the pink hibiscus bloom—really looked deep into it. It stared back at me, beautiful and pink, just there, with no agenda of its own. I wondered how many of those it took to make hibiscus tea. I wondered if I could eat enough of them to go to sleep and not wake up until a handsome prince came to rescue me with his kiss. I felt filthy and thought about taking a shower, sloughing the filth of disease and bad news off my skin. The effort of turning on the tap and stepping into the tub seemed too much.
Instead, I walked to the swimming pool. I was alone. I went to the deep end and sat on the edge with my legs in the cool, fluorescent water. Everything was loud—the birds in the trees, the sound of cars going by, the breeze and the sunlight were loud. I could hear music playing from another apartment. It was too loud. I slid into the water where it was quiet. I sat on top of the drain, surrounded by the closeness and density of being underwater, en utero. I opened my eyes and felt the sting of chlorine and I started to cry, but it didn’t matter because I was wet. I felt ridiculous being there fully clothed, and yet, it seemed acceptable.
I got out and walked back to my apartment, and wondered what people would say if they saw me leave the pool soaked and fully clothed. I felt ashamed of myself and crazy and justified all at once. I called in sick to work, changed clothes and went to a movie. I don’t remember what movie. I just remember sitting there alone in the dark, comforted by the angelic, dusty beam of light broadcasting someone else’s story on a huge, flat screen in front of me.
That’s what I did when I found out I was HIV positive.