May 24, 2013
I met someone. I felt this instant connection. He responded in kind. Big smiles, little touches that lead to a kiss, and that kiss led to a fly-me-to-the-moon, feel-the-earth-move, curl-your-toes kind of kiss for hours.
In the day that followed we told our stories and finally it came to that moment when it was time for me to disclose and I did. There was silence and some questions. I understand because he is my age, in his fifties and didn't learn much about HIV except by way of the general media. I give him the AIDS101. He seemed okay, we even kiss goodnight but then I don't see or hear from him for a few days.
The next time we meet there is some more of the same thing, hot chemistry, kissing, some touching. Bodily fluids are kept safe at bay. He is cute, funny, single and living on this remote rock of mine. I am ecstatic. Our kisses take us to the bedroom where we fool around a little, no penetration, just some skin. We lie in each other's arms and listen to the sound of the ocean, feel the Caribbean breeze on our bare bodies. He snuggles his face into my neck and says, "I think this works." I'm all smiles and say, "I do too." And he says, "As long as you don't tell anyone we are together, because of the AIDS, you know?"
Long silence that neither one of us fills. My stomach hurts like it was punched, my heart is squeezed with sadness and I do not know what to say. I know what some of my friends would say: "Fuck you, asshole." Maybe even slap him. Some of my Jersey girls might knee them in the testicles. I sit in sick solitude trying to understand. Unspoken words lie dead in my mouth. My silence seems to signal that this sentiment is okay and he goes to kiss me again. I stop him and ask, "Why do you think this needs to be a secret? What are you afraid of?" He thinks for a moment and says, "Well, my job."
I say, "But you're self-employed. What do you think will happen if someone found out you were dating someone with AIDS?"
I help him out. I am a professional at this stuff. I say, "Do you think they won't want to work with you anymore or just think less of you?"
He says, "Well, yeah."
I let it go to silence while we both digest this. I am not confrontational. I try to understand and be forgiving. That is about as far as I have gotten in this journey when faced with ignorance. My immediate thoughts lean toward "There is no way I can be with someone who thinks that the brilliant, amazing person that I am is tainted because of a virus. Or that I am less than and by association he will be less than because of a disease."
When I was young I wanted love so badly. The only thing my dysfunctional home nurtured was low self-esteem, which had me settle for so many inappropriate crumbs of love. Just barely a teenager I found myself out in the world wandering the likes of Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, as a street musician. I met some beach boys who hustled the tourists to do parasailing and horseback riding. We had partied together late at night on the beach and one afternoon one of the guys approached me while I was sunbathing and asked if I wanted to party. I said sure. And he led me to this cheap rooming house. I walked into the darkened room and saw seven or eight other guys lounging around smoking a joint and passing a bottle. It felt wrong and I turned to leave. He caught my arm and he said, "Where are you going?" I mumbled something about air and would be back. He simply said, "No."
He led me to the bed and everyone applauded. My heart ceased in my chest. I had been raped before, beaten and thrown from a car. I had never really recovered from that attack. I was terrified. I went still as he took off my clothes and as the night progressed and they each took turns fucking me in every way possible, silent tears lubricated my shame and humiliation as they egged one another on, laughed and joked about my body.
One of the boys must have felt bad, maybe even ashamed of himself, and he took me in the bathroom and put me under the shower, where he rinsed me off. I could not speak, move or cry. He dried my body with a towel and lead me back into the room, picked up my clothes and dressed me. The other boys laughed and said something like where was he taking the entertainment. This boy ignored them and took me through the previously barred doorway to the cool night.
He walked me to his home and laid me on his bed. I did not say a word. I could have walked away at anytime after he escorted me from that room. Let's be clear, earlier he was one of the boys who had raped me in that room but I stayed with him not because I was afraid to leave. I was paralyzed. I can analyze now why I did not run, cry, seek help, feel indignant or a million other more appropriate actions but that is not the point of me telling you this story.
I slept beside him in his bed that night. In the morning we went outside. I spoke little Spanish and he spoke less English but it was clear we were going to get something to eat. He held my hand in silence leading me down a cobblestone street to a café, as we were about to enter, one of the boys from the night before saw us and my rapist/protector dropped my hand like it was a hot coal. That action hurt almost as much as being raped. I was a pariah, an untouchable, the town whore, someone to be ashamed of. Someone you do not want to be seen with.
So, fast forward to last week when this man whispered in that wonderful intimate moment, "As long as you don't tell anyone we are together, because of the AIDS." It felt similar. I was transported back once again to being someone unacceptable, tainted and who would cause embarrassment.
Thirty-eight years ago I never said anything to my rapist but that one physical action of dropping my hand shook me free of my numbed state. I walked away without a word before we ate.
The days that followed the AIDS comment I was distant but polite to my would-be lover. I also solicited advice and thoughts from my friends both HIV-positive and -negative. I was surprised at the reactions. My HIV-negative friends were in an uproar, indignant and usually concluded their tirade with, "What an asshole!"
My positive friends had empathy and made comments that included, "Hey, he reacted the way 85 percent of the world would react, give the guy a break." As well as, "Educate him, give him time, don't throw the baby out with the bath water." The funniest was my friend Greg who said I should throw myself at his mercy and say, "I want to be your closet skank!" Greg continued to tell me I should be grateful someone would even be brave enough to kiss me. (Take no offense; he was trying to make me laugh, which he did.)
Since then, this man and I have had a few conversations. I am trying to not take what he said personally, step into my educator's shoes, even step into his shoes and see it from his vantage point. He reminds me that we have only just met and have known each other for just a week. He has never met someone with AIDS, let alone been intimate with a person living with the disease. But he still does not understand how hurtful his comment was.
I am coming to believe that this experience is an opportunity to grow. I have to let go of the expectation that after 30-some years of HIV being around that everyone is more accepting and informed. But I can also say what is on my mind. I differentiate what is appropriate behavior, what is unacceptable. I don't have to rage but I can feel a firm knowledge of who I am and I can know with all certainty I am not a secret to be kept.
Read River's blog, A River Runs Through It.